Recently I read an article which really struck a chord with me. The click-baity headline said that a “militant” atheist who supposedly “became a Jew.” I took this to mean that he converted to Judaism for some reason, but when I read the article I learned that it was about a former leftist activist who decided to start identifying as a Jew. Apparently, despite the fact that he had never practiced Judaism and neither his mother or maternal grandmother were Jewish, other leftists were suggesting his failure to rigidly adhere to their line about Israel and radical Islam in Europe must be due to his “Jewish” heritage, evident only by his very Jewish surname- Cohen.
I can sympathize with this on many levels. For one thing, I’m not only not Jewish but have a non-Jewish surname, and yet I’ve been accused of being a “Jew” more times than I can count, even though the topic of Israel and Zionism hadn’t been brought up. Of course in my case the people doing this were typically far-right anti-Semites and not leftists, but there’s a common thread between the two scenarios, and that is ethnic determinism. Nowadays I get similar reactions from self-proclaimed leftists when I discuss the topic of Ukraine. Whatever the specific topic, ethnic or biological determinism basically says that you have no free will or agency. If I disagree with the Kremlin line on Ukraine, for example, it must be because I am American or of Ukrainian descent. It has nothing to do with observation and analysis of concrete facts. How it is that one can find so many Ukrainians willingly supporting the Kremlin’s line if not the Kremlin itself in spite of the fact that they are clearly “more” Ukrainian than me is a mystery, but then again determinist arguments aren’t really based in sound logic.
Cohen’s dilemma also resonated with me on another, deeper level. I’m not familiar with his political history or ideology, but since 2014 I have had the feeling of being exiled from the radical left. When “anti-imperialism” was focused on Libya or Syria, it was easy to dismiss all those rebels as radical Islamists or dupes of Washington, thus removing their agency with a broad brushstroke. Then anti-imperialism’s spotlight suddenly focused on Russia and Ukraine, territory I know both politically, linguistically, and culturally. In the beginning of Maidan I was wrong on a number of points, largely because of my lack of first-hand contact with Ukrainian local politics and day-to-day life. On the other hand I knew Russia, and I knew that something is seriously wrong when the Russian government starts claiming that mantle of a fighter against fascism. Moreover, I knew that most Ukrainians are not “Banderites,” and those who harbor positive attitudes towards Ukrainian nationalism usually now very little about Bandera and his ilk. Moreover, their attitudes are largely a knee-jerk reaction to Russian chauvinism and imperialism.
The more I learned about what was happening in Ukraine and the more I raised the point in discussions with other radical leftists, some of them having been comrades for years, the more flak I got. Suddenly I was the dupe of Washington and NATO, who stupidly believed the lies of the Western media. But my sources weren’t the Western media, of course. My source was, for the most part, every-day life. I was certainly no Ukrainian nationalist, nor was I a liberal. I am neither even to this day.
At this moment it became undeniably clear that the radical left has a serious problem with its worldview, and in the case of Britain, it seems to be far worse than in the US if we go by Cohen’s complaints. This is not to say that the left’s self-proclaimed goals of equality, social justice, etc. are morally wrong, but rather the failure of the modern left is that it isn’t left. Left is historically associated with progress and change- Enlightenment values. What we see, however, is that most of the modern left is more than happy to embrace any reactionary, right-wing, even anti-Semitic or racist regime so long as it is seen as “opposed to US imperialism.” Stranger still is how enamored Western radical leftists have become with bourgeois identity politics and “call out culture,” yet so many of the same people are willing to forgive the most egregious examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, or wealth inequality so long as the regime in question is “opposed to Western imperialism.” And of course “anti-imperialism” only means opposition to Western imperialism. Russian or Chinese imperialism is just fine.
Frustration with this over-simplistic worldview leads one to strange places. I’ll never forget what one Cracked.com writer (David Wong, I believe) said during a podcast when discussing a similar topic. He talked about how during college he was opposed to the Iraq War, but then his encounters and experiences with other anti-war individuals became so irritating that he started actively arguing in favor of the Bush regime- not because he believed in the war but because it was so entertaining watching his opponents go ballistic.
When you realize that you’re in a movement that has many cult-like tendencies, you feel this kind of pull all the time. When you spend years believing NATO is a rapidly expanding empire and then one day you realize how little actual military expansion (particularly on the part of the US) took place, you feel embarrassed, you want to correct the record, yet you inevitably end up sounding like you’re defending NATO. Pointing out that Kosovo and Crimea are not analogous ends up sounding like a defense of the 1999 bombing campaign against Serbia. In the modern world, and especially on the internet, there simply is no room for dialectical thinking. Everything is in binaries. NATO is either 100% good or its pure evil.
