The myth of the leftist, feminist, anti-racist, elitist

In an act of what has to be acknowledged as tremendous, though in some respects entirely typical, rich famous male hubris,  Joss Whedon, of comic book and Buffy the Vampire Slayer note, recently gave a talk in which he proclaimed that feminism is a term that he objects to and that he feels should be replaced because, in essence, he does not like it. He does not like it because it is supposedly at variance with his idea that equality already exists as a “natural condition” or for some pseudo-philosophical reasons that are never really clear other than that, frankly, they are rather silly, it must be noted,  coming from a man.

The sheer idiocy of a wealthy straight male (or any male of any kind) telling women how they should frame the language of their own liberation movement, however, did not prevent large numbers of liberal men (and, of course, some women) like CBC Toronto’s Metro Morning host Matt Galloway on air, from gushing over it, thrilled, apparently, to see yet another in a long line of alleged male “feminists” talking down to women about just what it is that they are doing “wrong” that men could tell them how to do better.

Like abandoning the very term feminism for starters.

This would all be Buffy-style darkly humorous were it not for the fact that it is indicative of a far broader problem within both the left and society as a whole.

The problem being that, somehow, the notion has arisen that not only are the people living oppression, like women under Patriarchy, not allowed to frame their own discourse without condescension from those who are actually members of the oppressive group socially, historically and right now, but also that people in struggle for liberation against injustice and fighting systemic oppression are regularly labeled as “elitist” or as part of an “Ivory Tower” for doing so.

Often such resistance is called out as “purity” and as an example of “identity politics” that, apparently, indicates that one is an “intellectual” or “academic” who is out of touch with all of those supposed “salt-of-the-earth” leftists.

There are few better examples than the sad and extreme exuberance and exultation that greeted the BBC interview with Russell Brand that some heralded, rather farcically, as the start of a new social discourse or revolution; a notion so facile that it can only be a comment on the left’s desperation that it would actually be believed by anyone.

Russell Brand is at least as misogynist in his personal conduct as rape anthem “star” Robin Thicke, if not worse in every meaningful real world way, but apparently, for some, making a quasi revolutionary rant on the BBC (that the BBC then promptly shared everywhere, of course) absolves one of having to be held accountable for it.

This is an odd version of leftism.

When, entirely rightly, feminist activists and others pointed out that the notion that one should take inspiration from the ranting of a well established misogynist with a long history of ugly, exploitative and violent behaviour towards women, (by his own acknowledgment), is highly problematic, they were often met with the standard line that they were being “elitist”, “putting identity first” or that they were exhibiting what was an example of “posh” leftism, as if any such thing actually exists.

This came from many of the usual suspects of sexist “leftism”, the allegedly revolutionary exponents of the tired old “class first” line, for example, but it was inherently ridiculous given that they were defending the rather minor, in political terms, outburst of a rich, abusive and atrociously self-indulgent white male that was then widely and wildly promoted by the very media that he had supposedly “bested” and called out on his way to a gig as guest editor of the New Statesman! If it is “elitist” to identify, question and condemn behaviour and opinion like Brand’s towards women, behaviour that reflects centuries of oppressive and violent entitlement and social power, and if it is allegedly counter to the interests of the “left” to do so, then there really is no left.

This is hardly an isolated example. Regularly one hears from pundits and politicians, and certainly not only those on the right, that any number of people are now part of the “elite”. Variously unions, anti-poverty activists, anti-racist activists, people of colour, First Nations and aboriginal peoples, LGBT groups, women and feminists are all commonly described as “special interest” groups, despite the obviously reactionary background to this.

It turns actual elitism on its head.

This is going on, right now, with the entire Rob Ford fiasco (the misreading of which by the Left deserves to be the focus of an entirely separate article from this one). Even here we find not only the right but also many leftists framing the Ford phenomenon as a revolt against “elites”; a notion that is demonstrably false. Never mind that his abusive behaviour to women is constantly overshadowed and even ignored in the discourse.

There are very real elites. Industrial, financial and commercial capitalists are an elite. Hollywood stars, comedians, sports players, etc., are certainly an elite and an almost neo-feudal one in the way that they are fawned over by sycophantic “handlers” and servants. The capitalist managerial class and professional upper middle class, including large numbers of the so-called 99%, are an elite. There are others. Never mind whites and men, the beneficiaries of centuries, and sometimes millennia, of systemic privilege, acknowledged and unacknowledged, spoken or otherwise.

A generation ago, as a part of their assault on the gains of working people, women, people of colour, the LGBT community and others, the reactionary right created all of the terms like “Champagne Socialist” or “latte drinker” that are tossed about in an attempt to turn social relations around and make out leftists, feminists and community activists and liberation theories and movements as the new elites. They made it seem as if talking about the injustices and consequences of systemic oppression was an academic exercise or a function of “privilege”.

