Over the last few weeks, I have been struck by how passionate our discussions of the current state and future of DSA have become. This turn should not surprise us: we are discussing not only political principles and deep commitments, but also relationships and emotional attachments that are important to us. Together, they are what give our lives purpose and meaning. At some point in our lives, all of us have poured blood, sweat and tears into DSA and its predecessor organizations; some of us have even invested decades of our lives in it. As we contemplated where it is headed, with more causes for concern growing as each day passes, it would be surprising if we were not filled with passion and strong emotions.
I think we need to find a language to talk about those feelings and passions with each other, or we will not be able to understand each other, and we will find deep chasms opening up in our midst. I first became convinced of this when I read the responses here to “Whither DSA?” What I had written was an analytical piece: I am of an analytical cast of mind, and I tend to dissect problems and issues, thinking about them in terms of relationships and connections, figuring out how one thing follows from the next, and then reaching conclusions. But it was clear to me from the responses to what I wrote that while many of us were thinking about what was happening in the same analytical mode as me, others had a different approach, and were thinking about things in ways that were more grounded in long-standing relationships and feelings. I felt a need to try to find ways for us to communicate with each other that were mutually intelligible, so that we could understand each better; then, even if we did not reach agreement, we would not feel alienated from each other.
Truth be told, we all are mixes of the analytical and the emotional, of reason and passion. Even a person like myself, who tends toward the analytical, has spent his life on the U.S. left fighting against injustice out of deeply felt passion. You can’t do what I have done all my life, given the slim odds of success at every turn, with a purely logical analysis; logic alone told me that what I was trying to accomplish was a long shot at best. Without the fire of my passion about injustice, I could never have persevered for over a half century. At the same time, none of us operates solely out of passion, or we wouldn’t have been attracted to democratic socialism. We are who we are politically because we believed that the tools of analysis our tradition provides could guide us to political action that had a chance of success, notwithstanding the odds against us.
My comments over the weekend on how the developments inside DSA had given rise to the “fear of growing old and dying alone, politically” were my attempt to find a language that provided a bridge between what we were feeling and what our logical sides was telling us. I know from some of the reactions that I was not completely successful in communicating what I was trying to do, at least with everyone.
I want to take another try at constructing that bridge today. My starting point is the importance of acknowledging and affirming our feelings, and of validating them as legitimate responses to what we are facing. But I also want to insist on the need to reflect on our feelings — to think about why we feel what we now feel, and what to do with our feelings. I want to have a dialogue of sorts between our feelings and our analytical grasp of what is happening around us. I am going to try to do that by talking about two different sets of posts we have all read in the last week.
Over the weekend, we read comments from Miriam and Michelle which talked of how strongly they felt about the work they were doing in their locals, and the relationships they had with other DSA members thought that work. Because of those feelings, that they could not conceive of leaving DSA.
>> I spent my afternoon with a wonderful group of mostly DSA volunteers working to elect a member, Kristen Gonzalez, to state senate… I felt proud to be part of my comrades. Not quitting.<<
I want to begin by affirming Miriam’s and Michelle’s feelings of solidarity with and love for the DSA comrades they work with and write about. Those are the emotions that keep us doing what we do: they make us strong enough to persist. And I want to affirm the passion with which they defend those relationships.
I also want to reflect on them. When I read Miriam and Michelle’s comments, I thought immediately of the work of Carol Gilligan, a feminist scholar who is widely known and read in women’s studies and in my own field of education. Gilligan most influential work, In A Different Voice, was a critique of the dominant (Kantian) school of moral psychology, which postulated a hierarchy of moral reasoning, with universal moral prescriptions like the golden rule at its apex. Gilligan argued that this approach missed the ‘different voice’ of women, who she saw as employing a moral reasoning that was more focused on their obligations to others with whom they had particular relationships. That is why Miriam’s and Michelle’s comments brought Gilligan to mind.
Gilligan accomplished something important with the deconstruction of the dominant school of moral psychology and its blindness to the moral voices of women, but there was also a powerful feminist critique of her work that needs to be taken into account. The feminist critics argued that Gilligan had too easily accepted the polarities of patriarchal gender roles -- with woman as the nurturers, providing emotional support to others in the private sphere, and men as the producers, generating universal laws in the public sphere – and simply flipped their valorization. What was needed was a deconstruction of that polarity, and of the ways in which we see reason and passion, logic and emotion, as opposites.
