Lies and neoliberalism

Under neoliberalism, lies become an accepted feature of political leadership. The goal is purely to instrumentalize democratic legitimacy, in order to gain the power to make the necessary decisions that ordinary people can never understand or be persuaded of.

The fact that Obama was so astoundingly honest compared to all presidents in recent memory contributed to his weakness, because he was surrounded by habitual liars and cheats. He thought he could make the neoliberal consensus positively legitimate again, instead of just a default option supported by “spin” and demonization. That the lies that propelled Trump to the presidency were specifically about Obama is thus fitting — as is the fact that they propelled him to the presidency in an obviously democratically illegitimate way.

As ever, Trump is the parody of the neoliberal consensus, which shows us the truth of its intellectual and political bankruptcy. And the neoliberal Democrats’ answer is not to mobilize the population in protest, not to take direct action against an obviously illegitimate political structure — but to double down on elitism and technocracy by imagining that the FBI will somehow save us.

Fragmentary thoughts on politics

People analyze Trump supporters as though they’re hanging on his every word and willing to defend his every lie, but that describes only a small hardcore faction that spends too much time on line. In reality, most of them are just not paying close attention and don’t need to do much more than deploy the standard “liberal media bias” narrative — wherein anything that sounds too “extreme” must be made up because it can’t possibly be that bad — to keep the cognitive dissonance levels down. It’s not about consciously buying lies, it’s about maintaining plausible deniability through ignorance — and that may be a tougher problem. It’s not even about convincing them of the truth, it’s about convincing them that they could potentially have access to the truth and, even worse, be held responsible for finding it.

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The talk of “treason” leaves me cold. Trump is showing less concrete deference and servility toward Russia than every president in my lifetime has shown toward Israel and Saudi Arabia, for example. This is rhetoric that will backfire on the left, just like making the cruelty of child separation be about the sanctity of “family.” And there is also the fact that people are bizarrely using this as an opportunity for redbaiting, as though Putin is a continuation of the USSR — when in reality, he is the kind of right-wing strongman that Marxist theory predicts as the outcome of a failed left project. Not to mention the lionization of the American national security apparatus. I am all for removing Trump by any possible means, but my God, my God. There is no future down this path.

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The irony of the present moment is that the right is more internationalist than the left, where the debate is centered on economic nationalism and reclaiming the power of the nation-state. Again, there is no future down this path.

Paying attention is the hardest thing

I don’t think we need to get better at listening to each others’ opinions and viewpoints. We need to get better at not presuming to have opinions and viewpoints on every single thing in the world — and to get better at not assuming that the things people say amount to opinions and viewpoints. We don’t even need to get better at suspending judgment, because that presupposes that the goal of a conversation is a judgment.

We just need to get better at paying attention to things and finding ways to talk about what we see when we pay attention to things.

How might this work in a political context? I haven’t talked to a Trump supporter about the separation of children at the border, but I can vividly imagine how it would go — they would keep throwing excuses and distractions at the wall until either something stuck or they wore me out (most likely the latter). All of that would be to avoid confronting the simple fact of what is happening: agents of the government are stealing away the children of immigrants, making no effort to keep track of them or guarantee their safe return, and sticking them in ad hoc camps. That is what is happening.

“But it’s Obama’s fault, because he made the policy.” Fine, but this is what your guy is doing now. “He’s just following the law.” He has a majority in both houses of Congress — he could change the law if he wanted to. “It’s all part of a negotiating strategy to get a better immigration policy.” Yes, but it’s ruining lives, probably irrevocably, in the meantime. “It’s their own fault for breaking the law.” This was never a consequence of breaking that law before. Does it seem proportionate?

I’m not sure I want to change their opinion or persuade them to vote for a Democrat or whatever, so much as to force them to actually face the fact of what is happening. That would at least give me some information — if they can see the horror, then there may be some hope for them; if they can stare down what is happening and say it’s worth it, then they are lost. We can’t tell a person is lost simply from the fact that they are spouting the talking points, because it is a very human (though very selfish) thing to want to look away from something terrible like this and especially to try to avoid any complicity or blame. This is what I mean by not assuming that the stupid things they say amount to “opinions” that we must counter or take seriously — they aren’t EVEN opinions yet, they are ways to avoid confronting the situation and forming an actual opinion.

