There are some important questions that rattle around in my mind.
This is just a very short piece that I want to use to raise some political questions that I think about a lot—these questions come up constantly when I’m looking into political topics, so I thought that it would be worth it to gather them.
There’s supposed to be some kind of tension between (A) pursuing self-interest and (B) working for the common good. But how much can this split between (A) and (B) be maintained in the year 2022 when the world is falling apart before our eyes?
This is a really profound question—there’s supposed to be a choice that people have to make between (A) and (B), but it doesn’t seem like that framing makes sense. You can’t enjoy wealth if you’re dead—the most selfish person in the world therefore wants to join activism in order to decarbonize our society before it’s too late.
Which Political Terms Should People Use?
There are a whole range of wonderful policies that could be implemented in order to improve society. I think that progressive people will—when exposed to the best information and argumentation—fundamentally agree about most of these policies even though details might divide people.
But it gets contentious when you consider institutional vision. One discussion is whether it even makes sense to stake out an institutional vision given that we can “cross that bridge when we come to it”—you might say that we won’t come to that bridge until the far future when society has reached the limits of reform.
Another discussion is the extent to which there are actual genuine concepts at stake after you eliminate the terminological disputes—for example, what percentage of people who call for “socialism” actually genuinely assert that the USSR represents a good and desirable institutional vision for society? Noam Chomsky has an interesting 1986 piece about the USSR’s hostility toward progressive ideals—the piece says that the US and the USSR both had massive propaganda systems and that the reality was very far from what those two propaganda systems were saying.
And another discussion is whether a given term—like “socialism”—is needlessly confusing. You don’t want to confuse people—it seems potentially dishonest to use a term in a way that you know full well that your audience doesn’t use the term.
And still another discussion is whether a given term—like “socialism”—is needlessly controversial and spicy. My own instinct is that thought increases as the controversial and spicy terminology declines—I suspect that it’s more productive to use the terms that don’t increase people’s blood pressure and that therefore allow thought to happen. You presumably change society through inducing thought—you presumably don’t change society through getting people’s blood pressure up.
Bernie Sanders used the term “democratic socialism” during his 2016 presidential campaign and during his 2020 presidential campaign—one of my friends originally thought that Sanders’s decision was a misstep but later came to regard it as a success. Someone might say that the goal is to change usage—regarding a given term—and that it therefore makes sense to use a confusing or controversial or spicy term, but the question is why it’s important or useful or worthwhile to change a term’s usage.
Aren’t People Confused About the Media?
People seem to have two basic confusions about the media—I wonder how widespread these two basic confusions are. First, people treat a given news outlet as monolithic or a given journalist as monolithic—we all do this sometimes, but we should all recognize that a given news outlet or a given journalist can be partly good and partly bad. I even know of examples where a single article was 50% good and 50% bad—the other day I highlighted a single article up for my friend using yellow highlighting for the good parts and blue highlighting for the bad parts.
Second, people will say that you should—or shouldn’t—“trust” a given news outlet or a given journalist. This is an irrational attitude because you don’t simply “trust” or “not trust” something—you use your critical faculties to evaluate what does seem rational and accurate and what doesn’t seem rational and accurate. I was talking to a friend who told me that they stopped reading The Economist due to its bias—I found my friend’s decision totally irrational, since it’s possible to read The Economist and apply your critical faculties and compensate for that newspaper’s bias. There are even people who somehow think that Manufacturing Consent’s message is that you shouldn’t read the mainstream media and learn from it—this is completely at odds with what the book actually says, but you don’t even need to read the book to know that this is a silly interpretation, since you can just consider the fact that Noam Chomsky himself constantly reads the mainstream media and constantly learns from it.
How Should One Approach Bad Things That Might Be Categorized as “Left-Wing”?
The obvious answer to this is that you should criticize these things. But I’ve encountered the position that it’s bad to criticize things that one might categorize as “left-wing”—I guess that the idea is that criticizing these things hurts the left or divides the left or plays into the agenda of the powerful.
And there are situations where your friends are friends with people who are doing things that you think are bad—that makes it very hard because it’ll be socially self-destructive for you to criticize people who are part of the same circles that you’re part of.
And there are even situations where people will—if you criticize a certain tendency that they’re involved with—go “on offense” against you and bury you under an avalanche of ferocious attacks. You can understand the logic behind going “on offense”—going “on offense” is an unethical tactic, but it’s a smart tactic, since it changes the subject away from the criticisms the person who’s going “on offense” would rather not talk about.
My fear is that certain bad tendencies will—if left unchecked to grow and grow—do a lot of damage and make people wish that a greater effort had been made to check these tendencies.
But we have to remember the world we’re living in and our actions’ consequences—you have to ask whether it’s a high priority to publicly criticize certain tendencies when anything that can be weaponized against the left will be weaponized against the left. The question is the extent to which criticism—of certain things that might be categorized as “left-wing”—truly can be weaponized against the left.