50 Shades of Left

Noah Kim photoTwo left-of-center pundits who disagree with each other debated for an hour and a half — without tearing each other apart.

That happened Tuesday night at the Institute Library on Chapel Street.

Can it happen in the U.S. at large?

That question emerged as Batya Ungar-Sargon, opinion editor for The Jewish Daily Forward, and Josh Holland, contributing writer for The Nation, engaged in a wide-ranging conversation about the past, present and future of American left politics during a period of resurgence. The conversation was moderated by New Haven-based journalist John Stoehr, who runs the Editorial Board, a daily e-newsletter with political commentary and analysis.

“I wanted [Holland and Ungar-Sargon] to be here because I’ve learned something from them,” Stoehr explained. “I feel like a student of theirs.”

The two writers come from different ideological backgrounds: Ungar-Sargon veers toward the liberal left, Holland to the socialist left.. The two engaged in a passionate but civil exchange, touching on such controversial topics as internet “outrage culture,” U.S. Rep. Ilhan Omar and American nationalism. Their conflicting world views paralleled the topic of the night: The split between socialism and liberalism under the “big tent” of the Democratic Party.

Ungar-Sargon has recently taken flak on the left for a series of articles criticizing Rep. Omar for anti-Semitism, including one entitled, “The Left Is Making Jews Choose: Our Progressive Values Or Ourselves. During her conversation Tuesday night with Holland and Stoehr, she described a recent appearance on the Brian Lehrer Show, where she argued that Omar should have offered constructive methods to end the occupation of Palestine without falling back on anti-Semitic tropes.

“When the interview came out, there were hundreds of comments claiming that I wasn’t a real leftist,” she said. “The irony is that I was arguing for the end of the Israeli occupation. Imagine if I went on a conservative radio show and argued that point. What do you think they would have made of my political orientation?”

Ungar-Sargon went on to criticize the “cruelty on the left” and warned that leftists had begun to mirror the bullying rhetoric of President Trump. She linked the tendency of leftists to “police through shame” to social media and the millennial drive to distinguish oneself by putting others down.

“Millennials and the way that millennials present themselves on social media are very brand-driven, and having a brand is all about individuality,” she said. “This means that whenever somebody manifests any sort of difference, you feel compelled to individuate yourself by throwing them under the bus.”

Holland focused on incentives for media to fabricate divides between political figures who largely agree with each other, citing U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. To Holland, the Democratic coalition is fairly unified among ideological lines. However, the most popular news articles tend to exaggerate points of political difference.

“I used to work at Alternet, which got money from web traffic, and I quickly learned that I got the most feedback and the most clicks from articles that riled people up,” he said. “All I had to do was mention Nancy Pelosi and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the same headline, and my job was done.”

Holland pushed back on several of Ungar-Sargon’s assertions, particularly her worry that socialists such as Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders alienate people by “pushing the envelope further to the left.”

“I feel like those are largely ancillary concerns,” he told Ungar-Sargon. “I think the more relevant question is: ‘Why are we even talking about socialism’? The socialists and liberals in this country all support similar policies.”

He did, however, agree with Ungar-Sargon that the wide majority of Democrats have center-left opinions.

“Most Democrats are normies,” he joked.

Ungar-Sargon ended the evening on an optimistic note, saying that the fragmented and self-critical nature of the left is actually one of its strengths.

“It’s harder on the Democratic side since we’re diverse,” she said. “Unlike the Republicans, we’re not a monolithic force, and that’s a great thing. We have to fight this stuff out, but that’s our privilege.”

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posted by: ElmCitier on March 13, 2019  3:03pm

Thanks, Noah, for the story.

This event was part of a new program launched by the Institute Library (847 Chapel Street) called Politic in Plain English, hosted by John Stoehr.  It happens the 2nd Tuesday of the month at 7:30 p.m.  We hope folks will come for next month’s when Jacob Hacker of Yale University and Francis Wilkinson of Bloomberg News will talk about the “Invisible Primaries.”  (If you don’t know what they are, then you should.)  The event is open to the public—suggested admission only.  The program’s goal is to revisit a proud tradition at the Institute Library when it was once a lyceum where such notables as Frederick Douglass, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry Ward Beecher, Herman Melville, and other notables spoke on matters related to America’s civic life.

posted by: Kevin McCarthy on March 13, 2019  3:17pm

The next discussion, on the “invisible” 2020 primaries, is scheduled for April 9 at 7:30 at the Institute Library (847 Chapel Street, https://institutelibrary.org).

The series is by no means limited to lefties. People of all political persuasions are welcome (and there are cookies).

When Josh Holland said that most Democrats are “normies”, this is the image that came to mind.

posted by: Eva G on March 14, 2019  11:57am

Should a visitor to the Library leap to assume anything about the political leanings of the Library’s membership: one can now find the Wall Street Journal in the stacks of periodicals members may browse at the big round oak table in the front room. The Library—and its events—are, indeed, not merely for readers of The Nation or similar. You could even be apolitical and have a grand old time up here. The Library is home to thinkers, conversationalists, contrarians, cranks, quiet musers, and everything in-between. All we ask is that our visitors keep it polite. Civil Discourse is part of our mission. “The mission of the Institute Library is to fulfill its historical purpose of “mutual assistance in the attainment of useful knowledge” for its members and the New Haven community at large through literature, civil discourse, and the arts.” You don’t have to be a red diaper baby to come hang out up here. Come visit and read Jason Gay’s sports column in the WSJ. It’s fun, I promise. (Also fun: Dan Neil’s car reviews, but those are on the weekends, when we are currently closed.)