here comes everybody

pictured: normcore pioneer

When I was 13, my father took me on a trip for work, first to Sydney Australia for a conference on Indonesian art and culture and then to Bali to do a little research for a book. We had gone before as a family, but this was my turn, after my sister and older brother had gone themselves. The pictures are hard to look at now, my father jaundiced and old, me fat, greasy-haired, and hating myself with the type of passion that is reserved for the very young. But it was my trip, my turn, and not everybody gets to take their turn. Only the lucky few.

At the conference he introduced me to some dissidents. I knew of a Western academic or two who had found themselves unable to get a visa into the country, having been too public in their criticism of the Suharto regime. Their risks were mostly professional. But, you know, there were Indonesian people we knew for whom the risks were greater, and you would be surprised today, in this new regime, despite everything, how much people are still at risk. Many people would prefer the past stay buried.

One of the guys there, a long haired young Javanese hippie of a kind I knew well, was a friend and would banter with my dad in the usual way. He kept asking my dad to buy him a guitar. He would come up to where we sat in the morning as we ate shitty dry scrambled eggs and deliciously bad sausage and say “Les Paul! Les Paul!” and they’d speak in that mixed style, shifting seamlessly between Bahasa and English in the way I always found inscrutable. And the final joke, every time, was that my father would respond “Stratocaster?” and he would put his hands in the air and say “OK, OK, good enough.”

Anyway, Sydney was fine. My dad had told me for months that summer in the United States was winter in Australia and to pack warmly, so I brought one pair of pants and a long sleeved tshirt as a concession to his quaint notion that the tropical paradise of Australia could get cold, and when we got there it was freezing and when he discovered my lack of clothing options he sighed and grumbled and took me to an army navy store to buy the jacket you see above. Secretly he was pleased, mind you, to have this opportunity to grumble affectionately. During the day he would go to panels and I would wander over to this arcade and play games, then grab some fried chicken for lunch. I remember being struck by the fact that I could have been in any big city in America, were it not for the birds, the bizarre Australian birds.

One thing that sticks out was his worry, when practicing his talk, about his plan to open the panel with a recitation in Kawi. It was surprising; my father did not betray professional or intellectual insecurity, ever. He was an emotional man but I am sure I will never meet a more self-possessed person in my life. Even when he was sick (and by then he was always sick) he was the only person in the room. But he was worried about the recitation; he was afraid nobody would get it. He ended up reading it and he said it went alright. And then the conference was over and we journeyed inland a bit and saw beautiful places and I held a koala awkwardly for a souvenir photograph, and then it was time to fly back to Bali.

He chuckled as we got there and told me that I was permitted, as all returning visitors to Bali did, to say “it’s not like it used to be!” But it was more or less as I remembered it, and when we emerged from the plane I still felt the humidity descend onto my shoulders like a blanket, and we still went to the Borneo Bar and the Hey Cafe in Sanur, and he still would drink Bir Bintang even though he was strictly forbidden from doing so. Back then, before rabies came and they swept them from the island in a mass euthanasia campaign, there were these packs of wild dogs, and they were not quite dangerous but were worrisome. He told me to not be afraid and they would leave me alone. I was struck by how true it was, how much power there was in the insistence within myself that I was not afraid – it was visible, in the dogs, the minute I’d steel myself and project strength, they would lower their tails and skulk away. In time I would learn about body language and pheromones, and in time I would learn that you can do the exact same thing to most humans, and in time I learned why you shouldn’t.

Eventually we made our way inland to his dear friend Sumandhi’s village, and I got to look at his giant catfish, which was always a thrill. Pak Rajeg, Sumandhi’s father and my father’s great teacher, was still with us at that time. And that first night I laid down on a mat as they talked, laughing and chatting for hours into the night. It was all perfectly foreign to me – the seamless switching there was between Bahasa and Balinese, even – but I still could not have enjoyed it more, hearing distant sounds of gamelan, the smell of the fried plantains they’d snack on mingling with the spicy scent of the kreteks they smoked, my father’s laugh. I laid on the mat and took in that perfect sensory overload and thought about the pretty tits on the topless women at the beach that morning. I was 13, remember.

