Friday, August 01, 2008

The Good Liberal and "the Left"

Howard Hampton recently in Film Comment (on May '68 and cinema), like Stephanie Zacharek in the NYTimes on Godard (and the new Brody biography), puts in a torrent of barbs and jabs against "the Left," which is, naturally, painted as self-absorbed, dreamily unrealistic, artistically bankrupt, and responsible for horrific occurrences in China and Cambodia. A reader wrote in to Film Comment responding critically to the conservative tenor of Hampton's piece. The author responded himself with some fine, fine advice about what was earth-shakingly wrong about "the Left," and what "it needs to do" if it's going to be a force for social change to which people might warm up. (More on that point shortly.) The tropes for this kind of rhetoric are readily apparent and are taken loosely from Susan Sontag's description of the CP-controlled Soviet sphere of influence ("fascism with a human face") as well as Bush-supporter Tom Wolfe's "radical chic" epithet. Few things seem to arouse the ire of liberal American intellectuals as much as radical leftism—perhaps "Islamofascism." If the US government and its corporate benefactors-beneficiaries dislike something, all they have to do is insist that it is a thinly veiled form of fascism. As a result, decent, well-educated Democrats will be sure to hurl contempt, disdain, and sarcasm at such forces with much more tenacity than they will at, say, actual fascists and contemporary descendents.

In his response to Allen Keating-Moore's letter, Hampton lays down the law:

"Let's be clear: a revolution is not a beatific movie in which pretty actors shoot blanks; it's not a garden party of philosophy seminar or some poetic-romantic affirmation of Idealistic Youth. We're talking about an armed insurrection aimed at overthrowing the state, a ruthless struggle where terror, death, and coercion are the order of the day."

Yes, indeed, let us be clear. If we are not clear, it would seem that Hampton is of the camp who feels that terror, death, and coercion are not the order of the day under the state and the system we currently have.

No violence.










No terror.












No ruthlessness.













No coercion.












The heartrending, irrational justifications of the Good Liberal go like this: because there is relatively little violence, terror, or direct and perceived coercion in the life of a middle-class American, there must be relatively little violence, terror, and coercion in the entire order that enables this life. And (this is a quite obvious assumption of Hampton's) because hordes of middle-class Americans are not signing up for "the Left," it is unthinkable that the popular masses in any part of the globe could ever align themselves with "it," could ever express themselves through "it," could ever feel like "it" was something pluralistic and non-dogmatic that they might "want to join." For some people, "the Left" is not a club that must make itself attractive to prospective members. The fact that pockets of privileged Westerners have, in modern times, been naïve in their support of some leftist movements (or what they [mis]understood to be genuinely popular insurrectionary struggles against oppressors) is no reason to disparage "the Left" in its entirety or to whitewash the crimes of an order which is destroying our planet and immiserating most of our species.

"If the Left today really wants to get serious about being a force for change instead of a calcified form of political Scientology, it's going to have to outgrow its reflexive nostalgia for murderous absolutism, its superheroic fantasies of revolution-by-artistic-proxy, its smug propensity for not only making but valorizing the same mistakes, and do a better job of imagining a pluralistic, non-dogmatic society that ordinary people might conceivably want to join--one good place to start looking could be Alain Tanner's 1976 film Jonah—Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000."

Tanner's film is an impressive one, no doubt. Full of good cheer, good times, a progressivism amidst loved ones and comrades. But the question remains—just which "Left" are we talking about? That's a rhetorical question of course, because the mainstream liberal intelligentsia only seems to allow this one monolithic image. Oh indeed: Which left?

The smug tree-huggers?













Those who are "nostalgic" for murderous absolutism?













Those who doubt the benevolence of the market economy?









Those dandies who mistake art for action?










The dogmatic anti-pluralists?









Shouldn't we be thankful for the upholders of liberty—the liberty to live under capitalism?









