Tuesday, August 3, 2021

Playing the Field: A Critique of the DiMaggio Paradigm

Playing the Field: A Critique of the DiMaggio Paradigm

Jim Kavanagh

Anthony DiMaggio, in his recent polemic on Counterpunch, Rise of the Right: How the Vaudeville Left Fuels White Supremacy, asserts that

there is a heavily corporatized, nominally left segment of the punditry…who are mainstreaming and popularizing Republican talking points…mainstream[ing] the idea of a left-right political alliance in the U.S… populariz[ing] noxious reactionary propaganda… and normalizing rightwing views, bigotry, and neofascistic politics. These are not individuals that any thoughtful leftist – whether one who advocates for liberal reform, progressive transformation, or socialism – should entertain. 

DiMaggio’s “vaudeville” lineup includes “Jimmy Dore, Glenn Greenwald, Matt Taibbi, Joe Rogan, Caitlin Johnstone, and Krystal Ball, among others.” (I’ll call them the Left-Fielders, because it will economize words, and I like cute analogies, too, and they’re way out there.) According to DiMaggio all these players have, “for all intents and purposes, thrown their lot in” with the “neofascistic Trumpian movement.” They have "driven Democratic voters toward the Republican Party," they "send Democratic voters to the right in general elections," and they are, DiMaggio constantly asserts, “normalizing white supremacy and the right’s neofascistic politics.” 

Whew! Hell of an indictment. 

I reject it. I reject the idea that any thoughtful leftist and socialist (as I consider myself) should accept the charge that these pundits are responsible for “normalizing” the “neofascistic Trumpian movement.” Frankly, I think it’s ridiculous, and can’t survive any fair-minded perusal of the entirety of their work. 

(I also guess that within DiMaggio’s framework, I would be—and would be content to be—considered “among the others.”) 

I also know that DiMaggio’s piece represents the thinking around which another nominally left segment of punditry has coalesced. (Let’s call them the Shortstops, because they’re out to prevent anyone from getting to a forbidden base, and I’m stuck with the stupid baseball analogy.) There are quite a few who have dug in their heels on it, and who will never be able to see or hear these Left-Fielder commentators as I do. I also know there are a lot more who are unsure of what exactly is going on here. I just urge everyone of those to give everyone a fair hearing and decide who is presenting the more cogent case. 

I am not going to go into specifically defending all of the accused against all of the charges in DiMaggio’s indictment. Though I accept grouping them together for the purposes of this argument, they are different political actors, with whom I have different levels of agreement on specific issues. But I will comment on some of the key elements that underlie the discourse of DiMaggio and the Shortstops that I think are important to notice.

One element that I find novel to DiMaggio is the charge that these people are a “heavily corporatized” segment of the punditry. Really? Every one of these folks either never was part of, or they left, a “corporatized” media organization. They all seem to make money, as some of them did quite handsomely in the corporate media environments they took the risk of leaving. But that does not make them “corporatized.” 

They are, it seems to me, the epitome of self-produced, independent media journalists—independent precisely of corporate media conglomerates. Their ability to make money to sustain their work outside of corporate institutions is what gives them the strength to challenge those institutions’ influence. 

It’s also what has the corporate media (which now finds these quite successful journalists to be competitors), as well as the U.S. government (which finds them dangerous “underminers” of trust), pissed off at them and engaging in a furious effort to destroy their ability to act independently, via censorship and demonetization. 

Jonathan Cook catches what’s going on quite sharply, in his excellent post on the plight of Craig Murray, who, all American leftists should notice and protest, has just gone to prison in Scotland for his independent journalism:

When social media took off, one of the gains trumpeted even by the corporate media was the emergence of a new kind of “citizen journalist”. At that stage, corporate media believed that these citizen journalists would become cheap fodder, providing on-the-ground, local stories they alone would have access to and that only the establishment media would be in a position to monetise... 

