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AFTER PITTSBURGH: HOW WE DEFEAT THE HARD RIGHT

Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons
Photo by Brad Fagan (IMG_0119) [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

October 31, 2018

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

 

In August 2017, over 40,000 Bostonians marched on Boston Common to tell a small gaggle of nearly incoherent hard-right louts that they were not welcome in our city. Especially in the wake of a white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, that resulted in the murder of a left-wing counterdemonstrator by a young Nazi. At the time, I was concerned that by drawing too much attention to the tiny affair, protestors risked giving the local hard right more power than they deserved—and helping them grow their numbers in the process. But I understood why so many people reacted so viscerally to it, and supported their decision to call what turned out to be one of the largest political actions of any kind in Hub history against it.

 

With Saturday’s slaughter of 11 older parishioners at a Jewish house of worship in Pittsburgh by a heavily armed, raving anti-Semite—literally screaming for the death of all Jews—we’re not precisely entering a new era. After all, we’ve seen a number of mass shootings by the same kind of white guy in the brief period since Boston’s big protest against hate. Including the killing of two African-Americans in a Louisville, Kentucky Kroger supermarket just three days before the Steel City incident. But events are starting to look increasingly similar to the dawn of an earlier era. The Nazi era. And any moderately well-educated adult that failed to hear the shattering glass of Kristallnacht in the bullet casings that hit the floor of the Tree of Life synagogue as the killer pumped lead into the bodies of innocents has learned precisely nothing from history.

 

So, I think it would have been appropriate for Bostonians from all walks of life to call an even larger rally this week than last year’s to take up an old slogan, “Never Again,” in memory of the honored dead of Pittsburgh. And to put all latter-day Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists on warning that we will not allow them to take control of Boston, or Massachusetts, or the United States.

 

However, the Red Sox won the World Series the day after the attack. Making it less likely that the kind of rally we need—a show of force that would inspire people around the nation—will happen here in this critical moment.

 

Which is a pity. Since this is one killing spree that we can absolutely blame President Donald Trump for instigating with his disgusting and completely fallacious attacks on the caravan of asylum-seeking refugees fleeing government persecution in countries like Honduras and poverty in general.

 

As Adam Serwer put it in an excellent Atlantic piece (“Trump’s Caravan Hysteria Led to This”), “The Tree of Life shooter criticized Trump for not being racist or anti-Semitic enough. But with respect to the caravan, the shooter merely followed the logic of the president and his allies: He was willing to do whatever was necessary to prevent an ‘invasion’ of Latinos planned by perfidious Jews, a treasonous attempt to seek ‘the destruction of American society and culture.’


“The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election.”

 

So Trump needs to pay a political price for his propagandizing in the service of increasing the right-wing turnout on the sixth of November. And a lot of big protest rallies—perhaps galvanized by a successful Boston action—right before one of the most important elections in decades would have gone a long way toward exacting that price where it hurts him the most.

 

But it was not to be this time around. Which is OK. As there is a lot more that people of good conscience can do to deflect the rise of the hard right before they become strong enough to take more direct and long-term control of significant American political institutions… and start legally murdering their opponents in great numbers. Because if there’s one attribute that Nazis and fascists and white supremacists have in common, it’s a thirst for the blood of their many enemies. As such, they must be defeated politically—and defeated definitively—by people from across the compassionate political spectrum to forestall that possibility from ever becoming a reality. While they are still a small force relative to the population.

 

Before I continue, though, let me just lay out a couple of ideas that are important to any discussion of defeating the hard right.

 

First, the perpetrators of the recent wave of deadly attacks on African-Americans and now Jews (and other targeted groups) aren’t crazy. Sure, they have psychiatric issues. Lots of people do. But they’re generally quite clear about what they’re doing and why. And they are not lone nuts. They are soldiers. Even if they’re not members of a hard-right organization.

