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.

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.

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.

On making them look like victims

It never fails. Any time someone expresses approval of a protest, a nice liberal will come along and declare that it’s counterproductive because it makes Trump (or whichever right-wing figure) look like a victim, further legitimating him in people’s minds. This cliche really came into its own after Richard Spencer was punched, but now it’s being trotted out in connection with the protesters who prompted Betsy DeVos to flee a public school. And it’s wrong-headed concern-trolling at its very worst, on every conceivable level.

First, these moves were not counterproductive. Both cases represented powerful symbolic actions, memorably and vividly demonstrating that people passionately oppose the targets and are willing to put their bodies on the line. And both actions carry possible concrete consequences — Spencer has complained that he feels less comfortable speaking in public and acknowledges that that hurts his cause, and billionaire Betsy DeVos could conceivably discover that her vanity cabinet appointment isn’t worth being constantly hassled by protestors.

Second, they do not make their targets look like victims. The punch made Spencer look like the buffoon he is, and the protestors at the public school made Betsy DeVos look like a coward.

Third, even granting that the targets look like victims, how is this legitimation effect supposed to work? I wish someone would find me the person who said to himself, “I used to oppose Neo-Nazi ideology, but once I saw that some guy got punched for espousing it, I gave it a second look” or “I was a big supporter of public schools, but after seeing that Betsy DeVos fled from five or six protestors, I now advocate liquidating them and privatizing the education system.” But they can’t, because there is no such person.

And that’s because perceived victimhood does not automatically grant authority. Sometimes perceived victimhood can be instrumentalized to reinforce authority, but it can just as easily be explained away — ask Black Lives Matter about the latter phenomenon. And claiming victim status is always risky, because you could wind up looking like a pathetic whiner and undermining your own cause. Like, say, if you espouse an ideology claiming you’re part of the master race but are scared to go out in public because you might get punched. Or if you’re a billionaire who doesn’t even try to engage with what is objectively a really, really small group of peaceful protestors. Or if you’ve been installed as President of the United States and spend all your time complaining about perceived sleights.

But this post is probably self-undermining, because by subjecting liberal concern-trolls to such a harsh critique, I’m just making them look like victims and legitimating their position.

It could happen to you

Like everyone, I mocked the tweet. Deep down, I never thought it could happen to me. Now I wish I had stopped to think things through, because I didn’t know how to respond. A terrorist had actually kidnapped my baby. By all indications, he had rigged the poor little tyke with a bomb set to go off in one hour. Somehow, miraculously, I had wound up in the same room with him. And now I faced a terrible choice: do I torture the terrorist, or let my baby be blown up, by the bomb that he had rigged the baby with, and then left the baby at some remote location while winding up in a situation where he could be tortured by me?

I couldn’t help but pause and think about the improbable series of events that had led me to this awful juncture. In a way, I was naive. As the President or CEO of a major company or important inventor or celebrity or whatever the fuck I would have to be for someone to even bother to kidnap my infant child, I had been too lax on baby security. Continue reading “It could happen to you”

Obama’s last, best gift

In recent days, some people have been joking that Obama should resign a few days before the end of his term so that Biden can say he was president. In some iterations, this is a way of subtley screwing over Trump, who has already received gifts addressed to the “45th president” and a brief Biden interregnum would make him 46th.

I of course support this plan, but I think it could be taken a step further: Biden should also resign the day before Trump’s inauguration. This would make Paul Ryan President, and since it is not permitted to hold two government offices at once, he would have to resign his House seat. Presumably he could win again in a special election, and he could technically be elected Speaker again even without being a member of the House, but reopening the question of who should be Speaker could throw things into chaos.

There’s a certain poetry to it, insofar as one of the highlights of Biden’s vice-presidential career was screwing with Paul Ryan in the debate. I also like the idea of potentially derailing, or at least complicating, Ryan’s career by giving him what is so clearly his ultimate goal: “You’re an ambitious young man, clearly you want to be president — well, here you go!”

Their fake news and ours

The term “fake news” has recently come back into vogue, to refer to the false news stories that circulated freely on social media and most likely contributed to the cruel technicality that occurred on Election Day. This is not the first time “fake news” has been a major topic of conversation, however. The term was also routinely used for The Daily Show and The Colbert Report in their heyday, as well as The Onion. The comparison may seem unfair, given that contemporary fake news spreads malicious lies — like the story that Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation ring at a pizza parlor — while the old brand of fake news spread jokes. But I think there is more in common here than most liberals would feel comfortable admitting.

Like contemporary fake news, the fake news of yore served primarily to form in-groups. For liberals, the retreat to The Daily Show was motivated by a justified sense that the mainstream media was no longer trustworthy given how easily the Bush Administration had manipulated them. Only a news report wrapped in overt liberal outrage and exasperation could be trusted. This is of course a variation on the perpetual right-wing theme of “media bias,” which in this case was actually based in reality rather than on paranoid conspiracy theories. But The Daily Show by and large didn’t give us facts unavailable elsewhere — indeed, it was almost totally parasitical on the mainstream media it was skewering. What it actually gave us was a certain attitude, a sense of being “in the know,” of realizing how wrong Bush & Co. and their toadies in the media were. And they really were wrong! But The Daily Show didn’t give us tools for clearly articulating why or building an alternative. Maybe that’s not the job of a comedy show, but then it’s also not the job of a comedy show to be your primary news source.

I would also advance a potentially more controversial point: like Daily Show-style fake news, contemporary fake news isn’t meant to be taken literally and it probably mostly isn’t. As a point of evidence, I note that only one idiot showed up at the pizza parlor looking for child molestors. Given the thousands of people who read and shared the story, you would expect the place to be inundated with concerned citizens if people were taking it literally. I assume that the conservatives themselves regard the “self-investigator” as a naive idiot. They know these stories are bullshit, but they don’t care because there is a deeper truth at work. “Democrats want to corrupt our children” — that part is true whether or not Hillary Clinton literally rapes children, and the important thing is that that basic message gets across.

If you’re having trouble believing this, think about your own attitude toward the meme that Trump is having sex with Ivanka. Do you literally believe this? Do you ever have a strong opinion one way or the other? Or are you happy to help the meme circulate because it fits with the message that Trump is gross and beyond the pale? I don’t want to draw a false equivalency here or shame people for joking about that — though there is something pretty ugly about such joking, which would probably be hard to maintain if we really thought about it literally as something that had happened, and was maybe even still happening, in real life — but just to give you a sense of the attitudes at work and suggest that conservatives, as fellow human beings, are capable of holding similar attitudes toward questionable stories that reinforce a narrative they want to promote.

This parallel would be a matter of purely historical curiosity if Hillary Clinton had not run a Daily Show campaign: pointing and laughing at Donald Trump’s obvious wrongness without ever clearly articulating an alternative. That kind of worked on liberals, but it was just as ineffective at reaching conservatives as Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert were. Now we’re learning that fake news was to blame for that, but let’s give the conservatives some credit: they knew the fake news was fake. They just hated Hillary so much they didn’t care. And for not realizing that was the case and continuing to reach out to conservatives to the detriment of mobilizing her base, I kind of hate Hillary too.