When I was a teenager, I went through a libertarian phase. A lot of factors contributed to it. One was my desire to connect with my father, who was (and remains) an avid Rush Limbaugh fan. Another was my desire to piss of my high school history teacher, who was obnoxiously liberal in a way I’d never encountered before (for example, he had the class sing union songs, etc.). I think what appealed to me most, however, was the simplicity of it all, which I took as a measure of its elegance and explanatory power. So few principles to explain every important question of public policy! And best of all: despite its simplicity and obvious correctness, so few people had embraced it. I was part of an intellectual elite, far above the benighted masses.
In other words, I went through a libertarian phase because I was a teenage boy and smart teenage boys tend to be arrogant dicks. I grew out of it, though, not through some kind of epiphany or dramatic encouragement, but out of simple boredom. The answers no longer seemed satisfyingly elegant — they just seemed repetitive and predictable. Even leaving aside the question of their truth value (which I was really in no position to assess), there just wasn’t enough “there” to hold my interest.
Things might have gone differently, though. I was in a good high school that had honors and advanced placement courses that challenged me intellectually in ways that my libertarian ideals never could. I was also given the space to explore religion more intellectually, opening up vastly more complex — and to me, more existentially vital — questions. If I hadn’t been in such an intellectually fruitful environment, however, I imagine that I would have rested content with the meager satisfactions of libertarianism, because at least it was something. Indeed, if other forces hadn’t intervened, I might have become gradually innoculated against other forms of intellectual stimulation, cherishing my self-image as a bold truth-teller rejected by the mainstream as compensation for my lack of genuine education.
Many who embrace libertarianism and other right-wing ideas, it seems to me, never outgrew that adolescent attitude. For lack of opportunity — or simply through rationalized laziness, because our society socializes young men to believe that their genius is more clearly displayed the less work they have to do — they have stayed within the narrow explanatory circle provided by right-wing media and have chosen to interpret its self-enclosure as elitism rather than close-mindedness.
Viewing these people as individuals, we can be tempted to judge them as pathetic or deluded. But when I look at the example of my own father, I prefer to see them as thwarted and even victimized. My dad is a smart guy whose background didn’t give him many opportunities. He took every path available to better himself, but at a certain point he got stuck at an educational dead-end due to family obligations. Still hungry for some intellectual engagement, he turned to fundamentalist Christianity and later to right-wing radio. They gave him a framework for understanding the world, and they both share similar strategies for innoculating their followers against being open to other positions.
What’s so insidious in both cases is the fact that they package elitism for the masses. Ayn Rand is supposedly giving us the esoteric answer to all major problems — in the form of a pulp fiction novel. You get to feel intellectually superior and “in the know” without doing much actual work. The whole system works to convince you that a limited set of tired cliches are not only the answer — but that they’re an answer no one else has heard, hence the need to inject them into every conceivable debate. And when people inevitably reject them? Well, what else do you expect from those misinformed sheep?
The combination of simplicity and false elitism affects every aspect of right-wing intellectual culture. It accounts for the fascination with a cheap “gotcha” — because it is always necessarily the more hidden or little-known statement that reveals the real truth. I experienced this in my recent swirlie in the toilet of right-wing harrassment, as dozens of people asserted that precisely because I had deleted my tweets, they must show what I truly believe. The secret “gotcha” uncovered by the right-wing media but covered up (viz., appropriately ignored) by the mainstream is what really counts, because only people who are “in the know” would know about it.
Beyond its destructive effects on political culture as a whole and even beyond the false ideals it propagates — after all, no political agenda is free of bad effects or convenient falsehoods — what I find most objectionable about the right-wing echo chamber is the way it cuts people off from genuine intellectual engagement. Indeed, it actively preys on people who are most hungry for that engagement, giving them intellectual sawdust and passing it on as food. The fact that so many people embrace the right-wing echo chamber is not, for me, a sign that there are a lot of dumb or naive people, but rather that there is a systemic deprivation of intellectual stimulation in our society.
The rise of the right-wing echo chamber is not simply a sign that our education system has failed — though it is also that — but for those who have ears to hear, it represents people crying out for the real satisfactions of the intellectual life. The fact that they’ve had to make do with a cheap substitute is not an indictment of them personally so much as of the forces that prey on their intellectual curiosity and the society that rendered them so vulnerable to that predation in the first place.
24 thoughts on “The perpetual adolescence of the right”
Great stuff here. When I taught college students in Texas I noticed that the outspoken libertarians were some of the smartest students for exactly the reasons you explain. Unlike their peers, they were actually curious about the world.
We had an excellent school librarian who, when she noticed I had immersed myself in Ayn Rand novels, slyly mentioned that there were no children in the novels. That planted a seed that later grew into an awareness that Objectivism might not have all the answers to life. A much better strategy than directly confronting me; she gave me something to think about.
President Obama has made similar comments about Ayn Rand novels being of particular fascination to the adolescent male mind. Other apparently complete systems of thought appealing to false elitism have caught young men in their snares. Anarchism, Fascism, Maoism. Currently Islamicism.
I’ve often suspected a similar explanation for teenage libertarianism—it resonates, for one, with my avid interest in Aquinas in high school. I’m curious, though, whether you think this phenomenon is exclusive to the right. Do you think there are any liberal/leftist/otherwise non-conservative variants on the captivatingly-simple-explanation-to-everything that do or might attract clever, arrogant teenage boys?
Alexius, I think a good candidate for that is atheism. While there are vocal right wing atheists, the majority are quite liberal.