Back here in 21st century New York we have been adjusting my medication lately. I have now been in treatment long enough to have accepted this part of the deal: feeling like you’ve got the drugs and dosages right, then gradually realizing that something is not quite right, then you adjust, and you wait to see if you can feel any difference, and the doc says, you know, how’s it going, and then you have to figure that out – how is it going, after all? Eventually you say, aha, this is it, we nailed it this time. And over time things drift, like your rear view mirror slowly falling out of your line of sight as you slouch deeper into a long car ride, until you have to admit to yourself that you need to adjust again.

For me the process of getting my medication adjusted is like trimming the hair on the back of my own neck, like trying to back a trailer down a narrow tunnel.

Not that treatment’s going poorly. It’s about as good as I can imagine it being, all things considered. Like a lot of people, I suspect, I spent much of my adult life resisting medication out of the fear that I would no longer be my true self, that it would change me. Then, when I was too exhausted to fight anymore, I wanted just about the opposite, to be given a pill to cure things just like that, like fixing a vitamin deficiency. And what you learn, of course, is that both of these are pleasing fantasies – medication as a way to stop being yourself, or medication as a way to be your true self. You don’t get either of those. Which is fine. I get a little chemical smoothing of my own reaction to the confusion and disappointment that are the basis of human life, and a safety net against another manic episode. It’s fine; it’s fine. Quotidian. You go in fear of mind control and in hope of profundity and find instead something like getting your oil changed, or at least I do, now that I’m better than a year in. That’s what I’ve come to understand, about these psych meds: how ordinary they are. Their terrible, terrible adequacy.

Near the end of our trip we saw a car accident, a fatal accident. I didn’t really see but it seemed that a bemo took a wide corner and a man on one of those rickety motorbikes lost his control and skidded into that terrifying traffic. My father and others rushed over. All I could see from where I stood was his body crunched under his bike, his hand waving strangely at the frame of it with vague fingers, feebly pushing. A man standing nearby, looking stricken, kept saying in an Australian accent “these things happen, these things happen” to his kids. The rider was dead before they took him away. I have not forgotten him since. Even at the time I think I knew that I would remember, that it would stand in my mind as a marker between what I had already seen, and what was soon to come.

The past has a way of getting in touch with you. The other day I realized that I’m older than my mother ever was.

Today I am engaged in the business of being an adult, and I am impatient, but I am fine. The city has welcomed me with its busy indifference, which was exactly what I needed, to get folded into Brooklyn like a remote getting lost in the nooks of your couch. Some people have teased me for ending up here, after grumbling about Brooklyn for so long, and that’s OK. Now I’m just here – it’s just a place I live. The past four months have been remarkable in the speed with which they have become ordinary. And now I go to the Y and lift my weights and I eat beef patties at Golden Crust and I worry after my dog and I occasionally get laid and I get shocked at how little is left in checking and I rescue my knockoff robot vacuum from where it’s once again gotten itself trapped on a power cord and I go out with friends (yes I have them Twitter!) and I feel gawky at yoga classes and I drink too much beer and I walk endless miles to trains and, god help me, I check the balance on my pension. That kid in the photo at the top might have been shocked to find me here.

And yet despite everything he’s still me. Perhaps the biggest surprise, for him, would be that he could bend life to his will a little bit, and make himself something a little less worth hating. Still I find a part of myself feeling like an American with coke bottle glasses waiting to be let into an Australian arcade. But the world conspires to reveal to me how many people I find beautiful and strange see something beautiful within me too, and despite everything, the nastiness the internet would like to deposit in all of our emotional bank accounts, I am ready and I am unafraid. I am left only to live and to desire, to know those things that I want and cannot have, and to pause someplace waiting until life knows that I am ready for them. Somewhere inside of me the same self-protective wisdom that guided that younger me through all that was left to come still exists, the steady invulnerability to cancer and rejection and guilt and neglect, and I know that it is the same part of me that is profligate in what it desires, the part that once left me curled up on the floor alone, the part that now propels me through welcoming and indifferent city streets, this part of me that is stranger to myself, this fire in my heart.