It is not. Misogyny, racism, homophobia and poverty are a violent and oppressive reality every single day. These institutions of oppression abuse, violate and kill women, people living in poverty, aboriginal and First Nations peoples and members of the LGBT community daily. They cause tremendous and demonstrable inequality and suffering in the lives of real people. They are not an abstraction, and, unlike Mayor Ford in Toronto, for example, people living under the weight of these oppressions are often not given first chances, let alone second ones.

It is bad enough that these views and terms are to be found within society and the forces of reaction. It is even worse that we use these arguments and terms ourselves in our debates and disagreements within the left. Instead of exposing and combatting institutionalized oppression within our own leftist movements, when using this language or logic of reaction activists who do allow them to continue without being confronted  and minimize their fundamental importance to the struggle for human liberation. Far from “distracting” from the struggle, you cannot have a radical socialist agenda of any meaning without taking a radical stance against all of these oppressions.

No matter what disagreements leftists may have, it is not elitist to fight racism, misogyny or homophobia. It is not elitist to stand for union or worker’s rights. It is not elitist to acknowledge systemic oppression or injustice.

In reality there is no such thing as a leftist or anti-oppression “elitism”. It is a right wing myth.

 

Michael Laxer lives in Toronto where he runs a bookstore with his partner Natalie. Michael has a Degree in History from Glendon College of York University. He is a political activist, a two-time former candidate and former election organizer for the NDP, was a socialist candidate for Toronto City Council in 2010 and is on the executive of the Socialist Party of Ontario.
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  • Henke

    Thank you Michael Laxer for this article and thank you meghan for putting it up here.
    There was a time in my life in which I called myself a left-winger (or radical left even) but I don’t care anymore. While there are many wonderful souls within these groups there are also way to much of the same problems that can be found in the culture at large.
    The problems of the dominant culture (and other patriarchal cultures on this planet) are not solved within the frames of these movements it seems.
    Nowdays I’m aligned with life on this planet and mother earth herself.

    Maybe it sound silly, I don’t know, but I feel that radicals are loosing bigtime upon this planet no matter if we talk radical feminism or radical enviromentalism or any radical understanding.

    • Merrick

      I don’t think radicalism is all bad. To paraphrase an expression I once heard: “Don’t destroy a thing’s angels because of it’s devils.” Everything has it’s time and place. It just needs to be the right scale.

      • Henke

        Oh for sure. I shall make clear that I have nothing against radicalism at all. Radicals are some of the most beautiful people out there.
        Sorry if that didn’t come thru.

        • Henke

          ahh, I missed a whole thing I should have written in the post above 😛

          However, within the radical left movement (but mainly seen in the more mainstream left around here) there is also something disturbing going on which I can’t stand behind.
          Attitudes that I personally find abysmal and nothing but plain bully behavior and I fail to see how such an attitude can be accepted if you truly want an equal world to live in.

  • Well thought out and most appreciated.

  • Hecuba

    Men and their male supremacist system have always proclaimed ‘we are the most oppressed people on this planet.’ Anti-feminist Wheldon (who has no understanding whatsoever of what the politics of Feminism constitute) is repeating what men have always claimed and that is the dominant are the victims and the oppressed are the dominators! Wheldon patronises women or rather he is ‘mansplanning.’

    The dominant are of course men and the oppressed are women. Note that women constitute majority of the human species and groups such as LGBTs and First Nation constitute women too – but as usual men never acknowledge this fact because the issue is always about men and their needs; their rights; their demands.

    Women are not a sub-group or even a ‘special group’ – we are majority of human species and because men cling tightly on to their male power via their male supremacist systems, mens’ lies continue to be repeated ad nauseum that women are ‘a special group!’

    The only ‘special group’ are men because they are not oppressed by their sex unlike women who continue to be viewed by men as non-human.

  • Missfit

    Okay, I didn’t have the patience to listen to the whole video of Joss Whedon. Right from the start, he says ‘I hate feminist’ and you hear loud laughter from the audience. Was this an MRA meeting? I fast forward, and I keep hearing people laughing while I don’t hear anything funny. Why are they laughing? Finally, I didn’t get what was his problem with the word feminist, the only thing I got from the video (through my fast forwarding, I confess) is that he is looking for a word Katy Perry could use, is that it? Sorry, but feminism means something, it is rooted in history and it has goals and there is no reason to change it for those of us who adhere to its principles.

    ‘No matter what disagreements leftists may have, it is not elitist to fight racism, misogyny or homophobia. It is not elitist to stand for union or worker’s rights. It is not elitist to acknowledge systemic oppression or injustice.’ Yes! There is ‘faux leftist’ (Russell Brand is probably one), like there is faux feminism. But ‘elitist’ in these contexts is used as a silencing tactic. It’s like how the term ‘politically correct’ is often used in a derogatory manner. Usually, it is so by people who just want to keep saying sexist, homophobic and racist things without it being pointed out and countered.

