An Antidote to Dysfunctional Progressivism

by Lorna Salzman

A long conversation I had the other evening with the Peconic Baykeeper out here in eastern Long Island resulted in our agreeing that the American progressive community is severely dysfunctional. Shortly after that, the obituary in The Nation of Murray Bookchin, one of the leading eco-theorists of the U.S., stated that at the time of his death he was working on a book about the failure of the Left in the 20th century.

What constitutes the "progressive community" in this country? Loosely, I would say it is comprised of environmentalists, peace activists and social justice groups. Their dysfunctioning is not based merely on the lack of mutual comprehension or support. The roots of the problem go much deeper and go back in history, and have always been subject to not just external political pressures and our electoral system and economy, but to political fads, obsessive but faded ideologies (Marxism, the free market, post modern Political Correctness, Identity Politics, single-issue politics and personality cults), and an absymal failure of the American educational system, which has absorbed the worst elements of the sectarian left, notably cultural relativism, and which has abandoned the notion that there is not only such a thing as Truth but universal values regarding human rights.

Identifying the crucial causes of dysfunction is important but wont get us definitive answers we all agree on, and even if we had the answers, we would still lack unity on principles and objectives. The failure to possess this unity is what should occupy our time. But we need to be brutally honest in assessing our weaknesses and failures. The blame cannot be shunted aside onto capitalism, imperialism, racism, greed, neoconservatism, free trade or corporate corruption. Our progressive institutions, publications, organizations, political groupings, religious structures, combined with the natural tendency to avoid self-criticism, have failed because we, the members and participants, have failed.

Progressives think that history began with their own movement and that when that movement and its underlying ideology trium[j er will have peace, freedom, equality and prosperity. This is utter nonsense. Any look at the past demonstrates a simple fact: the refusal to change dooms any society. Because change comes about mainly through dissenting views (Galileo and Rachel Carson come to mind), the suppression of dissent and debate, and the failure to alter societal behavior, close off change and adaptation to the social and physical environment. Jared Diamond's "Collapse" is instructive in this respect.

Thus, those societies dominated by entrenched all-powerful elites will be the most at risk, because the maintenance of elite control requires the suppression of dissent. A look at the former Soviet Union will suffice to show this, as will a look at the central Asian republics that were formerly part of the Soviet Union. These republics are rife with ethnic conflicts and are on the front lines of Islamic jihad movements, which originate from and are supported by Afghanistan and Pakistan primarily, with Saudi funding.

Because of the poverty and political repression within all of these countries, Islamic jihad is able to recruit new members and expand its efforts globally, funded and supported by Afghanistan drugs exported to the west, by bin laden and by the Saudis and Pakistan. By comparison, the impact of American imperialism and the Israeli conflict becomes relatively insignificant, giving the lie to American leftists that American support of Israel is at the root of global instability and war.

This fact needs to be understood clearly; Islamic jihad will continue regardless of how the Palestinian problem is resolved. The Muslim Brotherhood, Al Aksa Brigades, the HT and IMU, Hezbollah, all of these have objectives that outweigh by far the wishes of Palestinians for their own state. Indeed, many in the middle east are not particularly supportive of the Palestinians and none of them have offered them their own land for Palestinian resettlement.

In a word, the political repression of ethnic groups and the Muslim religion (as compared to the tolerance of the US of religious freedom) by the central Asian states, exacerbated by severe underdevelopment and internal political struggles, plus the existence of Russia and China on their borders, means that these countries' future, as part of the secular democratic world, is doubtful as is any meaningful constraint on Islamic jihad, whose aim is to impose a global Islamic caliphate on the entire world, in an open-ended terrorist struggle against nonMuslims. The calculated refusal of leftists to understand the real roots of Islamism and jihad is deplorable, based exclusively on hatred of the US.

Extrapolating from the global jihadic threat down to the micro level within the United States, we see, within our own government, the double threat to democracy from the suppression of civil liberties, and to ecological survival from the denial of global warming. While the progressive community is up in arms about the incursions on civil liberties, they resist accepting the truth about global warming and how American economic growth and overconsumption of energy must be curbed radically and rapidly.

Instead of listening to the scientific arguments, progressives bristle at the notion that energy is too cheap and that the price of oil must be raised to force people to use less. They claim they are acting on behalf of the poor, who will suffer, and use false arguments, such as the claim that increased gasoline prices will not produce any substantial decrease in consumption. Instead of heeding the scientific arguments, progressives insist on their own personal vision of Political Correctness.

Then, extrapolating down to the next level, we have the US Green Party, hypnotized by what they believe is its call to destiny, swearing allegiance to their "Ten Key Values", which is little more than a laundry list of mismatched socks, but utterly lacking in philosophical coherence,in any capability for self-criticism, in fundamental principles for action, and committed, if one takes their decision-making process at face value, to stamping out deviant and dissident thought. It is hard to see any difference between the USGP and Stalinism, or indeed any other authoritarian system. Like overambitious nation-states, the US Green Party is heading for the political precipice.

