Lately I’ve been reading the writing of novelist and AIDS activist David B. Feinberg. I find his writing from the early 1990s to be highly relevant to the times we are living in. AIDS activists faced challenges similar to what the left is going through in the fight against Donald Trump. People continued to die, yet activists had become distracted by who among them had done a very bad thing.
For Trump and his supporters, morality and accountability have become largely irrelevant. Sure, the right still talks a good game, you know, all that debate prep at college, but now when they’re confronted with their hypocrisy, they smile cheekily, a coy wink to the larger game plan. They’ve introduced new terms to the lexicon, such as the “mulligan” — a pass on ideological consistency in the name of the greater good. (The “greater good” here resembles a treatise written by Ayn Rand and Jimmy Swaggart.) This pass on ideological consistency has come to define conservatism in the Trump era. Emboldened hypocrisy is the strategy through which their agenda is being enacted, and so far, it’s a smashing success. While conservatives revel in their new freedom to be blatant hypocrites (and marvel at how a lack of accountability helps get shit done), the left eats its own.
“We have the moral high ground!” progressives say, as if the moral high ground equals the political capital to change lives. Moral high grounds don’t feed people. Being on the “right side of history” doesn’t save people from deportation or poverty or protect them from abuse. The only time morality has tangible power is when it inspires people to act, or becomes entrenched in law, or in the case of the left, when it’s used against its own. While conservatives party naked, the left wields its monopoly on morality like a cudgel on itself. It has come to expect anticipatory precociousness: one cannot grow into progressive values, they must emerge fully formed. The right flaunts its hypocrisy (with a hat tip to circular logic and false equivalencies) then piles on whoever the left is lambasting that week. Bipartisanship is alive and well in the comments posted to the Twitter feeds of lambasted leftists.
The left is giving the right a gift. Conservatives offer Trump mulligan after mulligan, yet the left asks its own to account for increasing ambiguities. Let me say what I don’t mean here: I’m not talking about allegations of sexual abuse. Sexual abuse is not an ambiguity. I’m not talking about people in a position of power who use it to exploit others and cause harm. I’m addressing what compels me to add this very disclaimer: progressives have become so quick to ascribe moral failure to each other for being curious, for being questioning, for being benevolently ignorant. Trump gets a pass to “grab ’em by the pussy” while progressives are asked to lament naming “Lolita” as their favorite book in ‘98.
The following is a short list of moral failings according to progressives who use the internet:
Being forthright that while an artist may have engaged in awful behavior, you still feel nostalgic/make positive life associations when looking at/reading/listening to their work.
Not severing the connection with someone you don’t know on a social network because someone else you don’t know on a social network told you how horrible the person was in a group message that you never read.
Using a vomit emoticon without a trigger warning.
Being intellectually inquisitive even when that curiosity is not an endorsement and does not involve the exchange of money.
In a thread online, an attempt was made by fellow progressives to determine the correct terminology to describe all affected by the right’s assault on reproductive rights. The determination devolved into a threat of suicide by a trans man who felt bullied and erased by the word “woman.” A woman whose uterus had been removed felt bullied and erased by the use of the phrase “reproductive rights.” Thankfully, in other pockets of the progressive universe, a determination was made, as there are now TWO states offering just one abortion provider, and a young woman was just arrested in Alabama for manslaughter after she was shot and the fetus she was carrying expired.
Some on the left feel that they must spell out their progressive bona fides before even stating an opinion: this is done proactively, in attempt to offset the notion that they are, in any way, acting in bad faith. As if a CV of generic, bullet point identifiers offers a window into the soul. At one time, people used to be commended for acknowledging their previously held beliefs, for evolving and growing. Some on the left appear to believe evolution and growth are dead, and instead, late bloomers should be exiled and publicly pilloried.
In his book Chronicle of a Plague: AIDS and Its Aftermath, Andrew Holleran writes that early in the epidemic, he was accused of having a “morose delectation,” an addiction to, or fetish for, melancholy. Holleran was just transcribing what he and so many were experiencing; there were so many stories of human suffering — but the phrase has stuck with me. Has the left developed a “moral delectation?” Or would a “castigation delectation” be more appropriate?
So much of this aspect of progressive culture — the constant internal clashing, the rush to correct, the rush to accuse of wrong doing — I blame on the internet: we no longer have to look at each other, yet at the same time, so many are watching. There is the progressive online, and then there is the progressive at home. There is a difference. The progressive at home is much more patient and understanding, much more tolerant of everyday benevolent human messiness. What will it mean for the people progressives seek to empower and the principles progressives claim to value if we have to endure four more years of Donald Trump? The lack of tolerance we continue to show for each other may be our greatest weakness and his best reelection strategy.
Originally a golf term, the conservative “mulligan” could be interpreted in a much more generous manner: not as a pass for Trump’s atrocious behavior, but as….forgiveness for it. Not real forgiveness, mind you, transactional forgiveness, something the left would never offer for such profound moral failing. While I concur that some sins are unforgivable, I also wonder, are we better off for being so unwavering? As a direct result of the conservative “mulligan” there is now a conservative majority on the Supreme Court. In the days and months leading up to 2020 I’m hoping progressives can start small, with each other. In tolerance there is power. Even if that tolerance is only transactional.