C. Derick Varn Interviews Me on the Malaise of the US Left by Élise Hendrick

16 February, 2013
by Élise Hendrick

C. Derick Varn Interviews Me on the Malaise of the US Left

Recently, following a discussion about a particularly annoying Facebook meme circling in left-liberal circles of late, C. Derick Varn of The Loyal Opposition to Modernity asked if I would be interested in being interviewed on the subject. I was, and the result was a wide-ranging discussion on the causes and remedies of left malaise in the US, entryism, misogyny, conspiracism, The entire interview, which can be found on the Loyal Opposition blog, is reproduced by permission below. I have added a few links to articles and pages referenced in the discussion, and corrected a few annoying typos that I had overlooked.

I would like to thank Derick for this opportunity. This interview allowed me to articulate quite a few thoughts that had been circling around my mind for a long time, but that I had not previously been able to set down in a cohesive manner. I would also like to thank Emma Rosenthal of Café Intifada, Jinjirrie of Kadaitcha, and Karen MacRae – discussing and working together with them has been a major help in formulating and refining the thoughts you will find below.

C. Derick Varn: Recently, you have a comment on the “Opposite of what America” does meme on your facebook page in which you noticed that a lot of liberals and soft leftists tend to either romanticizing or just flat wrong about what goes on in other parts of the world. Why do you think American liberals are so given to this romanticizing to a point of almost “inverted exceptionalism”?

Elise Hendrick:  Well, I think that liberals in general have a problem with analysing social phenomena in any depth. In an excellent piece by Max Ajl, he refers to liberalism as inherently containing a certain degree of “historical amnesia”, and that certainly fits my experience.

Overall, I think there are a couple of phenomena at work, and, I should add, not just amongst liberals – a lot of people in the US who, in terms of what they advocate, tend to be more leftist than liberal, suffer from the same problem.

One part of this is the general recognition that things in the US really suck. That’s as good a starting point as any, but it doesn’t get you too far if you haven’t got a tolerably in-depth understanding of history and institutional structures to help you understand the basis of the malaise.

Also, in the US, political illiteracy is pandemic. The population has been systematically depoliticised, and so people are really unaccustomed to thinking about these things in any depth; and since, as the polls show, they’re also very likely to be either mis- or uninformed about anything they don’t know about from their own experiences. These the perfect conditions for superficial analyses to be taken seriously.

C.D.V.:  What do you think these memes indicate that many Americans don’t understand about the political economy of other parts of the world?  I know the first one I saw was on education statistics which focused Finland, although largely without specific context, but did not look at the other major competitor for the top, South Korea, which does MORE of what many American liberals dislike about the US system than the US even does, and it only seemed to have gotten worse since that particular incarnation of that meme.

E.H.:   I seem to have addressed quite a bit of what I have to say in response to this question in my answer to the question above, so this is going to be mercifully brief. Even when the claims made in these memes are accurate – as is occasionally the case – they totally erase why the policies are different. It wasn’t that the entire society woke up one day and said: “Let’s see what the yanks are doing. Oh, that’s horrific, as expected. Our task today is to find the opposite of that monstrosity.” There is a balance of power that is noticeably different in a lot of these societies, in ways that either allow or force elites to make policies that are more humane than what goes on in a totally business-run society like the US.

Those elites would generally love to do whatever monstrosity the US is doing, because US monstrosities tend to be profitable monstrosities. For example, Canadian PM Stephen Harper, for example, would probably love to start imposing the sort of restrictions on abortion that have bipartisan support in the US. Quite a few MPs in his party are certainly eager to do it, and have tried to introduce legislation to that effect, but Harper forced them to back down. Why? Because women are a hell of a lot more organised and effective in Canada than the US, and so he doesn’t dare, because he knows that would be the end of his government, and possibly of his career. Yves Engler has an excellent book out (The Ugly Canadian) detailing the horrific things the Harper government has been up to. It’s hard not to notice, however, that the Conservative Harper government is actually noticeably to the left of the Obama administration in a host of major issues. There’s a different array of forces there, and that means that the right wingers have to exercise a bit more self-control.

