Tim Wise : Obama’s Victory and the Rage of the Barbiturate Left

Member of the “joyless left.”

Now in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory these barbiturate leftists are back in full effect, lecturing the rest of us about how naive we are for having any confidence whatsoever in him, or for voting at all, since “the Democrats and Republicans are all the same…”

By Tim Wise

My political entry into the left (and by this I mean the real left, beyond the Democratic Party) came a little more than twenty years ago in New Orleans, when, as a college student I became involved in the fight against U.S. intervention in Central America. In particular, the groups of which I was a part sought to end military aid to the death squad governments in El Salvador and Guatemala, and to block support for the contra thugs our nation was arming in Nicaragua, who by that time had already killed about 30,000 civilians in their war with the nominally socialist Sandinista government.

It was the first place where I came into contact with folks who defined themselves as radicals (I had grown up in Nashville, after all, where at that time, even finding “out” liberals was sometimes a challenge), and where I got to experience all the fascinating permutations of Marxism that the left had to offer. In addition to unaffiliated socialists (which I considered myself to be at the time), there were Trotskyites, old-line Leninists, Maoists, and even some bizarre Stalinists in the bunch. Excluding from consideration those among this number who turned out to be FBI spies, there were still plenty of real and interesting ideologues who had valuable insights to offer, even for those of us who didn’t swallow their particular party line.

But despite being interesting, these folks also managed, at least for me, to demonstrate one of the key problems with the left in the U.S. Namely, for the sake of ideological purity few within the professional left expressed any joy about life, or any emotion whatsoever that wasn’t rooted in negativity. They were like the political equivalent of quaaludes: guaranteed to bring you down from whatever partly optimistic place you might find yourself from time to time.

This was never so evident as the day I hopped into a car with one of the Stalinoids (a member of something called the Albanian Liberation League, which viewed the brutal regime of Enver Hoxha as a worker’s paradise), and headed downtown for a rally to protest Contra aid. Once in the car, I asked about the music playing from his stereo. What was it? I wanted to know. He quickly explained that it was Albanian folk music, and the only music he listened to. I made some joke about how strange it was to be living in one of the greatest musical towns on Earth and yet to restrict oneself to a single genre of music (especially that favored by Albanian sheepherders), to which my revolutionary friend responded with a grunt and a scowl. Of course, because Comrade Stalin never much liked jazz.

The humorlessness of the far left — to which I remain connected ideologically if not organizationally — has always struck me as one of its greatest weaknesses. People like to laugh, they like to smile, they like to be joyful, and an awful lot of hardened leftists seem almost utterly incapable of doing any of these things. It’s as if they have all taken a pledge that there should be no laughter until the revolution, or some such shit. No positivity, no hope, no happiness so long as people are still poor and exploited and being murdered by cops, and victimized by United States militarism, or performing as wage slaves for global capital, or eating meat, or driving cars. And they wonder why the left is so weak?

Now, in the wake of Barack Obama’s victory these barbiturate leftists are back in full effect, lecturing the rest of us about how naive we are for having any confidence whatsoever in him, or for voting at all, since “the Democrats and Republicans are all the same,” and he supports FISA and the war with Afghanistan, and all kinds of other messed up policies just like many on the right. Those of us who find any significance in the election of a man of color in a nation founded on white supremacy are fools who “drank the kool-aid,” unlike they, whose clear-headed radical consciousness leads them to recognize the superior morality of Ralph Nader, or the pure “scientific wisdom of chairman Bob Avakian,” or the intellectual profundity of their favorite graffiti bomb: “If voting changed anything it would be illegal.” Yeah, and if body piercings and anarchy tats changed anything, they would be too, and then what would some folks do to be “different?” (Note: there is nothing wrong with either type of adornment, but getting either or both doesn’t make you a revolutionary, any more than voting, that’s all I’m saying).

