Liberal Alarmism


Kraftwerk in Kiev, 2008. Photograph by Andriy Makukha

by Justin E. H. Smith

The liberal center-left in the US has never been more alarmed. The anti-liberal left has never been cooler. By ‘cool’ here I mean that its members have honed a mocking and casual disdain of the center-left’s alarmism, with a massive proliferation of memes and jokes about the illusory character of the evidence for Russian interference in the US elections, for example. It is an affected coolness that seems to belong to the same genus as Vladimir Putin’s own sweat-free and poker-faced public appearances, as for example in the disgraceful image of him sitting with Angela Merkel, allowing his large dog to wander freely around the dog-phobic German chancellor, as she sits in evident discomfort. This very image was recently posted on social media by the prominent Clinton critic Doug Henwood. The reaction among his followers was overwhelmingly one of gleeful mockery of Merkel, for being afraid.

Is there anything progressive about this stance? Anything liberatory? It is such a common attitude among the social-media-based left it would be hard to know how to go about cataloguing all its expressions. There are certainly more extreme expressions of it than Henwood’s. I have seen one German man’s social media profile, consisting in a long stream of hammers-and-sickles, Lenin, Putin, and doctored images of Hillary Clinton making her out as a malign demon. He has written in favour of Trump’s exclusion of the New York Times from White House press conferences. The American ‘legacy press’ is clearly biased, he thinks, against Russia in particular, and its implication in the capitalist system, its need to turn a profit, prevents it from ever telling the truth. We may legitimately agree that the profit system corrupts the media, and that neoliberalism is not the best humanity can do. But when we detect our interlocutor understands ‘neoliberal’ as having significant semantic overlap with ‘globalist’, we might start to worry, as I have, that the antiliberal left has absorbed some of the tropes of Trumpism. It is considered the height of naïveté to defend what is often called the ‘horseshoe’ view of political ideology, the idea that at its extremes the left and the right ends of the political spectrum begin to approach one another. But honestly, how else are we supposed to make sense of the far-left memes revelling in ironic beheadings, ironic Soviet tanks, ironic gulags, as anything other than the mirror image of the alt-right’s Pepe-with-swastika-armband? How else are we to make sense of the situation in which a tweet from Trump himself perfectly sums up what our friends on the antiliberal left are saying?


There are calmer expressions than Henwood’s, too, of the cool admonition to the liberal center-left not to panic. For example, while I admire Keith Gessen very much, I just don’t understand this recent article of his in The Guardian. He delineates seven purported ‘myths’ about Vladimir Putin, only then to end up confirming that many of these myths are at least largely true. In what sense then are they myths? Is it just that we shouldn’t be reciting them even though they are largely true? Or rather that we should be refining our versions of them to eliminate the mythical elements? I’m certainly not going to let up on myths 4 (that he is a KGB agent), 5 (a kleptocrat), and 6 (a killer). As for 7 (is named ‘Vladimir’), of course the claim that this is a myth has to be retracted right away, in order to offer a more careful version of it: that it is a myth that this name has any symbolic importance. I don’t know. My friend Vladimir Tismaneanu has spun some fairly profound observations out of this shared onomastic destiny.

Keith’s main concern is that the hack Putinology he’s describing “seeks solace in the undeniable but faraway badness of Putin at the expense of confronting the far more uncomfortable badness in front of one’s face.” I don’t know. I’m sitting in France right now, and in my face are reports of the National Front’s increasingly plausible rise to power, and also reports of Russia’s keen interest in helping this happen. Are reports of the second sort ‘far away’ while those of the first sort are ‘in front of my face’? That’s a meaningless distinction to me. The Putin regime plainly is interested in destabilising Western European electoral politics, and this interest looks remarkably continuous with the destabilisation that has already occurred in the United States. Should I pretend that France is some self-contained, monadic monde à part? That’s just not how I understand politics, even electoral politics within a single state. I don’t see how the United States is essentially different from France in this regard. I don’t see how Putin’s regime is any less in my face than, say, Hillary Clinton’s or Emmanuel Macron’s policy weaknesses.

