Liberals and "Internalized Oppression"

I argue that liberals suffer from 40 years of conservative vilification and mockery.  We second-guess ourselves, doubt our own legitimacy, try to appease our critics and speak and act with caution.

Commentator Clyde suggests that I might be talking about what oppressed people called internalized oppression.  

I am reluctant to use those words; being demonized and scapegoated by your political opponents is not really oppression.  Oppression is much more serious; let's not make that word too thin, but making it cover too much ground.

But it is internalized something.

A synergy between right and left works to make liberals doubt themselves.  

Take, for example, the charge that the anti-Vietnam war movement was motivated simply by middle-class students' fear of the draft.  It came first from the leftwing of the antiwar movement, as a challenge for us to look more deeply at the war. The war wasn't wrong because it relied on the draft, but because it was an imperialist war, being fought by the poor. The criticism was being made  to encourage us to a more thorough opposition to the war, and to hear more voices against it.

Pro-war elements, though, picked up on the criticism, and used it to drive a wedge between students with deferments and poor and working class draftees. The purpose was not to get poor and working draftees out of danger but to shame the students into silence. 

Now, the dominant narrative about the antiwar movement was that it was a self-centered, self-interested movement of cowardly students. And the unspoken implication is that the war in Vietnam was good policy.

So, the life-cycle of the criticism that liberals were privileged elitists was (1)it originated among oppressed communities and radicals as a challenge to liberal movement to push harder and broaden their analysis. (2)It was then picked up conservatives and the real elite as a way to silence the liberal movement. (3)It finally comes to rest in the heads of liberals themselves, as a generalized malaise and self-paralysis, and a weapon to be used in our little arguments with each other.

In particular, the criticism that liberals are too elitist to relate to ordinary people, and so should be very cautious about trying to, has entered that perfect state of self-defeat that can last forever.


  1. Anonymous9:13 AM

    Too rich, guys! Great post, great dialogue.

    "Internalized oppression" is too important to throw around everywhere. Just as Freud's first two years of life concept degenerated into a universal "blame the mother" syndrome, blaming self-criticism for all failures of self-liberation means celebrating bullies who pursue power when they should have been looking in mirrors.

    So it is with liberal "self-doubt:" it's a thinker's game. Skepticism breeds new knowledge. Going back over your work finds errors that would have led to bigger problems later. Asking for a second opinion means getting a diagnosis that fell outside your own range of knowledge or model of reality.

    Yes, there are times to quit editing and send in the manuscript. But editing is still crucial to producing something that will stand the test of time.

  2. Clyde Grubbs10:19 AM

    Agree that middle strata libeerals are not objectively oppressed. But the culture of expressive liberalism conditions led many middle stata individuals to redifine the term oppression to mean "I get no respect." For the middle strata "oppression" is a subjective feeling, it might target a mean teacher who doesn't give extensions. But that is an interesting rabbit hole, liberals are not objectively oppressed.

    The Left in the early sixties advanced an analysis of corporate liberalism, that section of "the elite" that would govern (rule) with welfare measures and advocated "development" for the Third World. It was argued that the "relative priviledge" of the middle strata liberals made them vulnerable to the rhetoric of this corporate liberal elite, and they were inconsistent in their stance toward democracy (the uneducated were "not fit."unlike themselves.)

    This was SDS and the Panthers, the older Left went further with the notion of a vacillating petit bourgeosie which was anti-elite but could be demogogued.) So if you heard People of Color activists and radicals say that the "liberals" were elitist perhaps they were simplifying these theories.

    Whatever, "non corporate liberal elite" or the right of the ruling class or Finance or whatever we choose to call them finds "the corporate liberals" an obstactle to their agenda. The limosines of the Clinton, Carter, Kennedy became fodder for caricature and the school teacher liberal paying off student loans finds herself elite baited. And overtime that narrative is internalized into the school teacher who believes she "is a professional" and doesn't need a strong Teachers Union, maybe an association of professionals.

    But,enculturation of that narrative depended on some preconditions, expressive individualism. relative privilege, and lack of training in community forms of conversation and problem solving (which unions and many churches can provide.)

    The exposure of both the corporate liberals and the corporate right during the Clinton, Bush and Obama years and the crisis of 2008-9 has provided an opening for questioning and even anger, but also fear (we are too privileged, too foolish) so somebody else take up the struggle and then we will join when we can look cool.

  3. Just bought Michael Kimmel's "Angry White Men," which does some serious examination of these topics. Learning quite a bit with every page.


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