I owe many, many emails. I hope to get to them soon. It’s just a crazy time right now, for a variety of reasons. Hang tight.
Chris Christie, the gift that just keeps on giving, says that parents should have choice when it comes to whether or not to having their children vaccinated. And, you know, in a certain sense he’s right. I think that nobody should be forced, by governmental power or corporate, to have their children injected with any particular kinds of chemicals or agents. I just think that a refusal to do so should necessitate that those children be barred from entering public spaces, most certainly including public schools. The fact that this provision is not already implied in this discussion demonstrates the degree to which the individualist fantasy undercuts meaningful American discussion of communal and social responsibility. Infectious disease is a perfect lens through which to view the notions of responsibility towards the broader society in which you reside. You don’t choose to be part of the spread of a disease like measles, but you’re implicated in its spread by your actions whether you choose to or not. The only way to opt out of the responsibility to vaccinate is to truly withdraw from the broader society, physically withdraw to the point where you pose no risk of infecting others. A healthier public conception of social responsibility would entail a broadly shared understanding that participation in an economy is no less a matter of exposing others to risk, in just as direct and concrete a way.
Both taxation and capitalism can seem, to those within them, as truly inescapable systems. And unlike a lot of my lefty friends, I’m not entirely unsympathetic to those who complain that, for example, they cannot simply own a house without having to worry that the government will someday come and take them away if they don’t keep up a steady stream of tax payments. The problem is that this frustration is almost never matched with a recognition that capitalism is precisely as inescapable as taxation, and precisely as coercive. I can no more opt out of our system of capital exchange than the libertarian survivalist can opt out of taxation. The confusion, and the hypocrisy, stems from the notion that there is something inherently more chosen in the existence of taxes than of markets. Markets are no more indicative of a state of nature than taxes or regulation. I mean, I get the urge to be seasteader. But most philosophies of seasteading simply presume market exchange as a necessary precondition of survival. Their version of coercion is, I guess, somehow more noble than that of your average government.
I suppose I wish that there really was a frontier out there which we could, if we chose, light out for and leave all these forms of coercion behind, as we also recognized that as we leave behind the tangle of social obligations we also leave behind the systems society has built, both physical (like plumbing and electricity) and moral (the obligation I have to help an injured man in the street, or more to the point, the obligation of others to help me). But suppose the frontier existed: how would I get there? I mean physically, how can you walk away from the system? I might be lucky enough to hitchhike, but I’ll still probably have to buy a sandwich along the way. Meanwhile, the libertarian couldn’t get there without public roads, unless he’s very lucky and has a path to negotiate to the frontier with private landowners. And even then, he’s surely taking advantage of socially-enforced systems of right behavior, such as the one that prevents someone from shooting him on sight for the hell of it. We couldn’t even get to the frontier without being forced to take part in the unchosen systems we are trying to escape.
The point is that in the real world, we’re stuck in this mangle. A market economy is a system of mutual coercion. The lie of conservative politics is the notion that this coercion is only enforced with government agents with guns, when in fact its also enforced by a system that prevents you from eating food if you have no money. In the state of nature, I at least might be able to hunt and forage. I encourage you to try and hunt and forage for sustenance in the real world without running afoul of someone’s private property rights.
What the issue of anti-vaccination should reveal to us on the broad left is that the social and cultural markers that serve as shorthand for political convictions, in this country, fail us when it comes to these more fundamental issues of social responsibility and individual need. I’ve been struck not by the anger my left-wing friends direct at parents who don’t vaccinate their children — that anger is perfectly understandable and justified — but at the particular flavor of this anger. It’s that peculiar American habit of being madder at people that you assume should know better. Barely suppressed in a lot of the online venting I read from progressive types about vaccines is the implicit claim, “I expect this from weirdo rural religious types, but I’m enraged that educated liberals are falling for it too.” It’s the soft bigotry of high expectations.
As Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig puts it today in a piece on just this issue:
“In other words, parents who opt out of vaccines come to their decisions by prioritizing the very virtues American culture readily recommends: freedom of choice, consumer primacy, individualism, self-determination, and a dim, almost cynical view of common goods like public health. If enclaves of anti-vaccination advocates are limited to the rarefied exurbs of California and Oregon, then the prevalence of this neoliberal frame makes all the more sense, as a certain laissez-faire attitude toward matters of mass coordination is associated with wealth and an attendant sense of personal control: Since money affords the wealthy a certain amount of control over their personal affairs, they both experience feelings of control (which may or may not correspond to reality) and feel less concerned with the welfare of others. After all, if one is convinced they can manage their own affairs, why shouldn’t everyone else be able to?”
What particularly frustrates me is that efforts to address this divide between the cultural and social signifiers we tend to associate with political polarization (Prius vs Ford F-150, farmers market vs Walmart) often involve asserting the cultural similarities between crunchy farm-to-table hippy liberals and survivalist home-schooling Christian conservatives. “You know, if you think about it, an Oakland CSA type is a lot like an Orange County anti-taxer….” Instead, the effort should be to admit that these cultural signals are a lousy substitute for politics. As Stoker Bruenig points out, economics are far more in play here than we tend to discuss. What we on the left should admit is that a good portion of those who fund our organizations and drive our conversations are inoculated from the negative impacts when social responsibility fails. And while they can (usually) be relied on to put a penny in the cup for the poor, vaccination is a perfect example of how social responsibility fails to come home to roost for the more affluent side of 21st century progressivism. When you’ve always had the best doctors, why would you worry about your kid getting sick? But then, when you’ve always had a house, it’s hard to intuitively care about whether other people can pay the rent.
This is not to suggest that the affluent can never be left-wing. If we came to that conclusion, we’d just be deciding that an actually winning left-wing political party can’t exist. But hopefully, we can use a topic like the responsibility to vaccinate, with its direct stakes and the profound emotional devastation of the failure to enforce that expectation, as a useful lens to develop a more material, less culturally-inflected vision of a politics of social responsibility. Because we live in a world with people like Chris Christie, and they are always ready to take advantage of our failure to articulate who we really are and what we really value.
I have a relationship of mutual antagonism towards many people in the world of professional political writing and commentary. This isn’t personal, though some think it is, but rather a reflection of my criticisms of the basic economic incentives of professional writing in its current era. For this reason, I often don’t know how to express admiration for other writers, as I don’t want to damn them through association. But I’ll risk that and say that Yasmin Nair is a brilliant writer who does not have a platform worthy of her skills, as great as her blog is, and if you are an editor or publisher who is looking to bring a seasoned, articulate, provocative voice to your publication, I think you should consider paying Yasmin to write for you.
In late 2013 I wrote a piece about my favorite online writers. (I really loved writing it so check it out.) I named Yasmin in that piece, and wrote that she’s
“a brilliant observer, someone whose work demonstrates a profound, lived-in familiarity with politics, with political people, with the city. She reminds me, in the best way, of the old alternative weeklies, the Voice or the Reader, crabby old Jewish columnists who just seemed to know everything, to have experienced everything. In a world of left-wing discourse that has become enamored with a kind of shit-eating tween preciousness, Nair’s voice is serious without being dour, and playful without being cute. Her writing is invested with quiet, unfussy power.”
I stand by all of that. If you want a flavor of what she can do, check out her wonderful piece on shit for the Awl. It reflects what Yasmin brings to the table: deep research chops, exquisitely controlled prose, and a unique political sensibility that balances passion with experience and wisdom.
It’s a strange time for online writing. On the one hand, as I wrote not too long ago, it’s really, really hard to make it as a writer in this environment. There are really deep structural issues of scale and infinite supply of online advertising space and an enculturated rejected of monetization efforts. At the same time, some people are getting rich, riding a wave of VC cash. I don’t begrudge anyone who gets paid. (Get paid, young soldiers, get paid.) But there’s a sense in which professional online writing is suffering from both too little money and too much. Essentially nobody believes that everything is healthy but nobody is quite sure what healthy looks like.
Well, from the perspective of this low-traffic blogger, a more healthy place would be one where Yasmin has a prominent platform that pays her fair value for her writing. Yasmin is an inspiration to those who think that those who write for professional publications should be paid. I have turned down an awful lot of textbook companies, online magazines, and various content aggregators who have asked me to write for them for free or to republish my work for free in the last few years, and I have always had Yasmin’s voice in the back of my head when I have done so. She always says: writing is labor, so pay the writers. And she’s right. Writers are an interesting species: they typically have self-obsession in spades but lack for self-respect. Yasmin is the antidote to that sickness.
