Imperial America and the End of Progressivism
Bradley Manning, the San Francisco “gay pride” parade, and the future of the American left
As America hardens into empire, and the assumptions and conceits of imperialism become the social and political norm, the American “left” is morphing into a mutant caricature of itself: we see this in the recent decision by the San Francisco “Gay Pride” parade committee to revoke an earlier decision to honor whistle-blower Bradley Manning.
Manning, for those late to the party, is the 25-year-old Army private who – somehow – had access to a huge cache of US military and diplomatic “secrets” and revealed them to the world via Wikileaks. First and most dramatically, he released a US government video depicting the slaughter of innocent Iraqis by a team of wise-cracking Americans piloting a helicopter gunship. It shocked the world – and rocked the US military establishment when Wikileaks posted it online. The warlords of Washington have been out to get Manning – and Wikileaks – ever since.
What does San Francisco’s “gay pride” celebration – a week-long street party, part drag-queens-in-boa-feathers and Dykes on Bikes, part political rally by the “San Francisco Democrats,” as Jeanne Kirkpatrick contemptuously referred to them – have to do with Manning? It seems the Parade Committee’s “electoral college” – a gathering of all the past “Grand Marshals” – voted for Manning (a gay man) to be honored as the 2013 Parade Grand Marshal, a decision quickly overruled by the Grand Poobahs of the “executive board,” led by one Lisa L. Williams, a local political hack and sometime political appointee to minor city posts. In a statement that had all the hallmarks of a announcement by the old Soviet Politiboro of the latest political purge, Williams declared:
“Bradley Manning will not be a grand marshal in this year’s San Francisco Pride celebration. His nomination was a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen. A staff person at SF Pride, acting under his own initiative, prematurely contacted Bradley Manning based on internal conversations within the SF Pride organization. That was an error and that person has been disciplined. He does not now, nor did he at that time, speak for SF Pride.”
“Disciplined”? Sounds very S&M. Did Williams administer the punishment herself? Aside from that, however, there is something very weird about this “should never have been allowed to happen” business. Williams is here speaking the language of outright authoritarianism: deviations from the Party Line, it seems, are not only doubleplusungood – but even the possibility of Thoughtcrime must be eliminated. That kind of language is rarely used by ordinary Americans, even in the realm of politics: only in Marxist-Leninist (and certain fundamentalist religious) sects do we hear this sort of dogmatic assertiveness. One wonders: what country is this person living in?
The answer is that San Francisco, in many ways, isn’t part of America: like Washington, D.C., and certain other urban blights, it is another country altogether, one where everyone (who’s anyone) is a “progressive,” and the city is effectively a one-party state that resembles Cuba more than it does the real America. The only difference is that in Cuba, at least, they still remember their old commie roots: in the San Francisco of the new millennium, however, the old anti-imperialism of the progressive community has been replaced by identity politics. With President Barack Obama in the White House, and America conducting even more wars of aggression than under his Republican predecessor, the “progressives” have jumped on the bandwagon of America’s post-9/11 imperial expansion. It’s their empire now, and they mean to defend it. Williams – a former regional coordinator for the Obama campaign, and a local Democratic party hack – is quite clear about this:
“Bradley Manning is facing the military justice system of this country. We all await the decision of that system. However, until that time, even the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform – and countless others, military and civilian alike – will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.”
The idea that Manning put anyone – in uniform or out – in danger is refuted by the Pentagon itself, which admitted Manning’s actions physically harmed no one. Other than that, however, Williams’s statement is a perfect reiteration of the Obama administration’s case against Manning – and against the movement that has arisen on the right as well as the left against our interventionist foreign policy. According to Williams, anyone who challenges a foreign policy that gave those helicopter gunships the capacity to cut down Iraqi civilians in their own city is “placing in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform.” Anyone who defies the cult of secrecy surrounding US war crimes around the world is a “traitor,” as a leader of one gay veterans’ group characterized Manning. Critics of our foreign wars are invariably accused of this, although in the past the charge has mostly emanated from the right side of the political spectrum. What makes this incident significant is that it is now coming from what used to be the left.
Lisa Williams is a small-time political servitor, which means she is a big wheel in the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club. As proprietor of a political consulting firm, One Source Consulting, she was firmly ensconced in the local party machine before moving up the ladder to coordinate Obama’s's pro forma campaign in the San Francisco Bay Area. She’s no ideologue: she’s a careerist, pure and simple. Her motive is pragmatic rather than ideological: she is terrified that her organization – the Gay Pride committee – already discredited by its gross financial mismanagement of the millions that flow into its coffers will suffer further embarrassment as the purveyor of an inconvenient radicalism offensive to the higher-ups she is lobbying for a promotion.