The establishment’s attitude to citizen journalists...only changed when these new journalists started to prove hard to control, and their work often highlighted inadvertently or otherwise the inadequacies, deceptions and double standards of the corporate media.

I find the “corporatized” charge so blatantly false that I can’t understand why it’s there, except as a hollow rhetorical gesture to signal that the author wants you to perceive his discourse as coming from the left.

Whatever anyone’s motivation, the most important thing in this regard—and I would like to know DiMaggio’s and the Shortstops’ position(s) about it—is that any thoughtful leftist should avoid endorsing the program of eliminating independent journalism that Jonathan Cook describes above, and that is amplified in a particularly nasty way by this noted warrior of the anti-Trumpian-fascism Resistance:


But let’s consider the charges that DiMaggio makes about things Left-Fielders have actually said or done. 

DiMaggio seems to think it’s a damning charge against the Left-Fielders that some of them call (“posture about”) the Democratic Party “authoritarian.” 

Well, it is, and I don’t see how any thoughtful person can deny it. 

It’s a party with an anti-democratic structure that gives extra votes to party officials and super-delegates, and cheats and manipulates elections. It’s a party whose previous president inaugurated the unprecedented use of the Espionage Act against journalists, and whose current president has just imprisoned Daniel Hale and is seeking to put Julian Assange in prison for 175 years—a deadly dangerous attack on freedom of speech and the press. 

It’s a party that spent the last five years endorsing the most authoritarian elements of the U.S. capitalist state—the national security and intelligence agencies and the military, and whose current president is now siccing those agencies on “domestic violent extremists”—defined as those who “oppose capitalism, corporate globalization” or “perceived exploitation or destruction of natural resources and the environment” and might try to “influence the policy of a government by intimidation or coercion”—like, you know, strikes and mass demonstrations. 

And it is a party, both out of and in government, that colludes with, threatens, and directs the Silicon Valley oligarchs about what and whom they should exclude from the social media—in fact, the public fora—they control. 

Yes, it’s “authoritarian.” Referring to other authoritarian actors, or trying to pooh-pooh the importance of that, will not make the obvious go away. Not-so-thoughtful leftists may approve of this authoritarianism, because they think it is being used against white supremacists and Trumpian neo-fascists, but it is disingenuous, to say the least, to deny it’s there. I don’t see why any leftist, whose purpose is not to whitewash the Democratic Party of what they know is a taint, would argue about it. 

Nor do I understand why DiMaggio, or any political analyst, would think leftists should be all aghast at Left-Fielders talking about a “deep state.” Under one name or another—"permanent government,” “bureaucracy,” etc.—the concept of a deep state has been a standard part of political theory since—well, forever. It’s positively banal, and straw-manning locutions like “conspiratorial rhetoric” and “threatening and ominous” just make the speaker sound desperate. The recent use of the specific term “deep state” traces back, I believe, to a rather thoughtful essay promoted and discussed by Bill Moyers, who must have been normalizing Trumpian neo-fascism and white supremacy in 2014. 

Again, why would any leftist, who was not trying to deny or hide the concept in order to protect the permanent imperialist regime from scrutiny, or who wasn’t utterly bewitched by the sound of it coming from one fool’s head, denounce anyone for using it?

But let’s go to the big one, which leads to the big thing: Left-Fielders go on Fox! Shocked, shocked! Guilty as charged. Hang ‘em high! Who can deny that talking to Tucker Carlson is the “normalization of white supremacist television”?

Well, gee, who can deny that talking to Wolf Blitzer is the “normalization of Zionist—i.e., Jewish supremacist—television”? And who can deny that talking to Nicole Wallace is the “normalization of imperialist television”? Indeed, who can deny that talking to anyone on CNN or MSNBC is “normalization of CIA television”? 

