Dear Progressives, Democratic Socialists, Anti-Racist College Campus Activists, Left-Leaning Media Commentators, and Any Other Relevant Parties:
Introductions are in order. Hi, I’m a blogger. I’m old enough to remember floppy disks, and orange Nickelodeon VHS tapes, and that class I had to take about this new-fangled thing called the “world wide web.” I’m young enough for “terrorist” to have been a vocabulary word I knew before I learned basic multiplication tables. That one scene in Fight Club where Tyler Durden laments the lack of wars and higher purposes, the societal ennui psychologically castrating an entire generation, does not apply to people my age. People my age have had our fair share of perpetual war, and our cup is running over with causes and higher purposes for us to devote ourselves to. I get it.
The Bush Era was awful–proxy wars, and incompetently handled natural disasters, and spying on civilians, and GitMo, and militarized police forces, and education plans that plummeted our international rankings. Then we had the great Hope, Obama, a man of so much cultural heft that most left-leaning people opt to forget that his unsustainable executive orders about affordable health care and dreamers (TM) were supplemented by further war mongering and American-killing drone strikes, by criminalization of military and corporate whistleblowers, and the further empowerment of the NSA. Trump may not be worse than those yet, but he’s certainly not any better. Politics haven’t worked out too great, not for a very long time.
That’s not even mentioning the right-wing evangelical moralizing that characterized the late 80s and continued into the early 2000s. Books and music and films and television had to be censored and altered to protect our morals–and, later on, our American values. Speaking out against The War was deplorably anti-American, and sympathizing with the ragheads made you worse than a terrorist. The gays were sinful and mentally ill. Abortion was an act against God and all good morals. Video games caused violence. And the police were allowed to violate your rights as a citizen as long as it meant stopping you from doing vague drugs, the more innocuous the better. We’re still dealing with many of those things to this day. I get it.
I get it.
What we’re seeing here, though, in 2017, is a pendulum swing. And it’s one that’s going to kick us directly in our collective ass if it isn’t acknowledged. It’s a cliche, a tried-and-true stereotype of How the World Works that can be depended upon and expected and planned for. But it never is. Since the dawn of time, people have been prone to acting as though their behavior has no effect on the rest of the world–and if it has an effect, it’s only of the positive variety, the kind of effect that goes down in the history books as a good thing. We’re only ever on the right side of history. People never want to sit down and admit what hindsight makes obvious: Social movements and norms feed into each other. They don’t arise in a vacuum, effected only by the already-present ideals of those already within it.
Do you think the war-hating, free-loving hippies would exist if it weren’t for the societal pushback against the war-mongering, stuck-up traditionalism of the 1950s? Do you think the evangelical outrage of the 90s would exist without the secular hedonism of the 80s? Do you think the 2010’s obsession with social justice would exist without the late 90’s and early 2000’s obsession with curbing personal liberties in the name of God and Country? And do you think the uptick in racial populism now would exist without that earlier obsession with social justice?
We as liberals cannot keep pretending like white nationalism has nothing to do with us. And we can’t keep pretending that it’s only connected to us insofar as it being the evil underbelly of society’s reaction to us doing such great things, to us being on the right side of history. Societal pushback doesn’t happen unless the people before you take things too far. It’s like that one overused symbolic story about the frog who automatically jumps from a pan of boiling water, but who will die of obliviousness if the water is heated to a boil slowly, increment by increment.
The hippies didn’t arrive en mass until the Red Scare led to Americans being openly and brazenly persecuted. The right-wing evangelicals didn’t gain power until the hedonism of the 80s led to multiple health and safety epidemics. And the right-wing populists didn’t gain mainstream traction until “social justice” overstayed its welcome. That’s not to say that these ideas and inclinations didn’t exist before, but their societal popularity was dependent upon being a 1:1 negative image of what came before, upon being a contrast in every way to the current status quo of the old guard overextending its influence and violating the values it claimed to support. The McCarthyists who cared so much about protecting America’s freedoms curbed America’s freedoms in the name of that protection, so they had to go. The stereotypical 80s businessmen living the quintessential American Dream that was supposed to reward “American values” gave no shits about those values, so they had to go. The activists and proponents of social justice who care so much about fighting racism and sexism and classism have slowly morphed into a group that encourages racism and sexism and classism. So they have to go.
