Hang on for the ride, folks; this will be a long one.
It isn’t just nostalgia for my younger days that makes me cynical about contemporary “left/right” politics. Neither is it the old saying, attributed to Clemenceau, that “He who is not a Socialist at 20 has no heart; he who is not a Capitalist at 40 has no head” – hell, I was always an Anarchist. No, it’s a sharp nose for hypocrisy and a clear memory of not-so-ancient history.
When I was in college, never mind how long ago, the difference between “liberal” and “conservative”, between “socialist” and “reactionary”, and between “communist” and “fascist” was sharp and clear. (Even then, we noticed that the extremes of both political directions curled around and met each other, nearly alike in attitudes and tactics. It’s no coincidence that this is when the Libertarian movement began.)
In simple terms, the “left” was for civil rights and racial equality, for feminism and Gay rights and gender equality, fiercely for the Bill of Rights, for separation of church and state, against anti-Semitism and pro-Israel, against the war and very suspicious of Russia, China, and the Arabs. They also believed in the basic goodwill of government, and assumed that if they could only persuade a big-enough government to do the right stuff, all our sociopolitical problems would be solved. They did have a vague notion of “globalism”, the old Progressive ideal of “All men are the same, the whole world around”, and that the ideal future would have a happy unified world under a single benign government, assumed to be the UN. They didn’t spend too much time with that idea, though, being primarily concerned with immediate reforms.
When it came to tactics, the “liberals” were meticulous in keeping what Dr. King called “the moral high ground”. They’d spend hundreds of hours discussing the ethics, as well as the effectiveness, of their proposed actions – always aware that everything they did in public was intended to persuade the undecided to the morality of their cause. They were very aware that the further left anyone got from their position, the less s/he cared about the ethics of tactics. The “liberals” also had the advantage of being serious intellectuals who put high value on art – all the arts – which gave them a tactical advantage on persuasion; they could effectively inject their attitudes into everything from theater to popular songs.
The “right” then ranged from “conservatives” to shameless reactionaries, but was undergoing some serious changes thanks to the war, Barry Goldwater and Ayn Rand.
The reactionaries were blatantly anti-Civil Rights and distinctly militarist, racist, sexist, and religiously biased – only Christians allowed, and preferably Protestants. They were also furiously pro-war, anti-labor-union, plainly class-biased, hysterically anti-communist-or-anything-like-it, and were very much pro-government – right up to the point where governments interfered with businesses. They were also distinctly anti-intellectual and suspicious of art and artists. Their tactics were fairly simple and straightforward: entice money from sympathetic oligarchs – particularly in the military-industrial complex – use it to purchase controlling influence in the mainstream media, and campaign for likewise-reactionary political candidates. And the occasional lynch-mob or police brutality was carefully ignored.
But there were strong cross-currents running. Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged”, published in the 1950s, had been a steady best-seller since, second in sales only to the Bible, and her philosophy of “Objectivism” had quietly attracted millions – particularly among the young and intelligent. It was at this time that Young Americans for Freedom – the first nascent libertarian group -- took off on college campuses across the country. Their inspiration was about half Rand and half Barry Goldwater, whose “Conscience of a Conservative” helped redefine “conservatism” in years afterward. Goldwater was called a “maverick” then, but his definition of “conservative” would have made him a Libertarian just a few decades later.
Bear in mind that only a few years earlier the southern reactionaries – “Dixiecrats” – had finally figured out that the Democrat Party was (a century later!) no longer the opposition to Abraham Lincoln, and they deserted en masse to the GOP. This had not done the Republicans any good, for it shifted the GOP severely into the reactionary camp – and its reputation likewise. That was the real reason that Goldwater lost the election to LBJ. And LBJ, despite his own political leanings, signed the historic Civil Rights Act.
The mood of the voters had been shifting away from the reactionary position ever since World War Two, wherein Blacks, women, and other minorities had proved themselves in the war effort – in full view of everyone. The revelations of the Nazi genocide won national sympathy for Jews (which neo-Nazis and Arabs have resented ever since), and the scientific advances during the war put anti-intellectualism in bad odor. The necessary awareness of other countries involved in the war put paid to isolationism, as did the growing Red Scare – and the sensible opposition to it. The reactionary right lost ground steadily, and by the time of the Vietnam War it was a visible minority. The GOP was forced to scramble for a reasonable position between the dying reactionaries and the perturbing Libertarians. The solution Republicans came to was an uneasy balance of “socially somewhat Liberal, fiscally Conservative”, which made them acceptable enough to elect a few presidents in the decades that followed.