Learning to talk to each other like human beings

In the last week of the senior capstone class, I suggested that one of the most important things we do at Shimer is develop the habit of actually talking to each other like human beings. Not spouting off opinions, not yelling at each other to beat everyone into submission, not positioning and posturing and signaling, above all not trying to “win” at something or avoid admitting we were ever wrong, but actually talking — about something of substance, which we have all done some work toward understanding. We’re not perfect. It doesn’t always come together. Personal conflict and fatigue and flagging interest all work against us. But every day, in every class, we try to learn how to talk to each other like human beings, and after four years of doing that every day, in every class, everyone gets at least a little better at it.

Every morning when I read the news and the inane commentary on it and the clever but ultimately unsatisfying riffs and jokes on it all, I become more convinced that we all need to learn to talk to each other like human beings. I’m not going to claim that it’s the most revolutionary thing or the most important thing — but it’s a necessary thing, if we don’t want to trust our fate to the loudest and most brutal person on “our side.” Maybe that will work, but it probably won’t, and when it doesn’t, we won’t have any way to figure out what went wrong and what we can change.

TV Recap: The Trump Show, Season 2

Season 2 of the Trump Show has been really tedious. The show hit its stride last summer, when there was a lot of plot momentum — in fact, it almost became “appointment television,” as people tuned in around close-of-business every day to learn of the exciting new developments. But as so often happens in American television, what should have been a UK-style limited series has been indefinitely extended. The characters are so thin, and the setup so improbable, that we get nothing but the repetition of the same scenarios. The attempt to inject some lurid interest with the porn star theme feels desperate, and bringing back the Giuliani character is some kind of weird fan service for a fan who doesn’t really exist. The one genuine comic relief, Sean Spicer, has been replaced by perpetual wet blanket Sarah Huckabee Sanders — a major casting mistake, though an understandable one after the blow-up with the Scarramucci character.

What the President Wants

Trump has done terrible things that have damaged important institutions and, more importantly, individual human lives and the environmental preconditions of our civilization. Our public discourse, however, is dominated by outrage at what Trump wants. Most recently, he joked that he would like to imitate Chairman Xi and become president for life. This is supposed to be outrageous, chilling, etc. In reality, I can picture any recent president making the same joke. Trump has not proposed actually abolishing term limits, nor has he even made any serious moves toward rehabilitating his reputation so as to actually win reelection in 2020. Similarly, we are asked to feel outraged, chilled, etc., by Trump’s stated desires to censor unfavorable press coverage — even though he has done literally nothing to restrain press freedoms. His very desire condemns him, all the more, it seems, when it is an impotent desire.

It is interesting to contrast this situation with Obama and Bush. In both cases, their presumed desires were supposed to make us give them the benefit of the doubt. Bush just wanted to keep the country safe, and if he made some mistakes, it was in pursuit of that worthy desire. Similarly, for his liberal defenders, Obama ostensibly wanted all the right things, but sadly came up against the persistent obstacle of political reality. The same might be said for Bill Clinton, who got credit for liberal desires even while running a deeply conservative administration. From the other side, those same liberal desires led to demonization: never mind the moderate, even conservative results of their actual politices, Clinton and Obama want to impose gay Islamic socialism on hard-working Americans!

I have no interest in positing an equivalency between right-wing demonization of Clinton and Obama and center-left demonization of Trump — clearly we are dealing with two very different phenomena, most notably in the outright lies and conspiracy theories that attached to both Clinton and Obama. What I am interested in is the political function of the president’s desire. In Bush’s case, his ostensibly sincere desire to keep America safe served to paper over and normalize an administration that really was extreme and dangerous. With Clinton and Obama, their sincere liberal desires helped to make up for the betrayal of their liberal followers’ hopes. Meanwhile, demonization of Clinton and Obama’s liberal desires served to mask their substantive continuity with their Republican predecessors — and we might say that the demonization of Trump serves to mask his substantive continuity, not only with previous Republican administrations but with Obama (on the matter of aggressive deportations, for example).

Is it that the president’s desire always steps in to save us from uncomfortable questions? The liberal apologist for Clinton and Obama puts forward their desire as a screen to prevent them from seeing that they’re being taken for a ride, and the right-wing demonizers project exaggerated hatred of Clinton and Obama to keep from admitting that, at the end of the day, they have nothing to complain about, that they’ve already won. And the sincere desires of George W. Bush shield the entire political establishment from recognizing that they have been complicit in terrible crimes, crimes that are continuing unabated even now.

