god save me from the converted

The True Ally

You will have noticed the specter of the angry white male Hillary Clinton supporter. You could hardly miss him, if you’re on Facebook or Twitter. There are dozens of him, hundreds. He has labored to ensure that his efforts don’t go unnoticed. He is determined to be louder than loud, when it comes to defending the honor of his candidate. He is determined to out-feminist the feminists. He is determined to make himself heard, because surely it’s his voice that will cause the great tipping point and carry the world to justice. He’s the absolute picture of a disgruntled white man; if I was making a movie about an angry white man I’d cast him as the lead. He’s convinced himself that his limp Democrat centrism, when married to his ultra-aggressive delivery, equals radicalism, and that his brand of politics is as far as one should ever go. He’s a commissar, of a curious kind: not motivated by particularly deep attachment to the political convictions he’s spouting now – indeed, if the mass of vague liberalish Democrat politics moves, he’ll be sure to follow – but by a kind of terror of not being aligned with those who set our new standards for what it means to be righteous. That’s because, more than anything, he’s motivated by the insult of recognition. He complains about basement dwellers, bros, and angry white men because deep down he knows that’s how many people see him, and so the performance of his politics is an effort to get out of that box, to define his own story.

Which wouldn’t be a big deal if the aggression this all engendered wasn’t so intense, if there wasn’t such menace lurking in these guys, the Hillary Men. When I look at someone like this, I say to myself “this is someone who wants credit.” And it’s that credit-seeking that leads to the intense anger towards people to his left. He says to himself, I’ve come all this way far over, as a white dude, and there are still people attacking me for not being left enough. How dare they? Where’s my prize?

The pro-Hillary boomer dude isn’t alone in this weird world. I’ve said this before: there is no bigger creep than the guy at the academic conference with the “Actual Misandrist” T-shirt, asking women panelists “how can I stop oppressing you?” The social derision towards “bros,” in the tiny but elite world where the term has become an insult, has created this niche of the anti-bro. He is extravagantly not bro-y. He loudly derides David Foster Wallace, Jack Kerouac, and Jonathan Safran Foer – in fact, he’s not even reading white male authors at all this year, actually. He carries a tote bag and he is very publicly sensitive but he also does jiu jitsu, of course, and has a whole spiel about how it’s spiritual for him but he can also kick your ass. He doesn’t do drugs but he respects the journey. He has opinions about spoken word. He’s not insincere in his feminism – good lord, is he sincere. But he’s the guy who gets aggressive with women at the cocktail hour after the feminist conference. Because the anti-bro’s politics are defined by what he’s not, and more importantly by being seen as what he’s not, there’s something inherently predatory in him. He doesn’t have a politics; he has an agenda. Give me bros over that any day.

How did we get here, to the point where angry white men literally silence women for disagreeing with them politically, and who do so believing that they’re acting in the interests of feminism? And how do we go back, if we don’t like it here? I think we have to get past the politics of pure association. To get over the politics of who and back to the politics of what. To acknowledge again that demographics aren’t destiny, that there are plenty of black Republicans and anti-feminist women and regressive queer people, and that the best way forward to achieve actually socially just outcomes is to stop with this bizarre liberal habit of reducing all politics to social sorting. Would it surprise you to learn that Bernie Sanders’s base was young women? That fact was obvious if you bothered to look but invisible if you just stuck to the narrative, because liberals have decided that there is no politics but the politics of association. Which is why so many male Hillary Clinton supporters feel compelled to stake their claim, to stand on their rock and say “this is me.” Progressive politics is no longer about the complexities and nuances of what you believe and how you act in turn, but just about sorting yourself into the right group. Which means that there’s no possible way to get past Bad Choice A or Worse Choice B. God save me from the converted because they see good politics as something to be rather than something to do. And if your politics is who you are rather than what you do, well, then you can as a man tell a women to shut up in the name of feminism. After all, she was just another BernieBro.

The truth is that I don’t really believe in the HillaryMan as an archetype, or in the anti-bro. They’re just crude stereotypes that I cobbled together in a few minutes; I could ladle that stuff out all day long. And you could get stuff published like that forever, in the Awl or wherever, and a couple hundred urbanites would cluck along and start sprinkling whatever dumb epithet you came up with into their conversations. Nothing will have changed, other than the lines of the circle of the woke getting drawn a little darker. Or you could stop trying to be something and start trying to do something, to be willing to engage in politics in a way that does not leave you secure in the knowledge that you’re One of the Good Ones.

pressing on

I’ve long felt that, for those of us who are fortunate enough not to suffer debilitating medical conditions or from really intense forms of abuse or neglect, it’s the petty indignities and minor headaches of life that add up and make it tough, rather than the major tragedies. The tragedies are, well, tragic, and often hard to bear, but their tragic nature also strangely gives you the strength to endure them. When you shoulder some of the great mental and emotional challenges of life, you draw from deep reserves in yourself that exist precisely to meet those challenges. You are wounded, frequently confused, and often feel powerfully lonely, but you’re also aware that you’re engaged in the intense foundations of human life, that you’re enduring something that it takes real courage to endure. That helps, a little.

But to my mind, it’s the steady drip of minor hassles, low-key insults, and avoidable screw ups that build up and collude to leave us feeling, at times, like life is impossible. And in those cases, you don’t have the silver lining of self-belief that comes with tragedy. On the contrary: you have the opposite, the knowledge that the problems currently confronting you are silly, trivial in the grand scheme of things. So you feel kind of trapped. They add up and they seem to slowly weigh you down, bit by bit, like water slowly filling a canoe, and your sense of perspective about how ultimately minor they are just makes them a little harder to confront. It can be tough to ask for help in these times because you’re so afraid of seeming like you aren’t aware of your own advantages. You’d like for your life to be some intense drama but it’s really just your own personal episode of Curb Your Enthusiasm. 

