Whatever benefits it has brought, aggressive globalisation has also dislocated industries, wrecked communities, and fostered social alienation. Large numbers of working-class, blue-collar, and rural voters (these categories overlap) feel abandoned, anxious, and economically insecure, even when they have, as individuals, held on to well-paid jobs. This offers fertile ground to political candidates who claim to be outsiders or anti-élitists. Right-wing populists exploit the situation with a rhetoric of scapegoating. They blame marginalised groups. Their language and their stated policies veer towards nativism, xenophobia, and assorted kinds of bigotry.
Jeff Sparrow’s Trigger Warnings: Political correctness and the rise of the right is published against this background. Sparrow is understandably concerned about right-wing populism, but he views the responses of left-wing and liberal thinkers as largely counterproductive. To some extent, if we follow his reasoning, well-intentioned left-liberal people have inadvertently helped the likes of Donald Trump.
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Aside from some small detours to consider events in the United Kingdom, Trigger Warnings is a comparative study of Australian and US politics over the past fifty to sixty years, drawing parallels but also discussing points of difference. It focuses on the varieties of left-wing activism through this period, examining their effectiveness, or otherwise, in opposing super-rich capitalists and rightwing culture warriors.
At the same time, Sparrow examines criticisms, from the right, of so-called political correctness on the left. He absolves the left of almost anything that could reasonably be termed ‘political correctness’ prior to the early years of the new millennium. He views the furore over political correctness in the early 1990s, instigated by Dinesh D’Souza among others, as largely exaggerated and even dishonest. Many stories about extreme language policing were, he alleges, distorted or outright apocryphal. The remainder can be dismissed as unrepresentative. This is not entirely convincing, but in any event Sparrow finds the left guilty of blameworthy rhetoric and action in more recent years.
In support, he identifies several modes of left-wing politics. First, he distinguishes between non-confrontational ‘palliationist politics’, conducted on behalf of oppressed groups by a courageous, but privileged, élite of middle-class activists; and second, the ‘direct politics’ of mass protest, civil disobedience, boycotts, and strikes. Direct politics gathered strength during the social struggles of the 1960s and 1970s. As a third form, he identifies ‘delegated politics’, which began when 1960s radicals achieved positions of power in universities, government bureaucracies, and elsewhere. From those positions, they implemented top-down reforms. Delegated politics doubtless introduced some defensible rules and other changes, but its practitioners could seem – or become – distant, authoritarian, and paternalistic.
Sparrow saves his harshest words for what delegated politics became during the George W. Bush era, what he calls ‘smug politics’. At this point, much of the left’s energy, especially in the United States, was channelled into hostility and condescension towards those working-class, blue-collar, and rural voters who supported conservative candidates. For Sparrow, this condescending attitude is epitomised by the satirical comedy of Michael Moore, Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, and John Oliver. Here, the humour depends on a self-congratulatory form of groupthink. The intended audience must, that is, ‘already know and already accept the correct [political] position’.
But, Sparrow argues, this is self-defeating. It confirms to anyone who falls outside the circle of self-congratulation that left-liberal partisans are hostile to ‘everyday people’: people who have not, for example, immersed themselves in critical theory and cultural studies. Adding to this problem, practitioners of smug politics deploy a set of concepts, including privilege, identity, cultural appropriation, intersectionality, and (of course) trigger warnings, in ways that are always esoteric and often invert the concepts’ original meanings and importance. Worse still is the spectacle of call-out culture, where left-liberal partisans publicly shame individuals – most often one another – for minor or imaginary political transgressions.
Coming from Jeff Sparrow, such a harsh message for the left might be more palatable than similar analyses from more conservative or moderate figures. Sparrow’s credentials as a political radical and a socialist are unimpeachable, and his solution to smug politics is more, rather than less, activism. He proposes a return to direct politics, and to trusting the better instincts of the masses. Everyday people might have old-fashioned values, and some of them doubtless exhibit bigotry, but, Sparrow emphasises, they are not stupid. They are willing to learn, if they are treated with respect, and they readily accept the need for solidarity. Where it exists, bigotry is not an indelible mark on their character.
Trigger Warnings covers a lot of ground, so there is inevitably much that is contestable. As one example, Sparrow seems unfair to the New Atheist group of writers – Richard Dawkins, Daniel C. Dennett, Sam Harris, the late Christopher Hitchens, and their allies – whom he portrays as indulging in smug politics and facilitating anti-Muslim bigotry. Here, the scholarship looks thin, relying on weak sources such as an anti-Dawkins Op-Ed published in The Guardian. Sparrow does not do justice to the individual New Atheists’ theses and arguments, and does not even cite their main books.
More important is the swift way that Trigger Warnings glides over the radical left’s record, throughout the twentieth century, of demanding conformity and of attempting to suffocate ‘counterrevolutionary’ or inexpedient ideas. Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, and Mao – among many others – insisted on a ‘correct’ political line. They objected to government censorship under conditions of capitalism, but not to crushing the bourgeois press after a successful revolution. Turning to Western countries, we could add a litany of colourful, troubling, and by no means apocryphal episodes that happened well before the presidency of the younger Bush.
High-profile cases where left-wing radicals enforced a correct line, such as the 1946 Albert Maltz Affair, are the small tip of a very large iceberg. (Maltz was publicly humiliated by fellow US communists for publishing a politically unacceptable essay about socialist aesthetics.) In fact, the radical left has a long and unhappy record of trying to impose social and political conformity on its own membership and beyond. What can be said in its favour, I think, is that the right’s record is much longer and even worse.
Trigger Warnings broaches hotbutton topics. It is polemical and inherently controversial, and will draw complaints from all corners of the political compass. That’s not such a bad thing, and there is much to like about this book. It is well-structured, accessible, and beautifully written. It contributes thoughtfully to an urgent contemporary debate about right-wing populism and how best to respond, and its main line of argument merits serious discussion.