What is the news for?

I’ve always loved newspapers. Growing up, my grandparents had a subscription to the Flint Journal. Though my initial attraction was the Sunday comics, I browsed all the sections and was following favorite columnists — like Flint-area fixture Andrew Heller — from a weirdly young age. When Flint got a Borders, I eagerly dove into the out-of-town newspapers and “serious” magazines like the New Yorker or Harper’s. I’ve been a print magazine subscriber basically continuously since high school, and My Esteemed Partner and I take the Sunday New York Times as our Hegelian weekend liturgy. More recently, I’ve begun to get the daily Financial Times as a way of lessening my reliance on social media.

Since I had an extisting NYT subscription, I also considered simply adding daily delivery. But the first Sunday I read the A-section with that in mind, I realized that having their political coverage as my primary diet would drive me insane. Continue reading “What is the news for?”

Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon

I was reminded of this talk last night, which I gave on February 18, 2018, at Marquette University at the invitation of Gerry Canavan, and realized I had never posted it anywhere. Events in both series have overtaken some of my claims, but I present it in its original form, for the record….

Thank you, Gerry, for the generous introduction and the invitation to speak here today on this urgent topic. You already provided me with the opportunity to publish my first peer-reviewed article on Star Trek—establishing me as an official Star Trek scholar, a title I brandish proudly—and here today you have given me a fresh chance to transmute my TV obsessions into academic productivity. It was a great pleasure to rewatch all of BoJack in the last month with the ready excuse that it was for my research, a trick that I have been pulling over and over in the course of my academic career.

Of course, this form of time-laundering is not always equally plausible. My partner and I have been watching old reruns of Frasier, for instance, and there is no possible academic project that would strictly require me to watch every single variation on their relatively narrow bag of tricks. The essence of Frasier, as with most sitcoms, could be distilled into ten episodes or less without really missing anything—other than the comfortable feeling of slipping into the grooves of a well-worn routine.

Things are different with BoJack Horseman and Rick and Morty. These are not shows that are designed to be watched half-attentively. They reward rewatching and reward analysis. Continue reading “Animated Nihilism: Rick and Morty, Bojack Horseman, and the Strange Fate of the Adult Cartoon”

One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence

During my self-sabbatical, I have been using my commute time to read books that I have been vaguely meaning to read for a while. One of those was Christopher Lasch’s The Culture of Narcissism. I enjoyed it — and may even blog about it some day — and decided to continue on the track of “obsolete social criticism” by reading Herbert Marcuse’s One-Dimensional Man. I somehow expected it to be a, well, one-dimensional diatribe against postwar conformism, but I have found it very energizing — even moving. Perhaps it’s just landing differently because my brain is finally starting to heal from burnout, but I think it has a lot to say to our neoliberal moment and to the perpetual “crisis of the humanities.” For this post, though, rather than doing a book report or review, I want to focus on one of his simplest yet most powerful points — namely, what exactly he means by “one-dimensional” — and how this pushed me to rethink some things.

Continue reading “One-Dimensionality and the Uses of Transcendence”

What does a Democrat want?

In the wake of Trump’s Electoral College technicality, I wrote this post about the Democrats’ decision to treat Trump as a normal president as much as possible. My basic point was that they want to preserve institutional continuity for its own sake and are willing to pay a very high substantive price to avoid outright collapse. I have found this argument to be of continuing relevance over the last several years, as the fundamental deadlock of American political culture has not changed. But more recent events have left even the most cynical side of myself wondering what Democrats believe they’re doing.

Continue reading “What does a Democrat want?”

The profit surcharge

One of the oddities of American society is that in most cases you never know what something is going to cost until you are actually charged. The prices marked on the items on the shelves and on the restaurant menus are never exactly what you are going to wind up having to pay. The reason is that sales tax is only added into the cost when you complete your transaction. Growing up, this felt completely natural, if annoying, because it kept me from planning out exact change in advance. The first time I visited a country where the tax was already incorporated into the listed price, I couldn’t believe we would do it differently.

The reason, of course, is ideological: they only add in the tax later so that you feel that the tax is an extra imposition. Every American has to deal with a slow grind of daily annoyance at sales taxes, and any increase in taxes is immediately visible. Obviously this measure didn’t cause the US’s pathological tax-phobia — the very rationale for the Revolutionary War was largely to avoid taxes — but it certainly helps reinforce and reproduce it on the level of everyday practice.