One thing from the article about Cohen leaped out at me. Apparently he’s taken up writing for a more right-wing publication (I’m guessing mainstream conservative), where he claims they let him write “whatever he wants.” I always get a little bit suspicious about this. You see the same thing from RT columnists. “There’s no censorship here! I can publish whatever I want.” Well when whatever you want just happens to coincide with the publisher’s agenda then sure, you’re not going to face censorship. I’ve seen a fair number of dissatisfied leftists who spend so much time ranting about the left that they become unwitting tools for the right. Not only are they criticizing the left, but they have leftist street cred.
For me it is simply impossible to imagine becoming one of these real-life “neocons” and speaking in front of some think tank about the need to defend “Europe” from Putin’s “new Soviet Union.” I’d gladly offer my analysis and opinions to those willing to listen, even more so for those willing to pay for them, but one reason (the main being a lack of formal academic credentials, to be fair) these think tanks aren’t filling up my inbox is because whatever criticism I have for the Kremlin comes with a pill too bitter for many of these people to swallow, i.e. the role of capitalism and the West in making Putin’s Russia, and how their misguided, pro-business policies are the reason why they find themselves unable to adequately resist the same monster they created. No, the establishment prefers figures who hold Western liberalism as blameless and act as though everything in Europe was just wonderful until that mean old Putin started playing dirty.
But in weaker moments there are times when I wonder how much one changes as they get older. I cannot pretend that my politics have become less rigid and more inclined to seek realistic compromise. They have become more rational than emotional, but I’d say that my commitment to lofty ideals has become stronger. Still there’s a realization that this is how I feel now, in this moment, and I cannot say for sure where I will be several years from now. What would I do if I found myself destitute, and how would I feel if instead I were suddenly wealthy?
Luckily I’ve devised a few tests to make sure I’m not sliding too far to the opposite extreme. For example, I can always look at an Anne Applebaum article. Is the article still full of self-righteous, hypocritical, hysterical establishment bullshit? Indeed it is! I’m still sane! Do I still get angry about things like a US-backed Saudi Arabian bombing campaign that doesn’t elicit any of the grave concern shown for civilian casualties of Russian airstrikes in Syria? Yes, I do! Hooray! My values are still consistent!
There is a stereotype that says young people are super passionate and idealistic until they get out into the “real world” and eventually start jettisoning their values one by one.I’m not so sure that’s accurate. I think it’s possible to maintain the idealism but just be more rational and less emotional about it. This has nothing to do with going to the opposite extreme or becoming a loathsome “centrist” either. If you’re truly passionate about a cause, it means you prioritize actual success and progress ahead of the image or identity of belonging to this or that movement. You become less concerned with rigidly adhering to an orthodoxy so as to fit in, and more concerned with whether these long-held concepts actually advance the goals they were intended to achieve. What is more, compromise isn’t always treason- bad compromises are. And much of the Western left has made a horrible compromise with right-wing forces, something that has only played into the hands of the establishment and their intelligentsia.
Bearing this in mind, the reader can be quite confident that however isolated I become from the majority of the radical left, you won’t see me walking down the path to Neoconville. I know I’m not alone, and I’ve seen more and more evidence that other radical leftists are beginning to raise a call for reform in the movement. We may be outnumbered at the moment, but the stagnation, confusion, cynicism, and constant infighting within the old left will inevitably generate a flow of recruits- specifically those who can think critically and thus are put off by cult-like behavior.
The political realities of the day force us to make arguments which, due to our past activism and ideology, might make us feel uneasy. These feelings will be increased by the backlash we get from the more numerous leftist establishment. Hopefully we will not fall into this trap and decide to go with the flow just so as to avoid potential problems. Arguing against outdated, inaccurate leftist dogma is not automatically embracing the right, and arguments that appear similar on the surface are often based on very different motives.
Finally, in Cohen’s case it makes perfect sense that he labeled himself a Jew after being thus labeled by so many so-called “leftists.” I get where he’s coming from. On the other hand, hysterical Russian propaganda has often inspired many to humorously refer to themselves as “neocons” or in the case of Ukrainians, “Banderites.” Obviously I’m not opposed to political satire, but let’s be sure we don’t let the Kremlin’s propaganda drive us toward actually supporting the opposite extreme, solely because it is opposite. Indeed, both neoconservatism and the Bandera cult in Ukraine are things to be opposed and denounced; it just so happens that Russia’s feigned opposition to such phenomena is not rooted in noble motives. It’s worth remembering that Cohen while resolved to call himself a Jew, and in fact he said that other leftists should become “Jews” as well, as far as I know he didn’t say he was a radical fundamentalist Zionist. Though from the sound of it, his detractors probably don’t distinguish between the two.