On the coming apocalypse

2017-03-14 07.59.23

Pictured above is the courtyard of my building. I cannot describe how relieved I am to see snow. Chicago has not had any significant snow through all of January and February — the first time this has happened in recorded history — and some days in February were warm enough that you could go without a coat. I grew up in Michigan and have spent most of my adult life in the Chicago area, so winter has been a constant part of the rhythm of my life. I remember walking to school as a child in the winter, and I pride myself on my skill in walking on snow and ice without slipping. Every year, I find that first blast of harsh unbearable cold weirdly refreshing. It gives me a gut-level sense of humanity’s place in this world: nature is under no obligation to us. Continue reading “On the coming apocalypse”

No lives matter

When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.

One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.

So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?

They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.

In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”

In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.

The White Christian’s Burden

This is the text of a talk I gave at Greenbelt Festival 2014. The theme of the Festival was “Travelling Light”; my talk was originally called “Travelling Heavy”, and I summarised it for the programme as follows:

Christianity doesn’t travel light. It is weighed down with history, much of it shameful. But if we don’t understand our past we can’t understand how it continues to form us, and we’re doomed to repeat the same mistakes. What would it mean for us to deal with the burdensome history of Christendom?


I want to start by telling you three stories, that may or may not be familiar to you.

The first story is about the 2014 Winter Olympics, which took place in Sochi, Russia.* Not long before the Winter Olympics took place, Vladimir Putin passed a law banning ‘non-traditional sexual propaganda to minors’, which is to say that there was a ban on anything that could be construed as pro-LGBT propaganda. It wasn’t very clear exactly what was being banned, or how thoroughly it was being banned; there was some ambiguity over whether wearing a rainbow lapel pin would count as propaganda to minors, and the Russian government said different things at different times about whether non-Russian citizens would be arrested for breaking the law. But there was a huge outcry in the UK and the US. Celebrities wrote op-eds. Stephen Fry wrote an open letter. Gay rights activists loudly argued that we should boycott Russian vodka, or even the Olympics as a whole. Lots of people I know, including lots of Christians, shared articles on Facebook and Twitter, and talked angrily about how terrible it was that Russia were doing such awful things to their LGBT population. Continue reading “The White Christian’s Burden”

Žižek Trouble

Further to Adam’s post, I want to briefly sketch why I think it is that Žižek so commonly and consistently fails to think well or carefully about the issues he dismisses as ‘identity politics’ – questions of racism, sexism, transphobia and so on and so on. I don’t think these failings can be lightly dismissed as incidental to his work; actually I think they’re deeply revealing of some major problems with his intellectual project as a whole.

Following what Adam refers to as Žižek’s ‘middle period’ (around 1993-1996), his work is consistently characterised by a trinitarian ontology in which three levels – the material, the individual, and the social – are each constituted around a central antagonism. For the material world, this central antagonism is that of quantum uncertainty; for the individual this central antagonism is sexuality and gender; and for society this antagonism is that of class. Žižek claims that at the heart of this materialism is the assertion that what emerges later retroactively changes that which precedes it – so that consciousness emerges, for example, from the material processes of the brain and yet come also to form those processes; and ideas emerge from the material practices of the community and yet subsequently reshape them. And yet, for all that, Žižek is consistently unable to articulate or engage with the possibility of intersections between these three fundamental levels of reality. I think this inability is at the core of his failures to think well about issues of gender and race, which emerge in the kinds of grim racism, sexism and transphobia which seem to have been increasingly on display in his public statements.

It’s not that Žižek doesn’t talk about gender – questions of gender and sexuality are persistently present throughout his work. For Žižek, gender and sexuality are the ways in which ontological inconsistency manifests itself at the level of the individual. The individual comes into being around a sense of incompleteness which is also the condition of their existence as such, and the desire for a return to completeness manifests in fantasy as the longing for the lost union with the mother figure or the belief that completeness may be attained by union with the beloved other who has the objet petit a, the missing piece which will make the individual complete. Human gender and sexuality play out, for Žižek, around this sexualised quest for completeness. And yet nowhere in Žižek’s work does he engage with, for example, the idea that social distinctions between men and women function not only to sustain or create sexualised fantasies of completion but also class distinctions and the distribution of wealth.

