The Progressive or Bust movement recently published a provocative, thought-provoking new meme–one that compares progressives’ treatment by neoliberals in the Democratic Party to the double standard racist whites used against whites in the Jim Crow South. Unsurprisingly, because the meme so forcefully challenges their worldview, Democratic Party liberals were quick to brand it inappropriate and racist. Here’s my response.
Liberals Want Shock to End Conversations; We Want It to Start Them
Progressive or Bust —Bernie or Bust’s successor movement–just started publishing a provocative, controversial new meme. Even if you’re aware of us, and sympathetic to our movement’s aims, our meme’s willingness to tread on tabooed racial turf may have shocked you. We have no right to complain or get angry about that; as political revolutionaries seeking to kill off the “sacred cows” of destructive old thought patterns and replace them with new ones, occasionally giving shock is an inevitable part of our job.
And, I’d be dishonest not to admit, it’s a part of the job I personally relish. At Progressive or Bust, we strongly believe that even noble-purposed, peaceful revolution can befun. See, just as in violent revolution, you still get to blow things up. Only–as in the present case–the “things” you get to blow up are often people’s false and paralyzing worldviews. But don’t think for one second you don’t get all the joys of creating “shock and awe.” You just don’t get to leave behind the rubble of pulverized cities or legions of dead foreign bodies. That’s a job for neocons and neoliberals.
Which brings us to our current topic. At Progressive or Bust, we believe that the Democrat liberal model of identity politics, with the paralyzing, knee-jerk censorship it imposes on thought and language, has to go. Not only has it turned liberal Democrats into the worst of moral Pharisees, self-righteously thumping their chests as they blithely condone the grave evils of economic inequality, mass incarceration, climate destruction, unconstitutional surveillance, and endless war, but it has widened the very racial breaches it falsely claims to bridge.
Our daring new meme–inevitably shocking to minds shaped by liberal identity politics (and what progressive’s mind to some extent isn’t?)–seeks to explode that outmoded, degrading worldview and replace it with a mindset far better suited to a “new civil rights movement for all.”
MLK’s Liberal Embalmers and Their Sick Cult of Victimization
In his fascinating, controversial bookBreaking the Spell, atheist philosopher Daniel Dennett discusses the idea that human religions themselves are memes–bundles of beliefs and practices that are, like organisms or genes, capable of replicating themselves and evolving to better ensure their own survival. (Indeed, it’s from scientists’ and philosophers’ original depiction of memes as “social replicators” that we get the more familiar, popular usage of memes for catchy combos of pictures and captions spread via social media.)
Now, as builders of a progressive movement seeking to span differences (including religious ones) between people, the last thing we at Progressive or Bust wish to do is take sides with Dennett and his fellow atheists against religious believers. And while I personally find his skeptical analysis of “the sacred” important and intend to make good use of it against liberal Democrats, I’m not exactly comfortable with the view that “nothing is sacred” and am in no hurry to see humanity go there. Indeed, as a progressive I find something meriting the term “sacred” about our common humanity and feel typical liberals sin deeply against that common humanity by investing such necessarily divisive categories as race, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and gender–especially when allied with victimization–with an undeserved sacredness and all the related taboos. This is where Dennett’s analysis will prove crucial.
For our purposes, the key fact Dennett cites is that successful religions, like other successful memes, evolve use “good tricks” to ensure their own survival and reproduction. And these good tricks are useful to the survival of those religions whether or not they have any real value for human beings; indeed, as an atheist Dennett is deeply interested in the hypothesis that religions are harmful “parasites” that prey on their human “hosts.” But whether religions are ultimately helpful, harmful, or neutral for people–and as a devotee of the scientific method, Dennett is willing to explore all three hypotheses–all successful religions develop (or “evolve”) certain “good tricks” that help them win the struggle for survival among literally thousands of historically competing options. One such widely observed “good trick,” common to many religions living or now extinct, is the concept of “the sacred.” And the sacred is always related to concept of taboo: there are certain things that it’s forbidden to examine too closely–or even think or talk about. Obviously, the concept of the sacred (whatever its ultimately justification) plays a vital role in helping religious beliefs and practices survive, by shielding them from potentially destructive scrutiny and critique.
