The Monsters the Left Creates

by John Halle on July 22, 2013

In addition to the light they shine on the burgeoning police state created by the Bush and Obama administrations, the Snowden disclosures have been useful in making visible the line separating partisan defenders of the administration and those who actually care about the damage it is inflicting on the planet and its inhabitants.

Among the worst of the former group has been MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry whose bizarre plea to Edward Snowden to come home and face the music — meaning, a likely life sentence and the possibility of pre-trial detention under conditions “tantamount to torture” — provoked much derision including two excellent pieces from Gary Leupp at Counterpunch.

Harris-Perry’s fervent denunciations of Snowden and Glenn Greenwald might be understood as routine apologetics required of party apparatchiks.  But while the substance of Harris-Perry’s line is identical to that of Democratic Party operatives such as Karen Finney, Joy Ann Reid, and Lawrence O’Donnell, Harris-Perry’s background is as an academic, having served as a Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton and currently at Tulane.

Her rise to media prominence began as a commentator primarily on racial politics at authentically “left” media outlets such as FAIRLaura Flanders GritTV, and Democracy NOW. These led to her having been granted a regular column in The Nation, by which point she had established herself as sufficiently “hot property” for consideration at MSNBC.

One might think that Harris-Perry’s rise has been accompanied by a softening or even a repudiation of what was once a genuine left perspective as was the case for legendary apostates such as Christopher Hitchens. But whatever can be said of Harris-Perry, the charge of opportunism doesn’t really hold water. For, as can be seen by reviewing the early appearances linked to above, Harris-Perry’s essential positions have changed very little.  That is to say she has from the beginning promoted a fundamentally neoliberal politics of equality of opportunity (as opposed to results) whose success is to be primarily evaluated by the achievement of diversity among ruling political and economic elites and within elite institutions.

While giving pro forma nods to this or that aspect of the left agenda on the welfare state, the environment, and foreign intervention, her main focus and professional interest has always been race within a neoliberal framework defined by the Democratic Party implemented with consummate cynicism  by the current administration. As such, matters such as, for example, the largest drop in African American wealth in history under an African-American president, grotesque rates of home foreclosures among African-American families are have elicited relatively little comment from her except as yet another policy failure to be laid at the feet of the Republicans.

A definitive indication of her commitment to neoliberal orthodoxy was provided by a column from last year in which she denounced the Chicago teachers strike for “harming children”.  In another, she scurrilously compares the deal-making and sell-outs of core constituencies of the Obama administration to that of Martin Luther King, Jr., portraying both as technocratic liberals “groping towards better and fairer solutions”.

The outrage which greeted her latest remarks will strike some as a bit odd: Why is the left only now taking notice of these deplorable positions when Harris-Perry has made no secret of her allegiances from the beginning?

In any case, there is by now little the left can do about it. Harris-Perry is firmly established within the mainstream, her voice taken as representative of the liberal — even radical — left, even when she promotes what are by any reasonable standard objectively reactionary policies.  In short, she has become a kind of monstrosity that the left itself played a significant role in creating.

Harris-Perry’s ascendancy to mainstream prominence making use of footholds provided by the left is not uncommon and for this reason, while Perry herself is of no particular interest, the particulars of her trajectory are worthy of discussion.

The same applies to another increasingly prominent advocate of neoliberal multiculturalism, “anti-racist educator” Tim Wise who I wrote about here.  Wise’s brand of high dudgeon activism is mainly conspicuous for its intellectual vacuity and juvenile pettiness.  What is worth noting is his rise to prominence which was achieved by accessing almost the same media infrastructure as Harris-Perry.  Beginning with an initial platform at ZMag, then moving onto the same three left organs used as stepping stones by Harris-Perry, Wise is now a frequent guest on MSNBC and has now broken through to the establishment center with recent appearances on CNN.  While Wise is more likely than Harris-Perry to at least give lip service to core aspects of the left agenda, his major focus from the beginning was on ferretting out all and any aspects of racialized bias and insensitivity, including on the left itself. In so doing, as I pointed out, he provided the right with a cudgel by which movements addressing systemic economic injustice could be attacked on the alleged grounds of “white privilege”.