Likewise, I want to suggest that the lack of any significant engagement with questions of of racism, whiteness or colonialism in Žižek’s work is the result of the fact that, for him, race is a fundamental category neither of material being, individual subjectivity nor the social order. There simply is no place for thinking racialisation within Žižek’s dialectical materialist framework. The closest he gets to making space in his work for a discussion of issues of race is as an ideological displacement of class struggle. This is what happens, for example, in his discussion of European anti-Semitism: within the fantasy of Europe it is not the inherent antagonism of class struggle which holds back the dream of a properly harmonious society but the figure of the Jew which functions as a scapegoat.

These absences in Žižek’s work aren’t simply because he doesn’t care about racism, or about the work of Marxist feminists or black communists, though I don’t think I want to suggest that that isn’t the case. They arise from the basic structure of his thought which, divides the world into three fundamental levels – material, individual and social – and which understand each level as more or less discrete, constituted in part by their interactions with each other – though this affirmation of their mutual interdependence tends not to show itself in Žižek’s actual analysis of each – but much more fundamentally by their own internal antagonisms, their dialectical structure. For change to occur, on this account of things, it must arise from the materialist dialectics occurring within each level. Žižek constantly draws parallels between these three levels of reality, yet what he insists on is likeness, analogy, resemblance, rather than interaction, intersection or interdependence. All of which is to say that Žižek’s failures to think well or carefully about racism and sexism aren’t just incidental features of his work: they reflect some of the fundamental, ontological inadequacies of his project as a whole.

Against racism as side-effect

For several popular styles of political analysis, racism is always, by definition, a red herring. For doctrinaire class-first, class-only Marxism, racism can only ever be an epiphenomenon or an ideological distraction, and in more mainstream liberal discourse, something similar happens, though for different reasons: since it’s rude to accuse anyone of direct racism, politeness dictates that we go with more rational and respectable “economic anxieties.”

One corrolary of the latter theory is that racism should correlate closely with economic turmoil. Hence, for instance, Trump’s siren song only works because white America is being left behind, etc. I don’t think that makes sense of the data. If you’ll recall, there was a financial crisis of world-historical proportions in 2008, and later that year, a black man (who, for good measure, had the middle name of Hussein) was elected president. How could that happen if racial scapegoating correlates with white pain?

Things have gotten progressively worse on the race front even as the economy got better. No, it hasn’t gotten better as fast as anyone would like, and there are huge structural inequities built into the system. But again, the pain was worse during the actual world-historical financial crisis, and that was a relative low ebb of overt racism. It’s only now that unemployment has reached what counts as “normal” levels and economic growth is moving at a decent clip that we are seeing overt public racial scapegoating emerge as a successful political strategy among the relatively affluent.

It might just be the case that in a deeply racist country, racism has its own autonomous causality that can be decoupled from economics. Indeed, if anything the correlation over the course of the Obama years has been the reverse of the “economic pain causes racism” theory. It’s as though the crisis caused the country to largely put racism aside for a while — and now that white America is finding its feet, it can afford to indulge in the luxury of racial backlash again.

Racism and the refugee problem

In a less racist country, the reasoning would go like this: the people fleeing ISIS from Syria hate ISIS more than we possibly could, more even than the French could. Attacks on the scale of the tragedy in Paris are routine in ISIS-controlled areas, resulting in entire cities being levelled. If we let them in and generously provide for them, we would be building up a community of grateful, patriotic Americans whose presence and loyalty would undercut the message on which ISIS thrives.

