GABlog Generative Anthropology in the Public Sphere

February 1, 2010

That 80s Left

Filed under: GA — adam @ 8:09 pm

Obama is from the 80s Left, not the 60s; I’m not sure how much difference that makes, but it makes some, and seems to be worth a brief post.

The 60s Left was actually quite diverse, unpredictable, and free—it was also plenty sexist and “homophobic,” and was much more opposed to the liberals in power than to the then negligible conservative opposition. Someone like Alexander Cockburn is a remnant of that Left—Marxist, always ready to defend to Stalinism and attack capitalists venomously, but also virulently opposed to any kind of elitism and therefore ready to dismiss the Global Warming cult and tweak critics of Sarah Palin. Similarly, Camille Paglia is someone who explicitly wants to expand the cultural revolution of the 60s, in part by adamantly refusing to obey any taboos of any sect whatsoever—Paglia has forcefully defended Palin, while remaining an Obama supporter.

But there are very few such figures left—the 80s Left has gobbled them up, with their own consent for the most part. The 80s Left is the consolidated Left: reunited with establishment Liberalism as a result of the wars on Nixon and then Reagan, doctrinally unified around the notion of “diversity,” and safely ensconced in the liberal institutions of the media, entertainment and academy. Here’s what the 80s Left sounds like: Obama, during the campaign, was asked about the possibility of military intervention to stop the genocide in Darfur; he responded (I’m quoting from memory here) that “that’s not what the people who care about Darfur think needs to be done.” That marks the idiom perfectly—first, the deference to those who have their bureaucratic bill in the water and have appropriated the issue; second the reference to those who have made what is in essence a successful political land grab as “those who care about…” The 80s Left got all of reality covered: there are people “caring” about everything now, and they can issue the authoritative word on the environment, race, peace, the UN, and so on. Look at Obama’s repeated, casual and presumably definitive references to “experts” in his exchange with House Republicans last Friday—those are people who care about health care, and have the last word.

The 80s Left was unified by its feigned terror at a single boogeyman: the “backlash.” That was its political innovation: to define all resistance to, and the minimal rollback of, its political agenda as the result of a (white, male, homophobic, redneck, etc.) backlash. That the “backlashers” had not, in fact, changed their views but were simply resisting reckless and mindless innovations of the last couple of decades was irrelevant—the point was to situate the Left as the new “Reality,” against which all resistance was a bitter, destructive and imminently violent assault on “History.” The backlash is by definition illegitimate, even when they control the Presidency and Congress—the “mainstream” press should, if at all possible, not even pay attention to their doings, except in the manner of a police blotter; if their words are to be quoted, they must be thoroughly smothered in “commentary” and placed in the proper “context.”

This is all worth mentioning because it accounts perfectly for Obama and his supporters’ reflex reaction to the massive opposition that has emerged over the past year: their response, whether it be to FOX News, the Republican Party, or the Tea Partiers, has been governed completely by the logic of the backlash to the backlash. Obama still seems incapable of granting reality to these forces—they are nothing more than noise which is interfering with the clear transmission of his message. It seems to me that this explains their extremely limited and self-defeating political strategy, and suggests that they are unlikely to become more flexible in the future. What worked for graduate students bullying their less ideologically belligerent fellow students and professors won’t work for a country of 300 million (still) free individuals.

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