Off the Cuff: Is radicalism necessary? Have we gone too far?
Two questions have been bugging me in the wake of Trump, campus protests, campus riots, the Women’s March, etc. The first is my title: “Is radicalism necessary?” and the second is, “Have we gone too far?”
But ‘radical’ is a hard word to define, and I have no intention to define it. I have friends and acquaintances who insist that the Left is nothing more than a neo-reactionary party dressed up in pseudo-compassionate clothing, while other friends and acquaintances insist that the entire political spectrum has shifted so far left that they can barely recognize the Right anymore. Radicalism is, no doubt, a spectrum. Part of the reason is because new generations are constantly reinventing what it means to be a radical, for better or worse. So much so, that we might only be able to say with a sort of resigned reluctance, “You know radicalism when you see it.”
For example, I would argue that the U.C. Berkeley student protest/riot was an example of radicalism, so I’ll use this as my frame of reference.
The students were protesting “alt-right” leader and Breitbart editor Milo Yiannopoulos’ event that night. Known for being a “provocateur” and a bit of a contrarian — though Hitch, I imagine, would be disgusted with the latter label — students were calling Milo a white nationalist, Nazi, etc. etc. The usual words that have, upon being slung so often and so quickly, come to mean almost nothing anymore.
So the question that I ask myself; the question that I cannot find an answer to is this: Is this sort of protest the same in kind as, say, the Boston Tea Party in the 18th Century, the women’s suffrage movement in the early 20th, or the Civil Rights movements of the mid to late 20th? Depending on which side of the political spectrum one leans, I imagine a condescending and sneering “no” is as likely as a booming and heroic “yes!”
What bugs me, then, is history: that those who coordinated the dumping of tea into the harbor that fateful night were denounced harshly by some who thought the act rash and radical — the words used to describe these silly protesters dressed up as Native Americans destroying property that wasn’t theirs being almost exactly, adjusting for translation across two centuries, the way certain people denounce modern protests and riots. Or every movement, protest, riot thereafter for that matter.
The first step might be to point out these historical “denouncers” of protests and riots, but this wouldn’t take us very far: for even when people are made aware of those who were supposedly on the wrong side of history or fighting the wrong fight, i.e. condemning the Boston Tea Part, they are no sooner found jumping to the rationalization that “Sure, but it was a legitimate or worthy protest; that’s the difference.” In other words, I can’t get around this reasoning that a legitimate protest or riot is simply one you agree with, and, it seems, people only agree with the ones that have run their course and “worked out.” The problem being, of course, no one knows whether they’ll “work out” in the moment or whether it is legitimate. How will history view the U.C. Berkeley protest against Milo? As a bunch of snowflakes who can’t stand to hear an opposing opinion, or a legitimate protest signaling the idea that we Americans are way past having to hear such nonsense?
So much for those who argue that “No, the U.C. Berkeley was not a legitimate protest/riot. Not at all like the Boston Tea Party or the Civil Rights movement.” It seems that cannot escape the trap of — albeit poor — historical anachronism.
Those who answer with a resounding “yes” find themselves in a similar problem, though. If movement leaders, protesters, and rioters believe they are a part of a greater lineage than just their immediate whims and wants, then it seems likely that they either lack a sense of proportion or just don’t understand what exactly those previous movements were about or aimed at even in some loose sense. In other words, the language and rhetoric of movements in the 21st century are almost identical to those of the 20th, but the scenery has changed.
Thus my problematic situation: the Boston Tea party was, for better or worse, about protesting the Tea Act which they believed an affront to their rights as Englishmen; the women’s suffrage movement was, essentially, about women getting the right to vote; and the Civil Rights movement culminated in the Civil Rights Act of 1964, though it was and accomplished much more than this. And the women’s march on Washington was, what? The U.C. Berkeley protest of Milo served to do what exactly? Campus protests about safe spaces and student loans are for what? In other words, is the demanding of safe spaces for certain groups of “alienated” or “marginalized” college students the same as demanding representation for taxation purposes? Surely, they can both be construed as legitimate or illegitimate, but one does still seem a bit more requiring of a vitriol, anger, and protest than the other.
It’s no doubt that human psychology longs for heroism, but how heroic, one might ask, is holding a protest to get the campus safe space for trans people out from the basement and onto the 5th floor? What end is their in the Women’s March on Washington? Is it an amendment? A right? A protest against some specific grievance like the Tea Act? Is it something concrete they want, or is it frustration at Trump’s use of misogynistic and sexist language? Notice, however, they I didn’t say it was merely frustration.
So the question “Is radicalism necessary?” seems to lead to only more questions, but questions we should nonetheless take time to reflect upon. Is a constant “battle” between opposing radicalisms what move the world in a a particular direction? Would any of these movements even get attention — media or other — if they weren’t radical, if they weren’t protesting? Is outrage a necessary — but of course not sufficient — part of progress? Could the Boston Tea Part, women’s suffrage, or Civil Rights have been accomplished by other means? This isn’t to imply that the latter were wrong in their methods, but only to ask if other means could have accomplished the same thing. Are we too far gone, too media-centered and adrenaline obsessed, to recognize the merits of purely peaceful, purely political, and purely intelligent movements? Is this all just an example of the law of double frenzy; pendulum swinging?: the idea that, essentially, “They’re doing it too, and it’s working!” combined with the idea that progress (or apocalypse, I suppose) is found at the end of a political rainbow that boils down to action-reaction-overreaction-overoverreaction-overoveroverreaction…
“Have we gone too far?” Have we, in our need to feel heroic and urge to slay demons wherever we find them, lost a sense of proportion? Have we learned too much from past movements and causes? Have we forgotten or succumbed to Nietzsche's warning that we ought not to become a monster ourselves when fighting monsters? Are we too blind or too dim to see that we are progressing in circumstance but not in rhetoric? Are we just bored? Do we not see that most — but certainly not all — conflicts today are hearts and minds conflicts and as opposed to institutional and constitutional?
This is not a call for quietism, but rather proportion.
We will put ourselves back one-hundred years simply by working off the assumption that we have not progressed far enough. I am rarely prescient about things, but we shouldn’t underestimate the power a lack of proportion combined with a sense of urgency has on a society — then again, it may be the only thing that has ever moved society in the first place.