Purity leftism

One of the most frustrating things about being on the left is the profound number of clowns who situate themselves beside me. We’ve got generational warfare clowns. We’ve got New Age gibberish clowns. We’ve got conspiracy theory clowns. And of course, we’ve got hippie drum circle clowns.

I call these, and others, clowns because their behavior seems primarily aimed at personal performance and tends to be accompanied by self-marginalizing lifestyles and costumes. While they seem to retain a broad thematic interest in left goals and can even occasionally explain them to you, their actions are more about personal lifestyles than about any principled interest in success.

This is especially true among the often-ridiculed, privileged, college student radicals. You know the type: the white kid going to an expensive private school on their parents’ dime, just wanting to learn how to lead The Good Life. These individuals are not generally interested in the kind of boring, long, and often unsuccessful work of running campaigns and winning. They are interested in their own personal purity, ridding themselves of the toxicity of living wrongly, oppressively, with unchecked privilege, and so on.

That is, the concern is inward towards themselves and their own “souls” if you will, not outwards towards others who are suffering. While I think this tendency exists broadly in the student left or in circles of immense material privilege, perhaps it is best found in the wheels-off concept of allyship.

In theory, allyship refers to those with privileged identities being deferential to and supportive of those with oppressed identities without telling them what to do. In these privileged student circles however, allyship is a competitive social justice sport where people try to rack up what I would call ally points. Allies buzz around learning how to be the best ally, chiming in about this or that privilege, this or that erasure, this or that marginalization. Self-appointed allies do this stuff never, it seems, to actually push things forward in meaningful ways, but generally just to salve their own discomfort, and purify themselves of badness.

People interested in purity leftism are ultimately selfish. When purity leftists do actions and organizing, their interest is not in reducing oppression as much as it is in reducing their own participation in it. Above all else, they want to be able to say that they are not oppressing, not that oppression has ended.

This interest in personal purity manifests itself ultimately in meaningless activism that achieves nothing. I have seen people undertake tiny 15-person student marches without clear messaging, community outreach, or even press outreach. I saw a group of purity leftists laugh once at a media outlet misreporting the name of their group, the joke being that the media outlet was somehow dumb for guessing wrongly, not that the organizers were dumb for failing to send out a release with correct information.

This seems like a terrible waste of time, and it is. To understand why these groups do things that are not only ineffective, but in some cases counter-productive, you have to first grasp purity leftism in all its glory. A purity leftist that carries out some action or campaign does not care whether it achieves anything. Just participating in the action, although a meaningless gesture, is a gesture nonetheless. And that gesture is the right one: it is fighting for the working class, or against fascism, or whatever else. It is participating in the fight that makes one pure: winning does not really matter.

Ultimately, the purity leftists are the most dangerous people in the clown left. They derail and delegitimize more serious left organizing with their endless calls for more purifying actions, even if those actions are so thoughtless and poorly done that they are guaranteed to have little effect. Like allies who rack up points by carrying out certain behaviors, these activismists rack up purity points by doing meaningless actions that skip 90% of the real work that goes into organizing success. In short, the inward focus of purity leftists conflicts with the outward focus of more serious leftism aimed at actually improving the lives of others. Although purity leftists are not the clowniest clowns, to me, they are the most obnoxious.

The tactics of Keystone XL protestors

I generally agree with the argument laid down by Matthew Yglesias today about the Keystone XL project. On its face, picking one particular carbon energy project and trying to prevent it from being completed does not make a great deal of sense. Doing so does not actually reduce total carbon emissions, at least not in the way that the protesters have in mind. If the protest is successful, all it really does is ensure that emissions are not being sourced from the specific project that they are trying to block.

Some of the Keystone protesters no doubt have other environmental concerns in mind. Apparently parts of the pipeline go through environmentally delicate parts of Nebraska, and I am sure mining the tar sands in Canada will cause all sorts of immediate local damage to the area. Protesters also complain that the pipes might corrode and lead to leaks, a worry with all pipes anywhere but perhaps especially concerning in this case. Some environmentalists care a lot about these local environmental issues, while others don’t.

Outside of those more narrow concerns, the real argument being waged on the Keystone XL project has to do with carbon emissions and climate change. But closing down the project does not actually do anything to ensure that carbon emissions will go down at all; it just ensures that they will not be sourced from the tar sands. The only way to make sure that aggregate emissions decline is to target aggregate emissions, either through carbon taxes or perhaps a cap and trade system. So, the question then becomes: what are the Keystone protesters doing?

Policy analysts may conclude that the focus of the protesters is rather naive, but that is only because policy thinkers are not always well-acquainted with activist tactics. Some of the protesters probably do think that blocking the pipeline will by itself be a net good even if it seems quite clear that the effect on emissions will be negligible. Others understand — as great activist movements have always understood — that you fight certain battles not just to win them, but for the larger impact those battles can have on the broader social consciousness.

The Civil Rights Movement probably understood this tactic the best. Protesters would pack into some small-town, segregated lunch counter day after day after day, hoping to force the counter to be desegregated. Winning such a tiny battle was not really the point: the net benefit of being able to eat at this lunch counter was extremely minor. But the battle itself roused media attention, and produced images of struggles against racism and violence. In the grand scheme of things, these local protests produced only very marginal improvements, but they dramatized and brought attention to the broader issues of racism and Jim Crow, helping to lead to the more significant national changes later on.

When done properly, making huge deals of smaller battles that may not seem that important in the big picture will affect the big picture debates. The Keystone XL protesters have been very successful at this so far. An otherwise obscure infrastructure project is now highlighted in every major newspaper in the country, and — thanks to the Republican attempt to hold payroll tax cuts hostage over it — the attention being paid to the project has multiplied even more. Except perhaps on Fox News, this coverage necessarily requires explaining the problems with climate change and carbon emissions and why protesters are concerned.

Whether this tactic will ultimately pay off depends on all sorts of things including the extent to which the public can be persuaded that carbon emissions are causing climate change. The right-wing has already turned climate change into a culture war issue, making it into one of those things that people distance from to avoid association with mother earth hippies. With that filter on the minds of many Americans, dramatization of the sort the Keystone XL protesters are trying might not ever be successful. But it can be successful, and it is not an inherently foolish tactic. Just because the immediate policy concern is fairly inconsequential, that does not make the use of it as a bullhorn to raise climate change concerns stupid or naive.