They call that the soft bigotry of low expectations, Emmett
A few people have asked me to respond to this missive from Emmett Rensin, but to respond to it, it would have to say something. I suppose I identify myself with the old school in saying that I think political writing should be oriented fundamentally towards real action that real people not only can really take but will really take. That is why I have expressed the same basic prescription for years: go offline, go local, and go specific in your organizing. Join groups that have shown the capacity to endure over several political cycles. Beware being co-opted by Democrats; engage with them when narrowly useful without ever getting your hopes up. Move the center, by inches, whenever you can. None of that is as sexy as comparing yourself to a series of historical victories that have no earthly connection to the 21st century left, but it has one definite advantage: people do it, actually do it. They are actually doing it. In that tangible, material actuality rests more power than every angry endorsement of hypothetical violence ever marshaled.
“We could do this,” in political writing, can be translated as “we won’t do this.” Nobody thinks this is going to happen. Nobody. Nobody thinks we’re going to see left wing victory through left wing violence. Nobody.
“Murders by cops are political violence.” This is true. It is also pragmatically empty and thus morally inert. Can you conceive of a situation where police violence is meaningfully dealt with violently by the American left? I suppose. The human imagination is powerful. Are we going to see a situation where police violence is meaningfully dealt with through violence? No. Rensin knows that. His editors at Foreign Policy know that. His audience, most certainly including the people who most enjoyed that essay, know that. They know no effective violent resistance to the police is forthcoming. They know it better than I do.
Yes, we’ve always seen right wing political violence and we always will. But so what? Who cares? “What is to be done?” was not a theoretical question for Lenin, Emmett. You can do your best to make it material in your whole life. But Lenin had an army.
The truth is that Rensin’s work is always at war with itself, and nowhere is that clearer than in this piece with no center. Rensin is the guy who wrote 10,000 words on liberal smugness and then mocked liberals on Twitter for deleting Uber. That’s no crime — petty hypocrisy is a great virtue in writers, I mean that sincerely — but Rensin’s piece is tragic. It’s a critique of academics who have given up by an academic who has given up. Its archness about its own position is its message of surrender. The Three Card Monte going on with the piece’s thesis is to distract its author from confronting the sad reality that he has no more faith in the redemptive potential of left-wing violence than I do. He just wants to keep the card moving as long as he can. I almost can’t blame him. Almost.
But his own question presents itself: when do you start shooting, Emmett? If the answer is “never,” then who specifically — as in real people, with real names, actual people who can really act in the concrete world — is going to start shooting? Who, where, when, at what? These are the only questions.
And so we have to come to the adult conclusion, which is that Rensin knows, after all, that he won’t march in a people’s army — not today, not tomorrow, never in his life. So do the people who will respond to this essay. They won’t like it; but they won’t start shooting. They will talk about privilege; but they won’t start shooting. They will say I’m missing the point; but they won’t start shooting. They will Tweet. They will fav. They will share. They will meme. They will drive clicks. They will never, ever start shooting. Rensin knows that. You know that. You always knew that.
If he or they want to rebut me, the path forward is blessedly simple. Don’t talk about shooting. Start shooting. I’ll keep an eye on the news. If you start shooting, I owe you a Coke.