Syria II: Feel Harder

The left is no stranger to futile debates, but the one over Syria has a really unique combination of bitterness and confusion that takes it to the next level.

I continue to be confused by a very vocal group in the Syria debate that is really mad at the anti-interventionist left but which does not itself favor intervention. Since I published my piece on this topic in Current Affairs I have been hearing (and hearing, and hearing) from them. They are certain that the average leftist does not adequately oppose Bashar al-Assad and Vladimir Putin, but they can express no coherent vision of what they actually want to happen that’s different from the average leftist.

Here are some available options re: Syria.

  1. We should support Syria’s rebels militarily against the brutal Assad regime, including boots-on-the-ground. This is a bad idea for a whole host of reasons, primarily that it would be a horrific quagmire, a humanitarian disaster, could easily lead to war with nuclear-armed Russia, and would inevitably turn out to be an imperial project (and a war on Iran) no matter how fervently interventionists wish it to be otherwise.
  2. We should support Assad and Putin against American imperialism. This is, thankfully, a very fringey position. It’s bad because Assad is a monster and because it potentially carries all of the risks of the first option.
  3. We should support Syria’s rebels through a no fly zone. This position depends on two ideas: one, that a no fly zone would not result in a hot war with Russia, and two, that a no fly zone can be implemented without a significant troop presence on the ground in Syria. Both are wrong.
  4. We should support Syria’s rebels by arming and training them. The problem with this position is that it hasn’t worked and that long history shows us these actions have very nasty outcomes.
  5. There’s little we can do. Assad is a monster, Putin is a bad actor, but the United States is a clumsy and reckless super power that causes destruction and humanitarian crisis wherever it goes, and we can’t intervene. The least bad option is to stop bombing, stop arming, and do what we can in terms of providing humanitarian aid and taking in refugees where we can. This is my position.
  6. Number 5 but, like, be angrier about it? Feel more? “Show solidarity” with moderate Syrian rebels, in some vague and formless way? I guess?

I’m not trying to be a jerk here. I just have no idea what the last position actually means, and yet I hear some version of it constantly. Leftists who oppose deepening American intervention – yes, I know we’re already intervening, and yes, I’m opposed to that intervention – talk bitterly about the supposed “pro-Assad left.” Well, there is a pro-Assad left, but they are tiny and lack influence even in the context of the radical left. The people who are accused of being the pro-Assad left are much more numerous, despite the fact that most of them explicitly will tell you they’re opposed to Assad. That’s my condition: people say “denounce Assad!” and I say “I already have and I will again.” And then the response is, in effect, “denounce him harder.” There’s this perpetual insistence that people like me who explicitly reject Assad but who also reject escalation of American intervention aren’t feeling enough for the rebels or for the people of Syria. There’s no disagreement that I can divine in terms of policy, in terms of actions people want to take. There’s just a constant demand for histrionics and showy support, divorced from action.

So here’s Charles Davis, who has been relentless in this regard, attacking Glenn Greenwald and others for being too soft on Putin. He argues for what’s supposedly a third way, which is opposing both American imperialism and Russian imperialism alike, for being both anti-war and anti-Assad. Like many, he represents this as some sort of brave, contrarian stance, despite the fact that to my lights this is the overwhelming left-wing position on this issue. It is my position on this issue. You know who else holds that position? Glenn Greenwald! No to war, no to Assad is a very easy position to hold, many of us hold it, and yet left spaces are full of people who refuse to take yes for an answer.

When you’ve been out of power for as long as the left has been, this sort of thing tends to happen. Because you have such little influence on the policy apparatus, your perception of other people’s emotional investment in certain positions takes on inflated importance. And so you get this type of politics of affect where people aren’t taken to task for wanting the wrong things but for failing to showily beat their chest about what they want. Yes, I recognize that solidarity is important when action seems impossible, but stripped of connection to a meaningful vision of goals, it becomes the worst kind of emotional politics, politics as therapy, politics as moral hygiene.

None of this is about plausibility. It’s fine to debate outcomes you can’t achieve. There’s a debate that’s been raging in my weird little political circles about whether we should support a universal basic income or a job guarantee, and it has become nasty in some instances, with accusations of one side being useful idiots for libertarians, the other for corporatists. On first blanch, this is silly – we’re not going to get either of those things. Not anytime soon. But I still value the debate because we need to define our goals for the future, and whatever else is true, the people debating have clear differences in what they want to happen. That’s important.