The Good Liberal is conditioned not to conceive of a "revolution" outside of certain boundaries, certain regulations. The Good Liberal is conditioned to think of "the radical Left" as embodying all the same coercive and authoritarian structures that most self-identified leftists in history have fought against. The Good Liberal worries about poverty and social justice, but nevertheless aligns himself with the state and corporate forces which do everything in their power to disrupt, fragment, and fashion popular social movements—many of which designate themselves as being on the Left, some of which designate themselves as (yes) communist, socialist, or anarchist—against their own domination, exploitation, and hegemonic conscription.

I would wager that Hampton, like Zacharek, like many (probably) liberal people, dislike George W. Bush, believe his administration and the Republican Congress and the Supreme Court have made a real mess of things. I would wager that Hampton would have no beef if, asked right now, his feelings on the Chipko women, the slaves who fought back, the Chartists and union-organizers of the 19th century, even the Communards. But in their times and places they have been the demonized pipe dreamers, the utopian rabble-rousers and trouble-makers. So I would offer a firm congenial reminder to those who would, could be the allies of "the Left." In forming and maintaining an image of "the Left," of communist revolution, of popular struggle, the Good Liberal must ask himself whose interests he serves by perpetuating this image he criticizes.

If this question is not asked, history will ensure that the Good Liberals of today end up as merely the Goncourts of globalization.

(NB1: I've referred to the Good Liberal with masculine pronouns near the end of my post consciously and with reason.)

(NB2: On the same page of FC where Hampton's letter-response is printed, there is an ad for the Criterion re-release of Pasolini's Salò. Let us remember that it is not simply a "shocking masterpiece" but a deeply political film.)

18 comments:

dave said...

Let's resurrect this truth from a possible fate as a revolutionary commonplace:
A single nonrevolutionary weekend is infinitely more bloody than a month of total revolution.

Ed Howard said...

Zacharek's pooh-poohing of Godard annoyed me to no end. As if it's not bad enough that the entire mainstream society has by now completely forgotten him or else never knew of him in the first place. As if it's not bad enough that most critics ignore him while praising those who are inspired in the most shallow ways by his innovations. As if it's not bad enough that even many cinephiles denigrate him and artificially restrict his post-67 work to joyless propaganda, which it certainly is not. But now, given a new book and a perfect opportunity to talk about Godard in a very public forum, what does this critic have to say? She says that his best film is Breathless. Not even that; she all but says that that's the only Godard really worth watching, and regurgitates the received "wisdom" about his later films being boring and polemical. She mindlessly joins the consensus in dismissing a solid forty years of work in film, video, and television, because she wishes his films were fun again. She criticizes him for, of all things, "alienating" viewers rather than giving them nice cuddly films to snuggle up with, as though Godard could've ever wanted to coddle his audiences.

I haven't read the Brody book yet, but the critical discourse surrounding it has been dismaying. Endless articles expressing outrage at Godard's "fascism," which apparently Brody pins on him. Critic after critic making blanket assertions about how bad Godard's later films are, nostalgic for the days when they could sound smart merely by talking about his "jump cuts." Is this what criticism has been reduced to? Has there been one published article intelligently discussing Godard and his films as a result of this book? If so, I haven't seen it yet.

ZC said...

Super-quickly: yes, Ed, there's been one really good response to the book, B. Kite's review (http://www.movingimagesource.us/articles/hes-not-there-20080604) ... more at a later point.

Renegade Eye said...

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers
Tears ran down my spine
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy
As though I'd lost a father of mine
But Malcolm X got what was coming
He got what he asked for this time
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I go to civil rights rallies
And I put down the old D.A.R.
I love Harry and Sidney and Sammy
I hope every colored boy becomes a star
But don't talk about revolution
That's going a little bit too far
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I cheered when Humphrey was chosen
My faith in the system restored
I'm glad the commies were thrown out
of the A.F.L. C.I.O. board
I love Puerto Ricans and Negros
as long as they don't move next door
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

The people of old Mississippi
Should all hang their heads in shame
I can't understand how their minds work
What's the matter don't they watch Les Crain?
But if you ask me to bus my children
I hope the cops take down your name
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I read New republic and Nation
I've learned to take every view
You know, I've memorized Lerner and Golden
I feel like I'm almost a Jew
But when it comes to times like Korea
There's no one more red, white and blue
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

I vote for the democratic party
They want the U.N. to be strong
I go to all the Pete Seeger concerts
He sure gets me singing those songs
I'll send all the money you ask for
But don't ask me to come on along
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal

Once I was young and impulsive
I wore every conceivable pin
Even went to the socialist meetings
Learned all the old union hymns
But I've grown older and wiser
And that's why I'm turning you in
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal


Phil Ochs

Ed Howard said...