 

Second, the attacks these killers are carrying out are not random. Even if, as with the recent massacre, some of them seem to be done on the spur of the moment. They are part of a strategy. The killers are not generally the authors of that strategy. Hard-right leaders are. The strategy and the tactics that comprise it are laid out every day across thousands of channels of communication—most obviously social media discussions. The basic directive of the strategy is to attack “soft targets”—unarmed people who are members of groups deemed enemies by Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists. To kill as many of those people as possible. To spread fear in those enemy communities and beyond. And, most importantly, to encourage an armed response from those communities and/or their allies.

 

Allies like young left-wing activists who sometimes put on on masks and try to defend vulnerable communities. Often called “antifa” rightly or wrongly. And demonized by right-wing pundits up to and including Trump as some kind of massive army ready to undermine the very foundations of our republic. Which is purest fantasy. But absolutely a truism in current right-wing circles… be they hard or soft.

 

The goal of the strategy is to trigger a civil war. Which the hard right—being armed and trained and having infiltrated the military and many police forces for decades—fully expects to win. Once it’s won, democracy can be replaced with dictatorship. And the bloodbath they so desire can begin.

 

To stop that strategy from succeeding, the overwhelming majority of Americans and immigrant residents that are not on the hard right must out-organize them politically. And here we arrive at the work that everyone can do. Whatever walk of life you come from. Whatever your background is. Whatever age you are.

 

Study. If you don’t have a basic grounding in history and politics relevant to the fight at hand, get one. If you’re rusty, brush up. We have lots of great public libraries and bookstores in the Boston area. Use them. Look for works by academics and researchers recognized as experts in their fields. If you need suggestions, ask librarians and bookstore clerks. If you need formal instruction, and you’re not a student, enroll in courses at adult education centers and community colleges. If that’s too expensive—or as an adjunct to coursework—form study groups with friends, read key texts together, and discuss them.

 

Organize. Either start or join political groups that are committed to democracy, human rights, the rule of law, and tolerance for the broad array of political, economic, religious, social, and cultural views that don’t involve slaughtering other people. If you’re launching one in your community, and you already started a study group, you can build your organization out of that. It’s also great to start chapters of existing organizations. Definitely don’t “reinvent the wheel” unless you have to. Whether you decide to work with an existing political party or start your own is purely up to you. Political groups can do a lot of useful work outside of political parties. You can also both join or start a political party and join or start extraparliamentary political organizations. Just don’t spread yourself too thin.

 

Educate. You’ve got some knowledge. You’re doing political organizing. Now get out there and talk to as many people as you can. Hold public educational events on important issues of the day. In election years, hold candidate forums and panel discussions on referendum questions. The important thing is that you don’t just do this in neighborhoods already friendly to your core ideas. Go to places that the harder edge of the right wing is known to dominate. Talk up your positions. Spread the word that there is more than one way to think about the world. Also, work with democracy-friendly media outlets (like BINJ and DigBoston). Write opinion pieces for publication. Get on talk shows. Start your own news outlets if necessary. At least a blog and a podcast can be a great start. Use social media judiciously. Build an audience carefully, and encourage its members to join your organization.

 

Debate. This is key. Constantly engage in debate with the broad right wing. You may not exactly win hearts and minds every time. But you may very well stop run-of-the-mill conservatives from turning into hard-right fanatics. You will also learn more about their ideas in conversation than most anything you could glean from your readings. And you will learn to better express your own ideas through practice under some duress.

 

Mobilize. Defend and expand democracy through direct political action. Hold rallies, marches, and pickets against the hard right. Don’t let vulnerable communities struggle alone. Join with them. Work with them. Meet the threat of violence with determined nonviolence. Then beat politicians that support the hard right at the ballot box.

 

Build. Establish small- and large-scale institutions that enshrine democratic values and make them part of everyday life. Social clubs. Sports facilities. Cultural centers. Institutes. For the long haul.

 

In short, create the more democratic society that you want to live in. Run the hard right to ground with the force of your ideas and the people you mobilize politically. Not with guns. Make it impossible for Nazis, fascists, and white supremacists to find significant audiences for their rhetoric of hate for the foreseeable future. And you will have won.

