Russia and Rot

If Trump colluded with the Russians to influence the election, it would be a very bad thing. If said collusion provides a path to remove him from office, then that would be a good thing. That both of those points are true, however, does not detract from the equally true fact that liberal obsession with the Russia issue is a symptom of a much deeper blindness about the reality of our political situation.

Unless the Russians literally hacked into voting machines — which no one is alleging as far as I can tell — then their interference ultimately depends on finding a receptive audience. Putin did not and could not create such an audience. That is a completely home-grown phenomenon. Assuming the Russia story is true, it is undoubtedly bad that Putin was able to manipulate the American public with transparent bullshit, to the point that a vulgar incompetent bigot who has never held a job in his life could be appointed to the most powerful office on earth. No question, we’re dealing with something bad that we should be upset about. And yet surely the very fact that such a scheme was possible in the first place is the real problem. It points to a deep rot in American public discourse, of which anyone who has ever visited home for Thanksgiving was surely aware.

The Democratic leadership, it appears, has never visited home for Thanksgiving. The very fact that they could nominate Hillary Clinton in an election where literally everything the Democrats have achieved in the last eight years depended on keeping a Democrat in the White House shows how profoundly naive they are. One of the most notable symptoms of the rot in American political discourse is that approximately 40% of our fellow citizens will believe anything about Hillary Clinton, as long as it’s bad. They don’t even need to be directly presented with the evil deeds — they can piece them together from any available evidence, such as her campaign manager’s suggestion, leaked as part of the nefarious e-mails, that they go to a particular pizza parlor. This led to a viral story about how Hillary Clinton was running a child molestation club. The fact that this kind of obvious bullshit was not reported to oblivion on social media, the fact that reasonable conservatives did not shame their friends and relatives for sharing such a shameful thing, is a symptom of the rot.

It’s not fair to Hillary Clinton, but I don’t care about Hillary Clinton’s personal ambitions. The country was not worth risking for the sake of eking out a historic win for her. The hatred of 40% of Americans for Hillary Clinton is a fact, as is the fact that many of those Americans are college-educated suburban American women. I know one of those women: my own mother, who could never bring herself to vote for someone so vile as Hillary Clinton and who didn’t vote for Trump so much as against that woman. Alienating the Democratic base for the sake of reaching those women was delusional, just as assuming that once the Russia connections are revealed, surely Trump supporters will realize they were scammed is delusional. There was already ample evidence that Trump was running a scam. There has seldom been as much evidence for anything in all of human history. Is adding Russia into the mix going to tip the balance? We already know that many Trump supporters are all too eager to embrace Russia as an ally precisely because Trump is favorable to Putin — what do you expect to happen when they learn that Russia is helping their idol?

We may be past the point of persuasion here, at least when it comes to Trump’s person. There may still be room for persuasion when it comes to things that affect people’s lives — like health care, for instance, where there has been a groundswell of revulsion against the Republicans’ sick policy proposals. Against all odds, it would appear that the Rube Goldberg machine we know as Obamacare managed to convince many of our fellow citizens that guaranteeing access to health care is a good idea, a fact to which Trump testified through his transparent lies about replacing it with something “even better.”

We know there is only one possible policy outcome that is significantly better than Obamacare: single-payer healthcare. So naturally, the Democrats are digging in their heels and refusing to do anything that could change the brilliant policy that arguably cost them the House and, via the redistricting that Republicans controlled after 2010, all hope for the future. Obamacare is the thing that the Democrats did, and we need to respect that by doing nothing further. And this is vintage Hillary Clinton, who all but told us outright that she wasn’t going to patronize us by hinting that anything could ever get better.

America is already great! Can you blame the unwashed red-state masses who read the campaign as a declaration that the people they hate wanted them to hate Trump more? Yes, yes, they should have known. They should have woken up and stood in line and defied their communities and churches so that they could vote for the party of nothing, headed up by the person they’ve been trained to hate for the last twenty years. How could they have been so stupid? The only answer is to keep offering them nothing and telling them they’re stupid, until they finally come around.

