An Essay Disguised as a Reading Roundup*

The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier / Vanity Fair / Lloyd Grove

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Wayward Intellectual Finds God / New York Times / Sam Tenenhaus

Growing up, I wanted nothing more than the sort of literary success a man like Leon Wieseltier enjoyed. If there’s anything redeeming about this, it’s that my sought-after fantasy was less elitist than Wieseltier’s reality — as a teenager in western Pennsylvania, I assumed success lay somewhere between Henry Miller’s Parisian destitution, Ernest Hemingway’s Parisian destitution, and…James Baldwin’s Parisian destitution. A limited vision, admittedly, but what I got right, as did Wieseltier, was grasping a central element defining American literary success of the type my idols had achieved: that one is a man.

Which created complications for me, a woman. I imbibed story after story about heroic men and their romantic exploits — when not reading the novels of Baldwin, Camus, Dickens, Faulkner, Hemingway, Kerouac, Miller, or Steinbeck, I was reading their memoirs, their letters, their notes. And with each new influence came further confirmation of my quandary: masculinity seemed to be key to their ingenuous lives and work; while women entered into their stories, in some cases as mythical sources of desire, in others as desultory bodies to fuck, and very occasionally as admirably full characters (rarely, but it happened), women did not write the stories.

What was a teenage girl to do? I’m sure every young woman resolved this differently — or ideally, never had this trouble thanks to reading more women writers than I was exposed to — but for me, I internalized the values of my idols. Women were frail, distractions, hangers-on; I’d become masculine, independent. And I did. I grew to resent other women and resent myself whenever I had a thought or desire that didn’t fit with my vision of how these men lived. I couldn’t be a woman. After all, if I were, I’d never produce anything worthwhile.

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I’d never heard the name Leon Wieseltier before this month. While I’ve always had a literary bent, some combination of my feeling that it’s unbecoming for a left-winger to dally too deeply in the elitist universe of high literature and my inescapable lack of a social pedigree that could familiarize me with that world, kept me from knowing many of the most recognizable names in the American literary pedigree, of which Wieseltier, apparently, was one.

So after reading his name, first, on a list of men who sexually harassed women, and next, in articles about how he was the latest victim of the ongoing societal “moment” of outing serial sexual harassers, I went looking for information about who Wieseltier was to those who had known his name in connection to a pursuit other than sexual harassment.

I found two profiles of Wieseltier (there are surely many more, but I wasn’t willing to give infinite time to a now-disgraced man; after all, hadn’t he taken too much time from too many young women already?). One is from Vanity Fair in 1995, the other from the New York Times, 1999.

Both profiles are laudatory, even when criticizing Wieseltier, in the way that writing a profile of anyone is an act that offers its subject the benefits of national attention.

I’m not interested in retrospectively reading into twenty-year-old profiles a “gotcha” of the future Wieseltier (although sentences like “For Wieseltier, the tension between the scholarly and the sensual is not easily resolved” from the Times profile certainly lend themselves to such a reading). Rather, it’s the “type” of which Wieseltier is exemplar that I want to consider.

The Vanity Fair profile is skeptical of its subject from the start: its headline reads “The Very Busy, Very Unproductive Life of Leon Wieseltier,” and indeed, it’s hard to finish the profile without questioning whether Wieseltier is a fraud. The story quotes celebrity after celebrity praising Wieseltier’s genius — Ruth Bader Ginsburg tells us “I like his mind,” Wyton Maralis insists upon our subject’s soulfulness — and yet, no quote as to Wieseltier’s character sticks out so much as that from his only celebrity detractor in the piece.

On the phone from Ravello, Italy, Gore Vidal makes alarming retching noises.

“YEEECCCCCH!” he exclaims the moment Wieseltier is mentioned. “I’ve not got a strong stomach! This name is literally nauseous, as in ‘creating nausea.’”

Won’t Vidal at least give Wieseltier his due for likability?

“He’s a social climber!” Vidal proclaims. “You’ve got to learn some skills!”

Vidal, in many ways a model for the man Wieseltier aspires to be — infamous, beloved, controversial, a loud-mouthed asshole, but a genius nonetheless — suggests an alternative reading of the source of Wieseltier’s renown: his elevation is a matter of fashion and trend, rather than of substance.

