the affirmative action conundrum

I support affirmative action on conventional grounds – you give minority applicants a boost in job and college applications as a way to address inequality and as recompense for traditional injustice. Lately though I am confused about how progressive people talk about affirmative action. It’s come to be considered offensive to say that affirmative action recipients have enjoyed a material advantage, as doing so delegitimizes their successes and implies that they would not succeed without special consideration.

The question is, if affirmative action programs don’t provide a material advantage to minority applicants… what do they do? The entire premise and purpose of affirmative action is to provide a material advantage to minority applicants. What could it mean to say that an affirmative action program does not provide benefits to minority applicants? If they don’t do so, they don’t exist. This stance is not just self-defeating, it’s self-erasing.

It is offensive, and racist, to assume that any individual has received the benefits of affirmative action; to imply that affirmative action outweighs the hindrances of racial inequality; or to suggest that someone’s successes are the product of affirmative action and not their talent and work. But to believe that it is wrong to say that programs designed to provide material advantage actually do so is incoherent and, if anything, an argument against those programs.

Perhaps people’s time would be better spent defending programs like affirmative action, which help real people solve real problems, then seeking out offense like a bloodhound.

“A New Sense of Direction”

Martin Luther King, from his speech “A New Sense of Direction,” given in the last year of his life:

Mass civil disobedience as a new stage of struggle can transmute the deep anger of the ghetto into a creative force. To dislocate the functioning of a city without destroying it can be more effective than a riot because it can be both longer lasting and more costly to the larger society, but not wantonly destructive. It is a device of social action that is more difficult for the government to quell by superior force. The limitation of riots, moral questions aside, is that they cannot win, and their participants know it. Hence riots are not revolutionary but reactionary because they invite defeat. They offer an emotional catharsis, but they must be followed by a sense of futility.

This kind of talk, today, would be immediately met with mass derision in progressive discourse circles, where King (if you stripped away his name) would be accused of not taking white supremacy seriously, of being a centrist, of disrespecting Black rage. And as is always the case with this debate, those critical of riots will be accused (when not being accused of direct complicity with the racist status quo) of prioritizing civility, bipartisanship, order, and respectability politics over the needs of marginalized groups. But read this speech; King is very explicitly making an argument about the efficacy of riots and their alternatives, not an argument about the morality of political violence.

I think that many in the social justice sphere have become so broken down by the cycles of injustice that they have an aversion to tactics that might work – that they have come to so associate their causes with ineffectual discourse politics that they assume that anything that is embraced on tactical grounds must not be a part of their causes. We are the people who lose, so if tactics might work, they must not be for us. I mean, to question the incredibly dubious connection between representation in movies and TV and real progressive social change will get you excommunicated from progressive spaces. (Try saying that the Wonder Woman movies are not a huge blow for social justice in just about any online community.) But to assume away the possibility of real, tangible change through coordinated mass action is ubiquitous. Learned helplessness. Always, learned helplessness.

Of course, anyone has the right to question the argument that riots are less effective than coordinated mass civil disobedience would be. Tactical arguments are arguments, after all. What’s unclear to me is whether those tactical arguments have any teeth. A common talking point on the left today is that “riots work.” To which I would ask… work to do what? The metrics people use to justify those claims could hardly seem more dubious to me. Certainly the people who risked their lives in riots demanded far more than they got. How fares white supremacy in cities that have witnessed riots? But either way, I would settle for just having a tactical conversation that does not immediately devolve into a meta debate about whose intentions are truly radical, or who is making a play to respectability. Unfortunately these conversations are emotional, inchoate, directionless, and ruled by the petty politics of social association.

the object of your appeal

Longtime readers know that while I think campus activism is a good thing (and was a campus activist myself), I think college politics suck up too much attention within the left. Structurally college students are not well suited to being activists: activism requires continuity of practice, and college students leave every four months for vacation and never stay longer than four or five years. This is why, for example, Oberlin activists could go from national attention and radical demands to silence in a year. The students who drove that activism left to go get jobs and start lives, which is inevitable.

But there’s another layer that connects with what I’ve been saying lately about the failure of justice as a framework for left politics. In recent years, campus protesters have spent much more time petitioning college administrators for what they want than protesting them. It happens that I think this is a bad posture for campus activists to take purely on their own terms. But in a broader sense it’s worse, as appealing to university authorities is a terrible model of political progress for young activists. Appealing to university administrators for what you want is a bad habit to get into because there are no administrators in political life. There is no authority to whom you can ask for justice. Pointing out that something is unfair doesn’t work unless there is some conscious being who can assess that claim of unfairness, rule on it, and address it tangibly. A dean can potentially do this. But who fulfills that function off campus?

Liberals love complaining to HR at someone’s employer when that someone has said something online they don’t like, because HR is an entity that you can actually talk to, and can actually fire someone if you snitch on them. Same principle.

