I was on Air America with Janeane Garofalo. The Republicans were coming to New York City. Our generation was giving birth to a new activism. I went off about the need to hit the streets, hard.
Next morning I woke up to 60 emails telling me that I should grow up, that I had no credibility, and could go fuck myself. I was used to hate mail. Throughout the summer I averaged ten a day from the Christian Right. (Wild stuff about how I was going to burn in hell.) But this new batch of emails came from liberals. I talked with other activists about it and they weren’t surprised. Turns out that whenever there’s a whiff of movement in the air—liberals try and suppress it. The Left starts to mobilize and a division appears between the progressives willing to fight for change and the flaccid liberals who would rather die than make a real statement.
I understand pulling back. This world beats the hell out of us and sometimes the best we can do is order Chinese food and watch five hours of TV. But why would people unhappy with the Bush administration get bent out of shape with people trying to protest the Bush administration? I’m not only talking about hate mail. There was an article on Salon where allegedly leading liberals went out of their way to try and chill the RNC protest movement. More than once I turned on NPR and heard people dissing us.
The liberal complains that American society is apathetic, says the Bush administration is disgusting, claims to recognize that there are profound systemic problems, but does nothing. The liberal stands by as people get beat up. Liberals say that they wish it wouldn’t happen, that the bully disgusts them, that the world has lost its way, but then turn their backs. Even worse, if someone steps in and tries to stop the beating—tries to fight off the bully—the liberal analyzes the situation with big words and finds a way to criticize that person for taking action.
The liberal defines the American Left. These are the professors, the publishers, the main writers, famous artists, politicians, and hip professionals with money and access to the machine. Any time progressives rise up and manage to bring attention to our issues, these liberals immediately set out to marginalize us. They characterize us as angry and not to be taken seriously. They condescend to our grassroots efforts until a strategy works, then co-opt it for their own purposes. They condescend to our books and music until there’s some money to be made, then claim it as their own. The same applies to gentrification. The progressives add art to the neighborhood and respect the community, then the liberals move in with their money and sanitize out families who have been there for generations.
The accepted wisdom is that progressives have no choice but to serve as a kind of stepping stone to the liberal agenda. Our community building will always end up serving the Democratic Party. Every time we move into neighborhood like Williamsburg or the Mission District we can count on liberals taking over in five to seven years. The bombed-out buildings we make into community art space must always become restaurants that only they can afford. I don’t think it has to be this way, but we can only protect progressive politics and culture if we recognize it. We are second-class citizens in this country. The liberals have cool careers in publishing and the arts, we work temp jobs and wait tables on them. The liberals make their money in politics, we go broke through our activism. Our art, our convictions, everything we do dooms us to a life of frustration and struggle in America. Yet it is from progressive politics and culture that the best “liberal” minds are sprung. Progressives should recognize that they have different lives and make different choices than liberals. Progressives should stop identifying themselves as a subclass of the liberal establishment and more as the working poor.
This isn’t pie in the sky talk, this applies to the gentrification issues going down in Williamsburg. Acknowledge that there is a substantial difference between the progressive artist-activists who have made the neighborhood what it is and the wealthy liberals set to take over the waterfront development. I was living in the Mission District on 18th and Folsom in the early ’90s. It was a great hood. Latino culture was thriving, there were community gardens, murals, soccer games—then the Silicone Valley boom killed us. The liberals moved in with their soul patches and SUV’s and turned it into a white playground. They talked a good game about community and respect, but their words didn’t mean anything. The system was on their side, and they weren’t about to do anything that was going to threaten their status. And as time went on, I saw that they were downright condescending to our beliefs.
The liberal hate mail I got during the RNC protest was a product of this division that has gone unspoken for too long. Liberal maintenance of the status quo—under the guise of us all being on the same team—has thwarted the progressive fight. They’ve ruined our communities, watered-down our culture. The point is to stop handing them everything on a silver platter, stop serving them dessert while they talk politics and ignore us standing there. The liberals love to view everything from a safe distance. Revolution is supercool as long as it’s 90 years ago. Che Guevara is totally sexy as long as long as he’s played by that cute Mexican actor (and good and dead where the CIA buried him). Civil unrest is soooo necessary as long as it’s in an Eyes On The Prize documentary (and it’s not us but blacks getting their asses bitten off). Latino culture is really awesome—go see Frida and Like Water for Chocolate (but get rid of the Mexicans from the neighborhood.) Those progressive activist artist people are so cute and edgy (but the waiters have such bad attitudes!) Orale, maybe it’s time we get in their faces a little bit. Start getting down with what’s going on right now.
JASON FLORES-WILLIAMS is a lawyer in New Mexico.