by Myles Kantor
Shortly before the 2000 election I attended a forum at my alma mater. One of the panelists, clearly a leftist, spoke on u201CSelf-referential Epiphenomena in Campaign 2000.u201D I later asked him a question on the state of the American Left from a Reedian perspective.
By u201CReedian,u201D I refer to Adolph Reed, Jr., Professor of Political Science at the New School University, Ralph Nader supporter, and Interim National Council member of the Labor Party. Among his projects is a campaign for a 28th Amendment guaranteeing a living wage. The Labor Party's website defines it as follows:
u201CFirst and foremost everyone, both in the private and public sectors, needs a guarantee of a right to a job at a living wage — one that pays above poverty-level wages and is indexed to inflation. And in today's world that comes to a minimum of about $10 an hour.
Suffice it to say this isn't attractive to those who value contractual freedom. But whatever else may be said of it, the Labor Party's proposal and Reed's activism on its behalf represent genuine efforts at influencing public policy. (Wittingly or not, it also respects nomocratic process.)
In this vein, Reed has been a persistent critic of the contemporary Left. His newest book, Class Notes: Posing As Politics and Other Thoughts on the American Scene, collects his observations.
Reed charges a u201Cflight from concreteness that has increasingly beset left theorizing and social criticism, and as a result political practice, in the U.S. in recent decades.u201D Emblematic of this flight are u201Cgestural approaches to politicsu201D that substitute u201Cfanciful taxonomy for strategic analysis and assessment,u201D u201CJesse Jackson's Potemkin armyu201D and u201Cpolitical charadeu201D case in point. (Reed critiques his 1984 campaign in The Jesse Jackson Phenomenon: The Crisis of Purpose in Afro-American Politics.) A related phenomenon is the u201CBlack Voice businessu201D exemplified by u201Cpublic intellectualsu201D such as Cornel West, Michael Eric Dyson, and bell hooks. (Reed is especially critical of the latter two: u201CDyson and [Gloria] Watkins/hooks are little more than hustlers, blending bombast, clichs, psychobabble, and lame guilt tripping in service to the u2018pay me' principle. Dyson, for instance, has managed to say absolutely nothing in a string of New York Times op-ed pieces.u201D)
Richard Rorty similarly cautions, u201CUnless the American left can pull itself together and agree on a concrete political agenda, it is not likely to amount to much.u201D The Deweyan academic laments of the amorphous status quo:
u201COnce upon a time, everybody who thought of themselves as being on the left could tell you what laws were most needed: an anti-lynching law, an anti-poll tax law, the repeal of the Taft-Hartley Act, Ted Kennedy's national health insurance law and so on. Nowadays, my leftist students are hard put to it to name any laws whose passage they think urgent. They do not seem interested in what bills are before Congress or the state legislatures. Their minds are elsewhere: on what they call u2018cultural politics.' It's easy to talk to them about individualist versus communitarian values, or multiculturalism versus monoculturalism, or identity politics versus majoritarian politics, but it is not easy to get them excited about, for example, a proposed law that would remove obstacles the federal government now places in the way of union organizers.u201D
Back to the epiphenomenal speaker. When I posed my Reedian query, he responded that u201CThe Left shouldn't be kicking itselfu201D and cares about u201Cracism, working families, and taking care of poor people.u201D Talk about confirmatory conduct. This is sectarianism and programmatic desiccation incarnate.
While I'm unabashedly biased, I can't help think how much this contrasts with the Right, which integrates historical grounding with philosophical reflection to generate a policy-minded eclecticism. When Reed writes that u201CContemporary academic norms regard obvious political engagement…as inconsistent with scholarly distance and integrity,u201D libertarian-paleoconservative counterexample upon counterexample comes to mind: William L. Anderson's analysis of voucher-ism (u201CTrouble with Vouchersu201D), William Marina's condemnation of Florida's War on Citrus Trees (u201CCankerous Interests and Trade Laws: When Will We Stop the Cankercaust?u201D), Donald Livingston's directorship of the League of the South Institute for the Study of Southern History and Culture. The list of vocal academic devolutionists goes on and on.
Whether in opposing the War on Drugs and the antidiscrimination apparatus or debating immigration policy and secession, the Right is deeply issue-oriented and repudiates insular discourse. Of course, our identity derives from particular premises and we enjoy flexing our theoretical limbs, but our cause is not and must not ever be so much rarefied rigidity. The day we divorce our conceptions from applicative concern is the day we enter obsolescence.
So on this first year of a fresh century, let us resolve to maintain and magnify our efforts, mindful that quietism's convenience is longevity's demise. Let us act on that great Horatian imperative, u201CNil desperandum.u201D Never despair.
Myles Kantor lives in Boynton Beach, Florida.