Opposite extremes

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.



12 thoughts on “Opposite extremes

  1. AndyT

    There’s so much to say about this…

    People seemingly think your background must always entail ideological position: for example, a few months ago leading names in the Sino-American community had to start a petition arguing against harsh FBI investigations on two Chinese American professors – the suspects were found to be innocent, but their professional and personal lives had been destroyed; and the petitioners are afraid of being targeted as well, because of their ethnicity…
    That’s said.

    And what can I say about young people – I belonging to the category – and “idealism”?

    It’s “funny” too see as these extremists deal with the matter.

    On the one hand, some of them make fun of Millennial’s perceived “naïveté”: they are like “You fools! Don’t you know all the ‘human right’ thing is just a cover to smear those corageous regimes standing up to ‘Murica’s Imperialism and NWO plans? Amnesty is just a Jew invention to destroy brave BRICS leaders!”
    (btw – while I support Amnesty, I would leave it immediately, should I find this to be true).

    On the other hand, some of them complains about young Europeans and Americans’ supposed lack of values: yes, these “self-hating Westerner” may even tell you that “at least IS recruits have values! At least they have the guts to die for their ideals! As bad as they might be, they believe in something, while you, little spoiled brats are all about your brand-new iPad and being fooled by harmful gender theories spread by the gays!” (Oh yeah – all of us would like to be the next Conchita Wurst…)

    Also, most people in the latter camp have fought in no wars.

    It’s really frustrating.

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      This reminds me of this ongoing “game” I have with some friends, where the object is to imagine what horrible regime you can’t find some “leftist” supporting online. For example a long time ago I thought that nobody would support Pol Pot. I was wrong. So wrong.

      I was not surprised at all to find people supporting or at least engaging in apologetics for ISIS and the Taliban.

      What I’d really like to see are arguments in defense of Idi Amin and Mobutu Sese Seku. I’m pretty sure someone I know found supporters of the latter.

      I was joking with one friend about the idea that some super edgy leftist will take the side of pedophilia because “the Western mainstream media demonizes them so much, and the government wages a non-stop war against them.” Sadly, I was too late. I was reminded that a particularly bizarre Trot organization, the Sparts, supposedly advocated drastically lowering the age of consent in opposition to “Victorian sexual attitudes.” Never mind the fact that pedophilia and child prostitution were far more common in the Victorian era, and modern societies do far more to fight child abuse of all kinds.

      But it just goes to show that with the internet, there’s no cause too vile or too stupid that you can’t find some ardent supporters.

      1. AndyT

        So true: in Italy, a handful left-wing politicians – including a former Minister of Justice! – openly praised late North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il expressing “the most fraternal and sincere condolences to Kim Jong Un, saying that they remember the great feats Kim Jong Il performed in defending the sovereignty of the DPRK and the dignity of the nation”.

        The same former Minister has also claimed he would ask for Lenin’s body to be transferred to Rome, should Russian authorities shut down its mausoleum in Moscow…

      2. Callum C.

        How would one defend Mobutu Sese Seku? Unless we go straight into “making shit up” territory (which, to be fair, is where we would inevitably end up) I’m kinda drawing a blank.

        OK, here’s my best effort:

        Well, I one heard some guy on the Internet compare Mobutu to Putin. We all know Putin is a glorious defender of national self-determination against US Imperialism, because Russian TV said so. Therefore, Mobutu must also have been defending the people of… uh… that country in Africa against US imperialism. We know this because he had no involvement with the Americans at all.

        What? He met Reagan? OK, new angle: He was a covert fighter against imperialism who only pretended to be a US ally. Anyone who claims he did anything like plunder the national budget of … uh.. the African Republic of Democrat or whatever is a Western shill. No, he certainly didn’t sell any warplanes on the black market. He would never have done it because it wasn’t in the interests of… whatever country he was in charge of. What was it called?

        The Democratic Republic of Congo!? Congo sounds like something out of a racist novel from the 1930s, and you are therefore a racist shill for using it. I win. Sputnik, pls hire me.

      3. Jim Kovpak Post author

        I’m hopefully the first guy to compare Putin to Mobutu, back around 2013 (same year I started the blog). I can’t remember if I’d been saying it much earlier though.

        As for why someone would defend Mobutu, I can’t remember the exact argument repeated to me, but I have a guess. HINT: “A___-Imp________.”

