ACTIVISM AND ACRIMONY – THE TWO WEREN’T ALWAYS SYNONYMOUS
Aging brings many an interesting change. Some to be expected – such as the greying of one’s hair or forgetting to zip one’s pants; others, less so.
One unexpected change, at least for me, is a heightened disdain for viciousness. Whereas previously I thought niceness to be, well, a nice bonus, I now cannot stand its opposite – nastiness. At this point in my wintery existence, I place a very high value on being pleasant. In a deep way, it is the essence of civilization.
This country used to be very pleasant. I recently watched the Hitchcock movie, Marnie. Plot aside (it is a bit over-ambitious on the magic of psychoanalysis), it’s amazing how pleasant everything is. Set when it was made, in the early 1960s, it was made to look very clean. Cleanliness is pretty much an underlying aesthetic theme – the accents are clear, the clothes well-ironed, the acting precise, and the sets uncluttered. The cleanliness even goes deeper – cities like Baltimore and Philadelphia are presented as thriving business centers where women free walk about, not as the armpits which they have since become.
Whether things were indeed more clean and pleasant cleanliness or whether it was the reigning aesthetic can be debated, of course. But in any case, the movie matches the late 50s and early 60s vibe of keeping things nice and pleasant.
Nowadays things are not very pleasant. Pleasantness is not even a virtue anybody, but a few Midwestern gaffers, attempts to achieve. And the most unpleasant thing is our political behavior.
Think specifically about the leftist idea of activism. Why has our idea of political action become synonymous with the image of the clenched fist and the screeches of unhinged females exposing to the world their psychotic mental abyss? What makes the protest the key feature of our politics?
One can’t exactly describe historical Anglo-American politics as a pleasant affair. We’ve had civil wars, decapitations, revolutions, chartism, suffragism, etc. And yet, these were all fleeting episodes that came and went. Like a Dirac’s Delta function.
With the storm blowing away, it used to be back to Anne Shirley’s Avonlea’s Village Improvement Society. You may giggle, but this is the original idea of “activism” and the most endemic to our culture of little platoons and local institutions: a fund for decay’d musicians, a society for the improvement of the education of the masses, a committee for the beautification of urban centers – you probably have a faint, ancestral memory of these things. THAT’s what “community organizing” used to be, not perpetual antagonism.
Now, however, activism does not mean volunteering at the local historical society, but a practice of resentment. In a form of demonic evolution, the political game has transitioned from building (“Let’s found a new youth movement!”) to demanding (“Extend the voting charter to women!”) to accusing (“Fight systemic racism! Waaaa!”).
This ugly form of politics can be traced back to the time during which many other ugly things were spawned – the 1960s. The Civil Rights movement, the marquee progressive achievement of the 60s, can be seen as a transition point from the demanding sort of politics to the accusing sort. We demand an end to segregation and accuse America’s orderly society of injustice.
Realizing how effective this sort of resentful activism is, Saul Alinsky distilled its principles in his “Rules for Radicals,” providing a blueprint for leftist politics ever since. Every conflict is perpetuated, every difference of opinion is a fascist infringement upon “rights,” every adversary is an oppressive force, and every compromise is a betrayal.
The sense you may get from the Left that they wish to eradicate you, or at least impoverish you and put you in prison, is authentic. Dismiss it at your own peril because the essence of the politics of acrimony is the complete eradication of the opponent. In the old politics, mourning the death of a George Floyd (if noticed at all) would have been a quiet exercise of candlelight vigils; in the current form of politics, it means burning down things, inflicting pain, and accusing the entire productive and law-abiding public of a civilized nation of committing the sin of “systemic racism.”
Or take the environment. In the old politics, this would have been a classic campaign for the beautification or improvement of our shared living spaces. Indeed, this is how the whole conservationist movement started in the late 19th century. In the current politics, this too is a “How dare you!?” exercise of resentment and mass accusation. Building had long passed onto demanding which in turn had passed onto accusing. Conservation? Haha, no! Instead, send hipster shock troops to defile museums, destroy shops and businesses, and accuse orderly people of ending all human life on the planet.
Normal people, especially of the nice type, find it difficult to defend against the new politics of resentment and accusation. We instinctively apologize and self-audit – “What have I done wrong?” However, as should be clear by now, this only feeds the insatiable beast.
Anne Shirley, remember, also had her limits. Sometimes one simply needs to smash the slate on Gilbert’s head.
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