Similarly, in the New York Times profile, we read of Wieseltier’s position at the center of “Washington’s glitterati.” Mentions are made of how interesting Wieseltier is, even as note is also made that he continues to struggle to produce what sounds like a painfully boring book on “sighing,” a subject that’s mentioned in the four-years-earlier Vanity Fair profile, too.

Read back-to-back, these profiles suggest a fake, a man who only standout qualities seem to be that he saw how thin the basis for insider status in America’s elite cultural and literary circle is, and ensured he aped the norms and tastes of this circle convincingly enough to become one of its darlings.

Which calls into question the judgement of this circle itself. It’s hard to believe so many smart people were simply repeating a fashionable opinion in praising the man.

While I have since grown up and lost my desire to enter the high-literary world (as well as learned of the many women writers — and organizers — after whom I much prefer to model myself), reading about Wieseltier reminded me of the kernel of truth in what I knew as a teenager: the intellectual world is made for men. Reading of how Wieseltier considered women “second tier to male intellectuals,” of his sequence of “extremely beautiful, alluring girlfriends,” and elsewhere, of how he was “linked to an astonishing array of prominent women,” I can’t help wondering if the bullshit rubrics used by the elites who anointed him “brilliant” are hard-wired to reward men who treat women as disposable, to see in such behavior a reflection of brilliance, or at least, to view a “brilliant” man as enhanced by his ability to behave as Wieseltier did toward women. The remarkably similar allegations against Knight Landesman, Artforum‘s publisher, and Loren Stein, the Paris Review‘s editor in chief, suggest as much.

Ours is a supposed era of sexual freedom. We’re supposed to encourage women to pursue whatever sexual behavior suits them. And while I do, reality is not nearly so straightforward. Women who sleep around like Wieseltier risk having whatever success they achieve attributed to their willingness to “fuck their way to the top” (a charge that, unsurprisingly, comes up precisely zero times in the profiles of Wieseltier; indeed, it’s laughable to imagine such an accusation against a heterosexual man). Moreover, perhaps we should question a culture that so glories in a type of man who, by all looks of it, wielded his reputation as a means to ensure women accepted his abuse. Perhaps we, women, are now under pressure to accept our role as the arm candy of “brilliant” men if we want to get ahead, and perhaps, from the outside, that looks identical to a new sexual freedom for women even as it operates almost identically to the sexism in which our intellectual lineages are steeped.

Anyway, I don’t mean to dismiss women’s agency, or cast aspersions upon anyone in particular — aside from Wieseltier, at whom everyone should feel free to lob as many insults as they want — but the ongoing revelations (or confirmations, depending on how prevalent you thought sexual harassment was prior to last month) of sexual misconduct in elite circles suggest it’s past time to consider the possibility that we aren’t all making choices in a friction-less vacuum. Women, even prestigious women, may be choosing to live as best they can from a constricting set of options, options that tell them — okay, that tell us — to accept terms and standards built for men, even if some women can meet them now too.

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Julien Baker Believes in God / New Yorker / Rachel Syme

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Somethin’ Slick Goin’ On: The Proletarian Funk of Johnny “Guitar” Watson / Viewpoint / Dominick Knowles

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The Inescapable Fats Domino / New Yorker / Amanda Petrusich

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Letter of Recommendation: Detroit Techno / New York Times / Shuja Haider

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Everything is Embarrassing: On Loving The National / NYLON / Helena Fitzgerald

Having morosely dwelt upon an unpleasant topic above — and, for those who follow my work, here and here and here and here and here — I leave you with five essays about five very different types of music. Happy Halloween, happy fall, don’t get too depressed about everything, it’s just the weather and the news and the poverty making you feel that way, etc.

*I originally wrote this is on November 1, 2017, on my other site, a Patreon, but having shut that site down, I’m re-posting it here for the sake of keeping things all in the same place.

The Boston Globe Defends the Harvard Administration’s Class War

globes

Three writers at the Boston Globe signed their name to an article that ran in Tuesday’s edition of the paper, coinciding with the start of a strike by the dining hall workers at Harvard University, represented by UNITE HERE Local 26. The headline reads, “Harvard strike could be seen as a battle against the 1 percent. It’s not.”

It is. These writers don’t substantiate this argument in the body of the piece. Because they can’t. Harvard University is one of the wealthiest and most powerful institutions in the Boston area, the United States, and the world. The authors even do the math for us, writing “Harvard’s $35.7 billion endowment is bigger than the economies of nearly 100 countries.”

