Russia and Rot

If Trump colluded with the Russians to influence the election, it would be a very bad thing. If said collusion provides a path to remove him from office, then that would be a good thing. That both of those points are true, however, does not detract from the equally true fact that liberal obsession with the Russia issue is a symptom of a much deeper blindness about the reality of our political situation.

Unless the Russians literally hacked into voting machines — which no one is alleging as far as I can tell — then their interference ultimately depends on finding a receptive audience. Putin did not and could not create such an audience. That is a completely home-grown phenomenon. Assuming the Russia story is true, it is undoubtedly bad that Putin was able to manipulate the American public with transparent bullshit, to the point that a vulgar incompetent bigot who has never held a job in his life could be appointed to the most powerful office on earth. No question, we’re dealing with something bad that we should be upset about. And yet surely the very fact that such a scheme was possible in the first place is the real problem. It points to a deep rot in American public discourse, of which anyone who has ever visited home for Thanksgiving was surely aware.

The Democratic leadership, it appears, has never visited home for Thanksgiving. The very fact that they could nominate Hillary Clinton in an election where literally everything the Democrats have achieved in the last eight years depended on keeping a Democrat in the White House shows how profoundly naive they are. One of the most notable symptoms of the rot in American political discourse is that approximately 40% of our fellow citizens will believe anything about Hillary Clinton, as long as it’s bad. They don’t even need to be directly presented with the evil deeds — they can piece them together from any available evidence, such as her campaign manager’s suggestion, leaked as part of the nefarious e-mails, that they go to a particular pizza parlor. This led to a viral story about how Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation club. The fact that this kind of obvious bullshit was not reported to oblivion on social media, the fact that reasonable conservatives did not shame their friends and relatives for sharing such a shameful thing, is a symptom of the rot.

It’s not fair to Hillary Clinton, but I don’t care about Hillary Clinton’s personal ambitions. The country was not worth risking for the sake of eking out a historic win for her. The hatred of 40% of Americans for Hillary Clinton is a fact, as is the fact that many of those Americans are college-educated suburban American women. I know one of those women: my own mother, who could never bring herself to vote for someone so vile as Hillary Clinton and who didn’t vote for Trump so much as against that woman. Alienating the Democratic base for the sake of reaching those women was delusional, just as assuming that once the Russia connections are revealed, surely Trump supporters will realize they were scammed is delusional. There was already ample evidence that Trump was running a scam. There has seldom been as much evidence for anything in all of human history. Is adding Russia into the mix going to tip the balance? We already know that many Trump supporters are all too eager to embrace Russia as an ally precisely because Trump is favorable to Putin — what do you expect to happen when they learn that Russia is helping their idol?

We may be past the point of persuasion here, at least when it comes to Trump’s person. There may still be room for persuasion when it comes to things that affect people’s lives — like health care, for instance, where there has been a groundswell of revulsion against the Republicans’ sick policy proposals. Against all odds, it would appear that the Rube Goldberg machine we know as Obamacare managed to convince many of our fellow citizens that guaranteeing access to health care is a good idea, a fact to which Trump testified through his transparent lies about replacing it with something “even better.”

We know there is only one possible policy outcome that is significantly better than Obamacare: single-payer healthcare. So naturally, the Democrats are digging in their heels and refusing to do anything that could change the brilliant policy that arguably cost them the House and, via the redistricting that Republicans controlled after 2010, all hope for the future. Obamacare is the thing that the Democrats did, and we need to respect that by doing nothing further. And this is vintage Hillary Clinton, who all but told us outright that she wasn’t going to patronize us by hinting that anything could ever get better.

America is already great! Can you blame the unwashed red-state masses who read the campaign as a declaration that the people they hate wanted them to hate Trump more? Yes, yes, they should have known. They should have woken up and stood in line and defied their communities and churches so that they could vote for the party of nothing, headed up by the person they’ve been trained to hate for the last twenty years. How could they have been so stupid? The only answer is to keep offering them nothing and telling them they’re stupid, until they finally come around.

Toxic call-out culture and toxic assets

In the phrase “toxic call-out culture,” I’m interested in the word “toxic.” The last time it was part of a widely used set phrase was back in the good old days of the Global Financial Crisis, when we heard a lot about “toxic assets.” The theory was that if those individual assets could be isolated and excised, then the banks would go from strength to strength. But the metaphor already gave the game away — it is in the nature of a “toxic” element to pollute everything else. And in reality, the toxic assets may have had higher toxin levels, but they were a symptom of a system that was toxic overall.

Similarly, the idea in “toxic call-out culture” diatribes is that if the left could get rid of this one element, they would be successful. But again, the very metaphor implies that the entire left is polluted already. And even if we concede that “call-out culture” gets out of hand or becomes an area of disproportionate focus, such events are only particularly vocal instantiations of core convictions of the left — above all, a preferential option for those historically oppressed and excluded, as well as the recognition that those from historically more privileged groups need to be held accountable if they want to participate in the struggle for liberation.

