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.

Meals on Wheels vs. Presidential Security

There are a lot of popular memes going around to the effect that one weekend of Trump’s security “could pay for” Meals on Wheels. This is true in the very narrow sense that they cost approximately the same amount of money. But savings on presidential security are not necessary to “pay for” the grant that funds Meals on Wheels. A combination of federal taxation and borrowing actually pays for it, and there is no reason to think that such a solution has suddenly become impossible.

It is definitely the case that Trump is being irresponsible in spending so much time at his tacky resort. But as a general principle, presidents should not be making travel decisions based on nickel-and-diming their security costs. Nor is it plausible to believe that the Trump administration sat down, estimated its increased security costs, and found some federal programs to cut to make up the difference.

In reality, Meals on Wheels and presidential security have nothing to do with each other. Trump could go to Mar a Lago twice a week and the cost would be trivial in the context of the federal budget. The very fact that one trip “could pay for” Meals on Wheels shows that the cost of that grant is even more trivial. This means there is no legitimate budgetary reason to cut Meals on Wheels. Doing so is gratuitously cruel. The way they’ve talked about it is gratuitously cruel.

Accepting the premise that it is “about” budgetary responsibility participates in that cruelty. A cheap “gotcha” about how dumb Republicans don’t understand math is not worth the cost of even minimally acknowledging the premise that the Meals on Wheels grant is somehow problematic for the federal budget. If someone asks whether the richest country in human history can “afford” to subsidize meals for shut-ins, the only permissible reaction is horror and outrage. Don’t bring a spreadsheet to a morality fight.

The true believers

Trump voters have been mocked for believing that a pampered billionaire is somehow a man of the people. Yet on an important level, he really is one of them. That is to say, he really believes the right-wing conspiracy mongering that the Republican Party has been foisting on its base since the advent of right-wing talk radio. Yes, he breaks with certain orthodoxies such as trade, and in general his beliefs — if that is the appropriate way to characterize his stance toward these ideas — are, shall we say, eclectic. But if you talk to a Republican true believer, you will find that they always have some distinctive opinion of their own. None of them, perhaps aside from sad College Republicans in bow ties and sweater vests, are 100% true believers, embracing every one of the talking points. No, they are free-thinking individualists, proving that their side is a space of authentic and vigorous debate, as opposed to the oppressive orthodoxies of the politically correct left.

The problem with conventional Republican candidates is that they operate in the uncanny valley. In their efforts to appease the imagined primary voter who believes all the talking points, they themselves make an effort to embrace all the talking points, but no one actually believes all that stuff. In attempting to connect with their voters, they wind up coming across as fake, a phenomenon that finds its physical echo in the fact that Marco Rubio appears to be a CGI-rendered facsimile of a handsome man. They were willing to put up with Romney, whose open embrace of fakeness somehow looped back around into a perverse form of authenticity, but what they really want is Trump — someone who, like them, embraces only 95% of the talking points, who watches nothing but Fox News but with what they imagine to be a critical eye, who says horrible, and frankly make-up, things but reserves the right to back away: “just throwin’ it out there.”

The relationship between Trump and conventional Republicanism has been much-debated. Clinton tried to differentiate Trump from the Republicans, which proved to be both a tactical and a substantive mistake. Clearly, whatever else Trump is, he really is a Republican, he didn’t just choose his party at random. He is an intensification of Republicanism, albeit not in ways that we might have predicted in advance. He is substantively worse, as his budget proposal amply demonstrates, while still being very much in the spirit of past Republicans. How do we account for this strange phenomenon?

My theory is that Trump is what happens when Republicans start electing the kind of voter that their propaganda produces. This is a process that already began with the Tea Party, who also bucked 5% of traditional Republican orthodoxy while taking literally many of the demands that had historically been mere window-dressing. Trump is not different in kind from a Tea Party Republican legislator, and doubtless if he had eyed a Senate seat rather than the presidency, he would be hard to distinguish from his colleagues. But he’s not just a member of Congress, he’s the president.

Up till now, the Republicans have tried to manage the true believers by indulging them symbolically while counting on the real adults to get things done — Obama, Senate Republicans, Boehner. But now there’s no adult in the room (other than Paul Ryan, ha ha!) to provide the stable background for their venting. And I don’t think anyone knows how to handle the situation or can predict how it will turn out — because the longer he’s in office, the more the potential “adults” will be coopted and discredited.

How will we know it’s over?

The Trump budget proposal is a nightmare — petty and vindictive, short-sighted and cruel. Inexpensive programs that literally save lives are being cut, apparently out of sheer spite. Surely, we are in the terminal phases of what I once called the society of go fuck yourself. Why do we need a travel ban? Why do we need to turn away refugees? The official reason is that they may pose a threat, but surely the real reason is that they are not our problem, so they can go fuck themselves. Similarly, why do we need to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans? Supposedly they’re stealing our jobs, leeching off our public services, and committing crimes. But come on: the real reason is that we don’t owe them anything and they can go fuck themselves.

All of these programs will thwart human potential at best and kill people at worst. Any idiot can draw those consequences, and my personal experience “interacting” with them has taught me that the license for cruelty is part of the libidinal charge of Trumpism for the most hardened followers. They will follow him to their death if he lets them hurt the people they hate along the way. The amount of pent up resentment and ugliness he has brought out into the open has already been more corrosive to our frayed social fabric than we can fully grasp.