For a lot of people, intellectual activity begins and ends with “debunking religion”.
It’s scary how well this post accounts for my own experiences (both the libertarian phase and the family situation). Thanks for it.
I underwent a similar thing — as a high school student I got really into Abbie Hoffman (don’t ask) so although I was definitely on the liberal side, I was very susceptible to anti-PC nonsense in college. There was a moment when I was criticized in a meeting for making a cheap racist joke that I responded to with “I reserve the right to say fuck you to anyone” and then immediately after realized what a schmuck I sounded. The short happy life of an equal opportunity offender.
Obviously it’s not totally limited to the right. On Twitter, comment regular Craig suggested that Chomsky or Orwell might play a similar role on the left. I don’t see those types of things as preying on people in the same way as the right-wing apparatus that’s built up around libertarianism, etc., so it’s not as big a “systemic problem” — it’s harder to get submerged completely.
For what it’s worth, your description of your teenage libertarian phase almost exactly corresponds to my own. My dad is also a reasonably intelligent man from a not-especially-affluent background; although he is quite a ways to my right, he is also far, far to the left of the small-town Catholic culture he left behind when he became the first in his family to go to college. He was feeling particularly libertarian in the depths of the Bush years when I was a teenager – he voted for Michael Badnarik in 2004 – and I was very much influenced by what he was saying at the time; the more so because it went against the grain of the lefty orthodoxy surrounding me at school.
Since then he’s become increasingly leftish out of sheer contempt for the post-Obama GOP and its aggressive stupidity. But he was a lucky one, having settled in a very liberal university town where the right-wing media doesn’t hold sway. His family, who are mostly just as smart as him but never got out of his hometown, haven’t been so lucky. I’ve come to sense something very similar to what you talk about when I talk to my grandpa, or my aunts and uncles, or other rural-dwelling acquaintances of their age cohorts – people of obvious intelligence, people who might have become something quite different had they grown up with a different set of opportunities.
Yes, to follow up on the my Twitter comment Adam alludes to: teenage males who are more or less socially isolated and more or less of above average intelligence seem to gravitate towards extremism as a marker of distinction. Whether it is anarchism (the left version) or libertarianism (the right version) or punk, straight edge, metal, and so on, the result seems to be same: young males like extremes. The “safe” version of this, at least when I was growing up, was indie rock where intellect is converted into aesthetics. Sports are likely the inverted form of indie rock elitism. I won’t comment on teen women because I was never one of those, but females, from my recollection, seemed less prone to extremism in this way and more inclined to sample from a variety of different experiences.
This is so helpful. Thank you!
Sort of a psychosocial basis for right-wing propaganda in North America. As others have mentioned, this intellectual enclosure of under-stimulated young male brains is something in common to many reactionary currents, some of them more infamous than others.
Hear me out for a moment, please.
While it’s understandable to say the right wing young have their echo chamber described as a confederation of bullying, novelty, conformity, laziness, zealous adherence, herd behavior, extreme behavior, is it also true that fashion as the dominant intellectual approach for much of urban, left or liberal folk restricts “genuine intellectual engagement”?
This has been my experience. If you’re not updating alongside the same people, holding the same debates, speaking the same language, arguing the same ways, agreeing the same times, disagreeing the same times, praising the same persons, rejecting the same ideas, and do not conform to all the same taboos dominating whatever wing is the one who seeks to embrace you, you’re out.
The mechanisms for social ostracism might operate and look different between those who listen to Limbaugh, and disagree, and those who read Foucault, and disagree, but outsiders feel just the same either way on account of not knowing which social rules are the ones they break just by being themselves, particularly the rules enforced in places touting a safety of spaces for discourse. But because those who determine what’s safe for the public record feel they have right on their side, all violations of the standards become lumped together as motivated by the same larger system of cooptation, control, and exploitation, regardless of whatever actual praxis forms our lives after learning about intersectionality. While on the one hand there is something universal or appealing in holding that any message, even those from the authorities who curate the comments of their own blogs, should be deleted for failing to adhere to the right moral sensibilities, it does take a lot of careful insight into one’s own particular nothingness to stand perpetually before one’s own mistakes, to let them exist in this world as the consequences they entail, and admit culpability for having brought into existence what should not have been —at least for the rest of one’s life in the pages or archives of historians who thought us worthy to remember. In other words, perhaps one of the greatest antidotes for the vanity that will lead us all into ruin is to ask the future not to remember our mighty deeds and despair but our most routine sniveling, snickering, snobbery, sniping, sneering—all the ways we have been learning maturity through failing our way there. Maybe we should despair at our own selves from time to time, with actual evidence and not the memory alone.
The cost for this insight, of course, is learning to live with the permanence of moral failure and figuring out from this how to live and love, die and hate, so that this doesn’t ever happen again. Rather than forgiveness that erases, perhaps discretion that hesitates? Twitter is a medium of speed and acceleration. It not only encourages a sharp mind to collapse complex ideas into smaller and more concise, more dense, symbols, it encourages the quip, the wit—together, the whip. As a medium, does it allow for resisting the urge to respond sooner, quicker, to get into it, to become part of it, to get in on that action, to involve one’s self? Of course it does, as does all technology, but the off button is inside us, not on the box.
