YouTuber Prince of Queens is convinced that SJW culture is going to vanish quickly, as though it had never existed. I wish I could agree with this. I'd like to see that happen, but doubt we'll be so lucky. But they are past the peak of their vigor and influence, and will enter a phase of decline, rather like the religious right did after Obama became president. They've made too many enemies now to have any chance of sustaining the momentum they had in the 2011 to 2016 time frame. Good news. In light of what's now in the White House, congress and most state legislatures, I'm finding the enthusiasm to celebrate hard to muster. Why am I afraid I'll be wishing we had Obama and the SJWs back long before 2020 rolls around?
But few things ever truly end up being dead and gone forever in American politics. Trends tend to be cyclical rather than linear. While history never repeats itself precisely, recurring patterns are the rule rather than the exception. We've seen stuff like the SJWs before, and we'll see them again. So don't hang up those guns just yet, Prince of Queens. We'll be needing your vigorous opposition to regressive leftism for a while yet.
The SJW movement itself wasn't new. It innovated in some key respects compared to previously, but its overall ideology is, at its most innovative, old wine in a new bottle. Or rather a mixture of old wines. Look at these Antifa rioters or Black Lives Matter. We've seen it before. In fact, earlier incarnations of these were, if anything, more radical. Look at the Weather Underground or the Black Panthers of the 1970s. The Maoist student groups. Feminism too went through a phase of radicalism in the 1970s, up to the point that many of them actually physically separated from mainstream culture and moved onto women-only communes. If only more of them would do this today. You can't say they didn't put their money where their mouth is, though.
In fact, a long look at American history shows a 30 to 40 year cycle - give or take a few years - of growing idealism, explosive radicalism, a descent into disillusionment and nihilism and finally retreat on the radical left. The real reason for this is actually quite simple. Radicalism is hard. It's tiring. Imagine being an Antifa guy who's been swept into this culture of intersectionality, postmodernism, the progressive stack, and so on. It's a very hard life. Very austere. So many everyday actions and things we take for granted are seen as oppressive or "problematic" in some form or another. It's a rare soul that can keep it up indefinitely, especially after a serious setback. Like the presidential election results of 1968 or 2016.
And it's always been that way. In fact, our Berkeley Antifa member of 2017 has it easy compared to most radicals in American history. The early 2nd wave feminists went through it in the 70s. When “the personal became the political” in the burgeoning body of feminist theory, in-group policing of one another’s personal lives became quite extensive – to the point where even activist’s sex lives were called out by movement purists who infamously equated sexual and romantic love to rape and enslavement. This was an understandably hard circle to square for a movement that also insisted that women had a libido to rival that of the male.
Radical environmentalists - Earth First and groups like that went through similar problems in the 1990s. Lifestyle demands to eschew the use of fossil fuels, among other things, were incredibly hard to sustain. Plus, these groups are inevitably absolutely riven with ideological purity, and are prone to paralyzing inefficacy due to preoccupations with consensus decision making and are often hamstrung by bitter divisions over the most paltry matters of doctrine. People's Front of Judea, anyone?
Victories are few, seen as being “merely institutional” and serve only to remind the rank and file of just how big a job the road ahead of them is. Defeats are much more common, and very devastating since radical left groups tend not to have many resources. Groups are torn apart over leadership disputes. They're quite often harassed and ridiculed by the outside world and by domestic law enforcement. The FBI's COINTELPRO was very effective at disrupting these kinds of groups. The vague and sweeping goals of the movements lend themselves to the often correct assumption that these goals are simply unattainable.
Go back further, and you had McCarthyism or the Red Scares. Further back still, and they were massacred more indiscriminately. Labor disputes stopped being potentially fatal for strikers only after the New Deal. Civil rights workers had to wait a few more decades. Quite a few of them were lynched, found dead or disappeared under suspicious circumstances well into the 1960s, culminating in Martin Luther King Jr.'s 1968 assassination. None of this is a lot of fun. On the grand scheme of things, the online stress suffered by the likes of Zoe Quinn or Lindy West at the hands of 4chan trolls, MRAs or the YouTube Skeptic Community has been very mild.
Taken as a whole, all of this is very exhausting and few people can sustain it for more than a few years. Today's version of it - the intersectional SJWs enjoyed a lot of privileges - how ironic - compared to previous cycles. Loyal strongholds in the form of humanities and social sciences departments on college campuses, a lot of favorable media bias and so on. That's quite unusual in the history of western leftism. Usually the radical left is ignored in the media, if not attacked openly.