Thanks Zach, the B. Kite review is indeed great, though it doesn't necessarily make me want to read the Brody book.

In the meantime, your post has inspired me to write a rather angry response to Stephanie Zacharek's Godard takedown in the Times. I couldn't deal with her assertions remaining unchallenged.

glenntkenny said...

Ooh, Howard Hampton takes on "The Left." What a hilarious concept, for several reasons, one of which it just wouldn't be very nice to cite publicly. Let's just say it has to do with a characteristic Hampton shares with many Comic-Con attendees.

The humorous blogger known as Norbizness frequently muses as the personification of "The Left." He could likely make handy sport of Hampton.

MovieMan0283 said...

A compelling and challenging post. I can't say I agree with your assertions or interpretations, but they're worth taking one by one.

Firstly, you seem to be doing what you criticize the "good liberals" of doing; just as they attack the Left on superficial grounds without engaging it, aren't you attacking liberals in lieu of liberalism?

As for the use of "fascism" it's hardly non-Leftists who use the term most egregiously.

[And (this is a quite obvious assumption of Hampton's) because hordes of middle-class Americans are not signing up for "the Left," it is unthinkable that the popular masses in any part of the globe could ever align themselves with "it," could ever express themselves through "it," could ever feel like "it" was something pluralistic and non-dogmatic that they might "want to join."]

Based on the Hampton statement you quoted, it would seem he is speaking about the West, and America in particular. Whether or not "popular masses in any part of the globe" identify with the Left becomes somewhat irrelevant at this point. You can call this limited viewpoint elitist, but given that Hampton is writing about Western, middle-class radicals for a Western middle-class audience, it could certainly be construed as appropriate.

[The Good Liberal is conditioned to think of "the radical Left" as embodying all the same coercive and authoritarian structures that most self-identified leftists in history have fought against.]

Fought against and then re-enacted, in many cases. This is not to say every Leftist has fallen prey to authoritarianism, but unless we're talking about anarchists, historically the Left has placed faith in an actual or hypothetical state to counteract the state whose policies it did not approve.

[But in their times and places they have been the demonized pipe dreamers, the utopian rabble-rousers and trouble-makers.]

This is true, and liberals can be accused of taking safe positions after the fact. Yet at the same time, why are the "demonized pipe dreamers" and "trouble-makers" always correct? Can't we conclude that in one place and time they were, and another they were not? Just because the heroes of the past were often marginalized does not mean one can conclude that the marginalized of today are ipso facto heroes.

[In forming and maintaining an image of "the Left," of communist revolution, of popular struggle, the Good Liberal must ask himself whose interests he serves by perpetuating this image he criticizes.]

This question becomes, not exactly irrelevant, but certainly less important if the image the Good Liberal maintains is correct. The "either/or" dichotemy is one of the devices that most turns people off from the left.

Who, you ask, are these "people"? You are correct in asserting that said dichotemy does not turn off indigenous people, trampled third-world workers, and anyone else who belongs to the "popular masses in any part of the globe". But the Leftists who Hampton is obviously aiming his barbs at do not belong to these groups but to a relatively privileged contingent of Western society - and to the extent that they are trying to reach people, it is other members of that contingent. Hence there can be little surprise when they fail to widen the appeal of their cause within their own culture, and when they are criticized for facilitating their own marginalization.

