Right-Wing Influence on the Unitarian Universalist Liberal-Left Disagreement (Part II)

This is a follow up to part one, which explored the historical tension and relationship of liberal and leftist communities, both in general and within the Unitarian Universalist faith.

While there is a centuries-long dialogue between liberal and leftist traditions, sometimes constructive and sometimes conflict-ridden, this relationship does not exist in isolation. The political and cultural Right is ideologically opposed to both liberals and leftists, and has benefitted from the two groups being at odds with one another. Reactionary forces have fruitfully employed divide-and-conquer. This continues to the present day. I will examine this largely through the lens of the Unitarian Universalist experience, though trends and events that involve larger milieu will be involved.

Free Speech: Tip of the Spear

I was recommended P. E. Moskowitz’s The Case Against Free Speech (released in August 2019) by a UU minister during our conversations on the rise of white nationalism and the alt-right pipeline. As one might expect, the title is not a comprehensive summary of the content of the book. A key point made is that free speech has been an issue triumphed by the political Right, which uses it in a bad-faith way to support the powerful and allow dangerous groups to organize and propagate.

Unsurprisingly, the Koch Brother(s) are a key engine of this, as this article in the American Prospect makes clear. I’ll quote it at length and bold some of the key points:

You’ve probably heard their arguments before: They claim to be opposed to censorship, “no-platforming” (when people are excluded from online or offline forums because of the views they express), and any attempts to discourage the open expression of ideas. These figures—who self-identify as classical liberals, conservatives, and libertarians—say that their project is completely non-ideological: It’s just about giving everyone a fair hearing.

But these same free-speech warriors went mum earlier this month when one of their own, Canadian psychologist Jordan Peterson, met with Hungarian prime minister Viktor Orban, who has bragged about making Hungary “an illiberal state, a non-liberal state,” and has provoked mass protests for cracking down on academic freedom. Crowder’s defenders have also neglected to mention that he once went with a camera crew to the workplace of a commenter he disagreed with, harassing them and trying to get them fired. Indeed, IDW members and their acolytes have repeatedly fought against allowing those they disagree with a platform to speak.

It’s easy to dismiss the outrage and inconsistency of online free-speech warriors who profit off of controversy. But there’s a more serious and troubling dynamic at play: The “free speech movement,” including not only online pundits but also think tanks, academics, activist groups, and their mainstream popularizers, has always been about free speech for the right—and suppressing the speech of everyone else. It is by and large funded by right-wing billionaires like the Koch brothers, who whip up anger about the “intolerant left” in order to stymie opposition to their social, economic, and political agenda.

Free speech has been a key wedge issue between liberal and leftist communities. This is a very old phenomenon, with the planned Nazi march through the village of Skokie, Illinois being a historical example. The American Civil Liberties Union is proud of its long history of defending hate speech (and actions), being the prototypical liberal organization that looks at right-wing hate through a rights-based framework. The National Lawyers Guild (NLG), which has long been to the left of the ACLU on most issues, has criticized how this defense works in practice, such as the propagation of far-right discourse and hate speech on college campuses. Note that the NLG article refers to the ACLU as “our allies”, indicating that free speech is an issue that can create tension, but does not mean that liberal and left communities need to fragment in the face of right-wing assertiveness.

There are two ways the Right uses free speech to attempt to drive a wedge between liberals and leftists (or between certain degrees and tendencies within those two groups):

  • Latch onto a fringe group without resources. As the Prospect article mentions, there are now a group of “free speech proponents” (largely online, who exploit controversy to make money and enter mainstream conversations) that will promote any view, however marginal it is in the real world. This may not be material supporting them with money, but instead given them massive amounts of free publicity, and making liberal and leftist groups form a response to them (which can foster a divide).
  • Directly fund divisive individuals and groups. The Federalist Society has been enormously influential in driving a rightward turn in the American judiciary, and directly places controversial and/or hateful speakers in places like college campuses. If a divide opens up on how liberals and leftists should respond, it is instigated by the Right. The Right has all the initiative and drives the conversation. When a liberal group like the ACLU expends time, resources, and political capital to defend this speech, it is doing so in service of right-wing aims beyond the speech itself. The Koch brothers and other billionaire reactionaries are wasting a finite amount of liberal and leftist resources.

