The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment

Earlier this week, a fellow academic who shall remain nameless posted a link to this story of an academic being fired for expressing their own private political views. The lesson this individual had drawn from this incident is that academics need to learn to think before they tweet. Maybe so. But colleges and universities also need to learn to think before they throw their faculty to the wolves. The crime of saying something questionable on Twitter is much less serious than the crime of destroying someone’s career.
Continue reading “The Strategy of Appeasement on Right-Wing Harassment”

Great Christian Thinkers Syllabus

Thanks to everyone who made suggestions for my Great Christian Thinkers course. It’s taken me a lot of work to figure out how to balance all the different elements I needed to incorporate: how to make it interesting to philosophers and theologians, how to balance introducing Augustine with introducing key concepts and problematics in Christian theology with taking my students through some basic study and essay writing skills. But I think I’ve cracked it, and am really excited to teach the course. I’ve decided to frame the course as a whole around Phillip Goodchild’s claim that that if, pace Plotinus, philosophy is ‘what matters most’, then what matters most is suffering. The course as a whole, then, is designed to take the students through key primary and secondary texts that will help them to write a formative essay on the topic: ‘Why and how does suffering matter in the work of Augustine?’ and because those essays will be due before the final class of the semester, we’ll spend that last class on a class debate which will give us a chance to talk about whether or not Augustine can help us in answering the question ‘what matters most?’ for ourselves. Then in Semester 2 we’ll spend time going through a range of key Christian thinkers (I’m still figuring out how to construct that canon) with an eye to how they deal with the question of suffering and what matters most.

I’m hoping that the focus on suffering will give us an interesting and focused way into the major themes of both Augustine’s work and Christian thought more broadly, so the course is structured as follows:

WEEK 1: What Matters Most
WEEK 2: Augustine, Theology, and the Problem of Suffering
WEEK 3: God, Evil and the Nature of Suffering
WEEK 4: The Fall
WEEK 5: Free to Suffer?
WEEK 6: The Devil
WEEK 8: Suffering Desire, Desiring Suffering
WEEK 9: Suffering and the Ethics of Sacrifice
WEEK 10: Political Suffering: A Tale of Two Cities
WEEK 11: Political Suffering: War
WEEK 12: What Matters Most?

Here’s the complete module handbook, with weekly readings and overviews of what ground I hope to cover in each class.

Avoiding cultural appropriation may be easier than you think!

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

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

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

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

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

The problem with “backlash” arguments

Yesterday, two prominent centrist luminaries, Joy Reid and Kos of Daily Kos, took to Twitter to blame low voter turnout among minorities for Trump’s pardon of Joe Arpaio. This is a disturbing example of victim blaming, not least because Trump actually lost the popular vote by a resounding margin. It is only the most explicit version of an increasingly popular trope in mainstream commentary, which I would call the backlash argument. If we denounce Nazis too much, then people will dig in their heels and identify as Nazis. If we use physical force in protest settings, then they will unleash even more force. If we attend too closely to the needs of racial minorities, then we will alienate white people. Etc., etc., etc.

The problem with this type of argument is that it treats reactionary opinions and actions as an immutable force of nature. Only our side has moral agency and responsibility — they are machine-like creatures of instinct, who decide what to do purely based on what we do. The underlying logic is identical to the public discourse on police shootings, which I critique in the opening of The Prince of This World: the victim always could have acted differently, always “had a choice,” whereas the police officer “just reacted.” In this type of victim-blaming rhetoric, the tendency of police officers to murder black people in cold blood is held constant as a brute fact that the victim is responsible for navigating.

This is not to say that we shouldn’t attempt to anticipate the probable effects of our actions. But if people choose to join the alt-right, it’s not the fault of people who are annoying on left-wing Tumblr — it’s their own fault. If people support Trump, it’s not the Democrats’ fault for hurting their feelings by taking identity politics seriously — it’s their own fault. The upshot of this observation is not to properly distribute blame as an end in itself, but to recognize that they are free responsible human agents who have chosen to take sides against us. They are not automatons to be manipulated through carefully calibrating our messaging to avoid triggering their poor pathetic hurt feelings, but enemies who must be defeated or, failing that, contained. Conservatives are constantly complaining that liberals are patronizing, so let’s take them seriously as fellow human beings and hold them responsible for their actions by depriving them of power.

Why no one can say Trump lost the election

On Election Day — you know, the day when millions of Americans showed up to stand in line and cast their votes — Hillary Clinton won a commanding plurality of the vote. The fact that Trump was installed as president despite losing the popular vote by 3 million votes is a profound injustice that delegitimates everything he has done and will do. The fact that the loser has been installed as president twice in as many decades, after a century where the Electoral College had been a purely empty formality, is a crisis and an outrage. We also know for a fact that the Republicans have rigged the vote for the House of Representatives so that Democrats would need to win a double-digit landslide to get even a narrow majority in that chamber. It so happens that the Republicans narrowly won the popular vote this time around, but they could have lost 10 more percentage points and still clung to power. And we can all surely recall when the Republicans stole a Supreme Court justice from Obama and installed one of their own choosing, after their illegitimate loser president was installed. All of this appears against the background of systematic voter suppression by Republicans, explicitly targetting racial minorities who tend to vote Democrat.