“A great deal of knowledge is needed to make bows, crossbows, nets, arrows, and so forth, but the result is that the birds fly higher in distress. A great deal of knowledge is needed to make fishing lines, traps, baits and hooks, but the result is that the animals are disturbed and seek refuge in marshy lands. In the same way, the versatility needed to produce rhetoric, to plot and scheme, spread rumors and debate pointlessly, to dust off arguments and seek apparent agreement, is also considerable, but the result is that the people are confused. So everything under Heaven is in a state of distress, all because of the pursuit of knowledge. Everything in the world knows how to seek for knowledge that they do not have, but do not know how to find what they already know. Everything in the world knows how to condemn what they dislike, but do not know how to condemn what they have which is wrong. This is what causes such immense confusion. It is as if the brightness of the sun and moon had been eclipsed above, while down below the hills and streams have lost their power, as though the natural flow of the four seasons had been broken. There is no humble insect, not even any plant, that has not lost its innature nature. This is the consequence for the world of seeking after knowledge. From the Three Dynasties down to the present day it has been like this. The good and honest people are ignored, while the spineless flatterers are advanced. The quiet and calm of actionless action is cast aside and pleasure is taken in argument. It is this nonsense which has caused such confusion for everything under Heaven.”
I appreciate your time, and I don’t mean to offend. Nothing I’m saying is superior to anything anyone else is saying. It’s just a different take is all.
Charles, I’m not offended because I can’t even make out what you’re saying. I appreciate your desire to engage at length, but it often becomes an obstacle to understanding. Nuance can collapse into vagueness.
Hmm. Maybe I can say it this way.
What was the ironic point you were making about libertarians who call other people sheep? Is it that this is something we find often among the libertarians, how they look down on things they do not understand as though those things are sheep, such as a certain kind of faith? It happens a lot, especially around higher ed campuses. Someone’s always among sheeple, I learned. So when you wrote “Well, what else do you expect from those misinformed sheep?” I took you not as speaking in your own voice, but theirs. So are we supposed to also imagine this is what libertarians do, like it identifies them? Thinking of others as sheep?
Then what do I make of this interesting twist in your argument shortly after you think of sheep? What had been a juxtaposing of the openness (“the space to explore religion”) and the vastness (a gift “opening up vastly more complex … questions”) of the experiences you had in high school against the enclosing and the packaging and the shrinking of views into sets of clichés, now becomes a story of active predation on people who are already hungry and starving, too. The system creates their numbers by actively depriving them of something maintaining intellectual stimulation—something more exciting than talk radio—and feeds them a cheap supplement. The system in the story becomes ‘forces’ that prey on people’s curiosity; the society makes those people vulnerable to predation. So, what, are they sheep now in your account?
If the only point of this ironic turn of events is that you don’t look down on the people you call sheep, but instead hold them, in a sense, blameless for being the products of their environments, then we’re back at the question you were asking recently here, a question concerning the point of empty gestures.
After all, you could have been like any other white person whom you easily diagnose and antagonize (as you said, you “delight at how much it angers” people to have them “play out their role” you instigated with how you criticize them). But you aren’t like that, because as you reiterate in both those posts, you found yourself in a “diverse community” that helped you to walk the path of unlearning the white male supremacy of your youth, this new theme and new story of community-based salvation. Your story is a testimony, a model of how diversity helps the white male become less of the worst white male identity, and the values you encountered in your youth and in formative experiences made you into this model, and not like other white males with different models and environments. Yours was a diverse community of people at one point, “a good high school that had honors and advanced placement courses” at another. Environment, the nurturing practices, shape us. So, you’re not the white male you could have been, because your surroundings made you this way now. White males are not your role models, but you are ours. You got out of the dead-end of fundamentalism.
This same theme of looking to the community, and its particular self-narration, pops up in two other posts of yours. Recall your earlier post about black and white environments. There, the different environments produced different senses of justice and what legitimates violence. I especially love this sense of the intimate knowledge “of what a political settlement based on violence looks like, because they live it every day.” They, the living children of dead slaves, know violence intimately, directly in their bodies. This theme of bodies will take us to the sentiment and correctness in the position you take on the self-defeated left, where you push towards recognition of the material need for intergroup alliances and confederations, based as they are on wholly different perspectives of what it’s like in this shared material world. We have to get past the little men “walled off in their own little ghetto” where “basically no one” listens to them (not even themselves!). We must instead focus on changing matter and how things occupy space and we acknowledge them through the actual kinetic changes made within the world. The material reality of the world is the only one who remembers who fought where and why and who lived. The dead don’t speak, but they can be heard.
Occupying space. “Boots on the ground” means exactly this, doesn’t it? Not hiking or gardening boots or waders, but military boots. Not those meant for stomping or kicking down, but gripping down, perhaps? Perhaps harmonizing off your own days of seeing the world from libertarian ground, you say something I already find repeated on Reason or lewrockwell or zerohedge: the “capitalist elites” who have “unprecedented military and monetary resources to press their agenda” use violence and kinetic change to take up and occupy space. What you want different from the elites is to get people to think of occupying space without any act of violence moving into that space. And, in doing so, to rethink how we tell stories about the roles our bodies play in what’s important to us. Our skins are different, and people make this difference so: the left needs to really get with this truth, you argue. The only thing dismantling idea is body building something. Otherwise, what happens to the left when it focuses on the universal abstention of Theory is enclosure, isolation, the ghetto, the claustrophobia. Notice the inside and the outside, the enclosure and the open, claustrophobia and … —but where’s agoraphobia in all this?