 

We will all have won.

 

NOTE: Since this article went to press, a rally has been called for tomorrow (Thursday, November 1) at 6pm at the New England Holocaust Memorial next to Faneuil Hall. Boston Shiva: Rally Against Antisemitism and White Supremacy. Full info here: https://www.facebook.com/events/330051917546731/. Check it out!

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

A PROTEST BY ANY OTHER NAME…

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The best way to defeat the ultra right is to stop playing their game

August 15, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

Street protest is a vital part of any genuinely democratic political system. But how and when people choose to demonstrate (or counterdemonstrate) determines the tactic’s relative success or failure. So in a situation like this week’s, when the ultra right is planning to hold a Boston rally in the wake of a similar event that caused the deaths of one left-winger and two cops in Charlottesville, what is the most effective way for the left — led by those political groups that believe in democracy, equality, human rights, and social justice — to grow their ranks while helping stop the reactionary drive for power in its tracks? At least in this corner of the US.

As I see it, there are three possible ways for the left to respond to public actions by right-wing extremists in the current moment. Here’s a quick look at each with my gloss.

1) Lead: Educate and organize for the long haul.

Organizing target: People who already agree with left ideas, and the huge middle ground of fence-sitters who will work with whichever side makes the strongest effort to talk to them.

With this approach, left organizers generally do not respond directly to particular ultra-right actions. Instead, they always seek to set the political agenda in society. To reach out to the vast sea of unorganized folks in a diverse array of communities and engage them in discussion and debate about matters like racism in American society. To build a culture that makes it impossible for the hard right to operate in the open. This option is often misconstrued by more militant left activists as “doing nothing,” but that is far from the case. Winning hearts and minds — especially in suburban communities that the left has failed to pay attention to for decades — is the most important political work of all, because it results in a strong political base and makes better political solutions to societal problems possible. It is also a majoritarian strategy because it seeks to build the largest possible social movement. And it has the added bonus of depriving the ultra right of publicity.

2) React: Hold counterdemonstrations every time the ultra right calls a public action.

Organizing target: The activist left. 
 This approach involves left organizers taking the bait and dropping longer-term organizing work to attempt to blunt ultra-right public initiatives. Which allows the ultra right to dictate both the terms of debate and the terrain of political struggle. Also, in the interest of speed, it forces the left to narrow its outreach to activists that are already pushing for its ideas. If repeated frequently, this option leads away from political solutions to societal crises by leaving power in the hands of the current capitalist duopoly, and it causes the ultra right to be perceived as more powerful than they actually are — since political strength is often judged by the size of a group’s enemies. Thus a rally of a few hundred will be taken much more seriously by many if thousands of people directly respond to it — ironically, assisting the ultra right’s PR and thence helping them to grow rather than shrink.

3) Provoke: Attempt to defeat the ultra right militarily.

Organizing target: The small number of left activists willing to take up arms against the right in this time and place, and the small number of allies who think that it’s a good idea to do so.

This approach involves giving the ultra right what they want most of all: violent street fights. It requires responding to the armed militias organized by the hard right with what amounts to left-wing militias. Which I think is a very bad idea in this place and time. Because it means activist militants must, by default, restrict their organizing to the very small groups of people willing to take up arms against their ultra-right antagonists in any given community. It tends to alienate huge numbers of people who don’t think it’s wise to try to fight fire with fire… and causes people who could have been organized into the left to be disorganized into fence-sitters. It also feeds the fantasy of actually beating the ultra right badly enough that they exit the political stage. Which is a highly unlikely outcome for the simple reason that right-wing militias have a big head start on any left imitators in both armament and training. Plus many militia members have military and police backgrounds, yet very few left-wingers have spent much time in either institution. Giving the ultra right far more allies in the police and military — and therefore in government. With those connections in place, a right-wing government like the Trump administration will certainly use any significant left violence as the excuse for a massive state crackdown on all of the ultra right’s political opponents. And even without such a crackdown, on a practical level, ultra-right recruitment increases every time they get in a street fight. Pursuing this course tends to make them stronger. Because they look badass whether they lose or win. If they lose, that feeds into their claim that “white people are oppressed by ‘Social Justice Warriors.’” If they win, it looks like history is on their side.