Let me tell you a story about a doof, named me, and his doof travails.

I am still unemployed, as of this writing. Early last month I attended a campus visit for an academic job. As is typical of these things, I had to upfront my travel costs and apply for a reimbursement. I filled out a form while there and didn’t think much more of it. A plane ticket and hotel costs a lot for me, so I was eager to get the check, but it was late in coming. Finally I emailed the school. They told me a check had been sent out almost a month prior. I checked the details. To my horror I found that I had messed up writing my own address – I had combined my current number with my old street. I have no idea why this happened; my only excuse is the stress and confusion of the campus visit process. I told them about it, and they said no problem, they would fix it, but it would take them canceling the check at the state level and starting a new process up. Which will potentially take months.

To make this entirely self-inflicted wound worse, I had been holding out on getting that check before I paid the state of Indiana the taxes I owed them for all of my freelance income last year. I stretched it a bit, thinking there would be something of a grace period, but nope. I got an alert on my credit report – I now have a tax lien on my credit report, which has made a big ding on my score. That’s after years of gradually fixing my credit. I dunno if the mark will come off my score after I pay the taxes or if it’ll stay there for two years or what. Meanwhile, to get to the next stage of my life, I’ll need to put a lot of debt onto my credit cards, which will further hurt my score. And this is when I need my credit to be good so that I can get an apartment lease through a credit check.

None of this is a very big problem in the grand scheme of things. It’s just the coming together of little problems in a way that seems especially wearying, the way so many aspects of human life frequently seem wearying out of proportion with their relative difficulty. And the fact that I have no one at all to blame for these problems makes it seem so much worse. I’m not a tragic figure; I’m a just a doof. I’ve been wrestling with this doofiness my whole life. You’d think I had it at least somewhat together. I have three degrees. Last week I finally had a good research rationale to use quantile regression, which I’ve wanted to for forever, and I got somebody’s R code and figured out how to run it, and I did, and the results made sense. I just had another piece in the LA Times. None of this is meant to brag or to show that I’m a big deal. (Trust me, my daily routine right now is a lesson in humility.) The point is that there are signs I’m a functional grownup. And yet though I can do some pretty sophisticated statistical analysis and publish in big newspapers and maintain an active and fun social life, I am felled by the task of accurately filling in my address on a form, even when the stakes are such that my financial health really depends on it. Or just this past week when I got a vet appointment for my dog, rented a car to get him to the vet, put him in the car, got the car covered in dog hair that I would then have to clean out, and drove to the vet to find it closed because I had gotten the day wrong. Or the time I traveled to a conference only to discover that I had bought a return ticket a month after when I intended to fly home, and had to spend three days on a bus. Stuff like that.

I often feel like I have some missing gene that makes utterly banal and simple elements of life seem impossibly complex, a kind of mental clumsiness that perfectly matches my significant physical clumsiness. I am at the point where I’ve come to understand that I’m not just going to wake up one day and find that I’ve grasped the secret key to, like, doing normal life things without messing them up. I find that stuff, the preventable, silly, and ultimately minor hassles aggregate together to make me feel worn out, and I suspect I’m not alone. I confess too that my mood disorder has been more difficult lately than it has been in a long time. Part of that is the lack of structure in my life; without the daily routine of a regular job or school, it’s hard to have the kind of stability that I need to deal with my bipolar disorder, and that contributes to inflating the difficulty of my minor problems in my mind. I know cognitively how lucky I am. But my neurology sometimes conspires to keep that perspective from me.

I’m not just writing to commiserate, though!

I’m writing to let you know that after five years, I’m leaving Indiana next week. Packing up and heading home to Connecticut, where I’ve got a short term lease in my hometown, before I go to wherever it is I’ll be going. I’m going to miss Indiana, even while I know that it’s time to move on. I’ve been here for longer than I’ve stayed in any one place since high school. There’s a lot more to recommend about this area than a lot of its temporary academic residents give it credit for. And I’ll miss Purdue terribly. For my laundry list of complaints, Purdue has been my home, and I love many aspects of the school dearly. But it’s time! It’s time to go.

I hope to have good professional news to share with you all soon. I know good things are coming. I just have to hold on a little bit longer.

to boldly punch, where no man has punched before

I saw the new Star Trek movie. When I tell you that it’s all punching and shooting, I’m really not exaggerating. It’s all punching and shooting. And as far as punching and shooting summer action movies goes, it’s OK. It has an ending that’s like two 13 year old boys talking about what a good ending would be via text message, but it isn’t completely soulless, which is better than you can say for most franchise movies.

But Star Trek isn’t about punching or shooting.  It’s contemplative. It’s about actual moral conflict and ambiguity. It’s optimistic about the prospect of peace and the ability to solve problems nonviolently. It lets stories develop slowly. It’s about exploration and diplomacy far more than its about combat. And, look, yes, the old Onion joke – “Trekkies Bash New Star Trek Film As ‘Fun, Watchable'” – I get it. You have to make concessions to the box office. But I don’t understand the point of turning Star Trek into a punching and shooting franchise, which is what all of these movies have been. I mean, I do understand. It’s the fact that our culture industry is a human centipede that has to keep passing predigested excrement from one host body to the next, so every preexisting “IP” has to have all of its value sucked out until there’s only a dry husk remaining. But it just doesn’t work, fundamentally, to turn Star Trek into Punch Quest. There are other problems with the movies – I just don’t buy Kirk and Spock’s friendship, the actors don’t have chemistry – but on a basic level they suffer from trying to fit a square peg into a round hole.