In that post about defeated leftists, the open expanse outside the ghetto is the home of everyone else who’s not caught up in bad leftist universalism. Compare this with a different concept of the ghetto environment you also invoke. Whereas you got into exploring space outside libertarianism by going inside a community that challenged your inner pride, those outside the academic ghetto occupy this same exclusion from the inside, the cultural space currently occupied by the system and its forces and the Powers (you have different ways of talking about this thing), but this exclusion into the outer is not their outside space to explore vastness of complexity. It’s not for them a place of liberation and open mindedness and renewed humility leading to curiosity; it’s not what a culture indoctrinates white males to see about the open space. For them, the space outside that one ghetto is another ghetto of criminalization and aggressive surveillance, the reality of a “centuries-long campaign of legal discrimination and extra-legal terrorism” promoting at least one of us, you, to admit that we kill black people for a reason. That reason? They are occupying space through the use of substantial force, the force of substance existing where it’s unwanted:
Who are they whom we kill? They are the black community. The system supporting the collectively threatening hallucinations to make the white people feel safe and secure “requires entrapping black in a claustrophobic dystopia from which only the most fortunate and remarkable individuals can extricate themselves.” Notice the return of this language of enclosure, closeness, entrapment, where every pressure comes from every side and exacerbates the horror of suffocating in a bubble of space: claustrophobia. Their ghetto is a suffocating trap. Extrication is the mode of exit, not evaporation or sublimation, not teleportation through barriers, not tunneling out through walls —they have to pull themselves out from outside the cell. But here now comes one parallel.
1. If black people aren’t us, since you aren’t saying we are killing ourselves here, then we’re the ones killing. We’re the white community; that’s who us is in this post. And, who are we? Well, if the parallels are right, then either we’re “the most powerful human power” who still fails at doing what it claims to do—which, when it comes down to it, is pretty much what all the colors say about the white color, but the whites will correct us and tell the story even better for us—or we’re the people who have the most powerful human power at our disposal, but still failing at using it completely. Either way, as you say, we hate the truth about our weakness to completely kill the black community and the justice they stand for. The story of overcoming the white male belief involves admitting the white male is connected with “the most powerful human power.” Well, is that admission true? Perhaps it’s ironic to say the most powerful weakens before something even less powerful, but in what way ironic? Intentionally so? To be outside the white male dead-end, do I need to say whites are the most powerful human powers yet?
The second post I recall is the one where you, I guess sometime after our discussion about nuclear things here, talk about the mentality of the nuclear bunker. Continuing this riffing off what ‘nuclear’ signifies and suggests, you do some interesting thinking on this bunker as an enclosure of protective safety, shielding the huddled family of survivors from that “incomprehensibly scary place” outside their concrete shell, the chaos aboveground. The nuclear family is a breeding family, and all the post-nuclear wasteland stories still match the much older wilderness stories by driving home this omnipresent natalist need to reproduce and breed the species everywhere. But that’s the fictional narrative. The narrative based on a truer story—the story you tell us—goes that out there, beyond those walls, are their own collective hallucinations. It’s those threats they hallucinate that are the cover story for the deeper truth, the hidden conspiracy, the true danger, the prison of the entire system mandating ‘nuclear family’ reproduction.
But this is exactly the social analysis we just saw with black communities in the US: the moral formation of the environment follows from how the restrictions shape the lived realities of justice. Link also this assessment of the ideology of nuclear families with your own assessment above on the right wing or libertarian ideology prompting the “thwarted and the victimized” and the “people crying out for the real satisfactions of the intellectual life” to think the way they do. (But what are ‘real satisfactions’? Do we all share ‘real satisfactions’?) There’s this tension in your thinking about how to frame and understand the limitations of our enclosures, because on the one hand they victimize us, but on the other they shape some of us into those moral champions who do not do unto others what they do not wish done unto them. They are better than us, white people, as a community, you tell us. The black community has learned evil “by living in the machine we’ve built around them.” Once again, enclosed inside something, but now a machine, but still they are alive inside that.
The two images (outsides and insides, enclosures and open space) are virtually identical, and I’d imagine a close analysis of all these particular metaphorics concerning enclosures and claustrophobic situations as dreadful or suffocating will also have to cash out these kinds of acknowledgements that these ghettos, these “nuclear bunkers”, perform the same indemnifying gesture as other ghettos do for those other races. Our environments teach us our morality and our thinking. So, here comes another parallel, but a more challenging one.
2. That is, for these whites, living in those enclosed ghettos victimized them, in particular ways. This is how you argued. Living in other ghettos victimizes other ways. Carrying this further, if we agree with your sentiment when you said “only the most fortunate and remarkable individuals can extricate themselves” from the black ghettos (supposing no one wants segregation, of course), should we also agree that only the most fortunate and remarkable individuals can extricate themselves from the white ghettos?
What are these people like, if this is true? Who are the most fortunate and remarkable whites who extricated themselves from white ghettos? And are they, or certain black folk, the only ones who get out, respectively? How do you know that?
In all this, what I am saying is that it doesn’t hurt to take the time to read something, maybe more than twenty minutes, because we’re all putting these things out there and wanting some input about them. You want the libertarians and the academic leftists exposing themselves to something more than what’s echoing in the chamber; you want them to get outside, where the sun is, see how things really are and how people occupy space with their bodies, to see the feet upon the soil and not the abstract universals (leftists) nor the rights found by discourse (libertarians). You want them to undergo what happened with you. But maybe someone’s outside space is not your outside space, and maybe not all enclosed spaces are bad spaces or bereft of moral improvement, as you argue quite strongly in “All lives matter.”
