Sunday, October 19, 2014

On Becoming Re-Radicalized

If there is one type of literary production I know well, it is the story of the naive idealist who joins and soon becomes disillusioned with some radical movement. I was reading that story about why not to be a radical almost as soon as I had become one. I'm very quick and self-punishing when it comes to allowing my most cherished idols to be defaced and overthrown. Radicalism never seems as deeply implausible to me as when I am a radical; it never manages to stare so accusingly and yet beckoningly at me as when I am not one.

Something has been happening to me lately that neatly fits this pattern. It has been so long since I really thought of myself as a radical, that radicalism is now starting to seem to me again like an enviable belief system that I have only failed to adopt out of cowardice. Because I am not a radical anymore, it's easier for me to forget radicalism's failings -- they are no longer mine. It's become impossible, however, for me to overlook its moral victories -- these too are no longer mine, and can only leave me feeling guilty and inadequate and like a veritable quisling by the comparison. If the cycle holds, it may mean it's time for me to cross the tracks again, to prepare the way for my later renewed disillusionment.

I'm joking, in part. The reasons not to ever become a radical again, in the old sense, are very clear to me. They mostly boil down to the fact the tenets of radicalism oppose as directly as possible the tenets of liberalism, and I find that the tenets of liberalism, in the very particular sense of the word I have in mind here, are the ones most deeply encoded in my intellectual genome. They will always reassert themselves over all periodic temptations I may suffer toward transcendent political or religious visions.

By liberalism here I don't mean any particular political program, but a basic orientation to the universe. Another word for it might be humanism. The liberal or humanist tends to think that our species is woefully imperfect, but it is the only one we've got. The human consciousness may beat up against certain intolerable limitations, but it is the only consciousness to which we have access, or could possibly have access. Humanity cannot be sacrificed on the altar of justice or God or love, because (as Feuerbach would say) it is only through humanity that such concepts exist and can be made objective in the world. If humanity does not realize them, no one will.

The radicals and the true believers will have none of this, however. To them, humanity is always to be  judged by an external rule, whether that of God or historical necessity or the needs of "the Earth." And if humanity cannot be straightened in accordance with these rules, it deserves death or damnation. "If justice was not possible with man, then man must disappear," as the anarchist Souvarine declares in Zola's Germinal (Ellis trans.) In other words: A.) what is unjust must be destroyed; B) humankind is unjust; ergo: humanity must be destroyed. It is the same syllogism that underlies the myth of Noah and the flood, as well as the rhetoric of some modern eco-justice warriors, who speak at times of climate change as if it were the planet's just vengeance against us.

The problem with all such narratives, in the eyes of liberals and me, is that they press toward destroying the very thing they would save. The reason injustice and environmental degradation must be defeated, to my mind, is that they threaten human and animal life. One cannot very well invoke these sins, therefore, as reasons to extinguish living things. I am reminded of an argument Gandhi once made about an earthquake in Bihar, which I have written about before on this blog. The quake, Gandhi claimed, was God's just punishment for the sin of untouchability. Yet many of the people killed in the earthquake were themselves members of the most marginalized castes in India. (The rest were ordinary people with varying degrees of complicity in untouchability, no doubt, but who certainly didn't deserve to die for this complicity, unless one accepts the same retributive morality that Gandhi spent a lifetime resisting).

The liberal, then, has an "optimistic" view of our potential as a species, but not necessarily because she or he has any naive belief in human "perfectibility" (as is so often supposed by liberalism's critics). Rather, the liberal -- or at least, my kind of liberal -- believes in humanity because it is all we have to believe in -- it is the only vessel for our hopes. Either humanity will achieve justice or the universe will never know justice.

In a sense, then, it is the radical -- even the one who would like to destroy humanity -- who has greater faith in the "perfectibility" of our species-- and it is the liberal who views the universe as more essentially and characteristically riven by imperfection and conflict. For the radicals and the believers, the true condition of human beings is to be in harmony with the universe and with each other, which is why our moral failures seem like such dramatic aberrations to them, meriting such absolute and final punishments. In their eyes, our present world is merely a distortion of a higher reality. It is, in some sense, an illusion.

For liberals and me, by contrast, it often seems as if the harmony is the illusion, and the conflict the reality.

This essential difference of metaphysical orientation accounts for why the radical seems, in the liberal's eyes, never to draw the obvious conclusions from her or his past failures. The radical is capable of sincere guilt and shame on behalf of these failures, but she or he still regards each one as the exception, rather than the rule -- as a falling away from what ought to have happened and what will one day still happen. The Soviet revolution may have ended up creating a far more abhorrent regime than anything that came before it. But that was only due to a failure of revolutionary strategy, or to state-capitalist deviations, or to revisionist errors. And so on.