Now, any tightly packaged bundle of ideas and practices–like a political ideology or philosophy–is open to the same sort of “meme” analysis that Dennett applies to religions. And for critics of liberal Democrats’ identity politics, like members of Progressive or Bust, this is precisely where the rubber meets the road. We believe that identity liberals have successfully propagated a religion-like cult–one incapable of surviving rational scrutiny) around the “sacred” (and necessarily divisive) concepts of race, gender, ethnicity, sexual orientation, and, above all, victimization. We feel that if our meme shocks you, it’s not because–as knee-jerk liberals insist–there’s anything racist, white-privileged, or morally questionable about it, but because we’ve dared violate a “sacred” taboo by drawing a potent analogy between progressives’ treatment as second-class citizens in the Democratic Party and blacks’ treatment as lesser human beings in the Jim Crow South.
Progressive or Bust would argue that this religious cult of “sacred victims”–to the point that no other victims can even analogously be like them–is inherently divisive, harms the development of mutual sympathy and understanding between races, and makes a mockery of Martin Luther King’s heritage by making the civil rights movement itself taboo “sacred history,” unavailable for reference or replication by other human rights activists. In this model, King himself becomes a black-issues-only “plaster saint” rather than than the race-transcending crusader for peace and economic justice he in reality was.
And, we’d add, political cover by self-righteous liberals for neoliberal Democrat politicians who share none of King’s universalist concern for peace and economic justice. Or the desire to combat climate change he likely would have shared had he lived to our day.
Usable History: The Civil Right’s Movement as Everyone’s Common Heritage
For people schooled by identity liberals–as most of us have been–Progressive of Bust’s violation of identity liberal taboos is truly shocking. But–to make another tabooed analogy–we hope it, like Rosa Parks’s shocking move to the front of the bus, is truly liberating.
For analogies–essential to effective human thought–are themselves liberating, and we feel the daring ones we’re making are long overdue. Sacred victimization based on race is truly divisive, for those of us who are white can never experience Jim Crow, can never grow up black in a still-racist society, and can never be free of the white privilege entailed in not having to. But that is simply not our fault, and nothing harms race relations more than making us uncomfortable for not being victims of racism, or making us feel guilty for not being black. To treat black people primarily as victims made sacred by their skin color removes all possible common bonds we could have with them, all possible interest, based on our common humanity and common sense of justice, in improving their plight. By contrast, analogies with their experience give us a way of relating to it, of imaginatively feeling our way into it. Provided, of course, those analogies are used properly.
An improper use of Progressive or Bust’s meme–one we strongly discourage–is to see political progressives in the Democratic Party as suffering the same type or intensity of pain as U.S. blacks in the Deep South, as being victims in anything like a comparable sense. But no analogy is ever perfect, and for many of us, our main suffering at the hands of Democrat neoliberals is simply frustration and inconvenience, not the scourge of real second-class citizenship in an openly racist society. But that’s simply common sense, and we have to ask why anyone in their right mind would read our meme as a whiny, entitled claim to sacred victimhood. The answer, we believe, is the suspension of reason and common sense, due to unhealthy training in identity liberals’ “sacred victim” cult. Once you’ve shrugged off the initial shock, it’s easy to understand the meme as intended.
The meme is about a harmful double standard and a type of purely political “second-class citizenship,” but, if interpreted fair-mindedly and with common sense, it’s not in the least about whiny, privileged whites claiming parallel “sacred victimization” with genuinely oppressed blacks in the Jim Crow South. Rather than demean their civil rights struggle (which, by MLK’s design, enlisted many whites), the meme means to honor it as a needed and noble one; we invoke that struggle not to demean, but to elevate the struggle of progressives against neoliberals as one not of comparable suffering, but of highly comparable necessity and nobility.
For the struggle of progressives against neoliberals is in effect the struggle of Naomi Klein’s climate justice vision and against the corrupt neoliberal capitalism tyrannizing over both U.S. major parties, and we at Progressive or Bust have little doubt which side of that struggle Martin Luther King would be on. If you wish to follow Dr. King’s example–rather than practice a futile, divisive politics of “sacred victimization” and thought and language taboos–come join Progressive or Bust.
Patrick Walker is co-founder of Revolt Against Plutocracy (RAP) and the Bernie or Bust movement it spawned. Before that, he cut his activist teeth with the anti-fracking and Occupy Scranton PA movements. No longer with RAP, he actively seeks collaborators to build a Bernie or Bust successor movement–one dedicated to fighting neoliberals of both parties (but especially neoliberal Democrats) under Trump. A happily if belatedly married man, Patrick resides with his wife, stepdaughter, and three beloved Sheltie dogs in Williamsville, NY.