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.

they can sweep up broken glass

Suppose a 7 year old said to you, “I want to be a professional musician.” Your most likely response would be to offer simple and direct encouragement. Suppose a 27 year old said the same thing to you, someone you really care about. Your most likely response would be to say, “OK, what’s your plan?” You’d ask hard questions. Are you really gonna quit your day job? How will you get health insurance? Do you know how to get an agent or manager? If you’re on tour all the time, can you have kids? How are you going to pay the rent early on? You would offer more than encouragement. You might, depending on what you heard back, not offer encouragement at all.

The former is an example of the kind of emotional sympathy you offer to children, appropriately. The latter is the kind of critical and tough respect that you offer to adults, also appropriately. Real adult respect derives, always, from taking the object of that respect seriously. That respect, I think, is missing from too many venues in contemporary politics. The broad left-of-center today too often treats progressive political movements and the people who populate them like the 7 year old, calling for uncritical encouragement and reflection-free support, when real solidarity requires treating activists like the adults they are. Anybody can clap along, keep their head down, and assure themselves of being unobjectionable. Real support comes from real engagement and at times that means real criticism.

I thought about that in regards to this piece by Stanford professor Keith Humphreys. Humphreys, in the course of mounting an ostensible defense of today’s college students, says “some students now and then have goofy ideas or act in rude ways.” This is a really common rhetorical move, and it hides a deeply ugly attitude. It is nominally a defense of college activists, but it presumes their irrelevance. It’s a kind of head-patting that insults while it acquits. It’s been a constant aspect of my long engagement on the topic of college activism. When I point out examples of times when college students really are doing things that seem senseless or unhelpful, the response from their defenders is, “hey, they’re just college students.” And so the people who think they take college activists most seriously take them least seriously.

I do not, in fact, think that college students “these days” are coddled or deluded or fragile, and though people constantly push those opinions on me, I’ve never expressed them. I have, instead, identified certain common problems with campus activism that are disturbing to me, and have argued for why activists should rethink them. And one key reason I offer that criticism is because I perceive a gap between activist goals and activist tactics – because I don’t think they are likely to achieve their goals with their chosen tactics. That strikes me as a basic aspect of real, critical solidarity, and yet when I voiced such concerns last year during the campus uprisings, people excoriated me for failing to stand with the students. Well: how goes that movement now? Have you heard a lot about them? I said, when it was happening, that if students weren’t careful they’d get bought off with some symbolic changes, with colleges cutting checks, and lose momentum over Christmas and summer break. That appears to be exactly what happened. So: what was the requirement of a real ally? To point out those hazards in advance? Or to yell at the people who did?

Part of anger at criticisms like mine stems from the resolute dedication to intentional misreading that Twitter is known for. (I say stuff like “Student newspapers shouldn’t be defunded for running conservative editorials,” Twitter claims that I’ve said “It’s cool for professors to shout racial slurs at students.”) But a bigger part is simply that for many of the loudest defenders of campus activists, campus activists are entirely theoretical. They are not flesh and blood human beings but stand-ins for various strategic positions in the culture war. If you respect a real human you take their real tangible demands seriously.

This refusal to engage in critical solidarity at least makes some sense with college students, who are transitioning from adolescence to adulthood. But it is in fact endemic to contemporary progressive politics writ large, and to our detriment. The idea of solidarity must include critical solidarity. Because progress is hard, and because conservatism wins simply by nothing happening, the left-of-center must contain robust internal criticism, a free-flowing spirit of dissent that allows for people to engage in real, vocal, even harsh criticism without being cast out of the movement. That is not the condition we now find ourselves in. I have no sense of entitlement that I should be invited to perform this function. But someone has to.

When Suey Park said that the purpose of hashtag activism was to dismantle the state, what was the proper response for others who would like to dismantle the state? Was it to point out that hashtags are not an effective tool for dismantling the state? Or was it to hold your tongue and say nothing, under the theory that a real ally would “just listen”? I was involved in those conversations at the time, and I assure you, the conventional wisdom said that my duty was to do the latter.

Whatever you want to call the current dominant paradigm in progressive politics – and I don’t know what to call it, as any descriptive term is immediately taken to be a slur by those who would defend these practices uncritically – they do not appear conducive to a healthy spirit of internal criticism. Socialists, liberals insist, are just as bad as fascists. Now is not the time to criticize the Democrats. Liberalism is working. Women and people of color who criticize identity politics are rendered white men or called self-hating. Glenn Greenwald is a Russian agent. Leftists are accused of believing that only class matters, they insist they don’t believe that, then are told they secretly do believe it. I am a useful idiot for the alt right, or I just am the alt right. No one who critiques contemporary progressive practice can have done so from a genuine, good-faith commitment to figuring out what actually works to advance progressive interests.