This Syria debate is not like that. So much of the anger comes from people who cannot articulate what they actually want to happen, in concrete terms, or how they differ from me in tangible, material goals. What actions do you want to be taken, by whom, and for what purpose? Those are not idle or unfair questions. They’re particularly not unfair when many seem intent on making Syrian issues into a purity test. I don’t like purity tests in general, and I particularly don’t like them when they’re about how much you emote rather than what you believe. If you get mad about this post but can’t express a material difference in what you and I want to happen, you should think things over.

In a must-read piece on this issue, Brendan O’Neill wrote “This is what Syria has become to many in the West: a moral opportunity. A convenient platform on which to make a spectacle of our ‘moral impulse’ that has so few outlets in these otherwise strange, unsettled times.” You’ll forgive me if I decline.

I know my own group by defining who’s not in it

Scott Alexander wrote a piece in the middle of last year that I think is as essential as anything I’ve read in ages about how we argue now. His point is pretty simple: as political segregation increases, with people from dramatically different political camps less and less likely to interact, the really bitter political arguments are intra-group, not inter-group. That is, the battles that are most personal and toxic stop being Democrat-Republican but left-liberal, alt-trad, insurgents-establishment.

Alexander names a few indicative examples. Online atheism is a really good one, with battles within atheists of different dispositions being far more frequent and ugly than those between atheists and believers, precisely because the latter groups interact so rarely. Primary season 2016 was the ur-example. The actual presidential campaign was ugly in many ways. But the Sanders vs. Clinton and alt-right vs. establishment GOP fights were more personal, more tiring, more toxic. The perpetual tendency of Clinton partisans to say that Sanders supporters are “just as bad” as the alt-right – a Nazi-influenced far right extremist group, mind you – exemplifies this tendency. Fargroups are further away politically than neargroups, but they don’t live in our shared social and professional spaces while neargroups do, and so they don’t inspire quite the same kind of personal animus.

Here’s an extension to Alexander I want to make, which I’ll relate to my own experience. As internecine warfare against the neargroup intensifies, the regulation of who is in and who is out becomes more and more important. That is, the more that politics becomes about battling the neargroup instead of the fargroup, the more essential self-identification with a given faction becomes. As the really bitter fights become those between people who are close on the spectrum, the regulation of one’s space on the spectrum becomes even more essential.

So look at my experience. For a long while I was just kind of a fringey voice; perceived by many people as kind of annoying but not in any sense someone to be careful not to be associated with. Now, to the minor degree that I am discussed by progressives (being a low-traffic and low-attention figure generally), it is almost always accompanied by this laborious process of distancing themselves from me even while agreeing with me. Most endorsements of my work, by liberals and some leftists, involve endorsing what I’ve said while performing a dance to show everybody they know I’m Bad. It is the perpetual “I know Freddie’s problematic, but he’s right here” phenomenon. At some point or another I was given the mark of Cain, and I’ve never been clear on when or why.

This behavior has grown exponentially in recent years despite the fact that I haven’t said or done anything particularly controversial that would explain this. And as I’ve said over and over again, on the social issues that people actually get mad about – questions of race, gender, sexuality, identity, etc. – my views are absolutely conventional in liberal and left spaces. I argue about the way that we discuss those things, I have idiosyncratic ideas about our political strategy, but in terms of both the analysis of existing injustice and how things have to change, it’s very difficult to find a shred of daylight between me and your average media liberal. In the early days of blogging you’d do this sort of thing if someone had, like, good leftist politics but believed the earth was flat. Now it’s apparently “he’s got the exact same policy prescriptions I do in terms of affirmative action and equal pay laws and abortion, but he thinks campus activists don’t always make their arguments constructively, so watch out.”

