A New Year’s Resolution For The Left: Stop Being Nice

Is it too late to be adopting a New Year’s Resolution? Because full disclosure, I broke mine less than an hour into 2017, so I am looking to redeem myself. And my source of inspiration came from, of all things, a tweet from Manhattan yuppie hipster band Passion Pit:

You have to stand in awe of that they found the one person who needs a hug the least and went the other way.

I hope it should be obvious that Donald Trump does not need a hug. That the constant coddling and pampering of the white male capitalist class is a big part of the problem, not the solution.

But the question is usually not so cut-and-dry. A big issue the Left dealt with internally this year was harassment, particularly online harassment of women. As a fervent feminist, I do not find sexual harassment to ever be acceptable. And unfortunately there is sexual harassment in the Left. Under patriarchy, men are conditioned to believe that sexual domination is an appropriate means of expressing their anger or even disagreement, to remind women of their place. It can be as small as calling a woman a bitch to as atrocious as passing laws to restrict access to abortion. And through objectifying advertisements and media now constantly in our face by the wonders of the digital age, sexual harassment against women is as 24/7 as cable news. So it is more than understandable that women care about this issue, because it is a constant trauma we are exposed to.

But here comes the big ‘but.’ Because despite this being the year that the Alt-Reich broke into the mainstream, ruthlessly streamlining the means of sexual harassment by well-coordinated attacks, neoliberal feminists were oddly preoccupied with the ‘sexual harassment’ of the Left. Again, there most certainly is all sorts of craven patriarchal violence on the Left that should be confronted. But increasingly I have been seeing feminist concerns of having safe spaces and freedom from sexual harassment appropriated into labeling dissent against neoliberal feminism or even the far right as inherently patriarchal because the purveyors of these ideologies are sometimes women.

Op-eds painting Melania Trump as a victim (when it is plain to see she is a collaborator with her pussy-grabber husband), people saying that Hillary Clinton “deserves a break,” and most infamously the campaign against Matt Bruenig. You would think that Bruenig had committed some terrible act given that “feminist” writers like Michelle “Give Transphobes A Chance” Goldberg apparently thinks a man joking about sexual assault deserves more sympathy than Bruenig. At the time I took the reports of Bruenig’s actions, rather than the actions themselves, to be true. But subsequently seeing women I admire and trust questioning the whole ordeal, I was admittedly shocked at how paltry the evidence was.

For example, Bruenig’s tweet of “ But hey keep on gentrifying Harlem with your million dollar apartment you woke self-proclaimed centrist” to Joan Walsh was among those disparaged as harassment. If we cannot criticize a self-proclaimed feminist for helping to power the gentrification of Harlem and subsequent displacement of Black women, Lorde help us. But the two biggest critiques were for calling Neera Tanden a “scumbag” and referring to both her and Walsh as “geriatrics.” The “scumbag” insult is the only one I think has any merit to it — literally alluding to a used condom is not an appropriate way to criticize women.

I will come back to that, but let’s dispense of this ridiculous notion that age is not a topic that can be raised in arguments. Frankly Gloria Steinem and Madeleine Albright opened the door to that in 2016 with their incredibly sexist comments about young women who support Bernie Sanders. There are some ways the elderly, and especially the very old, are mistreated in our society — I see quite a bit of it in the consumer protection work that I do. But I am all for confronting the fact that, through groups like the AARP and ownership of the US government (the average age in the Senate is 61), older people have a disproportionate amount of power. And it is not terribly surprising that such power is used to maintain the status quo that benefits them.

Back to ‘scumbag.’ I think it is totally worthwhile to purge such misogynistic rhetoric from our movements. But let’s bring things back: 2016 was the year when most politically active women (including yours truly) got rape threats from cartoon green frogs on Twitter with names like AmerikanerCrusader. It is the year that Donald Trump won the presidency. Sensitivity is not why the neoliberals went after men like Bruenig (especially when their own male counterparts are men like Jonathan Chait and Anthony Weiner). It was about suppression, a particularly perverse suppression that plays on our natural human compassion. Akin to “white tears,” the hurt feelings of women who helped engineer the worst period of austerity this country has ever faced are not a feminist concern. The lives of the millions of women that they have devastated, the ones that they use to make themselves wealthy, very much are. “Bow down bitches” indeed.

It is time for the Left to stop being nice. The reason is quite simple: on one side the Alt-Reich simply has abandoned civility as a principle and on the other, the neoliberals have raised it to being more important than actual progressive politics. The work to end sexual harassment is about power, and the last three decades have shown that the status quo will not end it. In fact, it simply produced a backlash, a reactionary abandonment of ‘political correctness.’ People across the political spectrum are fed up with a civility that has kept them in poverty, that has failed to stop police murders of Black and Native people, and that has watched thousands of abortion restrictions at local and state levels pass.

The Left needs to join with that anger, give it framing and precision, not tell it that “America Is Already Great” or that they need to use the academic terms of a college they could not afford to attend.