I mentioned Suey Park for a reason. At the time that article came out, she was one of the most visible activists online. Where is Suey Park now? I don’t know, exactly. She’s left the public eye. She was cast out, or she went into obscurity willingly, or both. That is not a coincidental condition. It happens all the time. Passionate voices drop out or are exiled or fade away. This is precisely the condition on campus: the students who demand that we tear down the system tend to go on, in a few years, to be unapologetic parts of that system. I don’t take that as some terrible stain on their character; there is no ethical living under capitalism. But systemically it is an essential dynamic to understand about campus activism and why it so often fails. If you care about the goals of those activists, if you believe in the tangible things they are asking for, you cannot help but think hard about that dynamic. When I tried to talk about it when everything was going down at Yale and Missouri, I was told I was not being a good ally, and worse.

Progressive politics, you might have noticed, are not doing so well right now. When you lose, you have to rethink. When you rethink, you have to risk thinking unpopular things. Who, today, is allowed in the broad world of left-of-center thought to say unpopular things, without finding themselves pushed out of the coalition? I don’t have the slightest idea.

you don’t like David Foster Wallace? holy shit, what a brave iconoclast

I’m not really a David Foster Wallace fan. I think Infinite Jest is a noble failure. I like some of his essays, but some others not so much. I never got more than a couple chapters deep into Pale King. I share the condition of not much caring for David Foster Wallace, it seems, with much of the literate world. Not liking David Foster Wallace is such a meme that I’m amazed people don’t get embarrassed to say it. Google around. Check out the book blogs. Check out Tumblr. You will find that I am in fine company. Still, somehow this seems to come as a surprise to the very people who say so.

Back in September, Yale professor Amy Hungerford became the latest to take this incredibly brave, incredibly popular stance. She did it, naturally, in a broader defense of not reading. Because that’s the problem with contemporary intellectual life: too many people are spending too much time getting informed! Telling people that, instead of soldiering through a long book, they should put on another episode of Cake Squad and tweet about their dinner? Man, that is edgy. Truly, a bold take, excusing people from having to do hard work. (Dirty secret about academia: most academics are deeply intellectually lazy and are secretly offended by the expectation that they should have to read. My presumption is that a majority of peer reviewers don’t read all the way through the articles they’re reviewing.)

Of course Hungerford’s piece appeared in the Chronicle, which alternates between excellent essays and wince-inducing repackages of the conventional wisdom of two years prior. There’s something about the academic mind that leaves most professors perpetually about 18 months behind what’s happening in the broader intellectual culture. I still feel embarrassed to think of all the academic essays about Second Life and MySpace that came out in, like, 2012.

Like “I’m not reading white men anymore,” “I don’t like David Foster Wallace” takes a personal consumption choice and ties it clumsily to some sort of convoluted expression of one’s superior virtue. It’s a statement that is designed to show the independence and contrariness of the person who expresses it, when in fact it shows their conventionality. It’s a cliche, a commonplace, a fake stab at being contrarian that comes with none of the risk of being actually contrarian. Hungerford calls her showy disdain for Foster Wallace “countercultural,” but in fact if you were going to choose a single author that’s safest to criticize, I’d probably choose him, rivaled only by Dave Eggers of Jonathan Franzen. It’s like Hungerford is completely unaware of the vast corpus of people expressing disdain for David Foster Wallace online. It’s a large genre, and it is for a simple reason: it fulfills an essential signaling function for the kind of people I was talking about in Jacobin the other day, those who want to appear smart more than they actually want to be smart. And it comes at zero risk. Woolf? Joyce? Arguments that they’re over-assigned are ubiquitous. If Hungerford really wanted to get provocative, she’d say Toni Morrison gets read too much, or she’d question the value of pop culture studies in academic research, or she’d argue that a lot of sci fi is trash. That stuff would be actually provocative. But then, when you’re actually provocative, you risk actually provoking people.

You’ll never go poor, as a writer, telling people what they want to hear. The genre of fake guilt – acting as though justifying commonplace “bad behavior” is dangerous rather than as safe as it gets – grows and grows. Things like PostSecret supposedly excavate guilt but nobody seems all that guilty, really. In fact I find that when people share “guilty secrets” online they tend to be stuffed with pride, eager and ready to tell everyone the things that, they insist, are dangerous or edgy about them. Meanwhile, reading remains what it has always been: a profoundly lonely activity, one undertaken by weirdos and outsiders, done quietly out of the view of others, sucking up long hours for little in the way of instant gratification. Yes, being “a reader” is popular. Reading is not. It never has been. Not even in the academy. Hungerford’s article was shared thousands of times.