  2. Do I have to?

    Reading your website is so terribly refreshing. It feels like the stuff I complain to myself on a nearly daily basis when reading world news and the internet’s response to them. The mind-numbing hypocrisy coming from some people I would otherwise admire for their stance on other subjects is infuriating!

    Some two years back, I added my friend’s professor on Facebook on his recommendation. I’m not sure how to translate his course, but it’s basically about international relations. My friend told me he was probably his best professor and that he’s some kind of important figure, and that he was very active on Facebook, constantly posting interesting articles and commenting on them. For two years now I’ve been rolling my eyes and struggling not to comment on his posts (partially because he has a legion of followers who are even more infuriating). To defend my friend a little bit, he says the kind of content he shares shifted drastically since then, and that he shares my frustration with it.

    I started skeptically right away because of RT. He couldn’t stop sharing it. This was during or shortly after the Crimea situation, which was when I started following the subject with more interest, so I had already grasped just how low RT was. At first it seemed innocuous enough – he was basically being (perhaps naively) part of the whole “share bad news about the west, pretend all’s good elsewhere” RT shtick. But then, maybe a couple months later, MH17 happened. Anyone following the situation in Ukraine could tell within hours there was a MOUNTAIN of evidence of just what had happened (and surprise, THAT version has remained pretty stable through the years). Not RT. RT shared (among many others) that ludicrous theory that Putin’s plane supposedly flew through that route and that the Ukrainians (or their NATO overlords) had shot it down trying to assassinate him. That article was so bad they themselves updated to dismiss it as stupid, which is rare for RT. It was the first and only time I wrote a long post telling him he was being stupid (although I used more polite terms) – so quick to call out bias on our country’s mainstream media, so quick to buy whatever nonsense came out of a literal propaganda outlet. I pointed out maybe a dozen facts on why that story was really stupid, culminating in the press release by Russia that said Putin never flew through Ukraine – it helped I had just written a similar comment to a different person. He just pretended it was not so absurd a theory, and that it could’ve happened. I stopped bothering.

    Since then he has just been getting more and more russophilliac. He pretty much shares anything about Russia nowadays. I don’t even get it. This guy is an atheist, constantly (and rightly) criticizing our country’s religious figures (of increasingly large role in politics) and their ties to our far right. Then he shares “Russia Beyond the Headlines” saying the Russian Orthodox Church is coming to our country, like it’s a good thing, as if they weren’t every bit as reactionary as our country’s own religious figures. He’ll spin anything to talk about Russia. And why? The Russian Federation, in its current form, has SO MUCH in common with these national figures he loves to hate on! Of course, we know why – it’s because “Putin stands against the west”, which apparently is all that matters as far as some people are concerned. Bring the “Putin is the best, Obama is a wuss” memes, we have to share them! Bring the “Russian military is awesome their operations are cool” news, we have to share them! What’s that, Israel or the USA have militaries as well? Let’s share negative news about them! One side is defiance, the other is provocation!

    Got me particularly angry recently seeing him and his followers talking about Syria (same followers once posted a picture of a new airport in North Korea that supposedly proved everything we know about them is propaganda and that they’re actually doing better than the South). Praising Assad and his regime, talking about how Kurdish nationalism was a bourgeois invention trying to break the glorious regime apart. Strongmen in the middle east are necessary, they’re only a dictatorship to avoid falling into chaos! Guess what – our country suffered through a military dictatorship for 20 years with the exact same justification. Want to take a guess how he feels about THAT dictatorship? I mean, I’m strongly against our dictatorship as well, but if we’re talking numbers, they killed, tortured and disappeared way less people than the Assads in Syria, even if we go with the highest versus lowest numbers. Oh, but they’re friends with Russia, they must be right. And speaking of Assad, just try to get these people to compare the whole “Government x Rebels” angle in Syria and Ukraine both. Get them to compare civilian casualties, how the wars began, who’s funding who. THAT is frustrating.

    Phew, I guess I went ranting a bit. It’s just I’ve been reading your website for a while now and it keeps reminding me of exactly how I feel about this, and this particular post felt very relevant. Can we please be consistent? You don’t have to shape your world view on one side being always wrong and whatever is on the other side must be right. Especially when so much of what we constantly talk about applies so very closely to the situations at hand.

