the transitive property of making it about gender

So Michelle Dean has a typically sharp post on the accusation of “making it about gender.” She’s 100% right. The basic reality is that, if you find yourself asking why someone is making it about gender, it was already about gender. The fact that things are always about other things than gender too doesn’t change that.

There is a moment in the essay that I want to look at a bit, though, because I think it speaks to a certain danger we can fall into when we voice exasperation about this sort of thing. Dean writes, “one of the other students starting waxing philosophic about fact-checking and John D’Agata.” There it rests; Dean is a writer of exquisite reticence, which is a rare and valuable skill, these days. She lets the associations with those subjects remain tacit, which makes them more effective.

But not everyone has Dean’s ability, or her poise. In many progressive contexts, that detail would become a trope — fact-checking and John D’Agata would not merely be the concern of this particular bro but would rather be rendered as somehow intrinsically bro-y. Despite the neutrality of fact-checking, in the current idiom of progressive elites, the subject could very easily become a Dude Thing, to which an appropriate level of derision would be applied by all good and right people, many of them dudes, but Not That Type of Dude Dudes. The transitive property of symbolic gender would apply: this thing has been associated with a spate of shitty behaviors (in this case, casual sexism and defensiveness in the face of accurate identification of that sexism) and so this thing becomes a way to signal to the right crowd ridiculousness and political imperfection. It’s shorthand politics for a generation of people who take their political arguments predigested.

Take, say, Jack Kerouac. Kerouac is a good example of a subject that has become so associated with dudeism that just his name functions as a kind of shorthand for that small sliver of humanity that, like me, is turned on to post-collegiate culture vulture social signals and dog whistles. Kerouac = sweaty self-important bro earnestness. These codes are, now, all around us, a digital bath. It’s one of the many, many ways in which the aforementioned elites treat each other with an aggressively reductive disdain, a kind of ritualized intellectual violence that I can only presume is part of the legacy of growing up desperate to get into Harvard or start for the field hockey team or be the furthest ahead in second grade reading group or whatever. You can see this particular manifestation expressed perfectly in this piece by Kate Hakala, titled with admirable clarity “Why I Will Never Sleep with a Kerouac Fanatic.” Human behavior is reduced to a series of shallow affectations and loose associations that are nevertheless rendered with the certain superiority that is the default vocabulary of The Way We Internet Now, and all framed, of course, in terms of who you would deign to fuck.

Hakala has a series of complaints about the kind of dude she’s talking about, and they’re indeed frustrating, cliched behaviors. The connection to Kerouac seems less entirely clear; for sure, there are those associations with him, but mostly I think those guys misread him, as thoroughly as his critics do. Which isn’t to say that I’m a fan. It’s been many years since I’ve read Jack Kerouac. There was a time in my life when it was time to read Kerouac, and then that time ended. I’m meant to be embarrassed by that, I suppose, just like I’m meant to be embarrassed by all the sadboy emo I used to listen to in my early 20s. But that was what I did at the time I was meant to do it. I was once a sad boy, after all. I will never quite understand the notion that you should be embarrassed to have once been the age and the person you were.

In any event, this is what I’m talking about: the way in which certain subjects take on a kind of unchosen symbolic weight which elite culture then uses for its favorite band of affect politics. Few things are more valuable to that crew than a spiteful association. The problem isn’t really that those Kerouac boys might have their feelings hurt; there’s little danger in that. The problem is, first, that these associations always exclude those who aren’t actually dudes, and in that way contribute to the kind of savvy essentializing that is part and parcel with these aggressive cultural politics. It forces female fans of Kerouac to ask, am I a dude? Here’s Katie J.M. Baker asking that essential question. But more importantly, because this reflex ties genuinely undesirable social behaviors to particular interests, even though the actual associations are so loose, it makes it harder to address the actual shitty behavior. The problem with the men Hakal describes is the entitlement and the self-importance, not their choice in novels. By making those synonymous with a book, you encourage men who like the book to reject the critique of the behavior and confuse those who have no opinion of the book and don’t plan on developing one. This is part of a broader phenomenon where many cultured progressives seem to address secondary phenomena related with political problems more than the problems themselves.