From this perspective, the reasonable centrist has to demonize Trump, to excoriate his evil desires as though they were already realities, because if Trump wasn’t a horrible abberation, they might have to admit that they have never really had their desired dancing partner for bipartisan solutions. Or on a deeper level, the Democratic Party hack has to demonize Trump’s desires to cover over the fact that they have no desires of their own, that they neither want power nor know what to do with it. Every fantasized power grab by Trump, every outrage is, as our sage social media scolds warn us continually, a distraction — from the fact that there effectively is no opposition, no alternative vision, nothing but a desire for a return to the normality that was always slowly killing us and would have continued to do so throughout the Hillary Clinton impeachment trial.

A teachable moment on “fake news”

This new tell-all book about the Trump administration (excerpted in New York Magazine) is a teachable moment for “fake news.” The author, Michael Wolff, has a reputation for exaggeration and even falsification, including conversations that are recounted in such vivid detail that they basically have to be invented on some level. Some significant portion of this book is likely to be bullshit, and even just from reading it, I think any critical thinker is going to suspect that some of it is just too good to be true.

Nonetheless, people who hate Trump are passing around the juiciest stories already, and the full book is likely to be a goldmine for months to come. The reason is that they hate Trump, and these stories are satisfying because they present Trump in an extremely humiliating light. The implication is that they believe the stories are true, though if pressed they would probably say that they don’t care if the particular details are true because the overall message is. And that’s fine. I hate Trump, too. I read and found satisfaction in the excerpt. I might well pass along select tidbits in casual conversation.

I’m not here to judge anyone, just to suggest that the other side is reading their exaggerated “fake news” stories in much the same way. I’m sure we can all imagine our conservative uncle spouting some improbable story about Hillary, then backing down if pressed but nonetheless maintaining that the overall message that Hillary is corrupt or untrustworthy is true. They don’t care if it’s true — they just find the stories somehow enjoyable because they provide further fodder to hate people they already hate.

I’m something of a broken record on this topic. Why do I think it’s important? First, I think we need to realize that political antagonism takes this form more or less universally. You decide who your enemy is first, and then you seek narratives that help support that decision. Regarding your enemy as an honorable worthy opponent is the exception rather than the rule. Such declarations are likely to be tactical moves meant to convince rivals of one’s own reasonableness, as shown by the fact that the “reasonable Republicans,” for example, are either dead, out of power, or marginal within their party.

The phenomenon of demonization is much more serious on the right than the left, of course. The conspiracy theories about Hillary are much more unhinged than anything we see about Trump. But I keep wanting to point it out on the left because the liberal’s default view is that I have rationality and discernment, whereas the primitive other takes everything literally. It goes back to the faith vs. reason distinction — those who embrace faith commit themselves, in the liberal view, to slavishly obeying authority in a machine-like way. Hence they swallow whatever “fake news” Facebook feeds them, while we are able to maintain ironic distance. In reality, though, basically every educated person is capable of taking up ironic distance toward authoritative claims, and no one — no one! — follows any type of authority, even scriptural authority, in a mechanically literal way.

Am I advocating for some kind of sympathetic recognition that our enemies are human, too, sharing our own foibles, etc., etc.? Far from it: the fact that our enemies are human is what makes them enemies. What I’m interested in is winning, and we can never win if we have such an impoverished view of the people we are struggling against. The view that our enemies will just believe whatever is put in front of them, for instance, leads down blind alleys such as the attempt to restore “truth” to reporting — as though the media wasn’t always a site of political struggle. They are not slavish followers of authority, nor are we purely logical beings. We won’t win by convincing them that Hillary wasn’t really running a child molestation ring out of a pizza parlor.

In the short run, we will win by mobilizing the people on our side and demoralizing the people on their side. And what will convince people in the long run to switch sides is not reasoned arguments, but positive changes to their lives. Those of us who have switched from being conservative to liberal, for instance, didn’t likely do so because we read a pamphlet and decided abstractly that our beliefs were wrong. We changed our views because our lives changed, because the communities formed by conservatism were no longer working for us and more progressive settings were. That is the way it is and should be — no one should make a major change to their deep convictions because of a mere argument. So if we want to convince people, for example, that the government can provide certain important goods better than for-profit companies, we need to take power and make that the case, so that people can live out that fact and see for themselves.

