Counterpunch editor Jeffrey St. Clair’s essay, “The Silent Death of the American Left,” succinctly discusses the absence of a left-wing presence and activism in the face of myriad social and ecological disasters.* Somewhat surprisingly, this straightforward account elicited sharp criticism—St. Clair’s pessimism was unwarranted and a sign of an intellectual pathology of defeatism, especially in light of the move of some liberal intellectuals toward the left and agitations such as OWS and the Chicago Teachers Union strike.
One troubling criticism of the article was that the author was some sort of “Edward Abbeyist,” a reference to the great writer of the American West. Abbey, it was argued, was a representative of an anti-urban philosophy that was out-of-date, with nothing to offer the 80 percent of the U.S. population living in metropolitan areas. Further, it is in cities that hopeful changes are taking place, and it is in our cities where the intellectuals who are helping to drive this change dwell. While we are told by the media and politicians that the Real America is in the nation’s heartland, it is actually somewhere in Brooklyn and surrounds.
This presumed split between a sophisticated urbanism and backward “hicks from the sticks” is troubling. For one thing, metropolitan areas contain a good deal of diversity. In Pittsburgh, for example, a short drive from the city center takes you to places that you’d be hard-pressed to recognize as urban. The same is true for Portland, Los Angeles, Denver, Miami, St. Louis, Boston, and every other city in the country. For another, how is it that the desires and needs of those in metropolitan areas are radically different than those of the nearly 63,000,000 residents of the so-called “sticks.” This certainly isn’t our experience, gained in twelve years of traveling around the country, closely observing how people live and work in places large and small.
And let’s examine this charge of “Edward Abbeyism.” Consider the multiple environmental disasters now confronting us. Abbey was not only a great writer, a sophisticated thinker who could hold his own with the best intellectuals. He was also a seminal figure in the radical environmental movement, which is surely extraordinarily relevant to everyone in the United States. He fought many worthy battles against the despoliation of our western lands. What is more, his progeny are fighting every day against oil from tar sands, fracking, dams, mountaintop removal for strip mining, deforestation, factory farming, the rampant destruction of plant and animal species, the environmental ravages of tourism, every type of pollution, and global warming. These valiant warriors are in every part of the country, from the remote Navajo nation to Manhattan. To say that none of this is relevant to most of the country is to be willfully ignorant. Tell this to the victims of Hurricane Sandy in New York City or Katrina in New Orleans.
Or consider the Occupy Wall Street uprising. Edward Abbey’s anarchist sensibility, his distrust of hierarchy, and his grasp that the government most often represents the interests of the 1% was everywhere in evidence, all around the country, not least in Zuccotti Park. Those in the forefront of OWS were not liberal and left-wing urban intellectuals, though these were quick to visit and write commentaries for their circular admiration societies. Instead, they were radical anarchists such as David Graeber, willing to put their bodies on the line. Edward Abbey would have been right at home among them.
I could go on and discuss the obvious fact that protests and hopeful signs of radical renewal are almost always in evidence in the United States, but that these have rarely brought about radical change. Or point out that pessimism about the state of the left does not mean that a person is not at the same time hopeful. Instead, let us reflect on the truth that what happens anywhere in the country, or the world, both politically and environmentally, affects everyone. More and more, we are one nation and one world, forevermore intimately interconnected. Deforestation in China and the expansion of desert regions that has followed in its wake affect air quality and weather patterns in the United States. The melting of the polar ice caps is causing the oceans to rise, which will soon enough flood our coastal cities. The nuclear meltdown at Fukushima has imperiled the U.S. food supply. The recent U.S. financial crisis wrought havoc throughout the world.
We have to take the view that either everyone matters everywhere, or no one matters anywhere. Whether you are one of the world’s two billion peasants, a starving urban dweller in Athens, an illiterate street vendor in Cairo, or one of the obscure members of the 99% here in the United States, your life counts. When we arbitrarily divide a country or the world into those parts that are “Real” and those that are not, we are ignoring a large part of humanity. We are assuming that those outside the “Real” parts of the earth have hopes and aspirations that are unworthy or our attention and knowledge of no use to us. Such thinking is profoundly elitist and reactionary. We cannot hope to create the world we desire if we continue to stand superior to the very people who must bring this world into being.
Maybe we should commit to memory John Donne’s great sermon:
No man is an island, entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the Continent,
a part of the main; if a clod be washed away by
the sea, Europe is the less, as well as if a promontory were,
as well as if a manor of thy friends or of thine own were;
any man’s death diminishes me, because I am
involved in mankind. And therefore never ask for
whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.
*This essay first appeared in counterpunch, May 28, 2013.