On a local tactical level, some particular instance of “call-out culture” could certainly be judged counter-productive or ill-advised, but on the level of global strategy, getting rid of the impulse behind “call-out culture” would mean giving up on being the left at all. If call-out culture is “toxic,” then we can only conclude that the left as such is toxic, as it surely is for those commentators who make use of the trope.

Man and the Man of Man

I am aware that it is my male privilege speaking here in part, but when I read older texts that use “man” to designate all of humanity generically, it doesn’t sound offensive and exclusionary so much as old-timey and mildly comical. I can’t help but read it mentally in the voice of the portentious movie trailer narrator (an association that was cemented in my mind by the shark fishing episode of Fishing with John, where the pompous narrator declares that for the sharks, “Man is on the menu”). There’s something about it that always feels overblown, somehow, as though a declaration about “man” is always intended much more grandiosely than an identical claim about “humanity” or “human beings” ever could be.

Some of that goes back to the syntactical possibilities the old-fashioned usage opens up: “man” can designate every individual human being and humanity as a whole. The word itself draws humanity into a unity in a seemingly much more organic way than the more abstract term “humanity.” “Man” has a story in a way that “humanity” does not, in a way that “human beings” never could.

Someone who can use the old-fashioned term “man” unironically believes in progress — or its opposite. A recent example is telling here. In the title cards for Battlestar Gallactica, we learn that “The Cylons were created by man.” It’s a weirdly archaic way to designate the creation of hyperintelligent androids — but it fits because it was a mistake, and one that decisively affects not only every single human being but the prospects for humanity as a whole. In BSG, the human race can be “man” because it has collectively sinned, been punished, and attempted (however incoherently) to redeem itself.

That is to say that “man” is first of all a theological term. It goes back to that first man, Adam, who was individually the entire human race and whose actions set humanity permanently off course. The optimistic, progressive “man” is the second Adam, Christ the redeemer, who reverses the work of his predecessor. It is a gendered term, undoubtedly, but it is so not simply because of its literal verbal meaning, but above all because it is drawing on a patriarchal religious tradition. “Man” is masculine in form because in that tradition only individual men had full legal agency — and hence full responsibility.

I don’t want to go back to that term, nor to its presuppositions. There’s something about its grammar that I would like to retrieve, though — the notion that humanity is more than the sum of all individuals, that we have a collective fate (if not a collective destiny), and that we can collectively make a decisive and irretrievable mistake. We didn’t lose those notions because we lost the term, of course — if anything, it was our increasing inability to imagine collective agency that allowed the edifice of “man” to crumble and become less an offence than a joke.

The bitter irony is that this shift in consciousness occurred just as humanity — I want to say “man” here — was polluting the earth in such a way as to endanger its ability to support life. In other words, humanity lost a sense of its collective agency and responsibility just as it started to commit what might amount to the unforgivable sin, the one that leaves no one behind to do the forgiving.

There is another aspect of the grammar of the term that is worth noting, however — it is in the third person. “Man” views humanity from an outside perspective. Especially in light of the theological resonances, we could say that it views humanity from a God’s eye view. And from that perspective, “man” is not so much an agent as a pawn — in a divine plan of salvation, which needs him to sin to get things rolling, just as much as in a narrative of progress. Perhaps “man” does not designate collective agency so much as collective guilt (the first Adam) or collective election (the second Adam).

In this case, the loss of “man” would be a first step toward a meaningful collective agency — a step into a “world come of age” in which humanity could start to say “we.”

A theological reflection on the Obamacare repeal vote

Today, I hope there is a hell. If such a place has a use, it is to house people who celebrate with a cold beer after voting to endanger the lives of millions to enrich the already wealthy. These people should be trembling in fear before the justice and wrath of God. But since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a debased mind and to things that should not be done. They were filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, covetousness, malice. Full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, craftiness, they are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, haughty, boastful, inventors of evil, rebellious towards parents, foolish, faithless, heartless, ruthless. They know God’s decree, that those who practise such things deserve to die—yet they not only do them but even applaud others who practise them.

Online leftist activism: A beginner’s guide

My experience teaches me that the online left abides by certain unspoken rules that help everyone to remain as woke and unproblematic as possible. At the risk of breaking the code of silence, I will list the most important rules as I have come to understand them:

  1. The correct position is always already known.
  2. It’s never your responsibility to actually explain or even state the correct position.
  3. Failure to hold the correct opinion must be treated as tantamount to actively harming people.
  4. Outrage and exasperated impatience are the only acceptable rhetorical stances.

