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COLUMN: Your intellectual idols will disappoint you


By Julia Bourkland



As a young person, I admit to knowing very little.

To compensate, I pool knowledge from scholars, activists and public figures that I admire to create a collage of beliefs that inform my view of the world from what would otherwise be a small vantage point. I rely on these voices for inspiration and critical thinking, and view them as credible, trusted sources.

Occasionally, though, one of them makes a statement that demonstrates how ignorant even the most precious intellectual authorities can be.

Last week, journalist and former lawyer Jill Filipovic commented on an analysis of modern liberalism from The Washington Post via her Twitter account.

“Today’s socialist left: more 1930s than ‘60s. Yep. Remember who was excluded from political participation in the ‘30s?” she tweeted.

But Filipovic’s Twitter thread was deeply ahistorical and intellectually dishonest.

By invoking a shallow call to lift voices of color in an inaccurate recollection of political history, she removed such people of color, specifically black activists and organizers, from America’s socialist movement.

People of color have always been organizing politically, whether white people recognize it or not.

Writer and researcher Roqayah Chamseddine said it best in her Medium piece responding to the comment.

“How else are you going to accuse socialists of being white men if you’re made to acknowledge the existence of black and PoC socialists?” Chamseddine said. “We don’t exist, but for the illustrations of us they use to peddle neoliberal policies, and centrist organizing tactics that are about as spineless and cartoonish as their very ideology.”

Many of those whose writing I look up to are white liberals and relatively young themselves.

These people are easily digestible to me. I don’t have to seriously acknowledge my status as a middle-class white woman when I read a piece about race and political participation or the intersection of race and gender in American civic life because, frankly, issues of racial oppression and white supremacy are largely tokenized.

These topics are clouded by the theme of resistance in the shallowest terms.

Calls to help your fellow human or analyze your privilege are thrown in one-liners among a piece that is, at its core, intellectually dishonest by erasing the work of people of color to rewrite history through a white gaze.

In short, the people you look up to will disappoint you.

A piece of writing, public debate or tweet by an intellectual figure will be eyed as questionable. Perhaps the second or third time around, their actions will be labeled as problematic. Eventually, they could even be deemed a problematic person.

But an upset with someone, like Filipovic, who people look up to for intellectual counsel doesn’t have to end in disdain for the intricate political and social movements at large. These moments serve as a lesson in critical thinking and an opportunity for privileged younger people to gain new perspectives about the world around them.

This is surprising to no one, of course.

Every person feels that tinge in the pit of their stomach of confusion, hurt and betrayal when a person whose every word they hung onto says or does something dishonest.

Young people feel this pain the hardest since it is often previously uncharted.

Nevertheless, we must continue to try and make sense of the world by staying critical and wide-eyed, calling out lies and searching for truth.

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