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Friday, April 14, 2017


As you know, the tone of the comments on this blog lately has disturbed me.  It all reminds me of old time disputes among lefties in which every gathering of six or seven immediately splintered into three factions.  Let me explain why I am convinced that this wrangling is unproductive.

If the Google Counter is to be believed, this blog gets between 1500 and 2000 views a day.  Taking into consideration both those who visit it several times a day and those who visit it only every several days, I am guessing that maybe 3000 – 4000 people worldwide are in some sense regular readers.  That could be way off, of course.  Maybe most of the visits are from people looking to turn lead into gold, or thoughtful sufferers from gall stones seeking relief.  But let us be optimistic and say that my guess is correct.

Most, but by no means all, of those visitors are American.  The comments indicate a lively international readership.  Even so, surely two-thirds or more are American.  Now, almost all of those folks do not comment.  [I believe the modern term is “lurkers,” but I prefer to consider them polite readers.]  There are some ten or twelve who comment all the time.  Let us suppose that after extended and contentious dispute here, eight or nine of them can be brought to agree on some matter, such as what to think about the Democratic National Committee or whether the attention paid to possible connections between Russia and Trump’s circle of advisors is overblown.  Terrific.  You now have, let us say, enough right-thinking comrades to elect someone Class President of one of those toney Manhattan private schools that only admits fifteen rich kids a year.

But suppose you set your sights a little higher, say on Precinct Chair in a State Democratic Party or even, ambitiously, on a seat in a State Legislature.  Never mind a House seat or a Senate Seat!  Eight votes are not going to do it.  You are going to need all the blog readers who share your political orientation, construed most broadly, and lots and lots of others besides.  You are going to need some folks who think Nancy Pelosi is a saint, and other folks who just loved Hilary, and a lot of folks who simply hate Trump, even though they have never thought about single payer health care, let alone socialism.  The issues that you debate so heatedly on this blog, descending to insults when you just cannot bear it any more, will probably matter not at all to the tens of thousands of people whose votes will be indispensable for anything resembling victory.

So there is, I am sorry to have to say, something self-indulgent in these disputes, particularly in their heat.  I am not on the fence about many of these issues, as Chris seems to think.  I just do not think it is worth the effort to argue about them, when we need everyone on both sides of every debate if we are to assemble anything resembling a movement.


Derek said...

The Democrats and the left in general, in recent times, have been very good at snatching defeat from the jaws of victory, thanks in part to constant infighting.

The Republican party and the current right, on the other hand, a seemingly incoherent mix of libertarians, evangelicals, reactionaries, and neocons, never all get what they want--but when the wheels hit the road they vote and get someone who's closer to their views than the other side. They can and will complain about principles and purity all day long, but because they put up rather than shut up it's they who have the presidency, Congress, the Supreme Court, the state governments, and much besides right now. They've been moving steadily upward for at least three decades, despite ideological incoherence; it's a good idea to ask why that's the case.

David said...

The word you didn't use, Professor Wolff, but which I will, is solidarity. We need solidarity. That doesn't mean everyone has to be doing the same thing. For example, I am too old and too purblind to be doing what I once did. Activism takes a lot of energy, and the young, generally speaking, are the ones who have it. Sometimes the young, if they respect us, will listen to us and even take a hint or two. Naturally, they will go their own way and do innovative things we couldn't anticipate. However, we can have an influence for the better, but only if we are worthy of respect.

Anonymous said...

Mathematician Terry Tao wrote a nice post a few years ago on the question why left wingers often reserve their greatest criticism for those who should really be their allies:

chrismealy said...

Here's an funny anecdote that has helped me a lot to not worry about this stuff:

In August 1968 I was on an SDS trip to Cuba, one of about 30 student activists from around the US. One day we went to the mission of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of South Vietnam in Havana (it had been called the National Liberation Front but had recently taken on a new name). We decided to see if the NLF, as we called them, could settle some debates in the US antiwar movement. After exchanging pleasantries with the representative of the PRG/NLF, we had the following exchange.

SDS students: We have a debate in the antiwar movement. Some of us think we should organize militant, obstructive demonstrations that are openly in support of victory for the NLF. Others argue we should organize much larger, peaceful, legal demonstrations around the demand of immediate US withdrawal from Vietnam. Which should we do?

PRG/NLF rep: Some of you should do one, and others should do the other.