Leftist Stereotypes and SJW Hysteria

Another tactic these right-wing grifter/propagandists (they’re really one and the same) engage in is to promote left-wing (or “left-wing”) voices in ways that make them seem unreasonable, violent, or otherwise antithetical to “free speech” (the right-wing version that liberals have largely embraced or at least not rejected). There are a few variants of this:

  • Promote a truly marginal view. Sometimes there are just bad takes on social media or protest speeches. These voices are not representative of larger communities or ideologies, they’re just idiosyncratic and flawed. Note that this doesn’t mean the person is a member of a marginalized group, but that the position itself is marginal- one with no real currency among any existing organizing group or collective.
  • Promote a reasonable view but remove its context and otherwise butcher it. You can take a good take on social media or a protest and make it look like the first bullet point through selective editing. We see this all the time with the Project Veritas crowd and its imitators, who have since the ACORN “expose” over a decade ago have infiltrated leftist spaces, recorded usually fairly normal and reasonable statements, and edited them to sound violent or otherwise unhinged.
  • Just falsify a leftist. Creating fake accounts is easy. Instagram influencers do it, governments do it, and so do political propagandists and their billionaire funders. It’s incredibly easy to have a “leftist” Twitter account post something inflammatory, unhinged, or violent and point to it. YouTube personalities like Tim Pool specialize in going through leftist social media that may or may not be completely fake. The outrage certainly is.

The end destination is the same- put liberals on the spot and say “do you agree with what these people are saying?” The result is a trap- as presented, liberals aren’t going to agree with them (at the very least because it’s leftist ideology that has different core principles, but more likely because it’s intentionally presented as poorly thought-out or advocating for violence). The right-wing provocateur and the liberal are thus joined together promoting free speech, and a divide is created between the liberal and the leftist that would not exist, or be as deep and complete, without right-wing interference. As stated in Part I, liberal-left disagreements within Unitarian Universalist communities are historical and will always exist, but they can be manufactured too. Free speech is the best example of an issue that is almost wholly a domain of the right- liberal groups that triumph or defend free speech are frequently doing it in support of right-wing groups, or using right-wing language and terminology. This in some ways resembles fishhook theory, which is a counter to horseshoe theory. Here’s an explainer of the difference in the Pacific Standard:

The main argument for Horseshoe Theory is that both the far left and the far right are opposed to the centrist, neoliberal/capitalist status quo. Communists and fascists in the 1930s criticized the aging imperial democracies of Britain, France, and the United States as weak, corrupt, and—post-Great Depression—as hurtling toward a final collapse. More recently, the argument goes, left-wing radicals opposed centrist Hillary Clinton and France’s Emmanuel Macron. By doing so, they offered de facto (and sometimes more than de facto) aid to racist, nationalist opponents like Trump and Marine Le Pen. We are told that left and right both want to destroy democratic norms and the sensible center. Therefore, Horseshoe Theory says, they work together.

and Fishhook Theory:

Centrists enable fascism with such predictable frequency that the left has come up with an alternative to Horseshoe Theory: Fish Hook Theory. Fish Hook Theory suggests that the political spectrum is shaped like a fish hook, with the left out on one end and the far right bending around like a hook to wind up close to the center.

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Free speech is an example where the alt-right and the center (which if we’re talking truly far-left and far-right ideologies here, liberalism is definitely in the center) converge and differentiate from the right. Liberals are not without principles, though they may also be “moderates” and end up trying to balance two very uneven sides in a way that slides to the right. But these principles can be hijacked. Free speech is an obvious one. Protection of private property is another one- if you hold a liberal, principled defense of private property, then you’ll align with the right when leftists damage security cameras, bank windows, or privatized immigration detention camps. The right has a lot of media salience and a lot of financial backing to make these cleavages happen- they can couch it in reasonable language like “don’t you want freedom of speech?” or “aren’t people entitled to what they’ve earned?”, but this may mean sliding to a right-wing conclusion of those starting points.