Now, like Harris-Perry, Wise has evidently gone too far for some by his having accepted an invitation to appear under the auspices of the increasingly notorious Teach for America.

Finally, it is worth noting here that among perhaps the most prominent critics of my piece was Jim Naureckas who objected to my having made note of Wise’s frequent recourse to violent rhetoric — something which anyone with access to Wise’s essays, blog, and twitter feed can readily confirm.

Naureckas, for those who don’t know, has been since 1990 the editor of Extra!, FAIR’s bimonthly journal of media criticism.  He is thereby in part responsible for the platform that Harris-Perry and Wise now use for attacking the left.  Rather than attacking the messenger, Naureckas and others in the agenda-setting left media should recognize the role that they have played in creating media personalities who, in advancing themselves, have done significant damage to the left and its ability to communicate its message. And they should take steps to insure that it doesn’t happen again.

{ 18 comments… read them below or add one }

Abraham Marx July 22, 2013 at 1:33 pm

This is why I’ve become extremely skeptical of identity and culture politics.

Race gender sexuality religion – these are all inherently divisive issues. This is why Fox has condensed into the home of the middle aged (christian gun-toting) white man; this is why MSNBC has become merely the mirror image of Fox – a self-congratulating ‘multicultural’ cultural marker (NPR listening, latte sipping, ‘tolerant’ above all), snidely sniping at Republicans – and only Republicans – while serving as the Obama mouthpiece.

The Obama presidency has show remarkable progress on gay rights and on women’s issues. But this from a narrow technical policy angle.This is the bait and switch of “a neoliberal politics of equality of opportunity.”

The way I see it, the only way the ‘left’ is going to make progress against parti-colored neoliberalism is to become agnostic on identity issues. What I mean by this is seeing through identity politics in the mainstream – Wendy Davis makes a lot of noise about woman’s rights, and a lot of money, only to raise her status in the Beltway Game; Obama makes vaguely sympathetic murmurs about Trayvon and MSNBC has an orgasm of liberal feelgoodery.

What I mean by agnosticism is this. No one can prove what’s in their heart or what their real beliefs are. Obama may weep crocodile tears on camera for Trayvon. Or he may be sincerely shocked by racial inequalities yet muzzled by the state apparatus from doing anything substantive. The same can be said about Melissa Harris-Perry. Or Jesse Jackson.

All that matters is actions. The “anti-racist industrial complex,” at the end of the day, is a transmission belt for feelgood words and sentiments. Maybe one day Kanye West will stop comparing himself to Malcolm X and start being Malcom X. Maybe one day a young black firebrand will start speaking truth to power.

Until then, all that matters is the left coalescing around economic demands and policies. Let the identity chips fall where they may. A minimum wage increase would help many people, black or white. Universal healthcare would solve women’s health issues. Debt forgiveness on mortgages or student loans would save many lives, and embolden many to step into politics. Who gives a shit if these demands seem impossible now? If every one whining about racism or inclusion or exclusion started organizing around these things, alot of the other problems would solve themselves.


Aaron Aarons July 23, 2013 at 1:59 am

This is bullshit! The left answer to those who try to separate out issues such as women’s equality and racial equality from the struggle for social equality in general, i.e., the struggle against capitalism and its neoliberal cutting edge, is not to take up the opposite side of that separation.

Not, that is, unless one is trying to organize a movement that is more hospitable to racist and sexist white men than it is to women or people of color.


Abraham Marx July 23, 2013 at 10:38 am

If I thought the path forward would be organizing white men as part of a sexist racist backlash I wouldn’t be posting on Northstar.

What I am saying is that, as the author makes clear, there is an “anti-racist industrial complex,” i.e. a cottage industry focused on policing discourse, especially discourse among leftists whose innate sympathies are already anti-racist. This leads to a race to see who is most ‘unracist’ or ‘anti-racist.’ Which misses the point. Most people on the left are not the issue; policing their discourse boils down to semantic arguments.