I have a cynical perspective on the whole industry of journalism and punditry, but I can still recognize better and worse. One of the things that aggravates me is that there is a constant call for original, provocative writing voices, and yet I know of original and provocative writers who aren’t courted by the people making this complaint. The fact is that there are certain kinds of provocation that they call for, but the world of writing and opinion is so much broader than that. Yasmin is known for her relentless and sharp criticism of “Big Gay,” the capitalist, revenue-generating, functionally conservative industry that has arisen from the good intentions of the gay rights movement. A committed opponent of seeing gay marriage as some sort of panacea for queer people, Yasmin has always thumbed her nose at groups like the Human Rights Campaign that dilute radical queer politics and turn the movement for queer rights and queer respect into a neutered funding mechanism for the Democrats. She’s been at this task for a long, long time, and her critique is informed by time, reading, and engagement.
Yet it’s for that reason, I think, that she may not have the regular publishing opportunities her work deserves. Because she is actually provocative, provoking a kind of thinking that is uncomfortable for establishment liberals, leftists, and conservatives alike, rather than just symbolically provocative, the way many writers are. A queer woman of color writing at a time when many publications claim to want to diversify, Yasmin reaps little benefit, as she has so forcefully rejected a brand of identity politics that she sees as antithetical to structural critique. She is, in other words, less read and celebrated because of her integrity and her unconventional thinking.
So: if you’re a publication that needs writing, and you would like to find writers who combine rich prose with deep and unorthodox thinking and a genuinely unique sensibility, I highly, highly recommend you get in touch with Yasmin Nair. You might not think much of my work, but I recognize heat, and Yasmin throws it. So take advantage of a market inefficiency, capitalists. She’ll be worth every penny.
Some confusing responses to my thoughts on “political correctness.” A remarkable number of people are choosing to frame their response as if I’m saying boohoo, woe is me. But that’s the opposite of what I’m saying. Me, personally? I’m fine. I have been involved in vicious left-wing infighting since I was 17 years old, and I like it. I mean, there’s a reason I’m always in the middle of it. I’m not censored or harassed or bullied. I’m just criticized. But the entire point of the piece is that a lot of young folks are not like me, and we shouldn’t expect them to be as immune to criticism as I am.
But mostly people are asking why I didn’t “take control” (or similar language) of the situations that I described. First, people keep assuming I was teaching when these things went down, which I didn’t say was the case. (It wasn’t.) I think these things happen in individual classes, but they often happen in the interstices where instructors aren’t looking, or they are enforced through the dictates of policy (created by administrators who are more interested in ass-checking than in politics). More often, these things happen within campus activism circles. The bottom line is that I did not have formal authority in these spaces, only the right to speak. (If I did have formal authority and exercised it, by the way, that would in no way inoculate me against charges of invoking privilege.) So: isn’t “taking control” exactly what the people who defend language policing want me not to do?
“Take control” is loaded language, but even weaker brew has this same problem. If I’m at an activist meeting of some sort or another, and I believe the kind of unfortunate behavior is taking place that I described, how can I intervene without being guilty of invoking privilege in precisely the way people who defend political correctness have inveighed against? You can imagine if I said, in the middle of an activist meeting, that a particular charge of racism or ableism or sexism was unwarranted or being expressed too harshly. The whole point is that there is currently no theoretical or practical shared understanding on the left about when and how to intervene in a situation where you believe that the intensity of political criticism is unfair and not constructive. That’s the whole point, and though I have received a lot of condescending responses from the left, none of them are even close to a set of principles we on the left can deploy when we disagree with a political accusation against ourselves or against others. I see a lot of sneering; I see very little in terms of principles and guidelines.