An obvious ending point for this series is a discussion of this summer’s major controversy, Rev. Eklof’s The Gadfly PapersLike many people who witnessed the initial fallout of its publication, I don’t want to give the Reverend $7.99 to see whether it’s in fact racist and transphobic (though I believe UU groups when they publish responses calling it that, and those that aren’t friends with him that have written critiques of it). That may be for another day.

White Supremacist Terrorism and the Long Era of Minority Rule

Content Warning: This post discusses mass shootings and other acts of terrorism, along with the racism and xenophobia that surround it.

It is uniquely American that, for record-keeping purposes, I have to mention at the beginning of this post which mass shootings I am writing in response to. When I began forming this post there was white supremacist shooting in El Paso, Texas. That has been joined with another mass shooting, again by a young white man with access to high-end body armor and weaponry, in Dayton, Ohio.

Rev. Susan Frederick-Gray, the president of the Unitarian Universalist Association, noted the importance of naming the ideology of the El Paso shooter, and how that aligned with the policies and rhetoric of the Trump Administration:

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The manifesto of the El Paso shooter indicates that white supremacist violence is an international contagion, wherein earlier shooters form a model, in their rhetoric and actions, for later terrorists. Though most mass shootings, and most mass shootings by white supremacists, happen in the United States, high-profile terrorist acts like the Christchurch shooting earlier this year in New Zealand, and going back further, the violence of Anders Breivik in Norway in 2011, show that this is an international phenomenon in white, developed countries.

Efforts to address white supremacist terrorism at the state level have been largely token, and programs started under President Barack Obama have been either reversed or cut. White supremacist violence has spiked since 2016Even admitting that white supremacists are the top terrorist threat, and that home-grown terrorism is much more an existential threat than Islamic radicalism, remains a political third rail. Thus discussions after white supremacist attacks often avoid ideology and instead talk about mental health and video games (among the right) and gun control measures (among mainstream liberals).

It’s important to avoid political amnesia and treat this phenomenon as uniquely connected to Trump. The Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right by David Neiwert, which talks about white supremacist rhetoric and how it informed violent acts against liberals, people of color, and other communities, was published in May 2009. Even it is quite dated, because of the many acts of violence tied to an ever-radicalizing media and conservative establishment under the Obama Administration. But white supremacist terror has existed my entire lifetime, going back to the Patriot movement of the 1990s and acts like the Oklahoma City federal building bombing.

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The aftermath of the Oklahoma City federal building bombing, 1995. Photo by Preston Chasteen, public domain.

What has existed for a while, and is most nakedly apparent since January 2017, is a rise in state-influenced stochastic terrorism (n.)which is defined as:

the public demonization of a person or group resulting in the incitement of a violent act, which is statistically probable but whose specifics cannot be predicted:
The lone-wolf attack was apparently influenced by the rhetoric of stochastic terrorism.

Acts of terror presently are in essence state-sanctioned, in that the President, and his political party which holds most of the power at the federal level, operate under the same rhetoric and influences.

The increasingly-punitive immigration policy, family separation, and demonization of asylum-seekers, all aim to do the same thing the El Paso shooter was doing-  reverse demographic shifts that lead to white-minority societies.

I’m 29. Of all the presidential elections held in my lifetime (seven of them), the Republican Party has won the popular vote in exactly one of them (2004, which many would argue was the result of a badly botched Democratic campaign). Despite arguments made that the Republican Party needed to broaden its base and become more competitive among non-white populations (which followed consecutive defeats in 2008 and 2012), the Party has just steadily migrated further to the right, becoming even more the party of a particular sub-set of white people. The links between Republicans and evangelicals, forged in 1980, have continued to deepen. 2016 saw the “death of a euphemism“, as the latent white supremacy in conservative arguments about immigration and diversity was brought forward and made the explicit policy of a winning presidential campaign.

