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What's Left?

With conservatives setting the terms of debate on everything from war to health care, liberals need to relearn how to be right.

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The day after Thanksgiving, some young progressive types whiled away the hours in Wal-Marts across America, slowly pushing empty carts through the aisles. The idea was to celebrate Buy Nothing Day, an antiholiday invented by the Vancouver-based Media Foundation in the early 90s that takes place on what's traditionally one of the busiest shopping days of the year. "As an action of resistance," notes the Northeastern Pennsylvania Whirl-Mart Web site, meandering through a superstore "utilizes the power of silence in occupying private consumer-dominated space with a symbolic spectacle."

As an action of any kind, in fact, it was abjectly impotent: the Wal-Mart shoppers around the protesters bought $1.43 billion worth of merchandise in a single-day record for the company. The Whirl-Mart action wasn't designed to persuade anyone to accomplish anything specific. It didn't make any sort of impression strength-in-numbers-wise, since nobody was keeping a central tally of how many people were involved. All it did was make its organizers and participants--and people who already agreed with them--feel like they'd done something clever and rebellious. Activism, after all, is its own reward. Isn't it?

The rhetoric of the American left (including everyone from congressional Democrats to progressive-minded commentators to underfed undergrads waving copies of Revolutionary Worker) has fallen into a sick relationship with the rhetoric of the American right: the relationship of a resentful child and his domineering daddy. Daddy always wins his arguments because he knows what he wants to happen; the child can cooperate or sulk while acquiescence is forced on him, and may even convince himself that resistance is a victory of sorts. But the battle is lost before it's begun.

The way conservatives frame their arguments and goals right now is essentially aspirational--they present a vision of what the world should be and the actions required to get it there. Their catchphrases are short and crisp and verb based: creating jobs, honoring God, keeping America safe. They practice subtle coercion, setting out the terms of each debate in a way that suggests its outcome. When Americans talk about economic or social or military issues, we almost always talk about them in the language of the right, even when we're mocking its more outlandish newspeak. For every "evildoers" that's roundly jeered, a "weapons of mass destruction" settles into the national vocabulary before Ted Rall has a chance to fire off his first snarky cartoon.

The left, meanwhile, has become affirmational--concerned with reassuring ourselves that we are good people in the face of everything, that we're united in the struggle, that we're right on--a term that's actually returned to the lexicon of junior lefties, though the accent these days is on the first word. We all know Bush is a chimp, that his administration has been bought and paid for, that the 2000 election was a crime against democracy. So as long as we're right on, there is nothing to be done but to proclaim and demonstrate our right-on-ness.

Our affirmations, though, are all negations. Our press mouthpieces have fatalist names: Dissent. CounterPunch. CounterAttack. Consider the case of Christopher Hitchens, longtime columnist for the Nation, who for decades has demonstrated his devotion to the left by being its most devoted gadfly. This spring he published a book called Letters to a Young Contrarian; he followed that up this fall by contrarianizing himself right out of the Nation, resigning on the grounds that he didn't want to be associated with "the voice and the echo chamber of those who truly believe that John Ashcroft is a greater menace than Osama bin Laden." Hitchens was unwilling to be the voice of dissent even in a community that prizes dissenters--and his abdication became another symbol of his community's refusal to be aligned with any ideology that might eventually have access to power.

The causes of the left are antiwar, antiglobalization, anti-antichoice. We define ourselves by what we are not; we have barely any articulated, specific goals of our own. Few left organizations are as moderate and feel-good as Working Assets, the long-distance company that dispenses Ben & Jerry's coupons to customers and a percentage of profits to progressive causes. But nearly all the initiatives their Act for Change Web site lists are counterinitiatives: urge Tom Daschle to "filibuster often," demand that Christine Todd Whitman resign, "Stop the Pentagon Plan to Mine our Private Lives." The most prominent proactive suggestion is agonizingly trivial: "Urge L.L. Bean to Use Post-Consumer Recycled Paper in All Areas of Its Catalogs."