That’s right: Harvard’s endowment is big enough to give it the economic power of a major player in the global economy, and that’s without accounting for the social and political elites who would hold citizenship in such a gold-plated country, with alumni status presumably the passport needed for entry. One-percenter status – no, 0.01% status – has never been so obvious.

Rather than dispute this, the authors focus on the conditions of the dining hall workers who are striking for better compensation and working conditions. Citing arguments put forward by the university administration – the boss in this labor dispute – they note that “its average dining hall worker makes nearly $22 an hour,” translating to $30,000 per year.

As one of their demands, the workers are arguing that any worker able to work year-round deserves $35,000 a year (again, this is at an institution with a $36 billion endowment).

This demand is excessive in the eyes of our dear frugal journalists.

Never mind that Vaccaro and Woolhouse, the first two names on the byline, regularly write for the Business section of the Globe, making it hard to believe they don’t make more than $30k a year. While Yoo, the third name on the article, appears to be a co-op student, her LinkedIn shows an impressive array of prestigious internship, including her current one at the Globe, suggesting she’ll also wind up making above $30k a year straight out of college.

But bringing up such vulgar details about the article’s writers is rude. “It’s beside the point to mention what Globe staff make!” we can imagine the editors crying indignantly, “This is about dining hall workers!” they insist.

So what if we know how hard it is to live in Boston, one of the most expensive cities in the country, on $30,000 a year, much less raise a family on that. “These are unskilled workers, they’re supposed to suffer!” respond the authors. “It’s the way of the world! Fuck ’em!”

At least, that’s what the Globe means to say. But a newspaper doesn’t achieve its status as the Paper of Record in the city by writing so crudely – that’s for the Herald, not the well-mannered diplomats of the Globe. Just as Harvard accrued its $36 billion endowment by exploiting the labor of first, slaves, then low-wage workers like those on strike today, so the Globe maintains its status by legitimizing such exploitation, and insisting those at the bottom thank the bosses for whatever crumbs they receive.

People can’t live on crumbs, especially not in this city. Dining hall workers need more than that, and eventually, we – working class people in this city – are coming for the whole fucking endowment. Support the striking workers, and argue with, isolate, and ridicule anyone who advocates anything less.

Broken Record

In an interview published today in Jacobin, David Harvey, a theorist of neoliberalism and one of my favorite vulgar Marxists, asks a controversial question:

“Here’s a proposition to think over. What if every dominant mode of production, with its particular political configuration, creates a mode of opposition as a mirror image to itself?

During the era of Fordist organization of the production process, the mirror image was a large centralized trade union movement and democratically centralist political parties.

The reorganization of the production process and turn to flexible accumulation during neoliberal times has produced a Left that is also, in many ways, its mirror: networking, decentralized, non-hierarchical.”

Harvey poses this as a provocation, one based on his analysis of the neoliberal organization of production but not explored at length in the interview. But what would such an exploration look like?

Rather than critique the horizontalist mode of organizing Harvey’s referring to, I think there’s another, related, sense in which the substance of politics on the broadly defined Left today mirrors neoliberalism. While Harvey’s focus is on the material organization of the political project of neoliberalism, the ideological current that follows from the organization of what Harvey calls the “new capitalist class” – the tech capitalists of Silicon Valley – also shapes this “mirror image.” After all, if the ruling ideas of every age are those of the ruling class, we should expect these ideas to influence the Left in a powerful way.

Driven by a decentralized entrepreneurialism that fetishizes the individual and the bootstrapping do-it-yourselfism of lean-in feminism, these ideas emphasize an assumed chain of individuals, identity, and language, with the latter two elements part of the self-expressive empowerment so central to project-based start-up culture.

How does this trickle-down to progressive politics? While some call the political current that constitutes the mirror image of these ideas “identity politics,” I prefer Carl Beijer’s phrase “liberal identitarianism.” A clunky mouthful to be sure, “liberal identitarianism” is helpful in its ability to differentiate this current from a left identitarianism.

