“In Piedmont eight there is a completely quiet room, please don’t go in there with anything that is like–an aggressive scent.”
“Just wanna say can we please keep the chatter to a minimum? I’m one of the people who is very prone to sensory overload.”
“Point of personal privilege! Point of personal privilege! Please do not use gendered language to address everyone!”
“I have already asked people to be mindful of the chatter for their comrades who are sensitive to sensory overload and that goes double to the heckling and the hissing, it is also triggering to my anxiety! Being comradely isn’t just like ‘Oh, let’s keep things civil or whatever,’ it is so people won’t get triggered and so that it doesn’t affect their performance as a delegate.’”
In early August 2019, the left-wing writer Angela Nagle sat split-screen from Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, commenting on the 2019 Democratic Socialist of America convention in Atlanta. Apart from a few others such as the journalist Glenn Greenwald and Dr. Cornel West, as well as a few writers for The Grayzone, the American born but Irish raised author, best known for her 2017 book Kill All Normies, is one of the few prominent leftists who are willing to appear on Carlson’s show. “You know,” she says, her thick Irish accent rounding out each vowel, “They were talking a lot about their invisible disabilities, which is very convenient because of course, you can’t say that they don’t have any, you just have to allow them to shout at you. And you know, the only invisible disability they have is, like, bourgeoise narcissism.”
Carlson chuckles gleefully. “Bourgeoise narcissism! If I spent an entire year trying to think of a better description, I don’t think of anything more precise than that.”
After being prompted by Carlson to “savor for just twenty seconds the irony of a socialist organization besought with bourgeois narcissism,” Nagle continued.
“I’m sure to people on the right this is probably hilarious and is probably gold,” she said. “But for me, I find it just unbearably sad because I’ve seen this happen over and over again. Countless political parties, campaigns, it just seems almost impossible for good people within the organization to stand up to these people and stop it from happening. And now it’s too late. Could any normal person sit in that room? I don’t think so.”
Angela Nagle’s question, “Could any normal person sit in that room?” is one some fifty years in the making. Since the 1970s, the cultural battles of the left have driven its point of perspective far from the everyday norms of the working class and purged its ranks of dissenting intellectual voices. Nagle is as good an example as any of the latter. During this same appearance on Tucker Carlson Tonight, she noted that she had friends who had been longtime members of the DSA who had been pushed out by this “newer” crowd that came in after the end of Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign, that she wasn’t a member, and quipped that if she tried to join, she’d likely “be shrieked out of the place.” The number of left-wing publications that published critically about her appearance seems to suggest this would be true. Ari Paul of Souciant Magazine suggested that believing working-class people would be unwilling to sit in the room required “a certain degree of anti-working class sentiment.” Another writer, Jordy Cummings from Red Wedge, compared her comments on Tucker Carlson Tonight to views on those with disabilities held by Nazis. A more measured article, written by Jacob Bacharach, titled “Sometimes Inclusion is Going to Be a Bit Embarrassing,” said that:
There is a cliched idea that America’s working-class consists of a vast population of robust men and women with thick necks and calloused hands. Their kitchen-table issues are adding another shift at the factory and keeping the Mexicans from driving down wages at the poultry plant. This is as cartoonish in its wrongness as depictions of the DSA — and the left in general — as a bunch of effete, pencil-neck trust-funders more worried about achieving social status in their privileged, intellectual spaces, more concerned with the proper use of the latest personal pronoun conventions than in gaining economic justice for their blue-collar comrades.
Bacharach went on to bemoan the currency of this idea among the media class, then recounts his teenage experiences as a “child of privilege,” saying he regretted making fun of the fathers of his poor classmates who were on disability. He seemingly admitted that some aspects of the “cartoonish depictions of the DSA and the left in general” is rooted in a kernel of truth, writing:
The left’s language of inclusion is often arcane; its rules of politesse and its habit of subdividing identity into ever-smaller and more precise tranches can be excruciating and alienating. There are undeniably bratty urban socialists whose minor anxieties and discomforts can grow, in environments where they are not checked and challenged, into exaggerated affectations of sickness and disability.
There is an air of performance in certain leftist spaces when it comes to mental and physical health, a bit of embarrassing competition to claim the mantle of Most Oppressed, and to trade on the reputational kudos that accrue to oppression’s imputed authenticity. But there’s also something genuinely loving, kind, and admirable in this insistence-to-a-fault that physical and social spaces are accommodating and accessible to everyone.
