the transitive property of making it about gender

So Michelle Dean has a typically sharp post on the accusation of “making it about gender.” She’s 100% right. The basic reality is that, if you find yourself asking why someone is making it about gender, it was already about gender. The fact that things are always about other things than gender too doesn’t change that.

There is a moment in the essay that I want to look at a bit, though, because I think it speaks to a certain danger we can fall into when we voice exasperation about this sort of thing. Dean writes, “one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata.” There it rests; Dean is a writer of exquisite reticence, which is a rare and valuable skill, these days. She lets the associations with those subjects remain tacit, which makes them more effective.

But not everyone has Dean’s ability, or her poise. In many progressive contexts, that detail would become a trope — fact-checking and John D’Agata would not merely be the concern of this particular bro but would rather be rendered as somehow intrinsically bro-y. Despite the neutrality of fact-checking, in the current idiom of progressive elites, the subject could very easily become a Dude Thing, to which an appropriate level of derision would be applied by all good and right people, many of them dudes, but Not That Type of Dude Dudes. The transitive property of symbolic gender would apply: this thing has been associated with a spate of shitty behaviors (in this case, casual sexism and defensiveness in the face of accurate identification of that sexism) and so this thing becomes a way to signal to the right crowd ridiculousness and political imperfection. It’s shorthand politics for a generation of people who take their political arguments predigested.

Take, say, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a good example of a subject that has become so associated with dudeism that just his name functions as a kind of shorthand for that small sliver of humanity that, like me, is turned on to post-collegiate culture vulture social signals and dog whistles. Kerouac = sweaty self-important bro earnestness. These codes are, now, all around us, a digital bath. It’s one of the many, many ways in which the aforementioned elites treat each other with an aggressively reductive disdain, a kind of ritualized intellectual violence that I can only presume is part of the legacy of growing up desperate to get into Harvard or start for the field hockey team or be the furthest ahead in second grade reading group or whatever. You can see this particular manifestation expressed perfectly in this piece by Kate Hakala, titled with admirable clarity “Why I Will Never Sleep with a Kerouac Fanatic.” Human behavior is reduced to a series of shallow affectations and loose associations that are nevertheless rendered with the certain superiority that is the default vocabulary of The Way We Internet Now, and all framed, of course, in terms of who you would deign to fuck.

Hakala has a series of complaints about the kind of dude she’s talking about, and they’re indeed frustrating, cliched behaviors. The connection to Kerouac seems less entirely clear; for sure, there are those associations with him, but mostly I think those guys misread him, as thoroughly as his critics do. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan. It’s been many years since I’ve read Jack Kerouac. There was a time in my life when it was time to read Kerouac, and then that time ended. I’m meant to be embarrassed by that, I suppose, just like I’m meant to be embarrassed by all the sadboy emo I used to listen to in my early 20s. But that was what I did at the time I was meant to do it. I was once a sad boy, after all. I will never quite understand the notion that you should be embarrassed to have once been the age and the person you were.

In any event, this is what I’m talking about: the way in which certain subjects take on a kind of unchosen symbolic weight which elite culture then uses for its favorite band of affect politics. Few things are more valuable to that crew than a spiteful association. The problem isn’t really that those Kerouac boys might have their feelings hurt; there’s little danger in that. The problem is, first, that these associations always exclude those who aren’t actually dudes, and in that way contribute to the kind of savvy essentializing that is part and parcel with these aggressive cultural politics. It forces female fans of Kerouac to ask, am I a dude? Here’s Katie J.M. Baker asking that essential question. But more importantly, because this reflex ties genuinely undesirable social behaviors to particular interests, even though the actual associations are so loose, it makes it harder to address the actual shitty behavior. The problem with the men Hakal describes is the entitlement and the self-importance, not their choice in novels. By making those synonymous with a book, you encourage men who like the book to reject the critique of the behavior and confuse those who have no opinion of the book and don’t plan on developing one. This is part of a broader phenomenon where many cultured progressives seem to address secondary phenomena related with political problems more than the problems themselves.

