my top 2016 moment: “What is Aleppo?”

I would like to nominate Gary Johnson’s infamous “What is Aleppo?” gaffe as the moment which, for me, most typifies 2016, at least as far as our intellectual culture goes.

Predictably, and in a sense deservedly, Johnson was raked over the coals for this. A major presidential candidate – one who had far more electoral impact than Jill Stein, for instance – not knowing about this important foreign policy issue was disturbing. But it’s essential to recognize what he actually got in trouble for. Johnson’s great failure, what actually fed his public humiliation, was not a lack of knowledge. It was a lack of knowingness. 

As Glenn Greenwald Robert Mackey demonstrated, many of those mocking Johnson’s response showed that they themselves were uninformed about the very topic that they felt it was absurd for Johnson to be ignorant of. That led, to pick an example, to these amazing corrections in the New York Times.

If Johnson’s ignorance was typical, then, what was his real failing? It wasn’t that he didn’t know where or what Aleppo was. It was that he hadn’t deployed the techniques that a lot of people spend their adolescence developing, the ability to cover oneself in a patina of presumed smarts when you lack the actual foundation of knowledge that would help you to genuinely understand that topic at hand. Indeed, it’s a profoundly marketable skill, to be able to display the markers of being informed without possessing the actual information. You can build a career that way.

I can be quite adept at it myself.

It’s my observation that the smart kids that write our culture – not at all restricted to the media or academia, but the larger mass of people who were the high achievers in high school, the people who were in the top reading group and who got National Merit Scholarships, and who now do so much to define our shared cultural assumptions and conventional wisdom – have developed a strange and unhealthy relationship to being smart and having knowledge. Ours is a culture of cleverness, not of knowledge, one that is far more comfortable in assessing wit than in assessing evidence. It is disdainful of the idea that being an intelligent person requires spending hours reading books, slowly absorbing complex ideas, waging war on your own ignorance through attrition. It presumes that you should be well-read but is distrustful of the bookish. (It produces a micro-genre of listicles about the books “everyone” has claimed to have read but hasn’t/has started but never finished.) It places a premium on being smart but is skeptical, even contemptuous, of public displays of the work of getting smart. You want to be the kind of cultured person who knows great books intimately, but if you have Proust on your knee on the subway people will roll their eyes at you. That kind of thing: obviously smart but not, like, all tryhard about it. You are expected to work out relentlessly to train your body and to show everyone that effort, but your intelligence must be effortless, even accidental.

This isn’t an argument for “epistocracy,” a paean to expertise, or an endorsement of wonkery. Perfectly amateur people can be fantastically informed on complex issues. And the fantastically informed can be spectacularly wrong on important issues. Instead I mean only to argue that the palpable anxiety that attends contemporary intellectual life has consequences, that our schizophrenic attitudes towards being informed leads us to places like Gary Johnson on Aleppo and the media on Gary Johnson on Aleppo. This is not a problem caused by fecklessness or a lack of personal character. It is an artifact of the sickness within American “meritocracy.” Though I am frequently a harsh critic of the coastal striving class, this condition is not something that they’ve done. It’s something that was done to them. This condition was inflicted on them by a socioeconomic system that harms and degrades people and then tells them it’s their fault. It’s the fault of an economy that compels large groups of people to try and climb up a narrower and narrower ladder together until they have no choice but to push others off. And it’s the fault of a culture of smart kids that use blank sarcasm and savvy posturing to mask the grinding, joy-destroying anxiety in their hearts, inculcated there through decades of manic effort in the face of fears of being left behind, fears they were forced to live with since before they could read. They can be a cruel people but this is only a reflection of a cruelty done to them when they were defenseless.

Such a perfect trap, a contest that has so many ways to be a loser and so few to be a winner, and which leaves the winners so bereft of feeling in doing what it takes to win.