And all of that is totally obscured by these simplistic memes. I tend to think that if people here are ever going to launch an effective struggle for social justice (or even in defense of what little is left of the spoils of previous struggles), the quality of thought and discussion will have to improve significantly. Quite a lot of that education can happen as a result of struggle, but I get the impression that just as much will have to precede it just so that a viable struggle is even possible.

For another thing, the rest of the world is a black box to most of this population. The domestic media rarely cover anything going on outside of the US in any real depth (and, indeed, generally don’t cover it at all); if there isn’t some direct involvement of the US in whatever the event is, chances are it won’t be covered. Even Canada, which is just a short drive away from a substantial segment of the population and presents (for the most part) no language barrier, is totally invisible. You could easily get the idea, to listen to the media here, that the continent ended roughly at the 45th parallel.

Where there is a language barrier, people are even less equipped to inform themselves. The US media generally don’t do it (or do it painfully badly), so the only way to get reliable, in-depth reporting on what is going on, say, in Chile, or Japan, or Egypt, or Russia is to rely on local sources, which are mostly in the local language. This is a non-starter, however, in a country that has the worst foreign language education system that I have ever encountered. I remember sitting in a second-language acquisition seminar a few years back, when we were discussing the proficiency standards for secondary-school-level foreign language teachers established by the professional association of foreign language teachers (AATFL): The standard for secondary school level teachers was “low intermediate”, which was defined in the standard as knowing basic pleasantries and the like, but being otherwise unable to function in the respective language. Whilst I have no real, direct factual basis for this, I have a lot of trouble believing that there isn’t something systematic about how consistently badly foreign languages are taught in the US.

Whether it’s just the function of people steeped in ethnocentrism making the sort of decisions that logically flow from supposedly being the centre of the universe, or a deliberate decision, it certainly is beneficial to a propaganda system like the one existing in the US.

All of this then combines with the aforementioned ethnocentrism, this absurd notion that is hammered into us from all directions in this country that everything here is the best of its kind, and that everyone in the world is just waiting their turn to come here and take the citizenship oath.

As a result, I think that there definitely is an entirely understandable (and often quite justified) belief amongst those who begin to step out of the spectrum of officially sanctioned opinions that, if they constantly tell us that what we have here is the best in the world, even as our daily experience of it is that it’s rubbish, that in fact what we have here is the worst, and someone else must have come up with a better idea by doing the opposite.

My irritation with this particular meme is not very different to my irritation with the bulk of the supposed infographics circulating on Facebook: Even when the claim made is not fundamentally wrong – Iceland, in response to a popular revolt, did do the exact opposite of what the US did, and rather than it being the end of the world as we were told it would be, it has turned out pretty well for them – the quote attributed to the Icelandic president is something I seriously doubt he ever said. Indeed, there are a lot of iterations of this particular meme going around, and all of them purport to be quoting some official from some other country, who ends whatever s/he says with “the opposite of what America does”.

If – and to my endless disgust this seems to be the case  – people are going to treat JPEGs some random person uploaded to Facebook as self-verifying, no matter whether they have sources cited and no matter whether the claims contained in them stand up to scrutiny, then there needs to be more (OK, at least some) concern for accuracy.

If we want to get anywhere, we need to start engaging in serious analysis of the historical and institutional dimensions of the policies that are wrecking our lives. The opposite of what American liberals do.

C.D.V.: Do you also see the valorization of a lot of social Democractic “mixed” economies as well as romanticization of Canadian politics from people who would identity as leftists as a sign that they don’t really understand the traditions of their political tendencies historical positions?  It would seem to me that you are onto something about depoliticization here being so key to why these memes are popular. After all, if its just a matter of intimating Canada, Iceland, or Germany, then capitalism doesn’t look so hard to fix.

E.H.:  Yeah, I think that what it comes down to is that people are looking for something “better than here”, and don’t have enough of an understanding of here or wherever else to work out that the problem is more fundamental, and that there are important struggles going on in all of these “better than here” places that we should be standing in solidarity with and learning from – but there, again, we run into the difficulty of finding information (or reading it once one has found it) that is often in another language.