If the question was just opinions about Beat writers of declining reputations, there would be little at stake. But this transitive property has a really distressing habit of occurring even with vitally important political issues. I got into a useless argument about a puff piece about Samantha Power, and the woman I was arguing with said only that criticizing Samantha Power is a “dude thing.” Power is one of the most destructive political figures in the world today, someone who has championed absolutely calamitous military interventions, like the one that made Libya a hellish quagmire. To defend Power by arguing, inaccurately, that only men criticize her, you lose the opportunity to talk about America’s terrible legacy of causing misery through its “humanitarian” interventions. (And I know plenty of women, not all of them socialists or anarchists, who hate Power more than I do.) Dean quotes Rebecca Solnit. Solnit has done more than anyone to write about mansplaining. Mansplaining is a real, troubling problem. But Solnit also has written utterly terrible pieces of redbaiting, anti-left invective. She’s forever inveighing against those of us on the left who think we have a project that goes beyond celebrating the Democrats. When people dismiss any criticism of her as ipso facto mansplaining, we have no room to talk about what the left needs to do to challenge the terrible, centrist myopia of the Democrats and their president. The only thing I want to explain to Solnit is that her politics suck.

Lately, I’ve noticed a deeply, deeply harmful divide between some of those who talk primarily about identity and cultural politics and some of those who talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. That divide is often rendered in starkly gendered terms. That’s an analytical mistake, as these problems are connected at the root, and a  political disaster, for everyone involved. Not to mention an enormous victory for the forces of conservatism. Whenever someone starts complaining on Twitter that only bros care about drones, I imagine the guy from the cover of Monopoly chuckling to himself as he lights a cigar with a $100 bill.

I guess it all comes down to a choice that I have identified many times. Progressive elites have built themselves something of an enclave, one which encompasses many in the media, in politics, in professional writing, and in the general class of tastemakers. I make fun of that class quite a bit, but in many ways it is my own culture, and while I disagree on many subjects, more or less those are my politics. The question is who the political expressions of this class should serve. Should it be turn inward, to make the members of the enclave chuckle? That’s a forgivable, human impulse. But it just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t solve the problems that create the exasperation, exhaustion, and rage for which the jokes are a temporary, limited antidote. And I think that, with more and more people seeming to recognize the depth of the failure of the politics of outrage, we need to find some other way to go about doing this. Progressive elites have to decide whether the care more about pleasing each other with self-aggrandizing jokes or about winning through appeals to those they find culturally distasteful.

In the end, it has nothing to do with being nice to the dudes. It starts, in fact, with recognizing that, in a very real way, keeping it all jokes just leaves them off the hook.

12 Comments

  1. So now people are using OkCupid questions to screen everybody they choose to associate with?

    Some years ago I first heard the shorthand of “the kind of dude that has a Bob Marley poster in his dorm room.” It went through a similar process, where among college-educated white folks “Bob Marley” became a shorthand for a certain type of clueless white stoner (ignoring the fact that a very large portion of Bob Marley fans are not that) until the connotation of “insincere hippie cultural tourism” started to stick. So something which is initially valued for its sincerity, revolutionary fervor and unique cultural perspective over time comes to be associated with insincerity, empty political posturing, and cultural appropriation, not just in spite of the thing itself not embodying those qualities, but in a perverse fashion because the thing itself does not embody those qualities.

  2. Admirable as ever, but if your goal is to get progressive elites to stop alienating the public with snide cultural put-downs, I’d suggest you start with something easier. Perhaps you could convince the Hell’s Angels to stop drinking beer.

  3. Its hard to be cool. You have to not only like the exact right things at the exact right time, but destroy any evidence that you may have liked them years later. And god forbid you enjoy something for itself instead of for what we have all decided it symbolizes.

  4. ok. you lost me. but that’s OK. I just know that when I drop the fredrikdeboera bomb every once in a while my bros just nod their nods in pure righteousness

  5. I’m also reminded of when Markos Moulitas – a smart writer and intelligent political strategist, but a partisan at heart who carries water for the Democrats when he sense they can’t be moved to the left – downplayed Edward Snowden’s at-the-time new revelations in an AMA session as national security surveillance being a “white privilege” issue.