I’m not saying every movie should be a Tarkovsky film. I’m saying that there’s already plenty of opportunities to get punching and shooting. You can watch Captain America punch and Han Solo shoot and dinosaurs get punched and shot at. It’s not like it’s just not possible for movies about other things than punching and shooting to make money. Is there any punching or shooting in Star Trek 4? Any at all? But it made $130 million in 1986. I fundamentally believe that it’s  still possible for that sort of thing to happen again. But there’s no studios willing to risk it. So we get two characters in bad alien makeup doing half-assed movie karate in the climax of a Star Trek movie.

We’re getting more and more diverse, in these blockbusters. Sulu’s got a new husband in one of the rare non-punching, non-shooting scenes; the lady Ghostbusters have a pointless and wearying scene where they shoot a lot; soon you’ll be able to see the Black Panther punch. And while I think the current liberal obsession with superficial diversity above structural equality is weird, I recognize that there’s progress in greater representation. But if there’s diversity in the faces but not in the stories, if we start to better include women and people of color in movies but give them nothing else to do but punch and shoot, that’s barely progress at all.

your memory should be longer than 7 years

Last night and today are the days to talk about how Donald Trump is the scariest politician in American history. Trump is monstrous, but unlikely to be elected. And, more, he’s not even worse than our previous president, George W. Bush. How have you all forgotten this stuff already?

  • The invasion of Iraq was one of the greatest foreign policy crimes in the history of this country. At least 600,000 Iraqis died as a direct result. The country’s entire civil infrastructure was destroyed; its professional and managerial classes were killed or fled. America lost 4500 soldiers and over $2 trillion dollars. The invasion in general and horrors like Abu Ghraib in particular helped do incredible damage to our international reputation. The invasion destabilized the country and directly contributed to the rise of ISIS. The principle of international cooperation and UN approval of foreign wars was undermined. A country was poisoned, figuratively and literally, for generations.
  • Whatever your thoughts on the Afghanistan invasion in general, the prosecution of that war failed in its most basic tasks during the Bush administration. Osama bin Laden was not captured; the Taliban was not permanently defeated; a functional and free Afghanistan did not emerge. The war devolved into an intractable, violent quagmire.
  • Bush responded to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina with utter apathy for days as poor people literally drowned in the streets of New Orleans. There was ample warning from the National Weather Service, and a concerted effort by the federal government to get people out of the city could have saved many lives, but no such help came. Bush publicly praised Michael Brown, the now-disgraced FEMA director, despite Brown’s total incompetence in handling the crisis.
  • The Bush administration did nothing to address the conditions that led to the financial crisis back when they could perhaps have been addressed. In fact that contributed to a culture of lax enforcement of regulations and a generally permissive culture that allowed Wall Street to run amok. They appeared to be caught completely unawares by the crash, despite many warning signs. Their response, while successful in preventing a worldwide economic meltdown, amounted to a vast, taxpayer-funded payout to the very same banks and wealthy people who created the crisis in the first place.
  • The tax cuts pushed by the Bush administration immediately upon entering a period of war and national emergency may be genuinely unprecedented in terms of slashing taxes just as a country entered a period of war. The Bush administration slashed taxes, claiming that most of those cuts would be for the middle class; that was a transparent lie.
  • Bush was a key figure in building a vast network of illegal surveillance of both Americans and others.
  • The Bush administration was complicit in torture, the establishment of a due process-free prison for Muslim men at Guantanamo, and the disappearing of “suspected terrorists” to foreign black sites without legal review or accountability.
  • After 9/11, thousands of Iranians took to the streets to protest the attacks. The Iranian government made overtures of solidarity towards ours. It was the best opportunity for rapprochement in my lifetime. That chance was destroyed by the (David Frum written) “Axis of Evil” speech.
  •  Bush pulled the US out of the Kyoto protocols, one of the most essential pieces of international climate change action ever.
  • The Bush administration deepened the War on Drugs, even after 9/11, and continued to pursue nonviolent drug offenders with zeal even as we poured vast sums into fighting terrorism.
  • Bush was a staunch opponent of abortion. He was a staunch defender of the death penalty. Enforcement of equal housing and equal employment opportunity laws declined and stagnated in his term. He supported vastly increasing budgets for anti-undocumented immigration enforcement along the US-Mexico border. His administration elevated unqualified or outright incompetent people to roles of immense importance. He pushed Medicare Part D, a massive transfer of government money to pharmaceutical companies, without expanding coverage or access to essential medicine for the vast majority of Americans. He championed the disastrous No Child Left Behind school reform bill. He participated in retribution against Valerie Plame for her husband’s role as a whistleblower. He dramatically expanded executive power in all of the worst ways. He was a disaster, from start to finish, someone with the blood of literally hundreds of thousand of people or more on his hands, a war criminal, a bigot, a historical villain of the first order. And he was in charge of this country 8 years ago.

Yet, somehow, I keep reading today about how Donald Trump is the scariest politician ever. Yes, Trump is a monster. Yes, his speech was bad. Yes, it is frightening that we have created this moment — that all of us have created this moment. But the worst politician of our lifetimes? He isn’t the worst politician of this decade. Meanwhile, the man that deserves that dubious distinction has somehow gained a reputation as a funny old idiot uncle, a Zelig figure who happened to wander into history, instead of a cruel and profoundly conniving politician of elite lineage and profound ambition. And some of the people who complain about Trump now championed him in the past, including some Democrats. In the nightmare scenario, it’s hard to imagine a Trump administration being as comprehensively horrific as that of George Bush.

