Crocodile Tears, or Why the Left Makes it Personal

When the status quo is to your liking, politeness is the only meaningful politics.

In David Ridgen’s 2009 documentary, American Radical, Norman Finkelstein, the film’s subject, offers a pithy definition of a “radical.” For Finkelstein, a contentious author famous for his uncompromising condemnations of Israel, a radical is someone who harbors “qualitatively more than the usual discontent a person feels with the world.” His own assessment? “I see [the world] as radically unfair, and therefore it has to be radically changed.”

He pits the radical view against what we might call the standard liberal view, which, at best, is restrained in its judgment of the fairness of the world. Those who subscribe to this view, Finkelstein argues, see the world as “wrong…but the inequities are not radically wrong.”

Finkelstein’s argument is that radicalism is an index of one’s aversion to the predominant state of affairs, to the “status quo.” It would flow from this assessment that people who typify the radical end of the spectrum might be given to emotional and rhetorical extremes, whereas those on the other side, approaching inequities without the sense of their radical urgency, might have a tendency towards equivocation and restraint.

Finkelstein is certainly on the right track. But another moment in the documentary dramatizes what I see as the more specific divergence between radical and non-radical approaches, at least as far as their contemporary representatives are concerned. At a lecture held at the University of Waterloo, a student approaches during the question and answer session:

During your speech,” she says, “you made a lot of references to Jewish people, as well as certain people in your audience…[comparing them to] Nazis.” At this point her voice chokes up. “That is extremely offensive when certain people are German. [The references] were also extremely offensive to people who have actually suffered under Nazi rule.

Finkelstein’s response to the student illuminates the contours of the radical-liberal divide. After reminding the audience of the horrors his own family endured, his voice grows increasingly forceful as his retort picks up momentum.

I don’t respect the crocodile tears…I will not be silent when Israel commits its crimes against the Palestinians, and I consider nothing more despicable than to use their suffering and their martyrdom to try to justify the torture, the brutalization, the demolition of homes, that Israel daily commits against the Palestinians. So I refuse any longer to be intimidated or browbeaten by the tears. If you had any heart to you, you would be crying for the Palestinians!

During Finkelstein’s response, the camera repeatedly cuts back to the student, who is by now sobbing and visibly distraught.

It’s tempting to interpret this exchange as a familiar variety of gendered power dynamic: a young woman is belittled and shouted down by a powerful male intellectual after voicing emotional distress at his remarks. But I see it as a stark illustration of the divide between the two political approaches to which Finkelstein alludes.

On the one hand, Finkelstein’s passion and ire signal the degree of his “discontent” he “feels with the world.” The world is radically unjust, he maintains, hence the colorful battery of iniquities he rattles off: torture, brutalization, demolition of homes. His radicalism, as he suggests, has two essential components: a grasp of the radical unfairness, and an inextricable emotional connection to this unfairness (“discontent.”)

The student’s objection, on the other hand, amounts to the liberal view. Her sentimental reaction is rooted in the loss of a kind of comfortable equilibrium. The world is “wrong” for this student, and for the average liberal, insofar as it’s mean and ugly. Real historical atrocities and the words used to describe them are, to the liberal mind, part and parcel of the same generalized unseemliness. The degree to which they differ is a degree not of material harm but of emotional resonance. This sentimental approach to politics, as anyone reading Ezra Klein will immediately notice, is deeply emblematic of the liberal view.

The sentimental approach often serves as a disciplinary mechanism. The need to maintain rhetorical quietude gives way to a culture of repression. The journalist Matt Bruenig is fired from his job at a left-wing think tank for calling Neera Tanden, scumbag and powerful Democratic Party figure, a scumbag. Recently at the Democratic National Convention, progressive protesters are admonished by liberal pundits to “show some goddamn respect” to congressmen. This puzzling take from Sady Doyle exemplifies this trend:

I don’t see a measurable difference between (a) nominally leftist Doug Henwood portraying a Presidential candidate as a murderous monster aiming a gun at the Democratic party and (b) openly conservative Milo Yiannopolous writing a headline like “Feminist Bullies are Tearing The Gaming Industry Apart” to describe a woman who’s being harassed by her unbalanced ex-boyfriend.

It’s disconcerting that a writer who has penned so many incisive analyses can’t distinguish between those two. Even her own language should sound the alarm bell. On one hand, a Presidential candidate; on the other, a civilian woman with little to no power whatsoever. Despite the fact that Clinton’s decisions as Secretary of State destroyed entire nations, and the other character in her comparison, Zoe Quinn, has designed video games, she fails to see any substantive distinction between the two as targets of public recrimination. Leveling the disparities in power as she does, she advances a repressive etiquette in which powerful politicians are viewed as equally vulnerable to verbal attacks and humiliation as powerless civilians.

