Radicals can't afford to play nice: The long, honorable and sometimes pornographic history of the "dirtbag left"

Victoria Woodhull, Harry Hay and the Communist Party were the dirtbags of their day, while liberalism lagged behind

Published July 30, 2017 12:00PM (EDT)

Victoria Woodhull   (Wikimedia)
Victoria Woodhull (Wikimedia)

As the battle to block the Republicans' health care plans took center stage in July, engaging citizen activists from Florida to Alaska, the question of what Democrats were for kept cropping up. Given how central health care is to our survival, it's a vital focus — but the question of what the Democratic Party — and others loosely aligned with it — actually stand for extends far beyond that. beyond it.

The June 30 podcast of "Chapo Trap House" put the matter bluntly, but a pair of mid-July articles — one by Jeet Heer for the New Republic, the other by Jonathan Chait for New York magazine — starkly illustrated the learned cluelessness too often surrounding this question.

“Single-payer health care, universal health care -- that is a purity test for everyone in the Democratic Party. You're either for it or against it, and if you're against it, get the fuck out,” said "Chapo" co-founder Will Menaker in the podcast, and in any sane world, that would have been the focus of attention, especially now that the American people have begun to wake up about how much of a monstrous outlier our dysfunctional health care system is. But this is not a sane world at all, so the focus — such as it was — fell elsewhere, instead.

Heer's article, “The Dirtbag Left and the Problem of Dominance Politics,” latched onto a different passage from the podcast, first absolving it from tendentious misreadings, then deeming it problematic on deeper, murkier grounds. “Dirtbag Left” is a term apparently coined by writer Amber A’Lee Frost, a roommate of "Chapo" co-founder Felix Biederman who joined the team in November. "Chapo's" scurrilous self-description stands in stark contrast to the quivering defensiveness of Chait's article, “How ‘Neoliberalism’ Became the Left’s Favorite Insult of Liberals,” which didn't mention "Chapo" at all, but vividly illustrated all the bloodless, self-congratulatory pseudo-sophistication it ridicules. If Chait takes “neoliberalism” as an insult, perhaps he’s never been actually insulted in his life.

What caught Heer's attention was something Menaker said on the podcast:

To the pragmatists out there and the people who don't like purity in politics, yes, let's come together, but get this through your fucking head: You must bend the knee to us, not the other way around. You have been proven as failures and your entire worldview has been discredited. You bend the knee to us, and then let's fucking work together to defeat this thing, not with fucking means-testing or market-based solutions, but with a powerful social-democratic message like what just happened in the U.K.

The hostile reaction to "Chapo" from many Democrats, which Heer at least partially debunks, is misguided in at least three obvious ways. First, it ignores the content of arguments in favor of style, and equate "leftism" with intolerance, misogyny, homophobia, etc., flying in the face of generations of history. Second, the focus on "Chapo" and other media platforms and personalities ignores what they're responding to -- the objective state of American politics, economics and culture and the public response to those conditions — epitomized by Bernie Sanders' emergence as the most popular politician in America. Third, the media platform focus also ignores two key truths about political art: the difference between punching up and punching down, and the key role of artistic expression in challenging liberal self-limitation. In short, there's been a whole lot of heat and a shortage of light.

To his credit, Heer pushed back against facile misreadings of what Menaker said, but the broader notion that the Dirtbag Left is hostile to women, minorities, gays and lesbians, etc. is completely ahistorical. Consider Victoria Woodhull, the first woman ever to run for president in 1872, claiming an unwilling Frederick Douglass as her running mate. (See "Other Powers: The Age of Suffrage, Spiritualism, and the Scandalous Victoria Woodhull" by Barbara Goldsmith). Susan B. Anthony was remembered for voting in that election, but Woodhull was such an outré figure that she was excluded from feminist history for generations, prior to her 1990s rediscovery.

Woodhull came from the gutter, having worked in a whorehouse, though not herself a prostitute. She became the first woman to run a Wall Street brokerage, and embraced a broad mix of political and cultural views present in post-Civil War radicalism: socialism, anti-racism, feminism, pacifism, spiritualism and more. She also challenged the hypocrisies of more respectable, more temperate reformers, most notably America's most prominent preacher, Henry Beecher. Woodhull was especially outspoken on free love (with the issue of no-fault divorce at its core, but with far more revolutionary ramifications at the time). She wrote:

The sexual relation, must be rescued from this insidious form of slavery. Women must rise from their position as ministers to the passions of men to be their equals. Their entire system of education must be changed. They must be trained to be like men, permanent and independent individualities, and not their mere appendages or adjuncts, with them forming but one member of society. They must be the companions of men from choice, never from necessity.