I get the urge to call the present the most important time ever. (Because you live in the present, right, and so that makes it the most important.) And I get that perspective doesn’t do much for click through numbers. But history is important, and it’s essential that we recognize that business as usual has caused impossible human suffering in this country, that the true American monster was a guy called reasonable and impressive by many of those sensible moderates sounding the alarm now.

This is what your country is. This is what your country always has been. Donald Trump doesn’t make America ugly; Donald Trump reveals its ugliness to people who are too comfortable to want to hear it. The day after Trump is defeated, they’ll go back to numb apathy. Many of the people who cry today for undocumented immigrants won’t say a word as a Democratic president enforces our already-horrific immigration law. They won’t lift a finger against our already-existing war on Muslims. The status quo will stay the status quo and the rot that the ugly Trump campaign has revealed will go right on rotting.

meanwhile, in Syria

I am not watching the Republican National Convention, but I am watching liberal Democrats watch it, through the magic of the internet. And though the bar for such a thing is impossibly high, this might be the most insufferably self-congratulatory that group has ever been.

You might remind them that a Democrat president and his Democrat policies killed at least 73 innocent people yesterday.

“The death toll is 117. We could document [the identity of] 73 civilians including 35 children and 20 women. The rest of the dead bodies are charred, or have been reduced to shreds,” said Adnan al-Housen, an activist from Manbij.

Democrats will spend the next several months, and the rest of your life, reveling in their moral superiority to their counterparts. And, indeed, if you put a gun to my head, I’d have to concede that liberal Democrats are superior to conservative Republicans. But then I’m not the one with a gun to my head. The millions of undocumented immigrants that Obama has deported had guns to their heads. So do the people living and dying under threat of drone strikes in Pakistan. And so you wonder if liberal Democrats will ever get around to caring as much for the real Muslims and immigrants terrorized by their guy as they do for the hypothetical ones at risk of being terrorized by the other guy.

If you mention the 73 to them, they will call you self-righteous and various other names, but they will offer no means through which we might save the next 73. They know there’s no end to the horror. They’re just too busy spiking the football to care.

who’s in and who’s out, that’s (still) the only question

Milo Yiannopoulos has been banned again by Twitter. I don’t have any sympathy for Yiannopoulos, although I’ve always found him more sad than threatening. (Liberals have a remarkable tendency to inflate the importance of the people they are attempting to denigrate; it’s a common outcome of the Jon Oliver School of Politics.) I’ve always seen him as a scam artist more than anything, a huckster who plays his fans for money and visibility, but in any event the stuff he says is noxious. He’s wrong about everything and I don’t mistake Twitter as a perfectly open forum. I say that as someone with a far stronger attachment to free speech rights than most of my fellow socialists. (That’s an artifact of learned helplessness and faux radicalism, by the way, but that’s a discussion for another time.) So, adios, Milo.

But of course, Twitter is so hypocritical as to be laughable, as are a lot of the people online who complain about online harassment. They, like Twitter, do not object in principle to harassment. They object to the wrong kinds of harassment.

Take Ben Dreyfuss.



(Remember that time Matt Bruenig got fired for making a reference to the Scumbag Steve meme?)

Ben Dreyfuss hasn’t just wished death on people or said… the thing in the second image that’s so gross I don’t want to gloss it. He’s also told people that he had sex with their mothers, that they should drink poison, that he would sleep with their wives…. I could dig them up, but he’s deleted his tweets, spurred by people pointing out that his repeated jokes about killing the homeless were even less cool than usual, given the recent serial killing of homeless people in San Diego. But there’s been no consequences, not on Twitter and not at his work.

That Dreyfuss said these things is not particularly notable. They happen all the time. Nor is it notable that Dreyfuss got away with it. Dreyfuss is an insider, a connected guy. His father is the actor, Richard Dreyfuss, and Ben grew up rich. But more importantly, he’s in the political media koffee klatsch, the kind of Cool Guy who shows up to the right bars with the right people, thanks to a cush gig at Mother Jones. His boss, Clara Jeffrey Jeffery, regularly complains about online harassment, but when Dreyfuss’s bad behavior is pointed out to her, she just blocks whoever brings it up. Now, Jeffrey Jeffery is not someone I would mistake for a particularly principled person in general – she’s fond of complaining about homeless people herself, which is enough to make the real Mother Jones roll over in her grave. But even if I thought she was a paragon of virtue, it wouldn’t make much difference. For the professional media class, no principle is more important than who you sit at the lunch table with. It’s all teams, all cliques, and it always has been. Political media is a redo of high school for people who were never popular in the real thing, and as in real high school, the wannabes and JV types are more invested in the hierarchy than anybody. Clara Jeffrey Jeffery’s gonna kick the rich kid with the famous dad to the curb over a few disgusting tweets? Not on your life.

Even if Dreyfuss himself were to get made an example of — and for the record, I’m on the “nobody should be getting fired over Twitter” team, as long as that applies to everybody — so what? This is the sea in which journalists swim. When Emmet Rensin was suspended from Vox for following liberal logic on Trump to its obvious conclusions, it was trivially easy to find Vox employees who had said far worse things on Twitter, while Vox employees, with absolutely no consequences. The #WeAreTheLeft debacle was made extra funny/sad by the fact that so many of the signatories of that letter were objectively guilty of the kinds of behaviors the letter indicted. People who gleefully trashed Justine Sacco complain about pile-ons; people who say doxing is wrong get others fired from their real-life jobs. There are no principles; there’s only who you’re cool with and who you aren’t. I’ve been for saying this for years, 8 in fact, and the response has always been a kind of muttered shiftiness, a desire to change the subject. Because most people know I’m right. They always have. But for some reason, there’s this dedication to maintaining the pretense, this addiction to plausible deniability. Nobody really thinks this stuff is about principle, but to be a member in good standing, you have to go through the motions. That hasn’t changed.

