Pull back

Pull back

July 23, 2017

Baltimore architect and friend Julie Gabrielli posted a couple of articles on Facebook earlier this month — the first a Conor Friedersdorf column in The Atlantic, the second a consideration of long-time Baltimore community radio talk host Marc Steiner’s career and its challenges — in response to which I left a short comment that I’d like to hold on to here for further noodling.

Julie’s note on the piece about Steiner casts its account of public radio’s strategic tailoring, in the 90s and 00s, to tastes and interests of the high-education, high-mobility, high-income portion of its audience as a case study corresponding to Friedersdorf’s critique (via Richard Rorty) of the American left’s ‘disengagement from practical politics’ and ‘neglect of class.’ Which strikes me as a sound reading.

In my comment, I meant partly to try in a few words to stretch out this failed-Left narrative over a much bigger span of twentieth-century history than Friedersdorf’s story (with so many Trump-era pieces like it) does, and partly to pull back from too-narrow focus on collective moral agency of the Left. I wrote:

You could say maybe that the gulf between the new left of the 60s and the earlier, turn of the century labor left Friedersdorf says today’s left no longer really remembers is Edward Bernays and his descendants — the marketing and media professionals who’ve succeeded in transforming left and right from political orientations to consumer orientations. It’s equally true, and of great importance here, that today’s right likewise no longer remember turn of the century rural cooperative populism. Today we have a left defined by its attachment to justice as image and a right defined by attachment to independence as image, both alike barely aware of the facts of global economic order that ensure these ideals become more and more unattainable for most of us, and both alike utterly incapable of concerted action, where some awareness of those facts does persist, to move in a new direction.

Bernays is a figure Adam Curtis makes much of; I’m really just following him there. Whether Bernays himself deserves quite so much credit I don’t truly know. It’s worth some scrutiny — as is, of course, the rest of my little borrowed & compiled thesis.

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