A passage like that reads as safely mainstream today, but her vision was literally unimaginable at the time and her name was synonymous with scandal — though primarily for exposing Beecher and his supporters. She was too honest for bourgeois progressives and too eclectic for Karl Marx, who eventually kicked her out of the First International. But she's a Hall of Fame charter member of the Dirtbag Left.

Similarly, gay rights have become mainstream exceptionally quickly over the last decade or so in, with substantial support from establishment institutions, including corporations and the military. But there was no such support in the 1980s, when AIDS activists created ACT-UP, in the 1960s at the time of the Stonewall Riots or in the 1950s, when Communist labor activist Harry Hay founded the first modern gay rights organization, the Mattachine Society.

Two decades earlier — just to take one example — the Communist Party organized against racism and lynching in Alabama in the depths of the Great Depression, long before Harry Truman took the first fateful steps toward changing direction on civil rights within Democratic Party. In short, there's virtually no thread of progressive social movement history in which leftists did not play an early role — and were usually heaped with scorn for their efforts. More respectable, establishment voices have joined in over time, but the driving forces that established them early on were shot through with far more radical politics that directly challenged the social norms of their time. To try to cast today's leftists as enemies of these movements is the worst sort of fake history.

But it's equally disingenuous to focus attention on media platforms like "Chapo Trap House," while ignoring the demand they're responding to. As I mentioned earlier, it's well known that Bernie Sanders is far and away the most popular political figure in America. What's less well known is that his lowest level of support is found among white men, core of the GOP demographic.

It's the objective failure of neoliberalism and the inadequacy of the Democratic Party's response that has created the conditions in which these platforms flourish. Policy failures like the embrace of NAFTA, financial deregulation and Wall Street consolidation, and then the resultant political failures, like the epic losses of the 1994 and 2010 midterms. That is the problem the Democratic Party establishment has no answers for. It's a lot easier to demonize its detractors than to deal with the root problems.

But unruly media platforms make easy targets for other reasons as well, for reasons going back to Tom Paine's "Common Sense" and beyond. Two key aspects are especially misunderstood by critics who attacking "Chapo Trap House" and similar outlets. First is the obvious difference between punching up and punching down — a distinction that's utterly obliterated by Heer's careless invocation of "dominance politics," a term he cribbed from Josh Marshall. It's a real enough phenomenon that Marshall has written about for years, but it hopelessly sloppy as Heer uses it. For example, in January 2016, Marshall wrote:

When I first wrote about this a dozen years ago I called it the “bitch slap theory of politics.” I’m no longer comfortable using that phrase. But I do think the heavily gendered, violent nature of that phrase is one of the only ways to really capture the nature of what’s happening in these dramas.

Marshall is talking about politics as performance by those with real power, and the aptness of the phrase is only heightened by Marshall's squeamishness in using it. The fact that he could both craft it and disown it points to an inherent precariousness in dealing with what he describes, to which Marshall's training as an historian may contribute. Others, more firmly rooted in their presentism, are more blissful in their ignorance.

But it doesn't take studying history to have a sense of how ludicrous such comparisons on the left are. Neither the creators of "Chapo Trap House" nor any other single-payer advocates have ever been in a position to actually bitch-slap anyone. To the contrary, when Congress held health care hearings in 2009, single-payer advocates were completely excluded from the process, while Republicans, insurance companies and every aspect of the health care industry were welcomed with open arms.

If it's bitch-slapping you want, look to Sen. Max Baucus, a Montana Democrat, having single-payer advocates arrested in a Senate Finance Committee hearing in May 2009. That's what happened in the real-world history of how Obamacare came to be — a history that's been erased underneath an avalanche of right-wing lies about Republicans being shut out of the process, when the real targets of Democratic Party dominance politics were single-payer advocates, with frontline health care providers at the fore.

Perhaps I'm mistaken, though. The rules of etiquette escape me sometimes. Perhaps it's not bitch-slapping if you've got a sergeant-at-arms to do it for you. But when "Chapo Trap House" (or some random Twitter user) jeers rudely at the Democratic Party powers that be, they are punching up, not down. That makes all the difference in the world, no matter how upsetting their words may be to some.