The "blame game" - blaming it on Bush, American imperialism, racism, corporations - is a dead end. The Moral Superiority game wont wash either ("we are the good guys and will save you all if you trust us"). The Spirituality Game has been tried for too long -since the death of Christ - and hasnt succeeded. Evil and error are forever with us. So what are progressives to do?

The first thing they need to accept is human frailty and deviation. The US Green Party professes to value "diversity" but when examined closely this turns out to be diversity of skin color, religion, age, gender....never diversity of thought.If they dont cultivate and welcome diversity of thought, they are little more than a secular church, with their own priesthood and meek defenders of the Green Faith. But instead of welcoming everyone, they have raised the barriers and imposed loyalty oaths, effectively excluding almost everyone except the Politically Correct. Like the Shaker community, once you shut yourself off from society, your numbers quickly dwindle to nothing.

The next and most crucial thing is to move to the opposite pole of PC and solicit - no, encourage - dissent and diversity of thought. They need to emulate the scientific method by putting up their beliefs - hypotheses in effect -up for scrutiny and testing, and inviting nonbelievers to test them. This means inviting the possibility of rebuttal, which itself implies a possible change in their views as well as a change of the guard. But of course, the practice of democracy itself is an invitation to the changing of the guard; why else would greens run for public office if they didnt believe in political change?

But none of this will stand the test of time without a coherent philosophy and a set of objectives. This is where all progressives, not just greens, have fallen down. A set of moral beliefs doesnt suffice and any look at organized religion will prove this. Religions emerged and survive because they implicitly recognize that evil (call it sin or crime) is a permanent part of the human condition. If progressives want to establish a secular church, based on their ideologies or moral precepts, they are welcome to do so, but they must understand that these have absolutely nothing to do with the most urgent issue of our day: survival of the planet. With a few exceptions from some visionary leaders like the late Dave Brower, there is a lethal void in ecological consciousness outside the environmental community.

Since the start of my environmental career under Dave Brower in the early 1970s, I have spent a good deal of time trying to explain to social justice activists why environmentalism is not only a social justice movement but fundamental to the resolution of all social and economic injustices. Few listened, and today even fewer. As our natural systems and climate regime shatter into pieces, the progressive community resists, argues, denies, recriminates and blames. In a word, the lack of an ecological paradigm to support our social justice objectives has doomed our efforts, perhaps irrevocably.

I find it strange that today Rachel Carson is honored as a dissident scientist who helped launch environmentalism, as someone who spoke truth to power, yet the modern-day Carsons are studiously ignored. Perhaps this is because Carson only inconvenienced the corporations, not the general public. Perhaps it is because we insist on believing that the world can be saved without spending any money or incurring any dislocation or hardship. Perhaps this is because we think that we personally are not to blame and that the larger forces like the oil companies, the World Bank, Monsanto and the Pentagon have to bear all the costs. Perhaps we think that everyone is a victim, even those who drive SUVs and live in air conditioned 5000 square foot homes in the suburbs. Perhaps we think it is the American government alone that needs reform, not the monarchs, mad dictators and oligarchies who rule most governments in Africa, the middle east and southeast Asia. This is the American Progressives Comfort Zone: find the lone culprit (America), point the finger, but dont let anyone accuse YOU of being responsible.

Dysfunction need not be a permanent condition of American politics. But it can only be countered by a willingness to learn from history and from those who disagree. It thrives on blind adherence to dogma and doctrine, whether of Marx, Mohammed, the free market or snake oil fundamentalist preachers. It thrives on intellectual arrogance, which dismisses those who dare to indulge in dialogue with the Politically Incorrect (Republicans, capitalists, meat eaters, conservatives). It thrives on the notion of moral superiority, the notion that some people have the right answers and everyone else is wrong...and that these answers are forever right, from now into the future. It thrives on a refusal to look back at the mistakes of the past, such as those who denied the threat of Nazism and Stalinism, in the same way that many progressives and greens now deny or downplay the threat of Islamic jihad, global warming and ecological collapse.

American politics as presently constituted is inherently unstable and unfit to save the world, whether it is single issue pressure group politics (pro choice, gay marriage), coalition mutual back-scratching politics (anti war rallies), Identity Politics, or personality/ideologically based parties (libertarian, green). Somehow a new model needs to be developed, explicitly based on ecological principles and objectives, but before that can happen, existing movements and parties need to shed their old skins and understand that new problems cant be solved through old means.

© 2002 Lorna Salzman. All rights reserved. Material may be quoted with permission.