But I still find myself holding out a small sliver of hope. Namely, I hope they don’t start publicly saying that the poor, elderly, and disabled should just die if they can’t fend for themselves. That is the logical implication of everything they’re doing. The most charitable spin is that they don’t want those people to die, but don’t actually care if they do. That’s where we objectively are as a nation, under the leadership of a cruel and vindictive man who has never let anyone trick him into doing anything kind or beneficial in his entire sick parody of a human life.

If they say it, though, that’s the end. Yes, people will recoil in outrage. Republicans who are only 95% right wing instead of 300% will distance themselves. Elzabeth Warren will get some good tweets out of it. But it’s a funny thing: once it appears on the CNN scroll, it’s a part of the public debate. It’s one position among others for the talking heads to debate. A society in which “the poor should just die” is one position among others — even if it’s an unpopular position that people argue passionately against! — is no longer a society. It’s a death camp waiting to happen.

On the coming apocalypse

2017-03-14 07.59.23

Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us. Continue reading “On the coming apocalypse”

Who decides?!

In my previous post, I advocate excluding harmful ideas (my example is white supremacy, but I would include Holocaust denial, climate change denial, and others) from the public sphere. Whenever this kind of suggestion comes up, it is inevitable that someone will ask, “Who decides?!” This comment is not meant to open up a discussion along the lines of “Well, maybe we could form a committee, etc.” No, it’s meant to shut down the discussion altogether, because presumably the idea of some particular human agent being in charge of such decisions is utterly intolerable. No one, no one could possibly be trusted with such power!

This response is, to put it simply, stupid. In reality, all the institutions we could classify as the public sphere — the media, universities, etc. — are run by particular human beings who make decisions about what to publicize and what to exclude. So when I suggest that Charles Murray should be excluded from the public sphere, I mean that universities should not invite him to speak, respectable publications should not include or discuss his work, publishers should not offer him a book contract, etc.

None of this constitutes oppression. No one has a “right” to speak at Middlebury College, or be published in the New Yorker, or get a book contract from Simon & Schuster. When Milo’s book contract was revoked, a lot of people were wringing their hands, because if the publisher could revoke his contract, they could revoke anyone’s! And a chorus of non-idiots pointed out that we already live in a world where that can happen. That’s just what it means to have a publisher — they make decisions about what to publish.

And none of this requires any kind of legal or political intervention in violation of the First Amendment. All it requires is for universities, editors, and publishers to take their responsibilities as custodians of the public sphere seriously. In the case of Middlebury College, the administration served its responsibilities poorly by allowing Charles Murray to be invited. The students — who are also a part of the university, with a personal, reputational, and financial stake in its integrity as an institution — did everything they could to correct the administration’s error, and they are to be commended.

Is student activism a sustainable way to make such decisions in the long run? Probably not — and that’s why administrations need to wake up and stop making stupid, irresponsible mistakes in lending the university’s legitimacy to people. The best of all possible outcomes would have been for student protest to be unnecessary, because he wasn’t invited in the first place.

The Groundhog Day of Free Speech

Liberals are concerned. It appears that the Campus Left is squelching free speech by protesting right-wing speakers. The answer to bad speech, we are told, is more speech. The only way that tired bromide could be true, though, would be if it were possible for the bad speech to be definitively rejected through reasoned argument. That is to say, free speech can only be the solution if the result of the ongoing debate can be some kind of progress where certain ideas are tested, found wanting, and then ruled illegitimate.

One such idea should be white supremacy. It is not an intriguing new theory that may provide insight into how to order human society. It is a dangerous lie that has underwritten the greatest crimes in human history — chattel slavery and the Shoah. Wherever it has been allowed to influence public policy and private behavior, the results have been uniformly destructive. Literally the only possible consequence of white supremacist ideas is to dehumanize people, leading to squandered human potential at best and legitimating violence at worst. There is no possible redeeming value to white supremacist ideas, no “good points” that can be harvested and incorporated into a more capacious view of the human prospect.

And so let’s take the example of Charles Murray. He has claimed repeatedly that differences in educational outcomes across races likely has a genetic component — which amounts to saying that he thinks blacks are likely to be inherently less intelligent than whites. That is not a point we need to debate. It is a white supremacist lie that needs to be excluded from the public sphere. Certainly universities should not be actively soliciting the views of someone who adheres to such a hateful ideology, one that implicitly dehumanizes some of their very own students, faculty, and staff. Students are members of the university community, they pay huge amounts of money (some of which is surely going to fund this talk) — they have a stake in how the university uses its intellectual authority. And if politely requesting that it not use that authority to legitimate dehumanizing ideologies that have wrought nothing but destruction does not work, then impolite action is unfortunately necessary.

The Groundhog Day theory of free speech, where we have to start from zero every time an idea comes up, where we have to act like history never happened — that is not a model of free speech worth defending. Some things are true, some things are false, and some things are profoundly dangerous. If free speech isn’t an engine for collaboratively discerning those distinctions, then it’s sheer nihilism.