From the perspective of the Left (a perspective which I would not claim as my own) shouldn't the question be, how can we win the Good Liberal over to our side, hence widening the array of forces positioned against those who use and abuse the power of the state? One can write off the Good Liberal and, even more damagingly, the politically uninclined forces of Middle America. After all, [For some people, "the Left" is not a club that must make itself attractive to prospective members.] But this is to consent to one's own irrelevance in one's own society and thus to confirm Hampton's characterization of said Leftist is "self-absorbed" and "dreamily unrealistic".

Of course, none of this even touches on the aesthetic ramifications of "artistically bankrupt" but that's a post for another day.

ZC said...

MovieMan, thanks for taking the time to respond at length with your thoughts. For the sake of avoiding tedious verbiage, I'm going to only respond to certain key points in your post--but please let me know if I have chosen to overlook a point you made that you feel warranted a distinct response (or more of one).

Based on the Hampton statement you quoted, it would seem he is speaking about the West, and America in particular.

Well, the point I was making has precisely to do with what this shorthand rhetoric within Western, particularly American, public culture--what tropes are employed, and what they stand in for, cover up, replace, displace, represent. I've tried to illustrate this sardonically in my "Food Politics" post above.

Political radicalism, in the sense of movements which stand up in the interests of the disenfranchised masses of people against the interests of the minorities which exploit them and corral them, must be looked at in a broad, even 'holistic' context. Because we live in a global economic and political order, we must always remember that the exploited in a country like America are themselves generally the beneficiaries of the exploited in, say, the global south. They're inextricable from one another. This is why discussion of a phantom, caricatural “Left” is so repugnant to me: it ignores the issues and the very real masses of people concerned in order to focus on a projection of a small subset (which may have certain accuracies, I grant you) with not only all or most self-identified leftists in America or Europe, but with "the Left" and leftist political radicalism in general, en toto.

Fought against and then re-enacted, in many cases.

This is part of the political mythology of liberalism, yes. I'm not saying there aren't serious problems. I won't shed a tear for the USSR. But the movement from 1917 to Stalinism, for example, is so frequently treated as a clear and inevitable line, an expression of a character that merely needed to culminate, rather than the accession to power of non-radical elements (Stalin & his crew) within the party apparatus.

(And what happens in the sustainable, non-imperialistic societies? They didn't conquer anyone and thus never had to write down their histories... And when the leftist revolutionaries are "nice," they're defeated by foes who aren't, like the Communards, who didn't just rob the Bank.)

This is not to say every Leftist has fallen prey to authoritarianism, but unless we're talking about anarchists, historically the Left has placed faith in an actual or hypothetical state to counteract the state whose policies it did not approve.

The leftists “placed faith” in a state? Or, perhaps, they chose to plan accordingly? It is in the interests of the larger liberal order to portray political radicals as being essentially religious, because they would have us believe it is necessarily irrational, mystical to plan economies, to want to use a state structure and have it dissolve as we move into a classless society. It behooves the ruling classes to insist that Leftists latently all want to keep power and abuse it (i.e., because that is the psychology of the ruling classes themselves, the so-called "natural" psychology of man).

Please don’t misunderstand me though; though I offer a debate and a criticism of what I perceive as liberal cant, I think giant states are harmful in the big sum of things, and my political sympathies run towards the small-scale, the local, the decentralized. But there are critiques of certain leftist/Marxist conceptions of State that come from the left, and those that come from the right (for our purposes, philosophical liberalism), and they serve different ends.

This is true, and liberals can be accused of taking safe positions after the fact. Yet at the same time, why are the "demonized pipe dreamers" and "trouble-makers" always correct? Can't we conclude that in one place and time they were, and another they were not? Just because the heroes of the past were often marginalized does not mean one can conclude that the marginalized of today are ipso facto heroes.

I didn’t say they necessarily were. And I don’t think one has to be a hero to have a valid political position. But it’s significant, is it not, how substantially mainstream intellectuals either ignore or denigrate those positions which are not even on the radar of media-visible, mainstream politics?

[In forming and maintaining an image of "the Left," of communist revolution, of popular struggle, the Good Liberal must ask himself whose interests he serves by perpetuating this image he criticizes.]

This question becomes, not exactly irrelevant, but certainly less important if the image the Good Liberal maintains is correct. The "either/or" dichotemy is one of the devices that most turns people off from the left.


