In Praise of Radicalism

I and others have talked a lot in the past year or so about a schism within atheism, one driven by one side’s belief that atheists can and should become involved with issues that are not traditionally associated with the atheist community, i.e. things like feminism, anti-racism, trans* advocacy, and such, and those who, well, don’t, often with rather awful results in the latter case. However, for me, that doesn’t seem to be the only split in our community, or indeed in progressive groups at large. There is, in fact, another way, one which I happen to ascribe to; that of a more progressive, radical bent.

This came up recently in a post by Ed Brayton, the head of FreethoughtBlogs, who took issue with a piece on In These Times by Bhaskar Sunkara, who is the editor of Jacobin Magazine, one of my favorite publications. In it, he takes issue with what he sees as liberals like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias becoming so centrist, they lack any kind of ideology:

There seemed to be something different about this band, an idealism that blended the resurgent youth activism that rallied behind Howard Dean’s 2004 campaign and against the Iraq War with the liberal “netroots” culture that developed alongside it. Their popularity grew as they were absorbed into the media ecosystem. Klein’s writing moved from his eponymous Typepad to the American Prospect to the pages of the Washington Post. Yglesias also got his break at the Prospect and ended up at Slate.

But at some point, Klein and company stopped being liberals. They even stopped being human. The singularity—a technological superintelligence—was upon us. The wonks had become robots, ready to force enlightenment down our partisan throats.

Sunkara went on to detail how during and before the most recent presidential campaign, Klein did things like defend Paul Ryan’s budget plan, which was, frankly, a barely concealed attempt to further attack the poor in our country, as well as Klein declaring himself to not be liberal. He goes on to advocate for a return to an ideology-driven journalism on the mainstream left. However, Ed, by no means any centrist, took issue with Sunkara’s analysis:

To be blunt, this is anti-intellectual bullshit, faux populism aimed at exactly the wrong place. It’s the kind of “thinking to logically robs humanity of poetry and emotion” nonsense that we often see from the right. The last thing we need in a political system that is soaked with appeals to ignorant populism and emotional argument is to marginalize the people who actually do logical and detailed policy analysis. It isn’t enough to declare one’s good intentions if the policy being advocated won’t achieve the stated goals.

I want to take issue with Ed’s analysis here, and try to make a case for a more radical way of life while not completely disregarding moderate views, which Sunkara seems to do. Unlike the latter man, I’m not a Marxist by any stretch of the imagination. I actually identify myself as something entirely more stigmatized in our society; an anarchist.

Quelle horreur, etc. You may now be thinking I want to violently overthrow the government and turn this country into a Road Warrior-esque hellscape, with the human race fighting one another over gasoline and such. But that’s not the case. I imagine there are certainly such apocalyptically-minded people out there, but by and large, we anarchists are quite a cuddly bunch. Noam Chomsky is one of us, as was Emma Goldman, who is one of the coolest people to ever live.

But if we don’t want Road Warrior, then what DO we want? Well, the overthrow of the state part is definitely still there, preferably non-violently. I believe, essentially, that in America, our government no longer works for its people, if in fact it ever did. Furthermore, the government is more and more using military-caliber force against its citizens, notably via the police department. Not only do they lie compulsively to preserve their power, but there are innumerable cases of the police using extreme methods, from torture to using drones (albeit unarmed versions) to hunt a criminal, whom they have been so unsuccessful in detaining that they have taken to randomly shooting at people who they think might be this suspect.

Many books have been written on how the state fails us, and I’m not going to recap them here. However, the moral of the story is that through a long process of rationally examining evidence for the government’s incompetence, I think that its problems are inherent to its existence and cannot be solved through normative means. However, I also have the understanding that it’s pretty likely that won’t happen in my lifetime, and thus, we return to the radicals vs. centrist conversation.

I and others like me are most likely not going to make it into the mainstream conversation any time soon. The media that reaches the wider population is not capable of expressing complex ideas, thus we’re probably always going to be relegated to the blogs and academic spaces that most people never tread, nor care to. But that doesn’t mean we progressives are going to stop talking, or give up trying to change things.

What we are is a check on those like Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias, the ones who can offer alternatives that are still backed up by facts and rationality, but at the same point have a stronger ideological ethics behind them. Ideology and emotion are no barrier to a good argument, used correctly. I think Sunkara tried to make an important point in his piece, but got lost in the emotion and excessive and odd metaphors. I also think Ed was wrong to completely disregard his argument as anti-rational. At its finest, there’s nothing irrational about radicalism; it’s just a bit out of the ordinary, non-normative, a constant seeking of greater change. And on the day that it is realized, well, that will be an interesting day indeed.