The most recent example of this I've come across is in a passage from Mike Davis' Late Victorian Holocausts. It is a book I admire a great deal, as readers of this blog will know. Liberals and radicals often agree on what's wrong with the world, after all, which is mostly what that book is concerned with -- they just don't agree on what's right with it. One of the things Davis evidently thinks is right with the world is communist revolution. This conviction leaves him struggling to explain China's shocking Great Leap Forward famine of the 1950s, which Davis admits "killed 20 million peasants [... and] was the most deadly [famine] of the twentieth century, perhaps of all time." (p. 250). That Davis notes and condemns this massive destruction of life is admirable. Less admirable is what he says next: "Given the PRC's impressive commitments to food security and disaster mitigation in the early 1950s," he writes, "as well as its dramatic success in raising above average life expectancy, the scale of this holocaust is stupefying and, for many sympathizers with the Chinese Revolution, almost inexplicable." (p. 250)

It is this tone of perpetual surprise -- surprise at the fact that revolutionary movements are just as violent and destructive as imperialists and governments -- that sets off radicals like Davis from the rest of us. For the radicals, the fact that the Chinese revolution was a titanic moral failure is something astonishing, category-defying -- "almost inexplicable." For everyone else, it is the most predictable thing in the world. One of the many and gratuitous epiphanies of Anna Wulf in Doris Lessing's The Golden Notebook reads as follows: "It is no longer possible," the character suddenly realizes, "to organize and to fight and to kill without knowing that new tyranny arises from it." Well, Duh!, says the liberal.

This theme of surprise, or the lack thereof, features prominently in Joan Didion's description of her own decidedly non-radical generation (that of the 1950s). "I suppose," she says in a piece from The White Album, "I am talking about [...] the ambiguity of belonging to a generation distrustful of political highs, the historical irrelevancy of growing up convinced that the heart of darkness lay not in some error of social organization but in man's own blood [...] It was a premise which still seems to me accurate enough, but one which robbed us early of a certain capacity for surprise."

It is a familiar thought to us now, I suppose. Almost as familiar as Anna Wulf's "discovery" that killing people in large numbers does not lead to peace on Earth. There is a reason Didion writes in generational terms here, because the basic insight she is describing was common to almost all thinkers of her era-- that of the Cold War -- which is why it seems old hat to those of us who came after. It was a group of thinkers that defined its intellectual identity in most cases against an early infatuation with Marxism or radicalism. These are people who had at one point in their lives been willing to sacrifice whole societies on the altar of the dialectic. They awoke from this nightmare shocked at their own capacity for cruelty. They had found the "heart of darkness" in the "heart of man," but what they really meant is that they had found it in themselves.

But history likes to play games with us, doesn't it? No sooner had the disillusioned ex-Communists of Didion's era had their Anna Wulf-style "epiphanies"-- no sooner had they realized that civil liberties and democracy might actually provide essential safeguards against the human capacity for evil -- no sooner, I say, had they finally rid themselves of their radical illusions -- than the democratic West was behaving in ways that plainly cried out for radical critique-- a critique that no one was offering. Some of the most rancorous ex-Stalinists were finally admitting the crimes of the Soviet government just in time to begin speaking out in favor of America's killing of vast numbers of innocent civilians in Japan, its cynical alignment with various anti-Communist dictators, and eventually, its criminal trampling of human rights in Southeast Asia.

In other words, it was as soon as all the intellectuals and opinion-makers stopped being radicals, that radicalism started seeming most prescient and necessary. Communism was never so wrong as when all the writers and thinkers of the Western world were lined up behind it. It was never so right as when they had all drifted away from it and become Cold Warriors or Neocons.

And now at last we are beginning to approach that "Re-Radicalization" thing that's in the title of this post, but that has not been especially evident so far. More on that in a moment.

I had my own version of the Didion realization sometime around the beginning of  college. As I did so, I made a promise to myself that I would never again find myself in the position of defending something I knew to be unconscionable. If, somewhere in the world, someone was being tortured or beaten or arbitrarily deported or torn from her parents or children or spouse for whatever reason, I would be against it. And I'd be against it with no hemming or hawing or backpedaling or convenient changes of subject (along the lines of "Yes, but the imperialist West does things that are just as bad, for example....")

Promises like this break the hold of radicalism on the imagination. Taken seriously, they can keep one safe from cults and communist parties and campus revolutions and consciousness-raising sessions alike.

