Why I do and don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

Between the general disgust with Donald Trump and the specific outcry over the George Floyd killing, revolutionary momentum is building, and the possibility of social transformation seems more within grasp than at any time since the 1960s. This might be a good time to review the things that stoked the 1960s radicalism of Martin Luther King and the hippies for both inspiration and cautionary checks.

Of the various rhetorical angles one might bring, I’ll bring this one. Let’s say I’m a 1960s radical fired up about the 2020 movement but fearing that progressives have made some wrong turns. I’d express those fears as below, not to derail the movement but to prevent it from being derailed, not to push the movement back but to push the dialectic forward through counterpoints. Here are the wrong turns, as they might seem to a 1960s radical.

1. We were for chaotic free speech, rough and tumble, for wider freedom to think, speak, dress, and live in whatever unconventional arrangements you choose. Today’s woke progressives seem too much in favor of policing dissent and standardizing options to their own norms. We wanted to obliterate the cultural police; they want to BE the cultural police.
2. While acknowledging race, we struggled to remove race as the definitive marker of identity, to sort and judge people by values/character; today’s woke progressives seem to have restored race as the definitive marker of identity, sorting people into racial boxes and giving moral tags to the boxes. This may not be the intent, but beware lest you let the devil back in through the side door.
3. We saw a recognition of shared humanness (“they” love their kids, laugh, cry, like “we” do) as the antidote to distrust and bias across racial lines; today’s woke progressives seem to see “shared humanness” as a white supremacist conspiracy designed to elide black identity.
4. We worked to marginalize racists and racism; they seem to seek and magnify it everywhere. E.g., when I think of how over the years, I (white) have had black roommates in two different states, I believe by woke standards (parsing for white privilege and white fragility) I am racist because I look back and see only good friendship there, not insidious racial dynamics. I can think of no better way to reverse the gains in consciousness we’ve made since the 1960s than to re-read every instance of cross-racial love, friendship, and collaboration as an expression of insidious racism.
5. We sought to fix persistent racial inequality by identifying with each other across racial lines based on values, not skin color – with a rainbow coalition for justice and equality on one side and those clinging to an unjust status quo on the other. Today’s woke progressives seem to reinstall the battle lines between black and white, or blackness and whiteness. (There is nothing that old-school racists would like better than to peel off whites who would join the cause of racial justice by recasting that cause as a black vs. white battle.)
6. With regard to feminism, we sorted people into those (male and female) who were pushing for equality and those clinging to an unjust status quo. Today’s woke progressives seem to redraw the battle lines as female versus male. (There is nothing that old-school sexists would like better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men by redrawing the battle line as female vs. male.)
7. With regard to gender and sexual preferences, our instinct was to obliterate all categories and let everyone enjoy whatever consensual arrangements they like, without sorting them into morally tagged boxes. Today’s woke progressives seem to continually generate more and more gender boxes for sorting people, tagging each box with a moral tag or victimhood level, and encouraging each group to defend the wall around its segregated turf.
8. We were (implicitly) in favor of all forms of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Woke progressives seem to prefer that each demographic circle the wagons and guard its turf against cultural appropriation. Applied to the arts, this wrong turn is especially devastating. When creatively identifying with people from other races and genders becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement stood for. Whereas the “truism” today seems to be that whites cannot know the heart of blacks, Asians cannot know the heart of Hispanics, etc., 1960s radicals felt that we CAN and SHOULD see into each other’s hearts across those stupidly reified lines of race and gender, that we really ARE brothers and sisters under the skin, and that indeed all our future hopes lie in that very recognition that heart-to-heart human connection is not limited by race. I.e., we were radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and woke progressives alike.
9. We were for extending the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment, however belatedly, to all peoples. They seem to reject the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment as features of white supremacy, and prefer tribal (“you can’t know my truth because you don’t look like me”) rights and truths. To us, tribal rights and truths are the causes of distrust and bias across groups, not the solution to distrust and bias across groups.

