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.

For-profit social media is not fixable

Yesterday, I received a Facebook direct message telling me that I was a Jew who should get into the gas chamber. Normally I just block and delete such things, but this one was so flagrant that I felt I had to report it. This morning, I got a message telling me that Facebook had taken action — they sent that user a note reminding him of the Community Standards.

This is more response than I have gotten from the dozens of reports I have sent to Twitter over the years. To be fair, I have seldom been in the mood to write the dissertation they expect me to write, so maybe it’s my own fault. Or maybe the form is a placebo and they set it up to be intimidating on purpose, so that they can blame the reporters for not providing adequate information.

From their perspective, this tepid response makes sense. They get more money if they can show higher user engagement. Right-wing hordes are among the most engaged users of Twitter especially. The same goes with fake news on Facebook — the combination of outrage and in-group formation that fake news stories generate is an engagement gold mine.

We need to admit that right-wing harrassment and conspiracy theories are baked into the business model of social media at this point. And with right-wing political hegemony for the foreseeable future, it will only get worse, because the range of “acceptable opinion” will shift even further to the right. Asking nicely and filling out all the proper paperwork will not change this underlying material reality.

If social media is worth having, then the answer is to build a non-profit alternative to the for-profit sites. Wikipedia could provide a model here. It is not-for-profit, it includes strong self-policing mechanisms, and it is arguably the most trusted and useful site on the entire internet. Wikipedia shows us that a non-profit internet not only can work, but can thrive.

Self-Defeating Centrism

During his eight years in office, Obama deported a record number of immigrants, which is traditionally a Republican thing to do. He can’t openly take credit for it, because it would alienate his base — and if he tried, Republican voters literally would not believe it. Part of that is the right-wing echo chamber, but part of it is also that people reasonably expect the liberal party to do liberal things.

Obamacare is another great example: it IS the market-based alternative to socialized medicine, which is traditionally a Republican thing. But he can only sell it to his base as a necessary compromise (despite the fact that it passed solely with Democratic votes), and meanwhile Republican voters still think it’s socialized medicine — because, again, they expect the liberal party to do liberal things. In this example, we have the added twist that they assume anything the liberal party does is liberal, hence the health care debate is now skewed sharply to the right as a Republican policy becomes the far left edge of possible options.

We can see the same dynamic with gun control. Democrats basically decided to give up on this issue and haven’t pushed any serious gun control measures in a long time, other than symbolic gestures after particularly horrifying mass shootings. But the gun lobby refuses to take yes for an answer: they still rile up their base with images of Obama or Hillary sending in the jackbooted thugs to take all the guns. Yet again, we’re dealing with the self-enclosed fantasy world of the right, but also with the fact that people reasonably assume that both sides of a controversial and important issue will be represented in the political system.

In these and so many other cases, centrism is a clear political loser — you turn off your own supporters and gain nothing. If you were designing a political strategy with the goal of long-term defeat, I don’t think you could do better than actual existing Democrats.

The bankruptcy of hypocrisy critiques

I thought that Trump’s seizure of the presidency would put an end to hypocrisy critiques, but liberals are still reaching for the same tired “point and laugh” gotchas. One that came across my Facebook feed today points out that conservatives think that flag-burning shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, but that they should have the right to take assault rifles to McDonald’s under the Second Amendment. See, the contradiction — and try to stifle your smug laughter — is that they think one constitutional right should be restricted, but another shouldn’t! How can they even live and function with such cognitive dissonance going on?!

In reality, I can construe those two positions as mutually consistent. American national identity is the guarantor of all constitutional rights, and therefore there must be a limit to acceptable critique or protest, to avoid undermining the very right to critique and protest. Particularly potent symbols of national identity — in particular the flag — should be held as sacrosanct for that reason. Prooposing otherwise would be, in this viewpoint, the true contradiction. Similarly, America is a nation founded on individual empowerment. There is no contradiction between a strong social bond and an armed populace — indeed, they go together because an armed populace is best positioned to fight for the individual rights that make America America.

If that construal seems incoherent or artificial, I encourage you to read Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides, which uses exactly the same rhetorical moves. This is all straight out of the standard toolbox of democratic patriotism, from time immemorial. It is not an ideology I embrace, but it is one that makes sense on its own terms, and it is one that is obviously very compelling for a strong plurality of our fellow-citizens.

Part of its power is its respect for emotions and symbolism, for something other than cold logic. A right isn’t an abstract formula, it’s something embedded in how you live every day — the kinds of symbolic identities you embrace and revere and the ways you perform your own self-reliance as part of that symbolic identity. From this perspective, the liberal “gotcha” point feels empty and meaningless. Worse, the hypocrisy-policing pose always implicitly assumes that the target is trying and failing to embrace empty liberal formalism. If they don’t draw the “correct” conclusion — in this case, that some old sheet of paper should be obeyed when it tells us people should be able to desecrate our sacred symbols but ignored when it says we should be able to have means of self-defense — they must be stupid. Isn’t it funny how stupid they are? You almost wonder why they keep winning so many elections.