Many will respond to this post by misrepresenting what I’m saying. They’ll claim that I’m saying “there is no online harassment/online harassment isn’t a big deal/online harassment is good.” I don’t believe any of those things. What I believe instead is that online harassment is real and pernicious, but that the definition of what constitutes online harassment, to gatekeepers, is dependent entirely on the self-interests and whims of those gatekeepers. Twitter does not have a policy against online harassment. Twitter has a policy against online harassment that risks causing it bad publicity. I am terribly sorry for Leslie Jones; it’s a cruel world full of cruel people who say cruel things. But I am equally sorry for those black women who suffer from harassment who do not enjoy the visibility of celebrity, or the benefits of having been made into a symbol. In fact, I’m equally sorry for conservative and libertarian women who endure abuse and harassment. I’m even sorry for those victims of harassment who are considered morally unclean by media liberalism. Imagine that.

I might even be so impolite to note that, as with opportunistic accusations of anti-Semitism used to silence critics of Israel, inconsistent and insincere attacks on online harassment inevitably make it harder to actually prevent harassment. You know. If you’re into that sort of thing.

So enjoy the ban, Milo, and to the people cracking jokes under the #FreeMilo hashtag, go for it. Knock yourselves out. But please understand that I see you, I’ve always seen you, and you and I both know that most of you are concerned with harassment precisely to the degree that it afflicts people you like. If the upshot of that is that Leslie Jones is defended from horrific people and Milo Yiannopoulos loses a forum with which to shill his wares to the deluded rubes he’s been conning, cool. That’s a positive outcome. But please. Leave talk about principle out of it. After 8 years I just can’t stomach it anymore.

Update: As in so many other things, the question progressives should ask themselves is, does current anti-harassment practice online lead to a more just world in fact, rather than just in intent? Do your own efforts to reduce these problem actually reduce it, or do they merely demonstrate to others that you are on the right side of this issue? Is the purpose to do good or to be good?

As usual, for the average center-left internet denizen, the answer seems to be the latter. And I just am not interested.

is/ought, again


I have said before that “should” is the most useless word in politics. There is contemporary obsession with what should be, in some abstract moral sense, that obscures what is, and to the benefit of no one.

I have sometimes said this as criticism of those who see themselves (for lack of better terms) as parts of the social justice left or the intersectional left. For example, take the often-repeated nostrum that it’s not the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressor, that marginalized groups shouldn’t have to make the case for a more just world to those who are already comfortable within it. That’s a classic example of placing “ought” before “is” in a useless way. What do you mean, they shouldn’t have to? To whom is that “should” appealing? God? The fact of the matter is that the uncomfortable must convince the comfortable precisely because of that condition, because the powerful have power and the powerless lack it, and only the action of the powerless can remedy that condition. That’s all that politics is. That “should” is meaningless, a dead letter. It’s an inert act of moral prescription that has no relevance to actually-existing political life. If your world is as small as Tumblr or the campus of Brown University, those shoulds might seem meaningful, but in the broader, broken world, they have no meaning. Stand on a street corner and address the universe in those terms and see how quickly it brings you justice.

But if this is/ought problem is common to contemporary liberalism, it is also endemic to conservative life. With its overt religiosity and constant reference to social norms, the conservative mindset frequently obsesses over “ought” without really grappling with “is.” The market should reward talent and hard work. People should be able to pull themselves up by their own bootstraps. People should all mutually and naturally recognize the plain truth of social norms like the gender binary….

I’m thinking about this because of BlackLivesMatter and the violence in Dallas. Immediately after, many conservatives (and some handwringing liberals) leaped immediately to argue that racism and injustice should not be met with violence. And I thought that this was a classic case of putting ought before is. Whether or not this type of violence should result from the ongoing murder of black men by the police is not immediately relevant. The point is that such violence is inevitable. It is a perfectly predictable outcome based on what we know about human nature and injustice. Yes, if someone asks “should I shoot cops,” then the normative question becomes important. But to confront what happened effectively, we have to first understand that this violence was inevitable – that is true whether it should be true. It’s the same story many of us have been telling about terrorism. To say that America’s foreign policy makes terrorism against us inevitable is not a justification. But it is an explanation. It is an “is” statement, not an “ought” statement.

If you’re mad about not just violence like Dallas but BlackLivesMatter in general, I think you’re badly wrong, but the advice is still the same. Look at that quote from Frederick Douglass above, and understand it as a statement of what is true rather than as a statement of what should be true. As long as our society remains a conspiracy to oppress, rob, and degrade its black people, there will be people in the streets. I find that a vital and necessary act of democracy; you are entitled to disagree. Either way, I think you should recognize that the only way to stop the unrest that bothers you is to build the just and equitable world we say we want. Let “is” precede “should.”

That’s really the underlying logic of all my political writing, what compels me to be a member of the left who spends a lot of time criticizing  the left. Because between conservatism’s traditional fixation on traditional codes of propriety and liberalism’s contemporary obsession with what is fair over what is real, the challenge is to have the courage to confront the world as it really is, and to have the courage to change it.

how to like things without driving yourself crazy

Like what you like. Have fun. Enjoy yourself. Feel pride, if pride is something that you associate with the culture you like. Don’t apologize, mostly because nobody is asking you to.