On the level of policy design, it’s a minor feat of evil genius. And I think that left politicians should push to imitate it by proposing that profit margins be treated the same. The price on the shelf or on the menu should include the costs of production, distribution, and marketing. Only when you get to the cash register is the profit margin added onto the price. We get to know how much of our purchase price is going to fund public goods — why shouldn’t we also learn how much of it is enriching stockholders?

Continue reading “The profit surcharge”

The real reason the Democrats won’t stand up for teachers against anti-CRT and “groomer” attacks

[Note: I wrote this piece at the invitation of a major publication, but they ultimately rejected the submitted draft. After a couple failed attempts to find it a new home, I am publishing it here, mainly out of respect for the time of my interview subjects, but also because I think that — whatever it faults as an op-ed — the basic point I am making is true and important.]

At a time when the pandemic has prompted a new appreciation of the work teachers do, we have also witnessed a sustained conservative attack on teachers and public schools. Beginning with the crusade against so-called “Critical Race Theory” and escalating in the recent attempts to squelch discussion of homosexuality and trans issues, state-level Republicans have increasingly sought to police teacher’s speech and micromanage curriculum.

These measures have been accompanied by a campaign of outright demonization against teachers, accusing them of indoctrinating children, seeking to make white children hate themselves, and even implying that teachers who speak with students about homosexuality or trans issues are pedophiles who are “grooming” our nation’s youth.

These increasingly unhinged and dangerous attacks have been met with virtual silence among Democrats. A recent viral speech by Michigan state senator Mallory McMorrow, who forcefully denounced Republican Senator Lana Theis’s attempt to tar her and other Democrats as “groomers,” has only highlighted most elected Democrats’ failure to push back on a campaign of racism, homophobia, and transphobia.

What is going on here? Certainly part of the problem is Democrats’ habitual cowardice in the face of culture war attacks. But I believe the response in this case goes beyond political tactics. There is a deeper dynamic here, an ideological commitment to the view that teachers are not to be trusted. The recent Republican anti-teacher legislation puts a new, distinctively conservative spin on a decades-old effort to undermine the qualitative work of teaching through relentless quantitative assessment. Again and again, Democrats have joined their Republican colleagues in undermining teachers’ ability to function as the caring professionals they are.

Continue reading “The real reason the Democrats won’t stand up for teachers against anti-CRT and “groomer” attacks”

The Assassination Gap

[NOTE: I do not support assassination. Aside from the fact that I personally am a wimp and a coward, I believe that political change will be more durable and legitimate if it is seen to emerge from within the existing political system. The purpose of this post is purely analytical. Ultimately, it’s about trying to account for mass shootings as a phenomenon.]

We are constantly told that our nation is more divided than it has ever been. That’s obviously bullshit. Leaving aside the Civil War — in which our nation was so divided that people literally lined up with rifles to murder each other by the thousands — the turn of the 20th century was marked by labor militancy and left-wing agitation, and the 1960s were a period of mass protest and reactionary violence that far overshadows the present day.

One symptom of that deeper conflict was the prevalence of assassination as a political tool. Continue reading “The Assassination Gap”

We can’t let the invisible hand kill us

There is no binary choice of “next Great Depression or mass death.” The government can support people while they take the absolutely necessary steps to contain coronavirus, allowing them to pick up where they left off once sheltering in place is no longer necessary. Other, smaller countries are taking measures that could be models here and wouldn’t require any new programs or political infrastructure — just pumping money through existing channels. We have the technology (i.e., money). Lives and livelihoods do not need to be destroyed.

But left to itself, the invisible hand is going to inflict a Great Depression on us as punishment for doing the right and necessary things. The invisible hand will destroy careers and businesses and whole communities full of people who did all they could to save lives. How do you expect people to sit back and take that?

The Financial Crisis already inflicted a huge system-wide economic shock on people who were ostensibly “doing the right thing” (buying a home), and that was a huge blow to the legitimacy of the system. Coronavirus is on course to do even worse. And establishment Democrats are doing their level best to guarantee that once the legitimacy of the system — not just the neoliberal order, but perhaps the Constitution itself — is destroyed, the extreme right will be the ONLY organized force in a position to pick up the pieces.