Not all those enclosing spaces are suffocating; some are even very encouraging of high morals and sincere aesthetics. For some of us, the outside world is not exploration. It’s a different suffocation. More and more cameras and sniffers and intelligent widgets running recognition algorithms occupy all those open public spaces, store information for potential prosecution, and commodify physical presence itself, buying and selling all the data recording who was where and watched or touched what and when. What room out there will be free for us to explore our ideas physically, in the matter, in the world? Even the most dedicated campuses to the liberal causes no longer think the agora are ‘safe spaces’; free speech is regulated out there, and you see the problems in this (“where people stay in the ‘free speech zones’ and line up to be arrested in orderly fashion”). The safe spaces are inside, in offices. You can only put those Safe Spaces stickers on doors or walls, sometimes for offices a lot of professors and adjuncts and instructors now share with one another.
Some of us moles love our darkness and our underground mazes, but it doesn’t seem as though there’s much of any choice for people who do adopt the “bunker.” Our withdrawal from the world sometimes starts by thinking deeply down towards the earth upon which others do politics by standing up, standing on, standing against. Even if we wanted to walk above, it’s no longer as open as it was claimed to be. Crawling in darkness in the underground is not so bad, if you’re a mole.
This all is the context of my earlier comment. You have been openly carrying on this dialogue, where the one who could still be staying within the White Dude complex struggles against the one who extricates himself out of that ghetto. Consider this also part of this post‘s exploration of something outside Christianity. Notice that Christianity in its Pauline form
Am I wrong in suggesting these things are also part of the metaphorics of bunkers? Bunkers did not work then; they do not work for you now. This is a link in your thinking, isn’t it? But what you give there is an acknowledgment that the communities ‘tried!‘ This same is also true of the adolescent communities of libertarians and right wing dead-ends: they are trying very hard to preserve their own cultural identity in a world that’s ever more invasive, dedicated to openness and vast complexities, existing in infinities of every bureaucratic interpretation, regulating freedom and preventing children from exploring unattended in public our world we all share.
But as much as we can and should understand without excusing why those who fail at “maintaining self-control” get angry around someone who “goes out of their way to constantly insult [them] and [their] whole community”, I think I also understand how someone says this and also confesses to doing exactly this insulting gesture to white males, especially these white males who remain caught within the ghetto you once knew intimately yourself.
Maybe one way out of this intimate “coincidence of opposites,” where one still thinks white but wishes to listen in color, is available in taking more stock of the permanence of our mistakes. All the really big ones, the ones we learned from, are the ones we cannot erase. In order to “think through past examples and try to figure out where they went wrong” — including apparently very recent and intimate examples—there needs to be a record of those wrongs, something more than the trace of them in an apology.
You rightly point out that one enticement for right wing or libertarian people has been the plot device of having a hidden truth about larger corruption. The secret left off the record is what went un-recorded, a truth of the world that will be novel in its retelling. It becomes something “no one else has heard.” This is how you framed it as their framing. Not read, not seen, but heard, and as we were drilled to remember, faith comes by hearing. (Maybe instead of ‘boots on the ground’, how about the “beautiful feet” of those sent to preach?)
Corruption is something hidden from the public record and the recorded testimonies, disclosed only through retrieving the lost and disavowed texts —isn’t this the same logic for those resurfaced tweets? They are perceived truth as much as any other disclosure of official mistakes. But this approach to seeing the truth as that which the official record disavows is exactly what black and red and brown folks tell white folks about what it’s like to be themselves in the white world. Their stories are the erased and the deleted stories a lot of us struggle into the night to learn and retell.
It’s very hard to feel what it’s like to be color in the white world for the white person, until it’s more than words, but something happening immediately, and all around, and very close, nearly suffocating in its oppression. It means coloring the white world, or living in a diverse community fostering dialogue. Story sharing. The fuller understanding of history looks for exactly the things the official account destroys as illegitimate perspectives; philosophical investigations are very often tracking down all the writings and interactions and environmental influences left undiscussed in the canon’s representations of its own histories, right?
I’m thinking of how far to take your irony when you say things about pushy interlopers pushing around in the midst of “staked out positions that have their valid place in the intellectual firmament”, as you did here. The “pushy interloper insists on asking us questions about how we live our lives,” your emphasis.
Part of how you live your life is right here on the Internet. Your space on the Internet allows for all manner of rich and interesting ways of thinking about things, and your language has rhythms a person can detect just by listening to them keep the beat. And, in the midst of that, erasing those rhythms changes the contours of one’s own past, into something more official, legitimate, and curated. But, as you said, “no political agenda is free of bad effects or convenient falsehoods.”
Perhaps I’m taking a very radical stance here, but I think erasing the past, for whatever reason, is still one more convenient falsehood you have a choice about.
You can see it’s much easier for me to try and condense these observations into very small paragraphs of densely packed connections, but what I lose by such nuance is the ecology of the great forest’s trees, not simply the sense we make out of it. Walking someone through their own wilderness as how an interloper hears and feels a way within their forest of thoughts, especially over text, is not easy. You live in there. But I admire the trees and the moss, and the songbirds, and especially the babbling creeks. They say interesting things to this interloper.
If I’ve misunderstood any of your arguments, I apologize.
It’s simultaneously flattering and horrifying to be read so closely. You have given me a great deal to think about. Thank you.
This post may also be relevant to your analysis.
The new INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF KOTSKO STUDIES was founded in 2015 to explore the rich and analytically powerful thought of world-renowned Twitteur and religious studies scholar Adam Kotsko. The IJKS is currently accepting submissions for its own private pleasure.