I am no defender of Gary Johnson. Libertarianism is a callous ideology that is diametrically opposed to some things that I hold most dearly. A presidential candidate should know where Aleppo is, and what Aleppo is. But in being roasted not for his ignorance but for his inability to hide that ignorance, Johnson pulled back the curtain, a little bit, to show the special kind of empty that can fill a whole culture of American exceptionalism, which like a balloon waits only for the smallest tear in its fabric to expel its ephemeral contents and show the world the nothing that lies within.

a norm of free expression, on campus or elsewhere, is good, that’s my thoughts

In recent years, one of the ways that lefties signal their adherence to shared social norms is through an eye-rolling dismissal of any concern about free speech whatsoever. This is accomplished by putting “free speech” in scare quotes, calling it “freeze peach,” and otherwise theatrically demonstrating that there is no reason a leftist should ever worry themselves about controversies related to free expression. Everybody knows that free speech is only ever obstructed in the singular instance of the state sending people to arrest you for what you say. Nothing else qualifies.

Now this, it turns out, is untrue – there is a vast and complex set of questions, legal and moral, that are bound up in our concept of free speech, and those controversies stretch back to the philosophical foundations of that concept. The term “free speech” does not and has never referred only to the specific legal protections of the First Amendment. Leftists who wave away any free speech concerns that are not literally a matter of state violence are embracing libertarian ideology; the left has always stood for the notion that private power can be coercive and destructive. A democracy can’t function if employers feel impunity for firing people based on their political expression away from work, even if there is no First Amendment protection against them doing so. You’ve heard this all from me before.

Here are two completely compatible ideas.

  1. George Ciccariello-Maher‘s tweet saying “All I want for Christmas is white genocide” was clearly a joke and clearly falls within the boundaries of academic freedom, a central pillar of the academy’s values, and Drexel University’s “investigation” of him is ridiculous
  2. The joke wasn’t particularly funny and it’s a perfect example of a certain strain of performatively “edgy” white antiracism that is long on attitude and low on the possibility for constructive change.

That’s the sad irony about this kind of controversy: it’s ridiculous that conservatives would be so up in arms about his joke because the joke is so ineffectual. And we should, in the community of people opposed to racism, also hope for less posturing and more substance. You tell jokes about white genocide precisely because meaningful antiracist policy seems so unachievable.

Still, the most important point is the most obvious: Drexel should be embarrassed by this clownish investigation. We need to re-embrace a robust definition of academic and political freedom on campus – not limitless, not tolerant of actual incitements to violence or slurs that genuinely and directly exclude marginalized people from the educational process, but robust and erring on the side of more freedom and not less. That means no crackdowns on leftist professors joking about the absurd white genocide narrative. It means no attempts by university administrators to shut down grad students who are trying to unionize. It means no David Horowitz-style witch hunts looking for leftist “indoctrination” on campus. It also means you don’t defund a student newspaper for running an editorial that criticizes BlackLivesMatter, you don’t make demands that a college formally punish students that critique your protests, and you don’t file a Title IX complaint against a professor that publishes an essay that you don’t like. I’m sorry to be such a boring normie about this, but the fact is that when you selectively endorse free expression, your complaint loses power. More speech, on campus and elsewhere. Less coercion against the exercise of free expression. And for god’s sake stop trying to get people fired because you don’t like their tweets!

The left is facing a very dark period. A very dark period indeed. We are going to get an education in what actual power is. We’ve retreated to enclaves like academia for so long that for many of us, those enclaves look like the whole world. But there are powers outside of our enclaves and they are marshaled against us. And we must be very careful about the kinds of arguments we empower, the precedents we sign off on. All can and will be used against us too.

Sign a petition in defense of Ciccariello-Maher here.

what political questions are hard?

I’ve been saying lately that liberals and the left have a big problem with being unwilling to lay out, in simple and direct terms, their values, their evidence, and their reasoning. In particular, I think the sneering, eye-rolling tendency in both cultures is a major political problem – the tendency to argue as if everyone already knows the right answer to every political question.

