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.

Bullshit and legitimacy

Every election under capitalism is of course conducted on a terrain of ideological distortion, but there are degrees. One the one hand, one could think of the kind of ideological distortion that narrows the range of acceptable debate artificially, but that presents the issues more or less fairly within those artificial parameters. An election conducted under those conditions would not be the most ideal or authentic democracy, but it would at least include some elements of democratic legitimacy — the people at large made an informed decision that the political authorities accept and abide by. On the other hand, an election where people made their decisions based on straightforward lies, crazy conspiracy theories, and magical thinking would strain the concept of democracy to the breaking point. People would think they were choosing between two options, but those would not in fact be the options they have been presented with. A simple coin-flip between the candidates would arguably be better than a vote under those circumstances.

Every election under capitalism is a sham to some extent — since the most important question is not and cannot be on the ballot — but the second option would be a complete sham. And that is exactly what happened in 2016. The level of ignorance and wishful thinking among Trump supporters and sympathizers is simply astounding, qualitatively worse than in any previous election. This doesn’t just extend to support for Trump, but to opposition to Hillary Clinton. There are a lot of legitimate reasons to dislike and distrust Hillary Clinton. She is a deeply flawed candidate and politician. But I have literally never heard a conservative express even a remotely legitimate complaint about Hillary. She is just a demon to them, about whom they are willing to believe anything (or at least share it on Facebook).

Both the “Donald Trump” and “Hillary Clinton” who appeared on the ballots of our Republican-leaning fellow citizens simply do not exist. They are sheer fantasies, created by media organizations that broadcast nothing but lies and propaganda. Indeed, this election was less a contest between two candidates than between two epistemic regimes — between the mostly sham of option #1 above and the complete sham of option #2. And the representative of option #2 — who, terrifyingly and yet appropriately, himself believes the lies and propaganda — has been installed because a critical mass of our fellow citizens who live in strategic places allowed themselves to be misled.

Who is to blame for this? One is of course morally obligated to seek the truth, but I am old fashioned in the sense that I believe you have more responsibility if you have more meaningful agency. If people aren’t thinking critically about their media consumption, that is partially their own fault — but isn’t it much more the fault of those who underfunded education? If people believe lies that fit with their prejudices and preconceptions, that is partially their own fault — but isn’t the bigger problem that a network broadcasting lies nationwide exists in the first place? If people let tribalism override their reason, that is partially their own fault — but don’t the leaders of the tribe bear responsibility for allowing crazy conspiracy theories to become their shibboleths?

I am angry at the family members I know who voted for Trump. The fact that they would vote for him makes me think less of them. I think they could and should have acted differently. But what is casting a vote for Trump compared to enabling the phenomenon in the first place? How much responsibility does your racist uncle have for believing the Birther conspiracy compared to the news media organizations who treated “billionaire believes racist conspiracy theory” as a legitimate news story? How much moral weight does that vote represent compared to the decision of the supposedly respectable and rational Mitt Romney to court Trump’s endorsement in 2012, legitimating him as a political player among Republicans? How much do we blame people for holding their nose to vote for Trump because they think the Republican is the lesser evil, compared to the Republican National Committee which could have, for example, not allowed Trump to even stand as a candidate without releasing his tax returns?

American democracy — a deeply questionable proposition on the very best day — failed in 2016. It did so partly because people are ignorant and gullible, but it did so primarily because our political and media elites have created a situation where people’s political choices are completely unmoored from anything even remotely resembling reality. The people responsible for this failure of democracy are not the voters who are ignorant and gullible, but the people who made it so difficult for them to be anything else.

The Genius of C.L.R. James: A Small Example

Having just finished teaching The Black Jacobins, I wanted to pay tribute to C.L.R. James’s genius by pointing to one short passage — namely, the first two sentences of the fourth chapter of that book:

The slaves worked on the land, and, like revolutionary peasants everywhere, they aimed at the extermination of their oppressors. But working and living together in gangs of hundreds on the huge sugar-factories which covered the North Plain, they were closer to a modern proletariat than any group of workers in existence at the time, and the rising was, therefore, a thoroughly prepared and organized mass movement.

In the space of a few lines, he demolishes the traditional Marxist view of slavery as some kind of pre-modern holdover, as well as the privileging of the industrial proletariat in the narrow sense. The plantations were already factories in the relevant sense, and far from representing an antiquated anachronism, the slaves in San Domingo were the most advanced by far of any group of workers in the world — making them the natural agent of revolution. And a few lines later, there comes the kicker: “Voodoo was the medium of the conspiracy.” Far from being a primitive superstition or a necessary opiate, the syncretistic religion improvised by the slave population was an integral part of their revolutionary movement.

This all happens elegantly and organically, without picking theoretical fights or dropping footnotes. James presents his major theoretical innovations as though they are the most obvious thing in the world.

A defense of the classroom

Miya Tokumitsu’s Jacobin article on lecture pedagogy is something of a mess. It does argue that lectures at their best can be engaging and community-building, but almost everything it is saying could be recouched as a defense of in-person learning and, more generally, of the traditional regime of college education (non-flexible courses, etc.). Indeed, there’s a fundamental incoherence here insofar as many active-learning methods, most notably discussion seminars, require greater routine attendance — your roommates can share their lecture notes, but they can’t bring up your points in discussion for you.

The submerged point of Tokumitsu’s argument is how neoliberalism undermines the traditional regime of university coursework in an insidiously self-reinforcing way: first it requires students to take on an unreasonable burden of wage labor during school, then it uses this very self-imposed necessity to justify more “flexible” learning methods. And I have to say, the method is effective, even at the resolutely traditional Shimer College — students there do have to work way too much, and even they have sometimes asked for more flexible formats such as online learning.

The real problem is forcing students to “work their way through college,” when college is already hard work in and of itself. The world can make do with fewer baristas and waiters while the next generation takes full advantage of the education that we are constantly told is absolutely crucial to personal and national success. It seems to me that a left-wing publication should probably find a way to make that point clearly and directly instead of obscuring the point with a frankly click-baity “contrarian” framing.

“We could be heroes…”: The Deep State, the Media, and the Crisis of Legitimacy

Two fantasies have arisen in the wake of Trump’s unexpected ascension to the White House. The first is that the Deep State will save us. The second is that the media, fighting for its survival, will finally grow a spine and a conscience and, well, save us. Both fantasies are galling. Asking the CIA to save democracy is so ridiculous that I’m not even going to waste the effort of coming up with some clever analogy.

And the fact that CNN can portray itself as a heroic front of resistence makes me literally sick to my stomach. CNN has been a force for evil, full stop. Continue reading ““We could be heroes…”: The Deep State, the Media, and the Crisis of Legitimacy”