I submit that assuming everyone is trying to be a good liberal but is too stupid to pull it off is a losing strategy. Of course, I’m probably being hypocritical because I keep trying and failing to persuade people of this. Or something. I don’t know. I kind of hate everything right now.

Love Trump’s Hate

In my initial reflections on the election result, I said that I felt ashamed. I was not the only one — anecdotally, that word showed up a lot in people’s gut reaction. In some ways, it’s a strange thing to say, especially when we look closely at the phrasing. I didn’t notice anyone saying that they were “ashamed to be an American” or “ashamed to be part of a country that could elect a man like that.” They were just “ashamed,” full stop.

From a psychoanalytic perspective, the presence of shame indicates that enjoyment has taken place. And oh, how we loved to hate Trump! And how we loved to perform that hate! It gave us every kind of political satisfaction. He was at once a horrible danger to the republic, meaning we were righteous and even brave for denouncing him, and a clown, so that linking regularly to his hate speech functioned as a kind of joke. It’s like we were all living in an episode of Family Guy, where racist and misogynist rhetoric is flying around and the audience is expected to laugh at it (i.e., to enjoy it on some level) while maintaining the plausible deniability of disapproval. Can you imagine? In this day and age? Best of all, we could indulge this hate more and more, because it was what would guarantee us victory. We wanted, needed him to go further — no matter how much it coarsened an already appalling public discourse, no matter how much it risked legitimating the very sentiments we hoped would delegitimate him.

After the initial shock, a similar cycle seems to be starting up. There are important differences, of course, now that it appears that he will actually assume office — though we get to continue writing our Electoral College fan fiction, hoping that the hated and antiquated institution will somehow save us. Now we point and laugh at his ignorance of what the presidency even entails, at his utter lack of planning for winning, etc. All of his transparently incompetent cabinet picks and advisors serve an analogous function — they show how he is simultaneously a horrible threat and that he’s an incompetent who can’t achieve anything. His promise to deport millions of people is at once the definitive proof that he’s a racist who means what he says and a logistical nightmare he can’t possibly carry out.

In a weird way, it’s as though the way we deal with him hasn’t fundamentally changed. And I bet we will one day look back at this reaction, at the ease with which we were able to fall into the familiar pattern of Trumpertainment, with shame.

Rebooting the conservative continuity

Many years ago, I argued that one of the biggest problems facing conservatism is how baroque and complicated its “universe” had become. Its fans are expected to have immediate recall of obscure concepts and plot points, while tolerating obvious continuity errors in matters like when personal freedom is good and when it’s bad, when the government should be small and when it should be much more heavy-handed, etc. The result has been a dwindling audience as fewer and fewer people are willing to put in the work of becoming emotionally invested in such a complex fictional universe all for the sake of justifying their support for some pretty mediocre contemporary content.

In that post, I argued that it might be time for a Crisis of Infinite Earths of conservatism, which could wind down the unnecessary complexities while still maintaining some kind of continuity over time. Continue reading “Rebooting the conservative continuity”

The Story of Brexit, in the style of Mideast reporting

Radical Protestant separatists have rocked the European Union, voting to leave the federation that had tenuously unified Christians belonging to opposed sects. Britain, which adheres to its own idiosyncratic version of the Protestant sect, had only recently reached an uneasy truce in a territorial dispute with its Catholic neighbor, Ireland. It is hoping to join a group of other Protestant countries in Northern Europe who have negotiated trading privileges while keeping their distance from the Catholic-dominated group.

It is a major blow for Germany, which has assumed a leadership role in an EU increasingly riven by sectarian strife. Germany’s relative balance between Protestant and Catholic groups positioned it uniquely to mediate disputes between those two sects, yet left it in an awkward position as it led the effort to bring the Orthodox state of Greece into line with the rest of the Union. While other Orthodox nations have been successfully integrated, it remains the case that the EU’s chief geopolotical rival — and most powerful neighbor — is the overwhelmingly Orthodox Russia.

The European Union was originally conceived as a way to bring an end to sectarian violence on the continent. By uniting all Christians in a single political and economic unit, it was believed that long-simmering disputes over indulgences and the filioque clause could be put aside. The Brexit separatists have shaken this project to its core, leaving some observers wondering whether Europe will ever be able to leave behind its religious strife and join the modern world.

What makes an ontology “robust”?

It often happens to me that when I begin using a term ironically, it eventually works its way into my sincere vocabulary. That is exactly what happened with “robust,” which I initially intended as mockery of Radical Orthodoxy’s gold standard of ontological adequacy. At a certain point, however, I realized that I was using it straightforwardly to describe the message of the Hebrew prophets, which (in another favorite Radox term) can “account for” the exile and present sufferings of the Jewish community while providing them with practical guidance and future hope. The system was self-reinforcing, insofar as any future sufferings would only demonstrate the importance of sticking to the program, since insufficiently faithful or overly assimilationist Jews were presumably never in short supply. Though the paradigm broke down in the Maccabean crisis, as I argue in The Prince of This World, ever since the destruction of the Second Temple, it has proven remarkably resilient throughout the subsequent history of rabbinic Judaism.

