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The left should stop being 'Intellectual Zambonis' for bad ideas
Pretending a bad idea is good for political reasons doesn't help anyone.
Note: This is actually my second big post of the week. Don’t forget to go and check out my argument for why the British government should buy Twitter (!).
During the Trump era, the Pod Save America podcast host Jon Lovett coined the phrase “Intellectual Zambonis” to describe the strange phenomenon of serious people who essentially took it upon themselves to clean up Trump’s mess.
We saw it happen a lot during those horrible four years. Donald Trump would sit on his White House toilet, and would tweet some crazy nonsense – or maybe he’d go to a rally and say something completely incoherent… And shortly after, his staffers, Republican congress-people and right-wing commentators would take his words and essentially attempt to reframe or rationalise them to try and make him sound smarter than he was.
In other words, they would essentially perform the same job intellectually as a Zamboni1, which is a machine that’s sent out during an ice hockey match to remove the debris from the rink and smooth out the ice.
There are plenty examples of this phenomenon to choose from. But the one that comes to my mind is from 2020, when Trump simply tweeted the word “OBAMAGATE!”2. It was a coinage that had not been used before, and was not a name that had emerged for an existing scandal. In other words, it was meaningless bullshit.
Yet following Trump’s tweet, the conservative commentator Hugh Hewitt published an opinion piece in the Washington Post constructing essentially a post-hoc conspiracy/scandal about Obama spying on the Trump campaign in order to give Donald’s brain-fart a veneer of credibility or at least a little intellectual weight. Hewitt was the Zamboni who followed behind Trump, and cleared up his mess.
Anyway, “Intellectual Zamboni” is a good phrase, not just because “Zamboni” is a fun word to say, but because it’s a phenomenon you see regularly in politics, including amongst my ideological allies on the left half of the political spectrum. And that’s why I’m going to argue, with the aid of two infuriating examples, that we should stop doing it.
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XR’s silly protest
A press release landed in my inbox the other day from the famous environmentalist group Extinction Rebellion. Curious as to what they’ve been doing recently to raise awareness of the importance of climate mitigation, I clicked on to the email.
And then… Oh.
Extinction Rebellion (XR) activists staged a protest in the House of Commons today to demand that our political leaders call for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza.
At 2.45pm, XR activists stood up in the gallery above the chamber and unfurled banners emblazoned with the message: ‘CEASEFIRE NOW'.
The action was timed to coincide with a Parliamentary debate on the King’s Speech, where amendments from SNP and Labour back-benchers were expected to be debated calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an end to the Israel Defence Forces bombardment of 2.2m Palestinians trapped in the area.
That’s right, it appears the whole climate thing is passé, so the country’s most high profile climate activist group is wading into the situation in the Middle East instead.
Unsurprisingly then, I think this was a pretty silly protest, for reasons I’ve written about before. Because regardless of your views on the merits of the British Parliament calling for a ceasefire, my view is that if you’re actually concerned about climate then it is incredibly counter-productive to associate your cause with a laundry list of other, wildly controversial demands. If we want a durable political coalition that supports action to mitigate climate change, activists should aim to broaden the tent, not narrow it3.
And given how politics works, if we want Net Zero measures implemented over the next few decades, we need to persuade people on the political right to be on board with it too.
Anyway, when I tweeted about it, snarking about how it was weird that a climate/environmental group were protesting the situation in Gaza, what struck me was that several responses were essentially people driving the Zamboni behind XR’s4 bizarre stunt.
“It’s not activist-brain smushing causes together in an undisciplined way… I can rationalise a tenuous link to climate change.”
“Because previous protests about the climate were effective, we can ignore the specific merits of this one.”
“Actually this thing which appears dumb is actually smart, and is part of this bigger thing.”
Essentially then, what all three correspondents here are doing5 is taking what was a very foolish protest, and attempting to intellectualise away the obvious flaws, to make it sound like it was a good, well thought out protest6. Which I find bizarre, not least because the original XR press release doesn’t mention the impact of war on climate change.
So even if you think climate action and the horrible situation in Gaza are important (they are!), it should still be possible to say that a climate group7 protesting about Gaza is a stupid idea, without having to pretend otherwise.
From the river…
This all said, the strangest Intellectual Zambonis in recent weeks were not the handful of broadly friendly people in my mentions, but the many people who seem very keen to rationalise the controversial chant “From the river to sea”, which has been regularly heard at pro-Palestinian protests following the Hamas terrorist attack in Israel.
To be clear, the phrase has an exhausting backstory. It has been used over the years by a number of different actors in the Middle East. From the Palestinian Liberation Organisation in the 1960s to describe their maximalist claim for Palestinian territory, to the Israeli right in the 1970s (to describe how they’d like Israel’s territory to expand). And since it has been evoked by a bunch of different Islamist terrorist groups, and even incorporated into the Hamas charter.