Toxic call-out culture and toxic assets

In the phrase “toxic call-out culture,” I’m interested in the word “toxic.” The last time it was part of a widely used set phrase was back in the good old days of the Global Financial Crisis, when we heard a lot about “toxic assets.” The theory was that if those individual assets could be isolated and excised, then the banks would go from strength to strength. But the metaphor already gave the game away — it is in the nature of a “toxic” element to pollute everything else. And in reality, the toxic assets may have had higher toxin levels, but they were a symptom of a system that was toxic overall.

Similarly, the idea in “toxic call-out culture” diatribes is that if the left could get rid of this one element, they would be successful. But again, the very metaphor implies that the entire left is polluted already. And even if we concede that “call-out culture” gets out of hand or becomes an area of disproportionate focus, such events are only particularly vocal instantiations of core convictions of the left — above all, a preferential option for those historically oppressed and excluded, as well as the recognition that those from historically more privileged groups need to be held accountable if they want to participate in the struggle for liberation.

On a local tactical level, some particular instance of “call-out culture” could certainly be judged counter-productive or ill-advised, but on the level of global strategy, getting rid of the impulse behind “call-out culture” would mean giving up on being the left at all. If call-out culture is “toxic,” then we can only conclude that the left as such is toxic, as it surely is for those commentators who make use of the trope.

Online leftist activism: A beginner’s guide

My experience teaches me that the online left abides by certain unspoken rules that help everyone to remain as woke and unproblematic as possible. At the risk of breaking the code of silence, I will list the most important rules as I have come to understand them:

  1. The correct position is always already known.
  2. It’s never your responsibility to actually explain or even state the correct position.
  3. Failure to hold the correct opinion must be treated as tantamount to actively harming people.
  4. Outrage and exasperated impatience are the only acceptable rhetorical stances.

This is the strategy that has led the left from strength to strength in recent years. We should all be proud to belong to a group that understands so perfectly exactly what needs to be done and how everyone should behave.

A periodic reminder about social constructs

The mainstream debate about social constructs shows how deeply engrained individualism is in the American psyche. From an individualist viewpoint, there are two categories that a claim to knowledge can fall into: objective (existing “out there” in the real world) or subjective (all in your head). The concept of a social construct points toward a third option: human creations that are bigger than any individual’s arbitrary decisions.

A good example of this is the English language, which was created over many centuries by millions and millions of people. It is not a fact of nature in the same sense as the diameter of the Earth or the speed of light, but neither is it “all in my head.” It is something that is socially shared, and any changes in it come about not, for instance, because I up and decide to make up a word, but because a critical mass of other people adopt it.

Similarly, the legal code of the United States is not an objective fact in the same sense as the structure of DNA, but that doesn’t mean it’s “all in my head.” I can’t up and decide what is or isn’t legal, and in fact the only way to change the law is by following legal procedures. We might say that in certain exceptional circumstances, a judge decides what the law is — but that decision needs to be accepted by the broader judicial system to have the force of law in more than a temporary sense.

These concepts are incredibly simple. If anyone stopped and thought for a few minutes, they could grasp the meaning of a social construct. Even controversial claims such as “gender is a social construct” would make sense. Every society has had different gender roles, which it enforces in different ways. No one individual gets to decide what those roles are, and even if we concede that identifying someone’s gender is pretty straightforward in 95% of cases, there is still an element of recognition required.

Trans people may seem to be a special case, but they aren’t arbitrarily choosing their gender identity — they are (mostly) claiming that they can’t help but identify with a gender identity that does not match their biological sex, and they seek social recognition of that need (as well as medical treatment to help align their biology with their deeply felt gender identity). No one would make this request lightly, as shown by the scorn, derision, and even disgust that it arouses in many people. If it were possible to arbitrarily choose one’s gender identity, then trans people would have had every incentive to choose the “correct” one. We are dealing with something like an objective fact about the person’s psychological and physiological make-up and how it relates to a social construct — at no point is it a question of an individual just arbitrarily choosing to make something up.

In short, a social construct is social, meaning that it cannot be changed by an arbitrary individual choice. Social constructs can change, but only by social means — whether that is a vague social consensus (as in the inclusion of new words in the English language) or by explicitly codified means (as in legal systems). And the fact that this concept is so hard for most Americans to grasp is in fact evidence of an aggressive social construction of an artificial individualism — which unfortunately, I cannot change by arbitrary fiat, or else I totally would.

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.