These are people who think being agitators is about pissing people off more than reaching out to them. So they pull out their “Buck Fush” signs at their repetitively irrelevant antiwar demonstrations, or their posters with W sporting a Hitler mustache, because that tends to work so well at convincing folks to oppose the slaughter in Iraq. But effectiveness isn’t what matters to them. What matters to them is raging against the machine for the sake of rage itself. Their message is simple: everything sucks, the earth is doomed, all cops are brutal, all soldiers are baby-killers, all people who work for corporations are evil, blah, blah, blah, right on down the line. It’s as if much of the left has become co-dependent with despondency, addicted to its own isolation, and enamored of its moral purity and unwillingness to work with mere liberals. In the name of ideological asceticism, they spurn the hard work of movement building and inspiring others to join the struggle, snicker at those foolish enough to not understand or appreciate their superior philosophical constructs, and then act shocked when their movements and groups accomplish exactly nothing. But honestly, who wants to join a movement filled with people who look down on you as a sucker?

If we on the left want those liberals to join the struggle for social justice and liberation, we’re going to have to meet people where they are, not where Bakunin would want them to be. For those who can’t get excited about Obama, so be it, but at least realize that there are millions of people who, for whatever reason, are; people who are mobilized and active, and that energy is looking for an outlet. Odds are, that outlet won’t be the Obama administration, since few of them will actually land jobs with it. So that leaves activist formations, community groups and grass-roots struggles. That leaves, in short, us. Just as young people inspired by the center-right JFK candidacy in 1960 ultimately moved well beyond him on their way to the left and made up many of the most committed and effective activists of the 60s and early 70s, so too can such growth occur now among the Obama faithful. But not if we write them off.

At some point, the left will have to relinquish its love affair with marginalization. We’ll have to stop behaving like those people who have a favorite band they love, and even damn near worship, until that day when the band actually begins to sell a lot of records and gain a measure of popularity, at which point they now suck and have obviously sold out: the idea being that if people like you, you must not be doing anything important, and that obscurity is the true measure of integrity. Deconstructing the psychological issues at the root of such a pose is well above my pay grade, but I’m sure would prove fascinating.

The simple fact is, people are inspired by Obama not because they view him as especially progressive per se (except in relation to some of the more retrograde policies of the current president, and in relation to where they feel, rightly, McCain/Palin would have led us), but because most folks respond to optimism, however ill-defined it may be. This is what the Reaganites understood, and for that matter it’s what Martin Luther King Jr. and the civil rights movement knew too. It wasn’t anger and pessimism that broke the back of formal apartheid in the south, but rather, hope, and a belief in the fundamental decency of people to make a change if confronted by the yawning chasm between their professed national ideals and the bleak national reality.

In other words, what the 60s freedom struggle took for granted, but which the cynical barbiturate left refuses to concede, is the basic goodness of the people of this nation, and the ability of the nation, for all of its faults (and they are legion) to change. Look at pictures of the freedom riders in 1961, or the volunteers during Freedom Summer of 1964 and notice the dramatic difference between them and some of the seething radicals of today–whose radicalism is almost entirely about style and image more than actual analysis and movement building. In the case of the former, even as they stared down mobs intent on injuring or killing them, and even as they knew they might be murdered, they smiled, they laughed, they sang, they found joy. In the case of the latter, one most often notices an almost permanent scowl, a dour and depressing affect devoid of happiness, unable to appreciate life until the state is smashed altogether and everyone is subsisting on a diet of wheatgrass, bean curd and tempeh.

Hell, maybe I’m just missing the strategic value of calling people “useful idiots,” or likening them to members of a cult, the way some leftists have done recently with regard to Obama supporters. Or maybe it’s just that being a father, I have to temper my contempt for this system and its managers with hope. After all, as a dad (for me at least), it’s hard to look at my children every day and think, “Gee, it sucks that the world is so screwed up, and will probably end in a few years from resource exploitation…Oh well, I sure hope my daughters have a great day at school!”