And honestly, if a demonizing narrative about Trump helps drive the voter turnout needed to make that happen, I’m all for it. Let a thousand tell-all books bloom! We just need to be honest about the fact that we’re involved in a genuine political struggle, not a made-up conflict between reason and irrationality.

The score after Year One of the Age of Trump: Bush was still worse

I am angry about the nihilistic tax cut bill that just passed the Senate. I am humiliated every day by the thought that a con artist like Trump is president, much less by the stupid shit he says every time he opens his mouth. I am disgusted at the thought that a foreign power could materially affect our elections and there would be no accountability. I am tensed up every time I call home to talk to my Trump-supporting parents, because I worry that hints of the separate epistemological regimes we live in will crop up. But one year in, Bush was still way, way worse.

The Bush tax cuts were as arbitrary as those currently under consideration. Though there was the padding of a budget surplus to stave off immediate calls for entitlement cuts, the prospects for overturning them were made worse by the complicity of the Democrats in the process — something that is completely absent in our present situation. This latter will be a recurring theme.

Trump has made climate change denial official government policy and appointed a vandal to head up the EPA. But this is just a mopping-up effort in the wake of the Bush administration’s path-breaking work. Before Bush, environmentalism was not a partisan issue. His father presided over a cap-and-trade program that helped to limit acid rain, for instance. But the Bush administration was the Revenge of the Oil Industry, and while not openly embracing climate change denial, they brought the “teach the controversy” bullshit mainstream — and meanwhile literally approved tax credits for gas-guzzling SUVs.

People are horrified by Trump’s rhetoric and stated desire for more executive power. Yet when it comes to consolidating executive power, Trump is a rank amateur compared to Bush and Cheney. Trump has issued meaningless executive orders stating campaign goals, while Bush literally signed bills into law and appended a written notice that he would not obey the resulting laws. Trump admires strongmen, while Bush administration lawyers developed the theory of the Unitary Executive. There’s a reason people turned to Carl Schmitt to understand Bush, and there’s also a reason why there hasn’t been another Schmitt vogue in the Age of Trump.

In terms of the Electoral College technicality that brought us both of the worst presidents of the 21st century, Bush’s was “better” because it came down to good old domestic corruption and family ties in Florida, rather than foreign interference. Yet by this point in his misbegotten reign, Bush had presided over the biggest foreign terrorist attack in American history. I am not a 9/11 Truther, but I believe there is concrete evidence that the Bush administration could have stopped the attacks but failed to do so due to their belief that creating fake hostilities with China was more important than continuing the Clinton administration’s focus on terrorism. I have long believed that if Gore — whom you may remember as the man who won the part of the 2000 election where people showed up and voted — had been president, he would have continued Clinton-era policies and the 9/11 attacks would have been stopped.

At this point, Trump is the least popular president in modern history, while Bush was riding around 90% for existing while 9/11 happened (again, due partly to his negligence). To his credit, Bush was less likely to openly stoke racial resentment of American Muslims in the wake of 9/11 than Trump is in the wake of… basically no reason. And yet his advisors were already pushing for a criminal war that would kill millions and destroy the life prospects for an entire generation in the Middle East — which, again, the Democrats were complicit with. Democrats were also complicit with the suspensions of civil liberties in the childishly named USA PATRIOT ACT, which contributed to the development of a global network of torture camps. Compared to this, Trump’s consistently thwarted desire to ban Muslims from entering the country — as pointless and cruel as it is, and as much damage as it has done to individuals — seems less like an abberation.

Whenever I have brought up these and similar topics, the response is invariably: just you wait! Trump is clearly evil, he clearly wants to do evil things, and when he gets around to it, it’s going to be a doozy! And sure, Trump is a terrible person whom I hate with all my heart. But short of a nuclear exchange with North Korea, what is even available to do that would be worse than the Iraq War? And how could he top legalizing torture? He has claimed he wants to reinstitute waterboarding, but so far it doesn’t seem like that has happened — and if it did, it would just be a repeat of a Bush-era innovation.

