Disputed Ground

On Martial Arts, Politics, and Culture.

Bad Arguments, Bad Faith, and Bernie

Few things are more absurdly maddening and counter-productive than watching the last couple of years of progress washed away in this fight between the anti-racism movement, and economic leftists.

Among those few things are the bad arguments being made to defend not only shutting down a social security event, but doing so by screaming at and pushing senior citizens. Here we’ll examine some of the arguments put forward by a prominent blogger, and by Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza.

First, for anyone not paying attention, this happened:

Sanders supporters reacted with a mix of bewilderment and anger. Queue the following meta-debates!

The first piece to highlight here is one by UK writer Richard Seymour.

As is typical of the genre, you get a scatter gun of cherry picked tweets, loose link translation, looser association, omission, more translation, followed by the grand finale of implication:

 “The Sanders campaign now has an ‘official’ shout-down chant prepared, in the event of such irruptions: ‘We Stand Together’.  Given that this is intended be chanted to silence black anti-racist activists, it does rather raise the question of what that says about the ‘we’ thus constituted.”

Let’s, as the phrase goes, “unpack this”. Only two paragraphs into a genuinely awful piece, we arrive at a place where chanting over people heckling “you” is “you” silencing “them”. How dare you heckle my heckle at an event you organized!

Perhaps aware that this is supremely weak and Orwellian sauce, Seymour decides to kick sand in your face by pointing out that these are “black” anti-racist activists. An inclusion that would only be relevant if Sanders was OK with “white” anti-racist activists shutting his event down. This not being the case, let’s be charitable and say that Seymour wrote this piece on a sort of thoughtless auto-pilot, rather than just being a dishonest smear artist casually cheapening racism by falsely using it to prop-up his non-arguments. One might also point out that the person who introduced the “We Stand Together!” chant, is herself a black anti-racist activist. Perhaps white graduate student Richard Seymour will raise the question to her about “the ‘we’ thus constituted”. Let’s again be charitable though and assume he didn’t know and was just banging into the keyboard in a lazy, ignorant, trance.

The rest of his post isn’t very interesting. You get accusations of “nationalism”, from a writer that’s supported a plethora of nationalist movements himself. You get accusations of “eurocentrism” from a white European academic against an American whose family fled the holocaust. You get oversimplified attacks on the complicated issue of Immigration (see a good rebuttal here). You get a fair reminder of some of Sanders’ more unfortunate foreign policy commitments, but it’s a reminder that’s made somewhat weaker by the fact that some of the people attacking him have said things like this:

Creator of “#BernieSoBlack”

Weak.

The piece ends on a note that epitomizes most of what’s wrong with this debate. True to his Leninist roots of wanting to lead the dumb masses, Seymour advises advocates of Sanders to forget about principles and what they really think, and instead focus on positioning and how best to use #BlackLivesMatter for their own self-aggrandizement:

“Sandernistas would do well to reflect on one thing.  In a few months’ time, Sanders’s campaign will be gone…But Black Lives Matter, or rather the movement with which it has become synonymous, isn’t going to go away….Where do the Sandernistas want to be in all this?  Do they really want to say that they spent this time complaining about the movement because a couple of activists disrupted the campaign of an old not-very-radical, ‘colour-blind’ social democrat?”

Fuck giving people the respect of honest disagreement! Seymour knows a winning brand when he sees it and wants you to get in early! Positioning, positioning, positioning. As always with this type of authoritarian, the guiding question isn’t “is this true or not?”, instead it’s “how can I manipulate and exploit others to my own advantage”. In its own way, that seems like much more of a…let’s again be nice and call it a blind spot.

