Progressivism and pseudo-progressivism in a nutshell
For me, genuine progressivism is all about fostering moral progress and abolishing unjust political, societal, economical and social structures in an impartial way.
The underlying moral intuition can be found in the holy writings of Christians
“Therefore all things whatsoever ye would that men should do to you, do ye even so to them: for this is the law and the prophets.” Matthew 7:12, King James Version.
“…a state that is not pleasing or delightful to me, how could I inflict that upon another?” Samyutta NIkaya v. 353
“Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful.” Udana-Varga 5:18″
“Regard your neighbor’s gain as your gain, and your neighbor’s loss as your own loss.” Tai Shang Kan Yin P’ien”
and many other religions.
(I argued elsewhere that this principle stands at the very centre of the teachings of Jesus of Nazareth).
This naturally entails trying to put yourself in the shoes of a person experiencing injustices and act as you would like one acts towards you if you were in his or her situation.
Pseudo-progressives, on the other hand, believe that moral progress is all about acting in accordance with politically correct dogmas nobody ought to question.
Currently, these alleged “sacred truths” can be summed up in the following way
“Oppression almost always stems from heterosexual white males who attack the right of women, homosexuals and non-whites.”
(Of course, “whites” and “non-whites” are artificial (and incoherent) constructions they more or less unconsciously uphold. This shall be the topic of another post).
Now, I certainly wouldn’t deny that misogyny, homophobia and systematic racism are still huge problems (especially in religious conservative or fundamentalist circles, at least as far as the first two ones are concerned).
But I think it is nonsensical and extremely offensive to pretend that poverty and unjust economical structures aren’t in and of themselves a significant cause of oppression.
I also believe it is wrong for these people to pretend to follow the teachings of Martin Luther King while ignoring an essential part of it.
Martin Luther King on poverty
While describing the way in which annoying aspects of the message of prophets are rewritten by the mighty of a society, liberal Christian scholar Thom Stark considered the case of Martin Luther King in modern America.
And we do this today. Martin Luther King Jr. was a notorious gadfly. He is remembered today solely for his role in the civil rights movement, but, especially in his later years, King was a vocal opponent of the Vietnam War, and spoke out often and dynamically against free-market capitalism. He said that the U.S. needs to honestly face the fact that the movement must address itself to the question of restructuring the whole of American society.
“There are forty million poor people here. And one day we must ask the question,
‘Why are there forty million poor people in America?’ And when you begin to ask that question, you are raising questions about the economic system, about a broader distribution of wealth.
When you ask that question, you begin to question the capitalist economy. And I’m simply saying that more and more, we’ve got to begin to ask questions about the whole society. We are called upon to help the discouraged beggars in life’s marketplace. But one day we must come to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring. It means that questions must be raised. You see, my friends, when you deal with this, you begin to ask the question, “Who owns the oil?” You begin to ask the question, “Who owns the iron ore?” You begin to ask the question, “Why is it that people have to pay water bills in a world that is two-thirds water?” These are questions that must be asked.”
King went on to call for a synthesis of capitalism and communism that involved nothing less than a total overhaul of the U.S. economic system.
This is the King we don’t remember on Martin Luther King Day every year. And that is the purpose of Martin Luther King Day.
King, whatever else he was, was an enemy to the power structures in the United States. The genius of declaring a national holiday in King’s honor is that the elites get to claim King as one of their own; they get to control, to a large degree, how we remember him. He was a dissenter from the establishment orthodoxy, but the establishment could hardly shut him out of the collective memory, and far less could they vilify him. So what they did was to call him “son” and thereby acquire the means to control how the public remembers him.
In an article entitled “King’s final message: Poverty is a civil rights battle”, Stephanie Sieck further drives the point home.
King’s final message: Poverty is a civil rights battle
On Martin Luther King, Jr.’s birthday, some will volunteer, some will attend celebrations of his life and legacy, some will do nothing at all. “I have a dream,” the title of King’s best known speech, will be repeated countless times, along with well-known stories about his commitment to nonviolence, his letters from a Birmingham jail, his marches against segregation and the bullet that ended his life on April 4, 1968.
But few will remember how King lived his last birthday, as he turned 39 on January 15, 1968.
According to accounts of the day retold by Jesse Jackson and Martin Luther King III, King spent the day working on a campaign that he hoped would force Washington and the American public to acknowledge and resolve the problem of poverty for people of all races, religions and backgrounds in the United States. The Poor People’s Campaign was the agenda for the day, with a short break for birthday cake.
While King’s dream, the march on Washington and fight against segregation are well-known to children and adults now, fewer are aware that King spent the last months of his life fighting poverty.
When he died in Memphis, he was there to support fair wages and union representation for Memphis sanitation workers.
Rebecca Burns, who wrote about King’s last days, death, and burial in “Burial for a King,” said King’s antiwar and anti-poverty legacy are overshadowed in part because their solutions are more elusive.
“It’s a much more complex issue – it’s not, pardon my choice of words, as black and white as voting rights or where you sit on a bus,” Burns said. “It’s harder to talk about that in sound bites.”
Clayborne Carson, director of the Martin Luther King, Jr. Research and Education Institute at Stanford University, said that King’s dreams of economic justice remain unrealized, but not because they are impossible to achieve.