In the US, the term “socialist” has been used as a pejorative for so long that the tendency seems to be to simply “put a plus sign where the ruling class places a minus sign”, as it was once put by someone whose name isn’t occurring to me (Trotsky perhaps?) – a functioning health care system, affordable education, decent pensions are all condemned as “socialist”, so I think a lot of people have come to think of themselves as “socialists” based on nothing more than their support for social democratic policies.

As such, I wouldn’t really say that many of the people I’m talking about have an analytical tradition to become alienated from. They come from a depoliticised society, and, as far as I can discern, their analysis essentially starts and ends with “what would seem to solve the problems I’m dealing with?” That’s a great start to an analysis, but if it ends there, there are going to be problems. If there is a functioning left – something we haven’t had in a very long time in the US – that’s where existing organisations and social movements would have literature and educational activities to help provide the missing context and connect the dots. In this society, it’s where we have these bloody JPEGs.

In the end, it’s easy to romanticise Carl’s Jr. if you’ve gone hungry for at least a couple of weeks.

C.D.V.:  What do you see as the best way to get people in the states have the right impulses but the wrong information and social context to be nudged in the right direction?

E.H.:  First of all, just so no one gets the wrong impression, I’m speaking here more from my sense of the matter than I am from any great track record of success stories in counteracting the depoliticisation of the population in the US. What I do seems to work a lot of the time – at least often enough that I haven’t seen any cause to reevaluate – but there are plenty of times when it doesn’t go over as well as I’d like.

With that caveat in mind, I think there are a few things that are important in this context:

1. We need to avoid the stereotyping and reflexive contempt for the US public that I sometimes see. Yes, a good deal of the population is so misinformed on a wide variety of important topics that it is a bit scary. Yes, most people don’t have a lot of theoretical background and understanding of aspects of this society that are outside of their immediate personal experience. That is all true, and it is what anyone looking to organise and struggle for social justice in this country is facing.

All too often, however, I see people speaking very insultingly and condescendingly of the public here, either calling them stupid or backward, or suggesting that they could easily inform themselves if they weren’t so lazy, or something of that nature. Often, these sorts of remarks come from people with enough time on their hands to read theory, a good enough educational background to understand the texts, and access to JSTOR or some other repository of academic journals, not to mention a reasonably good overview of the available sources of information and analysis.

We need to remember that that is not the reality for most people. This is a country where people are working more and more hours at ever shittier jobs just to get by, and are often overwhelmed with the basic tasks of survival. We show a serious ignorance of the working class in this country if we expect that, when they come home knackered from whatever job they’ve been able to find, they will spend a few hours researching where they can find good information.

It seems easy enough when you’ve already found a good range of sources, but that’s not the perspective we need to be using. We need to be looking at this from the perspective of someone who knows she’s being fed a line of crap by the TV news and the newspapers, but has absolutely no idea where to start in finding trustworthy information. That is a very overwhelming place to be, particularly so when you also come out of an educational system that barely teaches you to read, let alone to read critically. If we’re making people feel like shit for the position the capitalist system has assigned them, we’re doing the ruling class’ work for them.

We need to have empathy, and to reach people where they are, rather than expecting them to have an extensive background in the things we have dedicated our lives to studying just in order to interact with us. This will be a recurring theme, because I think it is key.

2. In the same vein, we need to be careful with language. I try to stamp out jargon – by which I mean uncommon terms used to describe things that commonly used terms describe at least as well – wherever I find it. In my writing, I try as much as possible to use terms that most people will be familiar with, and to explain any more specialised terms that I have to use because there’s no good alternative.

This, it should be noted, is not the same thing as “dumbing down”. Really, what I am suggesting comes down to good habits of writing and speech: Use clear, descriptive language, avoid arcane terms wherever possible. So much of the intellectual output of the academia-based leftists is written in language only they can understand; rarely have I ever come across a thought expressed in academic Marxist jargon that couldn’t be expressed as well, or even better, in common language.

3. Don’t assume much. In other places I have been, a lot of what might be called the “left lexicon” is fairly well established in the general public, even those not involved in left organisations. In the US, even concepts such as “capitalism”, “communism”, “socialism”, “class” are new to a lot of people; as such, I think it is important to provide as much detail and explanation as possible, and not to react defensively or condescendingly if someone doesn’t understand the concepts under discussion. No one should be made to feel bad about asking an honest question – in fact, if people want us to elaborate on something, it means they haven’t rejected what we’re saying out of hand, which is as good a place to start as any.