I hate to invoke the classroom again, but I have had students in the past ask me privately: how do I know when I’m mansplaining? How do I know when I’m tone policing? Well, I believe both of those phenomena are real and bad. I think they happen all the time and it sucks. But as far as what to tell these kids in answer to that question? I have no idea. I have no idea what the consistent, mutually-intelligible definition of mansplaining is. I have no idea what a workable, real-world definition of tone policing would be that I could use to help students know how to avoid it — and how to rebut it if the accusation is used frivolously. If you think that the answer is to say that any accusation of this kind is necessarily true simply by virtue of being voiced, then you don’t exist in the real world, and you don’t much care if this stuff actually works. In fact, if you want these accusations to mean something, if you want them to actually be used to improve the world, you have to have a point of view on what to do when they are used frivolously or dishonestly. Instead, it’s just snark, snark, snark. No constructive ideas for how to teach young people, which is the only vocation I have ever wanted or cared about.
And so the liberal and left criticisms of my piece just reaffirm the annoyance that led to it in the first place: professional writers lecturing from a stance of political purity they can enjoy because none of this comes home to their real lives. If your work spaces consists of a Macbook and your interlocutors consist of digital avatars, I’m sorry: you are not in a position to lecture me. Sorry. You’re not. If you spend all day telling jokes on Twitter, and then lecture me about how I should just stop being a tone policing white man, and then say “time to file another thinkpiece for The Atlantic!”, you have no skin in the game and you have no perspective with which to judge. I told real-world stories so that I could demonstrate that, in fact, the viciousness with which we now police language is not cost-free, and that the problem is not the feelings of me or other grownup writers but the disillusionment of many, many young people who might have become powerful allies if they’d be given the chance to fail and learn for a little while. So: anybody got any actual, no-bullshit constructive ideas for how to build norms of fairness and empathy without being dismissed as someone invoking privilege?
I’ll answer that question for you all: nope. You’ve just got jokes. Just more jokes for Twitter. Ooh, look, the Daily Show‘s about to start.
Update: Sorry, friends, I have seen the light. The key is to just do as Angus Johnson does and assume that none of these problems are problems. I guess I’m just unlucky to not work at CUNY, where apparently every political interaction is frictionless, every student arrives in prepackaged forms of “righteous left-wing warrior” or “horrible bigot to be discarded,” and politics is simply the work of sorting the good from the evil, which is an easy and simple process. Since every word of his blog is devoted to the notion that Angus Johnson has perfect and unerring access to righteousness, I can only conclude that he arrived here on earth from a higher moral plane, destined to bless slobs like me with his profound wisdom. I mean, he hasn’t said a single word about how to actually respond to political issues of social, moral, and emotional complexity, which is what I explicitly have been asking for. But I guess to a higher being, such issues are never complex. They’re always simple. CUNY sounds like a magical place.
Me, personally? I don’t live there. I don’t have unerring moral vision. I don’t know what’s the right thing to say or do in every situation. I’m not possessed of that kind of wisdom. My students aren’t all good or all bad. My world does not unfold itself in a series of perfectly black-and-white moral interactions where heroes and villains sort themselves effortlessly into camps and my duty is to support the former against the latter. My students don’t arrive on campus as perfectly formed intersectional activists, quoting Judith Butler and Paulo Freire right out of high school. I feel true shame to fail to match the example of Angus Johnson and all of the other lefties on Twitter who announce, over and over again, just how perfect their politics already are.
I don’t live there. And until I do, I will never apologize for struggling, as a political person and as an educator. I will not apologize for asking for help. And if the entire left is more interested on patting each other on the back on Twitter for being such perfectly righteous beings, then so be it. I’ll do it alone.
So this is deeply related to the post yesterday, but it reflects on the online version of things. It’s complex and so I have to write at length, so if you don’t feel like reading a couple thousand words, please exercise your privilege not to read it.
As with my post yesterday, I want to take a second and say that I think the basic dynamics of “political correctness”/ social justice politics/ social media activism/ language policing/ etc are misrepresented by all sides. Discussion of the frequently toxic environment in which social justice politics occur tends to assume certain camps. One of those camps is liberal/left critics of these politics who criticize them on grounds of fairness, political strategy, and compassion. The other camp is perceived as activists who defend these politics on grounds of respect, recognition of massive inequalities in privilege and voice, and the right of oppressed groups to dictate the conversation. The thing to understand, and I think a big part of the problem, is that these are tactical differences that are frequently misrepresented as ideological and demographic.