Needless to say, its use today is at best provocative – and it is fairly widely considered antisemitic, including by the likes of the Anti-Defamation League.
And I’m sure that over the last few weeks it has been used by different people with all sorts of intentions. For example, there’s actual Hamas-supporting antisemites who are probably shouting it and imagining a very different ‘peace’ settlement to naive western liberals chanting along who are unaware of the complicated history.
And of course there is use by right-on activist types who are aware of the backstory and want to vicariously experience a frisson of radicalism, albeit from the safety of living a comfortable middle-class life in Britain8.
But despite the clearly, er, mixed reception the phrase gets, what I don’t understand is the reflexive instinct to Zamboni it, as in the above screenshot. “Oh, this notorious phrase that many people consider antisemitic is actually just a completely innocent geographic description”. Why play dumb?
The guy above is not the only person to do it. Many other commentators on the left have been happy to defend its usage too. This is just as bizarre as the XR Zambonis.
Because even if you don’t think that every usage of the phrase is definitely antisemitic, then at least on a tactical level arguing that the phrase should be considered acceptable seems like a strange hill to die on, when so many other people (including both Hamas and the Anti-Defamation League) consider it to be loaded with other, more controversial connotations about wanting the destruction of Israel.
To excuse uses of the phrase then just seems like a weird generosity of spirit that I imagine many of the same people wouldn’t extend to, for example, people who innocently use the phrase “all lives matter”.
So my point is, instead of attempting to Zamboni the phrase – why not just say using it is a bad or unwise and use something else to rally your cause instead, even if it means losing out on a pretty good rhyme?
Politics is a team sport
Once you start to notice intellectual Zambonis, you start to see them everywhere. And on one level, I get it.
Politics is a team sport, and if you want to be a good team player, then you need to support your team-mates, even when they are saying and doing stupid stuff. Perhaps especially when. Because if you admit that an argument or a point is bad, you risk giving an opening to the other side by showing weakness.
So if you really care about climate or the situation in Gaza, then of course you have a strong incentive to convince yourself that Extinction Rebellion’s protest wasn’t counterproductive, or that the people who think the phrase has antisemitic connotations are wrong.
And worse still, perhaps if you don’t stick up for these ludicrous things, then there’s a risk that your friends and allies won’t think that you’re sufficiently down with the cause, risking negative social consequences. It’s much easier to leap through hoops to justify your existing opinions than it is to change your mind.
So this all said, I find Zambonis depressing. It’s intellectually unhealthy to pretend obviously crazy nonsense is actually completely reasonable because it is more convenient to do so. And though it may help to defend your team in the short term, in the long run it risks undermining the cause you’re ostensibly standing for, making it harder to build a coalition by raising the threshold on the beliefs and values supporters need to hold to be a part of the movement.
But there is good news: It doesn’t have to be this way. You can simply choose not to.
You don’t have to hand in your left-wing card if you criticise people on your own side. You can still criticise XR without everyone thinking you want the planet to burn. And you can still support the Palestinian people without having to rationalise the words of antisemites and Hamas supporters.
So let’s try not to be Intellectual Zambonis. If more of us are prepared to point out when bad ideas are actually bad, then it will make us all intellectually better off – and help us actually achieve our political goals in the long run.
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You might also enjoy this post on why it’s important to sometimes be the asshole in the room, and this one on a massive intellectual failure by critics of Elon Musk.
‘Zamboni’ is actually a brand name that has become the generic term for a category or phenomenon, like Hoover (vacuum cleaners), Tannoy (public address systems), or Corden (the grim inevitability of death).
I hate that I can link to this and it works again.
It’s for the same reason I thought it was depressing that Greta Thunberg, the world’s most famous climate activist, waded into the Middle East conflict too. Because if we need to make peace in the Middle East before 2050, if we’re going to solve climate change… we’re completely fucked.
The fact that I call it “XR” is evidence of effective branding. Even though I should really call it “ER”, the group has embedded the XR that any other sobriquet would feel weird. Like how even BBC News calls it the “iPhone” and not “Iphone”, even though capping-up the P and the lowercase I is just Apple’s marketing.
I realise I’m being a massive arsehole by highlighting these three specific comments from people who were kind enough to follow and engage with me.
The “Beyond Politics” ‘strategy’ is interesting. I’m not sure how protesting about Gaza fits in to that. But what it basically calls for is more Citizens Assemblies, which is something I’m very sceptical of.. (Also, here’s a good Novara (!) piece I found on the evolving politics of XR).
I’m sure someone will attempt to Zamboni this and argue that XR is about more than just climate. But if that’s the case, it is weird how their explanation of the “extinction” is… entirely about climate and what they believe are its downstream consequences.
Shout-out to the extremely right-on person I went to university with who has been posting “From the River to the Sea” graphics in between photos from luxury hotels.