The American Right has gained and retained power through victories in low-turnout elections, widespread vote suppression, and policies of intimidation that maximize the political power of an ever-narrowing white majority. In many places, like California where I grew up, and in Texas where the mass shooting was, the society has become “majority-minority”, presaging a time about thirty years from now where the entire country will be white-minority. Texas especially is a point of huge right-wing anxiety, as demographics and organizing make the possibility of Blue Texas more possible, which would fundamentally change American elections. About half of white people are deeply fearful and apprehensive about these demographic shifts. Changes, made clear by developments like a rise in progressive legislators of color, threaten white elite rule“Lone-wolf” stochastic terrorism is just another tactic to sustain minority white rule, one that is at a surface level condemned by the right-wing establishment, but below that is clearly being encouraged.

Some issues that are emerging in the past few years include three shifts in the media landscape:

  • The rise of Sinclair Broadcast Group and its consolidation of local news stationsMany people avoided being radicalized by Fox News- even at its peak, most Americans don’t watch any cable news, including Fox. But an entire population that thought they could trust the local news is instead exposed to a right-wing reactionary politics.
  • The talk-radioization of cable news. The rise of outright white nationalists like Tucker Carlson has made cable news more like the more radical, openly white supremacist talk radio landscape. Talk radio has always been a beta test for televised news- new reactionary arguments emerge there then are laundered into Fox News and Sinclair. The separation between talk radio and TV news has become increasingly blurred.
  • The rise of predatory online reactionaries. As I stated in the “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?” series, especially part IV: Anatomy of a Pipeline, the online right-wing landscape has become filled with figures whose job it is to hook people on far-right politics and talking points. Individuals like Dennis Prager, Ben Shapiro, Dave Rubin and others make their money through radicalization. Spaces like 4chan and 8chan are so toxic now that they are dumping grounds for mass shooter manifestos, like the El Paso shooter’s.
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Photo by Rosemary Ketchum on Pexels.com

Knowing all this, the need for an anti-racist, anti-fascist movement is evermore-urgent. The Lt. Governor of Texas, and Alex Jones both used antifa as a way to deflect from the ideology of the shooter. This is no time to shirk away from anti-fascist organizing, or to have a lengthy debate with bad-faith opponents about antifa on their terms. Anti-fascist groups like Unicorn Riot have helped expose white supremacy through their mass leaking of Discord chat logs, which combined with research helped out hundreds of white supremacist leaders, often in positions of power like the police and military. There needs to be a counter to alt-right groups like the Proud Boys and Patriot Prayer, who engage in campaigns of violence and intimidation, often coming to progressive, diverse communities to do so. And for those who think local police departments will contain alt-right violence, there is ample communication and overlap between alt-right groups and the police.

More must be done than trying to wait out the clock until November 2020. The actors moving to preserve white minority rule never rest. And the policy of the state, and the actions of “lone wolf” terrorists, are ever-more entwined.

 

 

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? III: Fragmentation and Space

Building off of my first two posts in this series (Part I and Part II: Feedback and Insight), I will now explore a phenomenon that either is very recent (if you’re of a certain, younger age) or quite old- the unity and fragmentation of UU spaces.

Unitarian Universalism is very congregation-focused. The question I get all the times by people who are curious is “what is a UU service like?” And any long-time UU knows that’s an impossible question to answer before the service. Congregations vary widely between themselves and week-to-week, as guest ministers and special speakers may deviate sharply from routine. The Unitarian Universalist Association gets a lot of focus put on it, both by external parties and individual congregants, but it comes from a very historically weak legacy. David Robinson, in The Unitarians and the Universalists (1985), says that for many decades in the 19th century, the very idea of a national Unitarian organizing force was viewed with profound suspicion. Obviously, things have changed a great deal since then, but congregations are both very idiosyncratic and hold a lot of authority, both day-to-day and in sending delegates to the General Assembly.

Speaking of General Assembly, it serves as one of the few (some may argue, the only) national-scale space for UUs to gather and cross-pollinate. But even it is restricted- most people don’t attend General Assembly in a given year, many never will. And the space, while national in composition, is also a bubble of sorts. The fallout of Rev. Eklof distributing The Gadfly Papers at this year’s Assembly was confused and chaotic to outside observers. Even myself, someone who considers themselves up-to-date on UU matters, who has a call tomorrow with the Boston University School of Theology to explore a divinity degree, could hardly follow what happened. There were notable statements issued, a wide variety of individual reactions spread over social media, but a lot was lost between GA and the larger whole. Answers like whether the minister was disciplined, on what grounds, by whom, and when, were difficult to come across.