It’s this type of self-interested, opportunistic thinking that makes it so easy for authoritarians like Seymour to make common cause with careerist liberals close to the political establishment. As Chomsky reminds us:

“These ideas, described by Lippmann’s editors as a progressive “political philosophy for liberal democracy,” have an unmistakeable resemblance to the Leninist concept of a vanguard party that leads the masses to a better life that they cannot conceive or construct on their own. In fact, the transition from one position to the other, from Leninist enthusiasm to “celebration of America,” has proven quite an easy one over the years. This is not surprising, since the doctrines are similar at their root. The critical difference lies in an assessment of the prospects for power: through exploitation of mass popular struggle, or service to the current masters. “

Fake recognize fake.

Credit where credit is due though. The audacity required for someone who has advocated working with Islamists to play prolier than though with democratic socialists is truly mind-boggling. Like literally. A person with dignity might have their mind literally break. Seymour should be given some kind of award for achieving new heights of inconsistency in his quest to uphold the proud authoritarian tradition of despising democratic socialism. He can even put it up on the wall of his office in the London School of Economics.

Still, Seymour’s brand awareness might eventually help people forget about his previous issues around race. Or maybe not.

__________

__________

Now, while it’s easy to dismiss a ridiculous figure like Seymour, the next set of arguments we’re going to look at come from Alicia Garza, one of the co-founders of the Black Lives Matter movement. Black Lives Matter is a movement that’s tapping into someone significant, and so what she says warrants close attention: http://www.msnbc.com/all-in/watch/bernie-sanders-v-black-lives-matter-502576707783

In this interview a few nights ago with Chris Hayes, Garza lays out some arguments that are troubling.

Garza: “(our plan is) to make sure that our lives are represented in every candidates platform”

Let’s judge that plan on its merits then. The argument seems to be:

  1. To get issues on a candidate’s campaign platform, you need to shut down their events.
  2. Candidates do what is on their campaign platform.

Conclusion: To get politicians to take action on racial justice, we have to shut down their events until they put it on their platforms.

A slight problem though: The premises are false!

The first premise is merely false, or at best unclear. Where is the evidence that to get a response from Sanders you needed to shut down a social security event by screaming at and pushing old people? That things happen a certain way does not mean it is the best way things could’ve happened. These sorts of acrimonious divisions have real political costs, and the burden of proof has not been met as to why these tactics were preferable over others.

And that’s just on the pragmatic side. Let’s not discount the matter of principle. The framework of war erodes rights. It’s a trick long mastered by the state to crack down on dissent and due process. In the Global War on Terror, “the battlefield is everywhere” claimed the reactionaries in charge. It is a claim that paved the road to where we are now. Indefinite detention, torture, and assassination. The battlefield is everywhere, and you’re on the battlefield – you wouldn’t give rights to an enemy soldier firing at you, would you?

This same erosion of respect for rights is tragically mirrored in a portion of the activist circle. It accepts the war framework. While this is more tethered to reality, since the violence dispensed both by the state and private actors towards many of the oppressed is present all around us, it nevertheless sets us off on the slippery slope to the bottom wherein we abandon the centrality of rights of speech, assembly, and association.

If it’s war, then all options are on the table. The argument goes: Disrupting events is not as bad as shooting unarmed black men. Obviously correct, but the threshold of “not as bad as killing” is too low of a bar. “Torture is not as bad as death” says the reactionary. It is a proud tradition that says that free speech is a moral good. One that should be expanded.

There are some that will not be persuaded by appeals to moral principle. They buy into the war framework and everything it implies. To you I’d advise this: Power wins that game. In a country where norms of shutting down speeches becomes embraced, you’ll very quickly find that some of the worst people are very good at that sort of thing. Dissident speech is the most threatened and fragile. It is also therefore pragmatically better for the left if political events don’t get shut down.

Now, If the first implied premise is clearly false, then the second, that politicians will actually do what’s in their platforms, is dangerous.

It’s a premise that’s ludicrously false, yet one that is being used to channel countless young activists into this type of politics. It’s the type of politics that discounts record. It’s the type of politics that acts like lying doesn’t exist. It’s the type of politics that benefits sociopaths with millions of dollars to spend on public relations teams.  It’s the type of politics that benefits someone whose security is handled by armed agents of the state. It’s the type of politics that has you in nice private meetings with Hillary Clinton while disrupting the event of someone who marched with Martin Luther King.