Charles, I’m really struck by your conclusions. Yes indeed, the motives and consequences of deleting Tweets you recant of, rather than letting them stand as an indelible past failure that sharpens or informs your ethical engagement with the future, really do deserve more scrutiny. I’m no longer certain that deleting such Tweets is the best option open to someone (1) abandoning one position for a better one in a politically fraught debate, (2) intellectually navigating an unjust social system that exacts a toll in ethical complicity from all apparently available positions, and (3) making the inherent dissatisfactions (of compromise) that result from (2) an out-and-proud feature of your struggle against systemic injustice.
What I think I don’t agree with in your argument is its assumption that a real analogy between the oppression of white dude libertarians (or white, intellectually starved lower-middle class adolescents) and that of impoverished and overpoliced Black Americans also implies symmetry between them. Where I see such an assumption at work is here: “Corruption is something hidden from the public record and the recorded testimonies, disclosed only through retrieving the lost and disavowed texts —isn’t this the same logic for those resurfaced tweets? They are perceived truth as much as any other disclosure of official mistakes. But this approach to seeing the truth as that which the official record disavows is exactly what black and red and brown folks tell white folks about what it’s like to be themselves in the white world. Their stories are the erased and the deleted stories a lot of us struggle into the night to learn and retell.”
The wrong that white dude libertarians agitate against is the suppression of a story, an interested corruption in the records; this they make their target because they’re often naturally confident the reception of a suppressed fact will lead naturally to general enlightenment. Their politics is of a piece with their economics (a-duh): perfect information leads to perfect social outcomes.
Whereas I see in the activism of people of color not only organized efforts to fill (politically motivated) omissions in record with true personal stories but also efforts to change how these stories are received. I’ve had the experience of giving people the facts and relating true stories: life events and measurements that demonstrate race’s effects on social outcomes. People can hear all of them totally impassively, won’t move to dispute the accuracy of the data, and can thank me for “raising the level of the debate” by introducing anecdotes and data they hadn’t been familiar with already. But none these move them from their racism: the ideological structures by which they think race, merit, personal responsibility, and social responsibility can accommodate all the disruptive stories I try to supply, retell, and make resound — they can accommodate them without themselves deforming. Now this is a target that white libertarians have objective reasons not to make their central one: they’re on the right, not the wrong side of the narrative.
What this suggests for deleting Tweets or not … still thinking.
E. Lim, I just saw your comment, so I will have to give myself some time to form a proper response. I just wanted to ask Kotsko one thing, which is,
Now that I have your attention, it’s uncanny for you to point to a post that a long time back reminded me of a brief exchange we had particularly about this topic of being white and male in similar societies. And even more that you’re offering it as opportunity to extend the analysis. Here’s the deal. I completely and totally understand that this is an awkward situation. You and I hardly know each other. So, it’s also a bit creepy. Like you said, flattering and horrifying. Trust me, I feel it, too. But,
Part of what I thought earlier seems to repeat itself here, again, namely this chiastic kind of inversion of insides and outsides, especially groups and communities, where moving outside of one’s formative (not necessarily gestational) group gives an insider perspective of what it’s like to be on the inside, whereas those on the inside of the inside lack any perspective on what they look like from the outside. You can see the switch right there in your reference to Seven-of-Nine. Not only notice the parallelism you acknowledge how both of you are unassimilating from what held you, but there’s still this inversion where she’s a woman and you’re a man. If it goes that the models we use to better understand ourselves are the narcissistic projections of ideals we wish we were, then what else does this inversion mean than empathizing with some Other who sees you from the outside, from the other side of the mirror? By sharing time with people from different races, sects, cultures, sexes, genders–all the different ways we could separate out a society–and learning to laugh when they laughed and cry when they cried, you came to see from the inside what it looks like on the outside. The best mirrors we use to each ourselves how to feel in there, inside the bunker of a mind protecting itself from all the open space of terrors, are all the things who actually are the people we deeply fear when caricatures. To say it maybe more clearly, it’s mirroring something completely not ourselves that teaches us how to be more true not only to who we are, but who they are, because we start to feel how they feel after we did what we did to them. Those lessons in empathy, it seems from what I read at the time, shaped how you model and understand your own whiteness and maleness and whitemaleness in the context of the history of white males. And since these mirroring procedures are habitual behaviors we humans have by a very old racial instinct (being primates), then the way to change our notion of race is through spending close time sharing emotional and physical space in common, so I’d argue. People already change using high tech means, but the less expensive means carry the high social costs. You found the people were worth it.
The thing is, it was in the midst of a series of posts that at the time all suggested this to me, but it seemed to me a bit over the top to read too much into what’s likely just a pattern of thoughts, like how often you’ve used vortex lately. I’d be happy to try and reconstruct the narrative, but it’s not my place to say, I see, and this is likely weird enough.
Now, okay, E. Lim, I think you make a great point that I wish I anticipated earlier, but I don’t really think we’re disagreeing here. I also share your view that white male libertarians or right wing folk are somewhat unlike the red and black and brown people (I’d also throw in ungulate people to see where conversation goes). Where we differ slightly is that it looks to me like left wing or liberal folk are also militating against suppressing stories (Hebdo?) and likewise have a naive belief that once all the *truest* facts are known, motives and attitudes change. But where you go on to talk about the real difference, the difference that makes all the differences, where the authentic left put to shame the parvenu that introductory whereas signaling how you see this more to be the case: facts spoken will never turn their stand off their ground. Should I conclude, as maybe it’s implied (I can be wrong), that this means no thing known will budge them to be less racist or bigoted or closed-minded?