Meanwhile, the Libertarians quietly but steadily gained ground. They created a formal Libertarian Party in Colorado, in 1971, and managed to get it on the ballot in all 50 states by 1981. It has remained the only viable 3rd party in the US ever since, winning local and occasional state offices, and struggling against both mass shunning by the news media and repeated co-optation attempts from the rest of the political Right. When the 2016 election campaigns left many Americans disgusted with both the major parties, the LP gained enough sympathizers – and enough votes – that the news media finally agreed to notice their existence and even give them a few opportunities to air their opinions to the larger public.
Likewise meanwhile, the political Left had progressed by quite visible leaps and bounds. The “counter-culture” of the ‘60s spread to the mainstream culture, mostly through quality work in the performing arts, all during the ‘70s and well into the ‘80s. Nixon’s scandal did the GOP no favors politically, and Jimmy Carter’s economic ineptitude did the Democrats no harm – until the Iran hostage crisis. Voters elected Reagan primarily because they knew his militaristic attitude scared the Iranian government -- into releasing the hostages and backing away from its Jihadist ambitions as soon as he was elected. His cunning use of economic warfare ultimately succeeded in bringing down the Soviet Union – which also got Bush Sr. elected on his coattails – but Democrats reliably took the majority of lesser offices, particularly at the state level. American voters clearly wanted enough militarism to keep foreign enemies discreet, and enough sturdy capitalism to keep the economy healthy, but on all other social and political matters they liked the Liberal positions, particularly of racial and religious equality. This was when federal bureaucracies and various police departments began accepting large numbers of Black applicants, assorted ethnic holidays became fashionable, and Women’s Lib, and then Gay Lib, became legitimate and popular. And after one term, voters dumped Bush for Bill Clinton in ’92.
But something else had also been launched in 1971. Two Alabama lawyers – Joe Levin and Martin Dees -- impatient with the slow implementation of the Civil Rights Act, founded the Southern Poverty Law Center for the express purpose of using lawsuits to enforce civil rights and “fighting hate and bigotry and seeking justice for the most vulnerable members of society” – according to Levin, who remained a devout civil-libertarian all his life.
Dees may have had other motives in mind. He had defended KKK chapters just ten years earlier, but clearly saw that the power of the reactionary Right was fading fast and there was no more money in defending it. When he switched sides to help found the SPLC, he became the group’s chief fundraiser, gaining financial support from every Liberal/leftist group he could find. Recruiting the famed civil rights activist Julian Bond to be president of the group was a real coup, granting the SPLC fame and respectability enough to open wallets everywhere, give the SPLC a multi-million-dollar war chest, and recruit lots of eager young Liberal law-students.
I recall that when I first encountered the SPLC, back in the late ‘70s, I sensed that there was something ‘off’ about them. Perhaps it was my ex-SDS/IWW sensitivity to the danger of Parlor Pinks, but I sensed that they were entirely too rich and too Marxist to have the real interests of the people at heart, and I warned my fellow Wobblies to keep away from this bunch. They, having the same sensibilities, did.
To be fair, the SPLC did use their pet tactic well. With crushing multi-million-dollar lawsuits on behalf of the victims, the SPLC did succeed in ruining a lot of the really blatant and vicious White-supremacist groups, smashed most of the legal and economic survivals of the Jim Crow laws, fought landmark cases for equality of women and Gays and the disabled, and contributed to the near-extinction of the Ku Klux Klan. Through their well-funded research, they assembled probably the nation’s biggest list of what they labeled “hate groups”. This impressed the FBI, which had not before then made any comprehensive list of its own, and so came to depend on the SPLC for its identification of “hate groups”.
Unfortunately, the SPLC began defining as “hate groups” (or just “haters”) as anyone to the political right of Eisenhower (who, being safely dead by then, couldn’t complain). That came to include anybody criticizing policies the SPLC liked -- and with growing victories, money, and prestige, the SPLC’s tastes grew more demanding and extreme. Former members began quietly dropping out. Co-founder Joe Levin retired from SPLC in 2006 and went into private practice, where he wound up defending three southern universities in turn against federal govt. desegregation suits, arguing for mitigation of Affirmative Action decrees – and SPLC denounced their old civil libertarian and Black academics who agreed with him for “Appeasing the Beast”.
By then SPLC was provably the wealthiest civil-rights group in America, with reported assets over $200 million, and the IRS began asking discreetly about what Dees was doing with its wealth – besides purchasing for himself a 200-acre estate complete with tennis courts, pool and stables. Undaunted, the SPLC expanded its “hate list” to include anyone criticizing immigration policies, Muslim fundamentalists, abortion laws, Gay Liberation, federal govt. overreach, and gun control. At one point the SPLC considered adding the NRA to its list of “hate groups”, but backed off upon finding that the NRA had more funds, lawyers, and sympathizers than it did.