Real anti-racist action, the type of action that would earn the respect and involvement of colored communities, would be taking to the streets and getting your skull cracked for a good cause. Causes and demands that materially resolve racial-cultural contradictions. Universal healthcare; universal education; universal employment. These wouldn’t address ‘identity politics’ directly because they wouldn’t need to.

The real problem is people on the left, liberals and post-liberals alike, who warm the cockles of their hearts when they hear Obama fawn over poor Travyon, or somehow find inspiration in the civil rights movement when it is smokescreen “lip service” from people like MHP or Jesse Jackson.

The system has perfected this really strange semantic politics. People on the right, in suggesting a tax here or there is reasonable, are called RINO’s. People on the left, who live on feel-good inclusion as a civic liturgy, are called racists and fascists when they point out the underlying material causes.


Aaron Aarons July 31, 2013 at 3:00 am

I gather that you consider issues such as the mass incarceration of Blacks, Latinos and Native Americans, and the attack on women’s reproductive rights, to be ‘identity politics’ and, as such, not issues that the left should be fighting over. You seem to want to confine our struggle to demands that can appeal to white male workers as much as to, e.g., Black women. I wouldn’t, without knowing more about you, call you a racist, and certainly not a fascist, nor would I accuse you of consciously aiming at “organizing white men as part of a sexist racist backlash”. But you certainly want to make sure that leftist organizing doesn’t offend the sensibilities of white men, most of whom are, at least subtly, racist and sexist. And you will sacrifice the defense of women and people of color against their special oppression in order to avoid that backlash.

And, no, the fact that you choose to post a comment on North Star doesn’t prove anything about you. In fact there is a group of thoroughly right-wing self-described “leftists” who post here regularly.


PatrickSMcNally July 31, 2013 at 8:00 am

Prison rates in Bulgaria & Poland for 1980-6 were estimated by the UN to be 160 & 204 per 100,000. The USA has a higher prison rate than that just among white people. The difference becomes more dramatic when one considers blacks. But this is not an issue which should be predominantly cast in racial terms. Doing so only obscures the fact that Bulgarians & Poles under “socialism” had a lesser chance of ending up in prison than those of us in the USA today.


Will Shetterly July 31, 2013 at 9:11 am

You really need to read Adolph Reed Jr. on antiracism. The most relevant bit from the link I provided: “Yes, racism exists, as a conceptual condensation of practices and ideas that reproduce, or seek to reproduce, hierarchy along lines defined by race. Apostles of antiracism frequently can’t hear this sort of statement, because in their exceedingly simplistic version of the nexus of race and injustice there can be only the Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it.”

And out of curiosity, why shouldn’t socialists try to avoid offending people of any identity? Our target is capitalism. We need all the allies we can get. Remember that if we win, the poor are disproportionately female and dark-skinned, so a triumph for socialism is a triumph in terms of identity politics, too. Alas, the reverse isn’t true: Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama should’ve proven to everyone that when oppressed identities become part of capitalism, they behave like the people before them. Heck, the example of the Irish in the US should’ve proven that. The problem is the system, not the identity of the people in it.


Aaron Aarons July 31, 2013 at 1:47 pm

You are yourself proof that the “Manichean dichotomy of those who admit racism’s existence and those who deny it” is extremely inadequate. There are those, apparently including you, who “admit racism’s existence” but oppose any fight against its manifestations or defense of its victims.

And what does it mean to say that “Margaret Thatcher and Barack Obama should’ve proven to everyone that when oppressed identities become part of capitalism, they behave like the people before them”? Thatcher and Obama are individuals who come from groups suffering special oppression but have, like good Horatio Algers, overcome that disadvantage to become important agents of the oppressors. In the case of Oreobama, his principal role has been to use his origin in an oppressed group to undermine the struggles against both the special oppression of that group and capitalist-imperialist exploitation and domination in general.


Will Shetterly July 31, 2013 at 2:46 pm

Proof? Of course we fight its manifestations. I have literally bled from the blows of racists.