One of Chait’s biggest problems is that he defines political correctness as a marker of extremity, but in fact radicals are often the most committed critics of language policing. Meanwhile, some of the people who defend political correctness are fairly moderate Democrats. Casting this debate as one of ideological extremity simply confuses things and makes it harder to parse. But the real misunderstanding, in my view, is the demographic assumptions. Typically, these debates are represented as a matter of white, middle class-to-affluent journalists lecturing activists of color who are working class or come from working class backgrounds. So, for example, Michelle Goldberg’s essays about these issues are frequently criticized on those grounds, that she is an established white journalist who attacks marginalized women of color activists. That situation is often used to define the broader debate.
As with my post about real-world debates of this kind yesterday, I simply do not recognize that as the world of Twitter storms and online trashing. Very frequently, both the loudest voices and the ones who seem most intent on creating personal strife are in fact white and from affluent backgrounds themselves. That’s not to take away prominence from the large and growing body of passionate, committed activists of color online. Instead, it’s to say that I think there is in fact a third camp, one that has huge impact on these various battles but almost never gets discussed. And I think they’re the problem.
First, let me say this about anger. Perhaps the first thing that any critic of vicious social justice politics must do is recognize the perfect legitimacy of rage as a reaction to structural oppression. When you have been born in a racist and sexist world, and you grow into adulthood to find that world has improved very little, rage is a profoundly understandable, human reaction. While I disagree tactically with people who defend angrier online political engagement, my criticism is never about anger as such. Anger is a necessary political impulse. And while I will continue to argue that this form of engagement is counterproductive, I will also take care to recognize that it’s really easy for me to say so. It is easy for me, who lives outside of structural oppression, to counsel others to be tactically reserved in the face of an unjust world. I still will counsel them to do so because I see no alternative to growing the coalition. But such talk is cheap coming from me, isn’t it? This is something that many critics of political correctness (including some who enthusiastically shared my last post) will never recognize: the fundamental legitimacy of the anger and frustration that causes the nastiness in online politics. Oppressed peoples who express that anger are the victims of it, not the progenitors of it. The responsibility for it lies with injustice and inequality.
However, while white leftists like myself have a responsibility to recognize that our tactical emotional remove is a luxury not shared by everyone in our coalition, that responsibility cuts the other way as well. We have a responsibility to recognize that we have the ability to inject more anger into the situation without having the same personal stakes as members of outgroups. And that responsibility really is profound, because too often these days, self-professed white allies inject emotion into inter-left debates in a way that is an artifact of their privilege, without considering the inherent superior need of the oppressed for political victory. This is my problem with the third camp.
I have come to calling the third camp the accelerants.
Last semester, I started to develop an academic research project on #CancelColbert. I had to abandon it, as I just had too much on my plate. But I did a bunch of initial data gathering, and in that period I looked at literally thousands of Tweets from that controversy. It was there that I really got a sense that the typical conception that toxic online politics emerge from people of color, women, or the working class is wrong. Again and again, I found that the people who really caused the deepest nastiness appeared to be self-style white allies. Given the anonymity of Twitter, it wasn’t always possible to ascertain these things, and I will admit that this is more of an anecdotal impression than a systematic review. But so often, the people who raised the rhetorical stakes, the people who got really nasty, the people who made it all personal, were not the activists of color but the white allies. And I found this slice of people to be a really strange phenomenon. Often, they did not have any particular markers of being activists away from Twitter. They typically didn’t have their own writing careers. They seemed to only engage in that space. And they seemed only to engage in that way. I can’t tell you how many accounts I found that seemed simply to pinball from one online controversy to another, raising the stakes wherever they could, making progress impossible. They don’t do the organizing and advocacy that the actual activists do, and they don’t perform the necessary function of internal criticism that all healthy political movements need. They just exacerbate conflict and slander people.