In expanding its “hate list” the SPLC actively inflated the numbers of the moribund Ku Klux Klan. Although the FBI noted that the KKK’s membership was less than 2000 nationwide, with at least 10% of those being police spies, the SPLC loudly claimed that there are 130 KKK groups in the US – and used this figure to campaign for funds. In fact, the KKK was so small and fractured that it could no longer pay the salary of its last kingpin, David Duke. As a result, Duke began hiring himself out as a political “spoiler”; for an appropriate fee, he would make speeches praising various public figures so as to make them look like “White Supremacists”, tarnish their reputations and hopefully torpedo their careers. There is no conclusive evidence that the SPLC ever directly hired Duke for that purpose, but that tactic would have dovetailed perfectly with their fundraising efforts.
Worse, there is spotty but persistent evidence that “unknown sources” have been funding KKK and “alt-right” recruiting efforts, as well as outright hiring of “crisis actors” – if not actual agents provocateurs -- to play the part of “neo-nazis” in public, so as to make them look more numerous and dangerous than they really are.
Note that at roughly the same time the FBI had perfected the ancient tactic of provocateering into an elaborate system, typified by the CoIntelPro campaign originally aimed at the student civil rights movement. It later used the tactic successfully against the National Organization of Women, using the “Judas goat” Andrea Dworkin. The SPLC soon became aware of the tactic, and studied it thoroughly. It has not, however, made any public comments about the government’s use of that tactic in the years since. Bear that in mind. Also consider the career of one Jason Kessler, former “Occupy” activist, who dropped out of sight for a few years only to suddenly reappear as the organizer of Richard Spenser’s “alt-right” protest in Charlottesville. I believe we can add to the list of suspects for funding that elaborate caper.
At another point, according to an unofficial but witnessed story, the SPLC tried investigating the Libertarian Party as a possible “anti-government hate group”, but retreated in dismay upon meeting an LP officer who was an openly Gay pot-smoker -- and learning the LP’s position on such things. To all accounts, the SPLC has scrupulously avoided saying anything about the LP since. It has also, I notice, avoided any mention of the IWW, or any other activist labor groups. This is worth remembering, since the active labor movement had turned thoroughly against the Communists, Socialists and any brand of Marxist by the end of World War II.
But possibly the greatest effect of the SPLC has been popularizing, and making into law, the concepts of “hate crime” and “hate speech”, concepts which they have spread world-wide. If you think about it, laws based on these concepts are blatantly unconstitutional, because they make an emotion criminal – and thereby they make “thought crime” legal.
In practice, this means that the nature of a crime is determined not by the action itself but by a witnesses’, victim’s, or prosecutor’s subjective impression of the perpetrator’s thoughts and emotions. Evidence for “hate crimes” or “hate speech” can be nothing more than a witness’/victim’s claim of hurt feelings. This can lead to such monstrous perversions of justice as (true case) sentencing a man to 15 years in prison, plus 15 years’ probation, for nothing more than leaving a pound of sliced bacon on the ground in front of a mosque. “Hate speech”, legally, is free speech that hurts someone’s feelings, and depends for its severity on how much that person says their feelings were hurt. This is a very poor basis for legal argument, and it’s hard to see how any rational adult could believe in it.
Unfortunately, the SPLC made a point of spreading its philosophy to a large number of sub-rational sub-adults.
The college-student involvement in the reform movements of the 1960s and ‘70s impressed many with the political effectiveness of college students, and many were the Liberal political activists who went courting college students – and their professors – in the decades afterward. Conservative activists tried too, but proved far less efficient at winning sympathizers. Libertarian activists had better luck, but their hyper-rational philosophy had less appeal among the just-barely-legal-age crowd than the neatly sculpted emotionalism of the Liberals.
Part of this is only natural; kids love to be told that there’s nothing more important than their own feelings. However, most of the blame must be laid on the upper-middle-class style of child-raising, which tended to keep children childish for as long as possible – to reward emotions, downplay “cold” logic, and even assume that facts are mutable. Between1980 and the present day, college graduates with these attitudes had flooded the job-markets of academia, journalism, and even government civil service – simply because other employment required a basic respect for facts and logic (rather than exciting pictures and sensational stories), and because a B.A. in any subject (including Liberal inventions such as “Oppression Studies”) could get you a mid-range job in the state and federal bureaucracies, particularly Welfare.
The result was a fertile recruiting-field on college campuses. The SPLC, with its respectable list of “hate-groups” to target and its promise of lawsuits to back up any attack thereupon, was certainly not the only political group preaching to eager undergraduates, but it was among the most influential. By the 1990s the phenomenon of “political correctness” was widespread and noticeable everywhere.
But power corrupts, and on many fronts – including the intellect. Even as the old reactionary-religious Right was withering away to a rich-but-tiny minority, academic and journalistic standards in America began to sink – and political standards with them. Regular surveys showed that a disturbingly large minority of college graduates were functionally illiterate in English, and total failures in Critical Thinking. Media outlets reduced their fact-checking to a minimum, and real investigative reporters became an endangered species. Government bureaucracies became politicized to the point of sue-able misuse of powers – and funds; the two fastest-growing fields of legal specialties became civil-rights violations (real or imagined) and forcing government agencies to do their jobs, regardless of the politics of the recipients.