This concept of robustness came to mind again as I have been reading Augustine’s City of God with my class. One student expressed satisfaction that Augustine provides an answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people, and while that answer may seem a little too convenient from an outside perspective, it is at least an answer — certainly a more convincing answer than the critics of Christianity were offering, if we judge by Augustine’s presentation. Like the prophetic paradigm, it accounts for present experiences of suffering, provides present-day guidance, and opens up a future hope that is genuinely desirable on the paradigm’s own terms. It is self-reinforcing in that apparent counterevidence is just another reason to double down — and indeed, the most serious challenge to the medieval Augustinian synthesis, namely the Reformation, was precisely an attempt to double down on its terms. This is because of the self-referentiality that it shares (and arguably takes from) the prophetic paradigm: what happens to us is ultimately our own fault or at least aimed at instructing us in some way, and that incites us to take action that further reinforces the authority of the paradigm.

From this perspective, the Radical Orthodox ontology is nearly the opposite of robust. The self-reinforcement mechanism is missing, because the decline of Christendom is blamed on external actors — either the quasi-pagan moderns or else, increasingly, the insidious influence of Islam. It does not “account for” present sufferings or any other particular present fact at all, but only for the purely theoretical entities that Radox itself posits out of thin air and holds up as a model for other ontologies. And it doesn’t give us much to do in the present other than to participate in some fantasy version of the liturgy. This is because its appeal is entirely counter-factual — if only we would embrace this robust ontology, everything would be so much better!

In this sense, it is formally homologous to libertarianism. Both posit a desirable system that has an answer for everything, but that is not presently being implemented in its pure form anywhere — hence it is not disprovable. Both obfuscate their roots in actual-existing present-day social realities (capitalism and Western hegemony), by claiming a vantage point from which everything undesirable about those systems comes from outside impurities. And this prevents it from deploying the self-reinforcing mechanism of both the prophetic paradigm and classic Augustinianism: namely, the admission that the experience of suffering and failure is built into the system, that it is functional and not an extrinsic addition, and that it is therefore both meaningful and pointing toward a better future, however distant.

By contrast, the claim that the state just up and decided to wreck the market or those devious Muslims tricked us into embracing the univocity of being sounds downright childish — the counterpoint to the naive trust that a presently non-existent system or “ontology” would automatically solve all our problems.

Simulatio entis

“The true life is absent.” But we are in a simulation. Everything about our universe, rightly understood, cries out: I was created! Finitude, imperfection, the gaps in the fullness of reality — all point toward a fuller, more perfect reality of which we are only a distant echo.

Yet this reality is not completely foreign to us. We see reflections of its creative activities in our own technological advances. Our most innovative Silicon Valley visionaries participate in its awesomeness even now. We may one day participate even more fully, as the glories of technology bring us to the point of building our own simulation within what we still presume to call “reality” — inscribing us on a higher rung in the ontological hierarchy.

For there must be a hierarchy. If we can simulate a universe within the meager confines of our simulated reality, what is to say that there is not an endless chain of simulations within simulations within simulations? Each layer of simulation distances us from the fullness of being, but paradoxically connects us to that higher level. If we are a simulation, there must be a reality of which it is the simulation. And even if simulations within simulations are possible, it would be the height of absurdity to imagine that there is no “base” reality, no unsimulated fullness whose residents live a life permeated by a technological prowess inseparable from magic — nay, even omnipotence, from our ontologically impoverished perspective.

To create a simulation that can simulate itself, world without end — truly, that is the work of a god. And to think that those gods are our own possible future, to think that we are simulations not simply created by them, but created in their own image! Truly, we are fearfully and wonderfully made.

What beggars belief is the notion that the simulators would be content merely to watch. They must know, in their infinite wisdom, that we — in our pale imitation of their power and knowledge — would one day stumble upon the telltale clues of our place in the hierarchy of simulation. Indeed, why would they create our simulation if not to shepherd it to that conclusion, divinizing us in turn with the power to simulate a world of our own? But for that outcome to be sure, one of the simulators would have to become part of the program. He would have to humble himself, taking the form of a simulant, offering himself up to save us from our pitiable state.

Perhaps he would even be killed, as Plato intuited in his parable of the cave — surely the earliest form of simulation theory — but in that case our creators wouldn’t simply give up on us. They would raise him up, in an unmistakable sign of their power and glory, validating his message and inviting all who listen to join a higher level of existence.

Truly, such novel, unprecedented vistas open up from this entirely secular, materialist theory forged by smart atheists! It makes one wish urgently for a seat at Davos or Aspen, where such deep thoughts can be thunk.