So I’ve come to think that the battle is not really, or not just, between (largely white and established) critics of political correctness and (largely people of color and working class) activists for political correctness, but a matter of those two groups getting pulled into deeper and nastier and more destructive conflicts by a third camp that largely goes unnoticed. And they have this built-in defense that is highly effective and incredibly cynical: when you criticize them, the accelerants, they attack you for criticizing the activist camp. When you say “you’re just being nasty and unhelpful,” they say “why are you lecturing women of color from your position of privilege,” even though they themselves aren’t women of color. They treat traditionally oppressed groups as a defensive device. I have had confrontations where I have said “look, this behavior sucks,” and gotten the reply “don’t criticize activists of color,” and had to say “I’m not criticizing activists of color, I’m criticizing you.” That method of instrumentalizing people of color is deeply, deeply ugly.
As I have gotten older, I have grown more and more convinced that the most important element of politics is stakes. Stakes. Skin in the game. And the accelerants demonstrates how a difference in stakes can render the most ardent allies into a part of the problem. For the urge to simply intensify every conflict demonstrates an indifference to political progress that can only emerge from privilege, from a lack of stakes. Why not throw gas on every fire, when you know you’re never going to get burned? Chait discusses the way in which burnout develops from these kinds of conflicts, the way people end up giving up out of exhaustion. And, indeed, I have observed in my life some of the more vituperative political voices I know grow jaded by the nastiness they themselves have helped create. But this is where stakes comes in most directly: because these people are white and educated and financially comfortable, they could withdraw from politics in a way that people of color and the working class simply can’t. A woman of color activist can cease to take part in activism, but the reality of racism and sexism will follow her wherever she goes. This is what I mean by stakes, the difference whether politics is a choice or an enforced condition. And it’s what I find most cynical about the accelerants; they have the luxury of engaging with maximum anger and ugliness, and then withdrawing when they run out of steam. For them, and for me, withdrawal is possible, and so the urge to engage in a vicious way comes without as many consequences. No such release valve really exists for the activists of color in whose name the accelerants trash others. This is what we mean when we talk about privilege.
In darker moments, I sometimes wondered whether the accelerants I was observing around #CancelColbert were plants, fakes, forces of establishment power who are deliberately undermining the left. But the reality is probably a lot more mundane and, in a sense, sadder. Some of these people really do just want to cause chaos and start shit for its own sake. But most of them, I think, probably think that they’re really helping, that they’re really being good allies. They’re motivated by self-aggrandizing impulses and they can be impossibly cruel, but many of them have deluded themselves into think that, by turning every conflict into a mudfight, they somehow are speaking truth to power.
And I have to learn to be more forgiving of them, at least to the degree possible. Some of them are responsible for situations that I can’t forgive, like the disgraceful smear campaign against Amber Frost and Megan Kilpatrick. But many of them are just thoughtless and clumsy, not really noticing or caring whether they are actually doing good rather than being good, convinced that their good intentions are all that matter. And just as I ask that we all be more understanding and forgiving to good people who sometimes say dopey things, I have to counsel myself to be more forgiving of these people too.
So to them I say: don’t be an accelerant. Be a passionate advocate when necessary. Speak truth to power when you feel it’s right. But train your powerful tools of criticism of others on yourselves, and be ruthless when it comes to your own good intentions. Ask yourself: when I intensify this conflict, when I beat my chest and declare someone evil, when I throw fuel on the fire, am I really helping the people of color and women I claim to speak for? When I go for the jugular again and again, am I actually helping to solve injustice? Is this kind of engagement from me an instrument of political progress? If not, why am I doing it? How am I contributing to this cause?
Because if you don’t do this kind of self-analysis, if you don’t subject your own behavior to harsh scrutiny, if you allow yourself to wear the mantel of white progressive righteousness as a bulletproof vest, if you always trust your good intentions rather than consider your actual impact on the world, you’re guilty of a profound abuse of privilege.
So, to state the obvious: Jon Chait is a jerk who somehow manages to be both condescending and wounded in his piece on political correctness. He gets the basic nature of language policing wrong, and his solutions are wrong, and he’s a centrist Democrat scold who is just as eager to shut people out of the debate as the people he criticizes. That’s true.
