I was coming back from one of the many protests, now a fact of life in Washington, DC, and I came across an interesting sight. A person was handing a live microphone to protestors and letting them vent their anti-Trump grievances to the crowd. News cameras were naturally surrounding the people screaming anti-Trump profanities, making it a solid mixture of exhibitionism and catharsis. I rather enjoyed it, and right around when I was thinking this should be a staple for most protests, the latest person to whom the microphone was handed proceeded to give a long-winded speech about how this current protest was bullshit.
Apparently, this person used to be in charge of organizing the protest, but then he was kicked out for “reasons,” and now, this event was bullshit. We were being duped by corporate, neoliberal interests, and needed to march over to the White House to give President Trump a piece of our minds. This is when one of the volunteers for the protest interjected by calling this man (the owner of the microphone) a f@cking idiot, and told the crowd that the march was not scheduled to end at the White House (which was currently cordoned off), but rather at the Lincoln Memorial.
I bring this example up for two reasons:
It’s f@cking hilarious; and
It perfectly embodies one of the main problems I have with the Left.
Sometimes our giant egos are so intent on “tearing down the establishment” that we will sabotage causes that we care about simply to rhetorically have the upper hand.
The benefits of criticism
I want to clarify that this is not a call for unity for unity’s sake. Any healthy movement requires disagreement to grow. The Women’s March is an excellent example of this. When it first started as a Facebook invite from an elderly woman living in Hawaii, it was really, really, really white. It was also super disorganized.
Many critics pointed this out, and the organizing committee synthesized these critiques. They got professional organizers as well as women of color in the leadership, and adopted an unapologetically intersectional platform. Those changes wouldn’t have happened without criticism.
This is how you want criticism to work. A passionate participant points out a problem and a receptive leadership adjusts. Now sadly, in reality, not every issue is addressed in time, and not all organizations are necessarily receptive to your criticism (stares at Science March), but that doesn’t make everything about them a travesty. Even failures in the movement can be useful tools for learning. In fact, I would argue that they are downright necessary because criticism of our failures causes us to, you know, improve.
There are a second group of critics, however, that have no intention of improving the causes that they criticize. They just want the thing to not exist. These are the microphone wavers of the world. The spurned liberal, Pat Caddell, who is so intent on tearing down the Washington establishment that he allies himself with Donald Trump. The hacktivist, Julian Assange, who is willing to destabilized the entire United States government to stop American imperialism. The minority of Bernie Sanders supporters that spewed a litany of sexist remarks at candidate Hillary Clinton because they considered her to be a corporatist shill. These people are not interested in creating a coalition on the Left. They just want their shade of Leftism to win. They want to pulverize every opposing viewpoint into dust.
We are not the majority
I understand that impulse. Really, I do. You are reading the thoughts of a socialist. A man that believes capitalism is the result of human action, and not human nature. Someone that thinks the concept of work is outdated, and really wants us to implement a Universal Basic Income already. A person that believes our current system contributes to the death of thousands of innocent people every day, and carries that guilt everywhere. I am not happy with the status quo anymore than you are.
And yet, I am one person. I do not control the world, and my philosophical outlook is in the minority. According to a 2014 Pew Research study, Solid Liberals make up 15% of the U.S. population. That’s liberalism in general, by the way, not people who want to fundamentally alter how capitalism works in our society.
If you are the second type of critic, then chances are you fall into a sliver of a sliver of the population. The contemporary left is a far more cantankerous coalition than I think you realize. It involves “crazy” liberals like me, Blue Dog Democrats that want us to do away with all this intersectional politics “nonsense,” and Silicon valley engineers and Wall Street financiers that are liberal on social issues, but “conservatives with their wallets.” We are a pretty diverse bunch.
It’s okay to not agree with everyone in the coalition 100%. In fact, I think it's necessary. You shouldn’t have to compromise your personal safety for the sake of unity, but you have to give them a path forward (even if they don’t listen right away or ever). That’s what makes criticism useful. If someone can’t incorporate your feedback into long-lasting change, and everything is simply a demonization of the corrupt, manipulative, toxic, nature of our neoliberal society, then how are they supposed to change? What the hell is someone supposed to do with that information? Get out their magic wand and make the world suck less?
Even if you team up with willing people like myself that want to radically change society, we can’t just kumbaya it into existence by rubbing our Rachel Maddow posters together. It’s going to require the hard work of established figures currently invested in our crappy, neoliberal system. We are going to need lawyers, politicians, experts, people with money (probably businessmen), and the votes of countless, everyday people that don’t give two shits, let alone think about, how shitty society is.
working with people you don't like
Since we are not in the majority (and won’t be for a loooonnnngggg time), we are going to have to navigate a fluctuating terrain of alliances. For example, we might have to work with a network of pro-life veteran groups to pass immigration reform one day, and in the next battle, fight them over defense spending, or you know, abortion.
Yes, it’s dirty. It involves working with people you find ideologically abhorrent, and kowtowing to organizations whose CEOs you wouldn’t want to be stuck in an elevator with, but unless you can pull a supermajority of radical liberals out of your pocket, it's necessary.
To be clear, I am not asking you to sacrifice your values in the name of palatability, however, you do have to keep an open mind with who you will partner on initiatives (and who the organizations you already support may have to partner with, as well). There will be groups, nonprofits, politicians, and yes, businesses that you can get stuff done with on a narrow subset of issues. You may be dire enemies 364 days out of the year, but if you can get stuff done on that one day (and it doesn't contradict everything else you are doing), why not?
This does not mean you should shut up and let these partners get away with bloody murder. Nor does it mean that you should compromise your values in the name of better integration. By all means, criticize away - complain, blog, vlog, write editorials, call leaders out on their bullshit, stage counter-protests, and terminate your relationship with them when necessary. There are plenty of areas where we do not do that last action nearly enough. I know I, personally, want our movement to stop working with several partners, BUT do try to be actually strategic in your efforts.
DON’T end a working relationship with a business simply because capitalism is bad. DO stop working with a company because of their position on a specific issue like Gay Marriage or their CEO’s allegiance to Donald Trump. DON’T stop talking to a politician because all politicians are neoliberal pawns. DO pull your endorsement for a politician due to their support of the NRA or Donald Trump. Have a clear, tangible reason that benefits the issue or organization that you are campaigning for.
And whatever you do, don’t be like the microphone waver, sabotaging the logistics of an event you by and large believe in just because it doesn’t fit some radical purity test. The country, and the world, are in too precarious of a position to burn for the sake of your ego.