As Beijer distinguishes the two, left identitarians have  “maintained their commitment understanding power and oppression thoroughly by including class identity in their analysis, as all of the great identitarian scholars have always done – whereas liberals, by definition, neglect it.” In other words, while liberal identitarians may acknowledge class in the sense of individual wealth, they refuse the left analysis of oppressions as present to reinforce class exploitation. By taking class as one static element among many axes of oppression, rather than a relational process reinforced and perpetuated by oppression, liberal identitarians come to a fundamentally different definition of liberation. For liberal identitarians, gaining equal representation and voice within a class society is the – often unspoken – goal.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with this in theory: it does make for a less hostile environment for oppressed groups, offering breathing room at the symbolic level of society. While it’s true that these aims can’t achieve liberation as understood by the Left – the end of oppression and with it, exploitation – and instead, fit snugly into neoliberal ideologies of self-expression, that’s no reason for us to pay more than passing attention to these politics. But what follows from these ideas is a focus on who you are and what you say rather than what you do combined with a claiming of the mantle of progressivism, and this is where the problem lies for Left critics.

By placing language and identity as primary determinants of political standing, liberal identitarians open the door to cynical cooptation of our movements by elites. If identity and language are the central markers of one’s legitimacy, rather than organizational ties or policy positions, a person with the ‘right’ identity – say, a person of color and/or woman – can learn the magic words needed to gain entrance into the charmed circle of progressive politics and use her elevated position to further oppression.

And that’s exactly what we see. It’s why the RNC featured black men leading the crowd in “all lives matter” chants, emphasizing their Blackness throughout their speeches despite supporting policies that further the oppression of their fellow African-Americans. Their identities serve as a shield, enabling them to go further in their racism than their white counterparts.

It’s why Donald Trump, in his acceptance speech as the Republican Presidential nominee, claimed he’d look out for “the people of Ferguson,” even if his policy positions assure the opposite. As Beijer points out, Trump added a “Q” to his invocation of the LGBTQ community, one that wasn’t even in the draft remarks, going a step further than even Clinton in his incorporation of progressive political terminology to support reactionary policy, as in this case, where he insisted his Islamophobic policies are enacted “to protect our LGBTQ citizens from the violence and oppression of a hateful ideology.”

If language is a key element of political practice, Trump at the moment of his enunciation of that “LGBTQ” is good. Which is patently absurd – one only needs to read the rest of the sentence to see this terminology is being mobilized to legitimize Islamophobia.

This is the basis of the left critique of a liberal identitarianism that implicitly imbues a homogeneity to identity groups. It’s a criticism of the “shut up and listen” approach to multi-racial or all-gender organizing. Left unspecified in this approach is which oppressed leadership ‘allies’ are to listen to, as the internal class division within oppressed groups is ignored in favor of a liberal essentialism that assumes everyone of X identity shares political views. In the case of black leadership in the anti-police brutality movement, should white people listen to David Clarke, the black sheriff who insists that the movement is “the enemy?” Or in my city, to the black clergy who organize pro-police rallies? If not, on what basis can we deny their standing?

The obvious answer is that what Clarke does – and what these clergy are doing – furthers the oppression of working class black people, whether or not they themselves happen to be black. This is the basis for rejecting their political legitimacy. Truthfully, only the most hardcore liberal identitarians would disagree with this, but it requires breaking with the logic of their analysis to condemn Clarke or these clergy. Similarly, a concern with what she does is our basis for rejecting Hillary Clinton as a feminist: she may be a woman, but what she does is oppress other, poorer, women, both at home and abroad. We can only reject Clarke, the clergy, or Clinton’s right to speak as members of the oppressed if we admit a primacy to what they do, not who they are or what they say.

We live in a world where, as R.L. Stephens puts it in a recent essay, “a Latino and an Asian-American crafted the Bush torture memos, which were then carried forward by the nation’s first Black president.” Diversity at the top doesn’t mean progress for us at the bottom – far from it. Trump mentioning Ferguson doesn’t make him any less of a white supremacist. Clinton claiming the mantle of feminism doesn’t make it true. When anyone claims political legitimacy, we should always respond with the question Stephens raises in his essay: What exactly is it that you do?

Always On

 

By the time Carol Hanisch’s essay “The Personal is Political” appeared in the 1970 anthology Notes from the Second Year: Women’s Liberation, that slogan had become a feminist rallying cry. A response to the era’s view of politics as concerned with a narrowly defined set of issues differentiated from the private domestic world, it challenged this divide.