Recognize that there’s more to art than enjoyment. Life is diverse and expansive and in it you perform many functions. Art should be the same way too. Sometimes you just want fun. Other times, there are other functions that art is supposed to fulfill. Ice cream is good. If you eat ice cream every meal you’ll get sick. Right now the media companies are trying to sell you ice cream every meal, and people in cultural writing are telling you it’s good to eat ice cream every meal – that it’s bigoted when people say “don’t eat ice cream every meal.” Don’t listen. Your life is about more than fun, so consume art that’s about more than fun.

Not everyone likes what you like. Get over it. If you want to like things, and for liking things to mean something, then you must be prepared for the fact that other people don’t like it. Having a set of things you do like necessarily means that you have a set of things you don’t like. It’s the same for other people, too. If taste means anything, it must mean something in contrast with other people. To live in a world in which you like things and can draw a community based on those likes means that you must be prepared for others who do not share your likes to do the same. This does no injury to you. The existence of other tastes does not constrain your own. The essence of human life is human variety. To be hurt or offended that other people don’t like what you like is to turn the benefit of diverse media into a kind of harm. Don’t!

“I don’t like what you like” is always OK. “You don’t really like what you claim to like” is never OK. Disagreement about what has artistic value is the essence of taste and a key part of enjoyment. But it only works if everyone is allowed to own their own taste. When threatened, far too many people say “you don’t really like that,” the claim that people only pretend to like what they like to appear a certain way. This is the insult leveled when people call others hipsters or elitists or snobs. It shrinks the world of the possible terribly, and since no one can show you their heart, no one can really defend themselves from it. Don’t ever do this. Let others decide what they like. To tell a noise music or experimental fiction fan that they only like it for appearances is not to let them follow rule one, which is to like what you like. “Let people enjoy things” is advice that must apply equally to everyone.

You are never a victim. Many people in life are victimized, by violence, by racism, by abuse, by poverty, by illness, by disaster, by bad luck. Nobody has ever been victimized by liking a cultural product. If someone laughs at the stuff you like, they may be an asshole, but you are not a victim. Liking comic books does not make you a victim. Someone making fun of the show you like does not make you a victim. The sense that someone, somewhere is looking down their nose at you because you like Dr. Who does not make you a victim. In a world full of terrible pain and cruelty, it is an insult to real victims to equate your mild feelings of embarrassment and marginalization with being a victim.

Try liking more than what you like. The number one biggest problem with our culture industry today is that it wants only to sell you things that you already like. This is an economic decision: it is perceived to be a less risky investment. Sadly, this attitude has filtered out into regular people, many of whom now refuse to try things that they don’t already like. But every taste was once a new taste. Without a willingness to try new things, our culture becomes sclerotic and cannibalistic. More variety is better than less. Someone online once told me he starts reading The Hobbit and Lord of the Rings and when he gets to the end he starts over at the beginning again. That’s a kind of prison. Try new things. Very different things – different mediums and genres. Worst that can happen is you don’t like it, and then you can stop.

Be an empiricist. Whether or not the things you like are popular is not a question of feeling; it is a question of empiricism. Star Wars is objectively hugely popular and always has been. Pokemon Go is objectively hugely popular. Pop music is objectively hugely popular. Video games sell more than music and movies combined. Anyone claiming that liking these things places you in a position of marginalization or minority is objectively wrong. You might still feel like an outsider, but that feeling is irrational. Be an empiricist. Likewise scifi books routinely end up on year end Best Of lists, comic book movies are lionized in major newspapers and magazines, academic conferences are held on Batman, video games are discussed as serious art in stuffy journals, The Return of the King won Best Picture. These are facts about the world. They are empirically accessible. Involve them in your conception of how these properties are thought of critically. Be an empiricist.

Be a Marxist. That is, recognize that economics determines culture, not the other way around. Our culture industry produces what it produces because that is what maximizes profits. The cultural products that are secure are those that earn profits. If your preferred art and media makes a lot of money, that fact does far more to determine reality than any vague feelings of artistic elitism. As Snoop Dogg said, the game is to be sold, not to be told. Star Wars and video games make billions of dollars. Star Wars and video games are fine.

Existence is more important than respect. You may believe that opera is somehow critically respected in a way that chart pop is not. But chart pop will always be with us; opera, as a professional phenomenon, may cease to exist in the near future. Which, then, is the actual underdog? You will never not be able to watch superhero movies. You may very well someday not be able to read poetry by someone who writes it for a living. Ballet, black box theater, experimental fiction, orchestral music, many of the visual, literary and performing arts – all are under economic threat, to some degree or another, and struggle simply to survive. Popular entertainments are frequently seen as somehow disrespected but enjoy overpowering economic force. Therefore place your sympathy where it belongs.

The tastemakers are in your head. The vague sense that someone is looking down on you is a product of your own mind. The upperbrow elites who sneer down on you mostly don’t exist. Rich people consume the same stuff everybody else does nowadays. University professors obsess over Super Mario Bros and Beyonce. There are surely some small number of people who look down on popular tastes, but they are necessarily far fewer than those who embrace them, and they have proven totally incapable of challenging the economic dominance of those tastes or of keeping them out of our cultural media. And they have a right to have different values than you. Besides, what difference does it make? Poptimists live in a prison of their own making; they go looking for disrespect and so inevitably find it. Don’t do that. Stop seeking out the very judgment that you claim to hate.

Grow. You’re not supposed to be the same exact person at 35 as you were at 15. Life has an arc. That arc can bend in all kinds of directions, and I’m no one to tell you how yours should go. But if you like the exact same things today that you liked a decade ago, you are surely losing out on the vast wonderful variety of things to like. Don’t abandon what you used to like, but don’t live in nostalgia. Make new friends; keep the old. Challenge yourself. Take risks. Grow.