My Didion realization left me for a while with a suspicion of all radical critiques and condemnations of our current society. It pushed me rather closer to the center of politics than I had ever been before. I wouldn't say I became a "centrist," or a "moderate," by any conventional meaning of the terms (I can be pretty self-deprecating on this blog, but I would not be so cruel as to attach that depraved epithet to my name.) No, I was definitely and defiantly on the left through all the peregrinations. However, I did start to find that my first response to many radical assessments of our current society had become contemptuous dismissal, which I usually offered on the assumption that radicals haven't really thought about any of the issues they pronounce on, they are just taking for granted that "whatever is, is bad," to reverse the old Alexander Pope bromide. (I made this sweeping assumption about radicals primarily because I knew it would have been true of myself, at one time in my life.)

But what happens when the most dire radical predictions start coming true? When our government really does torture people? When its prison system locks people up in solitary confinement for decades at a time, depriving them of the human contact that their minds desperately need to maintain selfhood and sanity? What about when our society deports people who have been living here for decades and strips them of parental rights for their children, simply because of their undocumented status? Or when it turns away people from its borders who are fleeing rape and torture at the hands of criminal gangs?

The more I inquire into all these things, the more I realize how much my anti-radical vow described above in fact obliges me to be a radical. The more one knows about labor conditions in this country, about our prison system, about our border policy, about our various air wars abroad, the more one finds that defending any of them obliges us to defend things that are unconscionable, and that was the very thing I promised I would not do. I am somewhat in the position of those ex-Marxists who were just starting to embrace the virtues of Western-style democracy in time to see Western democracies incinerate villages in Laos and Vietnam. So too, I had just begun to see the one-dimensionality of the writings of Noam Chomsky, say, in time to realize that the one dimension he always emphasizes might be a pretty important one.

Part of what is happening to me is this blog. It compels me to actually put an opinion on paper about things, and as soon as I do so, I realize that there are many things that the "moderate" position asks me to defend in each case that I just cannot in fact bring myself to accept.

I had always assumed, for instance, that I was very much on the left with regard to the Israel-Palestine conflict, but that I was "moderate" enough to favor a "two-state" over a "one-state" solution. I assumed, in short, that I was willing to basically, if grudgingly, accept Israel's character as a "Jewish state." When I tried to force myself to sing this tune this summer though, this last note sounded entirely false. It seemed to ask me to condone a lot of things -- Israel's founding, the resulting expulsion of 700,000 Arab people from its borders, the whole notion that states can be ethnic without being racist -- that I just couldn't condone, at least not within the limits of my promise to myself.

I had once assumed, meanwhile, that I took a liberal stance on American border policy, but that I was not radical enough to favor open borders. I had assumed our prison system was expansive and inhumane, but that it was reared on essentially the right philosophical basis. I am not nearly so sure of either point as I once was.

With regard to immigration, I used to be fully convinced by the argument that open borders would lead to a massive flood of people into our society -- one that our institutions could not possibly accommodate. Aviva Chomsky's point that we should focus less on closing our own borders and more on finding solutions to the problems in the home countries that are fueling people to leave seemed to me like little more than a "dodge" of the real issues, as I put it two weeks ago. It occurs to me now, however, that Chomsky's answer is the same one we would give to countries surrounding Syria who were faced with a flood of refugees-- we would tell them that the flood is not due to the intrinsic desirability of their society but to conditions in Syria, and that they had better do something about the latter if they wish to stem the flood. And we'd be right to do so. Can we listen to our own advice?

I was always opposed to government deportations of undocumented people, meanwhile, but I don't think it had occurred to me, until I began writing about the subject two weeks ago, that such deportations are not altogether different from population transfers that have occurred throughout modern history in the name of "nationality," some of which have been destructive enough to warrant the name "ethnic cleansing."


James Luther Adams, the great UU theologian, once said that "unexamined faiths are not worth having, for they can be right only by accident." Radicalism is often held as an unexamined faith, it is true, but it seems of late to be having a streak of good luck. It has been right, if only accidentally, about our justice system, about our immigration system, about our labor market and foreign policy. It has been right again and again.

None of this is to say I intend to revert to any previous radical stance. I have no intention of becoming the sort of radical once again who divides humanity into sheep and goats. My vow still precludes that. But recognizing that there are no fully good and fully evil people, no sheep and no goats, no damned and no saved, is an insight that cuts both ways. It may make it impossible to identify with revolutionary movements and student causes and campus crusades. But it makes it equally impossible to believe in the inherent goodness of our established institutions. It requires one, ultimately, to out-radical the radicals.

It requires one to be a radical in a better sense of the word -- that is, one that implies a serious and thoroughgoing commitment to certain principles that one holds to be categorically binding. It is the sort of radicalism that I don't expect to live up to, but it seems to me now the most right and the most inarguable of available positions.

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