An Open Letter to Keith Preston
It was suggested to me some time ago that my blogroll linkage to Keith Preston, of the Attack the System blog, placed me in the uncomfortable position of endorsing someone whose values I do not share.
More than anything else, Keith pushes a sort of meta-strategy for anarchism which aims at pluralism and ecumenicalism and which suggests that all anti-state tendencies ought to unite against the principal enemy of liberty, the state itself, in preference to choosing lesser targets of activist action such as sexism, racism, homophobia and so on. The biggest tent possible, in other words, for the advance of anarchism as anti-statism, absent the baggage of a myriad of other issues.
Of itself, I believe this has great strategic value.
In his posting yesterday, though, Keith unambiguously betrays his own ugly prejudices in a bilious piece entitled “Is Extremism in the Defense of Sodomy No Vice?“
My views are identical to Mike's. I expressed them in a letter to Keith Preston:
It's hard for me to do this--not only because of your early help to me in publishing my work online, and because of your very kind support and promotion over the years, but (as Mike Gogulski said in his recent post) you have an amazing mind and have written much of incomparable value.
But I believe the line you crossed in this recent post puts me in a position where I cannot in good conscience remain silent:
I have consistently defended you against the charges of fascism, racism, homophobia, and all the rest of it, that arose in response to your "big tent" strategy of offering solidarity to secessionists of all kinds. I still think you went too far in promoting active solidarity with national anarchist groups and racists. But I also still agree with your general assessment back then that the corporate state and Empire presented an extreme danger, and that religious and racialist separatists had no credible ability to enforce authoritarian rule on a local level. In fact I supported a weaker version of the same strategy, seeking common ground with many of the
constitutionalist and militia groups that Dees, Berlet et al reflexively condemned--drawing the line only at expressions of solidarity with explicit racists.
When Aster kicked you out of her Salon Liberty, I thought (and still think) she did so on inadequate grounds, and that nothing you'd said up to that point on your strategic approach (as outlined above) warranted such a reaction. As I recall, I said as much on her Salon at the time.
But since she evicted you, I've noticed that your general language toward gays and transgender people has become increasingly "colorful" (i.e., deliberately demeaning) and hostile, by what seems like an order of magnitude or so. Likewise, you have become increasingly dismissive of all who express concerns about racism or fascism--even when they do not endorse thuggish "antifa" tactics--purely out of what seems to be your own increasingly knee-jerk hostility toward the "cultural left."
For some time I was willing, if not to excuse, at least to understand this as a personal grudge in response to your unjustified treatment. And I have tried to stay out of this not only out of a debt of gratitude toward you, but also because cultural issues are not my primary interest, and I don't like to get side-tracked by anything that takes time and energy from my work on economic, tech, and organizational issues. And besides that, I just hate personal drama and feel that getting caught up on emotionally volatile personal conflicts between other people just sucks the life out of me. Finally, I just hoped you would get over your personal grudge and put things in some perspective.
But I continued to grow uncomfortable with my stance, given your increasingly strident rhetoric. The issue, for me, was not that you merely endorsed a "live and let live" attitude toward cultural preferences, or that you believed gays and transgender people were being "hyper-sensitive"; it was that your choice of language seemed calculated--gratuitously, and for no other apparent purpose--to offend gay and transgender people for the sake of doing so.
And to repeat: this latest offering of yours draws a line that I cannot ignore. You declare the need to make "hard choices" and "establish political priorities." The calculation on which you base your choice, your priority is, as you state it:
As for the rest of us in the anarchist milieu, I say it’s time for a purge, if not an outright pogrom. Does the spectacle of a bunch of white college students crying about “racism, racism, racism” and pretending that they’re Black Panthers do anything to actually increase the number of Actually Existing People of Color in our ranks? It hasn’t yet after decades of trying. The typical convert to anarchism is an angry, young, white, male from an upper strata working class to upper middle class socio-economic background, one who possesses above average levels of intelligence and education, and an interest in history, philosophy, political science and related fields. Do we really attract more people into our ranks by having so many self-hating whites, bearded ladies, cock-ringed queers, or persons of one or another surgically altered “gender identity” in our midst? Is this really something the average rebellious young person wants to be associated with? Could we not actually attract more young rebels into our ranks if all of this stuff was absent?
Ironically, that's the mirror image of the question I asked myself about your strategic approach from the beginning: "Do we really attract more people into our ranks by having Nazis, Klansmen, Christian identity, white nationalist, and outlaw biker gang people in our midst?"
Even though I disagreed with the extent to which you took your strategic approach, I could at least respect your assessment that the "greatest harms" were "imperialist war, mass imprisonment of harmless people, and severe economic failure," and that the fight against this centralized concentration of totalitarian power justified a "big-tent" coalition of secessionists.
But while I could respect your willingness to tolerate loathsome people on pragmatic grounds, I can't remain neutral when you advocate purging the anti-state movement in order to appease those loathsome people. You have "evolved," if you can call it that, from a willingness to share a tent with racists and homophobes for the sake of defeating Empire as the primary enemy, to promoting an active purge of anti-racists and gays from the anti-Empire movement because the majority of your anti-state coalition might find them offensive. In short, you have "evolved" from tolerating racist and homophobic groups as a means to an end, to withdrawing support from the "cultural left" in order to appease the right wing of your coalition.
You've drawn a line that requires me to take a public stand, and publicly disassociate myself from your statements. If my choice is between "self-hating whites, bearded ladies, cock-ringed queers, or persons of one or another surgically altered 'gender identity'," and Nazis, Klansmen and white nationalists, I know which side I'll take.
As I said before, I continue to recognize that there is much of enormous value in your work. It pains me to see you apparently revelling in pariah status. I would like nothing better than to be
able to resume endorsing your work without moral qualms, even if I disagree with your tactical judgments. But I cannot do so as things stand.
I do not ask that you revise your original strategic assessment that the threat of Empire justifies a broad secessionist coalition that includes some (in my opinion) very objectionable people on the right. I do not ask that you share my judgment that such objectionable people alienate more potential support than do those on the cultural left. I ask only that you 1) repudiate the flame-war quality of demeaning rhetoric that you have increasingly adopted toward sexual minorities since your breach with Aster, and acknowledge that you allowed a personal grudge to goad you into overreaction on that score; and 2) repudiate your call for a purge of anti-racists, gays, transgender people and the cultural left in order to appease the majority.
I bear you no personal animosity, and remain grateful for your help in the past. And although I wish very much for a change of heart on your part, and for a failure of your political project as you have most recently defined it, I continue to wish you the best personally.
Postscript. Since writing the above, it occurred to me (as Mike Gogulski put it) what a deficit of empathy is reflected in Keith's reactions. As an outsider to the conflict, I still feel very strongly that Keith's increasingly demeaning and strident homophobic language is a personal overreaction based on his resentment at being purged from Aster's Salon Liberty. It's odd, therefore, that he fails to admit the possibility that what he regards as "hyper-sensitivity" or "victim culture" among racial and sexual minorities might reflect their own subjective response to what they have experienced as a lifetime of exclusion.
In any case, this post may (or may not) evoke some reaction in the blogosphere and in my own comment thread. I doubt I'll participate much in the debate, either way. I've said what I have to say on the subject. As I've already stated, I try to stay out of debates on cultural issues because I've got a limited amount of time and energy for writing about the stuff I feel personally engaged with, and dealing with personal drama or emotionalized issues sucks the life out of me.