4. We need to ensure that what we say relates clearly to what people know from their daily lives. The opinion polls are one way to go about finding a good overall jumping-off point (almost everyone hates the insurance industry, majorities support public-sector single payer health care, people are overall reluctant to support military aggression unless they’re convinced that there is a major threat to their safety). But in general, it’s important to listen to people and learn from them. They need help making sense out of the situation they’re living in and what can be done about it; we need help understanding the most deeply and immediately felt needs of people in this society. The more our organising directly improves people’s lives in ways they notice, the more confidence people will have that we mean well and that we have ideas that might be worth considering.

5. We need to find ways to help people reclaim their voices. One very common complaint is a sense that people don’t have any real voice, that even if they did decide to complain, there’s no one who would listen. People are used to being silenced in one way or another in this society. We need to help create environments in which they can express themselves and talk with each other about the things that matter to them. We need to create environments where people can see that their voices really matter, and that when they express a concern, it is taken seriously.

6. We need to fight conspiracism wherever we find it. I can’t emphasise this enough. There is a lot of work debunking this or that conspiracy theory, but nowhere near enough serious work analysing the ideology of conspiracism (the idea that all of world history is down to a few blokes twirling their well-waxed moustaches in a smoky room someplace) and examining the corners it originates in.

in a society where people are depoliticised and unsatisfied, conspiracism is an extremely attractive nuisance. People are looking for some alternative to what they rightly recognise as bullshit in the papers and on TV, something that matches their experience of feeling powerless at the hands of rich, powerful people who are feathering their own nests. Conspiracism seems to provide that.

I have spent a lot of time studying conspiracism first hand in various places, and I came to the conclusion some time ago that conspiracism is the default analytical mode of fascism. Every fascist and reactionary ideology or regime has had some form of conspiracism, from the backlash against the French Revolution to the fascists of the 1930s and 1940s. It is also interesting how few links you have to click in order to go from “9/11 was an inside job” or “chemtrails” or the like to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion and openly neo-Nazi material. Sometimes, you don’t even have to leave the site.

Conspiracism has a cult-like dynamic that sets up anyone who questions or doubts it as either one of the “sheeple” (a “sherson”, perhaps?) or, as one person once claimed about me “in the pay of the shadows”. Because of this, once someone takes the bait on one of the “gateway drugs” like 9/11 “truth” etc., they will many times tend to start believing more and more of it, until one gets to the openly racist “theories” that are never too far from the surface.

To me, this is an area where we have a lot of work to do. These “theories” are being pushed by fascists, and they are succesfful far too frequently for comfort. We need a clear understanding of the dangers of this ideology and of the importance of calling it out (including pointing out its origins) and debunking it and exposing its pernicious consequences, and a practise of combating it wherever we find it. We trivialise this problem at our own risk.

C.D.V.:  How much energy do you see wasted on conspiracism in a lot of possibly politically engaged people around you?  This problem in my view is no where near as limited to the just North America or the US, the way the first trend we were speaking is.

E.H.: It’s hard to quantify these things, but I know I certainly rarely go through an entire day without seeing some conspiracist canard being tossed about as fact. My impression is that, whilst there are of course fewer really hardcore conspiracists spreading whatever Rense or Alex Jones or Henry Makow or Naturalnews is serving up as if it were fact, there are definitely quite a few people who, for lack of factchecking, end up buying into one or other conspiracist claim.

Plus, we have Russia Today promoting the likes of Webster Tarpley as an “analyst”, whilst PressTV gives that title to the racist Gordon Duff of “Veterans Today” and Scott Rickard, a Rothschild conspiracist who promotes “Jewish Bolshevist” nonsense that’s straight out of Goebbels (and has smeared myself and two friends of mine, Sylvia Posadas and Karen MacRae, by placing on a bogus list of “Pro-Israel Facebook Accounts” merely for challenging his Rothschild myths). So I’m not really sure how much time is wasted believing and debunking this material, but I would say it’s probably significant. And when one factors in the really nasty, defamatory attacks people are often subjected to just for challenging this crap (including sustained smear campaigns like Rickard’s bogus list, which has been shared fairly extensively, including by right-wing multipliers like Zionist musician Gilad Atzmon), the amount of physical and emotional energy involved in the project is substantial, especially when one is acting in isolation.