Why I don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

1. Our long-term vision is the same – a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness.
2. There is a growing sense that rather than clinging to the left in an old left-right paradigm, people are ready to break the whole paradigm. This means breaking the grip of leftwing Establishments as well as rightwing Establishments. The left still has a hold on the progressive movement, but there is something in the air to suggest that progressives may soon break that hold and cross a new horizon line.
3. There is a gap between the intelligentsia of woke progressivism (in academia) and the grass roots progressives on the street that warrants optimism. Many of my fears above are rooted in the formulations of critical race theory (and critical theory as applied to women and other identity groups). These think-tank products are almost invariably divisive and counterproductive, enforcing a sense of identity defined by race and gender, drawing ever sharper lines and fomenting animosity between them. The kids on the street seem already beyond – or very nearly beyond – the academics in their ivory towers.

Why, one might ask? Why the disconnect between the academic think tanks and the street? We can start with the cynical idea that the main mission of every academic department (at least in Humanities) is getting funding for next year (cynical, yes, but not for one who has seen some of these annual and highly competitive funding battles). If you are in newly formed Identity X Dept, you had best prove quickly (and build a sufficient body of literature to back it up) that X is the cornerstone of identity, and that the struggle of people X is defined by trait X above all else and is a struggle that will continue in perpetuity (hence our need for funding in perpetuity). “Shared humanness” or the idea that one’s value system and not skin color is the defining aspect of identity means your dept is on the defensive in next year’s battle for funding. Call it a conspiracy theory, but at least it is one aligned with the accepted principle that self-preservation is often an operative force behind the scenes of what one thinks and does. It also aligns nicely with Karl Marx’s insight that the economic base is the driver and the political/ideological superstructure evolves in a way that serves the economic base.

Luckily for us, the kids on the street are not invested in next year’s funding for Dept X. The toxic influence of those academic theories is wide across newsrooms and other institutions, but it is not deep. Even where kids on the street mouth the slogans they learned from the academic think tanks, my sense on the street is that deep down they are not at all invested the divisions those slogans are designed to perpetuate. Deep down, they are invested, on the contrary and perhaps to the dismay of the more self-aware of those theorists, in that long-term vision of a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness. They already intuit, on some level, that there is no retreat back to conservatism, but there is also no future in the divisiveness of academic theories or in the increasingly narrow speech and thought zones of too many of our media outlets. They already know. Turn off the news and love your neighbor. Talk out of turn. Never stay in your lane. Never trust anyone, left or right, who says we need to respect walls of separation.

The ever-prescient LSD guru of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, had the right solution after all: If you want to bring society over the next horizon line, “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”

Or, if you prefer Lennon/McCartney, “All You Need Is Love.” Get that part right and the rest will follow.

Get Together 

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30 thoughts on “Why I do and don’t fear (for) my progressive friends

  1. your progressive friends are no longer progressives. they have been co-opted. now they are just tools for someone else’s agenda. they have lit the fuse before dropping the bomb from their hands. most of this is going to literally blow up in their face and I for one don’t feel sorry for them. they are worse than any fascists ever dreamed of being.

    i think progressive is a misnomer anyway. it has become the “polite” way of saying marxist. there is nothing progressive about these people. but hey, they’re your friends. good piece nonetheless. at least you think,which is more than i can say for most

    Liked by 4 people

      • When the identity theory departments emerged in the 1980s-90s, they were very hostile to the academic Marxists, specifically because the Marxists had a class-based model wherein all those “identities” were secondary, as people across those lines would join together to address class inequality. I don’t know if they ever buried the hatchet, but today’s most public Marxist philosophers (e.g., Slavoj Zizek) are outspoken in their rejection of identity politics. So I would say that progressivism has a Marxist thread (or at least a thread focused on class/wealth inequality — think the Bernie of a decade ago before identity politics became so dominant) and an identity politics thread, with much infighting. My 1960s core aligns me more with the Marxist side (not that Marx is gospel, but the dismantling of capitalist structures that maintain and perpetuate wealth inequality — which also have disparate impacts on race — makes sense to my 1960s mind), whereas the indentity politics side seems to risk undermining progressivism to me. Of course, if we can pivot away from the whole left-right spectrum and do away with words like “progressive,” that’s ok by me too 🙂