What's left to the left is an endless struggle to refuse and resist, to not lose ground, to not betray our ideals, to not not not-not. And, even so, we stumble into the language of what we're trying not to be.

The front page of the Democratic National Committee's Web site as I write leads with "Bush's Failed Economic Record" and a call to beat the Republican opposition to extending unemployment benefits. Further down there's a headline: "Republicans Fill Homeland Security Bill With Special Interest Giveaways." This is not just focusing energy on what Republicans are doing, it's buying into their terms for the debate. Note the unhesitating use of "homeland security" and "special interest," both heavily suggestive cant of the right--and it doesn't matter that it's the Republicans who stand accused of catering to "special interests." Using those words means that a certain amount of damage has already been done.

Another headline: "GOP Leadership Puts Anti-Choice Measures at the Top of Agenda." Follow the link, and it says "the criminalization of so-called 'partial-birth abortions' is just the tip of the iceberg...." Nobody used the extraordinarily loaded term "partial-birth abortions" until conservatives introduced it a couple years ago. But what's at the top of the agenda for Democratic leadership? Who knows? Democrats.com strongly suggests that our number one priority is to resist Republicans. At the bottom of the page, there's a call to "help us stop the extremist Republican agenda." But there isn't a single juicy, reductive, confident Democratic catchphrase to be found here. "It's Still the Economy, Stupid" doesn't count.

Meanwhile, the home page of the Republican National Committee's site declares, "Bush Signs Terrorism Insurance to Create Jobs." "Terrorism insurance": another neologism, and innocuous-sounding enough that it's easy to absorb. "Citing Success in War on Terror, Bush Signs Defense Spending Plan." A section called Issues in Focus includes "A Strong Economy," "Protecting Social Security," and "Better Health Care," at least two of which are squatting on the left's turf. The spirit of opposition is limited to a link, indicated with an illustration of a braying donkey, labeled "Democrat Attacks"; click it and you learn that "Democrats have, on repeated occasions, been unwilling or unable to articulate or advance a positive agenda and have resorted to desperate negative attacks for political gain."

Well, yeah. Well-meaning attacks, definitely; well-justified attacks, usually; attacks from the moral high ground, generally. And "unable to advance" has a lot to do with the balance of power in Congress. But they've got our number.

The left's contemporary self-definition by opposition--as opposition--means that we're forced to play defense all the time, with little opportunity to set a specific (viable, sexy, electable) agenda or even establish the terms of common discourse. We mirror the right, our reflexes always a few moments behind. (No wonder the Democrats got drubbed in the November elections. People vote to demonstrate what they want to be, and voters no more want to be rebellious slaves to an enemy than resigned slaves to an enemy.) And when we're fed up, we go out and protest.

In order to be effective, a public protest has to be (or seem) unexpected, spontaneous, and overpowering. Most of all, it has to have a specific goal in mind, and to make undecided spectators think, "Hey, those protesters have a good point." Otherwise, there's nothing to it but backslapping.

The witty demonstrations of the last few years, like the Whirl-Mart ritual, have invariably been exercises in ego gratification--the last one that worked in America was arguably the Boston Tea Party. Adbusters' Web site for this year's Buy Nothing Day suggested "fanclubbing" as a tactic--repeatedly buying and returning the same item. That'll bring the capitalist machine to its knees, all right. Besides, protesting the entire faceless abstraction of "consumerism" seems the wrong place to start. It's like that Monty Python routine where the arrested criminal announces that "society's to blame." "Agreed," says the cop. "We'll be charging them too."