So if General Assembly is not a national space in a true sense, let alone for Unitarians, both ex-pats from North America and indigenous Unitarian traditions, that span the Earth, does such a space exist?

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The evolution of the Internet has made large spaces both easier and more difficult to create. In the early Internet, UU and UU-adjacent listservs and Usenet groups were comparatively universal in reach among those online- there was little in the way of competing platforms. Though the reach of the Internet has grown spectacularly in essentially a quarter-century, the rise of competing, proprietary corporate-created social media platforms has fragmented the spaces where Unitarian Universalists discuss the faith. Much of the online population remains on Facebook, where privacy settings tend to keep discussion within certain boundaries. I have very few UU Facebook friends, so most discussion of the religion, for me, comes from public pages like DRUUMM and Black Lives of UU. And even then, like many millennials I spend little time on Facebook compared to other platforms like Twitter, Discord, and Instagram. A lot is being said, but it replicates the congregational structure rather than breaks through it, with the exception of certain individuals whose contacts span multiple areas and churches.

Spaces that could be more inclusive, like Reddit, are now breaking apart rather than coming together. A splinter of the /r/UUReddit community formed this week, in reaction to more stringent rules about hateful conduct and bad faith arguments tactics like sea lioning and ‘just asking questions’. This is not the only splintering of UU space there has been, just the most recent. Fragmentation is born of fragility, especially white fragility. Certain groups are unwilling to move forward and instead retreat backwards towards a mythical, pre-political, pre-anti-racist church.

An attempt is being made by myself and others to reach out, find both old allies and new potential Unitarian Universalists. The UU Discord chat server (join by clicking the invite link here) started from a suggestion on Reddit, but has matured into an autonomous community including ministers, divinity students, lay leaders, congregants, and people who just found out about UUism fifteen minutes ago and have all kinds of questions.  It skews young, as existing Discord users are likely to be podcast listeners or gamers. Recently the Discord launched a Twitch stream, which besides the usual game playthroughs has great potential as a source of new UU content- book clubs, worship services, discussions, and much else can be done streaming for a live audience all over the world.

There are efforts made to make a larger, distinctly UU space. A recurring motif in welcoming new users to the Discord is “why didn’t I know about Unitarian Universalism ten years ago”. There is a need for more visibility, even if UUs will forever shun the kind of door-to-door evangelizing that other faiths practice. People find the faith when they find it, but it could have been a great source of affirmation, comfort, and support had they known about it during prior crisis moments in their lives. This means reaching out, both within and beyond the UU community.

Unitarian Universalism, if active in online spaces, can also be a counter to alt-right radicalization with a voice encouraging principles of equality, inherent worth, and love in our living tradition. If there is no UU content on a platform, that is just more space for the reactionaries- we cannot expect billion-dollar profit-seeking corporations to keep the alt-right in check. We must be active directly.

As Mario Savio implored to humankind, both then and now, on the steps of Sproul Hall at UC Berkeley in 1964:

There is a time when the operation of the machine becomes so odious, makes you so sick at heart, that you can’t take part. You can’t even passively take part! And you’ve got to put your bodies upon the gears and upon the wheels, upon the levers, upon all the apparatus, and you’ve got to make it stop! And you’ve got to indicate to the people who run it, to the people who own it — that unless you’re free, the machine will be prevented from working at all! (Source)

It is unlikely that a vote or a petition will shut down the alt-right pipeline.

It’s up to us.

A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right? II: Feedback and Insight

Five days ago, I released my first blog post in a long time (a very long time if we’re talking about UU-related content), “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. I’ve had one other UU post be as popular as this prior, 2014’s “Remaking Unitarian Universalism: Go big, or go home”. So it’s interesting five years later to see the same viral-like spreading of my post throughout social media. Like before, people I know tell me they’ve read it without me showing it to them. It’s already in their circles.