But identitarian tactics are divisive, and that hurts the struggle for working class people of all hues. The people united can never be defeated, which is why capitalists are so happy when we accept their division.

What Obama and Thatcher show is it doesn’t matter what hue or gender the ruling class have. What matters is that they’re the ruling class. To identitarians, a homeless white guy is doubly privileged, and Herman Cain’s daughter is doubly oppressed. Which may explain why identitarians spend so much time talking about oppression at the top of the pyramid rather than leveling the pyramid itself.

Terms like “Oreobama” are fascinating—you may think he’s a traitor to his race, but he’s always been true to his class. If rich black guys are white on the inside, are poor white guys black on the inside?


Aaron Aarons July 31, 2013 at 6:33 pm

What are you actually criticizing when you use the word “identitarian”? Is there any self-proclaimed leftist of significance who would claim that a homeless white man is more privileged than a rich black woman?

But a homeless white man may be doubly “privileged”, i.e., less oppressed, than a homeless Black woman, and a rich white man will be doubly privileged compared to a rich Black woman. Moreover, part of the privilege of being white vs. Black, or male vs. female, is that being in the former categories makes it a lot more likely that you will be rich in the first place, so one can’t really separate the privileges of race and gender from the privileges of class.

I don’t think Oreobama is “a traitor to his race”, but I think he and, especially, the people who put him into the office of POtuS, use his “blackness” to undermine the struggle against Black special oppression. Moreover, his “blackness”, in conjunction with the Tim Wise version of “anti-racism” and patently absurd attacks on Obomber from the right, is used to undercut leftist opposition to the imperialist, worse-than-Reaganite policies that his masters would be demanding of any POtuS.


Will Shetterly August 1, 2013 at 2:11 pm

I am criticizing understandings of power that focus on social identity rather than wealth. You might be interested in googling Rev. Thandeka’s “What’s Wrong with Anti-Racism”, a short piece on the web that’s aimed at Unitarian-Universalists, but specifically points out the limited understanding of power identitarians have. She’s a black woman and the author of Learning to Be White; when she criticizes anti-racism, she is not assuming there are no more racists in the US.

Whether a homeless black woman is in a better or worse situation than a homeless white man depends on her circumstances: when shelters are full, they favor women, regardless of race. But that misses the bigger issue: there should be no homeless people in a rich nation.

As for “more likely that you’ll be rich”, there are twice as many white people living in poverty than black people. Generational poverty hurts everyone in—class mobility sucks for Americans of all races. Why ignore anyone?


Aaron Aarons August 1, 2013 at 4:14 pm

1) “But that misses the bigger issue: there should be no homeless people in a rich nation.”

But that misses the even bigger issues that (a) there should be no nations getting and staying rich off of the resources and labor of weaker nations, and (b) there should be no homeless people anywhere.

2) As for “there are twice as many white people living in poverty than black people” [in the U.S., presumably, not the world!]:

a) That was probably true even in some of the slave states — the ones that had relatively few slaves — in 1860. Does that mean that fighting slavery should have been marginalized in favor of fighting poverty?

b) There are probably more U.S. citizens than undocumented immigrants living in poverty. Are those of us who fight against anti-immigrant discrimination and persecution therefore what you call “identitarians”?

c) In 1948 “Israel”, there may well be more Jews than Palestinians living in poverty. Does that make the blatant, systematic discrimination against non-Jews there an “identitarian” issue?

Pointing out that more whites than Blacks in the U.S. benefit from various welfare programs and public services that are attacked by the right may help diminish racist white opposition to those programs. But it is rather dishonest to use it to argue against recognition of the special oppression of Blacks, since you must know that U.S. whites outnumber Blacks by way over 5 to 1, so that the proportion of Blacks in poverty is way over twice the proportion of whites in poverty.

Struggles over economic matters don’t have to deal explicitly with race. But using those struggles, and the desire not to offend racist whites or sexist men who might support such struggles as an excuse for not fighting against racial, gender or legal-status oppression is not acceptable to those who actually want to fight for human liberation.