  3. gb86

    I apologies in advance for the deficient english grammar you are about to face (English is not even my second language).

    I read your post and it reminds me of something i experimented when i dared to give my opinion in the commentary field of an Facebook-uppload cultural article a swedish newspaper.The piece was about how deceptive the antiimperialist narrative sometimes can be, taking in consideration the complexity of international politics. The starting point in the article was a book written by american journalist Robert Parry(you probably know him) about the narrative made by western media during the coverage of the situation in Maidan, a book that the author of the piece dismissed because it indulges in conspiracy narrative. When i finished to read the article, i realized that its core message provoke some old leftist whose ideological kit could have been tracked back to the time Baader-Meinhof was frightening the world created in West Germany after being integrated in the capitalist west. Those pundits began to argue on the motives the journalist had when he decide to puts his thoughts about the subject in the paper, and immediately come to the “conclusion” that he might be a pro-west pundit and regurgitating arguments about the deep implication of the western democracies (EU and USA) in the Maidan events and the then actual conflict between ukrainian regular troops and “pro-russian rebells”.When I committed the mistake to make them listen to their reason, one of them could not take the heat and decide to answer with an article from nothing more and nothing less than a link from Russia Insider. I do not really remember what i answered to my dialectical antagonist, but the most bizarre came later. A friend of mine that spend about five or sex years i Russia , learned the language and got a master degree on enginery, started a conversation with me about the article which i posted on my Facebook-feed. Believe me, until now, i cannot really figure out the reason how he interpreted the article as being about the “other side of the story “, than he were influenced by a putinist worldview.

    Something that made me react was when you described in your post the affinity western radical leftist feel for identity politics , while forgiving the most egregious examples of racism, sexism, homophobia, or wealth inequality so long as the regime in question is “opposed to Western imperialism.” In my opinion, i deem the labelling of “identity politics” unfair and wrong (the right name is Intersectionality as well as i know). Personally i do not see the phenomena you illustrate in your post (it makes me think if Sweden is relative safe despite our current political situation) when racism, feminism and wealth inequality are discussed. I am aware about the fact that discussions about those topics in the two Facebook-groups in which i am a member does no reflect the whole reality on internet. However, i have not seen that grade of relativism where pundits of intersectionality praise or defend dictatorial regimes or reactionary practices just for the sake of being oppose western imperialism respektive western values. Moreover, Class and economy are are not completely excluded in discussions regarding for example repression against different minorities. About call-out-culture, i do not have so much about to say than it can be fruitful when not only exposing derogatory attitudes against women, racial ans sexual minorities and disadvantaged workers (wealth inequality), but also addressing the root of this (capitalism).I do recognize it can be very problematic if it just stay in the exposing phase and being use as a way just to humiliate people and not coming to a productive point.

    Another subject i thought about, is if all the individuals that oppose western imperialism are in fact leftists. Expressing one`s disgust about western imperialism does not necessarily mean opposition against economic exploitation, encouraged corruption and social unrest. Critic against the west can also coincide with moral right-winged conservatism. I remember a Facebook-thread on RT were people were discussing an article related to underage girls getting pregnant, after being molested and raped by male relatives(i think it was in El Salvador). The topic of abort arouse and soon one of the debaters start a rand about how abort was actually a western imperialist instrument to weaken Latin America(this happen in the Spanish-language version of RT). I think also that people (mostly americans) that regard western imperialism with disgust , do so inspired by ethics than Marxism. For example, Noam Chomsky, Oliver Stone and Abby Martin are opposed to american foreign policy but no one of them seems to label themselves as marxists or leftists .

    Anyway, a good post as always!

    1. Jim Kovpak Post author

      I should have guessed. It did sound a little like concern trolling, which is common in America as well. S.E. Cupp is a good example of this.

  4. Murica Hell Yeah

    This is a really good well though through article. I think that fundamentally you get it (and don’t think that I’m a Fox news stooge either). I notice that there is something fishy about the modern variety of the left. It has become rabid and foaming at the mouth, ready to jump on *anything* that will undermine western civilization. So WTF right? They just be *stupid* right? Maybe I’m listening to too much Fox news but I have to say I think there’s actually some kind of focused campaign, partly helped by infiltration of western leftists to cause as much shit as possible and even, maybe, try to bring about violent change. Sounds like a bunch of communist revolutionary propaganda to me.


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