Rebecca Solnit has an awful piece on Tomgram today lacerating leftists who refuse to be cowed into voting for Obama by the ceaseless tales of Republican hordes at our gates that are the stock in trade of the liberal punditocracy during election season. Her primary rhetorical strategy centers around the idle psychologizing that is the stock in trade of liberal pundits (see also Melissa Harris-Perry). People disgusted with Obama’s enthusiasm for kidnapping undocumented immigrants, his support for Israeli colonialism, his love for the security state, etc are, for Solnit, locked in a mindset of “fury” and “self-admiration.” She quotes Michael Eric Dyson’s accusation that such people are engaged in “rhetorical narcissism and ideological self-preoccupation.” They are doing nothing more than “demonstrating [their] own purity and superiority” The problem on the left is “not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude.”
As is usually the case in these kinds of vulgar ventures into political psychology, the more interesting results come when the analyst becomes the analysand. In this light, Solnit’s portrait of self-righteous leftists seems to contain a good amount of projection. Is there anything more smugly superior and narcissistic, for example, than the sentiment found in the activist she quotes to bolster her case: “Oh my God, go be sanctimonious in California and don’t vote or whatever, but those bitching radicals are basically suppressing the vote in states where it matters.” Her entire argumentative strategy is, in fact, a displacement of politics. The problem with the left is its mood. If we can replace the mood of despair with the mood of hope, “we could be heroes.” What this narrative elides is precisely the questions of strategy that are absolutely central for the left right now, replacing them with a quasi-new age therapeutic program.
What really roused me to respond to Solnit’s piece, however, was her traducing of the civil rights movement in service of this program. “Can you imagine,” she asks us, “how far the Civil Rights Movement would have gotten, had it been run entirely by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough?” Solnit reveals here a touching ignorance about the American civil rights movement, which was, in fact, run by complainers for whom nothing was ever good enough. This is why it won.
Martin Luther King’s Letter from Birmingham Jail is directed precisely against liberal clergy who were asking for a compromise. The Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party refused the tawdry compromise deal they were offered precisely because it was not good enough. And of course, John Lewis of SNCC famously wrote in the original text of his speech at the March on Washington that “In good conscience, we cannot support wholeheartedly the administration’s civil rights bill, for it is too little and too late.” Though he was persuaded to remove the line in deference to the sensibilities of A. Philip Randolph, there is little doubt as to the “mood” under which Lewis was operating. Being dissatisfied with the scraps thrown his way by official politics didn’t prevent John Lewis from becoming a hero.
The best argument for that kind of dissatisfaction comes from the culture the civil rights movement developed as it grew. Dorothy Love Coates wrote this song in the midst of the movement, and it gives voice to precisely the feeling of anger and impatience that the left needs if it’s going to have any hope at all.