But what I’m saying is it’s not correct—it’s demonstrably incorrect and we can explain its limitations and exclusions by pointing out its class origins and its hegemonic functions! “The Left” is not really the cumulative movement for popular struggle against oppression & exploitation, but the image of a miniscule segment of First World self-proclaimed radicals projected upon to a giant host of social, political, economic, even philosophical positions. Howard Hampton’s “Left,” the Good Liberal’s “Left,” is a cover-up, it functions to displace real political positions and problems with the image of “leftism” as a consumer choice (consumer choice being of course a subject-position greatly endorsed by our greater liberal order). And people go along with it because, like you’re doing here, they say, “Hey, does this image have real life analogues? Were there people who called themselves radicals who putzed around on trust funds and quoted Mao but really were just ultra-PC fascists? Hey, why there were people like that!”

Well, sure there were, but that’s beside the point. There are kind, humane billionare businessmen. Surely a great deal of union activists throughout labor history have been bigoted wife-beaters. De facto, politics in liberal states encourage this sort of atomized "ethical" thinking. But, as I hope is clear, I think it is wrong and insufficient as a theory of politics and the social body and justice, and it fails to address the gaping disparities of wealth, resources, and opportunity present in our entire world system.

From the perspective of the Left (a perspective which I would not claim as my own) shouldn't the question be, how can we win the Good Liberal over to our side, hence widening the array of forces positioned against those who use and abuse the power of the state?

This was more or less what I was trying to do in my own little way in this post. I could have called Hampton & Zacharek fascists who were out to deliberately strengthen the power of the Bush-Cheney legacy. But I don’t think that they are consciously operating like this; I believe in the potential to dissuade some well-meaning people from harmful positions; I tried to draw attention to the (ignored) political currents in which their commentary operates, the character of the specific premises on which they draw.

Not that I expect Hampton, or Zacharek, to even read this post. What do they care what some blogger, especially one without aspirations to film reviewing, says about their work? But that’s beside the point, the issue is if those of Hampton’s mindset might read what I write and perhaps shed some light on an perspective or contextualization they hadn’t given thought to.

(Of course people are welcome to think the same towards me, i.e., try to “enlighten” me a bit…)

ZC said...

Jebus, I definitely had hoped to be more concise--so much for avoiding tedious verbiage above, sorry...

Richard said...

This is a great post (and a great reply to MovieMan's comment). Thanks.

Adrian said...

Your post was very moving, Zach - I salute you.

MovieMan0283 said...

Zach, thanks for the response - I'll just make a few quick points (and ask a few questions) here:

1. So is your point, in part at least, a semantic one - you object to the terminology of Hampton's argument (using the term "the Left" to refer to a small subset of self-identified leftists) rather more than the substance (that said leftists really are somewhat self-defeating?) I could probably agree with you, at least to a certain extent, on that - perhaps Hampton should have employed more qualifiers so as not to risk painting with too broad a brush? (I did read that article, or part of it, a month or so ago. I wish Film Comment had online archives so I could check it out again.)

2. I don't really buy the "Stalin corrupted communism" argument; though to a certain extent he did, the USSR was already authoritarian and violent. Now, this is not to say that every 1917 leads to Stalinism, though the biggest ones seem to lead to one or another variation on dictatorship and violence (China and Cuba). Chile and, to a lesser extent, Nicaragua did not seem to be going in this direction (though of course Chile's 1917 occurred electorally) and were subverted, so I suppose that's grist for the mill of those who claim socialism and authoritarianism had to go hand-in-hand. I think that defeats the purpose, but that's a discussion worth having.

"And what happens in the sustainable, non-imperialistic societies?" Which societies are you thinking of, out of curiosity? Nation-states or smaller communities?

3. As for planning accordingly this may be the case but at what point does this state, in which so much has been invested, divest itself of its interests? I don't see that happening - even if many on the left see their planning as a means to an end, it usually becomes an end to itself. But, as you point out, there are definitely critiques of the statist Left from within the Left. I just don't think it's fair to say
"that most self-identified leftists in history have fought against [the coercive and authoritarian structures they supposedly embody]" without noting that many (not all, but a great many, particularly in the 20th century) did so in the service of coercive and authoritarian structures, hypothetical or actual.