Yes, your fantasy of the worst that Trump could do is always going to top the reality of the Bush administration. But that reality is pretty grim, and the consistent complicity of the Democrats has meant that efforts at unravelling that toxic legacy have been thwarted at every turn. By contrast, Trump is hated by the public, fully opposed by the Democrats and not fully supported by his own party, and apparently too stupid and capricious to achieve anything that doesn’t involve his hiring and firing power. Yes, he’s done real damage, and no, we probably don’t appreciate the full extent of it. But the case for Trump as a unique fascist threat is pretty hollow when we recall that we had a fascist president within most of our adult lifetimes — and everyone, including the opposition party, fell in line.

And now we’re nostalgic for good old grampa W., with his cute paintings, who reminds us of the good old days before our president had an ugly combover. It’s absolutely disgusting — but quintessentially American. After all, what would America be like if we were capable of clearly recalling events from over a decade ago?

Defence Mechanisms

When conservatives hear the suggestion that they should do something good, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, exhorting them sarcastically to do this supposedly good thing and predicting that disaster will fall on their heads as a result — and rightly so.

When liberals hear the suggestion that the law should directly pursue just ends, they hear it as an accusation and a threat. Instinctively, they turn it around on the accuser, predicting that they themselves will be excluded and violated in a legal order that sought substantive justice — because the only alternative to empty formalism is a positive evil.

When neoliberals hear the suggestion that they should do something good or the law should directly pursue just ends, it doesn’t even register and they just continue on with their “best practices,” oblivious and content.

Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

Word on the street is that the PC police are at it again. Their new unreasonable expectation is that people should avoid “cultural appropriation,” which in the minds of anti-PC columnists means that literally no one should ever engage with any cultural artifact outside of their own culture. I mean, who could possibly think that, right?! What does that even mean?

Back here in the real world, no one does actually think that. No one wants hermetically sealed cultural bubbles, other than perhaps white supremacists. In reality, the key word is appropriation. The goal is not to prevent cross-cultural dialogue, but to insist upon it. The rule is that if you want to engage with a cultural artifact, you need to engage with the real-live people who are cultivating it.

So here are a couple examples. If Eminem claimed that he invented rapping, that would be cultural appropriation. If he collaborated regularly with black artists who accepted him as a member of their artistic community, that would be healthy cross-cultural dialogue. If he became increasingly detached from that black community as his career progressed and accepted being treated as the only rapper on earth, then he would be edging toward cultural appropriation even after a non-appropriating start. If I read a book about Buddhism and decided to start a Buddhist retreat without ever talking to a single living Buddhist practioner, that would be appropriation. If I read a book on Buddhism and decided I wanted to practice and hence started consulting with actual practicing Buddhists who have a living connection with the places and communities where Buddhism originated, then that’s healthy cross-cultural dialogue. Odds are, it would take a lot of work before I got to the point where I could start a Buddhist community of my own without it constituting appropriation, and I would need to make sure that the actual pre-existing Buddhist community I had joined approved before doing that. If I thought they were being overly narrow-minded, then I would have to take responsibility for the appearance of cultural appropriation and expect to receive criticism in that regard.

There are some borderline cases. For example, I taught a couple courses on Islamic thought with only minimal engagement with real-world Islamic communities. To some extent, I think that’s justified — my whole approach to religious thought is historical rather than sociological — but it was also partly laziness and a generally anti-social predisposition. At the same time, I didn’t claim that I discovered Islam or that I was the only or best source for authentic Islamic teaching. If someone rated my performance “problematic” in this regard, I couldn’t help but hear them out and promise to do better next time. That’s life. Other things I have done have been called out as problematic as well, and I survived. Sometimes I think people’s concerns are exaggerated, but most of the time I think they have a point. It’s my decision how to respond and whether to take their criticism seriously, but if I don’t change my behavior, I don’t have a right to never be criticized. Again, that’s life — there’s no way to be perfectly insulated from all criticism in advance.

No one is perfect — and by the same token, no one is required to jump straight to the most outraged defensiveness any time someone points out a mistake that they might not have thought of on their own. If the anti-PC columnists are so concerned to preserve the great tradition of cross-cultural dialogue, they might want to try having an actual conversation with critics of cultural appropriation instead of (wait for it…) appropriating the concept of “cultural appropriation” for their own ends and defining it in whatever way they want. The best way to preserve cross-cultural dialogue is to engage in it, instead of unilaterally proclaiming your righteousness from on high.