This is the strategy that has led the left from strength to strength in recent years. We should all be proud to belong to a group that understands so perfectly exactly what needs to be done and how everyone should behave.

A periodic reminder about social constructs

The mainstream debate about social constructs shows how deeply engrained individualism is in the American psyche. From an individualist viewpoint, there are two categories that a claim to knowledge can fall into: objective (existing “out there” in the real world) or subjective (all in your head). The concept of a social construct points toward a third option: human creations that are bigger than any individual’s arbitrary decisions.

A good example of this is the English language, which was created over many centuries by millions and millions of people. It is not a fact of nature in the same sense as the diameter of the Earth or the speed of light, but neither is it “all in my head.” It is something that is socially shared, and any changes in it come about not, for instance, because I up and decide to make up a word, but because a critical mass of other people adopt it.

Similarly, the legal code of the United States is not an objective fact in the same sense as the structure of DNA, but that doesn’t mean it’s “all in my head.” I can’t up and decide what is or isn’t legal, and in fact the only way to change the law is by following legal procedures. We might say that in certain exceptional circumstances, a judge decides what the law is — but that decision needs to be accepted by the broader judicial system to have the force of law in more than a temporary sense.

These concepts are incredibly simple. If anyone stopped and thought for a few minutes, they could grasp the meaning of a social construct. Even controversial claims such as “gender is a social construct” would make sense. Every society has had different gender roles, which it enforces in different ways. No one individual gets to decide what those roles are, and even if we concede that identifying someone’s gender is pretty straightforward in 95% of cases, there is still an element of recognition required.

Trans people may seem to be a special case, but they aren’t arbitrarily choosing their gender identity — they are (mostly) claiming that they can’t help but identify with a gender identity that does not match their biological sex, and they seek social recognition of that need (as well as medical treatment to help align their biology with their deeply felt gender identity). No one would make this request lightly, as shown by the scorn, derision, and even disgust that it arouses in many people. If it were possible to arbitrarily choose one’s gender identity, then trans people would have had every incentive to choose the “correct” one. We are dealing with something like an objective fact about the person’s psychological and physiological make-up and how it relates to a social construct — at no point is it a question of an individual just arbitrarily choosing to make something up.

In short, a social construct is social, meaning that it cannot be changed by an arbitrary individual choice. Social constructs can change, but only by social means — whether that is a vague social consensus (as in the inclusion of new words in the English language) or by explicitly codified means (as in legal systems). And the fact that this concept is so hard for most Americans to grasp is in fact evidence of an aggressive social construction of an artificial individualism — which unfortunately, I cannot change by arbitrary fiat, or else I totally would.

To play devil’s advocate for a minute….

The brutal ejection of a paying and duly seated passenger from a United Airlines flight has prompted a flourishing of contrarian hot takes. “Actually,” our clever subversive thinkers opine, “if you’ll let me play devil’s advocate for a minute here, the powerful corporation should get to do whatever the hell it wants and we should obey!” I have long been a critic of contrarianism, whose root “contrary” claim is that the rich and powerful are an oppressed group who need our defense, but I kind of can’t believe that I have never specifically called attention to the role of the devil in their rhetoric.

One of the key themes of The Prince of This World (available wherever fine books are sold) is that the symbol of the devil emerges as a political-theological weapon of the Jewish community under conditions of unspeakable persecution and suffering. The imagery of the demonic allows them to name their oppressive rulers as illegitimate opponents of God’s justice — and to inscribe them into a narrative in which God will ultimately defeat them. Over time, however, as Christians appropriate this symbol and subsequently enter into alliance with the rulers of this world, the polarity becomes reversed and the imagery of the demonic becomes a tool of the oppressor, a way of scapegoating the already weak and victimized.

The service that the contrarian hot take-ist performs is to undo this reversal. The “devil’s advocate” who takes up the cause of the powerful against their victims actually names the illegitimate earthly powers as demonic. The gesture may seem subversive in a modern context, where the devil stands as a rebel against the even more questionable authority of the oppressive Christian God, but for those with eyes to see, it is actually sad and pathetic. Here we can look at Milton’s Paradise Lost, the subject of many contrarian hot takes to the effect that actually, the devil is the hero! Wow, edgy! But if we take the devil as a hero, we wind up rooting for the guy who manipulates two people with the emotional maturity of children into ruining their own lives, out of impotent spite.

If that’s what contrarian cleverness looks like, I’ll stick with boring, flat-footed common sense: the powerful do not need advocates, their victims really are victims, and the only person more pathetic than a bully is the snivelling toady who cheers him on.

Should the U.S. intervene militarily?