The putrid icing on this foul-tasting cake is her replacement for Manning as parade Grand Marshal: California Attorney General Kamala Harris, a rising star in the Democratic party firmament, former San Francisco City Attorney – not to mention a former One Source Consulting client. So there’s a pecuniary interest here, too – and isn’t that just so typical of the crony-capitalist regime we suffer under today? It’s all about politicians enriching themselves at everyone else’s expense – or, in this case, at the expense of a gay guy who’s been tortured, according to the UN, and held in prison without trial for three years, because he exposed the lies, the shitty little betrayals, and the murderous arrogance of our rulers as they rampage across the globe.
The de-Marshaling of Bradley Manning might seem like a trivial matter to some, but it is in reality a real cultural turning point. It used to be that what passes for the “left” in American politics was identified with a principled opposition to the American conceit that we are the inheritors of the British empire, and that now that the British lion has turned into a bit of a pussycat it’s up to the American eagle to police the world. Opposition to this arrogant nonsense was once central to any American liberal or leftist’s self-conception (with the exception of those “cold war liberals” who today would be called neoconservatives). Today, in Obama’s America, they have embraced the cause of yesteryear’s Anglophiles and taken up what we used to call the White Man’s Burden – except today it is the Multi-Cultural Multi-Gendered LGBT
Man’s Person’s Burden.
In the place of the old imperialism we see new threads emerging as the dominant colors in this ideological tapestry, first and foremost State-worship. The older sort of left-liberal never identified with the State, because, after all, it wasn’t their State – it was the hated capitalist state. The old-fashioned Marxists, of course, were hardcore when it came to this question: they made a principle of never cooperating with the cops. Anyone who did was ostracized and denounced as a stool pigeon.
However, that has all changed. Now that they are the cops – and by they I don’t mean the few remaining old-fashioned Marxists – this reflexive resistance to authority on the left has undergone a Bizarro World transformation into its exact opposite: a veritable worship of governmental authority. How else to explain that little advertising clip on MSNBC featuring Rachel Maddow admonishing us for not utilizing the government as a builder of bridges and other cool stuff. “They say the future doesn’t belong to us,” she declaims, sneering at those craven slovenly conservatives who shrink from National Greatness, “it belongs to China!” The subtext here is we need to be more like China – an authoritarian state that sacrifices its teeming hordes of slaves on the altar of the Five Year Plan, while China’s crony capitalists – the “communist” princelings – buy up Manhattan real estate (and fund our debt). Government is good: more government is even better.
The old “New Left” of the 1960s was infatuated with Maoism: “revolutionary” China loomed large in the leftist imagination as a utopian laboratory where their egalitarian nostrums were being administered in large doses. The Great Cultural Revolution enthralled them, and the various far-left groups competed, for a while, for the China franchise. Beijing eventually conferred its semi-official blessing on one of the contestants: the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), or CPML, led by one Mike Klonsky. The CPML soon fell apart, however, as China went in the direction of state-capitalism: Klonsky entered academia and went on to become enmeshed in “progressive” politics via his links to other ex-New Leftists like Bill Ayers, formerly of the Weather Underground. Ayers, you’ll recall, teamed up with Obama in Chicago on an “education reform” program sponsored by the Chicago Annenberg Challenge which granted Klonsky’s “Small Schools Workshop” over a million bucks: another mil was forked over by a foundation on whose board the future President sat. Klonsky then became active in the Obama campaign, where he was deployed as a blogger on the official campaign web site, holding forth on “education politics and teaching for social justice.”
That yesterday’s Klonskyites are today’s Obamaites – and that a national icon of “progressivism” is hailing crony-capitalist China as a model to be emulated – doesn’t tell us all we need to know about the state of the American left today. But it does indeed give us a pretty damned depressing portent of what the future holds.
Under this “progressive” President, government secrecy has been raised to a sacred principle, and presidential supremacism taken to new heights undreamed of by his predecessor. The Obamaites have gone after whistleblowers, like Manning – and this poor guy – hammer and tongs, and the “progressive” community is silent – although Chris Hayes did bring up the jailing of John Kiriakou, the ex-CIA man who revealed that the US was waterboarding “enemy combatants,” (albeit without, as far as I can tell, actually denouncing it).
