Adam Kotsko fears that the Great Lena Dunham Sister’s Vagina Freakout of 2014 may be an irresolvable problem for the left.
I have started to notice how often politically-charged online memes open out onto a “no-win vortex.” Take the example of the cat-calling video. On the one hand, it calls attention to street harrassment, which is a very real problem. On the other hand, it was edited in a racist way in the service of a gentrification campaign. How does one respond? It seems that no matter which direction you go, someone loses — you either wind up downplaying the destructiveness of racism and gentrification or dismissing the seriousness of the atmosphere of harrassment that women have to navigate.
The same goes for the Lena Dunham affair. On the one hand, I’m shocked that anyone on the left would buy into the framing of a right-wing smear campaign that is structurally identical to the “moral panics” that legitimate homophobia (and, even worse, that trivializes real child sexual abuse). On the other hand, though, I don’t want to dismiss black women’s very justified critique of white feminists who claim to speak for all women while ignoring black women’s very existence. They may be jumping on this because they previously disliked and distrusted Lena Dunham — but we can’t ignore that they had excellent, indisputable reasons to dislike and distrust her. And much of what they’ve said about how Dunham gets the benefit of the doubt while a black child would be painted as a monster is sadly true. Simply responding that no child should be painted as a monster seems a little too easy.
What a conundrum! It’s almost as if politics is a matter of having to sort through various conflicting needs and desires, in order to choose the least-bad option, and that anointing yourself the personification of political justice doesn’t exempt you from that reality. Crazy!
Contrary to Kotsko, I in fact find this situation to be rather straightforward: white feminists need to be more consistent and more aware of feminists of color, and Lena Dunham didn’t molest her sister. Similarly, street harassment is bad and gentrification and racism are also bad. Wild, provocative opinions, I know. Quick, hand me the Nobel. This is essentially a self-parody of the current liberal mindset: political struggle takes place in a frictionless moral plane where all questions have obvious answers and where political disagreements only happen between the Evil Evil-Doers Who Do Evil and the Angelic Paragons of Social Justice Who Fight Racism and Sexism Through Tweets. Anything that cuts against that Manichean simplicity is just too destabilizing to contemplate.
The only way that you could see any of this as some sort of terribly complicated conflict is if you don’t actually have a politics, but you instead have a series of cultural and social signals designed to tell the world what a moral paragon you are. The principle that Kotsko seems to be endorsing here, which is very popular in his neck of the elite bourgie media caste, is that political allies can never substantially disagree with each other in good faith. Which is, you know, utterly unworkable as an actual political principle in the real world. But then, for someone like Kotsko, who is always speaking out for the good of demographic and social classes he does not belong to, actual political efficacy– whether you succeed in making the world a better place– is mostly irrelevant. The educated white people who dominate our conversations about social justice need actual socially-just outcomes less than anyone, so they mostly don’t worry about whether their complex language games and wild signalling achieve just ends. I can’t imagine a surer sign of privilege than someone looking at a perfectly mundane inter-leftist political disagreement and saying, “sigh, I guess it’s a no-win scenario, I’m gonna go write a sad poem in my Moleskin.” The people who are the victims of injustice don’t have that option.
Still, you might think that Kotsko might eventually fumble his way to understanding that, sometimes, you have disagree with people in a way that is uncomfortable for you given your political assumptions. Why can’t he say, hey, yeah, there’s conflict here, and both sides are important, but as a literate adult with free will, I will have to muddle my way to a position? Ah, well:
While many White Dude leftists observing these events may take them as a case in point for how divisive identity politics is, etc., I find it hard to believe that the lesson we should take away is that we should be less attentive to difference and to the complexities of intersectionality.
So this is a whole lot of useless stuff into a small smelly sack, but it is really effective as a means to demonstrate what politics are for to people like Adam Kotsko. First, homeslice, nobody is saying that we should be less attentive to difference. Rather, we are saying that the way you are paying attention to difference sucks as a political strategy. I get that claiming that you’re the privileged white guy who really cares has gotten you this far, but nobody cares that you care and nobody is disputing that difference is important. We’re saying that you and the bizarre social world you occupy online have done a horrendous job of advancing the cause of respect for difference and achieving socially just outcomes.
But we also have the hammer, and it’s pretty much the only one people like Kotsko have to wield: my opponents are White Dudes! Now, the shrewd type might point out that, contrary to the cultural expectation in the Grand Progressive Mutual Admiration Society in the Cloud, saying “you don’t have the credibility to argue that” is not actually an example of rebutting that argument. And a really observant soul might notice that Kotsko himself is a White Dude. (I would actually increase the number of capitals for Kotsko, like, WhItE DUde, personally.) Ah, but you see, when Kotsko critiques White Dudeism, he does so from the premise that he is exempt from that critique. He is writing about Those Other White Dudes. Actually, it goes further than that: he is critiquing white dudes precisely because, in so doing, he sets himself outside of that group. It’s an act of pure preemption. The same old question applies: if engaging in these political discourses didn’t end up with you positioned as the righteous exception to the immoral rule, would you bother? If your arguments didn’t amount to a wriggling out of the very critique that you’re making, would you still make them?
I promise you: there is no such thing as a critique of whiteness written by a white person that does not first and most importantly exempt that white person from that critique. There is no such thing as a critique of maleness by a man that does not first and most importantly exempt that man from that critique. I say that not to deny the salience of those critiques. On the contrary. I say it to point out why I can’t ever be the one to make them, to point out why respecting the intellectual tradition behind those critiques means that I necessarily have to leave that work to others, to avoid dulling those critiques by treating them as a shield. But you will find white dudes on Twitter who critique the whiteness and dudeness of other white dudes all day, every day, never stopping to ask themselves if maybe there’s something self-serving and destructive in doing so.
People like Kotsko, and me, are losing. We are losing. Last night, a party that has aligned itself against the interests of women and people of color again and again won a massive political victory, and its opponent is a party that is barely better. We are losing. And the political and argumentative tactics that the left that Kotsko defends from criticism are simply broken. When we get to the point where someone sees the mere existence of a political conflict that requires us to criticize allies as a no-win scenario, something has gone very wrong. For the actual work of politics– convincing people to come over to our side in order to make the world a more just and equitable place– those politics have utterly failed. We have been talking about privilege theory for 30 years. We’ve been talking about intersectionality for 25 years. We’ve been getting into cyclical, vicious Twitter frenzies for a half decade. This is not working. And I doubt hardly anyone actually believes that this is working. They’re just having too much fun to stop.
The liberal intelligentsia has this challenge before them: they have adopted a set of linguistic and cultural codes that they have embedded so deeply into their political aspirations that they now view them as inseparable from those aspirations. Not coincidentally, those linguistic and cultural codes are also those that elevate them in their competitive social hierarchy, helping to pose them as smarter, cooler, and more righteous than others. Those linguistic and cultural codes have been demonstrated to be totally incapable of achieving the kind of economic and political change they say they want. The question is, are they willing to adopt a new strategy in order to achieve those changes, if it means that they lose the social clout in the process? The answer, it appears, is no.
If you’re someone like Kotsko, you could set aside your instinct to simply deride anyone who questions the efficacy of your current approach to politics and advocate for a new rhetorical method which would be better suited to growing an effective political coalition. Or you could launch yet another tired tweet, once again dismissing out of hand the problems that you yourself have identified, making your point about the person you don’t like instead of about the problem that the person has identified, while the world keeps getting worse. The former, I’m afraid, will get you a lot less retweets than the latter. And isn’t that what it’s all about?