SDS students: We have another debate in the antiwar movement. When a male antiwar activist gets a draft induction notice, some of us think he should refuse to serve, either going to jail or going to Canada. Others of us argue that he should quietly go into the military to organize among the soldiers for an end to the war. Which should we do?

PRG/NLF rep: Some of you should do one, and others should do the other. And when an antiwar activist goes into the military and ends up in Vietnam, there are ways to arrange contact between the activist and the local NLF fighters.

After that exchange, I began to see why the NLF was so successful in their struggle to force the US out of Vietnam.


s. wallerstein said...

Ok, let me play devil's advocate.

We all agree that when we're doing actual, real political organizing we need to be ultra-diplomatic, not offend anyone unnecessarily, be polite, smile at babies, childen and senior citizens, and not show off how much more we know or above all, how many more books we've read than the person we're trying to convince or win over to our cause.

Now after a hard day or week being persuasive, winning friends and influencing people (which is what politics is all about, I grant), there seems to be no harm letting off a bit of steam engaging in often useless polemics with someone in a blog who also appears ready to engage in useless polemics and unwind after a day smiling at babies and winning friends and influencing people. That's the game. Basic courtesy and decency do seem to dictate that we don't insult or name-call anyone, even if the argumenting at times does get heated.

Chris said...

Can I trade in baby smiling time for invective steam time? That is, for every baby I refuse to smile at, I promise not to use an invective over the weekend?

Anonymous said...

Consider this scenario.

War started between our allies and their enemies. Our government's spokespersons claim the government wants to remain neutral, in spite of our international obligations. Opinion polls, however, show that a substantial majority wants not only war, but war against our allies.

Our socialist party's policy is neutrality.

What should be our party's answer?

As attractive as it sounds, it's not obvious to me how one could apply the "Some Should Do One, Others the Other" dictum to that scenario.

Let's go a little deeper in that situation. Our party's official newspaper, under the editorship of a young firebrand, has been campaigning against war, according to the official party line.

The party rallies its supporters against our country's involvement. Op-eds from our young editor contain tidbits like "our neutrality must be absolute", attacking the "delirium tremens" of war hawks and their "scandalous opportunism".

"We socialists, tenacious enemies of war, are partisans of neutrality", roars our firebrand.

Four days later, the opinion pages of the party's newspaper contain yet another blazing op-ed by its young editor. This time, however, the message of the op-ed is very different. To the party's leaders' and militancy's surprise, the editor is no longer calling for neutrality, but demanding immediate war on the side of our allies' enemies!

What should the party do about that him?


I've presented this scenario as an "as if" exercise, but readers would be mistaken to believe it's the product of my creativity. It may sound contrived, but that really happened.

That's the situation confronted by the Italian Socialist Party in 1914 at the ourbreak of the Great War. Formally, Italy's allies were Germany and Austria-Hungary. Their enemies were France, Britain and Russia. The party's newspaper was the Avanti! and its firebrand editor was Benito Mussolini.

In four days he moved from pacifist to war hawk against our allies.

Danny said...

'..there seems to be no harm letting off a bit of steam engaging in often useless polemics with someone in a blog who also appears ready to engage in useless polemics and unwind after a day smiling at babies and winning friends and influencing people. That's the game. Basic courtesy and decency do seem to dictate that we don't insult or name-call anyone..'

I think your intentions are clear, but your language is obscure, in that I am puzzled by the distinction between 'useless polemics' and, well, how many kinds of polemics are there? Maybe we take 'polemics' broadly here, as the concept of 'a strong attack'. But I don't think that's generally the usage of 'polemics', so I wonder. Are there supposedly 'useful polemics', in the sense of the polemics that are mostly seen in arguments about controversial topics? Or is this notion of 'useful polemics' like the notion of a 'true prophet'? See what I did there -- polemics often concern issues in religion or politics. I am reflecting that Karl Marx comes to mind as a polemicist, but I am unabashed. Also, maybe Noam Chomsky, though his personality is dry. I query whether a discussion that is capable of polemic is useful at all. I mean, sure, it's useful for getting wound up, or for getting other people wound up. In which case, the most useful polemic is surely quite bitter self-righteous polemic. I might draw some distinction between Michael Moore and Herbert Marcuse, or I might try, ..I personally might fail..

TheDudeDiogenes said...

Are we the Judean People's Front, or the People's Front of Judea?