The corruption of the Left

Signs such as in the photograph are less common now but, for a time, were ubiquitous throughout many neighborhoods in Berkeley and Oakland. The signs are meant as a rebuke to Donald Trump and to those who voted for him and they are part of a #Resist movement against his presidency.

I have no disagreement with any of the sentences in themselves. As a critical theorist, however, I have other reservations.

First, to explain, critical theory is about power relationships. Inquiry in this field can involve nearly any form of qualitative research[1] but critical discourse analysis (CDA) is a group of methods that arise from critical theory. In a CDA, we consider at least context, what is said, how it is said, what is not said, whose stories are being told, whose stories are not, and how these stories are reported. Most CDA methods, these being the ones I am not familiar with, involve insights from post-modernist luminaries. The one I am familiar with, discourse-historical analysis (DHA), and which I used in my dissertation does not.[2]

Almost by definition, critical theory almost always advocates for subaltern groups. But our remit is broader: As I said above, we are looking at power relationships.

And one of the things we have only begun to learn with third wave feminism is that the notion of a hierarchy is too linear and really doesn’t fit well with power relationships in the real world. Within subaltern groups there may be and often are power relationships that also oppress.[3]

So how does all this relate to the sign in the photograph? After all, most who read this will certainly generally agree that Black lives matter, that they are disproportionately targeted by police for ‘enforcement,’ and that police who shoot too many folks period thus shoot a disproportionate number of Blacks. To deny that “women’s rights are human rights” would first be not only to deny that they are human, but to deny that they are essential humans; and second overlook the sometimes obvious but more often insidious effects that such a denial have on everyone, not just women. The assertion that “no human is illegal” directly rejects that labeling of unauthorized migrants and more broadly embraces them as fellow humans deserving of the same rights as citizens. The claim that “science is real” rebukes those who deny climate change and who probably deserve much worse than a rebuke. In context, the claim that “love is love” embraces same-sex marriage.

Then there is the fact that the unity of these movements suggests a laudable resistance to elite efforts preserve their position by dividing them.[4]

It was the ubiquity of those signs that suggests an enormous social pressure. After all, who in liberal Berkeley and Oakland would deny any of those claims? But more to the point, who would want to be seen denying those claims? And who would want even to be seen even as ambivalent about those claims? These are all claims we agree with and endorse.

Remember what I said about one of the critical theory questions being about whose story is being left out?

There are some stories being left out here. And I don’t just mean those stories of folks like myself who desperately want jobs, who are not included in the sign, and who thus may see that final claim that “kindness is everything” as cynical and hollow, especially while we’re being accused of possessing “white male privilege” and told to “stay in [our] lane.”

No, I mean the stories of folks who maybe even agree with most of what’s on that sign but put up the sign because their friends did. We might never know. But we should recall that the neoconservative movement started in just this way, with people who felt ostracized by what seemed to be a leftward-turning Democratic Party.[5]

Signs have appeared more recently suggesting that “Berkeley stands united against hate.” So if you live in Berkeley but disagree with any of the claims in the earlier sign, you are excluded as not really being part of Berkeley, which starts to sound like shunning or exile.

There is a single ideology now that encompasses all these claims on the sign. And if you hesitate on any of them, you may be seen as regressive. But if you conform instead, you forsake your own values and beliefs and submit to social authority.

That’s a double-bind. Feminists know these well: They include ones like the woman manager who is seen as abrasive and pushy for exhibiting the same behaviors as her male colleagues but will be seen as weak if she does not. Another is the choice between being seen as a virgin or a whore. And another is in the choice between “cute” (meaning sexy) clothing and dowdy (meaning not sexy) clothing. The list goes on.

The reason people are vulnerable to double-binds is because social oppression appears in much more mundane forms than shunning or exile. And just as we worry about the double-binds that women are subject to, we should at least be alert to the double-binds that others may be subject to.