I suspect these perks, such as they were, were part of a Faustian bargain wherein intersectional social justice activism would get some institutional support in exchange for staying away from - or better yet derailing - questions of economics, class and political economy. The powers that be learned a hard lesson with Martin Luther King Jr, whom they had to assassinate when he started straying away from strict racial equality issues and began to agitate around poverty, worker's rights and economic inequality. Better to buy out groups like Black Lives Matter well in advance, and save themselves the hassle.
But the SJWs still had a less than easy go of it, though more of it was their own doing. There's a lot of tedious legwork that goes into organizing marches, protests and so on. Especially if it's all grass roots and not funded or directed from above in any real way, though it often was for the SJWs, especially on College campuses. Still, ongoing regimens of meeting attendance and organizing and planning around the schedules of activist members takes time and effort. After a while, a family and a steady paycheck starts to seem like a better deal for most people.
The period of peak SJW success was predicated on a number of things: a liberal trend in western politics in the late Bush/early Obama years and the rise of social media. The early SJWs - then attached to the so called new atheist movement, discovered that if you took on a belligerent and macho tone and postured and argued from intimidation - "agree with us or else you're a Nazi" - you could win a lot of arguments without actually having to answer hard questions. This worked for a while, first when the new atheists deconstructed the religious right, then against white male liberals who didn't know quite how to respond to it all, but generally took claims that it was sexist and racist to argue with the SJWs at face value. But people quickly grew resentful of what basically amounted to ongoing emotional blackmail for political purposes, and the inevitable backlash that ensued resulted in stuff like GamerGate, the alt-right and Donald Trump.
For a lot of SJWs, it's just no fun anymore. Trolling the castration anxieties and sexual insecurities of young white dudes online was fun and easy for its core base of white college educated women. For a while. It's not so fun being on the receiving end of the same kind of lambasting coming from black women, or LGBT women. Intersectionality was intrinsically flawed that way. Increasingly, people perceive - quite rightly – that as a form of activism, it’s highly ineffective. There were few tangible results in exchange for what really boils down to competitive victimhood and grievance mongering. Winning gold in the oppression olympics bore few real benefits. Plus being the internet's favorite punching bag does get old after a while.
But let’s not rest on our laurels just yet. When surges of radicalism pass from their summer of idealistic success and into the autumn of mounting nihilism and disillusionment, this is actually when they become the most dangerous. Like a cornered animal who knows its time is limited, they become desperate and fearful. This is what drove the LA race riots of the late 1960s, the debacle that was the 1968 democratic party convention, and the rise of the violent Weather underground. 2017 thusfar bears an uncanny resemblance to all of this.
Rising tensions between Antifa and Trump supporters have the frightening potential to take us to a place not unlike what happened in Italy between the late 1960s and early 1980s, the so called "years of lead" wherein cyclical and retaliatory acts of terrorism between far right and left factions resulted in hundreds of deaths. Worse still, all the way back to Germany in the 1920s and early 30s. We all know how that turned out. Wise and enlightened leadership in Washington would do well to take steps to prevent this.
Did I just say wise and enlightened leadership in Washington? Ha ha ha! Yes I did. Ha ha ha! What planet would this version of Washington be on, anyway?
Moreover, these waves of radicalism never fail to leave the broader society unchanged. Indeed, the cyclical pattern of advancing and retreating progressivism is much more a mark of social justice activism working long term rather than failing, even if it never perfectly achieves its objectives and some progress is lost in the more conservative periods. That said, Eisenhower did not repeal the New Deal, Nixon did not repeal the Civil Rights Act, Reagan did not manage a reversal of Roe v Wade and the eras of Newt Gingrich as House Speaker and George W. Bush as president did not see a retreat of political correctness on college campuses, or even slow its advance into the broader society. Given this pattern, I would not bet heavily on Trump rescinding gay marriage either.
Indeed, the whole SJW phenomenon is a clear demonstration of the fact that the seeds of racial and gender radicalism that took root on college campuses back in the 1970s never ceased bearing fruit. Do not mistake dormancy for death. Come the next season, whether in ten years or thirty, a whole new batch of romanticized militancy will ripen, and we’ll be eating again from its bountiful harvest whether we want to or not.