This leads to situations where I am sure that neither party in perpetual “do you denounce Freddie?” purity tests actually knows what they are denouncing me for. To the degree that they’re ever challenged to explain the demand, people either a) hand wave the challenge away or b) say something about my beliefs that is flatly wrong. (“He criticizes BlackLivesMatter!” I have literally never done that.) But really that’s natural: the ritualistic denunciation has little to do with me and more to do with the importance of defining oneself in one of the camps currently engaged in internecine conflict. It’s not hard to know who’s who when liberals debate conservatives; the Democrats and Republicans are formal groups you have to explicitly join. The line between Clintonite liberal Democrat and Sanders social democrat is less clear, so people develop more elaborate signals and tests to define where people are.

Probably nobody shows this stuff more than the journalist Michael Tracey. Tracey is one of the most viscerally hated figures I can remember in online writing in a long time – hated by liberals and leftists, that is. Indeed one of the only things that’s united Clintonite liberals and Sanders-supporting leftists lately is irrational distaste for Michael Tracey. But Tracey’s actual crimes are unclear; he is a relentless critic of liberals and of the Clinton campaign, in ways I frequently find myopic and unhelpful, but he does not express the kinds of regressive beliefs that you would think are disqualifying. He has expressly denied support for Donald Trump or the alt-right many times. Meanwhile, some of these self-same liberals and leftists have cordial relationships with people who are anti-abortion or pro-war. By any coherent political theory, these differences should be far more important than the personal annoyance and guilt-by-association that they direct against Tracey. But in practice, it’s not even close – a moderate Republican who justifies our horrific foreign policy and the murders it engenders can be a member in good standing of the conversation on Twitter while Tracey’s name is said with a curse. This is… weird.

I’m not saying this to defend Tracey. I’m saying in fact that the very idea that I have to either denounce or defend a professional journalist is bizarre. The attitude that grownups should constantly be in the business of saying “This person is good/bad” instead of discussing specific arguments and ideas is contrary to how democracy is supposed to work. But it’s all people care about; I guarantee you this post will be tweeted by people saying, without irony or self-awareness, “see, Freddie’s with Michael Tracey!”

It never ceases to amaze me the lengths to which smart and independent progressive writers are willing to go to placate demands that they distance themselves from me, even when those demands come with no definition whatsoever of what I’ve done to require such distancing. The idea that every time you endorse something someone’s written you have to catalog your thoughts about them as a person is childish and unconstructive. Nor can I really believe how often people straight-up lie about the things I believe or have said in the interest of assigning me to the Bad Team. But that’s what happens in these conflicts with the neargroup. Teams become everything. The very idea of individuality or independence becomes dangerous. And as much as I prefer the politics and culture of left twitter/socialist twitter/weird twitter/whatever, they are just as bad or worse in this regard than their antagonists.

The short term fight, in our political dialogue, will be to preserve the possibility of true intellectual independence.

OK let’s get constructive

Readers keep saying I should frame my criticism of liberals more constructively. Let’s go for it. This sentiment is wallpapering Twitter lately. (This is just an indicative example.)

I think that this is a very unhelpful way for liberals to communicate. Let me explain.

Analytically, these statements don’t make much sense. More than one group of people can be in “a bubble.” The dichotomy is false. Nor is this language precise. When we speak of bubbles in this way, we’re speaking metaphorically about how different people have differing levels of information and interest in the lives of others. This is not a binary but a spectrum, and a multilinear one at that, given that there are different kinds of information and different kinds of ignorance. Further, ascribing attitudes to vast geographical regions isn’t helpful. Is the idea that literally everyone in Manhattan/Missoula is informed/ignorant about the “other side?” No one believes that, I hope. So what’s the analytical value of these statements? “Our side is generally more informed about the other side than they are about us”? That might be true, but it’s very hard to say, it’s not clear what the criteria are, and I’m not sure what the value of such a statement is given that we’re talking about vast generalizations here.