  2. I was there in the 60s and my experience and analysis certainly differs from yours. As you describe it, we preferred to pretend race and class and gender didn’t matter” when in fact they did. Even then, we — white educated progressives and feminists — talked the talk but didn’t do much to be inclusive. Wishful thinking doesn’t change things. Change requires hard work and taking risks. Our dreams didn’t succeed because so many of us were ultimately co-opted by our own successes. Predictably, race, class, and skin color remain the “markers” for discrimination and disenfranchisement, our schools and neighborhoods remain largely segregated, good education and health care are for the affluent, and inequality is worse than ever — while we, the generation of the 60s, are now “in charge”. So when I hear “hey boomer,” I hear “yeah you got yours but don’t be too self-congratulatory on behalf of the rest of us.” And I get that.
    I also think it’s unfair to generalize and use labels like “woke” and “culture police”, which are casually deployed by the right wing and the privileged. Did we like being called “politically correct”? The progressives of the 60s were just as cranky as today’s young people are about wars, slurs, discrimination and greed. That’s not “woke” or “politically correct.” That’s part of the fight for justice. I certainly understand if you would prefer not to publish my response, but I just wanted to share some of my thoughts.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Hi Kimmie. We see the ideals that emerged in the 1960s differently, but we probably have similar long-term goals for a more ideal union (though I assume we might also disagree on the best strategy to move us in that direction). Thanks for the alternative point of view.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thanks for your kind words. I suspect we do have the same goals and I am really interested in your thoughts on strategies for change. I honestly don’t know at this point — just hoping this isn’t a blip on the screen.

        Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, there’s the rub. Setting practical strategies takes thick skin. It’s like those funding battles I mentioned – you always have to favor some good ideas and crop out some good ideas, based on what you think will work best. This can easily lead to resentment, which in the sensitive case at hand, means being called “racist.” I could fumble through that for hours, but to try to cut it short to a few overriding principles. (1) Find the right target. E.g. although the culture of policing is a problem, the good and the bad that police do in black communities is not the major obstacle to equality. The real outrage should be focused on schools, economic opportunity, professional and academic mentoring, safety and stability in poor black neighborhoods. Take those people knocking down the statues (not that I love the statues) and – while they’re all here – march them to an inner-city school or mom-and-pop shop they can fix. Take those 50 days of mass protests and turn them into 50 days of mass formation of academic and professional mentoring programs. And demand government support for those grass-roots programs. (2) Don’t turn away good will. Sure, those who do not believe that racial equality is a valid goal will never be on board, but I think most whites agree that racial equality is a good goal but disagree widely on policy. Why not tap and massage the pool of good will that is there instead of making enemies unnecessarily. The point is not to draw a line and crush the enemy. The point is to effect a shift in consciousness that brings everyone along with it.* How you phrase things matters. In my mostly conservative workplace, if you said, “Blacks have never gotten a fair shake and inequality is still a problem,” almost all my white colleagues would agree (though they might disagree on the how and why); if you start in on “white privilege” and “white fragility,” support for your point drops from maybe 90% to 20%. Sure, you can say that’s because they don’t understand, because they aren’t enlightened, but why turn away so much potential good will, even if we’re never going to agree 100%? What you daily visualize, that you become. Visualize the very real collaboration and friendship between whites and blacks every day (at least in a mixed city like mine) rather than scanning for every misstep. This won’t make racism go away, but it will make it a hell of a lot easier for us to join hands and work on it together.

          *Cp. MLK: The fight “must not lead us to a distrust of all white people, for many of our white brothers, as evidenced by their presence here today, have come to realize that their destiny is tied up with our destiny. And they have come to realize that their freedom is inextricably bound to our freedom. We cannot walk alone.”

          P.S. I’m also hoping this is not just a blip on the screen 🙂

          Liked by 3 people

  3. Amen to that. I guess I’m old-fashioned that way, but the current ever-deepening divisions make me worried. We should be aiming to obliterate racial and gender stereotypes, and not just turn them on their head, twist by 180 degrees, and militantly push for ever more fundamentalist approach. I do realize that previous approaches didn’t really achieve their goal of liberalism and equality, but going tribal doesn’t seem like the best receipt for the embedded and inherently tribal problems, such as racism or sexism or xenophobia.