And while Washington’s “progressive” policy wonks might debate this amongst themselves, out in the field the troops are insensitive to such arcane subjects. To a political hack like Lisa Williams, and her crew at the Alice B. Toklas Democratic Club, Bradley Manning is a figure to be shunned. In the 1960s, liberals of her ilk lionized people like Daniel Ellsberg: today, they’d be denouncing him for putting “in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform” and howling for a long jail sentence.
I have to note that the various “gay veterans” organizations, which pushed so hard to reverse the ban on “open” gays in the military, are cheering Williams on. That Manning is a soldier, and a gay one, too, matters not at all to these losers. I heard one hard-bitten old Lesbian officer even accuse Manning of “treason,” echoing the worst of the warmongering neocons. It’s scary, really, to see all these leather queens rallying to Williams’s defense. Having assimilated the military culture of an imperialist power, they have become its purveyors within the gay community. With gays in the military comes the frightful phenomenon of gay militarism: I wonder how long before these people start pushing for a war against Russia because Putin won’t allow Gay Pride Day in Moscow.
Glenn Greenwald, alone among prominent lefty-liberals, has raised his voice against the de-priding of San Francisco’s iconic celebration of gay liberation, and he out-does even me in his outrage. However, Glenn left out one key fact regarding this incident: the parade committee gets $58,400 from San Francisco’s “arts” budget – and, even more important, is granted the all-important permit to put the festival on in the first place. The Democratic party politicians who control San Francisco government from the top down aren’t about to let them get away with valorizing someone who’s being mercilessly prosecuted by this administration. He who pays the piper – and you know the rest.
After a long evolution from a free-spirited and totally non-governmental phenomenon, San Francisco’s Gay Pride parade has become a veritable arm of the city’s political establishment. I marched in the first Gay Pride Parade in San Francisco, way back in 1972, I believe, as part of the official Libertarian Party contingent. We gathered in a Pacific Heights park, and marched down Polk Street, about 5,000 people – much to the consternation of the police, who had the good sense not to try to stop us. We had no permit, no corporate sponsors, and not a single politician showed up to speak.
All of this is rather ancient history, and dates me terribly, but then again there’s no use denying I’m old enough to remember when Dianne Feinstein opposed San Francisco’s domestic partnership ordinance on the grounds it would inevitably lead to gay marriage. It was only when Del Martin and Phyllis Lyon convinced her it wouldn’t that she agreed to go along with the program.
Straight politicos have “evolved” since then, or so they tell us, but the point is that the gay movement, as a political phenomenon, has “evolved,” too – and not in a good way, as the Manning de-Grand Marshaling demonstrates. These people are nothing but liberals shorn of their best impulses and mired in a soggy swamp of identity politics, political correctness-gone-bonkers, and an instinctual authortarianism. They care no more about the preservation of our constitutional rights and protections than, say, the membership of the Chinese Communist Party. Indeed, they regard any talk of the Constitution – a document written by straight white men – as politically suspect. After all, isn’t it those right-wing extremists who are always going on about the Constitution?
They don’t care about civil liberties – not when they’re the cops – and they don’t even want to talk about foreign policy, except to complain about how long it’s taking us to intervene in Syria. (That’s you, Carl Levin: why don’t you hurry up and retire?) All they care about is getting more Free Stuff from the government, and pushing for “gay marriage.”
Well, then, screw them. I’m done with the “progressives,” who have sat by and watched people like Bradley Manning, John Kiriakou and Julian Assange get taken down by their politicians, and said nothing – or, worse, defended the persecution of those who dare speak truth to power. We’ll have to re-build the old civil liberties/anti-interventionist coalition on a new basis, by reaching out to a new generation, one that will regard the Lisa Williamses of this world with the contempt they deserve.
NOTES IN THE MARGIN
Here is a link to my recent debate at American University with Jonathan Rauch, of the Brookings Institution, on the subject of gay marriage: see also here. The event was sponsored by the Janus Forum, a project of the university’s Political Theory Institute, and my thanks go out to them for their gracious hospitality. Thanks also to Jonathan, who was not only a very worthy opponent, but also one who made me think about my own position. This is what the Janus Forum is all about: looking at both sides of a question, no matter how “settled” it may be in the minds of those who take a position one way or the other. Long may such programs prosper.
I’m having great fun on Twitter these days, and I urge you to join me on this wonderfully interactive site: you can do so by going here.
I’ve written a couple of books, which you might want to peruse. Here is the link for buying the second edition of my 1993 book, Reclaiming the American Right: The Lost Legacy of the Conservative Movement, with an Introduction by Prof. George W. Carey, a Forward by Patrick J. Buchanan, and critical essays by Scott Richert and David Gordon (ISI Books, 2008).
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