Really, Wolf Blitzer was the spokesman for what white nationalist, “white Zionist” Richard Spencer calls "the most important and perhaps most revolutionary ethno-state, and…one that I turn to for guidance." Niclole Wallace was the Communications Director for the war criminal George W. Bush. CNN and MSNBC proudly pay the likes of James Clapper—manager of the mass surveillance program he protected by lying to Congress—and John Brennan—high priest of the drone assassination program who shepherded actual fascists into power in Ukraine. Which of them, from a thoughtful leftist point of view, has done less harm than Tucker Carlson?

Unless racism and colonialism targeting Palestinians don’t count, unless imperialism and the mass killing of Afghanis, Iraqis, Libyans, and Syrians don’t count, unless enabling Hitler-loving fascists in Europe doesn’t count, the answer to that question is: None.

There is no “leftist” logic that supports denouncing anyone for talking to Carlson on Fox and not denouncing them for talking to any one of those other media personalities on any of their networks. Anyone who denounces one and not the other on the claimed leftist principles of anti-fascism and anti-racism is hiding something—from you, and maybe from themselves.

Why, then, do we not see such denunciations from DiMaggio and the Shortstops?

Well, first of all, it would be politically ridiculous to insist that no leftist ever talk to any host on any network that was implicated in promoting racism, imperialism, or other things that the Shortstops think “fit the bill” as “reactionary attitudes.” Because it’s not about the host or the network, it’s about the audience. If you forgo talking to reactionary hosts, you avoid talking to wide swaths of the American people. The logic of the Shortstops’ position is that leftists must take a vow of silence, which signals their virtue but also prevents them, politically, from getting to first base. It’s a way of making politics impossible. Take me out of the ballgame.

The Shortstops know this, but avoid a much as possible acknowledging it in their discourse. They will just refrain from attacking Glenn Greenwald for talking to Rachel Maddow (in the alternate universe where she invites him again), while continuing to selectively anathematize and castigate based on some implicit principle.

It’s worth remarking on DiMaggio’s claim that: 

there’s no evidence that’s been presented that any of the efforts to cultivate a left-right alliance have attracted a single Republican or Trump voter to the progressive-Democratic-Sanders left by drawing 2016 Trump voters (or Trump supporters in general) to Bernie Sanders’s 2020 primary campaign.

First of all, I reject DiMaggio’s straw-man framing about some alleged campaign by Left-Fielders to “cultivate a left-right alliance.” Is that something like Joe Biden’s “reaching across the aisle,” which actually empowers reactionary politicians and guarantees regressive policies? Or is it just a silly way to make talking to ordinary people with reactionary attitudes seem like organizing the Nuremberg rally? 

And I don’t know about a single voter in an election, but I do know that, if your operating principle is that it is impossible to change the minds of people with reactionary attitudes, your operating principle is, again, that doing politics is impossible—via Fox or MSNBC, both of whose audiences need a lot of mind-changing.

And I do know that Bernie’s appearance on a Fox town-hall did have a positive effect on public attitudes toward single-payer health insurance, and I do know that Tucker Carlson, in front of the largest audience in cable news, changed his mind to support Julian Assange because of his conversations with Jimmy Dore. 

But these are effects on policies, not votes, so they don’t count for DiMaggio. 

I think it is more important to change minds about the Assange case or Medicare-for-all than to send votes to Democrats. For DiMaggio, not so much. At the core, DIMaggio’s principle of selection for which media appearances to denounce is nothing more thoughtful than Democrat vs. Republican/Trump. The implicit message: It’s OK to talk to Democratic-allied racist and imperialist media and their audience; it’s verboten to talk to Republican/Trump-allied media and their audience. 

DiMaggio’s Shortstop discourse is insistently about “normalizing Trumpian neo-fascism and white supremacy” and “Republican talking points.”

You’re not criticizing Trump/the Republicans enough, so you’re normalizing fascism! On the other hand, implicit, but unmistakable: You can never be normalizing fascism by not criticizing the Democrats enough. 