“It is easier to celebrate King as a civil rights leader, because that was the easier part of his vision to realize,” Carson said. “The southern Jim Crow system was a regional anachronism rather than a national problem – the gulf between rich and poor – that we still prefer to ignore.”
The Poor People’s Campaign reached out to poor whites, many of whom felt most threatened by the civil rights movement’s successes in black equality, as well as impoverished migrant farm workers who harvested the nation’s food and Native Americans who languished on reservations. Injustice anywhere, King said, was a threat to justice everywhere.
Race-based and gender-based affirmative action
This leads me to the topic of affirmative action and its usefulness in addressing injustices.
In another post, I argued that affirmative action should first and foremost be based on the wealth and well-being of individuals.
Pseudo-progressive passionately disagree and believe it should always only be based on gender and race even if this leads one to privilege a wealthy woman over a poor man in quite a few cases.
Richard D. Kahlenberg is an American scholar having spent considerable time analysing affirmative action in higher education.
Here are some remarkable quotations from a sixty-page long report he wrote on that topic.
On the whole, university leaders much prefer the prevailing
system of racial preference in admission, which ignores issues
of economic inequality and instead focuses, as Walter Benn
Michaels acidly observes, on “what color skin the rich kids
(One study found that almost nine in ten African
Americans at selective colleges are middle or upper class—
though the whites were even wealthier.)
Recruiting fairly privileged students of color is far less expensive than including low-income and working-class kids of all races. While higher education’s vigorous defense of affirmative action on one level represents a sincere desire for greater racial equality, it has another less virtuous side to it, as racial preferences avoid the hard work of addressing deeply rooted inequalities and
instead provide what Stephen Carter has called “racial justice on the cheap.”
Most notably, in the late 1960s, before his death, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrestled with the issue of how best to remedy our nation’s history of discrimination. On the one hand, he argued in his 1964 book
Why We Can’t Wait
that compensation is due to black Americans. “It is impossible to create a formula for the future which does not take into account that our society has been doing something special against the Negro for hundreds of years,” he wrote.
In the book, and in subsequent testimony before the Kerner Commission in 1967, King called for “compensatory consideration,” noting, “if a man is entered at the starting line in a race three hundred years after another man, the first would have to perform some impossible feat in order to catch up with his fellow runner.”
But instead of urging adoption of a special program for blacks, as some civil rights leaders had done, King called for a color-blind Bill of Rights for the Disadvantaged:
“While Negroes form the vast majority of America’s disadvantaged, there are millions of white poor who would also benefit from such a bill.”
“It is a simple matter of justice that America, in dealing creatively with the task of raising the Negro from backwardness, should also be rescuing a large stratum of the forgotten white poor.”
King knew that class-based approaches would disproportionately benefit victims of historic discrimination without violating the color-blind ideal he had famously articulated in the 1963 March on Washington.
I think this should give a pause to all of us truly interested in genuine social justice .
In 2015, the real victims of slavery and segregation are mainly those blacks living under the threshold of poverty.
Race-based positive discrimination overwhelmingly favours economically privileged blacks and latinos at their expense and that of poor whites.
Whites of lower classes, in turn, are all too easily lured into far-right movements such as the Tea-Party or the personality cult of xenophobic billionaire Donald Trump.
It seems clear to me that privileging wealth-based or class-based affirmative action over race-based affirmative action (without necessarily always giving up on the latter) would lead to a far more just and stable society, as Martin Luther King would have desired.
In 2016, in a Western secular context, it doesn’t demand any moral courage to stand for the rights of Afro-Americans unjustly killed, homosexuals being bullied or women victim of sexism.
For there is a large consensus that those things are egregiously wrong and shouldn’t be tolerated.
You probably don’t need to be a Christian in order to recognise the wisdom in the following words of Jesus of Nazareth:
46 If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? 47 And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that?
There is no great moral merit in defending values the large majority of your peers agree with.
It does require, however, a tremendous courage to criticise politically correct dogmas.
For many pseudo-progressives react like outraged religious fundamentalists and do not hesitate to resort to emotional bullying and unfair characterisations of the arguments of their opponents.
I know that it is very unlikely I could ever change their minds and I don’t even want to try it.
For all other readers, I think it might be worth considering what follows.
In 2016, the mighty of this world (i.e. the billionaires and millionaires governing Western oligarchies) can, by and large, cope with a black leader (such as Barack Obama) or a female leader (such as Angela Merkel and probably Hilary Clinton) who uphold neo-liberalism, Western imperialism and do not call into question their scandalous economic privileges.
The mighty of America cannot cope with a Bernie Sander who would challenge their power structure, suppress the hideous industrial prison complex ruining so many black (and to a lesser extent white) lives, reduce students loans and debts, strengthen the universality of health care and social security, undermine the exploitation of low-income workers in the third world at the expense of Americans and end the war on drugs (among many other “deadly sins”).
As he said:
“It’s not a radical concept that maybe the United States government should represent working families rather than a handful of billionaires.”
No, it isn’t a radical concept at all, indeed.
But it is a lot harder than posting pictures in favour of gay marriage or abortion on your facebook account, getting a lot of “likes” and thinking in turn you are a noble hero contributing to saving our world.
I guess that if I wrote such a long post, it is only because I am an evil heterosexual white man who takes pleasure in oppressing women, ethnic minorities and homosexuals (and devouring small children alive).
Therefore, you don’t have to bother about refuting my arguments, let alone trying to fairly understand and describe my actual positions.
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