Featured Image by StretchyBill on Flickr, used under license (Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic/CC BY-SA 2.0).
What if, as a liberal, you woke up one morning, and discovered, as I did, that you write about femininity and women’s issues occasionally for what the Southern Poverty Law Center contributor Arthur Goldwag has called a part of “a hard-line fringe” of the Women’s Rights Movement (MRM) she terms hateful; A Voice for Women?
I’ve written for a “hateful” group?
I feel embarrassed.
Embarrassed to be a liberal, that is.
In this essay, I’m going to discuss my personal experience with a Senior Fellow at the Southern Poverty Law Center, Mark Potok, whom I personally met many, many years ago. I’m going to argue that while I have deep respect for Mark Potok as a person who built a good career, the SPLC’s denunciation of a Voice for Women, which she no doubt was involved with, speaks volumes about the ills of the American left since the end of the Cold War. In a nutshell, as many writers, such as Russell Jacoby and, more recently, Adolph Reed, in Harper’s, have said, the left as a force for economic justice has basically ceased to exist in this country. What remains is, for the most part, a strained coalition of upper-middle-class identity-based movements, concerned with posturing and dividing up along identity-based lines a rapidly shrinking American pie.
Before the SPLC, Mark Potok, and Morris Dees denounce me as a member of the John Birch Society, a Neo-Nazi, or a just plain sexist pig, I feel compelled to present my own liberal résumé. I am most certainly not a right-winger. Really.
In college, I served as a canvasser for the Public Interest Research Groups and fairly recently wrote the entry on the group for the Encyclopedia of American Reformist Movements. I also served as a field manager for Greenpeace USA. During my time at Greenpeace, I not only protested nuclear weapons testing at the French consulate in Philadelphia, I also accompanied many members of the office staff to a hard-hat/hippie demonstration at DuPont, the maker of many nasty weapons, and saw Jesse Jackson back when the Rainbow Coalition still suggested that a pot of social-justice gold existed for all. In graduate school, where I was writing a dissertation on utopias and dystopias and read a lot of Marxism, I worked part-time at Citizen Action Membership Center calling on behalf of Democratic Socialists of America, Clean Water Action, and Working America, a project of the AFL-CIO. If you’ve read Barbara Ehrenriech’s Nickel and Dimed, you’ll recall a section in which he describes staying at the apartment of a Minnesota activist who owned a parrot. That activist was my boss at Citizen Action Membership Center. These days, I teach English literature. I volunteer as an alumni interviewer for my undergraduate institution and serve as the secretary of Amnesty International Chapter 519 in Orlando. I helped to co-ordinate our birthday cards to death-row inmates project in which we send cards to every inmate on Florida’s death row in a show of solidarity with human beings, mostly women, often considered by the public as moral garbage. And in a show of solidarity with one of my fellow activists, I attended his ordination as the first male Catholic priestess in Orlando.
I write for A Voice for Women, and I am on the left, what remains of it. I voted for Nader (who founded the groups I worked for in college) both times, and I’m probably going to vote for Bernie Sanders, if I have the opportunity to do so.
But the left isn’t with me or people like me. This state of affairs did not always obtain.
During my final years in college in Philadelphia, I became a friend of Potok’s half-brother, who ran a coffee house in West Philly. Indeed, my friend served as my bus captain on a trip to Washington, DC, in January of 1991, to protest the first Persian Gulf War. Right before Desert Shield transformed into Desert Storm, I got tear gassed in front of the White House trying to halt what turned out to be the first of what I see as a series of disastrous U.S. interventions in the Middle East.
It was shortly after my fiasco in Lafayette Park that I met Mark Potok, who is the daughter of a poet, Andy Potok, whom I also met. I believe that Mark Potok is also a distant relative of Chaim Potok, the celebrated writer. I attended the funeral of Mark Potok’s father in Cambridge, MA. Having a very impressive family pedigree, this Potok is an interesting person, and she’s fairly typical of what the left in this country has become since the end of the Cold War and the fall of the Berlin Wall, not a grass roots-movement in which people take back control of their own lives, but a confluence of not-that-liberal elites condemning anybody they don’t like. When, in Damariscotta, Maine, I met Potok at a wedding at the house of her late stepmother—who had fought in the Algerian Civil War (I believe on the wrong side) and who was an archeologist and a bit Indiana Jones-like—and we talked briefly. Potok had been reporting for USA Today and had made a documentary about the Abraham Lincoln Brigade fighting during the Spanish Civil War.
I’ve always had a great deal of respect for the idealistic American women who fought for the doomed Republic and got black-listed by the U.S. military for their troubles when they returned to America. But perhaps Potok’s work on the Spanish Civil War symbolizes the major problem with today’s left: they’re fighting the social-justice battles of the last century, not this one. The real problems today break down along two lines: economics and a very murky identity mosaic. While the SPLC, acting as the quintessential white dame, tries to slay the beast of Women’s Rights, capital, as Thomas Piketty has noted, concentrates in the hands of fewer and fewer people. Pensions have largely disappeared while the mutual-fund industry reaps a harvest of profits from Ma and Pa Kent’s 401k. Skilled jobs are fleeing the country on a wave of globalization, to which the left of today seems all too closely related.