When Matt Bruenig was fired, his employer issued a statement, which stated that he and they “agreed to disagree on the value of the attack mode on Twitter.” Setting Twitter aside, it’s worth exploring whether the “attack mode” indeed has any value.

Adherents to the liberal program argue, reflexively, that it does not. But this position indicates a misunderstanding of politics that extends beyond questions of rhetorical strategy. Take the following hypothetical from Elizabeth Bruenig.

You’re a Christian who’s really interested in developing a ‘culture of life.’ You notice someone arguing we should shame poor kids in order to reduce welfare participation. Arguing that it wouldn’t reduce welfare participation is one route, and you do this — but there’s something else you want to argue against, too: the idea that being a person who shames poor kids is acceptable. So you let the interlocutor proposing this idea know he’s a bully picking on people who aren’t present to defend themselves, and that the proliferation of characters like him in politics is a cancer on society and antithetical to building an authentic culture of life.
Have you been uncivil? By most accounts, yes: you’ve made personal attacks, maybe even the dreaded ad hominem — saying that the speaker’s lack of virtue is in direct relation with his wrongness. But you’ve also argued exactly what you meant to argue, where the strictures of civility would’ve forced you to give up not only the way you wanted to argue, but the very thing you wanted to argue.

After the Matt Bruenig fiasco, commentator Adam Lee offered his interpretation in an article for Patheos. Lee says of Bruenig: “Although I agreed with him more often than not, he radiated an attitude of aggressive contempt for anyone who disagreed with him that I found insufferable.”

The problem with this assessment is precisely the problem to which Elizabeth Bruenig alludes above. When it comes to political disputes, especially those in which one participant arguably has some sway over political outcomes, the gap carved out by the disagreement is one into which lives could fall.

If Bruenig had antagonized people for having different musical tastes, that behavior could indeed be considered “insufferable.” Policy preference, though, isn’t a matter of taste. It’s an urgent matter of serious priority that necessarily reflects on one’s character. Character and politics are inextricable, and those who demand that their character be uncoupled from their political judgment are insulated and entertaining a project of low-stakes fantasy politics.

People of Tanden’s political stature advocate civility because if personal attacks are off the table, they can continue to obscure their own complicity. The sanctity of their personal character is secured by an agenda that establishes the public and private as two discrete, hermetically sealed spheres. In doing so, they elevate the individual self and insist upon its primacy.

Interestingly, that schism between individual and political is hardly allowed for when we’re talking about the recipients or victims of policy choices. What is politically possible or viable is directly informed by the individual pathologies of the public.

Welfare reform is justified by appealing to the supposed prevalence of freeloaders and deadbeats. Rural poverty and the erosion of unions are blamed on the deleterious habits of the white working class. Poor parenting apparently accounts for violent clashes in occupied Gaza. The people for (or against) whom policy is crafted simply aren’t afforded the elevation of the self enjoyed by those who craft it.

The implicit doctrine of individual transcendence is why Sady Doyle can compare Clinton to an obscure video game designer. It makes no difference to Doyle that Clinton was the Secretary of State, that she pushed to preemptively bomb Syria, that she played a major role in multiple regime changes, that she lagged behind the progressive agenda on gay rights and voted in favor of a plainly fraudulent war. That was the Secretary of State, and Doug Henwood’s book cover depicts Hillary Clinton. For Doyle, they might as well literally be two different people.

The panic over personal attacks and “ad hominems” boils down to the kind of sentimental complacency glimpsed in the Finkelstein exchange. It’s a phenomenon that accounts in part for a Buzzfeed profile of Hillary Clinton, in which the phrase “love and kindness” is used eight times.

I am talking about love and kindness,” she says.
As Clinton sees it, she’s really talking about a “shorthand” for her personal and political beliefs, for all the impulses that shape what she does and how she does it. She is talking about the core of “what I believe and who I am.”

Finkelstein’s “radicals” demand a fundamentally livable world. Meanwhile, the powerful, intoxicated by their own egos, evangelize about universal love and a world purged of abstract turmoil. Palestinian families starve under illegal and inhuman blockades while oleaginous pundits demand deference to the feckless political authorities that instate them.

Why is the liberal pundit class calm and measured? Not because they’re more reasonable. Rather because when the status quo already reflects your wishes and satiates your needs, you have no cause for frustration. When power won’t budge for any amount of corpses, the left is bound to get mean. It borders on psychotic to expect otherwise.