The San Francisco Left

Originally published in Every Fury on Earth, Davies, 2008.

City Lights Bookstore slopes against a hill, then bends with the street around a sharp curve. Like many establishments so situated in San Francisco, its appearance changes dramatically in relation to one’s angle of vision. Here, however, the message is the same from every direction. From the front window on the second floor, a hand-painted sign looks out over the street: “Depose Bush and Cheney.” Inside, shelves carry labels such as “Class War” and “Stolen Continents.” A brochure sums up the animating idea: “City Lights is one of the few truly great independent bookstores in the United States—a place where booklovers from across the country and around the world come to browse, read, and just soak in the ambience of alternative culture’s only Literary Landmark.”

North Beach, the neighborhood surrounding The Landmark, is littered with upmarket bistros and bars. Strip clubs jut into the sidewalks with gaudy neon signs. “Garden of Eden. Taste our Forbidden Fruit.” City Lights neither stands independent of these blights nor presents any alternative aesthetic. From the strip club signs it borrows hyperbole; from the bistros it takes its retail sheen. The Landmark is a symbol of the postwar avant-garde’s failed effort to transcend the moralism of high culture and the banality of mass culture. Not for nothing did it end up a stop on the tour bus.

As I passed through the entrance and took the brochure, the woman minding the register brought me up short, telling me to deposit my belongings behind her counter. Annoyed, I began to reply with a sarcastic comment about preemption. Then I noticed how she wore the same etiolated mask as every other retail clerk I had encountered, and I acquiesced.

I founded my decision to spend a month in San Francisco on a set of associations and tendencies, and some knowledge, concerning the city’s reputation for radical politics and literature. I wanted to see for myself. Back in New England, politics emanates from the engineering ethos of academic technicians and from the sedate, educative style of inherited from Progressive reformers. Here, I thought I knew, the quality of politics was different. And as soon as I arrived, in July 2004, I saw street signs boldly commemorating the 70th anniversary of the San Francisco General Strike. Longshoremen had closed the ports for two months, bringing the city to a standstill in the middle of the Depression and drawing 130,000 workers out with them. Congress, worried that strike would grow into an insurrection, had passed social welfare legislation historians call “the second New Deal.”

In political terms, 70years might as well be 700, but on this night Alexander Cockburn and Jeffrey St. Clair, co-editors of the muckraking journal Counterpunch, were scheduled to speak on the second floor of City Lights. Their topic was the upcoming presidential contest between George Bush and John Kerry, which was billed by the press as “the most important election in decades.”

Cockburn’s car had broken down, we learned at the outset. St. Clair would have the floor to himself. From his first remarks it was apparent that he intended to make a case against President Bush without making the corresponding case for candidate Kerry. St. Clair accused both parties of colluding to reduce political competition at the district level. On issues such as drugs, oil, and poverty, he went on, not a “Dime’s Worth of Difference” separated them. He departed slightly from the logic of equivalence when he evinced special contempt for one of the men, challenging the audience “to name a single virtuous thing about John Kerry’s character.” A woman called our attention to Kerry’s opposition to the Vietnam War. St. Clair countered that Kerry had arranged his antiwar statements in accordance with his political aspirations. St. Clair seemed to be saying that as soon as Kerry’s virtue mixed with his politics, it became a vice. This was confusing. He had condemned President Bush for refusing to submit his ideas to political debate; now he condemned Kerry for the opposite reason. Then St. Clairsaid he “favored anything disruptive to the social order.” Before anybody had a chance to ask whether he meant to endorse the attacks of September 11, he said he believed the World Trade Center had offered “a legitimate target.”

Of the 30 members of the audience, half seemed to be talking at once, not talking so much as hissing and jeering. “This is for all you so-called radicals,” began one outburst. Another man, sitting directly behind me, asked, “Do you believe the Israeli security service plotted 9/11 in secret, or do you believe the government’s story, the story the New York Times tries to tell us.” St. Clair said nothing in response.

Disappointing though the speech was, it did not shake my belief in the underlying truth of the analysis. St. Clair was right. The most important division in American politics was not between Republicans and Democrats and their candidates. It was between those who believe and participate in party politics and those who do not. And those who believed in party politics were riveted, just then, to the dueling conventions, where the party out of power supposed the party in power to be the sole and exclusive author of present trouble. Why had Democrats failed to protect organizedlabor? Why had they failed to come up with any distinctive foreign policy ideas in the last thirty years? Such questions appeared inconvenient, irritating, or intelligible strictly in terms of the character and strength of the opposition, as if the character and strength of the opposition were a fixed variable. A third party was trying to emerge to address such questions, and in due time both the third party and its candidate were put down as impracticable and therefore as irresponsible interlopers in the business at hand.

Most Americans view the two parties little more than mobile battalions of money, whereas most political intellectuals tend to see them as they see themselves, as representatives of rival philosophieslocked in combat. One can only marvel at the willingness of each generation of professors, pundits, and foundation publicists to embrace labels that long ago ceased to explain anything meaningful. Two world wars exhausted the nineteenth-century division of political philosophy into liberals and conservatives. Yet modern discussion is dominated by self-described “neoliberals” and “neoconservatives.” What is next? Neo-neo-liberals and neo-neo-conservatives? (And then?) Bereft of a coherent ideology by which to measure political reality, liberals and leftists have struggled mightily to assimilate the most obvious facts. In their confusion at the sight of a supposedly anti-government party prosecuting a federal drug war, in their outrage at the sight of a supposedly pro-government party prosecuting welfare recipients, they overlook that the targets of these policies are often the same people.