Will Shetterly July 23, 2013 at 10:45 am

I strongly recommend Adolph Reed Jr. on antiracism:


John Halle July 23, 2013 at 11:01 am

Adolph’s comment on the piece: “Walter Michaels just sent me the great piece you did on MHP and that pimp Tim Wise. It’s great; you’re absolutely on target about them both. I’d like to circulate it, if that’s okay, but the more important thing would be to get it out more publicly. You know, the career trajectory you indicate for them was a trail blazed initially by the so called black public intellectual (which always seemed to me to mean just black people who go on tv or the op-ed pages to ventriloquize black Americans without portfolio) crowd Skip Gates, Cornel West, and Robin Kelley. Cornel presumably has more claim to left politics than the others, but what enabled projection of the public persona was his empty and bombastic moralizing and the sing-song blather. But I digress. Let me reiterate that this is an important critique and needs to get out.”


Michael McCarthy July 23, 2013 at 3:52 pm

It’s almost amusing to see those on the left and right try to shame Snowden into “coming home” and confront his accusers “like a man.” The usual comments are that in the NSA channels exist to vent concerns and grievances like the ones that caused Snowden to go public with his accusations. Perhaps Snowden should contact some of the thousands of men and women in the US military who have been raped to see how that worked out for them. Or maybe he has or may he just reads the news and decided he had more of a chance to be taken seriously in China or Russia. I’d say he has a a good case.


Will Shetterly August 1, 2013 at 5:31 pm

1. Yup. As Marx and any number of his followers have noted, socialism in one country isn’t the goal. But you have to start where you are.

2. a) Reading Marx on slavery is interesting. I’m pretty sure I noted earlier that socialists have taken part in all the great social struggles.

But I will add that an identitarian look at slavery misses things like black slaveowners. The wrong of slavery was owning humans, regardless of hue.

b) See 1.

c) Given that Palestinians would outvote Israelis if they had the vote, I doubt that. But even if so, see 1.

Is your goal proportional poverty? If so, the identitarian approach makes sense. But the socialist goal is its end. When there are 40 million Americans in poverty, why do you only want to focus on a minority of them?

Well, obviously, if we address poverty, black folks benefit. What do you propose instead?


Will Shetterly August 1, 2013 at 5:35 pm

Oops. My last paragraph was originally the first, and I meant to delete it before submitting the comment. So apologies for the odd transition, but you’re still welcome to answer the question, if you wish.


Aaron Aarons August 2, 2013 at 3:00 am

There are probably over a billion people in the world suffering from real poverty in the form of malnutrition and lack of anything that could pass for adequate housing. Why in the world would any socialist prioritize 40 million “American” “identitarians” over the great majority of others?

As for “Black slaveholders”, there were very few of them and, at least in some cases, their “ownership” of fellow Blacks was legal protection for the latter against being kidnapped and enslaved by whites. And I doubt that any of those Black slaveholders, or any slaveholders, owned white slaves.

BTW, I had referred to ‘1948 “Israel”‘, or what Palestinians refer to as “48”, the land conquered by the Jews in 1948 and shortly afterwards, and not to the lands occupied by the Zionists after 1967. In the former, Palestinians do have the right to vote, but they are less than 20% of the population there.


Will Shetterly August 2, 2013 at 9:06 am

Are you trying to flip this discussion? I reject identitarianism; I want socialism for everyone.

The “legal protection” argument for black owners keeping slaves has always seemed odd, given that freeing a slave gave them even more protection. The racial requirements in slavery were tricky; because descent was through the mother, there were slaves who could pass for white. Because the legal definition of white at that time was, depending on the state, 1/4 or 1/8 black, if freed, a slave with that blood line became legally white, but if not freed, stayed a slave.

There were some very rich black slaveowners. One of the more famous is William Ellison Jr.

Didn’t know that land was called 48. But again, why distinguish between who’s poor? Poor is poor, and that’s unjust, whether black or white, male or female, Israeli or Palestinian.


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