On the repeal of the “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” policy by the US congress, there was some argument as to the approach for the left to take. Some called it a red herring. My view is that, even if true, saying this is a bad idea.
This is an instance of a general pattern. A positive reform passes. Conservatives fume. Liberals cheer as if the millennium has arrived. Radicals are split. Some radicals say it’s good but we need to push for more. Other radicals say it’s a distraction from the real issues. Others may in between or somewhere else.
Well, for the purposes of social analysis, that may well be a useful question to debate. But in general, as an approach to everyday discussion of the issue, the “distraction” position is a bad strategy — particularly when the reform has just passed.
Because, if it is actually a real reform (like repealing DADT is), then people’s lives are actually improved, even if only marginally. And if a non-activist, or someone whose life is improved, is listening, then they do not hear an intellectual debate between insightful people. They hear something else. They hear, hey this awesome thing just happened, my life just improved and those idiotic radicals are saying it’s nothing. What’s more, they say it’s a bad thing, a distraction — rubbing it in my face. They want my life to go back to how it was before. Those idiots talk as if my life doesn’t matter. And they talk among themselves in a strange language, with marxist jargon, words like imperialism — which I might interpret to mean that things I hold dear are evil. It’s a bunch of weirdos engaging in a circle jerk claiming to understand and wanting to improve the world, but sneering when it actually does improve.
Look at what this does. It takes someone who is interested in the issue, emboldened by the reform, and now even maybe interested in further reforms and a deeper analysis. And it alienates them, and those who would push for further reforms have managed to insult and offend them.
More. Someone whose life is actually improved by the reform can indignantly attack you for being insensitive to them. This is very unhelpful and unseemly. You just picked a fight with a potential ally. This person may be backwards on some issues — but now they get to attack you, self-righteously, and pronounce these backward views with scorn.
Much much better would have been to say that it’s a positive reform, but to note its limitations. Say how it doesn’t end injustice. Invite those who are interested in, and pleased about, the reform to do something even more useful. Don’t say anything that can be reasonably interpreted as putting them down or belittling them.
In fact, this sort of talk is a major symptom of the weakness of the left. The reform is ineffectual, they say! It’s a red herring. It’s a distraction! Don’t delude yourself that you won anything. We didn’t really win. The system is much more powerful. You’re ignorant for thinking so. And me and my radical buddies actually understand what’s going on better.
Even though it may not actually be so, this sounds defeatist from the outside — and anything that sounds defeatist fails to attract a movement of people prepared to do something; hence nothing happens; hence the defeat happens; and the defeatism perceived from the outside is confirmed. Even though it may not have been before, the Left becomes more of a circle jerk. Even though it may not have been before, the Left becomes more defeatist. Even though it may not have been before, the Left becomes more defeated.
Similar issues recently with Obama’s healthcare reform, which seemed to me that it would actually help some people, even though it was largely a corporate giveaway. Same with the election of Obama. Same with any reform. My blog posts about both give what I think is a good strategy in these sorts of situations.