Concept Creep: A Progressive’s Lament

For Jim Longenbach On or about November 9, 2016, human nature changed. All human speech shifted, and when human speech shifts there is at the same time a shift in religion, conduct, politics, and literature. The word equality — so long associated with liberalism — left the left; they erected the house of complicity in its footprint, behind its aging facade. It was a haunted house. All who dared enter shadow-boxed with a series of specters. These were battles of life or death organized around minor abrogations of language (from “homeless” to “unhoused,” from lowercase to uppercase first letters in racial designations, and so on). I am not a liberal, but one of the left coalition that can scarcely win a primary, so I am inured to my powerlessness. But in the final years of that decade, I learned that I was limitlessly powerful. Indeed, hadn’t we Bernie bros — I preferred “Berning Men” — opened the gaps through which Trump crawled? And weren’t we therefore obligated to kneel first during public rituals of self-cleansing? And wasn’t each person not simply an agent of their own notions, but a resister to or collaborator with public feeling? Of late, a beloved friend whose politics are far more virtuous than mine has chastised me for voting with too little enthusiasm. My shrug, you see, is complicit with “the other side.” It enables them. And I think: surely it must rankle human dignity to be radicalized for so moderate a force as the Democratic party.  Everywhere in the Complicity Era, we were compelled to exercise our power through illocutionary speech acts — denouncing and endorsing on cue. This included accolades for “Nazi-punching” far from our front doors, declamations against election interference by Russia (who, long ago, perfected the art of Nazi-punching), and odes

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