It’s what you envision “accommodating” to mean that’s intriguing to me. The other two binaries are disruption and deformation: change of a (usually) bad kind. This makes me ask if you’re speaking from your own perspective or from what you imagine is their perspective; or are you actually seeing the disruption and the deformation you wanted them to experience as that, but from your own perspective? What happens if you instead say they accommodated the constructive story, conforming to a new ideal? Because, isn’t that what you *wanted* to happen by educating them, before you found out your stories didn’t work? Didn’t you want to add their strength to yours and your strength to theirs, if sharing with them a new story meant they shared the joys and the sorrows of that story with you?
What other motives are there?
I’m saying, they’re interesting word choices to illustrate who those people are, the people who accommodate disruption and deformation: because do they change their mind lightning fast and forget the past or are their minds so inflexible as to lie permanently? I’m also asking if you think their unwillingness to be persuaded by you means they are forever lost, or if someone else, something else, some several others, should give it a try. See, I think I know what you mean, but I’m just not sure how far to estimate the consequences of their capacity to accommodate. If they are experts and quite skilled at believing, then it’s not something I fear as unbeatable or immovable. I like a taoist reticence on the matter: someone willing to master themselves by believing just needs to believe in the right thing. Find the right ground, and we’d consider it a virtue to be immovable from the deepest and oldest truths. Right?
Besides that, though, I’m not sure of the right way for understanding your paragraph, since the antecedent of the last ‘they’ in “they’re on the right” isn’t clear to me. I can’t tell if the distinction who’s right and wrong is there ironic or what you sincerely think, so it’s doubly ambiguous to me. I apologize if my indecision to fix a meaning makes it harder to communicate with me, since even I don’t like that level of rigor, as is obvious. I’m just saying I understand how hard it is to read what people say, but I like to think it’s good to try it on the best models one knows around.
So, Charles, is your objection that I’m not generous enough to the people “left behind,” that I’m putting myself forward as special or gifted in a way they aren’t, that I’m assuming that I have the gift of distance from my situation and others generally don’t? As satisfying as your Derridean deconstruction of the tropes of my posts has been, it’s also a little creepy and I wish you would now cut me a little slack and actually say what you’re saying in a concise way. Or else just stop — that would also be an option.
I’m not necessarily objecting to what you’re doing. I’m trying to show ways of extending the insights you give us, to keep up the process you identify in yourself as already underway. I think you already say many times that you are gifted, the gift has been community through whom you come to understand yourself in a new way. So, if you’re already saying this about yourself, how can I be objecting to you by repeating what you already say?
It’s your words. You say that self-extrication from ghettos, at least for black people, occurs only for the most fortunate and remarkable individuals: is this also true for how you extricated yourself from the ghetto of white males? Are you most fortunate and remarkable? The answer isn’t really important, since it’s not really about this.
It’s about how you did not extricate yourself: some people from the outside helped you come out. I think this is worth emphasizing.
Because we can then link that together with the growth indicated in the differences between these two posts: the justification for disturbing the prickly sensibilities of white males as a way of possibly “jar[ring] them out of their subject-position” will later lose its reasonableness, as a little more than a year later it becomes “not at all clear that bringing out the worst in an already pretty shitty class of person is serving any positive social function.”
Then maybe it’s about bringing out the best in them, down there in the bunker, and finding not just common cause, but different means of reentering what disturbs us without setting them off. One of those different means is to stop using caricatures of one another, no matter how personally satisfying those are. I think you’re one of the few people criticizing right wing or libertarian people who say with sincerity and sensitivity that those people are crying out for real intellectual satisfaction and also exploited victims. You’re saying let’s stop calling them stupid, lazy, or dumb, right? And this while you are still being treated as you are by (self-appointed) representatives of the right and the libertarian.
And so, as always, being open to the outsiders who come into our midst, being hospitable, is one way of continually extending where the line divides the comfortable from the necessary discomfort, the humbling of our pride, leading to wisdom.
Because it does strike me as pointed the ways you talk about those people you separate yourself from, about the habits of their reluctance to listen to the marginal others, and the way you treat me and regard my comments, despite the fact that I have done unto you what I would like done unto me, which is just take time to read what someone’s offering and try, openly and publicly, to work through it.
As a non-white person, I’m used to ostracism. If, as your last statement goes, you want me to stay outside, I will.
I apologize for becoming so irritated with you — but I also thank you for stating your views a little more clearly this time.
I thank you for allowing me this space to talk out loud and learn how to be clearer. It takes practice, and I’m trying to get out of my own bunker, too. And I apologize for being irritating.
How do porcupines become friends? I guess there’s only one way to find out.
Ha-ha! Aw. Well, AIN’T THAT AMERICA.
And yet, and yet. OK, I’d like this to be my last contribution to the inaugural 2015 International Kotsko Studies Conference in Basel, as thoroughly provocative and enlivening as my colleagues on the panel have been this morning, and will continue to be as we push on to — and against — the very discursive frontiers of critical tweet theory.
Charles, you’ll notice that it’s not racist people themselves who I say accommodate, deform, or fail to deform when I supply suppressed stories about race: I say that it’s the ideological structures that do so, insofar as these structures have ready interpretive positions that turn the most potentially embarrassing stories — “1 in 3 Black American men will go to prison, and 1 in 17 White men will,” “Daniel Pantaleo choked a Black man to death as he was begging to breath, and he’s still NYPD” — innocuous to a racist’s self-confidence. In general, such a racist asserts that both the incarcerated and Pantaleo get what they deserve, and what I call a social failure is in fact just deserts.