Maybe don’t put so much stock in the stuff you like. The things you like are important. They make life fun. But they can’t define who you are. They were never meant to. Your morals, your beliefs, your actions, your compassion for others, how you treat people around you – that’s your identity. The stuff you like is great. Don’t burden it with anxiety by trying to make it your self. That’s just not stable or fulfilling.


there is no such thing as history

I wonder how many times white neoliberal men can write some version of this story. It crops up again and again: things have never been better, the slow and steady improvements wrought by capitalism are gradually solving our problems, and we need merely to stay the course. This is Jon Chait’s version but you can bet there’s a thousand others, most of whom share his politics, gender, and complexion. And each fundamentally misunderstands not just politics and history, but what it means to be alive.

When people debate Francis Fukuyama, they tend to fall into the trap of debating whether his historical predictions have come true or not. I would argue that the answer is obviously no – the collapse in living standards in the former USSR should have put capitalist teleology to bed for good – but the broader point is that this is the wrong question. The real question is, what does it mean to live after the End of History? And the real answer is that it feels exactly like living before the End of History. After the End of History you feel loss, and you feel pain, and you feel degradation, and you feel hopelessness, and you feel disappointment, and you feel rage, and you feel the special brand of powerlessness that being a subject in the eyes of the ruling class engenders. And if you’re black, or a woman, or poor, you feel all of these things more acutely. What does the End of History mean to you, when you live the life of the underclass, trying to hustle out enough to survive by selling cigarettes or bootleg CDs? It means nothing. If your response is to say that this is not Fukuyama’s point, my rebuttal is to say that acknowledging the triviality of an argument is not a defense. If the End of History can come and go without regular people experiencing it in their own lives, what could it mean? It can’t be everything and nothing all at once. So its only function can be to serve the interests of power.

And so with Chait. Maybe, in the eyes of the Great Actuary in the Sky, the world is a better place today than it was yesterday. Maybe God’s spreadsheet has an ever-rising sum in the Total Human Utility cell. Maybe. But your life isn’t lived on a spreadsheet. It’s lived on the pavement and on the grass. And out here there’s suffering and heartache for days. What kind of a sociopath looks at a hungry child and consoles her by saying that there are fewer hungry children than ever before? To say “it’s getting better all the time, so suck it up” is to both make a fetish of human progress and to deny its salience for those who need it most. It’s demonstrably untrue that things are getting better for everyone. But suppose it were true – so what? What is “better” to the person in pain? And why are those who are eager to keep score always those who have the most reason to preserve the status quo?

Tomorrow a cop could come up and shoot me and get away with it. That’s what we all have to deal with. But the odds would be vastly higher of that if I were black. That’s what black people have to deal with. And if next year those odds are a few tenths of a percentage point lower, if the gap has narrowed just that much, the moral horror of living under that condition will not have shrunk an iota. Progress did not come soon enough or real enough for Alton Sterling or Philando Castille. It never does. See that’s the little paradox of assuming progress, as the Jon Chaits of the world always do: if it’s to be assumed, then there’s nothing to celebrate, and if you do celebrate, you celebrate on the backs of those for whom progress always comes a day too late. If the target does not change with the times, if progress in fact does not outstrip the progress that’s claimed, then it’s only progress for those who need it least. No, it’s not 1968. That’s not the tragedy. The tragedy is that it’s 2016, and here we are, a million boots in line, stuck in this grim and awful world. And Jon Chait is locked in here with us.

against globalization, for internationalism

Since Brexit, there has been a lot of discussion about globalization and its impact on American workers. As is typical, the useless binarism of our political system has left many confused people arguing that there are two possibilities: neoliberal globalization, which severely undercuts the earning potential of large swaths of people in the developed world, or closed borders and a tariff wall, which harms the global poor. Like so many other things in our politics, this is a transparently false choice, and one that’s been propagated in order to prevent discussion a more humane alternative.

The basic story goes like this: trade agreement such as NAFTA and similar remove governmental barriers to international trade. This compels manufacturing in the developed world to be moved to the developing world, where higher poverty and far laxer regulations on working conditions make labor cheap. The developed world gets the benefit of cheaper stuff, while the developing world gets jobs and growth. And it would indeed be unproductive to argue that there’s been no improvement to quality of life for those among the global poor lucky enough to be hired in the globalized economy.

Yet drawbacks abound. Most obviously, the jobs lost to globalization result in great hardship for the developed world workers whose jobs have been outsourced. Liberals in politics, media, and academia (themselves secure in the middle class or better) frequently assure us that these losses will be counterbalanced by a stronger social safety net, but they have been conspicuously incapable of actually building it. When they tear down the barriers to trade, they’re doing the bidding of the elite; when they call for more redistribution, they aren’t. So it’s no wonder they get the former and not the latter. And so you see the collapse of living standards and attendant rise of alcoholism, drug addiction, crime and suicide among those that don’t have a college degree (a significant majority) in America.

But there are problems even for those elites. As should be obvious, workers are also consumers. In order to buy all those cheaper goods manufactured in China and elsewhere, you have to have money, and American wages have been flat for decades for those outside of the elite, due in no small part to that exact immiseration of uneducated labor. So naturally, we saw a massive inflation of credit and debt bubbles – giant increases in outstanding mortgage debt, credit card debt, medical debt, and student loan debt. The mortgage bubble, inflated in part by homeowners constantly refinancing their mortgages thanks to a lack of liquid capital, inevitably popped, leading to the financial crisis and the terrible recession of 2009, which did a lot of damage to the portfolios of the elite. (That those on the bottom suffered far worse and for far longer almost goes without saying.) Meanwhile, the Chinese economy has slowed, and as David Harvey has argued, the world economy sits in a strange state; many of those newly minted Chinese middle class members becoming the equivalent of American consumers would help growth, but it’s unclear how to get there under current conditions, especially as the Chinese economy has slowed. Labor unrest in China has grown as well, as these workers, naturally, demand more. It turns out that those global citizens climbing from terribly poor to less poor are no more satisfied with that state than their American counterparts. The transition from being part of the productive class to part of the consumer class is neither simple nor easy.

