the “left” in general, by eroding mutual trust
by G.S. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
September 14, 2005
Shortly after the hurricane Katrina left much of New Orleans devastated, Mitchel Cohen <email@example.com>, one of the members of the Science for the People (SftP) discussion group, posted some speculations about possible governmental actions during the catastrophe. One of his sentences read “Well, one conceivable possibility is that a flood was inevitable and officials decided to direct it toward less expensive property.” In a response a short time later, Louis Proyect <firstname.lastname@example.org>, a long-time member of the SftP group, quoted that sentence and commented, “This sort of idle speculation characterizes the whole 9/11 conspiracy camp. I think we need to focus on what can be proved.”
This began a cascade of postings regarding “conspiracy theories”, available on the SftP archives at http://list.uvm.edu/archives/science-for-the-people.html
Some days later another SftP member, Laura Kamienski <email@example.com>, posted an article from The Militant. Her posting was immediately disparaged by Proyect, and after a short exchange between them, I wrote to Laura in part, as follows:
I wanted to encourage you not to withdraw (as you indicated you might) from responding to comments on the SftP list. I believe that Louis Proyect is an intelligent person (as his review of Deborah Koons García's <firstname.lastname@example.org> film “The Future of Food” shows), but he is contemptuous of people who he believes know a lot less than he does. I was ticked off at his response to Mitchel Cohen, who he scorned for even considering what Proyect derides as “conspiracy theories.” But Mitch responded without surrendering through silence, and others on the list began to force Proyect into a somewhat defensive posture, which I thought was all to the good.
Then you posted The Militant article, and that gave Proyect an “escape hatch” through which he immediately climbed in order to divert attention from his unjustified scorn for Mitch and others who are willing to think about conspiracies. The truth is that I have been put off for many years by what I see as the strident sectarian left (I consider myself an anarchist of what might be labelled “the Kropotkin School”). So at first I didn't even bother to read The Militant article, but after Proyect's attack I looked for it. Then, when I read it, I did find it strident and was repelled by the rhetoric, but in fact I did not disagree with the assertions. Only the style, not the content repelled me. Of course I didn't read it with the fine-tooth comb that Proyect would, searching for a phrase here or there on which to nail a condemnation. I should also say that my sense is that he is probably correct in his assessment about the political significance of the Socialist Workers Party (because Herb Fox <email@example.com>, who I know well, seems to agree).
Where I think Proyect is badly mistaken is in his treating you (and Mitch) with contempt. I see that as not atypical in the so-called “left”, and regard it as enormously destructive. How are we ever going to change people's minds if we immediately insult their intelligence. I had hoped, when I originally wrote Steve Cavrak <firstname.lastname@example.org> suggesting the possibility of establishing the Science for the People discussion list, that it might serve to help enlighten many of us, and to facilitate our becoming active, or more active, in the ongoing struggle. I'm fairly certain that you and I strongly disagree about many theoretical questions, but there is simply no possibility of our ideas reaching each other if either of us is contemptuous of the other.
This entire subject of how to build trust “on the left” is really important, and not an easy one to tackle, I think mainly because of the way our egos are seemingly at stake. I tried to explore that problem almost four years ago in an essay, “Mutual Aid and Mutual Trust”, which is at http://site.www.umb.edu/faculty/salzman_g/Grass/Infra/Infra-5.htm
Sincerely, and with best wishes,
Laura wrote back,
I appreciate your time in writing this response. Time permitting I will take up any criticism of the articles themselves, but I will not get involved in, what I consider a ridiculous, debate about the SWP based on lies and innuendo. It serves no one.
I am not an SWP member, but I am a supporter. One thing I find admirable about them is their refusal to involve themselves in petty squabbling. I hold that standard for myself as well.
I'd like to respectfully suggest to you that you consider the possibility that what sounds like rhetoric is simply not the kind of rhetorical style we're all used to and subsequently think of as being somehow neutral (rhetoric free). The Militant certainly reads differently than The New York Times or academic jargon, yes. But I find this a positive, rather than a negative quality. I think we need to free ourselves from the guise of neutrality in academic and ruling class writing style that serves to cover lies, through obfuscation and half truths. As you say, there is nothing to disagree with in The Militant article. When there is, and I find a list member who's willing to discuss in good faith, then I will involve myself in a discussion.
And I answered,
I'm afraid I didn't make myself clear enough. It's not just the stridency of The Militant (and other publications of the unimaginative left) that turns me off. Its repetitious, leaden prose, written by people unable to laugh at themselves. I'm angry as a fucking hornet and don't care one bit about propriety of language. I detest academese. Shortly before writing my note to you I got an appeal from Not In Our Name for money to do something and, without reading the entire message, decided finally to get off their list. In unsubscribing, there was a place to make comments. I wrote them the following:
“I am so disgusted with what I see as your toothless adherence to so-called “progressive” behavior that I don't want to be further irritated by your endless attempts to raise money to carry out efforts that start out from the premise that the nation-state in which we live is a legitimate institution and that the way to save ourselves (and the entire world) is by acting in accord with that belief. Advertising in the corporate press is handing resources to one of the principal ideological weapons of the fascist takeover that is occurring with terrifying speed, and you, in your determination to remain “rational” in the eyes of deluded liberals, are ever busy measuring your words. I've totally given up on your organization. You should read about the Zapatistas, and the struggles in Bolivia and throughout Latin America, and learn what real struggle involves, and forget the fucking New York Times. Stop trying to be so “respectable.” Read about the behavior of most of the Jewish communities described by Hannah Arendt in Eichmann in Jerusalem and Raul Hilberg's Destruction of the European Jews and come to your senses. The time for bourgeois “respectability” is long gone as the U.S. regime deploys killers with machine guns in the streets of New Orleans. I'm desperately eager that my children's grandchildren can live half-way decent lives. To make that possible we have to get off our asses.”
I hope, Laura, that you take a few moments to glance at damn near anything I've written and put on my website so that you can see I'm not a captive of “respectable academic rhetoric.” The fact is that the writing in The Militant is deplorably bad ― totally uninspired ― and, at least for me, it has never taught me anything I didn't already know. One helluva lot better writer than I am is Joe Bageant <email@example.com>, a man who really knows workers first hand. For Christ's sake, the self-appointed heavies who believe fatuously that they're a vanguard leading the ignorant workers to Nirvana ought to read Bageant. I give a little introduction to him in
gotta get America straightened out
by G.S. <firstname.lastname@example.org>
July 16, 2005
Of course no one of us really knows the answers . . .
By the way, Laura, Bageant has a lot to say about urban intellectuals total failure to comprehend the kind of real workers who live, and whose lives are totally screwed up, in his town in a corner of Virginia, a town he calls Dickville (it's formal name is Winchester).
All the best,
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