This points to the political analysis that separates the Shortstops from the Left-Fielders. DiMaggio and the Shortstops think that Trump—sometimes personally, sometimes as a synecdoche for the Republicans—is a unique and powerful “fascist” threat and that the Democratic Party is a bulwark against it. 

Thus, the overriding concern for what has "driven Democratic voters toward the Republican Party" and what "send[s] Democratic voters to the right [or keeps them at home!]in general elections." It’s a generalized, hyped-up version of the same argument, about the same topic, we see every four years: the election, and how we get votes for the Democrats. 

DiMaggio thinks that the Left-Fielders are responsible for “sending” voters away from the Democrats—not the policies of Obama (the decimation of Black family wealth), Biden (mass incarceration), and the ruling-class-purchased Clintonite Democrats. And he thinks that it's the Left-Field pundits, and not the chaotic, restrictive, anti-democratic, designed-to-enable-fraud American electoral system, that "undermine[s] public confidence in elections." 

Riiiiight. Talk to the black people who stayed home or, even cast a protest vote for Trump, in 2016 and 2020. And think about why Trump gained votes from Black & men (+6) and women (+5), Latino men (+4). and white women (+3)—but not white men, who shifted toward Biden (+7). Must have been Caitlin Johnstone’s normalization of white supremacy.

DiMaggio and the Shortstops know this very well. At the end of this “vaudeville” article, he comes around to saying: “any left worthy of the name should be mobilizing and empowering disillusioned and disadvantaged demographic groups that have been left behind in the neoliberal era by two political parties that increasingly represent plutocratic, elite business interests.”

Unfortunately, this comes across as another throwaway line to establish “leftist” bona fides. He doesn’t seem to notice how it clashes with the bulk of the essay, which is devoted to deriding people who are doing just what he urged. He’s correctly characterizing the lay of the land, but when he gets to work, he can’t see the forest for the Trump.

He did the same thing in a previous essay that nicely deconstructs the misleading notions of “working class” support for Trump. He urged Bernie Sanders to “start by talking to people in the rustbelt and elsewhere that the Democratic Party has spent the last few decades demobilizing via its plutocratic policies, which resulted in millions of former supporters flocking from the party and migrating toward non-voting.” At the same time, he ridiculed Bernie for saying: “We’ve got to take it to them…I intend as soon as I have three minutes, to start going into Trumpworld and start talking to people.”

So, we’ve got to talk to people left behind by the two neoliberal, plutocratic political parties—but not those people who voted for Trump, not in the media they watch, not by criticizing the inherently-better one of those parties too much, and not by talking about the structures of the deep state that determines their common purpose. Got it.

There’s another, most fundamental, attitude semi-hidden in all this discourse—and it has everything to do with class politics and the nominally left. It’s not just about whom leftists are permitted to talk to in the media; it’s about whom they are permitted to consort with in the audience. DiMaggio comes close to saying it: Not only the pundits, not only the hosts, but the audience itself is irretrievably damned, if it’s not sufficiently upset about Trump. Maybe even voted for him. Seventy million+ did. Can’t talk to them.

There is one concept, dominant in the U.S., that understands left politics as built upon using a checklist of “progressive socio-political attitudes”—most of which have no material effect on people’s lives, let alone on the structures of socio-economic power—as a prior condition of solidarity with working-class people. For this concept, agreement precedes solidarity. Before you work with, or even talk to, working-class people with "reactionary socio-political attitudes," you have to set them straight, and they better listen. 

There’s another concept—the core of historical socialist movements throughout the world—that understands left politics as built upon support of the multi-racial, multi-gendered working-class based on material interest, no matter what ideas they have in their heads. For this materialist concept of class struggle, agreement results from solidarity. You get popular support and build a revolutionary movement by respectfully defending and fighting for the people’s material interests, not by looking for people who have the same ideas as you and attacking those who don’t. Solidarity in the fight for material and social empowerment will make new forms of agreement possible. 