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In Which the Class War Is Alive and Well

I do not like Nicholas Kristof, the journalist, two-time Pulitzer Prize winner, and member of the New York Times editorial board. I tell you this not because I expect you to care necessarily, but merely to get my biases out in the open. Given that his history is one of defending injustice and exploiting people in poverty all across the world through the pages of possibly the most influential news source in that world, it’s one of my greatest pet peeves that he is so fawned over by so many liberals. This time, however, instead of cheering sanctions that harm the poor across the oceans, or bashing unions for wanting basic utilities and support, where he usually takes his tourism, he’s brought his usual offensive, patronizing language back home to the United States.

In his Sunday column, Kristof tells the story of how he went down south to Breathitt County, Kentucky, and found a community of people who depend strongly on Supplemental Security Income, a program benefiting eight million Americans who are aged, disabled, or impoverished to such a degree that they cannot operate in society without the assistance. This is a program which helps, albeit insufficiently due to the half-hearted way in which America cares for its neediest, the most marginalized people, the citizens and aliens who have near nothing to call their own. These are not the middle class people being argued over by Republicans and Democrats on the campaign trail and in Congress, the ones who they swear they’re working to fix the huge and terrifying fiscal cliff that they have made up. These are the true poor of this country, the working classes and severely poor that both sides are too scared to talk about for fear that they might remind the wider public that they exist.

Kristof, though, manages to miss the point entirely in his analysis, committing a classic case of correlation not implying causation. He makes the case that American conservatives have a point after all, that being that our social welfare system can cause people to become entrenched in bureaucracy. However, as you might imagine, he also manages to indulge in that finest of right wing pastimes, that being to call poor people lazy.

“Some young people here don’t join the military (a traditional escape route for poor, rural Americans) because it’s easier to rely on food stamps and disability payments.

In short, Mr. Kristof believes that in our country it is easier to live on food stamps and a $700 check every month than to join the military. He goes on to refer to the people of Breathitt County as being greedy welfare queens, deliberately sabotaging their children’s schooling to keep all that government money for themselves, while characterizing those same children’s learning disorders as being “fuzzy” and “less clear-cut” than previous generations, completely erasing any conversation on the appalling state of mental health care for the poor in our country. Amongst his other appalling claims, possibly the biggest problem is that he wrote this entire column based on nothing but hearsay, apparently from a single source, and, quite simply, the facts are not on his side. For instance, from the Center for Economic and Policy Research:

In the real world, these two things — basic economic supports for low-income parents caring for severely disabled children and educational initiatives — are complementary. As Rebecca Vallas and I have documented, in papers for the National Academy of Social Insurance and the Center for American Progress, the data show that Supplemental Security reduces family economic insecurity and supports parents’ efforts to best care for their severely disabled children.

Angus Johnston decided to do the thing that the man Bill Clinton called the greatest journalist in America completely forgot to do, and actually read the stats on Supplemental Security from the Social Security Administration. He found the following facts about the 1.1% of children who depend on SSI:

  • Fewer than thirty percent live with both parents.
  • Half live in a household with at least one other person with a disability.
  • Almost seventy percent saw a doctor three or more times in the last year.
  • Nearly half visited an emergency room at least once in the last year.
  • More than half have a disability described as “severe.”
  • Forty-three percent have a physical disability.
  • Eight percent are described as mentally retarded.
  • Seventeen percent have had surgery in the last year.
  • Among teenagers, nineteen percent are unable to bathe themselves.
  • Thirty-six percent of those requiring mental health care are not receiving it.
  • Seventy-four percent of guardians reporting a need for respite care are not receiving it.
  • A quarter of those needing disability-specific transportation assistance are not receiving it.
  • Their average total family income from all sources is $1,818 a month.

In short, Kristof, writing for the mighty New York Times, has created a column that is little more than unsupported drivel. He bases his argument for the ending of one of the few programs that helps the severely underpriviliged in this country on no evidence whatsoever, and characterizes those he apparently wants to help in incredibly patronizing and romantic tones that erase their agency. The fact that this man has such a respected voice in our national press, and that with this kind of blatant disregard for facts and for the very people he reports on, is shameful. And frankly, to call Kristof or the New York Times as a whole “liberal” any more is simply laughable.

Rather than simply leave on a depressing note on how the corporate media is out of touch and does not serve the people, we should take this column as a teaching moment. This piece shouldn’t be shunted into the background; rather, it should be used as a primary document to instruct others on what privilege and blatant disregard for those less fortunate looks like. Here, we see that misinformation about and disdain for the voiceless is very much alive and well, even among supposedly left wing people. Classism is not a right wing phenomenon, and we must remember, with this column as Exhibit A, to remain vigilantly skeptical, especially among those who might seem to be our allies.

One, two, three, four, I declare a class war.