Meanwhile, when it comes to David Foster Wallace… let it go. Enough dirt has been packed onto his grave. I assure you, he will stay dead. Find a new signal, guys. This one’s boring, it’s played out. And Dr. Hungerford: you can just not read him. That’s an option available to you. After all. You’ve got tenure.

lol but also ugh

So, let’s review. I wrote a post pointing out that professional politics writers and journalists are subject to social capture – the ideas that are permissible in our political writing are severely constrained because politics writers have direct social and professional incentives not to criticize each other in anything but anodyne and bloodless ways. I also said, as I have many times, that people who deviate from these rules are socially and professional punished. Using social media and IRL gossip, they designate anyone who criticizes the herd to be an outcast, and they enforce that outcast status with insults and by preventing those cast out from professional opportunity. That’s a series of claims I’ve made about the world. You can take it or leave it. By all means, disagree. But it’s a good-faith attempt to describe a real problem I really perceive.

David Klion decided to respond to all of this by… doing exactly what I was saying happens all the time in the piece. And others joined in.

If someone was trying to demonstrate my point, they couldn’t possibly do a better job. I said “I want to debate ideas, not who has drinks with who in Bushwick.” David Klion and Megan Carpentier dismiss that point by saying that I only feel that way because I don’t get invited out for drinks in Bushwick! It’s a dismissal that perfectly demonstrates the point it’s dismissing. And it asserts the universality of the very attitude I’m rejecting, that there is no purpose to political writing beyond popularity. It’s breathtaking.

If Klion has a problem with character assassination – if he thinks that ideas should be debated, not personal character – why is he faving a tweet that has nothing to offer aside from asserting my unpopularity in that social world? Isn’t that precisely character assassination? When I say “liberal writers can only debate personality, not ideas,” and people back up Klion by saying “he’s a bad guy, ignore him,” can people really not see the irony there? How do seemingly functional adults so perfectly exemplify a particular worldview and then deny any salience in that worldview?

I have no doubt that Klion doesn’t see himself as being socially captured. I’m sure he doesn’t think he’s policing what can and cannot be argued. But that’s precisely what he’s doing. He’s saying that the only way to fairly criticize Ned Resnikoff – who, I’ll remind you, accused vast swaths of people to his left of complicity in white supremacy, including very many people of color – is in a way that spares Resnikoff from real criticism. And I just don’t play that. Because politics has stakes. Because this stuff matters. Naturally, Klion tagged Resnikoff and not me – because what mattered was that Resnikoff saw that Klion had his back, not the actually principles in question.

Every time you, as a professional writer, hold up something written by an unpopular writer to receive scorn from other professional writers, you are actively participating in the social capture of media. When the point is not “this is wrong” but “we all don’t like this person!,” you’re erasing politics. Then it’s all just high school. You are shrinking the boundaries of the permissible and contributing to cliquishness and insiderism.

When the Gawker-Hulk Hogan debacle was going down, I vigorously defended Gawker Media, in print, on several occasions. Because Gawker exemplified a willingness to say uncomfortable and unpopular things when necessary, even at professional and social cost. I also criticized Gawker because they sometimes got things wrong. And I was really bummed out to see a lot of Gawker Media people saying some version of “We don’t want your qualified support, we only want people who are with us all the way.” It bummed be out because that was a betrayal of the very principles that they were rightly defending in Gawker: independence, a commitment to the uncomfortable truth, a willingness to lose friends, making accuracy and honesty a higher priority than popularity. In insisting that people take a with-us-or-against-us attitude towards Gawker, Gawker Media employees undercut the very reason Gawker was essential.

Contrary to what many think, there are a lot of professional writers who I admire and respect. But the near-universal addiction to the approval of other professional writers is so powerful, the desperate need for validation for peers so inescapable, that it can be almost impossible to talk to you guys about this stuff. I’m just trying to tell you what it looks like, to me, from the outside. And given that journalism is essential to democracy it’s my job as a citizen to be honest in my criticism. You may, again, take it or leave it.

My question for David Klion is, why does he think I do this, if he really believes I can’t possibly be motivated by ideas? Does he think I’m making a lot of money on this? He knows I’m not making friends doing this – he is, in fact, sharing in making fun of me for not making friends doing this. He can’t be so deluded as to think it somehow helps me in academia, where I’ve lost out on a bunch of professional opportunity because of my controversial political writing. So what does he think motivates me to do this? I have no idea.

Maybe – just maybe, David – I write what I write because I believe it is the truth.

Update: This problem is always self-reflexive. Klion will never reform – he’ll never take the seriously the idea that he needs to reform, that there could be anything correct about what I’m saying – precisely because he will go seeking permission to not take it seriously from the crowd. And because the crowd has no priority beyond defending itself, the crowd will say “no, just tell jokes about the critic with us instead.” This is what’s been happening since the first time I wrote about this stuff… in 2008. It never changes: the idea that the social world of media deserves scrutiny and criticism is excluded by precisely the forces within the social world of media that most deserve scrutiny and criticism. It’s a perfect defense system.