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The perils of following the American Left

Progressivism, particularly in Central and Eastern Europe, should be rooted in local issues instead of importing values from the US. american left

The word ’broken’ manages to tell a story in six letters.¹ As much as it describes a condition locked in time, it also alludes to things that once were. Brokenness implies a before and an after. It captures lost beauty, unfulfilled promises, and perhaps the possibility of being fixed too.

American politics is broken. The world has not yet noticed, however, and we keep copying the United States as if it were still the beacon of democracy it used to be. Progressives² in Hungary have a history of importing ideas from the West, particularly the United States. I fear that in doing so today, we risk replicating some of its faults instead of learning from them.

One might wonder why I chose to write about progressivism when the most blatant example of decadence across the Atlantic is a puzzling, orange-haired entity. Sure, American conservatism has become an embarrassing parade of failures as well. But the left is my intellectual environment. The magazines I read, the newspapers I follow, and the podcasts I listen to are predominantly American, mostly liberal, and ideologically broken.

The ills that plague the left are harder to diagnose, too. Cloaked in the veil of righteousness and marked by a seal of corporate approval, the core ideas of American progressivism were born to be sold on a global market of socially responsible millennials (me included). Any critique can thus be framed as uncool at best, and dangerous at worst. american left

Systems that are unable to improve by integrating dissent are doomed to collapse. It would be nothing short of tragic for 21st-century progressivism to fail not due to external forces but internal malaise. It would mean leaving behind the vulnerable groups we are meant to represent. It would also lead to the catastrophic failure to protect the planet from a looming climate crisis.³

We cannot let this happen. To ensure the long-term success of progressive values, we may need to rethink our relationship with American politics.

Pink Floyd, Echoes I Compilation Album Art by Storm Thorgerson

On June 2nd 2020, Instagram turned dark. Like black tiles on a digital wall, millions of pictures mourned the death of George Floyd and called for global unity in the fight against racism and police brutality. It was a rare and spectacular monument to the ideal of racial equality. I do not mean to smear this monument; I do find it imperative, however, that we put it in perspective and question its implications. american left

Staring at the towering heap of Blackout Tuesday posts on my screen, I couldn’t help but think of the Western Wall of Jerusalem. Originally built as part of the Second Temple of the Jewish Faith, this, too, is a place of mourning. The Wall is all that remains of the Temple after its destruction by the hands of the Roman Empire in 70 AD. It is a stark reminder of imperial persecution; the fraction of a broken past that today serves as a place of remembrance and prayer.⁴

There are plenty of parallels between the black tiles of Blackout Tuesday and the white limestones of Jerusalem. There is one utter difference, however: their location. The Western Wall is in a specific place, a somewhere. Not just physically, but spiritually too. The symbol of the Wall is tightly knit into the history of the land on which it stands. It represents a uniquely intimate, almost tactile experience of worship.

The online protests, on the other hand, were anywhere.⁵ Not just physically, but spiritually too. Users around the world adopted (and often outright copied) the idiosyncrasies of the American discourse. This is problematic precisely for the lack of communion that a monument like the Western Wall allows. No country in the world is free of racism. And no country should ever tolerate police brutality. But I highly doubt that any place would benefit from copying and pasting the discourse of another community.

The terminology of anywhere and somewhere, borrowed from David Goodhart, stresses the increasing rift between cosmopolitan urban elites („Anywheres”) and those tied to their locality, anxious about globalisation and thus often turning to xenophobic politics („Somewheres”). However noble the intentions may be, importing foreign discourse exacerbates the sensation that Anywheres do not belong to their communities. It creates an aura of absence and exclusivity, further alienating Somewheres.

The ultimate goal, however, must be to convince those very people; the Somewheres. We can do this by engaging in a discourse that resonates with the people it is meant to address, thus transcending mere online virtue-signalling. By mimicking the US we create a subtle demarcation line, a wall of nowhere that separates us, the cosmopolitan elites, from those who cannot become actors in the simulacra of foreign politics. american left

A few weeks prior to the murder of George Floyd, a racist protest against “Roma violence” was held in Budapest. No digital wall was raised, and no hashtag floated around; posting about local problems is simply not as glamorous. It gathers fewer likes and retweets and, most importantly, it fails to signal one’s belonging to the global stratum of Anywheres. But it may be nevertheless what we need the most right now. By being anywhere all the time, we risk being nowhere, ever.

Pink Floyd, Echoes II Compilation Album Art by Storm Thorgerson

The United States is a fertile cauldron of ideas that has been fueling global progressivism for the past few decades. American activists successfully brought the dimensions of race, gender, and sexuality to the forefront, and they deserve ever-lasting gratitude for this. But the American struggle for equality has since created as its byproduct an invisible yet almost impenetrable border around itself; a border of words.

The English-speaking intelligentsia is today walled off by an ever-changing set of expressions that is arduous to even keep up with. This vocabulary is meant to protect vulnerable groups from insult, but it simultaneously excludes those without the resources to learn it. Few people have the time to browse Twitter for the expression of the week, stuff like Latinx, Womxn, or the correct capitalisation of Black and white. The ones who do have the time are mostly wealthy, well-educated native English-speakers.

The barbed wire of words is then reinforced by a moat of righteousness. Those who do not speak the language are often assumed to intentionally infringe upon it and are thus excluded on moral grounds. The lingo is now a pulpit that elevates its brahmins above the masses, attributing moral qualities to the vocabulary of intellectuals.