The malign consequences of the party duopoly are easiest to see among those who interpret democratic politics not merely as a set of procedures and policies, but also as a social system that seeks to elevate the moral quality of life. But what can be done? Several days after visiting City Lights, I went to see Chris Carlsson, cofounder and presiding editor of Processed World. The magazine was started in the eighties by pissed-off, yuppie-hating office workers in the Financial District. Processed World was as intelligent as democracy, its East-Coast equivalent, and much funnier besides. Unfortunately, the circle of writers, activists and office workers around Processed World found that it could not translate cultural protest against the machinery of the information age into effective political action.

Invited by Chris to attend a board meeting in the magazine’s downtown office, I observed a cadre of burned-out contributors and editors swill beer, smoke pot, and mouth anti-capitalist slogans. Chris handed me a leaflet he had written, which had been circulating all summer in the ranks of the city’s antiwar movement: “We are bound up in a collective madness, a mass psychosis, that is shaped daily by a media wildly out of touch with reality. We knew perfectly well what was going to happen, and sadly, we were right. Nearly everything predicted by the anti-war movement has come to pass, and it just gets worse with each passing day.” Sad, indeed. After the meeting, Chris volunteered a thought that perfectly reproduced the vitiating mix of aggression and complacency in the leaflet. “I would not be too upset if one of these people were assassinated,” he said of the Bush cabinet.

Anti-Bush feeling was intense at this moment, and not only in San Francisco. Soon after Chris made his private remark, Nicholson Baker raised the question of assassination publicly in Checkpoint. The novel consists of a debate between two friends, Jay and Ben, on the problem posed by the Bush junta. Ben seeks to dissuade Jay from carrying through his assassination plans; but not because he thinks Bush deserves to live, only because the bad consequences would outweigh the good. These examples might gratify J.M. Coetzee, who asks in Diary of a Bad Year how Americans can tolerate the condition of disgrace into which the administration has plunged them. “Impossible to believe that in some American hearts the spectacle of their country’s honor being dragged through the mud does not breed murderous thoughts. Impossible to believe that no one has yet plotted to assassinate these criminals in high office.”

Coetzee himself subscribes to a politics of “pessimistic anarchistic quietism, or anarchist quietistic pessimism, or pessimistic quietistic anarchism.” He thinks of himself as an anarchist “because experience tells me that what is wrong with politics is power itself.” Anarchism so understood has flourished in San Francisco, where many people have considered the central government in Washington DC almost as a foreign power and so have refused to obey its equation of law and morality. But this refusal has made it difficult to master the political metaphysics of disgrace. How can one assert the libertarian or anarchist perspective if it is, by definition, outside the law?

The radicals I encountered, unable to overcome the paradox, were distant both from the party system and from the people in whose name they spoke. Conservatism had begun in the twenties and thirties in a similar predicament, as a moral reaction against the abstract, impersonal qualities of mass society. Fundamentalism and neo-evangelicalism succeeded insofar as their leaders recreated in religious symbols the modes of trust, interaction, and sacrifice that once characterized their small communities. Without such projects of revaluation and re-communalization, discontent fades from negativism or spins illusions of omnipotence. Coetzee chooses “willed obscurity, inner emigration” as the third way between servitude and revolt. But aradical political intelligence that expects to succeed must eventually move past sorrow and grievance and envision ideas and projects. The absence of this imagination, this painful isolation of the San Francisco left, I found on my last night in the city, when I attended an “educational forum” about Cuba, sponsored by the radical group ANSWER.

Somewhere between 100 and 150 people attended the forum. Those who could not find chairs sat in the aisles, or filed along the walls underneath banners that read “Free the Cuban 5!” (a reference to five Cuban spies imprisoned in the United States since 2001) or leaned against tables stacked with t-shirts, buttons, pamphlets, petitions, and magazines. In opening remarks the chairman urged us to avail ourselves of the instructional material and expressed his hope that the knowledge so gained would be put to use in “direct action.” The restlessness of the audience, its palpable sense of purpose, and the location—we were gathered in The Mission, the impoverished Hispanic district of the city—all this in combination caused the room to fill up with the desperate energy of an evangelical meeting.

The best speaker that evening, Carol Cross, reported that her group recently had entered Cuba illegally from Mexico. When the group had tried to return from Cuba to Mexico, agents from the border patrol, homeland security, and treasury had swarmed them. All eighty people had been ordered from the bus, searched, and photographed. Ms. Cross compared their “refusal to be intimidated” to the spirit of the freedom riders in the civil rights movement. “There’s a higher law, and we’re just not going to pay attention to these petty laws,” she said.

How little insight they gained by their sacrifice! Although the four speakers had visited the island at differing times, with differing organizations, for differing reasons, they appeared to have seen the same things and indeed to have come to the very same conclusion. Cuba, they agreed, had no poverty, no violent crime, no illiteracy, no drug trafficking, no police brutality, no racism, no human rights abuses, no dissidents. Children played in the streets after dark without fear. Hospitals ministered to the sick with skill and alacrity. Universities spread sweetness and light. On these points the four spoke together. One of the speakers raised the idea that Fidel Castro was a dictator, only to put the idea down as calculated misinformation. “I mean, it is mind boggling, the propaganda. How can a whole people be suppressed for 45 years without a major upheaval?” The people of Castro’s “so-called regime” had asked him to deliver a message to Americans: “They want you to know they are ready to die for the revolution.” He delivered the message without a trace of irony.

The final speaker adopted the same rhetoric of extenuation. Yes she said, there have been state executions of malcontents, and yes, she did oppose the death penalty, especially as it is applied to political crimes. But these malcontents had tried to subvert Cuba at the bidding of the United States government, a declared enemy. To refuse to punish them was to abdicate national sovereignty. She finished her speech with a call for a political revolution in the United States.

To this the crowd responded with whistles, cheers, and waves of applause. Nobody asked any questions.