Groggily sloshing through Brooklyn’s streets and nursing a mild hangover with an Egg McMuffin in hand, I was as excited as I could be at 9 a.m. to attend Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Kickoff at Brooklyn College on Saturday, March 2.
Sanders was, unsurprisingly, his eccentric avuncular self. His shtick against the 1 percent emboldened fellow listeners who jeered at the “billionaihes” and “millionaihes.” As Sanders spoke, the podium became a pulpit. Citizen-activists seemed more parishioners, enraptured in the throes of a Great Awakening of socialism. This collective emotion seems to have been stirred on our own campus at Columbia, with students like me who Feel the Bern. I wanted more than anything to dive right in, bathe in the baptismal waters, and “bring to birth a new world from the ashes of the old.” But there are signs from the on- and off-campus left that made me hesitate to take the plunge.
A line against endless wars from Bernie elicited many to scream “Hands off Venezuela!” Ignore that Nicolás Maduro is a dictator undemocratically clinging to power on the backs of starving Venezuelans. The Jacobin’s papal bulls leave no room for debate. Fall in line, comrade, lest you open yourself up to the socialists calling you a neocon, a war hawk, or most hackneyed of them all, a fascist!
Hands Off Venezuela was, aptly, the title of a Barnard Columbia Socialists event earlier this year. In my opinion, the Columbia left mirrors the left of the broader political nation in its factional schisms and equivocal positions on foreign policy topics like Venezuela. Fittingly, the information distributed by Barnard Columbia Socialists slammed Maduro for his authoritarian anti-democratic bent. Yet while acknowledging Maduro’s illegitimate May 2018 election as a fraud, it defended his presidency as the “true” presidency. It also offered staunch opposition to “right-wing” Juan Guaidó, whose party is a member of Socialist International, and any U.S. attempt to support anti-Maduro actors based on considerations of “sovereignty.”
Maduro clearly stands in the way of a democratic Venezuela, but short of a hollow raised fist in “solidarity,” I have seen no concrete policy proposal to help remove Maduro from power. It is disheartening that many campus socialists superficially condemn authoritarianism in Venezuela but advocate for non-interventionism.
Interestingly, the noninterventionist principle so often touted doesn’t seem to apply to Israel. Pro-boycott, divest, and sanction signs flourished at Shaun King’s comment about Israeli apartheid. Why is that injustice in Israel demands sanctions, but in Venezuela demands inaction?
Is this a political stance which inherently betrays anti-Semitism? Not necessarily. However, growing support on the left for unqualified and unprincipled anti-Zionist rhetoric indisputably allows for politicians like Ilhan Omar to peddle in tropes which perpetuate anti-Semitic stereotypes of Jews. Some left-wing groups, including Barnard Columbia Socialists, came to her defense. Yes, Omar has been the victim of Islamophobia. Yes, anti-Zionism is not anti-Semitism. But no, Omar’s comments were not problem-free. Troublesome political rhetoric, even when deployed in legitimate criticism of Israel, needs to be called out. If we do not call it out, it will mire the political case to be made against real and exigent Israeli injustices against Palestinians.
The sloppy acceptance of ineffective policies and semantically careless politics is worrisome. Moreover, institutions like Barnard Columbia Socialists and the Jacobin have entrenched themselves as the vanguard of the “socialist” foreign policy line both on our campus and in the wider world, respectively. This worrying faction seems to be firmly established on the left vying for political control of the word socialist and careening left-wingers into intellectually shaky positions.
Bernie Sanders, on his part, is not responsible for every half-baked “left-wing” idea espoused by those supporting him. Sanders should be judged on his unwavering advocacy for reducing wealth inequality, a $15 minimum wage, and bringing back unions. These are all positions that the Columbia left, including Student Worker Solidarity and Barnard Columbia Socialists, champion. Yet I believe that Barnard Columbia Socialists will most likely reject Bernie in 2020 as they did in 2016. The International Socialist Organization, its parent organization, is highly skeptical of electoral politics, a position which should make everyone suffering Trump’s odious tenure bristle at.
More broadly, Bernie represents a shift in social relations. This endears Bernie to a sizeable swath of Americans, myself included. Tired of traditional Democratic politics and revolted by the Republican alternative, Bernie is an imperfect but true “bright light in dark times” appealing to our sense of community, justice, and equality: themes he constantly propounded in his kick-off speech that I attended in Brooklyn.
In order to fashion Bernie’s political revolution, however, those who consider themselves socialists on and off campus must not ignore the dubious political cover we have granted unsavory political actors, like third-rate dictators and anti-Semites. These are strange bedfellows we can ill afford to make. If we do, we’ll inevitably wake up, turn over, and shudder at what we have stooped to, something most Americans will have already done long before.
The author is a junior in General Studies in the Dual BA Program with Sciences Po. He enjoys 3 a.m. Ken Burns documentary binges and blasting labor songs at his conservative roommate. Feel free to accost him at firstname.lastname@example.org or in the GS Lounge.
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