So in the interest of being constructive, I’m asking today, particularly of liberals and leftists: what political questions are difficult? What sort of conflicts inspire legitimate controversy, where there are no easy answers, no clear heroes and villains? On which issues is “the other side” (whoever that might be) most likely to make a fair or compelling point? What are the contemporary political conflicts for which you have no stock response, the ones where you feel compelled to sort through difficult issues, and which require you to think the most deeply about contrary opinions? What aren’t you sure about?

chickens come home to roost all over

Long time readers will know that one of my political obsessions lies in the difference between “is” and “ought.” Contemporary politics is obsessed with “ought,” but politics, being a discourse of power, is about “is.” Contemporary liberals are obsessed with ought, to their detriment – see “it shouldn’t be the job of the oppressed to educate the oppressors,” which puts “ought” before “is” in a uniquely destructive way. But so are contemporary conservatives, such as in their distaste for leftists pointing out that 9/11 was in large part a response to American aggression in the Muslim world. That is not a normative statement, not a statement of justification. It is an empirical statement, a statement of analysis. Intervention by great powers in foreign conflicts prompts terrorism against those powers. I’m not saying that’s good. I’m saying it’s true.

I have been accused, since I wrote this piece in Current Affairs, of being part of the “pro-Assad left,” and of saying that I don’t recognize that NATO already is intervening in Syria. But I do recognize that, and am opposed to our bombings, and am opposed to Russia’s intervention as well. It’s simply that, as a member of the American democracy, my first responsibility is naturally with the conduct of my own country. What we might observe, if we’re in the mood to be wise, is that the assassination of Russia’s ambassador to Turkey as a reprisal for Russian intervention on behalf of Assad was an entirely predictable outcome. Not good. Not moral. Not justified. Just predictable, inevitable, natural.

Intervening in foreign conflicts leads naturally to terrorism against the intervening party. And if we deepen our interventions in foreign affairs, chickens will keep coming home to roost for us, again and again, forever.

I’m not sure if Jay Kang is too pessimistic or too optimistic

Jay Caspian Kang, who’s as bright as anybody writing these days, critiques the state of diversity efforts in media today. I read this, as we all read everything, with an eye to my own life, and so I thought a lot about the similarities and differences with race-based affirmative action in college. I don’t want to overstate the comparison here, but I think diversity policies at fancy colleges offers us a good lens to consider efforts to diversify fancy newspapers and magazines.

I know a lot of people who think the best way to increase minority enrollment in elite colleges is to adopt a class-based system of affirmative action, out of the conviction that such a system would inevitably benefit students of color (given the reality of racial inequality) and would not have such a target on them from culture warriors. I’ve always resisted that simply because I believe in the basic moral case for AA: we need to give special attention to racial minority enrollments both as redress for traditional inequality and as an attempt to ameliorate continuing inequality. I do believe that diversity advances the educational mission of colleges too, but I fear that these consequentialist defenses give short shrift to the basic moral case for racial diversity. So while I’m amenable to class considerations in affirmative action policies, they must be supplemental to racial considerations, not a replacement. We need to be clear on that in a country with depressingly low support (even among people of color) for race-based AA. (Note though that AA polling is notoriously subject to how the question is worded.)

But as a college admin and a researcher I’m all too aware of the reality of race-based AA at elite institutions. And that reality is that the ostensible goals of those programs – to help marginalized American students of color get into institutions they wouldn’t ordinarily be able to – are very poorly served by real-world programs. Instead, elite schools tend to skim off the wealthiest students of color they can find, which often means rich international students. Cord Jefferson wrote a really excellent piece about this a few years ago. Good data on this is scarce, for obvious reasons – schools have no incentive to be public about how the sausage gets made, here. But it’s an open secret that for many of the most competitive institutions, affirmative action has been gamed to give special consideration to precisely those students of color who need the least help.

Why? Understand: for elite colleges and universities, unlike most schools, the real financial base is donations, not tuition. You don’t grow large endowments with tuition dollars, even at the insane prices students pay today. You grow billion-dollar endorsements from getting large (tax-free, natch) donations from wealth alums. And the best way to ensure that you have wealthy alumni is to choose the kids from already-wealthy families. It’s not like I don’t see value in just having more Nigerian and Kenyan students on campus, but their presence does not satisfy the intent of affirmative action as traditionally conceived. They add diversity, but at the expense of deepening inequality.

To support race-based affirmative action today, in other words, is to defend certain programs based on values that the programs themselves are undermining.