This means that all three branches of the US government, and the underlying electoral system, are operating in open defiance of the popular will. And all we hear about is how the Democrats need to change their strategy or message to start winning again. I share the view that the Democrats need to change their strategy and their message, but such commentary fails to grapple with the reality that they are facing. The system is rigged against them and is poised to grow even moreso if the Republicans manage to control a second round of redistricting and continue purging voter rolls.

But the Democrats can’t say that, because the Democrats can’t or won’t risk undermining the legitimacy of the system as such. In a very real sense, Democrats are no longer a political party. They are the party that is in favor of continuing to have constitutional structures and norms and something like the rule of law. They are the party of de-politicization, in an era when the Republicans are intent on politicizing literally every institutional lever of power until there is no remaining ground that is even nominally neutral. And this leads to obvious pathologies, where they avoid taking action that would look too “partisan” — for instance, prosecuting Bush-era torturers and war criminals, or alerting the public to Russian interference in the election as it was happening. So great is their commitment to institutional neutrality that they will not even use their institional power to counter obvious abuses by the other party.

Hence even if they are swept back into power, the Democrats have painted themselves into a corner. Any effort to restore the electoral system to neutrality will appear as a partisan power grab, given that the Democrats have failed to educate the public about the reality of gerrymandering and voter suppression. More generally, every time Democrats dutifully accept a new built-in advantage for Republicans, they set up a scenario where taking it away appears as an attempt to give an unfair advantage to Democrats. And so we are subject to an endless racheting up of Republican advantages and extremism, with Democrats occasionally sweeping in to clean up the worst messes caused by the other side — and being demonized for it.

Admittedly, there is a lot to be said for that option — even the thinnest veneer of legality holds open the prospect of taking back power peacefully, whereas delegitimating the system risks triggering a civil war that Democrats would surely lose. But you have to wonder how long a party organization can persist when its only apparent goal is to cover for the de facto tyranny of their opponents.

Political polarization in the family

I have written before about my struggle to come to terms with my parents’ decision to vote for Trump, and I have it relatively easy. My family has tended to avoid politics over the years, and few if any of them appear to be pure Fox News zombies. Many other people — such as this black author who has had major conflict with his Trump-supporting white mother — have had it much worse and have reached the point where they need to break off contact.

I don’t claim to know what’s going on in people’s heads in specific cases, but this trend of family strain related to right-wing indoctrination does seem pretty widespread. As we know, systemic effects have systemic causes, and the biggest systemic cause for the last forty years of American life has been the radical reworking of the economy through the bipartisan consensus known as neoliberalism. It is well known that that consensus has favored capital mobility and concentration in a way that has led to a hollowing out of the economic prospects of vast swathes of the country while benefiting a handful of urban areas, which have become basically the only place to find any real opportunity.

What is less noted is the way that this dynamic tends to tear families apart — and to create braindrain as the urban centers basically poach the most talented and creative members of other communities. In a setting like this, going to college, adopting more liberal values, moving to the city, etc., take up a very fraught status. On the one hand, it’s the only way to get ahead in life, and families are often proud of their children who “get out” and make a life for themselves. On the other hand, that means that the parents who have done the “best job” are often punished with the effective loss of their children — not only through less frequent contact, but through a changed lifestyle, values, and expectations. They did everything they were supposed to, and the reward is that their children hardly visit and look down their nose at them when they do. For how many Fox News viewers, I wonder, is the archetypal smug liberal elitist their own child?

The way they react to this pain and loss often isn’t healthy, but I’m less interested in judging individuals than in pointing out the ways that right-wing media have exploited this grief by pushing it toward anger and resentment. Becoming a Fox News zombie of course only exacerbates the problem, as it becomes increasingly impossible to talk about important national events or, more broadly, about values or ideas. Every episode of conflict only hardens the dynamic, until it becomes very unclear for the children what this relationship is even supposed to be about. I suspect parents know what’s happening, but they can’t help but double down — and what are we in the younger generation really offering them? Should they uproot and move to the city, too? Would the problem be solved if they watched “All In With Chris Hayes” religiously instead of O’Reilly or whatever?

We talk about broad-strokes when assessing the slogan “Make America Great Again,” but what if — alongside the racism and toxic nostalgia — there is a more intimate way people are hearing it: make my children love and respect me again, make my community a place where people don’t automatically want to leave and never come back again, make America a place where getting ahead in life isn’t synonymous with dissociating yourself from me. Right-wing media — and here I am thinking of Trump fundamentally as a media phenomenon, which is how our parents experience him — has exploited this situation in a despicable and probably unfixable way, but they didn’t create the underlying dynamic. In other words, ultimately Fox News isn’t what’s tearing families apart, but it’s profiting from the fact that they’re already being torn apart by the geographic concentration of wealth and opportunity.

The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.