    Liked by 2 people

    • That’s a good statement of the problem. Too many “progressives” today want to keep the power structures but flip the top dog/bottom dog … which, to you, me, and a bunch of old hippies, seems to miss the point.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. As usual well said. And a good exchange with Kimmie whose view of the 60’s I am probably closer to. But I think ultimately you need a major psychological change in humanity to achieve your goals and I’m pessimistic about that happening. Kimmie is right. It’s too easy to be co-opted either by the dominant culture or by our own successes (or by being worn down). And the system has the advantage of just waiting you out, making minor concessions or talking as if there will be concessions, while waiting you out. Still I think we keep pushing but we won’t see the end result because absent some type of ‘punctuated equilibrium’ (sorry Gould) or a leader like MLK any change will be incremental.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This may disappoint you, Michael, as much as we like to argue, but I agree with all of your points. You are emphasizing the pessimistic side, which would all do best to take into account. Luckily for me, this gives me the luxury of taking the more optimistic view, which we would also do well to visualize daily 🙂


  5. The 1960s in my part of the world–then a British colony during its struggle for independence–was nothing like yours. I can agree only on one thing, we humans share the same inescapable humanity. We have created differences where there are none. We have tied ourselves into knots that have become ever more difficult to undo.

    Liked by 3 people

    • Interesting. I don’t know your background, Rosaliene, but I wonder how teenagers in that situation reacted to things like the Beatles and Rolling Stones and UK counterculture (?). Also, I like your assessment of human nature and the knots we tie ourselves into. May we one day evolve past that …

      Liked by 1 person

  6. Kimmie and Michael. One problem that might add light to our give-and-take above. I think we have come far since the 1960s in measurable ways but no one realized 50 years ago the full magnitude of the journey. You can come a long way and still be far from the finish line. This has led some conservatives to conclude, “After 50 years since the Civil Rights Act and 50 years of affirmative action, we’ve solved most of the problems of racism,” whereas some liberals say, “50 years after the Civil Rights Act and look at how much racial inequality persists.” The one group overstates how far we’ve come and the other group understates it, but both misunderstandings point back to the same core misunderstanding 50 years ago. No one fully felt the magnitude of the task, that you could truly come a long way in 50 years and still be woefully far from the finish line.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. There is a lot wrong with the current woke culture. As a progressive myself I can still critically analyse it and say a lot of this policing of language and policing cultural norms is dangerous. Not sure where it is going to go but it’s possible to be critical of it all and be a proponent of free speech while also being a progressive. I am a bit outside of the US/Trump thing because I am in New Zealand, but still as a resident of the internet I can see a lot of the conflict. Yes- why can’t everyone just get along! Really liked your post!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks, Content Catnip. I”m with you 100%. I’ve spent much time abroad in the past few years, and people often wonder how someone like Trump can be elected. They are right in their assessment of Trump, I think, but they underestimate how badly woke culture has undermined the left’s ability to offer a viable alternative. “You are all a bunch of sexist, xenophobic, racists overloaded with unearned privileges who stupidly vote against your own interests. Your country (like all Western liberal democracies) is so hopelessly white supremacist that all of its ideals and structures must be overthrown because none are untainted. Now vote for me.” This is hardly a winning campaign pitch in the 48 states that are not California or New York.

      Liked by 1 person

  8. I agree that there lies a more divisive component to today”s progressive movement than what I experienced as a college student during the Civil Rights/Vietnam era. We wanted everyone to just be together. Yet as before, so many of those who advocate extreme change have not experienced the reality of suffering of those who they so passionately protest for.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes (as per the comment I just made on your other post). There was back then a basic optimism about human nature, about shared humanness and our ability to connect across racial lines, which seems to be lacking at least on the theoretical side of today’s critical race theory. The kids on the street, though, seem more advanced and more open than the theorists in this regard. As you say, though, when the biggest protests are in places like Portland (less than 6% black), there has to be some concern about possible disconnect. Also, as a tangent, I recall what my thoughtful, left-leaning Ukrainian friend told me: “Those who fight hardest for a revolution obviously haven’t lived through one.” At least that’s worth considering on the tactical side.


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