The liberals are in alarm mode, declaring that ‘this is not normal’. The anti-liberal left is experiencing a new golden age for the projection of its own coolness. Their message is that in fact this is normal, that Trump is the fulfilment of a long process whose way has been paved by liberals and conservatives alike. Liberals are making a mistake, the anti-liberal left thinks, in taking Trump’s odious personality as any sort of fundamental shift in the basic and chronic odium of American politics domestic and foreign.

‘Cool’ is said both of people who are able to keep their heads in stressful situations, and of people who have access to deeper subterranean trends of which the mainstream remains ignorant. Both senses seem to be in play in most of the left’s dismissals of liberal panic: they are like the aficionados lurking in any musical subculture, who will tell you where the currently popular band got its sound from. Don’t listen to the Rolling Stones, listen to Robert Johnson. Don’t bother with Trump’s over-amped threats to dismantle welfare, go back to Bill Clinton’s lo-fi original. If we protest that we really just happen to enjoy listening to the Stones, or that we are aware of Clinton’s classic austerity hits yet can’t help now but to be preoccupied with the president who is in office, we seem uncool. We seem, if I may borrow some language from the right, positively beta: followers, late-comers, and suckers. We are the Midwestern rubes whose mom has just bought us a Debbie Gibson cassette when our cousins in the big cities are already going to Black Flag shows.

The left is cool, and that’s how many people end up there in the first place. Richard Spencer’s recent declaration of his own fan-boy love for Depeche Mode reminds us how limited the musical-subcultural resources have always been on the other side of the political spectrum. If his knowledge were more encyclopaedic, he probably would have been able to understand that while he is in an a certain sense right — Depeche Mode is ‘white music’, in that it is pop music largely gutted of African influences — this musical purity may be seen more as an experimental and critical response to the music industry’s demand for a distinction between black and white musics, than a celebration of the latter. If we look for example at Depeche Mode’s predecessors in musical whiteness, Kraftwerk, it is hard not to sense that their genius lies in satire: “You want white music?” they seem to be saying. “Well, here you go.” And what you get is a monotonous metronomic beat and a melody that is generated ‘by pressing down a little key’. For the alt-right to miss this satirical dimension of ‘white’ electronic music (even in its derivative expressions in which the satire is unconscious), is, once again, to put its utter ignorance, and indeed uncoolness, on display. It’s all reminiscent of that awful American high school experience with the clueless dorks who think Nietzsche was a Nazi. Some of us move beyond that phase, and it is troubling to say the least to see those who haven’t enjoying significantly greater proximity to political power.

The left is cool, both in the sense of not lapsing into liberal panic, and in the sense of cultivating the political equivalent of disdain for derivative pop music. But politics is not in all respects like music and other fashions. One big difference of course is that what happens in politics matters whether it resonates with us or not. We cannot afford to sit back and mock political developments we don’t like, since these developments are not just styles, but reality. If there is overwhelming evidence that Russia is waging a disinformation campaign to destabilise electoral politics in the US and elsewhere, then it is not the political equivalent of listening to top-40 to acknowledge as much.

There are some social functions, such as wedding parties, where we leave off our ordinary high standards and we dance with abandon to the least cool music in the world: to the Pointer Sisters singing about how excited they are, for example. The only people who refuse, typically, are the most taciturn and defiant teenagers who, in the name of a purist ideal of coolness that they have not yet fully understood let alone mastered, affect an above-it-all air from the sidelines. Anti-Trumpism, I believe, should be the political equivalent of such a social function: in order to defeat the ogre without speech, stalking his subjugated plain, we must be ready to mingle on the dance floor in a way that mixes generations, inclinations, styles, and the widest range of competing visions of what an ideal future would look like. Sitting on the sidelines and mocking the purported ‘alarmism’ of liberals, even when it is grounded in solid evidence, is, wittingly or unwittingly, a species of left Trumpism.

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