Whilst it definitely is not merely a US problem, I have to say that I encounter much more of it in the US (and, to a lesser but still significant extent, Latin America) than I do in discussions with people in Europe or Asia. This may in part be due to the fact that some of the leading exponents of this stuff are located here in the US, and probably also in part to the fact that there is no functioning left in this country providing a serious analysis of the society. There are leftists, in fact quite a few, but no “left” in the sense of a cohesive political entity that is of any real significance in the society, and fascists like Jones, Rense, Makow, Rickard, and the rest of them are happy to fill that analytical vacuum.

C.D.V.: Do you see similar things in Counterpunch publishing Israel Shamir or Zero books publishing Gilad Atzmon?  And do you see this as related at all to the far right growth? Often Americans don’t seem to know how to identify rightwing thinkers that don’t look like those whom they are used to dealing with.

E.H.:  Alex Cockburn’s role in promoting “entryism” has not been getting anywhere near the attention it deserves. He gave a “left” platform to the likes of White Nationalist Paul Craig Roberts, Atzmon, Israel Shamir, and even allowed holocaust denier Mary Rizzo smear Tony Greenstein, whilst refusing Greenstein an opportunity to reply and correct the numerous factually inaccurate claims made. I have my doubts that people like this would be getting an undeserved respectful hearing if CounterPunch hadn’t made them  palatable to a left audience.

I definitely think part of the problem is that people don’t always know how to identify a right winger or a fascist when they see one. A lot of people can’t tell the difference between the positions of an antiimperialist like Noam Chomsky and the superficially (and only superficially) similar foreign policy positions of the likes of Ron Paul. The analysis begins at “they’re both antiwar” and more or less ends there; there’s often very little interest, in my experience, in examining the principles behind the stances, when the principles are the most important bit.Plus, there are plenty of white supremacists and the like who have spent recent years reinventing themselves. Ron Paul did a bit of that (as in his denial of having written the racist newsletters, when he had publicly admitted to having written them when he was just dealing with a local Texas audience in 1996),  and even David Duke of all people has managed to hitch a ride on the Palestinian solidarity movement thanks to the likes of Ken O’Keefe,  who has helped him rebrand himself as some kind of human rights activist. When one doesn’t have a strong analytical framework, it is very tempting to buy into that popular “third position” refrain that “we need to look beyond the false left-right paradigm” (a claim that, in my experience, virtually always comes from someone who turns out to be some kind of (crypto-)fascist) and assume that similar superficial positions are what matters, and not the radically different underlying principles. A friend of mine by the name of Ariel Zúñiga, who is a left political commentator in Chile, once remarked that “the left has no immune system. It has no way of identifying its enemies”. I think that that is the exact problem.Plus, there’s enough underlying-yet-denied racism and misogyny amongst leftists that is easy for a lot of people to treat the white nationalism of a Paul Craig Roberts, or the misogyny and racism of Gilad Atzmon and Ron Paul as somehow secondary to some more important goal. Those doing this,  for the most part, are in the privileged position of not having to worry about fallout from inviting bigots like this into activist spaces, since not one of them has any problem with white men. This is yet another fundamental problem that needs to be challenged if the left is ever to be a functioning political entity that is capable of defining itself around principles; but, as someone who dedicates a great deal of time to dealing with this very issue, I have to say that the resistance to acknowledging it, let alone changing one’s practices in order to combat it,  is enormous.C.D.V.:  Do you think this has been blurred even in places where you’d think people would know better such as Telos, a journal tied to Frankfurt school Marxism, publishing European new right figures?   These aren’t depoliticized people so I have more trouble with the motivation?

E.H.: I have to admit that I’m not really familiar with Telos. I would say, however, that CounterPunch, to me, is an example of “people who ought to know better”. I don’t think that Alex Cockburn and colleagues can really claim ignorance about the sort of authors and material they’ve been publishing, especially when they refuse to allow people those authors have defamed (as with Mary Rizzo’s smears against Tony Greenstein) to respond and set the record straight.