Do we intend to fight social injustice by switching letters in words? Is it worth the price if we risk alienating parts of our society by doing so? Policing expressions may be the right path for the US, but I fear that it won’t be for many other communities.

Pink Floyd, Echoes III Compilation Album Art by Storm Thorgerson

“When all are guilty, no one is; confessions of collective guilt are the best possible safeguard against the discovery of culprits, and the very magnitude of the crime the best excuse for doing nothing” — Hannah Arendt

Race and ethnicity are inescapable dimensions of inequality and are, therefore, non-negotiable elements of any serious progressive movement. There are many ways to frame these efforts, however. The particular path chosen by the American left is of questionable usefulness to other countries.

Here is a crescendo of headlines I picked from my Medium digest newsletter to illustrate the point:

Dear White Friends, I See Right Through Your #BlackLivesMatter Posts

Asian-Americans, Stop Using a Myth to Justify Your Racism

Brown People Are Racist Too

There Is No Such Thing As Good Cops

Not All Opinions Matter

Yes, All White People Are Racist

These captions are not representative of the American left as a whole. But they do signal a growing consensus on how the discourse around race should be shaped.

I am in no place to judge whether this approach will bring about the desired results in the United States. But I highly doubt that a binary, essentialising discourse would bear fruits elsewhere. The homogenous depiction of white people is meaningless in Europe, where power is fragmented across differences in language, history, religion, and statehood.

A simple glance at Central and Eastern Europe’s ethnic map shows why the assumption sounds absurd here. The dichotomy between oppressed and oppressors falls apart when some ethnicities are the majority in one country and a minority in others: Albanians, Austrians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, or Russians, to name a few. Lest we forget that the most heinous genocide in Europe, the Holocaust, was committed against people who are today categorised as white in the United States. Holocaust apologists would often rationalise their actions by pointing at the alleged privilege enjoyed by Jewish people. american left

The rhetoric of individual responsibility for collective blame is eerily similar to the words that stain the darkest pages of Central and Eastern European history. Formal power and therefore ethnic privileges can sometimes change in a matter of weeks.⁶ Declaring a group of people individually responsible for past oppression based on the RGB code of their skin is a game that I am wary of playing.

Lastly, the shallow focus on class in American politics has an eerily neoliberal ring to it. The goal shifted from guaranteeing a minimum standard of living to making sure that all subgroups have equal outcomes within capitalism. This further undermines working-class solidarity by painting the poor of different ethnicities as warring for finite resources. The left has been precipitously losing working-class votes in the past decade, and we need to ask ourselves why. For brevity’s sake, I highly recommend Ross Douthat’s illuminating piece in the Times and Cedric Johnson’s excellent long-read. american left

Pink Floyd, Echoes V Compilation Album Art by Storm Thorgerson

“[T]here’s just something unsustainable about an environment that demands constant atonement but actively disdains the very idea of forgiveness.”

Written a by a prominent progressive commentator, Liz Bruenig, the above tweet was deleted shortly after being published. We cannot know exactly why Bruenig decided to erase the post, but an angry mob of users demanding her exclusion from the progressive canon may have played a role. Through bitter irony, this episode illustrates my main concern with the American left: an unforgiving sense of moral superiority. A blind belief in one’s own goodness can easily lead to unshakeable vigour in harassing those who fail to agree.

This is precisely what has been happening in the United States. A renewed wave of purges swept through the Anglo-Saxon academic world in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests. Its targets were academics who either failed to express absolute support for all aspects of the movement or whose previous work was deemed to be inappropriate by at least a few thousand Twitter users. Punishments ranged from online shaming to being fired from one’s job.

There is a marked difference between targeting those who disagree and those who fail to agree. I cannot subscribe to an ideology that demands explicit and total support equating silence with violence. I refuse to think that people who have a different opinion are morally corrupt. And I have a hard time believing that this is the right way forward for the progressive community in Europe.

The demand for total support was a feature of every episode of terror — both red and white — in Central and Eastern European history. This is not to say that all ideologies that condemn apathy will eventually lead to mass violence. But such an attitude is certainly a prerequisite of societal horrors. Adopting the American discourse elsewhere, particularly in places like Central and Eastern Europe, could lead to unforeseen consequences.

[1] Conversations with the mysterious Liz Louis were a major source of inspiration for this piece. Many of my friends offered valuable input, voicing their concerns on private channels.

[2] I will here use ’progressivism’ and ’left’ interchangeably. I am aware that the two terms have slightly different connotations, but they have been increasingly blurred together in American popular media. I also need some options to avoid word repetition.

[3] I am aware that it isn’t only progressives that promote the green transition, but one has to admit that they have been doing the heavy lifting so far, especially in the US.

[4] The information on the Western Wall presented here was mostly gathered from the internet, which means it may be false. If any of my readers spot an error, please do not hesitate to leave a comment and I will update the article accordingly.

[5] I here refer to the online event of Blackout Tuesday, as opposed to the protests in the United States; the physical demonstrations clearly had a crucially local value in America.

[6] Consider that the city of Munkács, in the past century or so, belonged to the Habsburg Empire, Austria-Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, the Soviet Union, and Ukraine.

Article originally published on Medium.

By the same author: Read this before you write about Hungarian democracy

2 comments on “The perils of following the American Left

  1. Peter Rohrbach

    Thank you for your insights. The more I read about my family history, I think my great grandfather may have had second thoughts of emigrating from Bohemia to the US, had he been able to see into the future. I suspect he left Bohemia thinking he and his family were on a path to a brighter future,

  2. Pingback: Czech president calls Black Lives Matter slogan "racist", says "all lives matter"

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