In that spirit, I think that the power of Miriam’s and Michelle’s feelings of solidarity and love for their local DSA comrades must be brought into dialogue with an analysis of what threatens those relationships, and what can be done to preserve them, as much as possible. The threat is not, I would suggest, that many of us are running out of hope that DSA can be saved as an organization where such relationships can be built and sustained, and certainly not that we believe a DSA that has sundered its ties with the four DSA members of Congress will be irretrievably lost, and so are prepared to fight a final battle over that question. She who sounds the fire alarm should not be mistaken for the arsonist.
The threat lies in those who have engaged in the actions that have driven Bowman, AOC, Tlaib and Bush to the point of seriously considering a break with DSA, with all that means in terms of DSA irrevocably becoming a sect. And the threat lies in those who have gone about their routines as if it were business as usual, with the expectation that Bowman would submit himself to yet another round of abuse at the hands of DSA’s ultra-left without even a promise that he would be endorsed when it was over. The threat lies primarily with the arsonists, but secondarily with those who are pretending that the house is not on fire.
The nature of the threat becomes clear when we consider a second set of comments we have read in the last few days, in which Alexander, Andrés and Jose reported on what happened with the Immigration Rights Working Group (IRWG). These three comrades described abusive, manipulative and undemocratic behavior directed at them by the ultra-left faction (including a member of the NPC) and told us that as a result of this behavior, they had quit the group.
I want to affirm their outrage and their anger as entirely appropriate and justified feelings, given what took place.
But I also want to say that affirmation of their feelings is not enough; we need to reflect on what happened. First, we need to recognize that the ultra-left faction achieved its objectives: barring an unlikely NPC decision to disband the working group, they now have control of the rump IRWG, and will start issuing statements of the same sort as we have seen from the International Committee, the BDS Working Group, etc. And second, we need to come to grips with the fact that what we just witnessed was not an aberration, but the latest in a series of similar developments: we are looking at a pattern. The method at work in the IRWG — the weaponizing of process in ways that bear no plausible connection to legitimate issues of sexism, racism, etc., but are simply a tool for attacking one’s political opponents; virulent denunciations of those who hold positions that don’t conform to ultra-left dogma and personal attacks on other DSA members that can only be described as abusive; and manipulative, anti-democratic maneuvers — is clear. That method has been at the center of every controversy in DSA for the last two years, both in infernos in locals and in the national conflagrations, including the Bowman controversy.
Even when we try to not see it, even when we turn our heads away and look at the parts of DSA that have not yet been infected by it, part of us knows that this pattern exists, and that it is growing and spreading. And we know what fuels it. It is a toxic convergence of four forces: ultra-leftists and sectarian entryists looking to seize control of the DSA organizational apparatus; political novices infatuated with purist stances; agent provocateurs doing their best to generate internecine conflict in DSA’s ranks; and folks that need intensive therapy much more than they need an outlet for their political energies. The ultra-leftists and sectarian entryists drive the pattern, but they create an environment in which the other forces thrive. Our tacit recognition of this pattern is why – notwithstanding the daily recitations of a credo of not surrendering to the ultra-left and not letting them control DSA – none of us had the heart to ask the Comrades Alexander, Andrés and Jose to stick it out. As much as we might want it to be otherwise, we knew that there is no reasonable prospect, in the current organizational configuration of DSA and with the current balance of power in the organization, that things would get better in the IRWG. Our painful dilemma is unmistakable: Either we find a way to change that organizational configuration and that balance of power, or we are now seeing the future, and how DSA will self-destruct.
I am prepared to listen to strategies other than the one proposed in Whither DSA?, with the approval of the North Star Steering Committee: forcing a showdown over the question of endorsing the four DSA members of Congress. But they need to be actual strategies for how to alter the current organizational configuration in DSA and the current balance of power in the organization, not just declarations of faith that if we soldier on, it will all somehow turn out for the best. Our passion for the organization we want to be in has to be in dialogue with a rational, plausible strategy of how to achieve it.
For further discussion of these issues - see
3/18/2022 08:43:33 pm
The toxic atmosphere that Leo describes isn't limited to DSA, nor is it the province of ultra lefts alone. All the stuff he outlines was in full flower among liberal Democrats at Daily Kos during the battle over the nomination between Sanders and HRC. Sanders supporters were denounced as racists, white supremacists, misogynists, etc., with more than a whiff of anti-Semitism stirred into the noxious brew. When the owner of that site threw in his lot with the Sanders haters it precipitated a steep decline in the site's relevance. So I think that what has been happening in DSA is a reflection of the general degeneration in the political culture as a whole more than it is a phenomenon peculiar to the organization or attributable to the machinations of ultras and sectarians.
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