The punching up vs. punching down distinction is crucial, but it's far from the whole picture that pundits like Heer misrepresent. There's a very long history of expressive political art in challenging liberal line-drawing, self-description and self-limitation. Phil Ochs' song "Love Me, I'm A Liberal" is literally a textbook example of what I'm talking about:

I cried when they shot Medgar Evers,
Tears ran down my spine.
I cried when they shot Mr. Kennedy,
As though I'd lost a father of mine.
But Malcolm X got what was coming,
He got what he asked for this time.
So love me, love me, love me, I'm a liberal.

So too Malvina Reynolds' "It Isn't Nice":

It isn't nice to block the doorway.
It isn't nice to go to jail.
There are nicer ways to do it.
But the nice ways always fail.

As acoustic folk songs from the 1960s, those sound downright quaint today. But they shocked people then, nonetheless. More shocking still were the Fugs, whose proto-punk anthem “Kill for Peace” unfortunately shows no signs of growing irrelevant:

If you don't like the people or the way that they talk.
If you don't like their manners or the way that they walk.
Kill, kill, kill for peace!
Kill, kill, kill for peace!

It wasn't just music. Paul Krassner's subversive publication the Realist  profoundly influenced American politics and culture in ways that continue evolving to this day. More than a satirist, Krassner thought of himself as a prankster (he was friends with Ken Kesey), and his most successful prank was "The Parts That Were Left Out of the Kennedy Book," a macabre fantasy he floated in wake of the censorship of William Manchester's book on the Kennedy assassination, which culminates dramatically with Lyndon Johnson aboard Air Force One sexually penetrating the bullet-wound in JFK's corpse.

In a 1995 interview with Adbusters magazine, Krassner explained why he considered it successful: "People across the country believed – if only for a moment – that an act of presidential necrophilia had taken place. It worked because Jackie Kennedy had created so much curiosity by censoring the book she authorized – William Manchester's 'The Death of a President' – because what I wrote was a metaphorical truth about LBJ's personality presented in a literary context, and because the imagery was so shocking, it broke through the notion that the war in Vietnam was being conducted by sane men."

Compared to that story, and the impact it had at the time, nothing "Chapo Trap House" could ever possibly say can compete. But the shock of Krassner's story was nothing compared to the horrific reality of the Vietnam War, a war we now know that LBJ himself did not even believe in. Breaking through the assumptions of normalcy and sanity the way Krassner did was simply not possible by staying within the conventions of normal, well-behaved political discourse. When history itself becomes monstrously obscene, obscene speech may become the only way to free ourselves.

That's a suggestion that Frost, who coined the term “Dirtbag Left,” explored in an article last year, The Necessity of Political Vulgarity.” in which she wrote:

[T]o dismiss vulgarity as a tool for fighting the powerful, to say that being mean is “ridiculous,” is to deny history, and to obscure a long and noble tradition of malicious political japery. In fact, “being mean” not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.

One example she dwelt on at length was the proliferation of slanderous, even pornographic propaganda pamphlets, called libelles, which helped pave the way to the French Revolution:

Quite a few of the cartoons regarding Marie [Antoinette] were the sort of pure tabloid sensationalism that would make Gawker blush. Likely owing to the rumor that the King suffered from sexual dysfunction, leaving his wife to wild bouts of promiscuity, Antoinette was often in flagrante delicto — sometimes with Lafayette, sometimes the king’s brother — the Count of Artois, and sometimes even with different ladies of the court and her close female friends.

Frost went on to quote historian Lynn Hunt, commenting on the libelles: “There’s a disagreement about this among historians, but I have argued and others have argued that this was a part of undermining the aura of the monarchy and making it easier in the end to arrest the king and execute him — and especially to execute the queen.”

Frost continued, “As the 18th-century French knew, monarchy is the real barbarity; it was the libellistes who were the true allies of the Enlightenment.” Cleaning up history by hiding the cruder elements may please those with delicate natures, but it does nothing to help us understand where we came from or help guide us in facing and shaping our own future.

This is not an argument against all standards or sense of decency. As Frost pointed out, “To maintain its potency, vulgarity should certainly be the exception rather than the rule.” There is plenty of value to be had in calm, proper, reasoned discourse -- if it’s willing to acknowledge the need for its opposite when that need grows to its current dizzying heights. If you’re really so worried by the behavior of the Dirtbag Left, maybe it’s time to pay attention to what they’re saying.


By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News, and a columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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