Jeet Heer at the New Republic wrote a piece on the Dirtbag Left and the politics of dominance. It’s a weird article that ignores the fact that politics is about dominance. I have some disagreements with it.
If you’re unfamiliar with the Dirtbag Left, it’s a current on the left that eschews the mealy-mouthed polite politics that so many liberals champion. You can get up to speed by listening to a few episodes of Chapo Trap House, a podcast that marries biting criticism and humor to a socialist perspective. Invective is lobbied against conservatives and liberals in equal amount and that leftward criticism is a bitter pill for many liberals who are incapable of self-criticism.
The catalyst for Jeet’s article is a remark from Chapo’s Will Menaker on a path forward for a liberal and left coalition. Menaker rightly points out that the politics of capitulation is a failure, that the worldview of those who profess to it have no more credibility. They must bend the knee.
It’s the phrase ‘bend the knee’ that set Jeet off.
Chapo’s many foes seized on the phrase “bend the knee.” Because the show has often been accused of sexism, the phrase “bend the knee” was interpreted by some listeners as a sexual remark aimed at humiliating Hillary Clinton supporters.
An interpretation so ridiculous that it ought to have been dismissed immediately. ‘Bend the knee’ is very much in the current cultural zeitgeist.
This gendered analysis seems unwarranted because Menaker’s remarks weren’t aimed at women as a class, but at the centrist wing of the Democratic Party; Clinton wasn’t mentioned, and the phrase may even be an allusion to a common refrain in Game of Thrones. Yet if the remark wasn’t sexist in intent, it still suggests a troubling vision of politics as a contest in domination. As New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister remarked in an email, “‘bend the knee’ gets read as a sexual reference, not because people think it is literally about sex, but because it conveys a hunger for dominance and submission, which is very quickly heard as gendered and sexual, even when the reference is not explicit.” To put it another way, the comment was an act of dominance politics, which, accusations of sexism aside, is problematic in its own right.
For Jeet the phrase was less (but still maybe kinda) about sexuality than it was about dominance. Sure. Dominance is actually damn near the very definition of politics.
Politics is struggle, it’s conflict between opposing interests. One of those interests will win and the other will lose, even in democratic societies. Politics is war and who wins the war has serious consequences. If your position is that all people ought to have health care and the opposition says only some should, you’d best make sure they lose.
Socialism isn’t just about equality for its own sake, but also the lived experience of fraternity and sorority, of politics as the work of brothers and sisters joined together to make a better world. It’s hard to square the professed socialism of the Dirtbag Left with calls to “bend the knee.” Beyond violating leftist ideals, dominance politics seems like a tactic doomed to fail. Politics is about persuasion and coalition-building. While it’s true that Trump ascended to the presidency with simian displays of dominance, and now leads a formidable personality cult that dominates the Republican Party, this is hardly a model that the left should emulate. Derision is useful for one half of politics—defeating the opposing party—but has nothing to say to the crucial other half of forming alliances that can govern effectively for the people.
If Sanders-style democratic socialism is to become the core of the Democratic Party, its adherents will have to win over those who supported Clinton-style progressivism. There are surely few worse ways of accomplishing this than demanding that they “bend the knee,” which is more likely to breed resistance than assent. Convincing Democrats to adopt a more radical politics is challenging enough without trying to insult and humiliate them into submission.
Socialists have no obligation to be accommodating to those who hold a set of politics opposing their own. There has always been conflict between liberals and the left, and that’s because there are serious ideological differences that cannot be squared through polite discourse. Especially in the case of liberals who stubbornly refuse a serious dialog with the left, as so many of Chapo’s targets do.
We can be kind to each other and work together when appropriate but ultimately the Democratic Party is an imperialist and capitalist entity. Those who defend it as beyond criticism can and should be ridiculed.