One thing that I’ve noticed that I think is closely related to this phenomenon is the tendency of some to dismiss criticism of racism or misogyny (etc. etc. etc.) within left circles as “liberal” or “PC”, the idea apparently being that it is somehow less, or even counter-, revolutionary to challenge systems of privilege and oppression that people in leading positions benefit from (see, e.g., the utter mess over at the SWP UK, where we see the combination of structural misogyny and a longtime association with the racism of Gilad Atzmon, who recently went so far as to claim that he is the true victim of the rape scandal there).

It’s much easier to critique and struggle against hierarchies that we’re on the wrong end of; the minute we’re confronted with a critique of a hierarchy we actually benefit from, it calls into question things about ourselves that we would like to believe are entirely based on merit.

In the case of the anti-Jewish racism of the sort promoted by Rizzo, Atzmon, the misleadingly named “Deir Yassin Remembered”, Jeff Blankfort, and others, we see another important factor at work: The accusation of antisemitism has been used with such cynicism against those who express any criticism of the US-sponsored crimes of the State of Israel that people can easily be convinced that there is no such thing as antisemitism at all (the thesis, for example, of Cockburn & St. Clair’s book on the subject). Similarly, the concept of racism has been cynically used by Democratic Party hacks like Melissa Harris-Perry to silence any criticism of Obama, as in her article that claimed that the only reason that people were dissatisfied with Obama was what she called “electoral racism”. This sort of cynical posturing makes it likely that critiques of power and privilege will be met with even more resistance from the beneficiaries of the power and privilege in question than they already would be otherwise.

C.D.V.: Do you think some people have delusions of a red/brown alliance here?

E.H: Honestly, I think it’s worse. A lot of people don’t seem to realise that they’re getting into a potential red/brown alliance situation, where “alliance”, of course, is to be understood in the sense of that great alliance that forms between a tapeworm and its host. If people were openly saying “let’s form a red-brown alliance”, you could reply to explain the myriad reasons that is a superbly bad idea; when people don’t realise that’s how they’re dealing with, on the other hand, you first have to spend ages convincing them that they are in fact dealing with fascists, which requires a great deal of effort in supplementing the extremely spotty knowledge most people have of what fascism actually is.

I see these “signs of fascism” lists going around, which, for the most part, are quite accurate in terms of what they do show, but the things that are not included are even more important: there’s never (in my experience) any discussion of the economic philosophy of fascism or of the way in which fascism looks at history. Those bits are essential to being able to detect whether one is dealing with a fascist or a fascist group, since the modern strategy is to take a “softer” approach and avoid being open about the actual ideology and goals of the groups in question.

C.D.V.: Anything you’d like to say in closing?

E.H.: People need to realise that it isn’t so much what one reads as how one reads it.

I get the impression that the bulk of the woo and conspiracism that have impinged upon the discourse is down to people realising that the dominant corporate media are not to be trusted. There’s certainly no disputing that realisation, but there are two basic conclusions one can draw from this (apart from simply throwing up one’s hands and resigning oneself to the notion that there is no place to go for information):

  1.  One can decide that, if this particular set of sources (the dominant media) prove unreliable, one must set out to find another source someplace that can be implicitly trusted, based largely on it reporting things differently (or different things) to the dominant media. The underlying assumption that there must be some source that one can simply trustingly receive without critical analysis remains untouched, with the familiar consequences.
  2. OR one can decide that this means that ANY source must be approached with caution, and set about taking a more intentional approach to dealing with sources, learning to evaluate the angle the source is coming from, what it is trying to communicate, what interests it might have in the conclusions it suggests, whether the factual claims made are consistent with each other or with facts reliably documented elsewhere; and one can learn to read between the lines and glean what truth is available from deceptive reporting and analysis.

Even lies contain a bit of truth – at a minimum, they tell us what the author of the lies (or the institution the lies are promoted by) would like us to believe, and/or what the source of the lies is intent on having us NOT believe. Even knowing just that, we can begin to get a useful framework for analysing the propaganda on a particular issue.

The development of these skills in dissident sectors of the society is to me a matter of life and death, given the stakes we face these days.


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