Fatherhood hasn’t made me any less radical in my analysis or desire to see change. In fact, if anything, it has made me more so. I am as angry now as I’ve ever been about injustice, because I can see how it affects these children I helped to create, and for whom I am now responsible. But anger and cynicism do not make good dance partners. Anger without hope, without a certain faith in the capacity of we the people to change our world is a sickness unto death. It is consuming, like a flesh-eating disease, and whose first victim is human compassion. While I would never counsel too much confidence in far-right types to join the struggle for justice — and there, I think skepticism is well-warranted — if we can’t conjure at least a little optimism for the ability of liberals and Democrats to come along for the ride and to do the work, then what is the point? Under such a weighty and pessimistic load as this, life simply becomes unbearable. And if there is one thing we cannot afford to do now — especially now — it is to give up the will to live and to fight, another day.

Tim Wise is a prominent writer and anti-racist activist. He is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son, and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White. He has contributed essays to 17 books, and is one of several persons featured in White Men Challenging Racism: Thirty-Five Personal Stories, from Duke University Press. A collection of his essays, Speaking Treason Fluently: Anti-Racist Reflections From an Angry White Male, will be released in fall 2008.

Source / Red Room / Posted Nov. 10, 2008

Thanks to David Hamilton / The Rag Blog

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5 Responses to Tim Wise : Obama’s Victory and the Rage of the Barbiturate Left

  1. Anonymous says:

    I usually appreciate what Tim Wise has to say, and I think this piece has value, but I have to notice that while he was critical of what was, he didn’t point out what could be and how to go about it. I often cogitate that we are still asking Lenin’s question of “What is to be done?” and yet I do not think that the left in this country has an answer, largely because of the fundamentally obstructed consciousness of the people of this country.

    While I thought Mr. Wise a bit off with his diatribe about the Hillary women, I do think that the one thing this country is somewhat educated on is racism. People may not understand that the owning class has convinced them to work against their own interests, but finally there seems to be a clearer consciousness about the ridiculousness of the concept of race, except, of course, for the deep South.They may still have their personal moments, but I think we have begun to understand that racism is institutionalized and it oozes all over and among us and you just can’t be too careful that you are repeating the racist patterns of this culture in any aspect of your life.

    I do not think we fully grip anything about sexism, in these later years of my life I see how profoundly it is tied to our sexuality in both hetero and homosexual terms. I think it will take a very long time to break the chains that keep the oppression and degradation of women in place.

    So I think the next frontier is classism. White privilege rests upon it, as does sexism. I think we ought to be really wrapping our consciousness around classism instead of worrying about an analysis Marx would agree with. Engels was there with a reasonable early analysis, and I think that is where “the left” needs to go with a clearer consciousness — classism is going to fuck up our best efforts, personally and organizationally. Just my take.

    Pat Cuney

  2. Anonymous says:

    ….Wise thoughts are often obvious, and applicable to those who are not listening….when the hawks hunt, they don’t see food for the dogs.

    Michael Lewis

  3. Anonymous says:

    The left doesn’t hold a monopoly on negative attitudes, you “useful idiot”. For a more appropriate analysis, you’ll have to consult with someone above your pay grade.

  4. Zwarich says:

    Copied below are the comments I sent to Portside when they ran this disgustingly and deliberately insulting piece from Tim Wise. Echoing the thoughts I address to Portside, I just don’t understand what purpose that the editors of TRB think this kind deliberately divisive mud-slinging serves.


    I just can’t fathom what either Tim Wise, or most especially Portside, think is in any way useful or constructive about this kind of volatile and highly divisive discourse. What is it that people think that we stand to gain by heaping this kind of overt insult on the heads of sincerely concerned progressive leftists who do not share this foolishly unabashed hero worship for a center-rightist, (simply because he is an African American who has been elected president).

    The progressive leftists on whose heads Tim Wise feels the need to dump buckets of ordure are fully aware of the historic nature of this election. The election of an African American is indeed an important milestone. It’s not a case of people being unaware, it’s rather just that leftists who are able to think clearly right now, (because their faculties are not clouded by emotionality or hero-worship), understand that Barack Obama has not yet, other than in his soaring, but essentially empty, rhetoric, shown any signs that he is at all progressive in his world view, or plans to pursue an agenda that is at all progressive.

