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LAST week the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) concluded a historic national convention: at 57,000 members they have reached a size not seen on the US left since the Communist Party USA in the 1930s. Unfortunately over the last week the left has been reeling from a set of viral videos that showed the convention utterly subsumed by rank identity politics.
It wasn’t the only story from the Atlanta summit, at all — in fact the convention was an overall success.
But in terms of winning newcomers to the left and other leftists to the DSA, it was not. The battle for the soul of the left — the struggle to decide whether it is the cause of liberation for all (socialism) or a forum for competing grievances against the world (liberalism), seemed to have been won by the latter — at least at this meeting.
The convention, which was run on Robert’s Rules, the same standard set of rules every union and most political parties follow, was repeatedly disrupted by the DSA’s embrace of liberal activist-subcultural practices such as clapping bans, language policing, mandatory pronoun disclosure (“my name is William, he/him, from Wisconsin),” “hug rooms,” and the constant weaponisation of claims of disability, often invisible and unverifiable, to score political points or filibuster proceedings.
When the video clips of this behaviour went viral, many DSA members lamented that the organisation was now a laughing stock, and many members also warned that these radical-liberal subcultural customs being enforced pointed towards the DSA potentially becoming disconnected and inaccessible to most working-class US residents in measured and reasoned critiques.
An account by one “Archie Carter” put it all very eloquently, telling the story of how they had gone from being an enthusiastic working-class member to a disheartened and disenfranchised ex-member who had failed to recruit any of his construction industry colleagues due to the organisations exclusive campus culture and wacky weirdness. It ended with an earnest plea that we get back to what unites us, the struggle for equality rather than competing group-based claims to justice (identity politics).
And it rang true, as it was what so many DSA members had said in different ways, and it was well observed — it was written by an actual DSA member and leftist as it turned out. But it was fake.
The major mistruth was that the author did not exist, there was no Archie Carter, a working-class Marxist-Leninist builder from Queens, New York. The minor mistruths are incredibly niche and subtle.
Like the fact he was a Marxist-Leninist (a supporter of the Soviet model of socialism) and also a supporter of Saul Alinksy (a famous community organiser who did not support the USSR). Did you spot that? I actually did — but I assumed he supported the Alinsky method of organising the poor as part of his Marxist –Leninist plan to unify the working class and turn it on its exploiters.
Apparently, according to leftist Twitter, this was very stupid — but then I barely know anything about Saul Alinsky, and I’ve been a leftist, party member, union activist, you name it — for decades. So if I don’t get it, my colleagues definitely won’t. Having it pointed out to me does not have me groaning “Oh! Of course! How stupid of me.”
None of the hoax does. It reads like a completely straight account of someone’s time in the DSA that has ended roughly at the time when the videos of the 2019 convention came out, so they have made the decision to support the criticism being made with their own story.
It was perfectly believable that a left winger would go to a right-wing publication, knowing that his critical account would not be published in a left-wing platform. The fact it is fake does embarrass Quillette for not checking on the identity of the writer: they asked for proof of ID and he didn’t provide it, and they published anyway. But that is about it, and Quillette’s professional calibre is already discredited anyway.
For Jacobin magazine, who spoke to the hoaxer, to argue that “it took a fabulist to finally unmask” this “right-wing mythology — that the United States’ largest socialist organisation was nothing more than a hipster sham…” is far too optimistic.
It exposes Quillette as unprofessional and biased, revelations nobody needed — but it provides no political response to the criticisms of the conference, especially not those who have never really heard of Quillette but are looking for answers to the horror-show DSA convention clips they had just seen on Youtube.
This is bad satire, bad hoaxing. None of it really adds up. Surely the point of a hoax like this is to show the target will accept obvious fakes that are mad and outlandish like the Sokal affair? Instead this was a set of pre-existing criticisms of the DSA and the wider modern left that many leftists would accept are valid to some extent. Almost exactly the same criticisms have been made by Class Unity, a genuine activist grouping in the DSA, in their article “Let Them Clap.” This was real content — just a fake writer.
Sending up the white working class is a safe choice for the author, but a dangerous game for the left. “Ha ha, you thought a builder from Queens who likes beer and sports was in the DSA and hated it, you fools?” Forgive us for being optimistic that he had at least been in the DSA. You would never see this with sex or race. Suppose to undermine controversy over accessibility for black people someone wrote in as Darnell Andre from Harlem?
Imagine if you will, a kid in school in the US that gets bullied for wearing clothes his mother picks out to school. One day he comes in in a new set of ridiculous, unfashionable clothes. As usual the majority of the class mock him; someone even posts a photo online the clothes are so silly. By lunchtime most of the school have seen it.
“Ha!” he cries in the lunch hall, “You think my mom picked these out, but actually I picked them out and I bought them with my own money — the joke’s on YOU!” While the exact culprit of the issue has been slightly extended to include both the boy and their mother, nothing else has changed: he is still standing there, in clothes that provoke mockery, and his peers are laughing at him.
It would be such an easy step to making friends and becoming more popular, simply changing his clothes – but he doesn’t want to potentially upset his mother and is unsure whether being popular is as important as being an individual.
This is the situation for the hoaxer and elements in the DSA that think the hoax has eclipsed the problems it described. This is also a decision for all of the modern left. Until practices like clapping bans, mandatory pronoun announcement, the ability to interrupt any speaker at any time with a “point of personal privilege” are themselves banned, trying to cheaply deflect the scorn of the general public to right-wing popinjays like Quillette is pissing in the wind.
The hoaxer and their supporters should instead be brave, grasp the nettle, and start clearing out the campus liberalism that has embarrassed and derailed the otherwise exciting work of their organisation. They have nothing to lose but constant mutual recrimination and hug rooms — they have an effective working-class left to win.
Alex Birch is an NEU rep and executive member of his Labour CLP.
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