Far more than Paul and Cummings, Bacharach’s tacit admission comes the closest to addressing the existential question of the American Left today: Could any normal person sit in that room? Although he never does so directly, reading his article with this question in mind, one finds that his answer, and the general answer of the left today, might be surmised to be “No. But you may not ask that question because at least we are well-intentioned.” Nobody writing at the time bothered to answer the question because everyone knew the answer was no. Such an admission would have required an explanation as to why no regular person could sit in that room.
There are several reasons, and the first two are obvious. Although the various “invisible illnesses,” ascribed to the participants may very well be fabricated or exaggerated (we will get to that later) the simple fact is that the American people work hard for a living and they do not want to join a political movement led by the mentally ill. While many might ascribe this reluctance to ableism, ignorance, or stigma, the truth is that most Americans are profoundly familiar with mental illness and all the suffering and instability that come along with it. While they might love and support those in their lives who suffer from it, they would be remiss to put a bi-polar cousin or autistic brother in charge of what we are told is a burgeoning political movement. Most Americans seem content to live and let live with regards to the proliferation of various gender identities, but the average person has not thought about pronouns conceptually since high school English and if you ask the average working woman in my hometown to tell you her pronouns she is bound to either be befuddled by the question or insulted by it, having assumed that you think she looks like a man. Instead of simply acknowledging these facts, the conversation inevitably turns into some dreadful dialectic about what a normal person is.
Beyond all this is a bureaucracy birthed from standpoint theory, an idea that centers individual experiences, more often than not crudely essentialized down to a particular identity, usually discounting class. It goes without saying that this only works for people whose opinions the audience is already attuned to agree with. A black woman claiming a “point of privilege,” at the DSA can be seen as a credible source for understanding the plight of all black women, but Candace Owens cannot. Of course, neither can, in reality, because no two people (even those of the same sex, race, and class) think exactly alike or can claim to speak on behalf of everyone “like them,” which is to say, sharing one identity. That said, one identity is rarely enough nowadays. The recent discourse concerning non-binary identities, niche sexual orientations, and neurotypicality has provided bountiful opportunities to the most typical among us. A heterosexual white man can transform himself into a non-binary transgender, pansexual, sex worker autist without ever having to shave his beard, sleep with a man, prostitute himself, or see a doctor. He can disguise his self-deception as self-actualization to others and even to himself, all the while calling anyone who questions the validity of these newfound identities an ableist, transphobic, homophobic, bigot. That is, of course, if the insular terms SWERF (sex worker exclusionary radical feminist) or TERF (trans-exclusionary radical feminist) are not thrown around first. All the while foregoing the actual bigotry, discrimination, and medical expense that would have arisen if he were to dress in an overtly effeminate way, be seen with another man in public by homophobes, or suffer from a difficult cognitive disability. Normal people do not understand the standpoint bureaucracy, its machinations, or how it is navigated in left-wing organizations like the DSA, nor in more liberal organizations or academia. To the average person, figures like Rachel Dolezal, former head of the Spokane NAACP, and Jessica Krug, a history professor at George Washington University, both white women who pretended to be black, seem like bizarre eccentrics or jokes in that they provoke laughter and bewilderment. But to those familiar with the standpoint bureaucracy, the reaction was one of rage. The reason why is no mystery, with one fellow academic saying: “People who were very close to her are devastated. People who don’t know her are aghast that she would perpetuate these lies and gain access to these spaces in the academy, the resources, such as grants and fellowships to advance herself and thus shutting out others from attaining them.” There were virtually no complaints about her scholarship itself, which is by all accounts apparently quite good. She leveraged her false identity to navigate the standpoint bureaucracy because she knew it would work. People got angry because they knew it worked, too.
The grandstanding excesses of liberal identitarianism crashing into and derailing any economic populism that might build a multiracial coalition of working-class people started at its return in the 21st century. At a 2015 campaign stop in Seattle, meant to commemorate the 80th anniversary of Social Security, Bernie Sanders was delivering his stump speech about raising the minimum wage, instituting universal healthcare, and taxing the rich. Two Black Lives Matter protestors wrested the microphone away from Sanders, who was once arrested while protesting Jim Crow laws, to insist upon a land-acknowledgment and a four and a half minute of silence in memory of Michael Brown, among other symbolic demands. It seems the primary instigator, Marissa Johnson, was destined to navigate the standpoint bureaucracy well enough, even though she cannot speak for her parents—one of whom is black, both of whom are Tea Party Republicans—to say nothing of African-Americans writ large. Currently, she has a book deal and a business that sells safety pins (among other things) to white liberals who want to performatively display their support for racial justice.
