Ten days ago, in China, President Obama effectively endorsed Colin Kaepernick’s refusal to stand and salute the flag during the national anthem as a protest focusing on a legitimate issue. “I think he cares about some real, legitimate issues that have to be talked about,” he said. And if nothing else, what he’s done is he’s generated more conversation around some topics that need to be talked about.” The President’s statement undoubtedly aroused differing reactions among a divided electorate. I myself was rather taken aback when the President clearly implied that the only Americans likely to be offended by Kaepernick’s refusal to salute the flag would be veterans of the armed services. But I would like to focus on the way the President framed the significance of the quarterback’s protest. His emphasis on a “conversation about things that need to be talked about,” it seems to me, is highly characteristic of most left wing approaches to problems nowadays. Both the Occupy movement, which is having its fifth anniversary next week, and the Black Lives Matter movement, with which Kaepernick is allying himself, have also focused on starting “conversations”—but have not been very successful getting results. Perhaps the time has come to look at the history of these ideas and to re-examine this approach.
During the middle decades of the twentieth century, left wing movements were intensely practical and focused on specific goals. Organized labor vastly increased its membership, continually fought for higher wages and better benefits, and became one of the most important political forces in the nation. The civil rights movement used lobbying and the courts to fight lynching and segregation in education, and then, in the late 1950s and early 1960s, turned to direct action, including boycotts, sit-ins, and demonstrations, to overcome segregation in public places. Feminists initially focused on abortion rights, which they secured, and the adoption of the Equal Rights Amendment, which they could not. In recent years the gay rights movement has made enormous gains by focusing on gay marriage and the right to serve in the military. Occupy, however, came and went without any concrete achievements to its name, and Black Lives Matter has not been able to make progress on any specific demands. Why not?
Both of these movements, it seems to me, suffer from diseases of the 1960s. The protests of that era targeted authority of all kinds—within colleges and schools, in the government, and in relations between the sexes. Unfortunately, their prejudice against authority extended to the idea of recognizing any leaders within their own movements, which was a big reason why so many of them splintered and quickly disappeared. Occupy was dominated by the same prejudice against specific leaders who could make and implement decisions, and the same belief that every member needed a voice in every decision. These rules made meetings very cumbersome and effective action, as it turned out, almost impossible. Black Lives Matter has also proudly distinguished itself as “not your grandfather’s civil rights movement,” meaning that it will never be identified with one (probably male) leader and will generally eschew hierarchy. The idea that genuine leftism must rely on the spontaneity of the masses is not new. It was the idea of certain left-wing socialists and Communists more than a century ago such as Karl Liebknecht and Rosa Luxemburg in Germany, of Georges Sorel in France, and of the anarchists whom George Orwell encountered during the Spanish Civil War. None of those thinkers or movements, however, scored any significant successes. The major achievements of the left during the twentieth century belonged to organized revolutionary movements such as the Communist parties of the Soviet Union and China, or to movements that worked within the politics of established democracies like the British Labor Party.
For half a century the American left has been obsessed with its own moral rectitude and with the idea that when an abuse is identified, it should automatically be corrected. “Conversation” has replaced the earlier mantra “confrontation,” but many seem to assume that simply talking about racism, sexism and homophobia will either convince or shame those standing in the way to give way. And indeed, this approach has been extraordinarily successful in some sectors of American society, particularly throughout academia and in the newsrooms and editorial boards of our most distinguished newspapers. But the approach has been a failure in the real world, largely because movements like Occupy and BLM seem to have so much trouble deciding exactly what they want and, more importantly, where to go to try to get it. Consciousness raising only works among like-minded people. The moral certainty and self-righteousness on the left has been paralleled by the growth of resentment and resistance on the right. Hillary Clinton, to be sure, talks on many issues in the language of the cultural and political left, but she is now faced by the most rabid right wing candidate in the history of the United States—and the outcome of the election remains in doubt with seven weeks to go.
Colin Kaepernick’s protest has aroused a great deal of emotion, both pro and con. It states, correctly, that something is very wrong in our criminal justice system and the relationship between our criminal justice system and minority communities, but it says nothing about what could or should be done about it. President Obama has praised Kaepernick for raising the issue, but although he is commendably trying to free more non-violent offenders from federal prison in his remaining time in office, he has not proposed any sweeping reforms of the criminal justice system. The protest, I am afraid, is simply another segment in our long-running national reality show, in which both sides continually posture while no one seriously addresses issues. Today’s activists want to move beyond the patterns of the past—but the past shows that organization, goals, and focus—not simply conversation—bring about results.