The Women’s March on Washington—ostensibly about feminism, but not-so-subtextually intended as a demonstration against the Trump presidency—has run into issues, if not problems.
Black feminists have turned off white women with calls to check their privilege. The march’s inclusion of a pro-life group as a partner in a march that cites abortion rights as one of its “unity principles” was proven controversial and “horrified” the usual suspects. The march has now disowned the pro-life group. Given the march’s problems with alienating women, it is not surprising that the enterprise has had some difficulty attracting men.
The New York Times helpfully explains that “[t]his brand of feminism — frequently referred to as ‘intersectionality’ — asks white women [and presumably everyone else] to acknowledge that they have had it easier.” Moreover: “[T]hese debates over race also reflect deeper questions about the future of progressivism in the age of Trump. Should the march highlight what divides women, or what unites them? Is there room for women who have never heard of ‘white privilege’?”
In the wake of these stories, Heather Wilhelm and Noah C. Rothman have written about the self-devouring ouroboros of intersectionality. However, it may be up to a British comedy troupe to demonstrate the more basic political problem. In “Monty Python’s Life of Brian,” a man born next door to Jesus Christ endures mistaken identity problems. Along the way, for personal and political reasons, Brian attempts to join the People’s Front of Judea, a group rebelling against the Roman occupation of Judea.
A Satire of Left-Wing Revolutionaries
Immediately before Brian meets the PFJ, the rebel Judith (to whom Brian is attracted) tells the group’s leader, “I do feel, Reg, that any Anti-Imperialist group like ours must reflect such a divergence of interests within its power-base.” Following a now very politically incorrect discussion of transgender politics, Reg invites Brian to join the group with a memorable lesson about radical movement politics (language warning)
REG: Right. You’re in. Listen. The only people we hate more than the Romans are the f***ing Judean People’s Front.
FRANCIS: And the Judean Popular People’s Front.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Oh, yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
STAN/LORETTA: And the People’s Front of Judea.
P.F.J.: Yeah. Splitters. Splitters…
STAN/LORETTA: The People’s Front of Judea. Splitters.
REG: We’re the People’s Front of Judea!
STAN/LORETTA: Oh. I thought we were the Popular Front.
REG: People’s Front! C-huh.
FRANCIS: Whatever happened to the Popular Front, Reg?
REG: He’s over there.
This sketch-within-a-movie did not come out of nowhere. In the video commentary for the film, John Cleese (Reg) explains that the scene was a satire on the proliferation of left-wing revolutionary parties in the United Kingdom during the period when the movie was written and shot.
Incidentally, no one will mistake Cleese for a Tory, let alone an American conservative. He has, for example, cited Fox News as an example of the Dunning-Kruger effect, which is the theory that the incompetent fail to realize their own incompetence or accurately estimate the skills of others. Yet Cleese and his fellow white, male comics (now old and some dead, not just resting) understood that splinter parties of any ideology generally start off as counter-productive and usually end as just plain silly.
You Don’t Make Friends By Alienating Them
The rise of left-wing splinter parties in the United Kingdom in 1970s were at least a symptom and perhaps one cause of the demise of old-school Labour politics and the rise of a Margaret Thatcher-led Conservative Party. Indeed, splinter parties are often associated with political instability, Weimar Germany being another classic example.
The structure of American government discourages splinter parties from forming, but the lesson is also applicable to movements. Indeed, it is particularly applicable to saga of civil rights in America.
The entity most directly responsible for ending slavery in America, the Republican Party, was at its outset a motley amalgamation of former Whigs, Democrats, and even anti-immigrant Know-Nothings (although the last chagrined Abraham Lincoln). The passage of the Thirteenth Amendment ultimately required additional support from northern Democrats, whether based in principle or not. The civil rights movement of the 1960s was a coalition that included both liberal Democrats and Republicans.
What Monty Python understood is that politics is about winning friends and influencing people (to paraphrase another dead white male, Dale Carnegie). The organizers of the Women’s March seem to be struggling with the idea that demanding ideological purity, especially on day one, is not winning friends. Without winning friends, it is difficult to influence people.
As Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-MO) said of her party after the election: “I’m proud of the fact that we’re a party of diversity and inclusivity, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t be talking to everyone. And I feel like we’ve neglected to do that.” Monty Python may have been unable to write it better.