4. "the Good Liberal’s “Left,” is a cover-up, it functions to displace real political positions and problems with the image of “leftism” as a consumer choice" I see what you are saying - however, I think that the reason Hampton focuses on this "miniscule" portion of the Left is that a) it is the Left which is relevant to his point about Western academic radicalism in the past 40 years (if I remember his article correctly), b) it is the Left which his readers and he himself will have had the most contact with, c) related to be, it is the only Left which he and his magazine could engage in discourse or potentially have any influence on. Perhaps he should not have used so wide a terminology, but I semantics aside, I don't think it's fair to call it a cover-up when in fact it's the small faction which is relevant to his arguments and which he hoped to engage (or possibly, merely to attack).

5. "But that’s beside the point, the issue is if those of Hampton’s mindset might read what I write and perhaps shed some light on an perspective or contextualization they hadn’t given thought to."

Well, in this sense you are doing a good job - I don't know if I'd call myself "of Hampton's mindset" (I'd have to read the article again) but this is an interesting discussion and I hope it continues (good site by the way).

ZC said...

MovieMan, I'm going to ask you to wait about a week before I'm able to return to this, if you don't mind. I'm busy preparing for a trip. But to address the first point a little: the semantics and the substance are indistiguishable! The problem of categorizing & naming is the issue of deciding on substance. If 'the Good Liberal' were ever able to criticize a particular leftist (e.g., for being an authoritarian asshole, or for being quixotically unrealistic) without transforming the issue into an a critique of "the Left," then that Good Liberal's chances of having a nice public intellectual forum would decrease ... the Good Liberal's sanctioned job in this instance is to insist that the criticisms of a particular individual or group on "the Left" (which may or may not be true) apply to all of it, that it's all necessarily hopelessly quixotic, latently authoritarian & coercive. More later ...

MovieMan0283 said...

An interesting point, though I think it is true beyond political discourse; the squeaky wheel gets the oil, and in competitive marketplaces the more inflammatory the rhetoric the more attention it will get.

Or to put it another way, when I want to make some subtle observation about the latest Batman movie on imdb, but am concerned that no one will read the post because the threads move so fast, I'll title it something to the effect of "The Dark Knight: Worst movie EVER??!!??"

Usually works, too.

MovieMan0283 said...

Oh, and enjoy your trip -- looking forward to the rest of the exchange.

ZC said...

MM, thanks for waiting. I should admit that, for reasons outside of this blog or any of the participants here, this particular discussion has become really unappealing to me at the moment. But I'll try to address some of your points from where I left off.

I don't think the nation-state in general has shown itself prone to strong, non-coercive, society. Everything here is relative, though: if the state-planned economy of the USSR were just completely corrupt and given to ruin, the nation would not have been a threat or competitor to the United States.

At what point does that state divest itself of its interests? I think this decision should be made locally--there should be mechanisms that the people (the dictatorial proletarians?) can put into place to ensure the dissolution of the state apparatus into decentralized and small-scale structures. How might this work in the US? I'm not entirely sure. It would depend on the vagaries of a global market and a breakdown of US power (translated, for the masses, into certain material necessities & comforts perhaps). Networks of people would have to use leverage to their advantage--this doesn't mean I think we'll degenerate into roving bands in a post-apocalyptic firestorm or anything like that. But for growing their own food (or some equivalent), ensuring the well-being of adjacent and economically friendly communities, I think this will help galvanize real efficacy.

Kimberly said...

Obviously I'm catching up on some blog reading but I have to say - thanks so much for this post. You said a lot of things I've wanted to say but much better than I could.

As for Stephanie Zacharek . . .

I only read her occasionally to find out what movies I should avoid. If she likes something I know I should probably avoid seeing it. My film tastes are almost polar opposite of hers. Frankly, I wish Salon would get rid of her.

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