If the question was just opinions about Beat writers of declining reputations, there would be little at stake. But this transitive property has a really distressing habit of occurring even with vitally important political issues. I got into a useless argument about a puff piece about Samantha Power, and the woman I was arguing with said only that criticizing Samantha Power is a “dude thing.” Power is one of the most destructive political figures in the world today, someone who has championed absolutely calamitous military interventions, like the one that made Libya a hellish quagmire. To defend Power by arguing, inaccurately, that only men criticize her, you lose the opportunity to talk about America’s terrible legacy of causing misery through its “humanitarian” interventions. (And I know plenty of women, not all of them socialists or anarchists, who hate Power more than I do.) Dean quotes Rebecca Solnit. Solnit has done more than anyone to write about mansplaining. Mansplaining is a real, troubling problem. But Solnit also has written utterly terrible pieces of redbaiting, anti-left invective. She’s forever inveighing against those of us on the left who think we have a project that goes beyond celebrating the Democrats. When people dismiss any criticism of her as ipso facto mansplaining, we have no room to talk about what the left needs to do to challenge the terrible, centrist myopia of the Democrats and their president. The only thing I want to explain to Solnit is that her politics suck.

Lately, I’ve noticed a deeply, deeply harmful divide between some of those who talk primarily about identity and cultural politics and some of those who talk about civil liberties and foreign policy. That divide is often rendered in starkly gendered terms. That’s an analytical mistake, as these problems are connected at the root, and a  political disaster, for everyone involved. Not to mention an enormous victory for the forces of conservatism. Whenever someone starts complaining on Twitter that only bros care about drones, I imagine the guy from the cover of Monopoly chuckling to himself as he lights a cigar with a $100 bill.

I guess it all comes down to a choice that I have identified many times. Progressive elites have built themselves something of an enclave, one which encompasses many in the media, in politics, in professional writing, and in the general class of tastemakers. I make fun of that class quite a bit, but in many ways it is my own culture, and while I disagree on many subjects, more or less those are my politics. The question is who the political expressions of this class should serve. Should it be turn inward, to make the members of the enclave chuckle? That’s a forgivable, human impulse. But it just doesn’t go anywhere. It doesn’t solve the problems that create the exasperation, exhaustion, and rage for which the jokes are a temporary, limited antidote. And I think that, with more and more people seeming to recognize the depth of the failure of the politics of outrage, we need to find some other way to go about doing this. Progressive elites have to decide whether the care more about pleasing each other with self-aggrandizing jokes or about winning through appeals to those they find culturally distasteful.

In the end, it has nothing to do with being nice to the dudes. It starts, in fact, with recognizing that, in a very real way, keeping it all jokes just leaves them off the hook.

you should worry about soft censorship more than North Korea

North Korea is an invaluable nation for America’s cultural and political industries. A genuinely brutal dictatorship with a genuinely crackpot dictator, the site of almost unthinkable human rights abuses which can be used to distract our broken, destructive nation from its brokenness and destruction. Like all good Big Bads, North Korea’s capabilities shift back and forth depending on the particular rhetorical need. So the country is a pathetic backwater run by a pack of incompetent clowns, whose rockets splash down harmlessly and hilariously into the Pacific… up until it becomes ideologically convenient for the country to represent an existential threat to all of us, a violent and powerful military dictatorship bent on nuclear power and in possession of a vast army. North Korea is by turns pathetic and terrifying, as befits the given need of a given gasbag. Like I said: it’s an invaluable nation for those who professionally beat the drum.