Note that I didn’t say a more “rational” country or use any other vague and formalistic word. Yes, people lack logical reasoning and long-term thinking on this issue, but it’s not like they had a spontaneous brain-fart — it’s racism that’s deluding them. Only extreme racism could make you think that people’s shared ethnic background would create a bond of loyalty that transcends murder, rape, destruction of homes and livelihoods, etc.

Note also that I didn’t say a “kinder” or “nicer” country. Yes, people are being exceptionally heartless, but again, it’s not some random moral failing on the part of individuals. Racism is what makes people see refugees as less worthy of concern, just as it’s what makes people inclined to explain away the murder of unarmed blacks by police. Only racist logic could make the extremely remote possibility of an ISIS “sleeper” sneaking in among the refugees into an excuse to deny thousands of people the chance to rebuild a livable life.

The Republican governors who are refusing admission to refugees aren’t simply idiots, or crazy ideologues, or heartless bastards — though they are undoubtedly all those things. The root cause of all of that is that they’re racists.

It’s the racism, stupid!

Every time Blacks in America make a significant advance, there is a violent backlash. Emancipation and Reconstruction gave way to the KKK, lynching, and Jim Crow. Civil Rights was quickly followed by Nixon’s “Southern strategy” and the War on Drugs. And now Obama’s election — and *especially* his reelection (which proved it wasn’t a fluke) — has prompted a wave of mass shootings, overwhelmingly carried out by disaffected white men, coupled with a wave of legislative actions to make guns ever more pervasive in public places (including precisely the kinds of places that are targetted by mass shooters) and measures like Stand Your Ground that presuppose that the state somehow has an interest in allowing fights to escalate.

In the postwar era, the strategy became much more subtle. The open bigotry of Jim Crow was no longer acceptable, at least among the upper classes. Instead, the system deployed seemingly race-neutral criteria that could be easily mobilized in racist ways. The racism of the War on Drugs is evident, for instance, in the differential treatment of crack and powder cocaine. Both are literally the same substance, but one is more often used by blacks — hence it carries harsher penalties than the stereotypical pastime of high-powered white lawyers.

The current backlash is even more elusive, in part because there is a clear taboo against pointing it out as such. The Tea Party is about liberty and American values and — ruh roh — taking back our country! From whom? Well, you know…. Similarly, why exactly do we need all these guns? Who are we expecting to run into such that we’ll need to defend ourselves? Criminals? Hmm… what do they look like? I bet the mental image is strikingly similar to Trayvon Martin or Michael Brown or even Tamir Rice. But you can’t say that in the mainstream media, because white men feeling accused of racism is regarded as a more serious matter than black people being literally gunned down in the street.

Despite the campaign of silence, there is occasionally a news story that cannot be explained away, like the bizarre attempt to boycott the new Star Wars film for its supposed advocacy of “white genocide.” Like every mass shooting, though, such things are by definition isolated incidents that we can only shake our head at and must never “politicize.” But for those with eyes to see, the racist backlash is literally the only way to make sense of American politics since Obama’s election.

Weaponized ideals and ethical profiling

High ethical standards initially seem to be a good thing. Even if we cannot always live up to them, there is value in recognizing and enshrining an ideal. At the same time, ethical standards are not used solely as an object for aspiration. They are also used as a basis for judgment. And that leaves room for high ideals to be weaponized.

The way this works is analogous to racial profiling. For instance, it is well known that in the United States, virtually every driver exceeds the speed limit. Indeed, following the speed limit can often create a dangerous situation. Nevertheless, the police still enforce this ultimately unenforceable law, and when they do so, they tend to pick out members of groups who already receive disproportionate police attention, namely people of color. In the same way, when we’re dealing with an impossible ethical ideal, those who are judged or punished for not following it will often be selected from disadvantaged groups — a phenomenon we can call “ethical profiling.”