That was the context and in it, ‘the personal is political’ was revolutionary. It resituated women’s experiences – of domestic and sexual violence, of relegation to the home, etcetera – as political problems rather than personal failings. Consciousness-raising groups provided space for women to measure their experiences against those of others, with analytical rigor transforming these stories into a collective understanding of the issues facing women. This overlapped with street work – marches, demonstrations, politicking, and strikes. In short, praxis: the feminist movement, a power bloc forcing change in the country’s institutions and social relations. That era was far from perfect – its racial, class, and sexual biases are familiar territory – but it had a movement, one that came up with theories of change through collective political practice.

Conditions are different today. “The personal is political” is mainstream. Entire publications run on a hot take profit model where think pieces proliferate over the latest ‘problematic’ celebrity, the ethical qualms of cultural appropriation, and the morality of interracial dating (I wish I was kidding about that last one).

Which isn’t to say we erred – after all, who could have seen this coming? But the congruity of these politics and neoliberalism should alert us to the stakes. If we understand neoliberalism as a class project of upward redistribution, a withdrawal of the welfare state alongside an expansion of the state’s repressive functions, our turn to the personal starts to look like a means of coping with rather than reversing the damage.

Take the discourse around “self-care” as an example. It takes an existing reality – we can hardly make it through each day – and offers it back to us wrapped in a language that insists we celebrate the actions we need to undertake to survive. Responsibility for social reproduction falls on our shoulders once again. Whereas we once sought collective solutions to our personal problems, we now live the outcome of the neoliberal counter-revolution which, in Margaret Thatcher’s words, may have taken economics as the method, but its object was our souls. That self-care is more therapy than politics should then come as no surprise. Which is not to minimize the need for therapy! But so long as we conflate politics with what we do to get by, we’ll forever be keeping ourselves healthy enough to hold a shit underpaid job and calling that politics.

The stick has shifted too far in the opposite direction of where it was when feminists came up with “the personal is political.” Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that the thinking behind the slogan has been forgotten in this undoubtedly improved world. Today we need an off switch, a limit beyond which we understand ourselves to be living as individuals. What if we recognise that, to paraphrase a refrain of Freddie DeBoer’s, the culture you prefer is not your politics, that while the personal is surely political, it is not politics? A politics that emphasizes winning collective gains over manipulating symbols and language as if material progress flows from better ideas rather than the reverse. If we can’t agree on this, we doom ourselves to a navel-gazing that walls us off from those not yet part of our movements.

In a recent post, I wrote about the people immersed in the political culture I’m describing. As I put it,

“These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion.”

I received a lot of feedback on this. People told me they knew exactly what I meant about the exhaustion. And I’m not surprised: I lived these politics too, where cultural preferences, relationships, language choice, and social circles were scrutinized for political imperfections, which then reflected back my worth or failings as a political actor. It was gutting.

But as I pulled away from this understanding of politics, I breathed easier. While identitarians, social justice activists, radicals, Woke Olympians, or whatever else you want to call them may not incorporate class analysis as often as socialists do – a relic of the what Carl Beijer calls “liberal identitarianism” – most of them are radicals. They can be won over and if some of us don’t engage them, we cede further ground to the Democrats, the neoliberals, the non-profits, to anyone but the left.

Old and New

After raising my brother and I in apartments, my parents bought a house in the early 2000s. It was in Pittsburgh and there was a toilet in the basement.

I never thought about that basement toilet much. Mostly it creeped me out, encased in a rotting and dusty wood stall. I’d scurry past it on my way to and from the washer and dryer, terrified of the monsters – or at least spiders – that hid in its shadowy crevices. Only later did I learn the Pittsburgh toilet’s a relic of the city’s steel town past. Steelworkers would come in through the basement door, use the toilet, and rinse off the ash and dirt from the mills in the washbin before going upstairs. To my memory, my parents never did anything with the toilet, neither getting rid of it or fixing it up to the point where we could plausibly have used it. Instead, it was simply there.

I’m back in Pittsburgh after a six year absence – only visiting, not to stay. My parents have moved to a different house and this one doesn’t have a toilet in the basement. Despite that, I keep running into Pittsburgh’s past. The steel industry is long gone, replaced by a high tech and robotics surge that makes the place feel like a boomtown, but homages to the past remain.