Finally, there’s the simple brute reality of the living conditions of those global workers. For as much as they may benefit from moving out of the poverty of subsistence farming, these workers still face flatly unacceptable conditions in the factories and mills of the globalized workplace. Suicides at Foxconn and the Bangladeshi factory collapse are just the sharp edge of a broader reality, that many of these factories producing cheap goods resemble something out of a particularly bleak Charles Dickens novel. Workers in these places typically have essentially no labor protections or worker power whatsoever. Wage theft, overwork, petty unfairness, tyrannical bosses, and sexual exploitation are ubiquitous. To argue that these conditions are better than the deepest poverty and starvation still common in the global south is to miss the point: no one should be forced to live in the state of constant exploitation and fear that are common in the workplaces of the developing world. Far better working conditions are possible, and yet capitalists resist imposing them tooth and nail, because to do so would be to erode their profits and their immense wealth.

Indeed: it’s precisely that divide in standards of living – in the system’s assumed value of the human lives in question – that makes capitalists interested in this phony internationalism. If it weren’t for their ability to exploit workers in Bangladesh to sell cheap TVs to credit-dependent consumers in Nebraska and in doing so rake in a tidy profit, they’d never bother to pass these treaties in the first place. The entire system is predicated on the existence of a consuming class with the incomes necessary to buy these goods and a producing class desperate enough to manufacture them for terrible wages. This is not the dissolution of national differences; it’s entirely the opposite.

Globalization is thus a phony, incomplete internationalism. It is defended in the terms of cosmopolitanism and equality but functions only through massive inequalities in working conditions from country to country. For as much as neoliberals tout their ideology as one that shrinks the divide between the haves and the have nots, the only way it can fulfill its fundamental economic purpose – vast profit margins for the corporations that avoid having to pay decent wages to their workers – is by maintaining that divide.

What can we, the socialist left, advocate in place of either a closed-borders nationalism or the exploitative neoliberal status quo? We can advocate true internationalism, the dissolution of national borders based on a first principle of human equality. There is no fundamental principle of the universe that compels us to erect man-made divisions of geography. As it stands, the notion that being born five miles south of the US-Mexico border makes you fundamentally different from someone born five miles north of that border is an absurdity, an arbitrary trick of history and chance. National borders are an invention, and a recent one. If you’re inclined, you can read Napoleon’s letters (to pick one example) to see a leader spelling out why the idea of country had to be invented — invented, that is, to suit the forces of imperialism. Look no further than Germany. There was no such thing as a German nation state until the 1870s, yet within 75 years German nationalism had plunged the world into two horrific wars. Nations only divide, and they do so with borders written in blood. They must be left behind in favor of a worldwide embrace of the right of free movement and true human equality.

Socialism is an internationalist ideology because of its commitment to radical egalitarianism. While liberals talk a good game when it comes to the equality of all people, in practice they permit all manner of differences, petty and grand, in the rights, living conditions, and potential of people from different countries. In contrast, we must insist on genuine equality, and in particular, equality within the workplace: equality in workplace safety, in worker power, in freedom from exploitation and abuse, and in the ability to secure basic material security and comfort. The choice constantly presented by defenders of globalization, that of privileging the interests of the global poor or the working class of the developed world is a false choice. With the massive amounts of wealth being captured by the international elite, there is ample ability to both help the global south rise out of poverty and to preserve the standards of living of the middle class. We only need the will to rise up and take community control of the world’s economy away from the bourgeoisie.

The exact nature of a truly internationalist order is beyond my ability to predict. In particular, whether such a world will exist with one international government that functions more or less like current governments do, or whether conventional governments will spontaneously wither away as predicted in traditional Marxist theory, remains to be seen. But we don’t need to have a perfectly formulated vision of the post nation-state world to recognize the moral value of dismantling our borders. There will be difficulties and drawbacks, some of which we can’t anticipate. Certainly a world where all workers enjoy a minimum of material security is a world where material goods are somewhat more expensive. But this is little price to pay for a world of shared abundance and universal rights and dignity.

Today, nativists and demagogues stock populist resentment against those who have done nothing to create the current world order. Elites in turn use that same populist anger as justification to defend an economic order that primarily serves the interests of the very few. We must show regular people that there is another world possible. We can’t get to progress by retrenching back to nationalism. Fear mongering of immigration stokes populist fires but does not give us any way towards a more constructive future. What both neoliberals and the revanchist right share, ultimately, is a belief in the fundamental inferiority of those outside of our borders. The neoliberal permits, even celebrates, them working in squalid, dangerous, inhumane conditions; the nativist feels they’re not fit to share his country. What we must insist is that the inalienable human equality of all people from all countries means we must have one system, one set of rules, one shared vision of the kinds of working conditions that human beings must be extended simply by virtue of being human. If we can show the workers of the developd world that their interests and the interests of those in the developing world are one and the same, we can create a political coalition that cannot be defeated even with all the fear mongering and dishonesty of the elite. Then, we will be able to work for a better future, a future where all working people recognize their common kinship, their mutual responsibility for each other, and the great potential of a truly globalized world.