Here are some things that are also true.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 19 year old white woman — smart, well-meaning, passionate — literally run crying from a classroom because she was so ruthlessly brow-beaten for using the word “disabled.” Not repeatedly. Not with malice. Not because of privilege. She used the word once and was excoriated for it. She never came back. I watched that happen.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 20 year old black man, a track athlete who tried to fit organizing meetings around classes and his ridiculous practice schedule (for which he received a scholarship worth a quarter of tuition), be told not to return to those meetings because he said he thought there were such a thing as innate gender differences. He wasn’t a homophobe, or transphobic, or a misogynist. It turns out that 20 year olds from rural South Carolina aren’t born with an innate understanding of the intersectionality playbook. But those were the terms deployed against him, those and worse. So that was it; he was gone.
I have seen, with my own two eyes, a 33 year old Hispanic man, an Iraq war veteran who had served three tours and had become an outspoken critic of our presence there, be lectured about patriarchy by an affluent 22 year old white liberal arts college student, because he had said that other vets have to “man up” and speak out about the war. Because apparently we have to pretend that we don’t know how metaphorical language works or else we’re bad people. I watched his eyes glaze over as this woman with $300 shoes berated him. I saw that. Myself.
These things aren’t hypothetical. This isn’t some thought experiment. This is where I live, where I have lived. These and many, many more depressing stories of good people pushed out and marginalized in left-wing circles because they didn’t use the proper set of social and class signals to satisfy the world of intersectional politics. So you’ll forgive me when I roll my eyes at the army of media liberals, stuffed into their narrow enclaves, responding to Chait by insisting that there is no problem here and that anyone who says there is should be considered the enemy.
By the way: in these incidents, and dozens and dozens of more like it, which I have witnessed as a 30-hour-a-week antiwar activist for three years and as a blogger for the last seven and as a grad student for the past six, the culprits overwhelmingly were not women of color. That’s always how this conversation goes down: if you say, hey, we appear to have a real problem with how we talk to other people, we are losing potential allies left and right, then the response is always “stop lecturing women of color.” But these codes aren’t enforced by women of color, in the overwhelming majority of the time. They’re enforced by the children of privilege. I know. I live here. I am on campus. I have been in the activist meetings and the lefty coffee houses. My perspective goes beyond the same 200 people who write the entire Cool Kid Progressive Media.
Amanda Taub says political correctness “doesn’t exist.” To which I can only ask, how would you know? I don’t understand where she gets that certainty. Is Traub under the impression that the Vox offices represents the breadth of left-wing culture? I read dozens of tweets and hot take after hot take, insisting that there’s no problem here, and it’s coming overwhelmingly from people who have no idea what they’re talking about.
Well, listen, you guys: I don’t know what to do. I am out of ideas. I am willing to listen to suggestions. What do I do, when I see so many good, impressionable young people run screaming from left-wing politics because they are excoriated the first second they step mildly out of line? Megan Garber, you have any suggestions for me, when I meet some 20 year old who got caught in a Twitter storm and determined that she never wanted to set foot in that culture again? I’m all ears. If I’m not allowed to ever say, hey, you know, there’s more productive, more inclusive ways to argue here, then I don’t know what the fuck I am supposed to do or say. Hey, Alex Pareene. I get it. You can write this kind of piece in your sleep. You will always find work writing pieces like that. It’s easy and it’s fun and you can tell jokes and those same 200 media jerks will give you a thousand pats on the back for it. Do you have any advice for me, here, on campus? Do you know what I’m supposed to say to some shellshocked 19 year old from Terra Haute who, I’m very sorry to say, hasn’t had a decade to absorb bell hooks? Can you maybe do me a favor, and
instead of writing a piece designed to get you yet-more retweets from Weird Twitter, [I changed my mind, Weird Twitter is cool and good] tell me how to reach these potential allies when I know that they’re going to get burned terribly for just being typical clumsy kids? Since you’re telling me that if I say a word against people who go nuclear at the slightest provocation, I’m just one of the Jon Chaits, please inform me how I can act as an educator and an ally and a friend. Because I am out of fucking ideas.
I know, writing these words, exactly how this will go down. I know Weird Twitter will hoot and the same pack of self-absorbed media liberals will herp de derp about it. I know I’ll get read the intersectionality riot act, even though everyone I’m criticizing here is white, educated, and privileged. I know nobody will bother to say, boy, maybe I don’t actually understand the entire world of left-wing politics because I went to Sarah Lawrence. I know that. But Christ, I wish people would think outside of their social circle for 5 minutes.