Or it won’t. Of course, if there are too many people too adamant in their reactionary attitudes, the working class will lose—as it has been doing. But, guaranteed, the necessary changes in attitudes will not come as a result of placing hectoring before solidarity. This is bedrock socialism: you work with—and I mean with—the working class that exists. 

Which is the better, which is the only, way to organize a union? Isn’t organizing a revolutionary left socialist movement exactly organizing a big, fighting union of the entire working class? Here’s one of the “vaudevillians” quite sharply and eloquently making the point, in response to a denunciation of him for talking to one Boogaloo Boy (whose unexpected statement I also presented in my article on January 6th)—a conversation that DiMaggio specifically denounces as “normaliz[ing] the neofascist Boogaloo Boys.” You know, like Rachel Maddow talking to her favorite general-of-the-week normalizes …oh, well:

DiMaggio and the Shortstops may make gestures to the second concept, but their operational engine is the first. For them, anyone who’s evinced the slightest wavering on correct attitudes toward a bunch of things on the woke checklist—but mainly now Trump, Trump, or Trump—is an enemy whose sins you must not normalize by talking to them. They are all irredeemable white supremacists and anyone talking to them is just “normalizing” that. That seems to include the entire audience of Fox, and all who voted for Trump.

But not the audience of MSNBC or those who voted for Biden? After all, according to DiMaggio, 27 percent of Democrats are “white supremacists.” Or the “functional equivalent.” Or “fit the bill.” Or something.

So you have to write off not only the seventy-four million Trump voters but also twenty-million or so Biden voters. Almost 100 mil. Playing that game is not the thoughtful leftist way to make a revolution; it’s a foolish way of making politics impossible. Unless the point of your politics is just to get votes for the Democrats.

As far as I’m concerned, based on my thoughtful analysis of the American polity, there is no reason for leftists to be any more reluctant to talk to a working-class Trump voter than a working-class Biden voter—about policies. For me, neither has any more reason than the other to be peremptorily excluded from conversation because of the foolish electoral choice I think s/he made.

Despite DiMaggio’s repeated concern about this, whether votes are “sent” to the Democrat or Republican is not the main issue. Neither candidate and neither party has any claim, by any leftist metric, to be substantially better than the other. The Democratic Party is not an essentially more “progressive” institution than the Republican; its job is to be, and it is, the most effective obstacle to any serious progressive reform. The current Democratic president is a proudly reactionary politician who has done more damage during his career to the multi-racial working-class, to black people in particular, and to millions of people throughout the world than his predecessor has or is likely to. By any leftist metric. By far.

I presume DiMaggio and the Shortstops disagree with that (though they may not want to try making that case too loudly), because if you read his piece with that in mind, you see that it’s all about Trump vs. the Democrats and who votes for which.

In his previous essay, DiMaggio correctly skewers “The narrative that the Republican Party is the true representative of your average joe and jane.” But he then suggests that the Left-Fielders believe and promote that narrative. That’s a patently false proposition, which he, with intentional or careless illogic, derives from their (or at least some of theirs) strong stance that the Democratic Party is no more the representative of the working people than the Republican, and that leftists should—really must—stop thinking it is.

None of those left pundits believes that the Republican Party is the “true representative of your average joe and jane”; they address why so many average joes and janes could believe it is. What are the material and social and ideological conditions that make such a ridiculous and dangerous paradigm possible?

The answer is not because of anything those pundits say, but because of all the devastating policies, delivered with all the smug attitudes, by Democratic presidents and politicians, and their allied media. Those politicians, policies, media, and attitudes are the conditions of possibility for absurd American “billionaire populism”; they are what the Left-Field pundits are targeting, to the vehement dismay and disapproval of DiMaggio and the Shortstops.