  • I don’t think Joss Whedon is an anti-feminist. Yea, I mean, he made Dollhouse. That’s gotta be a bad mark on anyone, feminism-wise. But apart from that, I haven’t read any indication that he’s anti-feminist or even not pro-feminism. I don’t think he’s an expert on the subject and got some things wrong, but so do most people.

    I find his reasoning on the term “feminist” to be logical as far as it goes, but it is ultimately false. His argument is that the very word “feminist” implies that sex equality is not a natural state, in the same way that the necessity of communism and socialism implies that economic equality did not occur naturally. But insofar as the anthropological data goes, it seems very likely that sex equality was actually the natural state of man until the rise of Patriarchy around 5000 BCE. Either way, this is a technical argument which Whedon, who is I assume not an expert in anthropology any more than I am, should not be making. He has no reason to assume that the fact that we have an -ism term for something means it’s not a natural state. That’s a fallacious argument. But I don’t think that alone makes him anti-feminist.

    • I made myself listen to his whole spiel. Technically, he is not anti-feminist; that would mean he actively opposes equality. However, I think there is a reason he dislikes the word feminist that has nothing to do with the reasons he gave; I think the word makes him squirm because he does not understand the need for a feminist movement. He strikes me as post-feminist; in a way, he reminds me of President Obama, who has benefited greatly from feminist support, but does not think he owes feminists anything substantial in return. So the President can expect mainstream feminists to pronounce him 100% pro-choice, despite his broken promise to make signing the Freedom of Choice Act a top priority, replacing that with his promise to keep the Hyde Amendment in force so he could get Obamacare passed. And Mr. Whedon can blather about why he hates the word feminist, and expect mainstream feminists to laugh and applaud, because after all, he believes women are people!

      • billy bob

        “Technically, he is not anti-feminist; that would mean he actively opposes equality.”

        so, all feminism in all cases is about equality? historically definitions of feminism have related to the struggle for equality of women with men, but there is nothing essential about the movement (which is in fact many movements) that requires that feminism should be about equality. If what is important is the achievement of equality for men and women why should there be any need for any other term. There is such a need because the aims and limits of feminism may or may not be co-terminous with the achievement of equality. Indeed if one removed any reference to equality whatsoever you could still have a thing called feminism, technically….

  • billy bob

    there seems to be agreement on this page that women are an oppressed class and that they are oppressed by the class of men. I emphasise class because that does seem to be the politics in question i.e. at the risk of generalising the feminism on display here relates to a gender as class theory of oppression, where are a permanently disadvantaged group. If that’s not the case, and there is greater diversity of analysis on offer here, I am sure you will correct me, but my impression from visiting this page and a few others as an outsiders (and not necessarily as a fellow traveller you will understand) is that there is a degree of homogeneity, at the editorial level but also in the comments (I am a lazy reader so I really am just reporting an impression and not making a strong claim). The problem I have with this as someone who – as you may well guess – has limited sympathy with (but great interest in) the left feminist line is that I see only a commitment to this analysis as a permanent or semi-permanent state of affairs. The writer of the article – which is a fabulously nutty polemic which I find stimulating even as I disagree with its every sentiment – is a historian, but a historian without any apparent sense that history is in a process of movement, i.e. that relations between men and women, at the institutional, cultural & personal level are – are rapidly changing (however they are changing), yet marxist feminists (damn I spat it out) are committed to an analysis which seeks to deny or play that reality down. I don’t expect this will go down well – but I find michael’s article to be typical of males who feel they have to out-femme-the women in terms of demonstrating credentials. He makes some good points about the right’s characterisation of leftist’s as elites and as champagne socialists. But there are two arguments contained in that jibe. One is the suggestion of hypocrisy – living a well-heel life while claiming to care about the poor / workers / women etc – but the other is about power and influence. Leftist, marxist and feminist academics for instance are going to live privileged, professional and (depending where they work) often very well-paid lives. Their influence is increasingly mainstream, which is presumably what they would want (everybody wants to have more rather than less influence) yet I sense this unease with any kind of success, any kind of mainstreaming. The left doesn’t know how to enjoy the success it now enjoys, the influence it now exercises; the fact that as the right wing seek to point out that for no small part the academic elite at least really is left wing and feminist. In other words your ‘ideology’ seems to involve a commitment to a kind of permanent revolution based upon an equal commitment to denying progress made, denying the shifting sands of gender relations even as you help to shift those sands. Now here’s a little thought experiment for you, just suppose you woke up in an alternate universe where all those MRA activists were right, and it was men who were oppressed and women who were doing the oppressing (steady on its a thought experiement), my suspicion is that your commitment to a ‘men on top’ analysis would remain unshakeable. In other words your gender class theory is a credo like the type that the young have to repeat in church at confirmation. My suspicion is that such a permanent analysis of how men relate to women means you have no means of adapting to changed circumstances but will continue to force the world into a pre-existing mould. Separately and as you may guess I don’t kindly to people criticising russell brand. leave him alone. He is a beautiful and sensitive soul who loves women as I could only wish.

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