I know what you’re thinking. “What?! We don’t encourage any of those things. We fight against them! Anyone who says we encourage those things is just personally invested in maintaining societal inequality where they have most of the power and afraid of the True Equality we’re trying to bring to the country.” But hear me out, please. I’m actually begging you. Please. PLEASE, consider the idea that your detractors may have something resembling a shadow of a glimmer of a mirage of a point to make. You talk all the time about how we need to listen and believe and take people’s professed lived experience seriously. So do that. Do it for everyone, not just for the people who you’ve already deemed worthy of the time and attention. That selective, very conditional empathy is the thing that’s backed progressives into a corner in the first place. So take a step back for a moment and really look at what progressives have been saying and how they’ve been treating people recently. I’ll give a few examples:
The BBC, a publicly funded organization in the UK (that part is important), actively excludes white people and white people specifically from their hiring processes, even for jobs that have nothing to do with physical appearance or being on camera. This is a public institution, one those white people help pay for but apparently aren’t allowed to take part it. Another example: feminist activists in Canada got the country’s only abused men’s shelter shut down under the pretense that it was misogynistic and detracted from the seriousness of violence against women, curtailing any attempts its founder–a victim of domestic abuse himself–did to try to reinstate it. This is in a country where men make up just a little under half of domestic violence victims, where many domestic violence shelters actively wouldn’t admit men. Another example: activists in America railed against statements made against affirmative action in college acceptance, calling it racist and a result of “white fragility.” White males are one of the least educated groups in America, above only non-native English speakers. Their high school retention rate is extremely low, their college retention rate is plummeting along with college application rates in general, and white males have one of the highest rates for genuine illiteracy in the country. And yet anyone who thinks it’s no longer fair to treat white males as the gold standard for education quality in America is just being racist or “fragile,” according to progressives.
These are just a handful of examples, off the top of my head, of progressives not practicing what they preach. They are examples of progressives proclaiming to care about victims and proclaiming to care about inequality . . . unless the victims are part of a group we’ve already determined to be not worth caring about. These aren’t esoteric niche issues, either. Non-discrimination policies in the job market, domestic abuse, and education are not something you can sweep under the rug as some small, irrelevant thing. And yet you have people openly laughing at the hilarious notion that white people can be treated poorly or that men have problems. It’s just “white fragility.” It’s just inborn privilege making them uncomfortable with positive change. Are you starting to see why there’s pushback against you? Are you starting to see why people don’t think you have their best interests at heart?
I’m biracial. I have the privilege of being very aware of how normalized this has become, this conditional empathy and justified disdain for entire groups of people. I have to be aware of it–that’s half of my family that you are constantly disparaging. I’ve sat in rooms where, whenever white people are mentioned, I’m expected because of my skin tone to wrinkle my nose at the very concept. And, yes, disparaging is an appropriate term for it, whether you want to admit that or not. You should, because it would go a long way to help mitigate the problem of white nationalism that’s on the rise, but I understand how that would be difficult.
In the end of the day, you want to help people. You want to be kind and understanding and welcoming, and you want to fight for the underdog against the powers stacked up against him. You want people to be safe and happy. You want to love people who are different, not push them away. But all the good intentions in the world do not make up for the fact that you have assigned a very clear label to a very certain group of people: the label of them. The them who just doesn’t get it; who is always on top, stomping on the little guy; the them who couldn’t possibly have any problems or ever possibly be mistreated; the them that’s only looking out for itself; the them who is always in the wrong; the them who can never do enough or say enough or act enough in our favor; the them who is never enough. The them who we are morally obligated to see in a negative light unless we want to be accused of being on the wrong side of history. Along with them.
I get it. It’s difficult to have a movement when you don’t have anything concrete to point to as The Problem. But you can only treat someone like them for so long before they take on the title willingly. So here we are now, and I’m not a fan of the way the discourse is heading. I’m not a fan of people wanting to “incentivize” me to leave the country I was born in because I have the wrong skin tone. I’m not a fan of segregation. I’m not a fan of well-meaning people making enemies where they would have naturally had friends by insisting that someone who is part of them is always The Problem, no matter what they say or do or believe. I’m not a fan of denying the existence or seriousness of real world hardships because the people facing them don’t look the right way.
This is me begging you. Please, look at what you are doing. This growing fire can be contained if you would stop feeding it. Let it burn itself into a few sputtering, barely-relevant embers, like any other flame that doesn’t have enough to fuel to grab onto. This isn’t me saying that you can’t be an activist or that you can’t fight against discrimination. But countering bad things with normalized resentment and knee-jerk disparagement of your own doesn’t help. To quote the actually successful soda advertisement that shamelessly panders to the left-leaners in its consumer base:
Just buy the world a Coke and keep it company.