Hope and the modern leftist

Leftist social activism was born from resistances. The labor movement fought for decades to win better pay, safer conditions, and shorter hours. Successive waves of feminists sought the right to vote, for equal pay and treatment under the law, and then for a society that valued women’s ways of thinking. The civil rights movement dismantled segregation against seemingly impossible odds; few young Southerners in the 1930s could have imagined living to see a black President. This ingrained habit of fighting means that the hardcore left doesn’t know what to do with itself when it wins. (One of the things I really like about the city of Burlington is that progressives have been in power on and off for decades now. It’s empowering, even comforting, to see fellow leftists cope with trash collection, municipal taxes, crime, and other mundanities of contemporary life.) I’ve thought about this for a while, and it turns out there’s a new book about the left’s pessimism from author Rebecca Solnit. I’ve not heard of her before, but I’ll be looking for more of her books after this. I cannot express my opinion better than she, so I’ve quote two paragraphs below.

Hope […] is in love with success rather than failure, and I’m not sure that’s true of a lot of the more audible elements of the Left in this country. The only story many radicals know how to tell is the one that is the underside of the dominant culture’s story, more often than not the stuff that never makes it into the news, and all news had a bias in favor of suddenness, violence, and disaster that overlooks groundswells, sea changes, and alternatives. Their premise is: the powers that be are not telling you the whole truth. But the truth they tell is also incomplete. The conceive of the truth as pure bad news, appoint themselves the deliverers of it, and keep telling it over and over. Eventually they come to look for the downside in any emerging story, even in apparent victories – and in each other: something about the task seems to give some of them the souls of meter-maids and dogcatchers. (Of course, this also has to do with the nature of adversarial activism, which leads to obsession with the enemy, and, as a few environmentalists have mentioned to me, with the use of alarmist narratives for fund-raising.)

Sometimes these bad-news bringers seem in love with defeat, becasue if they’re constantly prophesying doom, actual doom is, as we say in California, pretty validating. But part of it is a personal style. I think that this grimness is more a psychology than an ideology. There’s a kind of activism that is more about bolstering identity than achieving results, one that sometimes seems to make the Left the true heirs of the Puritans. Puritanical in that the point becomes the demonstration of one’s own virtue rather than the realization of results. And puritanical because the somber pleasure of condemning things is the most enduring part of that legacy, along with the sense of personal superiority that comes from pleasure denied. Despair, bad news, grimness bolster an identity the teller can affect, one that is masculine, stern, disillusioned, tough enough to face the facts. Some of them, anyway.

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