on pernicious liberal rhetoric

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Many people on the left will be grudgingly voting for Clinton. Many people on the left will refuse to vote as an ethical principle. Too many people on the left will not be voting because they are incarcerated, perhaps because of the Clintons’ “three strikes yer out” and other such racist police state policy-making over the years.

Because of the electoral college and the winner-take-all system, no individual person’s choices regarding the election is worthy of any real scrutiny — that’s the thesis for this post, really. But now I must follow the liberals.

The tweet pictured above is a perfect example of liberal rhetoric, mainly for its brevity. (To be clear, liberalism here and in most leftist discourse broadly means a political philosophy that is committed to preserving the capitalist system, and hence, not radical.) I’ll repeat it below:

If “not liberal enough” is your reason to not vote for Hillary when the alternative is *actual fascism*, your liberalism is just narcissism

I won’t offer a taxonomy of classical rhetorical forms — there’s barely room in a tweet for one — but rather the fundamentals: devising arguments (inventio), putting them in the right order (dispositio) and articulating them with style and elegance (elocutio).

Of course, rhetoric is about shaping language, not truth. The argument made by our liberal rhetor here has no force without the ethical proof behind it, which is an appeal to the speaker’s liberal virtue. The liberal sees the problem clearly, unlike the extreme ends of the spectrum (notice that Obama at the convention listed Communists not because we are taken seriously as a threat, but to create a doublet with Fascists). The problem is that *actual fascism* promises to arrive if we do not all play the quaint game of electoral politics.

I’m gonna refer to the “you” addressed in the tweet as the dissenter. With one tweet plucked out of the swirling discourse, we don’t have any context; the dissenter’s likely a disenchanted Bernie bro who still says #NeverHillary. But the charge of ideological purity has been leveled against leftists who do not vote as well. I don’t think I’m being too unkind when I take this piece of rhetoric to be a liberal interpretation of that position of abstention.

The dispositio: The rhetor artfully takes us from an implicit meaning (Leftists hate Clinton because she is insufficiently pure in ideology) to its repressed meaning (Leftists are narcissists only concerned with keeping up political pureness, for if they really cared they would take the fascist threat seriously enough to hit the polls). There’s little room to argue when the rhetor throws down the magic reductive word just. The good liberal never misses a chance to discipline the dissenters’ anger while delivering the insight. One could also dish out a stale cliche: “Don’t make perfect the enemy of good.”

But in twenty three words a lot of unspoken premises shift the ground right under our feet. By the end of it, a rhetorical audience has been summoned that is on board with these notions:

The *actual fascism* that Trump’s America would promise is a nightmare on the horizon, and not an existing reality for black communities. (Most comrades would counter that fascism augments violent systems that are already in place.)

The horizon of public politics ends with electoral politics and all the gerrymandering, mis-managed polling stations, and poll taxes that entails.

The electorate is chiefly concerned with domestic culture war fronts. That folks here would be upset for any reason about the coup in Honduras, or fed up with drone strikes, or that so many think pieces have appeared in the last two years about how so many black women do not want children because bringing more black children into life under America is too cruel for them to bear, is not even acknowledged as a possibility (to say nothing of deportations and detention facilities.)

Because so many are taxed at the polls (ID registration) or otherwise disenfranchised, those of us who are registered are somehow burdened with guilt;  in penance for our privileges we must enact our civic duty which is also a privilege which is also a right. Like the Taco Bell commercial, in which a man with a steak wrap looks on an exhibit of prehistoric people battling a Mastodon, we must “do it for them.”

Most importantly:

Politics is legitimate (ie within bureaucratic party institutions and on their terms) or it’s narcissistic bullshit — an “anarchist’s wet dream,” as a liberal once snapped at us while she removed the garbage bins from the street, allowing the police to kettle and arrest the protestors not long afterward.

It’s not what you say, but how you say it, the truism goes. In discourse about the discourse, it’s not how you say it, but for what purposes are you saying it in that way. If the goal of liberal rhetoric is to get more people to vote democrat, I’m guessing it fails. If the goal, however, is to deliver judgments that make the dissenter feel cut off — “your liberalism/communism/anarchism is just narcissism” — from a true solidarity that would be the basis of an alternative politics, I think it’s remarkably effective. Good rhetoric makes the dissenter feel alone.

It’s not that Trump does not horrify me — he does. By all means, sound the alarm. I agree 100% that *actual fascism* is immanent; moreover, it is here, organized, armed, and has for decades been intimately working within state, local, and federal government under the banner of the evangelical right, to say nothing of white supremacists who become cops.

Solidarity is necessary against our many existential threats. A forced consolidation under a smiling war criminal does not satisfy our definition.

Liberals, in the decades of neoliberal economics and in my personal experience, have shown more interest in humanizing fascism than taking a stand against it. They act passionately when it suits them, such as when they dog pile on radicals, frustrated by their own refusal to acknowledge our positions; but take on a posture of coolness when bigotry gains a platform in college campuses or elsewhere.

At best, liberal rhetoric is manipulative; at worst, it provides rarefied examples of moral imbecility. And in the coming months there will be no shortage of examples.


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