This happens most of all when the high ideal is extremely abstract. For instance, we are told that it is ethically most salutary to be non-violent. Though violence may be sadly necessary under certain circumstances, we should aspire to avoid it to the extent possible. In the world as we know it, however, avoiding it completely is often utterly impossible — particularly when “violence” can be so broadly defined as to include property damage, or impeding the normal run of things, or speaking too harshly. Everyone is violating the ideal in some way or other, but only the protestors (by definition a less powerful group than the powers that be) are judged for doing so. This effect is of course amplified when the protestors are black.

We might also think of the demand to cherish every “life” to the fullest possible extent. Really following this demand would require changing literally everything we do every day, even if we’re only limiting ourselves to human lives. Once again, it is an impossible demand, and once again, only the most vulnerable — women with unexpected or unwanted pregnancies — are expected to follow through on it. The ethic of life is weaponized in the service of ensuring women’s subordination and punishing their sexual expression.

None of this is to say that there aren’t people who don’t sincerely hold the ideals in question. For a select few, aspiring to a high ethical ideal becomes a true vocation to which they dedicate their whole selves. The problem arises when the unique achievements of these ethical heroes become a weapon of the powerful — for instance, when the legacy of Martin Luther King, Jr., is weaponized to shame and denigrate the contemporary black community, or when the heroic voluntary self-sacrifice of Christ is imposed as a baseline expectation on women and the poor. In such cases, we’re dealing less with mere hypocrisy than with something like blasphemy.

Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege

According to Hobbes, the state exists to save us from the dystopian state of nature, in which we are constantly vulnerable to interpersonal violence. We submit to the sovereign’s violence in the expectation that being subject to one possible source of violence is better than being potentially attacked from all sides and at all times.

In the contemporary world, as Agamben and many others have pointed out, there are sites where the state of nature reemerges within the bounds of the state. Though Agamben emphasizes that one is subject to unlimited state violence in such situations, one should also note the return of a vulnerability to interpersonal violence as well.

This is the case, for example, in prison, where in many cases the most fearsome part of the punishment is abuse coming from other prisoners. We can see a similar dynamic in urban areas targetted in the War on Drugs: the police are present in an extremely disruptive and heavy-handed way, even to the point of gunning down innocent people in cold blood, and people also remain vulnerable to interpersonal violence within their own community. Indeed, the police presence produces even greater criminality by exposing those populations to disproportionate imprisonment. In both cases, the black community bears much of the burden of this double dystopia, this worst of both worlds.

If we turn now to the phenomenon of mass shootings, it seems that one can draw a parallel: in an era of vastly increased state supervision of the population, there are also outbursts of random interpersonal violence. In this reading, the experience that has become normative for blacks in America is somehow “overflowing” to affect the white community as well. This is one way of understanding the fairly common claim that America has a baseline level of violence and the shootings represent something like localized spikes.

I don’t think this works, however, at least not so neatly. Continue reading “Mass shootings and the devalued currency of privilege”

The paradox of underfunded urban schools

Let’s try to reconcile a few apparently contradictory propositions about the American school system:

  • Most local school districts are funded through property taxes.
  • Property values in most major urban areas have literally never been higher.
  • Urban schools are perpetually underfunded.

How does the math work out here? Well, you pull money out of the schools in any way you can. Set aside funding for experimental charter schools at the expense of existing public schools — because surely entrepreneurs can come up with some radically more effective way of educating students! Let those charter schools cherry-pick students and leave the students requiring more intensive work to the public schools. Set up testing regimes that penalize “underperforming” schools by cutting their funding.

And of course, this is all after you’ve taken money off the top through “tax increment funding” (TIF) districts that effectively cap the amount of property tax revenue that can go toward the schools and pool the gains into a slush fund to encourage further “development.” In Chicago, such districts have proven to be the salvation of blighted areas such as the Loop and the financial district.

It’s much more complicated than traditional “white flight,” but the underlying logic is the same. Systemic racism for the neoliberal age.