For example, Google moved into an abandoned Nabisco factory in a poor neighborhood on the east end of town. The developers received millions in tax breaks and a grant from the state environmental agency because the place was a brownfield, poisoning the poor as they and it existed, more or less abandoned by the state. The factory is unrecognizable now, transformed into hip clothing stores and startup incubators and security guards watching over the lot of it. But in the Google offices, the catalyst of so much change – developers have already renamed one neighborhood in an attempt to rid of its stigma as a poor and black area – sits a huge cookie dough mixer from the Nabisco factory, a bizarre remnant of the past.

Uber’s bringing the future to a brownfield site too. In Hazelwood, a neighborhood on the other side of town, they’re turning an old coke works into the grounds for testing self-driving cars. As for the people in the area? They continue as they were, ignored by the new economy poaching the land around them. Once a community of 30,000, Hazelwood’s population hovers at 5,000, a quarter of whom live in poverty. The neighborhood still lacks a grocery store – as do many in the city – but unless their local political mobilization wins out, it will likely be redeveloped to accommodate a private access road directly to the Uber site, one that will cut through other underserved neighborhoods as shuttles carry techies to and from the site.

And yet Uber plans to keep the empty industrial shell of the coke works, presumably to provide an aesthetic quirk, an oddity to point out to investors and execs visiting the state-of-the-art track for the cars within its walls.

These tech giants – and the countless industrial-themed bars and restaurants, the murals on the side of condos that depict steelworkers – appropriate a past that’s central to the city’s identity. The steel industry shaped the physical layout of the city, the streets, and the houses, all jammed together with ancient toilets lined up in their basements. But while it is shaped by it, the Pittsburgh of today is not that past. For most residents, the blue collars the city’s so proud of have ceded to the pink collars of low-wage service work, a unionized workforce to atomization, and the tech economy brings with it ideological baggage that threatens the democratic structures of the city itself.

This is nothing new. Andrew Carnegie, Henry Frick, Andrew Mellon – their names are scattered through our lives in this city because they had the same anti-democratic noblesse oblige that characterizes today’s tech billionaires. This philanthropic model gave us wonderful museums and libraries and universities that bear their names but not without also giving us the massacres of the Homestead Strike and air pollution so severe it made life in the city hell for hundreds of thousands who lived and worked within it.

When the past is ubiquitously evoked in the present, it’s worth being skeptical about which past we’re talking about. While that past is being cleansed, aestheticized and defanged by the city’s new elites, its salience as a reference point provides a means for working class Pittsburghers – Yinzers, if you prefer – to criticize what the new economy fails to replicate: a living wage and benefits, for one. Identifying which past is being kept alive by tech entrepreneurs and their counterparts in real estate, restaurants, and hospitality is the start. Countering with the city’s working class history comes next.

That last part’s not my role, prodigal daughter that I am, but what I am looking at is how the present echoes the past; the old, the new. The noblesse oblige of the industries remaking the city – and San Francisco, and Boston, and a whole host of others – to their taste sounds a lot like the ideology of the industrialists who built this city the first time around. Surely there is a ‘new’ to the new economy but the more time I spend looking at it, the more familiar it seems.

On that, more later

 

Left-Wing Language for Your Right-Wing Needs!

Because I hate myself, I’ve been spending a lot of time lately watching language created by the left get taken up by the right. Conservatives are wielding the language masterfully, leaving many well meaning progressives disoriented and asserting the righteousness of any cause that comes packaged in the correct words, forgetting that language is meant to advance our goals, to serve us, not the other way around.

I’m not the first to note that a lot of activists today are fixated on language and that with this comes a fear of saying the wrong thing and getting iced out of a movement. The flip side of this is that when someone speaks the right words, we assume it means they’re one of us. But there’s a problem: language can be learned by anyone, it can be taught in business seminars and in online forums. If we don’t subordinate language to the material changes we’re fighting for, we lose the ability to draw clear lines between us and them.

Who’s Doing This?

Zionists are the cutting edge when it comes to hitching progressive language to reactionary ends. For the past few years, the attention of the American Zionist movement has been focused on college campuses. Campuses are bellwethers of broader political trends, making what happens on campus important for those concerned with future societal developments. For Zionists, it’s the growth of pro-Palestine groups and the BDS (Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions) movement that’s the most worrying. Their response is a case study in the use of left-wing language by right-wing assholes.