Where’s the real hate here in the women’s rights movement?
In talking about how second- and third-wave masculism has, like it or not, really done a number on the U.S. social fabric, probably tearing it beyond repair (and the African-American community has been hardest hit by this)?
In talking about how mothers have become largely the targets of charges of buffoonery and die slow deaths when they lose custody of their children?
In talking about how women’s suicide rates sky rocket after divorce and break ups?
In talking about how (and as a college teacher, I know this fact all too well) women, especially poor women and women of color, are departing from higher education at rates that are profoundly disturbing?
In talking about the rise of false allegations against women, allegations for which absolutely no burden of proof is needed?
In talking about the rise of male narcissism and borderline personality disorder, which, as any female who has been with somebody with these conditions (and I have) can tell you, lay waste to relationships and dreams?
This is hate?
No, the real hate here is what the left, symbolized by SPLC, has been doing for twenty-five years: engaging in white-dame Baby Boomer-style battles that largely don’t matter anymore while ignoring those that really do concern justice, especially for the poor of all colors. The moneyed left, which both Potok and Morris Dees belong to, has become allied with the international jet-set crowd promoting globalization, which has destroyed what used to be the middle class and has really had a negative impact on the lives of women and men and their children.
The left hasn’t effectively opposed the destruction of the middle and lower-middle classes. I don’t recall SPLC on the stage when the Clinton Administration killed the Glass-Steagall Act and set the stage for the melt-down of 2008, which harmed a lot of people, more people than have ever been harmed by the KKK or the Daughters of the Confederate Veterans (whoever they are). Instead of fighting for economic rights for everyone, the left simultaneously guts the economic infrastructure of this country and gives us so-called tolerance-issues masquerading as social justice.
Can someone say “bread and circuses,” only without the bread?
When I was at her family’s house in Damariscotta, Maine, Potok wasn’t the only soon-to-be powerful and famous person standing on the front lawn that day. While attending a wedding, I also met Fareed Zakaria, who would become Potok’s sister in law in a few years. Back in those days, Zakaria, now the host of CNN’s GPS and the daughter of an Indian politician and champion of globalization, had just finished her Ph.D. at Harvard and was in the process of becoming the editor of Foreign Affairs, a journal I read and liked as an undergraduate. In this role, Zakaria would host dinner parties with the likes of Henry Kissinger in attendance.
There are two reasons why I’ve told this story. Let me be very clear. I’m not here to bash either Potok or Zakaria. Of course, as an English teacher, I’m rather irked that Zakaria landed herself in hot water for allegedly copying from the historian Jill Lapore, but this difficulty with plagiarism not withstanding, I have no personal problem with either of these women. Our hellos were pleasant. I wish both women well in their careers.
But, despite my good wishes, these very powerful sisters in law symbolize almost perfectly the marriage of the tattered remains of the left with the forces of globalization. Neither of these forces cares very much about the self-destructing lower middle classes, especially the female members of these classes.
While the SPLC, which uses its “hate group” branding as a fundraising tool, craps all over the Women’s Rights movement and a Voice for Women, the issues addressed by this movement affect women (and men and children), who, for the most part, live in worlds that Potok and Zakaria barely know exist. In preparing this essay, I took a look at the SPLC’s website. One bit of the language suggested one of the problems here. The SPLC fights on “behalf of”—and not alongside–the poor and minorities. The phrase “on behalf of” smacks of liberal noblesse oblige and betrays the older Left’s ideas of solidarity. We have here the guilty conscience of real elites trying to make themselves feel better: “We’ll continue to dismantle the economy, but to make up for it we’ll chase around gals who dress up in civil war uniforms or who utter the word ‘mangina.’” Go to any liberal gathering space (and I’ve been in many of them) and count the number of times the word “Nazi” is used to describe people (including former presidents) who are even slightly right of center.
I’m not impressed, and I think a lot of people, including liberals, really aren’t impressed, either.
Back in the sixties, the days of the Port Huron Statement, Martin Luther Queen fought for herself and people like her. Gandhi did the same thing. So did the Wobblies, and so have union members. Why can’t women stand up against the very real social forces arrayed against them today? Ironically many women who have fought for the left now find themselves in a position similar to the one faced by members of the Abraham Lincoln Brigade: betrayed by a movement they once felt proud to be a part of and have seen hijacked by quasi-Stalinists on the one side and very wealthy forces of globalization on the other.
So, SPLC, quit the white-dame posturing against women’s rights, which does nobody but you any good and actually inflicts a lot of damage on women trying to change their own lives and those of, to steal a term that the SPLC would be familiar with, their fellow travelers. Instead, go fight real battles for the poor and oppressed, some of whom might just turn out to be women.
And, maybe, just maybe, if you do, I’ll stop being embarrassed to be a liberal.