On progressive “red-baiting”
This is a slightly more extensive version of the essay featured in Black Agenda Report on September 8, 2010.
On progressive “red-baiting”
Tamara K. Nopper
September 4, 2010
In response to a critic, a popular progressive figure commented, “I’m defender of republican democracy, US Constitution and liberty and justice for all. I’m progressive dem, not authoritarian leftist.” While perhaps correct in the self-description, such comments hint at an intellectualized version of red-baiting.
Red-baiting of course is not new and today many people throw the word leftist as well as radical, revolutionary, Socialist, Communist, or Anarchist, around like they are accusations rather than developed albeit perhaps diverging positions regarding capitalism, the state, and for some of us, white supremacy. Most of the people who are the most vociferous in publicly denouncing leftists are white conservatives, including corporate news personalities and members of the inherently racist and white nationalist Tea Party. Yet progressives critical of racism, poverty, corporations, and government officials have their own ways of red-baiting.
Not all of the targets of this red-baiting of which I speak are associated with Marxist organizations or have specific organizational affiliations. Nor do most progressives publicly use pejoratives such as “Commie” or “Pinko.” Yet some will strategically use terms such as “authoritarian leftist,” “radicals” or “revolutionaries” or “Marxist” when trying to deflect questions posed by people unimpressed with their political positions but whose opposition cannot easily be dismissed as driven by white supremacy or conservatism. Such gestures are consistent with red-baiting; individuals can simply shut down inquiry or interrogation of their political positions by strategically using labels unpopular among a general public trained to hate such terms; the strategic use of these labels plays upon white nationalist fears and pan-racial bourgeois sentiments by invoking the specter of revolutionary and liberation movements, armed struggle or armed resistance or rioting (as opposed to pacifism or non-violent resistance), militant Black power, and a classless society. In the process, such gestures take advantage of, and implicitly condone the aggressive campaigns by the mainstream press, most academics, and the state to demonize and criminalize stances that are too oppositional against white supremacy or capitalism or state violence. The use of such labels, while sometimes correct in their assertion (since there are many who proudly identify as having certain affiliations), often work to insulate progressives from having to explicitly articulate their positions and why they are committed to the ones they take, thus situating their stances, as undefined as they may be, as logical or natural as opposed to ideological and up for debate.
For example, consider the path and reaction to Barack Obama’s historic election. Many people, from a variety of backgrounds, who wanted him elected openly castigated people as “radicals” and “revolutionaries” for not supporting Obama or for not understanding how politics “is done.” Those critical of Obama for being too conservative were expected to keep quiet or were carelessly labeled these terms. These labels, which are really badges of honor rather than insults, were thrown around to isolate and treat as irrational those who made supporters of Obama uncomfortable. After Obama’s victory, many of us were expected to hold off on expressing critical views of the election so as to respect the euphoria. Whereas after 9-11 those critical of empire were supposed to remain silent so as not to cause more pain for the victims and the nation, after Obama’s election we were supposed to keep quiet until the celebration was over. Even as Obama reveals himself to be, as one friend puts it, an operative (as opposed to simply being “scared” of whites), many people writing books and commentaries about the significance of Obama’s election defend their positions with red-baiting. It is not uncommon to hear authors go out of their way to ridicule “radicals” and “revolutionaries” for taking issue with Obama. That they rarely have to identify what they mean by these terms or why they are ridiculing such politics speaks to the ease in which they can engage in such red-baiting among their audiences.
Other examples of progressive red-baiting include 1) the difficulty of getting or keeping a job in progressive non-profits or in progressive academic programs if you take a critical stance against capitalism or wealth accumulation as opposed to “class inequality” or poverty 2) the wholesale dismissal of armed struggle, direct action tactics, street protests, and marches by many pundits and scholars quick to remind their audiences that they only support (or condone, really) non-violent resistance; 3) the re-narration of political and intellectual history in which certain oppositional figures and organizations are celebrated or remain icons but their confrontational stances against capitalism, the state, and the American project are left out or treated as ephemeral, naïve, or a bitter emotional response to discrimination or bad treatment in certain organizations; 4) the re-posing of revolutionary political organizations for mass consumption where they are sanitized as less threatening and thus more compatible with the American dream as well as the non-revolutionary white left; 5) the need to make sure that one’s audience and critics know that one is not too far left and the use of certain code words to do so; 6) the need to remind the public that one is a “reformed” radical and now willing to work with certain entities that one’s politics previously sought to confront; and 7) going out of the way to rescue some figures from the “accusation” of being a Communist, Socialist, or Anarchist. Regarding the last point, while it is unfair to Socialists that President Obama has been depicted as one and everyone appreciates being remembered “correctly,” such gestures often reveal a shared red-baiting among those who make accusations and those who respond, as seen in some of the recent defenses of Dr. Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr. on whether he was a Socialist or Communist.
There are of course important ideological differences and sources of contention among all of those thrown under the bus by these progressives, with some not necessarily having a particular organizational affiliation or having to critically engage limitations within the organizations we are a part of, especially when it comes to dealing with analytical approaches and practices regarding race, gender, sexuality, and nationality. And critical engagement and reflection among the left is important and sorely needed. In some cases, people of color have rightfully challenged Marxist or anti-capitalist organizations about questionable decisions and directions. And people of color both in and outside of these organizations are rightfully critical of how non-whites are either marginalized or exotified by whites who privilege class analysis over race or are purposefully ignorant of the history of anti-capitalist politics among communities of color and our organizations and thus “pleasantly surprised” to “meet” people of color critical of capitalism. Yet terms such as “authoritarian leftist,” “radical,” or “revolutionary,” while perhaps confusing to some, are basically code for being too oppositional against capitalism or the state and in some cases, being too confrontational against white supremacy and white nationalism. The terms are also code for being dogmatic, too aggressive, socially inept, unwilling to listen to ideas, and having a difficulty integrating useful nuances into, or dealing with contradictions in our ideological frameworks. While yes, I have met leftists of all stripes who possess all of these tendencies—and I could easily be accused of the same—I have also met and seen and read and heard thousands upon thousands of capitalists, pro-capitalists, and progressive democrats who also possess these traits.
Yet for some reason, perhaps because it is more compatible with the capitalist party line and more appeasing to whites, being an authoritarian progressive who is anti-leftist or anti-radical or anti-revolutionary or anti-Marxist is not considered by many as a form of dogmatism, but rather political “common sense” and purportedly more humanistic than, let’s say, openly confronting or naming the sources of millions of people’s misery. It also means you are more likely to get published and keep a job or be offered a new one by those who run progressive institutions that seek to serve as alternatives to the political climate at most professional jobs. Being dogmatic about one’s progressive tendencies may result in being targeted by white supremacists who troll the internet and watch corporate news (and who will attack with a vengeance anybody who doesn’t believe in the inherent inferiority of non-whites or the sanctity of the free market)—a stressful situation that can result in real personal losses, to be sure. Indeed, most people critical of the right wing or even moderates are subject to scrutiny and attack. and people of color, in particular Black people, experience this backlash in degrees far greater than whites and often have less institutional support to counter such witch hunts. Yet too many progressives, despite having significant points of disagreement among them, seek to protect themselves, insulate their positions from interrogation, or gain currency by relying on red-baiting tactics and distancing themselves from those they publicly dismiss as “authoritarian leftists,” “radicals,” or “revolutionaries.”
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