And history is definitely not right now. But if the left wants to ensure the victory of the ultra right in this period, pursuing the military option will virtually guarantee it.

That said, my favorite choice is obviously the first one. I hope that local left leaders will take my comments to heart, and that both the right and left will de-escalate their tactics enough to let traditional political activity supplant the looming downward spiral toward violent conflict. Because, if history is any guide, the latter path leads our society to a place we really don’t want to go.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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HOW TO FIND A DECENT PROGRESSIVE ACTIVIST GROUP

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Photo by Chris Faraone

February 6, 2017

BY JASON PRAMAS @JASONPRAMAS

So you went to one of the recent big anti-Trump actions, and you want to become a progressive activist. Not just vote every year or two. Great. But there are dozens of major left activist organizations and hundreds of minor ones working on a host of issues at all levels. Which one to join?

Politics is a minefield. No two ways about it. And the group (or groups) you choose to work with will determine both the course of your life going forward and, in some sense, the fate of the nation. How do you even begin to decide?

I recommend starting with a gut check. What issues are most important to you? Do you want to take on a big fight like getting Trump and his rogue’s gallery of white nationalists out of power? A smaller fight, like expanding public transportation in your region? Or a huge fight, like saving humanity from global warming?

Once you’ve thought deeply about where your political interests lie, search for organizations that are taking on the issues you care most about. Look hard. Do deep web dives. Ask everyone you trust that shares your values. Then ask yourself a series of questions like the following:

1) Is the group run democratically? Far too many activist organizations—especially on the national level—are not. If all edicts in the group seem to come from top officials, and none of the important decisions are made by the members, you’re probably barking up the wrong political tree.

2) Is the group led by elites? Look at the staff, elected officials (if any), and board. Do you see lots of rich people and CEOs? Lots of Ivy League connections? Lots of big (and therefore corporate) foundations? And you’re a progressive and want to rein in corporate power? Find another group.

3) Is the group’s membership and (more importantly) leadership diverse? Do you see people who look like you and a broad array of your friends in the organization? If not, you may want to look elsewhere.

4) Is the group’s agenda transparent or opaque? What does the organization stand for? Is it developing its own positions democratically, or does it seem to be taking marching orders from some unseen higher level? Always look for a clear statement of its politics, values, and action plan—and an indication of who calls the shots in the group. Such information should be front and center in outreach materials, websites, and social media presences. If it’s not, keeping moving.

5) Is the group connected to the Democratic Party? You’ll need to think very carefully about this question, because it determines where you’ll come down in the debate on the future of the American left. Do you want to be connected to the populist left wing of the party? The neoliberal corporate wing of the party (that got the country into the mess we’re in)? Do you want to break with the party and form a better left party? Or join the extra-parliamentary left that doesn’t believe in electoral politics at all? Definitely study before you leap.

6) Is the group purely reactive? Does it engage its members in political discussion and debate, determine a strategy, take action, analyze the action, course correct, and move on to achieve meaningful political change. Or does it follow various dog whistles from powerful societal institutions and various media without really developing its own analysis, and encourage members to endlessly engage in aimless street protest. Eschew, if the latter.

7) Is the group a cult? A loaded question, yes. But one worth thinking about. Political cults do exist. If any organization you approach starts putting super heavy pressure on you to join them, to spend all your available waking hours working for them for free, and to disassociate from your friends and family … run.

Otherwise, if you don’t see a group you like, start your own! In general, keep your head about you and use your common sense. Avoid well-off wannabe revolutionaries, radical chic hipsters, and faux radicals who encourage your mouth to write checks to cops, intelligence agencies, and the military that your ass can’t cash, and you’ll be fine. Have fun fighting the power. And let’s be careful out there.

Apparent Horizon is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director and senior editor of DigBoston.

Copyright 2017 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

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