    Quote might be tough to dig up but it’s out there.

  6. One of my favorite things about being alive now is that for a great many, the fedora is a symbol of many of the worst thought patterns and prejudices a male can hold and express.

    IT’S…
    A…
    HAT…

  7. “Lately, I’ve noticed a deeply, deeply harmful divide between some of those who talk primarily about identity and cultural politics and some of those who talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. That divide is often rendered in starkly gendered terms. That’s an analytical mistake.”

    I agree completely with this, but I think it’s scratching the surface under which there lies an entire litany of hidden philosophical assumptions. Many activists today are trained in such a way that these assumptions are never questioned, or, more accurately, their existence is never acknowledged – which would explain the attitude of self-righteous disbelief that anyone might deign to have a different opinion that you identify elsewhere.

    To get to the root of the divide, you have to play devil’s advocate. What’s the response to this? I can tell you: who are you, Freddie deBoer, a white male, to call this an ‘analytical mistake’. Not only is this mansplaining, but it’s also male-centric and Eurocentric, presuming that everyone shares a baseline standard through which they think through things. By calling this an ‘analytical mistake’, you’re ignoring the experiences of people actually affected by this, and reproducing oppressive discursive practices.

    Serious question – what can you say to that?! Tbh, I have no idea.

    1. Yup. In my experience the more common and concise response to this kind of necessary devil’s advocacy is that it’s “concern trolling”. That is to say, merely probing these assumptions is considered evidence of insincerity and bad faith. Nobody whose heart of hearts is truly on the correct side of the issue would ask you to legitimize our opponents’ critiques by expecting you to address them.

  8. “The problem is, first, that these associations always exclude those who aren’t actually dudes, and in that way contribute to the kind of savvy essentializing that is part and parcel with these aggressive cultural politics. It forces female fans of Kerouac to ask, am I a dude? ”

    As a non-dude person who likes quiet a few “dude” things, I don’t think I’m there yet, but it’s made me question whether I still own the right to call myself a feminist without worrying that I’m signaling to the wrong crowd.

    “The problem with the men Hakal describes is the entitlement and the self-importance, not their choice in novels. By making those synonymous with a book, you encourage men who like the book to reject the critique of the behavior and confuse those who have no opinion of the book and don’t plan on developing one. ”

    I’m wary of anything that smacks of intellectual laziness. Say you have a meme: Jonathan Franzen has “lady issues.” (A lot of women, I think, would agree to this.) It becomes so pervasive that any criticism of him or his work that doesn’t acknowledge his “lady issues” is summarily dismissed. And it forces people to censor themselves or leave altogether if they’re unwilling to toe the party line.

  9. Freddie, I think you’ve written a lot before about how scolding people for racist jokes and stray comments makes you feel like you’re doing something, but it doesn’t actually do anything to combat the structural inequalities that are inherent to our society. Check your privilege, first-world problems, etc, don’t actually help anything.

    I’m surprised you didn’t bring that up in your discussion of Dean’s piece, which, after all, is all about scolding a classmate for a stray sexist comment. Sure, it made Dean feel like she was doing something, but it probably didn’t help end the structural inequalities against women.

  10. ‘Twas ever thus, pretty much, since that is the way of youth. As they age, most of them will fade back into utterly apolitical lives. The rest will mature into something either more substantive or more venal.

  11. Hakala has a series of complaints about the kind of dude she’s talking about, and they’re indeed frustrating, cliched behaviors. The connection to Kerouac seems less entirely clear…

    Aside from the memorized and tattooed quotes, of course. This seems like a strange example to pick from a target-rich environment; the fans’ associations seem precisely what she’s gotten understandably impatient with.

    How about Donald Barr’s introduction to The Two Towers: “…nor is it for whimsy-lovers and Alice quoters.” Nor hipsters, nor poseurs!

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