Of Claps and Pronouns

Tucker Carlson, attacking the 2019 DSA convention.

The national convention of the Democratic Socialists of America in Atlanta this August attracted a fair amount of attention, partly because the event happened as the group is growing and its favoured presidential candidate, Senator Bernie Sanders, is still doing well in the polls.

But Fox News pundit Tucker Carlson and his guest, Angela Nagle, took a swipe at the organisation, for a very particular reason.

For those who are unfamiliar, Carlson is a right-wing pundit on Fox News who, like his colleagues, take pleasure in both mocking leftists and portraying them as a dangerous threat to America, who also recently declared that white supremacy doesn’t exist.

Nagle is an Irish writer whose book, Kill All Normies, looks at the emergence of the online alt-right. She publicly identifies as a socialist, although her critics accuse her of social conservatism.

Angela Nagle was previously featured on Carlson’s show opposing the left’s support for open borders, on the grounds that it would protect American jobs from cheaper labor.

Carlson is sympathetic to the idea: he famously sparked outrage when he said that immigration makes “our country poorer, dirtier and more divided”.

The Fox host showed a few snippets from the DSA event, highlighting the use of an American Sign Language hand signal to replace clapping, a popular method of keeping a meeting moving.

Carlson also made light of a participant who stressed that conference participants avoid gendered words, like “guys,” when addressing the group.

Nagle’s point was that while she agrees with DSA’s economic message, she felt these practices would hurt the group’s growth, even though, as she admitted, it has significantly enlarged since the 2016 election.

But all this leads up to the line she clearly waited for the whole segment to drop, that the only “invisible disability” its members suffered from was “bourgeois narcissism”. Nagle faintly grinned as she heard her own joke. Carlson giggled like an idiot.

There’s a lot to unpack here.

Angela Nagle said that if the DSA “would just stick to those economic issues, they would kind of have this in the bag…the problem is they have to wrap it in this stuff”.

Carlson followed up by saying that the DSA failed to tackle legitimate issues facing workers.

In fact, the DSA is not only extremely committed to economic issues, but these materialist concerns were a bigger feature of the convention than this snippet Fox decided to highlight.

The delegates passed resolutions declaring housing to be a human right and approved commitments to organise non-union workers.

The convention featured a speech by Sara Nelson, president of the flight attendants union, a notable militant union leader who isn’t shy about threatening transport strikes.

In New York (where this writer is a member), DSA-backed State Senator Julia Salazar’s key issues are tenant rights and affordable housing. And DSA-backed US Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez often invokes her previous job as a bartender to underscore her economic positions.

The group is committed to the Medicare-for-All proposal, and its members have campaigned for union issues and for lifting the minimum wage around the country.

Then there are the alleged transgressions themselves, the first being that convention members were reminded to use gender-neutral language.

To make an obvious point, it’s not shocking that a socialist organisation might prefer something like “comrades” over “you guys”. Even though this might seem like a generational difference between the younger set and the old-timers, this language switch is a not a tall order.

Then there’s the outrage about ASL hand signals to reduce noise. Carlson and Nagle made a fuss that this was yielding too much influence to people with sensory issues.

Holding applause and using “jazz hands” in these settings, especially on the American left, aren’t unusual, largely because hollering, cheering and applauding can make a long meeting even longer when internal business has to be settled. There’s nothing bourgeois or narcissistic about wanting a meeting to be inclusive and efficient.

Some leftists who sympathised with Nagle’s take believe that these practices alienate working-class persons, as they build a culture that’s limited to people who tend to be white, college-educated and in higher-earning jobs.

But this, ironically, takes some anti-working class sentiment to believe, as it insists that working-class people are hopelessly unable to operate in a political organisation centred on inclusivity.

In a way, accusations that the young, ascendant left is too hyper-sensitive really seem like a form of projection – if you are easily upset by gender-neutral pronouns, maybe you’re the hypersensitive one.

Such critiques often define working class not as a relationship to capital but as a set of mainstream cultural signifiers. For example, Coors beer, hamburgers and gendered terms are working class, vegetarianism and them/they as singular pronouns are not.

This is an old cudgel the American right has used against Democrats. Despite opposing unions, reducing taxes on wealth and cutting public services, Republicans have successfully turned many working-class voters against Democrats, painting liberals as being out of touch with American values – too coastal, too politically correct, too secular.

So, it makes sense that Carlson and Fox would want to continue the tradition against the DSA as it rises in popularity and distract attention from the DSA’s economic agenda. But that’s not how socialists are to understand class.

Fortunately, from optimistic declarations of many of the convention’s delegates and the material issues they addressed, it seems like much of the DSA understands that.

Screenshot courtesy of Fox News. All rights reserved.