You will notice that the recent outrage over the (outrageous) hacking and threats against Sony Pictures has a rare cross-ideological and partisan unity to it. I was skeptical of the idea that North Korea was behind it at first, and I continue to think there’s some shoe left to drop; saying “we know the North Koreans did it because the US government says they did” is pretty weak tea, given how regularly and unashamedly this  government lies to its people. But sure: I wouldn’t put it past them. Like I say, it’s a horrific regime, with genuine instability at the top. Anyway, we’ve got ourselves a moment of unusual unanimity. You could throw some cold water on it all; despite the incredible evil of the North Korean regime, it’s a pure, non-ideological and objective fact that since the Korean war, the United States has caused vastly more devastation and loss of innocent life than the regime in NK. More to the point, there’s t he simple fact that these rituals are always at least partially about ignoring our own problems, using other country’s problems as a way to avoid talking about our own. “LOL Russia, how’s the ruble doing” is what a failed society says when it wants to ignore that it has imprisoned, harassed, and murdered generations of its most vulnerable racial groups, tortured and sexually assaulted its enemies and some who were mistaken for its enemies, done nothing to meaningfully address a massive ecological catastrophe that its own scientists are warning about, subjects its people to mass surveillance, spent $2.5 trillion combined on two failed recent wars, and developed an economy that functions as a machine for putting more and more money in the hands of the tiny few. 

For the moment, I’d prefer to focus a little more closely on the issue of movie theaters and studios censoring films out of fear of the regime. Like most people, I find this both chilling and absurd; North Korea has no more ability to cause great violence in the United States than your average terrorist group, which means that it  could inflict an emotional and human toll but on a very limited scale. The dominant lesson of post-9/11 terrorism is that it’s really hard to actually cause widespread damage via terrorism. What’s especially weird about all this is that North Korea threatens things all the time, but nobody pays attention or cares, because they have neither the ability to pull off most of what they threaten nor the intention of actually going through with it. So while the bad behavior here is certainly the fault of North Korea (and/or whoever else is behind it), there’s plenty of shame for those companies, too. But everybody’s unified: North Korea’s regime is bad. Hacking is bad. Blackmail is bad. Terrorist threats are bad. As Fred Durst would say, we are all in aggreance.

What I wonder is why people aren’t a little more put off by a form of censorship that is more insidious, and will likely affect far more movies in the long run: the soft censorship of appealing to the Chinese government in order to reap the Chinese box office. There have been widespread claims that recent blockbuster movies like the latest Transformers have been written so as to appease Chinese censors. There’s nothing wrong with writing movies to reach out to a particularly huge foreign box office– why wouldn’t you want your movie to play to Chinese moviegoers?– but appealing to the Chinese government is a whole other ball of wax. That’s where you  can see genuine self-censorship coming in. And while I imagine that this whole thing will blow over before long, without a great deal of long-term damage, I think the urge to play in China -and for the Chinese government —  will only grow over time.

There is a recent movie that features North Korea as an enemy: the remake of Red Dawn. That movie, however, was originally scripted and shot with a Chinese enemy. Only in post-production was the enemy changed to North Korea. Why? Certainly not for the plot; the notion that North Korea is equipped to invade the United States is even more absurd than the notion, as in the original, that the USSR was so equipped in the 1980s. And not because of the fear of terrorism. Instead, it was the soft censorship of the profit motive. Fear of offending China was effective at changing a central plot point of that movie, and received a fraction of the discussion.

Why aren’t we seeing similar fretting about the soft censorship of Chinese dollars? Because there’s no simplistic morality play where America and its values are the victims, of course. Because there’s no way in which that story appeals to a simple narrative of American superiority. Rather, it asks us to self-implicate, and to consider the inherent censoriousness of the profit motive. That’s a complex set of issues, and it doesn’t leave us smelling like a rose, and it might lead us into an uncomfortable discussion. So it doesn’t get discussed.

Happy birthday, Chelsea

We know, beyond all doubt, that this country engaged in the routine torture, sexual abuse, and murder of prisoners, and for years. We know for a fact that we tortured. We know for a fact that some of those we  tortured were innocent. We know for a fact that some of those we tortured, we tortured to death. We know  for a fact that some of those we tortured, we tortured through sexual assault. We know all that, for a fact. And the people who physically performed it, the people who ordered it, and the people who built a practical and legal infrastructure to make it happen walk among us, free and unthreatened.

Meanwhile, today Chelsea Manning, whose crime was helping us to know the kind of country we live in, spends her 27th birthday in prison.