Meanwhile, families too poor to send their kids to Liberalized universities sent them to technical “community” colleges – and, if lucky, high schools – instead. There the students learned unflinching facts and logic and saleable technical skills, whereby they could move into the upper working-class or lower middle-class. Even the military, that last bastion of guaranteed employment, had become very technically oriented; again, facts and logic and critical thinking were necessary for job-progress, or even survival.
This difference created an unseen but deep division between the university-educated emotionally-oriented upper middle-class, whose politics were reliably left-wing, and the tech-school educated deadly-practical working-class-to-lower-middle-class, whose politics were all over the map. The growth of the Internet made a wealth of information available to the latter, who made good technical, economic and political use of it. Thus, by 2000, the old standard of class politics had stood on its head; the “bourgeoisie” were now the passionate Leftists, and the “proletariat” were the coolly practical Right-of-center.
The terrorist attacks of 2001 only increased the political divide between them. The practical/working class could see very plainly that Arab culture was the enemy, that too many Arabs/Muslims adored it, and that war between the two was inevitable. The passionate Left collectively threw away its intelligence and pledged allegiance to the poor, misunderstood, innocent Arabs – on the assumption that they couldn’t possibly be so upset as to commit terrorism if they hadn’t been “oppressed” beforehand. This led to some incredible intellectual back-bends (eagerly assisted by assorted Arab propaganda outlets) – such as opposing all wars (even those fought for survival) while encouraging civilian violence, blaming Israel and America for all the world’s troubles, claiming that the “White race” is inherently evil, hating Jews, fiercely attacking freedom of speech and the rest of the Bill of Rights as well, giving preferential treatment to Arabs and other Muslims, and elevating other cultures above existing law – even when the practices and foundations of those cultures are directly opposed to the rights and liberties which the earlier Left fought so long and hard to win.
Eventually even the Left’s bellwether, the SPLC, realized that it had created a monster that it couldn’t control – organizations like Antifa, BLM, and offshoots of the Muslim Brotherhood ranting and rioting in public. In particular, the FBI stopped using the SPLC as a reliable information source.
At about the time that officers of Black Lives Matter began demanding in public that all White people should hand over their “car keys and checkbooks” and then die, the SPLC began adding “Black Separatists” to their list of “hate groups” – and admitting that there were more Black Separatist groups than KKKs, or White Nationalists, or “Anti-Muslims”, or even “General Hate” groups. This is particularly telling when you see that the SPLC considers that: “All hate groups have beliefs or practices that attack or malign an entire class of people, typically for their immutable characteristics.” This is an awfully broad definition, since it would also cover groups that “hate” child-molesters, sex-traffickers, and other criminal gangs. Also, as the Transgender Movement and the life and career of Michael Jackson have proved, very few characteristics these days are “immutable”. It also still clung to its warning that “Hate group activities can include criminal acts, marches, rallies, speeches, meetings, leafleting or publishing” – which is exactly the same list that the more passionate Leftist groups practice. So the damage was done, and shows no sign of abatement.
This explains such things as the current Left’s adoration of the vicious Linda Sarsour, the government’s longstanding unwillingness to fight real wars to a solid conclusion, and the steady erosion of the Bill of Rights.
It also explains the election of Donald Trump. The practical working class didn’t vote for him so much as they voted against Hillary Clinton, and her promised continuance of the elite-Left agenda. It also explains why the Libertarian Party gained enough popularityu to get increased attention by the media, and a notable increase in votes, despite its naïve attitude toward immigration and foreign affairs. The corruption and excesses of what used to be the American Left have created the very “divisiveness” it now complains about, exacerbating an unspoken but definite class and cultural war.
Indeed, the so-called Left’s hysterical reaction to Trump’s election has revealed its present attitudes for all to see, and the picture is not pretty. Today it’s the so-called Left which indulges in censorship, slander, biased news, racism, religious bigotry, hysteria, anti-intellecutalism, and fascistoid mobbing tactics – even as it calls its opponents “fascist”. It’s the so-called Right which demands freedom of expression and support for the entire Bill of Rights, honors Black achievers like Colin Powell and Dr. Thomas Sowell, demands accurate verification of news media, insists on equal treatment of all religious groups, respects facts and logic, has developed a keen appreciation of the arts – including snarky comedians like Milos Yianopolos, the modern equivalent of Lenny Bruce – and is cautious of its own political fringes.
Just about the only remnants of their political pasts that remain are the Left’s now-obsessive worship of “globalism” and the Right’s respect for the military and the occasional grim necessity of war.
Other than that, the names remain the same but the definitions under them have shifted almost completely.