They are right to do so, and they are being effective, which is why there is such vehement opposition. Glenn Greenwald is a persuasive voice on the Democrats’ dangerous dance with authoritarian censorship, Matt Taibbi is a trenchant voice on media smugness and hypocrisy. And Jimmy Dore opened and exposed the “progressive” can of worms with his Force The Vote campaign, which refused to back off, for the sake of Democratic Party amity, from asking congressional nominal leftists to do what was eminently possible and what they had promised. People on the left are persuaded by them, which is why the Shortstops are so insistent that you not listen to them, and why field managers like Keith Olbermann want to shut them down entirely.

The Left-Fielders are punching at “the libs” to expose the conditions that make reactionary populism possible, while DiMaggio and the Shortstops are  punching at those pundits, in order to deflect attention from those conditions and defend the Democratic Party.

In the current US politico-ideological climate, what other voices, besides the Left-Fielders DiMaggio ridicules, are doing a better job of exposing those conditions and of, precisely, speaking to and for “groups” left behind by two plutocratic political parties? DiMaggio and the Shortstops want us to reject those voices, and listen instead to....? (Besides Neil Postman.)

Watch this clip of Bernie Sanders fumbling around under Krystal Ball’s questioning about why he won’t challenge Biden:


If elections are what you’re interested in, you have just watched the capture of Congress by those nasty Republicans next year and the victory of the next fake-populist Republican president in 2024—probably not Donald Trump, and maybe not a Republican, or even white. (There’s a new mayor of New York I’d like you to meet.) Krystal Ball’s (not very harsh) questions are not responsible for that; Bernie Sanders’s (non-) answers, and the refusal to implement social policies that would benefit the majority of people those (non-) answers represent, are.

If you are interested in the nature of the American polity, you have just watched a lesson in the unified mission of the two see-saw parties to make sure that nothing fundamentally changes in the U.S. capitalist-imperialist system, and the submission of the most progressive politician we’ve seen in decades to it—via his submission to the Democratic Party.

And the Democratic Party will graciously hand over power to the Republicans because that is their job: to get progressives to go along with fundamentally changing nothing, while blocking the necessary changes and taking their turn going down on the see-saw. Until they conjure up the next “fascist” ogre. Rinse and repeat.

It is not Krystal Ball’s exposure of this pathetic game that deserves vehement denunciation; it’s the game and the players exposed.

Krystal Ball has no leftist reason to shrink from interrogating Bernie Sanders, and there is no leftist reason to attack her, or any leftist pundit, for doing so. Because “white supremacy”?

DiMaggio’s and the Shortstops’ shallow, fear-mongering instrumentalization of terms like “white supremacy” and “fascism” as synonyms for “Trump”—their omnipotent villain—explains nothing. They function as scare terms, directed to leftists, who already reject the Republicans, to push them away from thoroughly understanding the deeply pernicious role of the Democratic Party in creating the very problems that those terms seek to analyze.

I’m concerned that we are seeing the unfolding of that nasty, often-forewarned, political reverse psychology: “Anti-fascism” becomes the banner under which the most effective enablers of fascism in the world (Ukraine, Latin America) do their work; “anti-racism” becomes the banner under which the policies most harmful to black people (for-profit healthcare, student-loan debt, marijuana drug war, wage-slave minimum wage) are maintained and extended, et al. But Caitlin Johnstone.

Because if you want to identify the villain, you can’t hide half of its face: It’s not “Trump,” it’s “Trump vs. Biden” (and “Trump vs. Clinton”) that captures the true image of the ugly mug of “neoliberal, plutocratic” and imperialist American politics—neofascism, white-ethno-religious supremacism and all.

I may be way out in left field, but I can see who’s trying to get around me and ends up playing center.


_________________________

A version of this article was published on Counterpunch on 8/5/2021.

8/4/2021 (after submission to Counterpunch): Added paragraph on, and video clip of, Jimmy Dore.

Related articles: The American Farce Unravels: Shreds of January 6thFor What It’s Worth: The Yellow Vests and the LeftSticks and Stones: Free Speech And Punching Politics


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