Take the first #StopBDS Conference hosted by the Israeli mission to the UN and World Jewish Congress at the UN headquarters in New York this week (that’s right: a UN conference with a hashtag in the name – welcome to 2016). As Rania Khalek reported from this gathering of the trolls, the speakers struck a repetitive message: “Speak left,” said Frank Luntz. “Speak the language of the left,” reiterated Yosef Tarshish, chairperson of the World Union of Jewish Students.

What does a Zionist “speaking left” look like? On campus, it means yoking one’s Jewish identity to support for Israel and then claiming to feel “unsafe” in response to pro-Palestine organizing. The impulse to make this claim comes from the rise of progressive students demanding ‘safe spaces’ for members of oppressed identities. While I’m not opposed to this, as it comes from the long and ugly history of violence against the oppressed by those with privilege, as I’ve said before, this demand is becoming one of the prefered tactics of campus Zionists.

A letter sent out by the university chancellor to UC Santa Cruz students offers a great example. Here’s an excerpt:

“On our campus, which has a long and proud history of student engagement in critical issues of equity and social justice, I want to be sure we acknowledge differences of opinion and work to maintain civility in the midst of turmoil.

In student government, as is their right, the Student Union Assembly this week voted to reinstate a resolution urging the University of California to divest from Israel. The Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions (BDS) movement has generated passionate opinions on both sides.

I’m concerned this resolution will have a chilling effect on individuals within our campus community. However unintentional, its passage may create an environment in which some of our Jewish students feel alienated and less welcome on our campus.”

The chancellor invokes the campus history of social justice, positioning himself as a progressive. From there, he brings up the student union’s resolution in favor of BDS and insists this may make Jewish students feel “alienated” and “less welcome.”

More accurate would be to say the resolution could make Zionists feel unwelcome. But the chancellor’s conflation of Jewish identity with support for Israel allows him to invoke a discourse of safety for oppressed identities as the bludgeon that it often becomes; a human shield, as it were, against criticism. That this conflation inflames anti-Semitism is curiously not a concern of these douchebags, who are happy to pretend all Jews support Israel. Much better to take what power you can from the discourse of oppressed groups and use it to cover for support for an apartheid state. And that’s what makes black Zionists like Chloe Valdary doubly valuable for Israel, as they can make additional claims to the need for safety, cynically counterposing black and Palestinian struggles – a particularly coveted trait when these movements are forging stronger ties.

To take another egregious example, let’s look at Hillary Clinton’s campaign.

A while back, Clinton’s team produced a chart of “intersections.” Indecipherable, it invoked the necessary know-how of the language of intersectionality as a signal to voters: “Clinton’s with it,” it shouted. No matter that the chart was absurd and that Clinton’s policies have and will continue to reinforce, not undo, oppression. No matter that Clinton doesn’t even pay her interns, who more likely than not are overwhelmingly women.

As she asked at a campaign rally in February, “If we broke up the big banks tomorrow…would that end racism? Would that end sexism? Would that end discrimination against the LGBT community? Would that make immigrants feel more welcome?”

“No!” her audience responded, but this cheeky remark was to a strawman – no one, not Bernie Sanders, not even weirdos on the internet, claims it will. But it’s enough to know the language for Clinton, to “speak left” as Luntz put it.

Fortunately, most working people aren’t fooled by this insincerity. We want redistribution. We want real feminist and antiracist gains: abortion on demand, universal health care, union protections and a $15 minimum wage for home care and fast food workers, defunding the police and an end to mass incarceration. Clinton won’t offer these but her cynical deployment of the language of the left is a feignt to pretend otherwise, and a quick look at the unbearable Clinton supporters penning articles about her radicalism is evidence that this is convincing a fair number of voters.

Why Does This Matter?

As usual, Adolph Reed Jr said it best: “[identity] politics is a class politics, the politics of the left-wing of neoliberalism.” What he means by it is that rather than countering a strawmanned ‘class-first’ politics – the ‘break up the banks and stop there’ fantasy evoked by Clinton -the language of identity politics is elastic enough to incorporate the bourgeoisie along with the working class, particularly when it uncritically links identities to political ideologies.