I could tell that people were reading, based on the slight uptick in blog views in the past few days:

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Unfortunately, since UUs predominately use Facebook, most of the shares (and thus comments) of this piece, 37 shares in all, are private and I can’t learn from them or give you any sort of meaningful response to them. I’ve had some listserv messages, blog comments, Facebook messenger contacts, and the UU Discord server. But a lot of what’s been said, I can’t see. I respect their privacy if these conversations wanted to remain hidden, but also if they’re critical comments in particular, I can’t give any sort of apology or explanation here.

Here’s what I’ve learned:

  • I’m not crazy. People generally agree that a) alt-right language appears in conversations in UU circles, both in real life and online, and b) this is not confined to a few very loud cranks. What I see is the surface of something that happens in many congregations. Since we’re a strongly local-power faith, what the UUA leadership says and the congregational leadership do can be very different.
  • People are fed up. The alt-right language and citing of people like Jordan Peterson or alt-right pipeline people makes some people really ticked off. The current state of things is not sustainable- I’m reminded of the opening to W.B Yeats’ “The Second Coming:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity

  • This kind of language and conduct cuts across demographics. Seminary students are reading Peterson, older congregants talk down about identity politics, people of all gender identities and sexual orientations are possibly drawn to these arguments. It’s not just about dialogue of a certain group- solutions need to be much more nationally-scaled.

Let me respond to what I think is the one critique I was sent that I think was made in good faith and is not just white fragility manifesting itself. My post was not meant to be ageist, if you felt it was, I’m sincerely sorry. Let me quote myself to show how I think I argue specifically against the ageist explanation:

I think a simple generational model isn’t sufficient. It’s not that older congregants are stuck in the past, and younger congregants have a clearer understanding of anti-racism in 2019. People can learn and evolve, and younger people can inherit older ideas of thinking about anti-racist action from their families or the mainstream narratives in schools and society at large. There’s also a large group of people who are too young to have been socialized in the 1960s, but aren’t millennials and aren’t being socialized now. The end result is a jumble. Pretty much everyone knows that, this isn’t new.

I think a good-faith reading of that indicates a lack of age prejudice. The people specifically calling it ‘ageist’ have bones to pick with me on both religion and politics, so I think it may be more a weapon to win a debate than a substantial critique.

Here are some more solutions that I came up with talking with people about the piece:

  • Establish covenants of right relations. These covenants establish standards of behavior within a congregation and open opportunities for dialogue, and calling us back to shared values. It also sets definitions and consequences of disruptive behavior. Setting these covenants up before people bring in alt-right rhetoric and its associated harmful actions is preferable to dealing with disruptive congregants ad-hoc, which can lead to the appearance of, or reality of, unfairness.
  • Establish a more robust UU social media presence. Many congregations record services, either audio or video. Every congregation that records material should publish it, edited well, each week on YouTube and link to it on Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. The Church of the Larger Fellowship, the UU Discord, or another group could also use the streaming service Twitch to hold virtual services and religious education. The robust chat service in Twitch rooms allows for people all over the country to join in worship, conversation, and education. It’s also an excellent fundraising platform- a leftist YouTuber named HBomberguy raised $340,000 recently for a trans charity by playing Donkey Kong 64 for over two days.
  • Decide how to deal with provocative speech that seems to have some sort of right-wing or alt-right definition or nature to it. The Gadfly papers hurricane at General Assembly this year indicates that there are good and bad ways to try to start a conversation about controversial ideas. Had it been written in a different tone, with different vocabulary, and introduced and distributed earlier with more forewarning, I bet it would have been more fully engaged with- rather than the intolerant gunk it turned out to be.Decide as a congregation, if someone comes up using alt-right language, what is the protocol? Is there a committee of communications set up? Is there a person to report to that’s not a minister? How does a congregation determine a) whether such language is alt-right in nature, b) how disruptive it really is, and c) if it could lead to unhealthy action.

These are only a few ideas. If people have further feelings, feel free to tweet at me or DM me on my Twitter (@MackayUnspoken), or join the UU Discord where I’m user “LeftistUU’. I feel that there is a need to have a dialogue that doesn’t concede to the right, and in the process jeopardize our Principles, but also recognizes that people whose language and behavior has negative impacts on communities of color may have good intentions. We have to move beyond intentions, to impact. Because unless the impact is positive, an action cannot be morally defended in a complete way.