OK. But how does this interface with Kang’s point about media? Jay writes,

The real path to success as a journalist still remains the same: Have enough independent wealth so that you can take an unpaid internship or a $35,000 year job as an editorial assistant or fact-checker at a prestigious place and then work the office politics game (read: know how to work a room of Ivy League graduates) to the top. In five or ten or fifteen years, the network you build up during those early years will occupy the highest spots in media and they will bring you into the power structure.

This is of course a very sharp criticism not only of checklist-style diversity in media but also of a lot of the lies that underpin our meritocratic rhetoric. And I think the implied point – that minority writers are much less likely to enjoy the financial independence that allows people to gain purchase in professional media – is certainly correct and important. Yet I can imagine a lot of Conde Nast executives thinking to themselves, that can be arranged. That is, given the small size of media’s labor pool, I don’t think that it’s impossible to foresee a future where media achieves racial diversity through exactly the dynamic Kang is critiquing: that we’ll see enough interest in diversifying the upper ranks of media, with the same unthinking presumptions about what’s financially possible for young journalists of color, that diversity in media grows even as poorer aspirants are weeded out just as reliably as ever. Even now, the tendency for media hires to come from competitive colleges – which educate a truly tiny fraction of our workforce – likely acts as a screen that prevents journalists of color from middle class and lower backgrounds from entry.

So again we have this basic question that I’ve been prodding at for a long time: do we want to diversify the ranks of the elite, or do we want to deepen our understanding of what diversity means to reflect the class composition of much of black America and Hispanic America? Debates like that regarding affirmative action demonstrate that the notion of a “class vs race” fight are just undercooked. If we want to end racial inequality, we need to frankly acknowledge that failure to address the economic dimensions of that inequality will result in a superficially more diverse elite that only becomes further out of reach for most aspiring journalists of color. “Representation matters,” insist liberals, and of course it does, but to peruse the average liberal website today is to think only representation matters. The absolute rabid fixation on diversifying art and media stems from good intentions, but it leads to generations of well-meaning progressive people thinking that this is how you enact anti-racism in the world. We know what that leads to: it leads to Ivy League schools patting themselves on the back for the black faces in their student body while the average poor black kid in this country has almost no chance of attending.

Kang writes,

what these prestige journalistic outlets have always been — center-right, bourgeois takes read by lawyers on planes. And since the majority of lawyers on planes aren’t joining up with ‘the resistance’ (whatever the fuck that means), editors and publishers will start hiring alt-Tucker Carlsons so they can hear both sides. They will need to clear headcount spots to do this and they will quietly start purging the same writers they hired so enthusiastically — with rousing rounds of Tweet applause — two years ago.

I think that this is both too pessimistic and too optimistic. Elite culture is, actually, changing, I think. Diversity as a recognizable value among our economic and cultural elite seems to have grown, from where I’m sitting. I don’t think this really comes from some great flowering of human empathy for our marginalized people of color – I’m not that naive – but instead from the very effective way that diversity advocates have taken a hold of our elite cultural spaces. There are real social consequences for opposing “diversity,” in this sense, particularly in media and academia, which are spaces liberals control. The problem, again, is that the diversity that is most likely to matter to people like our young lawyer here is precisely the kind that is least threatening to him, and that is the kind that does the least to jeopardize his status on the meritocracy ladder. I’m not sure if your average urban-dwelling Democrat lawyer will react with great rancor to more black faces taking seats at the table of upwardly-mobile American life; I know he’ll react with great rancor if he perceives that the value of his own seat has been diminished through expanding opportunity. Too many in the American upper crust have an attitude, unvoiced but powerful, that amounts to “Diversify society, but do not undermine my rarefied status within it.” For the average black aspirant, that doesn’t help in any way but the symbolic.

