“My administration has accomplished more than almost any administration in the history of our country,” said United States president Donald Trump in his recent address to the United Nations General Assembly. Laughter began rippling across the room of global delegates. “I didn’t expect that reaction, but that’s okay,” he responded.
While Fox News pundits promulgated Trump’s claims that the room was laughing with him, a familiar wave of sneering op-eds, Twitter commentary and comedy bits broke across media worldwide. They mocked Trump’s decidedly unpresidential pronunciation, literacy levels and international regard. In the lexicon of Jeff Sparrow’s latest book, Trigger Warnings: Political Correctness and the Rise of the Right, such reactions encapsulate “smug politics”, which he says has become the dominant discourse of the left. According to Sparrow, such responses to “populist provocateurs and charlatans not only fails to combat them, but often leaves them stronger”. Ridicule reinforces charges of snootiness levelled at progressives who’ve become alienated from the ordinary people, once their core constituency:
Activists committed to smug politics could take comfort knowing that the masses were too dumb to grasp the cogent arguments being presented to them. But, politically, such rhetoric was disastrous. By dismissing the people as fools, progressives confirmed everything the culture warriors said: they openly embraced the condescending stereotype of the liberal elitist.
For Sparrow, smug politics is a response to the rise of anti-political correctness rhetoric, which he charts across American and Australian contexts. What began as a gag among progressives, mimicking Stalinist idiom, was later mobilised by the right as an Orwellian scourge that, in the words of Fox commentator Nick Adams, is “anti-American, anti-freedom, anti-truth, and anti-reality”. Education wars that once argued diversifying universities weren’t elite enough morphed into culture wars that pit “honest, everyday” people against “overeducated and arrogant leftists”.
Such shifts are part of a wider move from “direct politics” to “delegated politics”. When activists who’d once fought alongside everyday people in the free speech or civil rights movements moved into, say, academia or NGOs, they eventually started seeing themselves as “acting on behalf of a passive and perhaps indifferent constituency”.
In the 1980s, Labor and the Democrats began supporting the same free market policies as their opponents. As the noose of neoliberalism tightened, atomising a workforce once seen as collective, the left failed to explain why ordinary folks were struggling or, indeed, to offer an alternative vision. Class came to be seen as cultural rather than material; a man who travels in a gilded lift can claim to represent working people.
When Trump took office, left and right alike asked how a tycoon-turned-reality-television-star could assume leadership of the free world. Fingers were pointed at racism, misogyny, Russian interference and an apparently white working class who’d inhaled Trump’s bigoted rhetoric. Sparrow says we must confront the fact that millions of people across class divides voted for Trump. It was a resounding cry for change. But for what kind?
Such questions are unwieldy, and Sparrow’s willingness to grapple with them shows why he’s one of Australia’s most crucial political thinkers. Unlike his recent narrative-driven books such as Money Shot or No Way but This, Sparrow is absent here as authorial guide. One wishes for a questioning “I” to trouble through Trigger Warnings’ thorny inquiries, which move with urgency through political movements, theories and thinkers. The project’s ambitious scope – also canvassing topics such as the rise of Murdoch media, Islamophobia, Gamergate, trigger warnings and cultural appropriation – demands time to digest.
Throughout Sparrow’s books, he’s highlighted forgotten figures who’ve been instrumental to change: the alternative political history Radical Melbourne, written with his sister, Jill; the history of communism in Australia told through the life of Guido Baracchi, in Communism: A Love Story; and, most recently, his brilliant No Way but This, a peripatetic biography of Paul Robeson.
For the former editor of progressive literary journal Overland, a utopian thinking unites his literary endeavours. His perspective isn’t quixotic, but, rather, retains an unshakeable belief that another reality is possible. Trigger Warnings is perhaps his most polemic yet, written with clear activist goals in mind: to intervene in the present, he insists we must understand the complex history that led us here.
In the introduction to Left Turn, a 2012 essay collection edited by Sparrow and Antony Loewenstein, they wrote “crisis stalks the old political order and yet no new alternatives seem possible”. In Trigger Warnings, Sparrow offers the Occupy and global justice movements as brief moments of possibility too quickly dissolved or squandered. Later chapters examine how contemporary understandings of trauma and the evolution of identity politics have made such solidarity now seem impossible.
In the face of fragmentation, Sparrow offers up Australia’s same-sex marriage campaign as an example of what can happen when people come together. Faced with the ugliness of the postal survey, activists returned to forms of direct action politics, “reject[ing] the notion, held on both the right and the left, that the working class was innately backward or defined by its opposition to progressive ideas and culture”. Grassroots campaigning encouraged people to ponder what equality meant for “their sons, daughters, workmates, friends, and relatives”, and they responded accordingly.
There is, of course, no easy way out of these complex binds. “Any serious response to the problems facing ordinary people requires material change and not just symbolic redress,” says Sparrow. But if we dare aspire to liberation, intellectuals and activists of the left must regard ordinary people not as the problem but, rather, as part of the solution. TM
Scribe, 320pp, $29.99
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Oct 13, 2018 as "Jeff Sparrow, Trigger Warnings". Subscribe here.