The only safe answer is no. Don’t get caught up on the merits. Don’t talk about how the Hitler-of-the-week may be bad, but the chaos we’ll create is even worse. Don’t get on your high horse about how U.S. meddling caused the situation in the first place. All of those paths are traps designed to force you into the terms of debate, which will either constrain you to embrace the war or set you up to look like a naive fool at best or traitor at worst.

I’ve seen this cycle happen again and again and again and again — it has been the story of U.S. foreign policy for literally my entire adult life. Treating the “debate” over the newest war as a sincere debate is always a mistake. It’s not a winnable debate because no one is arguing in good faith. By participating, you volunteer to be their straw man. So just say no, sight unseen. Your only question should be, “Is it a U.S. military intervention abroad?” Not “what strategic interests are at stake” or “what human rights are we supposedly going to be protecting” or even “have you even remotely thought about what to do in the aftermath.” All of those questions give the misleading impression that you are entertaining the possibility, and they inevitably suck you into the vortex where you must oppose the war because you love the oppressive dictator or want women to be silenced or don’t believe in democracy or whatever other stupid shit they have decided to browbeat people with.

The only winning move is not to play. Just say no.

Enjoy your prohibition! On Mike Pence’s weird rules

I have taken particular joy in the jokes surrounding Mike Pence’s refusal to eat dinner with a woman other than his wife. This is because I grew up in an evangelical Christian culture where such rules were very much in force — to the extent that they didn’t even need to be talked about. In fact, it is only the Pence controversy that made me consciously aware of how pervasive they were, and the experience has been like recognizing a pun for the first time in a phrase you’ve been repeating for decades.

The rule is that every male-female relationship tends toward possession — marriage being the logical endpoint, though dating is supposed to operate by the same logic. (By the way, to the women I dated while I was still processing all this: apologies for the weird possessiveness.) There is a felt pressure to stake a claim (one must “officially” be on record as being attracted to some member of the opposite sex at all times) and any interaction between your possession and another potential rival is a challenge. There is a certain egalitarianism in this, insofar as women are supposed to be just as possessive and suspicious. The ideal order of operations is to get married and then express the ultimate possession through having sex, but if the latter occurs first in an irreversible way (i.e., pregnancy), the order can and must be reversed.

My dad shared with me a tendency to prefer the company of women, and in retrospect I realize that this caused a degree of uncomfortable joking. Everyone realized that he wasn’t a threat, hence joking rather than hostility — but potential friendships were definitely thwarted. People, including family members, even joked around about his relationship with my aunt, i.e., his own wife’s younger sister whom he had known since she was a very young high schooler.

What is the purpose behind such norms and prohibitions? In retrospect, I believe it was actually to incite heterosexual desire. By making hetero-eroticism omnipresent, dangerous, and perpetually endangered, it aimed to introduce a certain drama and intensity to the ostensibly “natural” course of things. The difficulty, of course, is that a form of desire sustained by the danger of transgression is not going to be very functional once the prohibition is lifted — hence the proverbial decline in sex drive among married couples. The network of prohibitions remind you that your possession is never fully secure and hence that your claim must be perpetually renewed, but more importantly, the implication that you will attempt to have sex with everyone you take to Panera Bread after work reminds you that you are supposed to have these dangerous desires and must channel them in the appropriate directions. Without the prohibition to lust after another man’s wife, they would forget to lust after their own.

Debts to Zizek

For some reason, my mind has been drawn over the past few days to what I owe to Zizek, intellectually. I have not kept up with his recent work and have been mostly critical of his political “interventions,” but I think that there are some assumptions that I take from him that inform a great deal of what I am trying to do in my work. None of them require the full Hegelian-Lacanian apparatus to express, and hence I tend not to do that — indeed, some of these things are assumptions that I don’t even necessarily foreground.

  • Every social order is intrinsically incomplete. This is the idea that is variously expressed as the pas-tout (non-all or, as I prefer to translate it, non-whole) or “feminine” logic in Lacanese. I’m not sure I have any basis or need to extend it to the ontological level as Zizek does — though I am intrigued by that idea — but it would certainly apply to any human scientific account.
  • This is because every social order is trying to fix an unfixable problem. This seems to me to be what all the talk of “the Real” is getting at. The reason that social orders fail is that there is no final ground of legitimacy nor any final guarantee of control.
  • Social orders’ attempts to cover over this failure lead to tautology. This is where the Master Signifier comes in — the law is the law, let God be God, sovereign is he who decides on the exception, etc. Every claim to legitimacy is ultimately a tautology, “I am legitimate because I am legitimate.”
  • We get off on ideology. Here we come to the obscene supplement of jouissance, good old objet petit a, and all their friends. The reason ideology “hooks” us is that it gives us permission to enjoy — whether we’re enjoying recognition and a feeling of accomplishment or enjoying the lisence to vent cruelty. Ideology is therefore not just a matter of having wrong ideas or beliefs that can be cleared up through persuasion.