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Blog // Thoughts
November 1, 2007

Interesting Language Part One: Radical Left-Wing

I’ve been watching a fair bit of FoxNews over the past few months. “Too much time on your hands” you say? Perhaps, but given we are approaching a very interesting US Presidential Election season I’m trying to keep a wide range of media in focus. That said, I do still find Fox a tough meal […]

I’ve been watching a fair bit of FoxNews over the past few months. “Too much time on your hands” you say? Perhaps, but given we are approaching a very interesting US Presidential Election season I’m trying to keep a wide range of media in focus. That said, I do still find Fox a tough meal to chew on and doubt I can sustain the viewing for too much longer.

That said, it has been fascinating to see the way some pre-packaged and ideologically laden word-bombs get thrown into the discussions. One in particular that is getting a lot of attention is “radical left-wing,” usually described by reference to some variation of lunacy and typically in connection to protests (often protests on university campuses). In this one can see again the way that the unresolved political debates of the late 1960s are providing a template for framing US political coverage today.

Today, while tidying some books, my eye caught the following quote,

“I believe the conditions of present-day society are such that this forum for acting on adolescent strengths is denied adolescents, except in the area of radical politics. If the present generation of the young seems, indeed, to be more activist, more left, than the generations before, it is perhaps a sign hat they are trying to satisfy the need to act on the strengths that have emerged during their recent lives; the feeling of being threatened with permanent adolescence has radicalised these students…”

Those words seem to speak directly to our present context and to the politically volatile campuses that so worry the Fox pundits. However, the author of those words, Richard Sennett, was not writing to our present context,

“… as much as the special social issues of the Vietnam war, poverty and the draft.”

Those words, applicable as they are today, were written in 1970 and are part of Sennett’s excellent treatment of urban Civil society, The Uses of Disorder. He goes on,

“Even today only a few young people can make a social forum out of politics for their own growth; radical politics is of necessity a limited sphere, and its guiding impulse is increasingly becoming claustrophobic and repressive. The social question for young people is still where to find an enlarged forum for experience and exploration. This, I believe, is the true task of planning modern cities. The ills of the city are not mechanical ones of better transport, better financing, and the like; they are the human ones of providing a place where men can grow into adults, and where adults can continue to engage in truly social existence.”

At the risk of sounding like a Victorian throwback, part of what I find unpalatable about FoxNews is that it simply isn’t grown-up. Find someone’s views objectionable? Then hate them, yell at them, ridicule them, demean them, mock them, demonise them. But, for goodness sake, don’t talk to them, don’t let them explain themselves, don’t work towards a civil common purpose. It’s hardly a model for an adult society. There is no real exploration of why such views appeal to young minds (or educated minds), what social forces are motivating people to protest in these ways, or even whether there might be some substance to the protests.

I do worry about cheap (and flawed) ideology on campuses (in the same way that I worry about flawed youth programmes in churches). But, the real issue is not as simple about preference, liking or disliking the ideas or modes of protest. Rather, it’s about preparation for some sort of full adult, responsible, social and civil life. Protest (and to a much lesser extent, revolution) has its place and has played an important role in shaping our social institutions. However, it is not a goal in and of itself – at some point practical solutions need to be proposed and you have to participate in the longer, slower and more frustrating process of doing something about it. That’s where the real politics begins.

This brings us back to asking what the protests of the 60s really did achieve and whether that revolutionary era did what it set out to accomplish. I’ve always found the year of my birth, 1968, to be a fascinating year to consider. The politics were so radical, but also the promise remained so unfulfilled. I think that’s the challenge for the current generation – to fulfil the promise. It’s a far more challenging question than is possible with the name-calling approach of Fox and Co.

Tommorrow – Islamo-Facism

[tags] Fox News, Radical, Protest [/tags]

Toni 17 years ago

The more I look at the US the more I think it has always (as in the last 200+ years) been like this. A mix of those who wish to make the nation christian by main force opposed to those who wish to exploit it for their own ends. I’m very much inclined to believe this IS the real America: a tussle between 2 side that aggravate, provoke, insult and hurt each other. And all through it, criminals run loose.

Why should the present be different from the 60s, I wonder?

For me, the root of the majority of its problems stem from the ‘liberty’ that is brandished so proudly. What liberty seems to mean is not a freedom to live life to the fullest, but instead a freedom to do whatever I want, without interference or accountability. Although the country was settled by people seeking freedom from oppression, that found further expression in rebellion, and rebellion has never been far from the American psyche since.

I have a good friend who lived and worked in Anne Arbour, New York state for 4 years. His observation on US politicians was that with just a few exceptions, they are all more-or-less heading in the same direction. There is much talk about radical ideology, but underneath a very conventional set of political maneouvers. No-one ever got sacked buying IBM. This is probably a good thing, because it’s kept the US from doing some of the really dreadful things that various sides have proposed, but that seems to be getting eroded by those that are taking the rhetoric seriously. This is probably also why the most ridiculous generalisations about others are made freely without being recognised for the shameful insult they are.

Sorry I’ve wandered a bit off topic, but this has been running around my head for weeks in various forms.

Fernando Gros 17 years ago

Toni – I think you are right that the polarisation of US politics runs deep. The contested readings of US foreign policy go all the way back to 1812, which is why the current crop of writers are so keen to define (or redefine) what happened there. The spirit that desires unilateral superiority for the US, where the US expects other nations to be regulated but accepts no external regulation itself, is a manifestation of one pole that goes right back to 1812.

My interest in wondering how it might be different today is that the generation that were coming into political activism in the mid to late 60s are now the generation in power (more or less). Of course, those issues are radically mapping the current debates – civil rights, women’s rights, Vietnam, the effect of immigration.

The way uncritical rhetoric poisons societies should worry all of us. The opening of Antony Beevor’s “The Battle for Spain” comes to mind,

“The divisiveness of the new ideologies could turn brothers into faceless strangers nd trade unionists or shop owners into class enemies. Normal human instincts were overridden. In the tense spring of 1936, on his way to Madrid University, Juli?†n Marias, a disciple of the Philosopher Jos?© Ortega y Gasset, never forgot the hatred in the expression of a tram-driver at a stop as he watched a beautiful and well-dressed young woman step down onto the pavement. ‘We’ve really had it,’ Mari?†s said to himself. ‘When Marx has more effect than hormones, there is nothing to be done.'”

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