It’s a similar conflation of private belief and structural positionality that I took issue with. And I suspect that you still conflate the two as you enjoin us not to disavow our human commonality with former neighbors back in the cave, i.e., not to neglect the potential in all such old neighbors to break out, so long as we remain hospitable, solicitous, and humble in helping them escape: so long as we don’t let the fact of our own escape be subsumed into a narcissistic narrative of our exceptionalism.
I remember reading that Adam came into his conviction about intersection by joining a disorientingly diverse and politically outspoken community (a school, I’d guess) where this conviction was necessary to live day to day and get along peaceably. It’s not right to say that personal solicitousness alone or kindly interpersonal interventions into Adam’s private misguidedness alone was sufficient to come into this conviction. Shall I say it? The power (and the distribution of power, and the threats there are against doing injustice to it) of a determinate social structure that he elected to join exacted this personal conviction too. Even that election is somewhat false: for Adam to study or whatever at a place where he’d be, say, happy, I bet that he had little choice except to attend an institution much like the species in the genus that got his tuition money. There was little or no choice in shedding his white dude libertarianism. Likewise, if I had the power, I’d leave the racists around me little to choice in shedding theirs.
Do I damn people who don’t believe me when I’m on my soapbox to incorrigible ignorance of salvation? do I glorify myself thereby? do I self-defeatingly forgo their power in glorifying mine? I’d rather say: the interpersonal, educational, persuasive solicitousness you ask the left not to abandon in its emancipatory efforts can at best smuggle a partial catch out of a bunker. I’d instead tear down the bunker proper. My powerless to do it, my community’s powerlessness, is anything but glory.
That’s a great correction, E. Lim! I mistook the ‘they’ in the second sentence to refer to the ‘they’ of the first sentence, when you meant the ideological structures. The context of the story just preceding I read to be that they, the people, listen to you, but still remain unchanged. In my mind, the adaptability suggested by the accommodations of the structures reflects—although the sonorous quality of ‘resounds’ is fascinating here against the imagery of reflections—the inner movements, the dynamism of the tensions of those structures, as well as the impassive or the immovable seen in the outer appearance, where people act: “Yes, thank you but no.” So, I appreciate that precise correction, although (“Yes, thank you but no?”) it still seems to me that the behaviors of the people in our mutual narrative of what you’re describing remains the same: they still didn’t move from their positioning no matter how successful you believed the story was going to be.
I guess my impression goes that conflation of the sort you’re describing occurring in my retelling is what happens if the story you’re telling goes that had they had the right story, they would have changed their minds. Your story avoids this problem by pointing out that it’s not simply the story we tell that changes hearts and minds, but it’s where the story is told and by whom. The structural circumstances of Adam’s story, one I also pointed to above and has been inexricable from the retelling I’m giving of his story as told, might very well be one of being forced into listening. This “being forced” isn’t necessarily one a moustache-twirling or suit-n-tie-wearing individual actively chooses for us; it’s the determinate social structures who force us into situations or positions where we grow: as it did him, so would it do to others. I appreciate the correction and the elaboration: you want them to shed their ism, tearing down the bunker so that… what? They’re emancipated? What determinate social structure is the appropriate one from which to determine the right political account of what we’re being freed into exposure, into vulnerability for? Is it really right to expose someone to vulnerability who isn’t ready for it?
So, I guess one thing I’m getting at is to think information isn’t simply the propositional content of the story, but it’s also the activity of storytelling as it exists within the embodied communities. We say and communicate with more than words and information, right? We also have rituals, rites, taboos, habits through which we show one another lessons that are extremely difficult to put into words. In this sense, I do think all these conversion stories benefit from recalling this and resituating our disbelief at others’ beliefs into this context. And, it is in this sense that I completely agree with your point, but the manner in which I say it leads me to agree with you that positionality has much more to do with how we change our minds than the “information” captured in words, arguments, speeches. We are only positioned in the context of actual material realities, interacting with actual material persons, who are engaging in kinetic exchanges with our own material bodies. It’s not an abstraction, our positionality, and this is where I’ve come to by thinking through not only intersectionality as it’s been explained to me, but also through reading womanist literature and essays and listening to folks be themselves. To me, it’s like how we can tell either the Copernican story or the Ptolemaic story, and be very accurate and precise with our models, and yet they are both describing the exact same material reality all of us share in looking at the heavens. The stories are linked by what happens here, but how amazing is it that we have such different stories? For the philosophically minded, how far do we take this insight?
I guess I have also been saying that there are some of us who prefer segregation, who prefer our undergrounds, who prefer our bunkers, who prefer our withdrawal from the world. I had in mind Ursula Le Guin’s poem “Totem.” I also have in mind a respect I’ve learned from minority folks who don’t see any benefit from joining the outside space, and who prefer the comfortable insularity. Forcing them out, because I see the outside a particular way, doesn’t seem right to me.
Coaxing? Maybe. But maybe better just increasing the desirability of our natural curiosityor wonder towards one another, even the other Others we despise and feel just in considering “pathetic and deluded” whatever our own positioning. In this sense, I believe that’s exactly what Adam is encouraging us to welcome in ourselves and consider: perhaps if we had an entire culture dedicated to real satisfactions of intellectual stimulation, if we regained a large scale interest in wonder and curiosity, and the excitement of learning we were wrong, then it’d be much easier to have conversations with one another.
I don’t know if curiosity is something we can force someone to do by destroying their shelter. But then I’m not down with destroying things for whatever noble cause I give to it. Herding goats teaches patience, so I learned, but at least one old tradition has it the god unilaterally decides where to stick them.
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