Jon Chait is an asshole. He’s wrong. I don’t want these kids to be more like Jon Chait. I sure as hell don’t want them to be less left-wing. I want them to be more left-wing. I want a left that can win, and there’s no way I can have that when the actually-existing left sheds potential allies at an impossible rate. But the prohibition against ever telling anyone to be friendlier and more forgiving is so powerful and calcified it’s a permanent feature of today’s progressivism. And I’m left as this sad old 33 year old teacher who no longer has the slightest fucking idea what to say to the many brilliant, passionate young people whose only crime is not already being perfect.
Here’s a really interesting conversation on the Remix with Dr. James Peterson with Dr. Adolph Reed, one of the most prescient, brilliant commentators on left-wing politics, race, and activism. I highly recommend you listen to it; it’s less than a half hour.
I don’t agree with Dr. Reed on everything. In particular, I’m much less critical of the #BlackLivesMatter protests than he is. I am typically annoyed by left-wing criticisms of actually-existing protest movements in favor of some theoretical better protest movements. We’ve got people in the streets, doing real mass protest actions in response to immense injustice, and that’s inspiring to me. But if anyone has credibility to criticize, it’s Dr. Reed, who has not only vast academic background on these issues but a long history of street-level organizing and activism. A few thoughts.
1. I am pro-reparations because I think that American racial inequality is fundamentally economic in nature, first and foremost, and even those aspects of inequality that are not first-order economic are perpetuated by black America’s lack of economic power. Cutting checks to black people would do more to defeat structural racism (and improve quality of life) than most other reforms. However, as Dr. Reed himself is, in the most basic sense of reparations as payment for historical crimes, I’m agnostic. The means testing that genealogy-based reparations would require, as Dr. Peterson mentions, would be incredibly onerous, would leave out some black people who surely suffer from structural disadvantage, and cause enormous unhappiness. In contrast, broader-based social democratic reforms that redistribute wealth in a variety of ways are likely far more politically possible (even if they seem remote right now) and would likely have equally beneficial results for black America. So I favor reparations in the sense that I think it’s just and right if the government cuts checks to black Americans, but only as part of a larger sense in which I think redistributing wealth is a key component of moral and economic progress.
2. I think that pop culture is inherently political, and there’s all kinds of political resonances and lessons that can be drawn from pop culture. But as Dr. Reed suggests, there is a kind of made-up quality about cyclical pop culture political battles that distorts and exhausts. Iggy Azalea vs. Azealia Banks is not politics; it’s a politics-like substance that mostly serves to steal attention and energy away from real political and racial issues.
3. The analogy of certain kinds of political practice, and particularly social media politics, with kayfabe is brilliant.
Via Gawker, a private equity firm that is massively invested in for-profit colleges has purchased a controlling stake in Inside Higher Ed, a publication that covers colleges and universities. That’s about as direct a conflict of interest as you can get.
1. Inside Higher Ed should not be trusted as a source of legitimate news about for-profit colleges and universities any longer, and perhaps not trusted as a legitimate source of news, period. Treat anything published by it about for-profit colleges like PR or advertising, because that’s essentially what it’ll be.
2. I’m willing to bet that this is going to happen a lot more often. The continuing financial troubles of journalism as an industry has to have industry licking its chops. We’re already seeing more and more fusion between for-profit entities and magazines, paper or digital — “advertorials,” “native content,” and various other weaselly terms I refuse to write without scare quotes. I have always found it profoundly insulting when people claim that the purpose of these ventures is not to fool readers into thinking that the copy they’re reading is like any other story; if so, why wouldn’t they then make them entirely visually different? If there’s no intent to confuse, then make them as visually and obviously distinct as possible. Well, now we’re going a step further. Rather than trying to get these publications to run your advertising in a way designed to confuse advertising for editorial, or to use your PR flacks to pressure them to give you favorable coverage, why not cut out the middle man and buy them outright? And as this happens more and more, people will be more and more inclined to simply call this standard operating procedure. Hey, everyone else is doing it! Why not us?