    Other than the fact that he is a MUCH better orator, there is nothing (yet) that distinguishes his platform or world view (in any notable way) from that of Bill Clinton. (One wonders if Mr. Wise was this indiscriminately gleeful when Clarence Thomas was appointed to the Supreme Court).

    Tim Wise has fashioned himself as a Great White Hero for underprivileged minorities. (And good for him for doing so). But I do hope that at least some progressive leftists are aware that there are many Black writers and intellectuals who are greatly concerned about the adulation being heaped upon a Black man who has not yet shown himself to be a progressive in any way. Larry Pinkney, a former Black Panther who is now a staff writer for the Black Commentator, is one such Black intellectual who is greatly concerned that a person of his race, (using the very fact of his race), is being used to advance the US imperial mission. (I hope all are familiar with Pinkney’s work on BC). I wonder how Mr. Pinkney feels about having Tim Wise offer him this cutesy “Cyanide with his Whine”, characterizing his sincere and well considered concerns as “whining”?

    Progressive leftists who are thinking clearly right now understand the danger that Mr. Obama’s election presents us. When this ‘hero’ escalates the war in Central Asia, (to mention only one example), as he has so firmly promised to do, how will those now heaping their unabashed adulation upon him respond?

    On the domestic front, Obama’s proposal for health care is an excellent example of the dangerous Trojan horse nature of his advocacy. With the support of adoring progressives, he will likely succeed in passing his plan to subsidize insurance companies with tax dollars, thereby preserving our health care system as a lucrative profit center for the insurance, drug, and health care industries, and setting back genuinely progressive single-payer health care reform for at least a generation. The insurance, drug, and health care industries have a true and loyal friend in Barack Obama, who has clearly (and proudly) declared himself to be a ‘free-marketeer’. Their opulent financial support of his campaign will be rewarded.

    It is widely recognized, at least among people who are thinking clearly right now, that there is great danger that the ‘powers that be’, who backed Obama with such a huge degree of financial support, are going to use him, (and the fact of his race), to ‘re-brand’ the American imperial mission with a new (and ‘friendly’) face that will greatly diffuse opposition. This is already happening. The mainstream media are all crowing to the entire world about how wonderful we are to have elected Barack Obama. With the help of foolish progressives like Tim Wise, who are jumping enthusiastically on this ‘re-branding’ bandwagon, this effort is very likely going to enjoy great success. Many of us understand the danger when Tim Wise and the bigoted pundits on Fox News are saying the exact same things about the ‘whining’ Left.

    Surely there must always be room for honest debate, but what purpose is served when honest debate is left behind, and people like Tim Wise indulge themselves in spewing this kind of overt insult? Does anyone really think that slinging this kind of ‘mud’, this kind of self-serving disrespect, in the faces of so many sincerely concerned progressive leftists, serves the larger ’cause’? Are we so far gone that we think that we’re going to advance a shared cause by slinging ‘crap’ at each other without restraint? Do we think that slapping each other across the face with overt insults and gross disrespect helps build solidarity of purpose?

    Tim Wise has fashioned a ‘career’ from being a ‘great white hero’ to minorities. It is certainly no surprise that he is beside himself with indiscriminate and unrestrained glee at this moment in History. And to anyone familiar with the self-glorifying nature of his work, it is no surprise that he would take such pleasure in slinging ordure at anyone who does not agree with his self-righteous position.

    But what does Portside think is the value to the progressive cause of spreading this kind of overtly insulting divisiveness?


  5. chasm says:

    Aw, c’mon, Tim. Where’s your sense of humor? Sure the house is on fire and the kids are burning alive, but while he’s firebombing the kitchen, Obama’s promised to pee on the youngest one to put out the flames. So let’s break out the marshmallows and thank God for small favors, right?

    You liberals are all alike. Lighten up! (Or is it light ’em up?)

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