 

 

The legacy of George Carlin and “political correctness”

Content Warning: Some of the links in this post contain potentially offensive content. Please be advised that this is an attempt to be instructive and not to harm anyone or further hurtful language and stereotypes.

This is not a direct sequel to my last post, “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?“, but I want to discuss another aspect of the core of that post. “Political correctness’ is another term that has multiple, contradictory meanings to different groups, but has definitely been pulled toward the right in recent years, and is often debated using at least some reactionary assumptions about what it entails. To illustrate how political correctness has a multiplicity of meanings, and is a term that should be contested by progressives, I’m going to talk about one of the great “political incorrect” figures of the 20th and early 21st centuries.

George Carlin died in 2008, when I was a junior in high school. I had discovered him shortly before, and watched his HBO specials in chronological order, covering from the mid-1970s to shortly before his death. I was into “edgy” content and visited sites like 4chan during that time- though at the time of things like their protests against Scientology, rather than the current white nationalist version of the site today. Carlin is part of the reason that when I grew disillusioned with the presidency of Barack Obama, I drifted left rather than right. I found Unitarian Universalism in late 2009, and that has been transformative. My 2008 self is hard to recognize these days, but Carlin is a key figure in it.

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Carlin signing his book, Brain Droppings. From Wikipedia, CC BY-SA 4.0 license.

A lot of tributes to Carlin were published last year for the 10th anniversary of his death. Along with the release of some previously unpublished material, much was made of his place as a “politically incorrect” comedian. The “Seven Words You Can Never Say On Television” routine is historically important; it was also genuinely about free speech, as the Supreme Court determined that the government had certain powers to control what was said on public airwaves. The basis of his reputation, to people who only knew him for that, was about the 1st Amendment- not “free speech” arguments done in bad faith by the right today about being unable to spread hate on private social media websites.

Here’s an oft-circulated quote by Carlin on political correctness, which I’m going to work off of. It’s been appropriated, mostly by the right and alt-right, but that’s based on a simplistic reading- if not an outright misreading:

Political correctness is America’s newest form of intolerance, and it is especially pernicious because it comes disguised as tolerance. It presents itself as fairness, yet attempts to restrict and control people’s language with strict codes and rigid rules. I’m not sure that’s the way to fight discrimination. I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech. (source)

The core of Carlin’s work, from the beginning to the end, and in essentially every one of his televised specials, was the misuse or perversion of language. He opened a special with the awful contradictions in people calling themselves “pro-life” while supporting death squads in Central America, the death penalty, and generally being against financial support for all people, especially children. He talked about the transformation of terminology for traumatic experiences in warfare- from “shell shock” to “battle fatigue” to ultimately “post-traumatic stress disorder”. His point wasn’t that PTSD is made up or that people don’t suffer from it, but that something key was being lost in the technical language. Carlin wanted to get the truth, ugly as it was, over papering over systematic racism and inequality with changes in word use.

Note the end of that quote- “I’m not sure silencing people or forcing them to alter their speech is the best method for solving problems that go much deeper than speech.” This is an acknowledgement that these problems are deep, institutional ones. No amount of language change will protect black men from the police, or end urban and rural poverty. The right wants “free speech” to punch down and use language to hurt people, all while endorsing a personal responsibility narrative and labeling people who are suffering “snowflakes” or “bums” for their poverty, their anguish, their sense of violation.

Carlin punched up. The Reagan administration being a criminal gang. Wall Street bankers laundering drug money made from an epidemic that was destroying inner city communities of color. Organized religion abusing children and conning people out of their money with fire and damnation language. Compared to the recent special by Nick Di Paolo- an hour of white grievances, complaints about social justice warriors, and promotional material that made light of a murdered activist, Carlin is not cut from the same cloth. Those influenced by him have gone a variety of directions with his style and manner- Louis C.K opened a special with a routine that involved saying several slurs multiple times for comedic effect. After his history of gross sexual acts was made public, he returned to the circuit with a Di Paolo-esque right-wing sensibility based on cheap shock value and intolerance. Others have evolved, and emerged with a more thoughtful comedy that tries to move beyond the surface level shock value. The growth of Sarah Silverman from her early days of stereotype jokes to her most recent, introspective special on NetflixA Speck of Dust, shows an alternative way to take Carlin.

