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.