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 FAIR, Laura 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.