Happy birthday, Chelsea. I hope that someday you can live the life of freedom and security now enjoyed by the very worst among us. I hope some part of you feels forever free.

there’s nothing democratic about ed reform

Will Wilkinson has long labored to square the circle and advocate “liberaltarianism.” I’m more amenable to conditional alliances on particular issues with libertarians than your average lefty, but often these efforts amount to using progressive language to advocate for boilerplate libertarian ends. You can see that urge in this post of his guest-blogging at the Dish, where he surveys an American populace inflamed against racism and inequality and uses it as fodder to attack collective bargaining.

Now, looking at the tendency of the state to murder its most economically and socially disadvantaged people and declaring “you know what the problem is? Unions” is inherently self-parodic for libertarian types, to the point that I’m almost content to let Wilkinson’s post undermine itself. And saying that “Democrats reflexively defend unions” in a world of Rahm Emmanuels and Andrew Cuomos is so flatly wrong that I hope most people will dismiss it out of hand. It’s not 1975. Democrats have been bashing unions with vigor for as long as I’ve been old enough to be politically conscious. But when he says, “teachers’ unions block almost every conceivable democratic reform to the public school system,” he’s endorsing a much more widespread falsehood.

What is it about the preference  for crushing labor, making teaching a less attractive profession, and shifting public funds to private corporations a matter of increasing democracy? Wilkinson doesn’t say. It’s likely that Wilkinson knows that typical ed reforms represent a litany of failure– private charters, vouchers, merit pay, one failed idea after another. But democratic? How? The Gates Foundation and the textbook companies don’t, actually, represent the popular will. If anything, the ed reform movement has been an effort to pull more and more local control away from the people and hand it to institutions, corporations, and people who are not democratically elected at all. The Common Core, for example, is a straightforward attempt by the Arne Duncan types to undercut the local authority of public school boards and state governments. The only reason that the Common Core push has run aground, despite overwhelming elite consensus in its favor, is because of bipartisan, grassroots opposition. Local people refusing a vast takeover of learning goals is democratic. Bill Gates spending his millions to effect that takeover is not.

Or look at the Chicago Public School teachers strikes and attendant protests. Were these examples of people calling for ed reform as a way to take democratic control of their own communities? The opposite. They were local communities resisting Rahm Emmanuel, a prototypical reform-spouting antidemocratic political elite. An even better example is the efforts of Facebook billionaire Mark Zuckerberg and celebrity politician Corey Booker to wrest control of Newark’s schools from Newark’s people. After a series of heavy-handed privatization efforts, enforced from above by Booker’s political power and Zuckerberg’s money, the parents and students of Newark rose up to defend their teachers and their schools. That’s people power. That’s democracy.

What makes “Mark Zuckerberg, Dictator of Newark Schools” democratic? Well, if you’re a libertarian, the fact that he’s bringing private money to bear to take control of public schools; the fact that these efforts inevitably involve union-bashing; and the fact that they transfer money from taxpayers to private corporations. That’s what makes them democratic. When you call corporations people and you act as though democracy grows out of wallets, privatization and shrinking government are synonymous with democracy. Myself, I prefer the traditional definition: when the people take community control over what belongs to them.


Here are a few things I have done this morning.

  • Bought shuttle tickets to get me to and from Chicago for my flight home to Connecticut for Christmas.
  • Paid the gas bill.
  • Paid my cellphone bill.
  • Salted down my credit card.
  • Bought Christmas presents for my nieces.
  • Enjoyed a nice seasonal IPA.

I also have set aside the exorbitant fee for boarding my dog for a week. (Seriously: I adore my dog; I can’t imagine my life without my dog; don’t get a dog.) I also am just in far better financial shape, and feeling much less stressed and more secure, than I was a week ago. All thanks to you. The response to my Christmas funding drive has been overwhelming, in both the practical and emotional sense. My awkward attempts to express that gratitude would be lame for us both so please take my word for it that I am incredibly grateful and deeply moved. I have a lot of individual thanks to give out in the near future.

In the meantime — after a great deal of negative reaction, I have unpinned two posts that previously were stickied to the top of the blog. Pinning those there was my small attempt to highlight particular kinds of intellectual work that I do here to prospective employers and job search committees, but the response from regular readers has been so negative that I’ve gone ahead and removed them. And yes, I’m still contemplating going back to allowing comments, at least some of the time, in the new year.

Thanks, so much, to all of you.