As socialist activist Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor (who is to the left of Sanders and is no great fan of him) observes:

A preliminary thought on the Black Lives Matter movement and the 2016 election: I wonder what the end game is when the objective seems to be getting the leading candidates running of the Democratic Party to produce robust plans detailing how they will address the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement? What does it mean for either Sanders or Clinton to produce more campaign platforms concerning “racial justice” when they remain in a political party that is complicit and invested in the destruction of Black neighborhoods through the instruments of privatization…The hashtag and slogan “earn our vote” implies, if not forthrightly declares, that there is a particular combination of planks the Democratic Party can put together to win the vote of the movement.

(Hat tip to Freddie Deboer)

One might go further here and point out that Garza is implying not just that there is a possible combination of words that might get them to endorse Hillary Clinton, but Republicans as well. Such a politics is not defensible.

It is not an honest politics. It is not a winning politics.

It is a self-destructive politics.

Garza continues: “Folks like Code Pink, or Act Up – mostly white folks- are disrupting the president, disrupting business as usual…we don’t see the same level of vitriol that we’ve seen against black lives matter.”

Where to begin? Should we start with the obvious fact that again, the premise is false? The “level of vitriol” directed against these groups was/is absolutely staggering.

Or maybe we should point out that the noxious implication of racism here is being made against people who supported action to combat HIV (a virus that doesn’t recognize social constructs), and opposed the Iraq war, where hundreds of thousands of non-white, non-American, humans died?

Or should we instead point out that the comparison makes no sense? One does not shut down the President’s events because one is not capable of doing so. One does not get to push and scream in the face of the Commander in Chief of the United States armed forces. Funny how again we find that this sort of political argument stacks the deck in favor of the powerful.

Speaking of going easy on the powerful, one might recommend checking out some questions posed by Bruce Dixon of Black Agenda Report, as he contemplates whether Garza is positioning herself to align with the power structure of the democratic party.

Continuing, Garza concludes with: “It’s not important to us that we are palatable to folks who are not sure whether they align with disruption or not.”

This, along with other activists saying that supporters of Sanders need to “re-examine their priorities” when they complain of the events being shut down, is meant to imply a certain superficial callousness. As if it’s all just a stylistic disagreement.

At a certain point, enough is enough. Of the two events that were shut down, one was about social security, the other was about immigration.

This isn’t about decorum. This is about people fucking dying. Thousands of people die every year in the United States due to poverty, and millions of others barely survive. How the fuck is it okay to shut down an event on social security which is one of the few things that stops senior citizens from having to eat catfood? The framing offered by Garza is as ludicrous as anti-poverty crusaders shutting down a black lives matter event because people die from poverty. Would anyone buy that for even an instant?

And let’s not forget about immigration. Tens of millions of immigrants are not only denied the right to vote, but are also denied basic legal protections, and fair access to the economy. Thousands now reside in exploitive work conditions that are called, without exaggeration, a type of modern day slavery:

“All across America, H-2 guest workers complain that they have been cheated out of their wages, threatened with guns, beaten, raped, starved, and imprisoned. Some have even died on the job. Yet employers rarely face any significant consequences.”

Why don’t these issues deserve attention? Who is Garza to shut down these forums?

At a certain point, one need not even be a fan of Sanders to see that down this way lies damnation. We cannot renounce principles. We cannot forget that if you want to know what a person will do, you need to see what they’ve done. We cannot pit the various struggles against each other. We must unite the struggles. Our strengths is numbers, but numbers alone won’t work without principles and unity.

We must retain an eternal sense of optimism. Eventually though, if it turns out social security and immigration events were disrupted for an ultimate endorsement of Hillary Clinton, then one can’t help but feel a great sadness.

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