Politically, this is disastrous. Conservatives have made incredible hay out of the perception that liberals sneer at people who don’t live in coastal enclaves. These arguments accept that frame even as they dispute its conclusions, which is not a good argumentative strategy. Additionally, many of these tweets have replies sneering at “rednecks.” Why are you doing that? What is the political value? Aren’t you trying to win elections precisely in the places where these statements would appear most insulting? This is the unfortunate reality: neither the Electoral College nor the Senate are going anywhere anytime soon. They are facts of life. You can refuse to do what’s necessary to win back power in a country structurally designed to make red states disproportionately powerful while Republicans set about implementing an agenda. Or you can develop a strategic political discourse that demonstrates a sensible attitude towards how you frame your appeals. I get it: these aren’t campaign slogans or TV ads for Democrats. But the communal rhetoric of an ideology matters. The day-to-day messaging of the members of a political party matters. What exactly is the political advantage that you think you’re getting from talking like this?

Morally, this is a betrayal of the basic principles that are supposed to underlie progressivism. The whole idea – the basic, bedrock notion underneath all of this – is moral universality. Central to the liberal self-conception is the idea that everyone should be treated with human dignity, enjoy equal opportunity and equal rights, and live free of poverty and injustice. Chopping up the country into places that you think matter and don’t – acting as though some places deserve hopelessness and economic malaise and some don’t – is contrary to the basic moral architecture of the American progressive tradition. Yes, I agree, the other party is worse in this regard. So what? A universal assumption of adult morality is that the bad behavior of others does not function as an excuse for your own. Everyone has a right to material security, human dignity, and equal rights by virtue of being human; those things are not deserved and cannot be lost by virtue of being wrong. To suggest otherwise is to accept the moral reasoning of conservatism.

What’s the alternative? Don’t play their game! Don’t accept their frame; insist on your own. Here’s what you say if you want to lose: “We’re not in the bubble, it’s the people in flyover country who are in the bubble. It’s not our job to educate them.” Even if that were a meaningful statement and were true, it wouldn’t matter. That’s hurting your own cause, and it’s an ugly, narrow-minded way to behave. Here’s what you say if you want to win: “It’s not about red state vs. blue state or rural vs. urban. It’s about building a country where everyone has their basic necessities, where everyone is free from poverty and despair. Yes to affordable housing and health care, yes to public education, yes to food for the hungry and warmth for the cold. No to poverty, no to racism and sexism, no to exploitation and greed. They stand with the comfortable and the rich, we stand with those who suffer and need. Everywhere. Because we’re all in this together.”

That’s how you win. That’s how Barack Obama won, with precisely that kind of language. I’m not writing this as another post mortem of the Hillary Clinton campaign. I’m trying to make a point about how liberals can succeed moving forward, if they’re smart.

Liberals, please: politics is not therapy. Politics is about power. Right now you don’t have it. Not at the state level, not in Congress, and soon not in the White House. If you want to get it, you have to be smart. Stop giving Republicans the argument they want! Stop playing to their frame! It doesn’t matter if you’re right. That’s irrelevant. It doesn’t matter if they’re the ones in the bubble! The only thing that matters is what you can accomplish. Right now, that’s not much. Your opponents, meanwhile, are a single state legislature flip away from being able to pass constitutional amendments. So you better come up with a plan to convince the people who are able to be convinced. Including those who you think live in bubbles in the hinterland. Even if you think you shouldn’t have to convince them, you have to appeal to them if you want to win. Life’s not fair. Get to work, or keep doing what you’re doing and lose again.

pretty simple choice for Democrats

Here’s two different 2016 campaign ads. This one has about 8,150,000 views.

This one has about 17,500 views.

Which, do you think, would have been better suited to a campaign season about populist discontent and a vast swath of Americans (of many races and backgrounds) who felt left behind?

I keep seeing defenses of the campaign arguing that Hillary’s policy platform was populist. But what’s the value of a populist policy platform if the campaign is obsessed with celebrity glitz and glamour? Why was the Democratic convention a parade of celebrities? Corrected: Why are you inviting turning over your social media accounts to Lena Dunham, to who was simultaneously posting things about how white men are finished, to campaign for you in the final month of the election when you desperately need to shore up your “blue wall” in Michigan and Wisconsin? Why play to college educated liberals, in November, in that way? What do you want – a message that can motivate a large group of the undecided, or one that flatters the egos of people who would never vote Republican in the first place? Simple choice for liberals and Democrats as they ponder their political future. As simple as it gets.

Are they going to get it right? No, of course not.

Update: This column is a little more germane than the other link.