In the fifty-one years that I’ve been involved in social change activism, I’ve been impressed with the ethical seriousness, creativity, courage, and energy that so many people bring to their engagement in social change activities.
And yet, at the same time, I’ve also been discouraged by some of the ideas that commonly emerge in activist movements—ideas that often severely limit the impact that they could have.
There really are two largely separate lefts in the United States. First there is the left of the magazines and books and universities. Many of the authors and academics who compose that group have developed sophisticated critiques of American society, but Western capitalism has found many ways to ensure that these critiques never reach the vast majority of Americans. As a result, the critical perspectives on American society generated within this arena only reach a small, elite group of readers and people who participate in the left culture surrounding a handful of major universities.
Second there is the left constituted by the millions of activists engaged in social change activities. Although some of these activists also read the discussions of the academic or intellectual left, most do not. They are the people who canvas for liberal and progressive candidates in the Democratic Party or the Green Party, engage in labor organizing, participate in mass demonstrations for peace, engage in local campaigns to stop fracking, challenge police violence, and rally for a higher minimum wage. They are the people who participate in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the Black Lives Matter movement, the immigration rights movement, human rights campaigns, and other struggles to oppose sexism, racism, homophobia, and xenophobia.
In many ways these on-the-ground campaigns, projects, and movements are the pulsing heart of the left: they are the messy and persistent efforts to effect change in practice. But they are often undermined by their resistance to engaging with the intellectual discussions taking part in the other sector of the left. A mistrust of intellectual discussion and an embrace of the imperative to “lead with your heart, not your head” can end up diminishing the effectiveness of some of these movements.
Anti-Intellectualism on the Left
Anti-intellectualism has deep roots in American culture. The dumbing-down of political discourse in our country is not primarily the fault of the left but of our dominant culture. The oversimplification of political discourse serves the interests of the powerful in an obvious way: the less people explore political ideas that might lead them to challenge the status quo, the easier it is to get them to accept the existing structures of economic, political, and social domination. And this dilution has been greatly facilitated first by the rise of television, starting in the 1950s, and more recently by the rise of the internet and mobile technologies, which generate a culture of texting and tweeting that eschews nuance and embraces short takes and simplistic slogans.
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