I suspect, in fact, that in the era of Trump we’ll get more diversity in media, in the simplistic sense, as panicky liberals look for ways to Really Do Something. The David Remnicks of the world really believe in diversity; indeed, their pride in that belief is central to their sense of social superiority. The problem with a lot of mostly-white media executives adopting a (market-tested, publicity-minded) commitment to diversity is not that this commitment is insincere. The problem is that it’s shallow. David Remnick will hire writers and editors of color, but will he hire the ones who didn’t go to one of the ~125 colleges that reject more applicants than they accept? The New York Times will hire women of color, but will they hire women of color who aren’t among the 5% of test takers who get 1400+ on the SATs? My impression is that the writers of color who have been added to the ranks of media have largely shared this condition: racially marginalized, undoubtedly victims of racial inequality, but academically elite. But what if we want to increase opportunity for the median worker of color, who by definition is not part of that academic elite, as any median worker wouldn’t be? The problem with diversifying the elite is that even after you’ve gotten to perfect diversity, you’re still leaving the median, the mass, the average, the majority behind. These questions speak to the poverty of the term “diversity.”

Kang knows exactly what I’m talking about, as he demonstrates when he writes “The sort of work they do have so many of us do — “woke” pop culture writing — will only last as long as it drives the wan, asymmetrical glow of Media Twitter.” What we must be really ruthlessly clear about is that woke-pop-culture-writing-as-career-ghetto is an entirely predictable consequence of the media’s current way of thinking about diversity. It fits perfectly well with the shallow, combative approach that media culture has adopted towards questions of diversity. It is angry in the way it demands change, but the actual dimensions of that change are quotidian, limited, and not particularly uncomfortable for the white meritocratic class. Iron Man, I’m told, is now a young black woman. I don’t think there’s no value in that. But the fact is that it’s just as unlikely today that a young black woman who was a B student in a school in the Mississippi Delta would ever get to grow up to draw Iron Man comics professionally. When I point that out, people yell “Do both!,” then set about completely ignoring the work of undermining the meritocratic system.

What’s frustrating is that there is a large literature on these questions, but they remain almost entirely unexplored in media. Editors know the word “intersectional” but don’t know who coined it, publishers replace “racism” with “white supremacy” without a grasp on the theories that have prompted that change, journalists talk about the privilege knapsack but can’t grapple with the decades of literature that have come since. I don’t mean to be a jerk, but it’s my observation that the average media professional engages with the ideas of critical race theory, academic feminism, and cultural studies in the most superficial way, demonstrating understanding that comes from having your perceptions filtered through Twitter, Tumblr, and the osmosis of complex theories being absorbed without doing the work, doing the reading.

And this is where, I think, the social dynamics of online writing – the ones I’m always yelling about (and getting made fun of for yelling about, which, fair enough) – really do come into play in a pernicious way. Telling people that they need to read more books and engage more deeply with the actual theories underneath the vocabulary and ideas they’ve adopted is not a popular activity. But at some point you have look out at the conversation as it happens in our media and conclude that progress doesn’t get made in part because the debate happens in 140 characters, often waged by people with only as much grasp on the concepts being debated as is necessary to demonstrate adequate deference to the social norm of caring about them.

If the terms and ideas related to diversity from the academic left are going to be valuable and constructive for media, they must be informed in a deeper way than is possible through Vox explainers and Tweets. I think there could be a communal effort to say, we’ve got to go to the source and get our hands dirty in a more direct way. Others will have to lead that push, but I think there’s enough exhaustion with the status of directionless yelling about diversity in media that you could see that debate happening soon.

Kang’s prescription seems entirely correct to me: minority journalists have to build their own shit. But I would simply caution, just as a member of the peanut gallery, that we have ample history that demonstrates that more diverse spaces can be built that simply replicate old power structures. So the effort can’t be just to build your own shit, but to endeavor to make a radical break with the systems of elite reward that have underpinned the old racist system. Or if the goal really is just to have more representation in the 1% – to have a proportional black American elite and Hispanic American elite and Asian American elite, which leaves the average black and Hispanic and Asian American no better off than before – then it would be good for everyone to know that. One way or the other you have to do that work. You have to really dig in and ask yourself what “diversity” means, and you may be unhappy to learn that not everyone you once considered your ally agrees. Kang knows perfectly well what kind of thing he wants to build. I remain in the dark as to whether the big diversity-seeking mass of people in liberal media want the same things.