Status anxiety

From most perspectives, I’ve lived a charmed life. I live in a city I love, with an amazing partner. And miraculously, I’ve somehow managed to be employed full-time in academia since finishing my PhD, despite graduating into the Financial Crisis, and as a result, I am now much more materially secure than I could have imagined during the dark days of grad school. I’ve had a really unique and diverse teaching experience, and I’ve had enough time to do the writing and research I am interested in. My writing has opened up a lot of great opportunities, including international travel (to the point where I may eventually be able to “get” every inhabited continent).

In short, I am living the life I want to live and have always wanted to live. My main source of legitimate anxiety is whether I can make it last for the long term. And that ties into another, possibly less legitimate anxiety — over status. On the one hand, I currently have more job security than most professionals in most industries. On the other hand, I am working in the one industry that purports to offer a select few near-total job security, in the form of tenure. That job security is, in the ideology of academia, tied very closely to professional status and prestige. Hence it is difficult to keep those two elements separate: the desire for tenure as one of the few forms of genuine job security in the world and the desire for tenure as a kind of earned recognition of my personal value as a teacher and scholar.

Continue reading “Status anxiety”

The right-wing reaction is part of the legacy of the fall of the Soviet Union

In Neoliberalism’s Demons, available wherever fine books are sold, I argue that the right-wing reaction is not a necessary outcome of neoliberalism — in particular, that it does not represent either a reactivation of “leftover” social elements (such as the nation or race, both of which are integral to neoliberalism) or a response to “legitimate grievances” (the long-discredited “economic anxiety” argument for explaining why people support Trump). It is a legible outgrowth of neoliberalism, indeed a parody of it, but not some kind of inner necessity or destiny. Trump in particular was a terrible fluke that was only possible due to our baroque constitutional apparatus, not an expression of the Deep Truth of America or, especially, the will of the people (who voted overwhelmingly against him).

In Q&A sessions, though, people have asked me why, even if we concede that Trump was in some sense a fluke, there nonetheless seems to be a global trend of right-wing reaction. I regret not coming up with this on the spot, but further reflection indicates that the reason the right-wing has been able to seize the moment of neoliberal decline is that there is no longer a live left option. They are winning more or less by default. And the reason there is no live left option is that the Soviet Union collapsed, thereby discrediting the extreme left for a generation. Whether this is fair or not — and whether the Soviet Union was even representative of a plausible range of outcomes for an extreme left agenda — it is indeed the case. There are still Communist countries out there, but they appear to be either impoverished outliers (like Cuba or North Korea), or else appear to all the world as having embraced capitalism (China mainly, but also Vietnam). There is no self-assertive, international leftist movement with the power base of an actual country and military behind it.

The giveaway is that the homeland of the right-wing reaction is first of all Russia itself (Putin) and that the worst offenders in Europe were most often in the Warsaw Pact (Hungary, Poland). Huh, I wonder why these countries, after being failed by the neoliberal order, would embrace the extreme right and not the extreme left? If you remember that the Soviet Union once existed, the answer is obvious. But no one remembers the Soviet Union existed.

(I think you can even fit India and Turkey into this narrative, though I admit I don’t know as much about the details of their internal politics. I won’t embarrass myself by opining beyond the limits of my expertise.)

If this is the case, then I would suggest that the only hope for actually beating back the right-wing reaction is either for the extreme left to take over a major country (best of all, of course, would be the AOC Revolutionary Junta here in America, while we’re dreaming) — or else we can cross our fingers that China is still pursuing the goal of socialism but playing the “long game” of developing the means of production and that it eventually starts asserting itself more directly internationally. (The Belt and Road project could point in that direction, but again, I just don’t know enough to be sure.) I am pretty certain, though, that David Harvey is wrong and China is not helpfully characterized as “neoliberal,” meaning that there is at least one major economy in the world where a noticeably different economic model is an actuality — though China is doing all they can to obscure that, perhaps in part because they saw what happens when an assertive Communist power bloc antagonizes the West. (And of course Western coverage of China wants to claim they’re straightforwardly capitalist, because that fits in the “there is no alternative” narrative.)

Either way, though, the collapse of the Soviet project was a world-historical catastrophe that may have literally doomed human civilization. So yeah. As they say, “it’ll be interesting to see how that plays out.”