Thursday, June 20, 2013

Rick Perlstein on Glenn Greenwald (and the Perils of Purism)

At The Nation, Rick Perlstein takes on the purism (my word, not Perlstein's) of Glenn Greenwald and some of his followers:

Now, am I "Democratic partisan"? Maybe a little bit, sometimes. In the final analysis, yes, Rick Perlstein prefers a strong Democratic Party to a weak one. That said, I think I understand more clearly than most the corporate corrosions that make it such a pathetic vehicle for those who aspire to justice. Unfortunately, given the rules of the American political game, people who try to participate by self-righteously refusing to identify with one or the other of the two parties are like people who say they love to play baseball but refuse to join a team. The name of this game—a loooooong game—is ideological civil war for the soul of each party. And one you can’t win if you don’t play. I don’t write that because I’m a partisan, or because I prefer a two-party system. I write that because I think it’s true.

And, though I admire Greenwald and listen carefully to everything he has to say, I think Perlstein deserves careful attention here, too. There is a long-noted tendency in many progressive movements and progressive communities to draw hard and fast ideological lines between officially approved positions and officially approved people, and unmentionable positions and people. This purist tendency, which has for me echoes of both gnosticism (I know better than you, just because) and Manicheanism (my way or no way), assures the impotence of progressivism in the United States.

Anti-religious progressive thinkers scorn religious ones and read them out of the movement. Just because. Or vice versa. People of color refuse to work with gay folks. Just because. And vice versa. Progressive women won't collude with progressive men. Just because. Or vice versa. Liberals in the educated and powerful cultural centers of the nation paying attention to folks working for progressive change in the heartland? Unthinkable. What possible good can come out of Nazareth?

Call for conversation that permits many voices to be heard respectfully, and you're likely to be told by those who are rigidly attached to their own gnostic insights that you've impugned their integrity. It's a personal issue, your call for wide listening after they had made their declarations, they maintain--since evidently there's no need to place insight against insight and piece of information against piece of information and sift everything for nuggets of truth, when one of us who simply knows the truth has spoken infallibly.

Nothing about this is a formula for success in dealing with powers that be which are rich, wily, deeply entrenched, and perfectly capable of setting faction against faction among those challenging them. As the National Organization for Marriage has proven in spades in recent years, the venerable tactic, the most cherished reflex reaction, of ruling groups whose hegemony is under attack--Divide et impera!--remains very alive and very well in the American political context. And highly successful, precisely because of the unwillingness of people working for the same cause from different starting points to listen respectfully to each other across ideological lines, and, more importantly, to support each other.

Nothing that I'm saying here is about a cheap pragmatism in which principles shift about in a loosey-goosey way as the prevailing ideological winds blow in new directions. I'm not talking about refusing to stand by one's core principles and to draw lines in the sand when needed. 

What I'm talking about is the fatuity of drawing those lines in the sand inside progressive movements, among people with whom one should be allies--rather than drawing them in the sand as we all deal, together, with political foes against whom we should be resolutely united. Because, as Perlstein says, the battle for the soul of the nation (or of the churches, to shift the focus) is a loooooong game. And the short, smug, very self-satisfying game of ideological purism and ritual purges of those who should be our allies in the long game is a stupid and self-defeating one.

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