Observational comedy can be done at a very superficial level. Attempts to ape Seinfeld routines often stop at pointing out something strange and pausing for a laugh. Carlin was not observational, he was analytical. He went beneath the strangeness of modern society, and talked about what lay beneath. He wasn’t didactic and he didn’t explain the joke and ruin it. It’s just he had something more substantial to say than many of his contemporaries, and those that have taken “political incorrectness” as their standard in 2019. Was he politically incorrect? Absolutely. Did that mean he rejected things like social justice, healthcare and education, protection for the vulnerable, and anti-racism? Absolutely not.

Was Carlin perfect? No, there is plenty to find in his massive corpus that hasn’t aged well, or wasn’t good even within its own time. But he showed that being politically incorrect doesn’t just mean sliding down the alt-right pipeline. It’s not playing to majority anger at people of color and LGBTQIA individuals. It’s not lazy stereotypes and slurs for pure shock value. He believed in free speech in a more genuine way than the alt-right does today- who when they hold power immediately move to punish and criminalize people and speech they don’t agree with.

My end point links back to “A Unitarian Universalist Pipeline to the Right?”. Decades of a deregulated media dominated by right-wing finance capital has imbued language with a decidedly right-wing flavor. If you meet someone upset about “political correctness” today, it is likely has regressive roots. But speech is important- what you say and how you say it can change relationships and society at large. However, we cannot adopt the reactionary mindset and debate on their terms. They cannot be compromised with in good faith, because they are and never have been acting in good faith. Language must be reclaimed, and dialogue should be based on coming together and agreeing on common principles and definitions. Otherwise progressives are left defending unfair caricatures, not real moral stances. There is nothing to be gained in that.

The Status Quo Time Loop

The one unifying characteristic of both Donald Trump’s campaign and those who have mobilized to stop him is the concept of change. This is not piercing insight. Trump promises to remake how America relates to both itself and the rest of the world. Most of “the resistance” talks about unprecedented organization, a new type of activism. This rhetoric remains the same, whether the speaker is a loyal Democrat or an ardent revolutionary.

But one must always be wary of false promises. The opposition linked to the Democratic Party may march alongside radicals, but at the end of the day their participation is linked to getting people and money to win the 2018 midterms. Policy is not a major part of the pitch. Stop Trump, priorities #1, #2, and #3.

This focus on becoming the opposition to a person, rather than an ideology, is dangerous. Fortunately, we have lessons from history. In David Broder’s piece in Jacobin, “Being Anti-Trump Isn’t Enough”, he takes the example of Italy, whose politics have been dominated for over twenty years by Trump-esque populist Silvio Berlusconi. In a short time, the former Communist Party had shifted so far to the right that they mirrored the Democrats, both in their party name and outlook. They upheld neoliberalism and austerity, and focused on Berlusconi’s scandals and outrageous statements, attempting to win disaffected conservatives. The Left atrophied, no longer being seen as a way to power. And all this concerted campaign against one man did was reinforce the status quo and produce weak, unstable governments.

The election of Tom Perez as DNC chair, along with subsequent events, shows that the Democratic establishment wants to roll into 2018 with the same outlook and message that lost them the 2016 election (well, and the 2010, 2012, and 2014 ones too, minus Obama’s re-election). The energy created by Trump’s election among progressives is fuel for an attempt to reintroduce the status quo. And if the Democratic Party gets its wish, the time loop restarts- the status quo doesn’t work for many people, right-wing populist seizes on this disaffection, gains power, creates opposition, opposition funneled to Democratic Party.

Whatever your opinion on Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign, he was offering a possible way out of this time loop. Fixing the major social and economic problems in the country, or at least trying to, helps prevent another Trump down the line. With the current strategy, the Democrats aim to fight the same divisive election every two years, with climate change and a hundred other serious problems charging through unfixed.