It’s how we get the “black misleadership class” in Reed’s terms, bourgeois African Americans purportedly speaking on behalf of “the black community.” By pretending this community isn’t internally riven by class divides, this essentialized view of a definitionally progressive blackness lets the black bourgeoisie fill the symbolic role of a black voice, immune from criticism by their allies, who are told to shut up and listen, not question the political credentials of the speaker. This doesn’t just cause chaos at the level of institutional politics, though it does that too. It also opens up space for incoherence and misleadership in movements.

As Douglas Williams put it, “we have gotten to a point where any critique of tactics used by oppressed communities can result in being deemed “sexist/racist/insert oppression here-ist” and cast out of the Social Justice Magic Circle.” While Williams is writing of the need to build a broader, more effective movement, the phenomena he’s referring to – the belief that the oppressed shouldn’t be criticised – is not only linked to a condescending belief that oppressed groups can’t argue their views, it hands a cover to conservative projects as long as they’re led by members of an oppressed group.

Teach for America is one of the most prominent organizations to take advantage of this opening. As Drew Franklin detailed at Orchestrated Pulse, Teach for America faced a “race problem” in the wake of the devastation of the New Orleans public school system. In Franklin’s words, this led it to “re-brand itself as a Civil Rights organization. Selling such an image necessitated a new class of political operatives, one that was “majority-led by the oppressed group.”” Yet again switching out the substantive and often socialist demands of the civil rights movement for symbols, TFA could claim membership under the umbrella of social justice just as long as it had enough people of color on its payroll and knew the right words to use.

I can’t help but think that was the purpose of a recent event hosted by TFA Massachusetts. Titled “#StayWoke: Social Justice through Hashtag Activism,” the event promised to help attendees struggle for racial justice, even as the organization hosting it eviscerates black communities across the country. Want to know someone who looks like he attended one of these trainings? Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey, pictured here wearing a shirt that reads #StayWoke while speaking with TFA alum and black misleader-par-excellence Deray McKesson despite the fact that Twitter has a severe diversity problem.

And that gets to the heart of the issue. Neoliberalism, capital, or university administrations have no problem accommodating symbols. New language can be learned by hiring a social justice consultant, new faces can coexist with old in high places, granted the majority remain shut out. It’s calls for redistribution that don’t jive with the status quo but these are ignored in favor of those demanding the easily assimilable.

Aviva Chomsky skillfully addresses this in the context of the university in a recent piece. “While schools have downplayed or ignored student demands for changes in admissions, tuition, union rights, pay scales, and management prerogatives,” she writes, they’ve incorporated the more symbolic and individualized demands “into increasingly depoliticized cultural studies programs and business-friendly, market-oriented academic ways of thinking.” Those demanding changes of language – apologies, inclusive rhetoric, an end to microaggressions – are recognized while those advocating for prison divestment  or an increase in material support for students from oppressed groups are shut out.

The critical stance I and the writers I’m quoting adhere to isn’t a condemnation of anti-racism or feminism as such – I support both the symbolic and redistributive demands of college students. Rather, as Ben Norton wrote in a post on Reed and identity politics, it’s “a condemnation of a politics that is centered on social constructs, like race or gender, rather than on material conditions.” If we focus our politics around achieving material changes, this necessarily entails fighting oppression wherever it appears. But to hitch this struggle to redistribution prevents those opposed to this project from claiming the mantle of social justice.

Where Does This Leave Us?

First and foremost, we shouldn’t blame those confused by this rhetoric – indeed, I was one of them until very recently. These are people who want progress but are being sucked into the morass of conflations of identity and politics. This is concerning not only because of its lack of strategic efficacy but also because it burns people out. To be always on, to have your identity, your cultural preferences, your social circle and your dating life all bound up with and signifying your politics is a recipe for exhaustion. And I’ve seen it happen: either these activists enter into non-profits and lose sight of radical movement work altogether, or they give up completely, shifting into a consumption or lifestyle politics. If we want stronger movements, we need to argue against these politics.

But for those in positions of power – people like Luntz or Clinton, groups like TFA – cynically emptying out the force of these anti-capitalist words, we should be merciless in denying them access to this cover. Where those in power seek to insulate themselves from criticism by invoking the language of the left, we need to insist on placing these words back in the context from which they came: the struggle against capital and for the oppressed. By refusing to bestow any magic on words, we can render them useless to the powerful and in doing so, make the sides in this fight unmistakably clear.