I grew up with uncles and cousins who hunted, family friends whose children went into the military, people who did physical labor and occasionally were injured on the job. It was just sort of assumed that everyone knew the world was a bruising place and that we were the descendants of the people who’d fought back and survived. The major part of civilization was figuring out how to cooperate or at least coexist with each other, and aggression could be channeled into good (military training or sports or debate) or ill (crime or bullying), but it couldn’t be made to disappear.
Much of the left, though, seems to want to pretend that aggressive impulses only naturally arise in the hearts of their enemies. How else to explain everything we’ve been hearing and reading since the horrible spree killing in Arizona? When Barack Obama and other Democrats use hunting or battle imagery, it’s a particularly vivid metaphor that just shows how passionate they are about doing good despite the obstacles; when Sarah Palin and other Republicans (or, heaven help us, Tea Party members) use the same imagery, it’s a literal call to start attacking people and should scare the bejeezus out of us. Non-lefty bloggers of many political persuasions have given such arguments the drubbing they deserve many times over recently, and I didn’t particularly feel the need to weigh in.
Then Barbara Ehrenreich wrote a piece for the LAT yesterday to defend her democratic-socialist crony Frances Fox Piven (via Instapundit via The Corner). Priven had attracted Glenn Beck’s attention by writing this column in The Nation:
So where are the angry crowds, the demonstrations, sit-ins and unruly mobs? After all, the injustice is apparent.
An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece in response to the austerity measures forced on the Greek government by the European Union, or like the student protests that recently spread with lightning speed across England in response to the prospect of greatly increased school fees.
A loose and spontaneous movement of this sort could emerge. It is made more likely because unemployment rates are especially high among younger workers. Protests by the unemployed led by young workers and by students, who face a future of joblessness, just might become large enough and disruptive enough to have an impact in Washington. There is no science that predicts eruption of protest movements. Who expected the angry street mobs in Athens or the protests by British students? Who indeed predicted the strike movement that began in the United States in 1934, or the civil rights demonstrations that spread across the South in the early 1960s? We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.
Now, Piven mentions several types of group action here, not all of them violent, and you might say that she didn’t choose her words well enough to identify which ones she was really endorsing. But she’s been a professor for decades. She has a PhD from the University of Chicago, an institution not known for encouraging slushy argumentation. And this was an opinion piece for publication, not (say) a dashed-off blog post that was submitted prematurely.
I mean, suppose she’d written the following:
An effective American political movement would combine the fired-up anger of the Greek and British riots with the peaceable techniques of the civil rights movement. It would be purposeful. Its members would make it clear that they would not be cowed, but they would also work to convince their countrymen who are still employed that everyone is part of the same struggle for social justice.
That took me three minutes, tops. If what it conveys is what she meant, Piven could easily have said so. But she didn’t. Coolly placing riots and sit-ins in parallel allowed her to romanticize violent protest without having to say forthrightly that she’s eager to see it here in America, but “An effective movement of the unemployed will have to look something like the strikes and riots that have spread across Greece…” strains plausible deniability to breaking point. The onus is on Piven to show how her words could be interpreted as opposing violence.
Naturally, Barbara Ehrenreich doesn’t think so. She doesn’t see the aggression in Piven’s belief that “unruly mobs” would be justified, but she does see it in the empty big talk of Glenn Beck’s more volatile commenters:
Why are Americans such wusses? Threaten the Greeks with job losses and benefit cuts and they tie up Athens, but take away Americans’ jobs, 401(k)s, even their homes, and they pretty much roll over. Tell British students that their tuition is about to go up and they take to the streets; American students just amp up their doses of Prozac.
So perhaps economically hard-pressed Americans aren’t wusses after all. They may not have the courage or the know-how to organize a protest at the local unemployment office, which is the kind of action Piven urged in her December essay, but they stand ready to shoot the first 78-year-old social scientist who suggests that they do so.
Look, madam, you‘re the one who wants fundamental social revolution—not American workers or students en masse. If social inequities matter so much to you and Priven and your cronies, why don’t you mob the damned city hall yourselves? You’re smart, articulate, credentialed. You have name recognition among the decision-making rich. If you impressed the American worker with your willingness to put your own comfort and status on the line, you might really start a chain reaction. (I don’t think that would actually happen, but you’re certainly more likely to encourage it through setting an example than through jabbering to fellow-travelers.)
The explanation that people don’t know how to organize doesn’t wash. Everyday citizens belong to churches, charities, and all kinds of other groups that manage to hold meetings and fund drives. They’ve thronged to (orderly) Tea Party demonstrations. The idea that unemployed Americans are standing around thinking, “Jeez, my friends and I feel totally oppressed by the capitalists, but group-formation is for the bourgeois, so I guess we can’t do anything about it but drink more Pabst,” is just asinine. Maybe the reason people aren’t disrupting traffic and getting all screechy is that they’re busy figuring out what they can do about their own circumstances. There’s nothing even the slightest bit wussy about that.
What is wussy—and I’m surprised people on the right haven’t jumped all over this, because it’s one of the most outrageous sentences I’ve ever read—is to say, as Piven does at the end of her editorial, “We should hope for another American social movement from the bottom—and then join it.” Got that, Nation readers? Don’t bother risking anything of yourselves. Wait until the churls have been out getting their heads busted long enough to make the movement a going concern, then get in on it. No one who holds that attitude or lets it pass without comment has moral grounds for bitching that America is no longer a democracy.
BTW, I do agree that it’s stupid for people to say things like “Bring it on biotch [sic]. we’re armed to the teeth” and monstrous to say things like “We’re all for violence and change, Francis [sic]. Where do your loved ones live?” Ehrenreich’s generalized explanation for why people mention guns in the context of economic and political troubles is this: “But there is one thing you can accomplish with guns and coarse threats about using them: You can make people think twice before disagreeing with you.” Fine, point taken. I believe in answering arguments on their merits, and I’m not here to defend threats to someone’s loved ones.
Nevertheless, I think Ehrenreich misses something important: The gun owners I know see learning how to use firearms as a manifestation of, and guns themselves as symbols of, self-reliance. You don’t ask others for help until you’ve exhausted all your own resources. You don’t sit around waiting for the government to clothe, feed, and medicate you, and you don’t sit around waiting for the police to show up when you’re menaced physically. Ehrenreich seems to want a direct causal connection between personal gun ownership and personal economic advancement, when I think what many people actually believe is that the two are both products of individualism. I’m not sure Ehrenreich would be receptive to that argument in any case, but the commenters at theblaze.com sure as hell didn’t help with their viciousness.
One last thing that made me uneasy: What does Piven’s age have to do with anything? Offering to shoot her for her political positions is wrong, but it would have been equally wrong if she’d been thirty-eight or fifty-eight. If Piven has the vigor to write opinion pieces, she has the vigor to stand up to counterarguments.