And of course it doesn’t help when Antifa just starts beating up people who may not conform to the required ideology.

But something else is also missing and, for this, I return to Sebastopol, where every Friday at noon, two groups appear on opposing corners at the main intersection in town. One embraces all the virtuous claims made on the sign. The other thinks that war is necessary to preserve “freedom,” whatever the fuck that is. Sometimes both sides each carry signs declaring that you should show your support by honking.

The Sebastopol demonstrations have been going on for longer than I’ve been here. They accomplish nothing. Most folks in Sebastopol agree with the liberal claims and need no ongoing demonstrations to be persuaded. The town government can, if it chooses, pass whatever resolutions it wants: These will be ignored in Washington. And not even the Hillary Clinton-supporters (a plurality probably supported Bernie Sanders) will find the “freedom isn’t free” signs persuasive.

History will tell whether the #Resist demonstrations in the San Francisco Bay Area have had or will have any impact. But for my money, Occupy Wall Street was much more impressive and it accomplished nothing. (It is fairly clear at this point that Occupy has fallen off the track described by Bill Moyer in Doing Democracy.[6] and I do not expect it to recover, let alone influence policy.)

A psychologist I know suggests that the demonstrators in Sebastopol demonstrate less for the causes and more for the act of protest. Which reminds me of my journey to Chicago a few years ago, where I witnessed a massive crowd practicing their chants, for no cause in particular, but in anticipation of “organizing” future social movements and in disparagement of Occupy and anarchism.[7] They were having a blast, which seemed like its own perversity: Aren’t you supposed to protest when you’re angry?

And then I remember the email blasts I have received from various nonprofits since Trump’s election. As always, they all wanted money but now they were relying on an additional urgency posed by the new president and his minions to aid the fundraising efforts they would have made anyway—because they’re always raising funds and it’s always extremely urgent. It’s entirely possible I’m too cynical but it’s now just a lot harder for me to see such organizations as devoted to the causes they claim to represent rather than to exploiting each new outrage to pull in dollars.

So given all this, I’m wondering if #Resist can truly be considered activism. Shouldn’t protests actually have an impact? We seem not to care about that. We just turn out for mass protests, chanting slogans.

What will we do if these protests actually fail? Not only do I not see a plan for that but I do not see any interest in such a plan. Yet even if the #Resist movement succeeds in following the path described by Moyer, the model describes slow, incremental progress occurring over several iterations of protest.[8] And so far as I know, it’s the only model we have for social movements. (I think Moyer’s model is a useful analytic tool, but because its effects are so slow, especially against a tightening deadline of climate change, I reject it as a strategy.)

For all the sound and fury, I’m not seeing an actual movement for actual change. I am instead seeing protest as an instrument for imposing social conformity and for raising funds. That’s making me very uneasy.

  1. [1]Raymond A. Morrow with David D. Brown, Critical Theory and Methodology (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage, 1994).
  2. [2]Carmen Rosa Caldas-Coulthard and Malcolm Coulthard, eds., Texts and Practices: Readings in Critical Discourse Analysis (London: Routledge, 1996); Theo van Leeuwen, Discourse and Practice: New Tools for Critical Discourse Analysis (Oxford: Oxford University, 2008); Gilbert Weiss and Ruth Wodak, eds., Critical Discourse Analysis: Theory and Interdisciplinarity (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2003).
  3. [3]Patricia Hill Collins, “Black Feminist Thought in the Matrix of Domination,” in Social Theory: The Multicultural and Classic Readings, ed. Charles Lemert, 4th ed. (Boulder, CO: Westview, 2010), 541-552.
  4. [4]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,’” March 15, 2012,
  5. [5]George H. Nash, The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, 30th anniversary ed. (Wilmington, DE: Intercollegiate Studies Institute, 2006).
  6. [6]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  7. [7]David Benfell, “Not for me,” Not Housebroken, July 2, 2012,
  8. [8]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).

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