The other major mode of protest that the left clings to like a security blanket is the earnest public demonstration, which always, always sucks. Unauthorized protests are effectively scripted in advance: protesters prepare wacky attention-getting devices, police and security guards circumvent or block them, those who don't have to work that day go to jail and feel like they've done their good deed, and the thing being protested goes on as if the protesters had never been there. The one time the script wasn't quite followed in recent memory was at the World Trade Organization meeting in Seattle a few years ago, where protesters did $2.5 million worth of damage and got teargassed for their trouble. But in retrospect they did less to communicate the messages of the antiglobalist movement (which were, and still are, pretty foggy anyway: what exactly did they want to happen?) than to make media coverage of subsequent trade meetings focus on whether riots are likely.

The TransAtlantic Business Dialogue demonstrations in Chicago last month went depressingly by the book. Some unimpressive numbers of demonstrators (between "over 2,500," according to the Independent Media Center, and "about 1,000," according to the Tribune) turned out on November 7 to protest whatever it is that the TABD does, or maybe doesn't exactly do but represents. More impressive numbers of cops showed up, in riot gear--"fewer than 2,000" was the official word, meaning that they may well have outnumbered the demonstrators--and were paid $1.56 million in overtime for their trouble. The TABD went on exactly as scheduled; the protesting factions got into predictable tiffs. "I have a verified report that [Jobs for Justice] members DID stop someone from un-arresting an anarchist who was being dragged away by an unmarked undercover for doing NOTHING," one demonstrator complained at indymedia.org.

Every major progressive rally in America aspires, in obvious and tedious ways, to be Martin Luther King's 1963 march on Washington, the last such demonstration to legitimately make a mark on public consciousness. It had persuasive force; it led to specific legislation. But does anyone remember, for instance, the Million Mom March of May 14, 2000? Didn't think so. (It was for gun control.) Rallies and marches are still the most visible, physically biggest expressions of "popular" (as opposed to governmental) left ideology, but antiwar rallies--the most popular kind right now, with the specter of war looming--tend to be organized by extreme fringe types, groups that have no interest in genuine progress and no patience for negotiation. The big Washington rally on October 26 was put together by International ANSWER (that would be Act Now to Stop War & End Racism). David Corn noted in an excellent recent piece in LA Weekly that ANSWER is closely linked to the Workers World Party, which waves the flag for the likes of Kim Jong Il and Slobodan Milosevic.

Antiwar rallies tend to push the far-left line (down with capitalism! leave Iraq alone!) and conflate dubiously related issues (stop war! end racism! free Leonard Peltier!). They're also staggeringly boring--secularized church services where the congregation already knows all the words. In Chicago, a Democratic stronghold, antiwar demonstrations have been tepidly attended: the Not in Our Name protest on October 6 drew only 4,000 people, according to Not in Our Name's Web site, or 2,000, according to Socialist Worker Online. (King's famous gathering on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial drew about 200,000.) However, if and when the U.S. does invade Iraq, the Chicago Coalition Against War and Racism has "an emergency response plan": a demonstration--and then another one the next day, presumably in case the first one doesn't work.

There are solutions to the left's severe image problems, but they're not easy or even appealing. They involve careful sloganeering (even when it means simplifying issues for mass consumption), and presenting progressive ideas as easy-to-like actions, in moderate language--energy conservation, for instance, should be simple enough to sell as home-front patriotism right now. They probably require swearing off the prefix anti- for the duration. And they demand hard work--the kind of activism that doesn't have a laugh track and doesn't look like a yellowed clipping of a 40-year-old march.

It's much easier to wave the flag for an unelectable national third-party candidate than to campaign for an electable local one; it's also much easier to complain that your opinions aren't being represented by the Democratic machine than to work with the local Democratic party and attempt to guide its course, or even run for office in earnest. But hard work is what works, and in these matters lefties would do well to follow the example of the religious right, which has been thinking globally by acting locally for decades. Time is short; Republicans are already claiming issues like health care and social security as their own, and the face of the judiciary is about to change dramatically. If the left ever wants to get out from under its daddy's thumb, it's going to have to grow up in a hurry.

Douglas Wolk is a fellow of the National Arts Journalism Program at Columbia University.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/Jim Siergey.

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