Note: This is the third part in a series of articles analyzing the problem of sexism on the left. This article was written as a follow-up to the first in this series, which you can read here.
One of the reasons I wanted Jon Ossoff to win his special election last June is because it would shut up the Berners who insist that the only way to win centrist/conservative districts is by running super-left-wing candidates who promise to dole out single payer like candy (even though there’s little evidence that they can win conservative districts on the platform the far left wants). Instead, his loss led us back to the circular firing squad, and once more, to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi getting stuck in the crosshairs.
Now I agree with some of her critics that Pelosi has stuck around too long as House Minority Leader, and that it’s time for a new generation of Democrats to take over the leadership. That said, I am NOT for primarying her or kicking her out of Congress, as she is still an effective legislator and dealmaker whose counsel remains invaluable. But the Berners/alt-left/whatever you want to call them (and of course, I’m not referring to the sensible ones who supported Bernie and then voted for Hillary) are still obsessed with their purity tests, and with initiatives like TYT’s “Justice Democrats.” This explains why Stephen Jaffe, a 71-year-old attorney with no legislative experience, is running for Pelosi’s seat – and the fact that in this Progressive Army article he claims Bernie was “cheated” and that Pelosi is a “neoliberal” is enough to ring my alarm bells.
As I’ve written before, the left is far harder on women and POC than on white dudes, and this pattern repeats itself over and over. It happened with Kamala Harris this week, and Ryan Cooper’s article in The Week about why leftists don’t trust her, Corey Booker, or Deval Patrick is so fraudulent that you wonder what his actual agenda is. My aim with this article isn’t so much to defend these politicians in the face of criticism, since I’ve done that before. My aim is to document the fallout that happened when I wrote the first piece in this series back in May, and how those lessons can help us get out of the infighting the left is currently embroiled in.
When I wrote that piece, I was reacting against something posted by a college friend named Paul (name changed.) He’s a liberal who lived in a notable blue state and grew up in a redder-than-red state. We hung out a bit in college, talking politics, TV, and whatever campus theater we had seen or worked on. But the more I learned about him and the company he kept, the more I moved away from his circle. We graduated a year apart from each other and went our separate ways, only occasionally keeping in touch via Facebook.
Starting in 2015, he became galvanized by the Bernie Sanders candidacy, and wrote many, many statuses and pieces about “the neoliberal establishment.” Those differences in opinion could be ignored easily, but when he did choose to chime in on something that I posted, arguing that pragmatism was the way to go, he couldn’t resist chiming in and sucking up my time with his arguments. Here’s an example of how he chooses to engage, from a Facebook status I posted warning other liberals against attacking Obama for accepting the 400k deal from Goldman-Sachs:
Like a dog with a bone, Paul cannot give up. He argues with people for hours, never conceding his points even when they’re easy to disprove. He “wins” only by exhausting his opponents to the point when you realize he’s just speaking in circles and you can’t get through to him. This is called “spreading,” a technique “that propagates more arguments than an opponent can rebut, forcing the opposing team into a strategic choice of conceding and/or inadequately responding to some positions.” It’s what Donald Trump and his minions do every time they’re interviewed.
On May 4th, the day the House passed the first iteration of the AHCA, he went on his “Primary me Daddy” screed against Nancy Pelosi, a thread that he deleted the day after. But by this point, I had had it up to here. He’d posted condescendingly about Hillary and other Dems before, but this was the first time I’d ever seen him write something that struck me as overtly sexist. On May 5th, I wrote the first article in this series, which, up to that point, was the hardest I had ever written, because I knew Paul would react badly to it. To protect myself, and him, I never mentioned his real name, and I am not about to do it here either, since I believe in respecting people’s privacy.
All day, I feared how he would react. At worst he’d get angry and comment on it, at best he would send me a private message and lead to a constructive conversation. I wasn’t expecting him to change his ways overnight after reading it, but I did hope that he would ask questions about his behavior and how he could improve, and that the dialogue we would have would be a constructive give-and-take.
Instead, he outed himself as the subject of the article and said I had explicitly called him a sexist, even though I had never mentioned his name, nor had I even written the words “Paul is a sexist.”
It was one of the most self-destructive things I have ever seen a person do – a moment akin to the scene in Hamilton when Hamilton writes a pamphlet about his extramarital affair, or, for South Park fans, the classic episode where Cartman leaks a photo of him performing a sexual act on Butters so that nobody else releases it before him.
Nobody had to know the article was about him. As I mentioned before, he had already deleted the status, so only a few people who knew both him and me would have any idea it was about him to begin with. But rather than question me in private, he took his grievance to the internet and made the entire situation about him, if only to get some affirmation that he was not a bad guy.
“You crossed all the lines,” I wrote him (in private) afterwards, “like an alcoholic who reveals his true nature after he’s had too many drinks.” When he said to me that I was the only person who said this about him, I told him that maybe it was because everybody else had just given up, and blocked him.
It was a rough experience to go through, but a valuable one, because if we are to defeat the militant leftists who think they have all the answers, most of which involve tearing down anyone who doesn’t cater to a specific set of demands, we have to let them run their mouths off and hoist themselves on their own petards. Engaging with them can be tiring, but the more we let them talk, the more likely they are to contradict themselves, leaving us openings to question them. The more we keep doing that, the more we can ultimately reach them, because I think that, deep down, these people are afraid to know more about themselves, and the barriers they put up. Like the angry Misfit in Flannery O’Connor’s masterpiece, “A Good Man is Hard to Find,” they will react violently when confronted by the truth. But once they feel attacked, they never, ever let it go – therefore, the more we keep track of their contradictions, the more likely we can stymie them in an argument and get them to the place where they might be in a position to listen to us.
Keep on talking, extreme left-wing bros. When you fall off the wire, you may think it will hurt. But it doesn’t have to.
Jeremy Fassler is a writer and journalist living in Brooklyn, New York.