Four years later, during Bernie’s second Presidential campaign, fellow Democratic Socialist Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, distanced herself from the Sanders campaign after the Senator appeared on The Joe Rogan Experience—at that time the most-listened-to podcast in America—because of Rogan’s previous statements which questioned the fairness of transgender women participating in professional female sports and the ethics of allowing children to medically transition. In neither case did Bernie’s record or current positions on the issues raised seem to matter much. Neither did it seem to matter that his economic policies would likely be of great service to the disproportionately poor members of either marginalized group. But there is no use crying over spilled milk, nor over promising political campaigns sabotaged by left-wing blowhards who would sell their grandmother’s Medicare card to see themselves on the front page of the Huffington Post, for that matter.
Of course, this did not start with Bernie. Adolph Reed Jr’s 1984 book The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics detailed Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition—which was theoretically supposed to meld the issues of race and class into a singular movement, uniting blacks, gays, poor whites, and so forth under a populist movement aimed at the elite. The book is an excellent investigation into not only the failed campaign of Jesse Jackson—an important event in the history of the New Left—but the inherent contradictions within the New Left as well. Jackson—the alleged left-wing candidate in the race—adopted right-wing talking points to castigate the AFL-CIO and (by extension) the entire labor movement as a “special interest,” and according to Reed “consistently pitted black aspirations against labor’s, contraposing the two groups as competitors for priority in the party’s distributive queue.” Reed notes that this was not a new phenomenon for Jackson or other black elites at the time, noting that before the presidential election Jackson’s Operation PUSH, the NAACP, the African Methodist Episcopal Church’s Western District, and several black trade and professional associations had orchestrated a boycott break by black and hispanics consumers against the Coors brewery company—the boycott being a measure sponsored by the AFL-CIO amongst a labor dispute with the company—in exchange for Coors redirecting “$625 million in investments into banks, publications, and suppliers owned by black or Hispanic business executives.” He also examines the left and its longstanding fetishization of black people in the United States. He writes:
Exaltation of an idealized view of black folk life and its alleged organicism—most distinctive before the “revolutionary,” turn during the civil rights era—connects with New Left counter culturalists’ imagery of blacks as the embodiment of a more visceral and authentic humanity, with the Students for a Democratic Societies facile identification with the Black Panther Party and the “Third Worldist” mythology of the black-revolutionary-as-urban guerilla, and with more recent ingenuousness concerning the rise of black officialdom.
What Reed’s book demonstrates is that the New Left (which is still the left of today, albeit less aspirational) resulted both in a rising black political class, an increasingly immaterial left and a labor movement completely left out in the dark. This method of “representational” politics has since become the model for all array of ethnic and sexual minorities: Asians, gays, Hispanics, Jews, Arabs, transgender people, women, Native Americans, and so forth. The modern left has become little more than a loose coalition of well-paid lobbyists, academics, consultants, NGO workers, and media personalities along with a reserve army of self-described “grassroots organizers,” gunning for a position within the machine. In some ways, the well-heeled black consultants of the time were lucky because they only had to fight amongst themselves for the spoils of failed leftist political campaigns. Nowadays, anyone with a bit more melanin than Saoirse Ronan or with a boutique self-diagnosed mental illness can appoint themselves spokespeople for this or that constituency and send the invoice accordingly.
Any political movement which seeks to relieve the immiseration of working people must topple the standpoint bureaucracy, not just because it is alienating to working people, but because the social and material interests of its participants are counter to the interests of the working class, who require universal social programs and labor power that can be wielded to defend those programs. Workers do not benefit from the spoils of money and social capital which are routinely handed out to people who look like them, pray like them, and fuck like them. They never have. Trickle-down justice works no more than trickle-down economics for the working class and a left-wing that claims to recognize the inefficacy of the latter but not the former is either lying, ignorant, cowardly, or self-interested. I am a pessimist, but I am not blind. I know there are decent people on the left, though so many, like Nagle, have already been pushed out. But the standpoint bureaucracy is a scourge, and if those decent people who are still around do not have the courage to dismantle it, then there is no future in the left for the working class, because no normal person will sit in that room.