Some would likely say that the authority to whom you’re appealing is the public, that appeals to justice are part of the democratic process. I certainly wouldn’t deny that there are times when you can appeal to morals to move people to join your cause. But to defend your engagement by saying that you’re appealing to the public you need to actually be doing that, and it’s not clear to me that most liberals or leftists are in most situations. Certainly the kind of political engagement you typically see online is not at all pitched towards achieving communal adoption; almost all of it seems in fact to be geared towards the same narrow discourse communities. Conventional wisdom would seem to agitate towards framing political appeals to the masses in a way that reflects their own best interest; contemporary left norms would insist that it is disgraceful to seek to serve the interests of those who are already among the privileged classes.

And many people on the left these days are now dismissive of the notion that we have to appeal to the public writ large, frequently arguing that our task should be rallying those who are already on our side instead. To pick an example, most involved with BlackLivesMatter will tell you that the movement is very explicitly not interested in convincing the great mass of the country, which they (probably correctly) regard as racially unenlightened, to approve of them. Such a posture would reinforce the unjust positioning of the Black minority supplicating itself to the white majority, a particularly cruel dynamic. The difficult question becomes, who then are you saying “Black lives matter” to?

Some will no doubt take this as an argument for political moderation. This is one of my very least favorite things that the Democrats, and their political messaging, have done: they’ve convinced people that broadening your appeal necessarily means moderating what you’re asking for. But there’s no reason that has to be true. Ask Barry Goldwater: a radical appeal can be a mass message. But you have to know who you’re talking to, you have to give a shit about what’s likely to motivate them, and you have to get past repeating that something is unfair.

there is no such thing as justice

The USA is a failed state and it won’t surprise you why I think so. In the coming week you will be able to read (I imagine literally) tens of thousands of thinkpieces about the events in Washington and I won’t belabor it. The revanchist movement that stormed the Capitol may be the death rattle of the Trump administration but it is also an expression of business as usual and an example of chickens coming home to roost. The cope is to act as though this is something Trump has done to us but the reality is that this is American as apple pie. This is going nowhere. This is just getting started.

True to form, my disgust with the right is balanced – not matched, but balanced – by my despair over the response from the left, if that’s what we want to call it. What I saw yesterday was a liberalism/Democratic party/left that is not just ignorance towards what power is, how to gain it, and how to wield it, but seeming uninterested in power at all.

The highest, most noble pursuit in this political era is the identification of injustice, the identification of inequality. The greatest laurel is to be someone saying “this is wrong,” to declare to the world that some justice exists. Left-wing discursive spaces are dominated by this behavior; it’s so endemic that I sometimes wonder if people understand that there is more to politics than saying “this is wrong.” We are all to be witnesses to injustices, with all the passivity that implies.

Look, don’t take my word for it. Go on social media or the takes media. Keep a running count of how many people say “here is an injustice,” identifying the ways in which black people or woman or queer people etc suffer in comparison to others. (Usually these claims will be accurate.) Now, keep a running count of the number of people who say “here is a solution to an injustice, a plausible way to change the world to alleviate suffering.” Go ahead, do it.

Identifying problems is easy and cheap and permits one to affect radicalism. Proposing meaningful solutions is much more fraught. Solutions are hard. Solutions are messy. Solutions are inherently unsatisfying. And, crucially, solutions require an honest and frequently uncomfortable accounting of whether you can possibly achieve them without the support of people who largely do not share your culture or your values. Sometimes asking how to get what you want leads you to the conclusion that you have to appeal to the very people you’ve been saying are irredeemable. Today the habit is for people to say that they need to convince no one, that the only political task is to rally the already convinced. A comforting idea. If it’s true.

The most charitable explanation for the obsession with identification and naming is misunderstanding, that these people simply don’t understand power and how change is made. They constantly make appeals to the heavens because they believe, very deeply, that if you identify injustice often enough some cosmic authority will hear you and… well, it’s unclear. This is the reason for the utter obsession with what you call things. You will have heard, in the past few years, liberals demanding that you call things by their right names – call it fascism! call it white supremacy! call it a coup! But suppose everybody did. So what? What changes in the world if people call something white supremacy instead of vanilla racism? How does it alter the distribution of power? How does it enable you to change the world? There are the things you want and the people who don’t want you to have them and there is your power relative to them. How does calling it fascism change that calculation? What difference does it make?

Others have referred to this behavior as “working the refs.” In sports an athlete might consistently complain to a referee about unfairness in calls, in the hopes that the refs will respond to that unfairness and fix things. And so the left acts similarly, telling the universe that there is injustice in the hopes that this will change things.

The problem of course is that the premise is nonsense: it doesn’t matter if you tell the universe that there is an injustice, because there are no refs. There is no impartial authority to whom you can appeal. What I think so often, when engaging with liberal political expression, is “who are you talking to?” What is the purpose of all of these appeals to injustice? The function? What do people think is going to happen by constantly identifying injustice? What is the theory of the world, the theory of power? I have no idea. I have no idea.

Yesterday was the epitome of this behavior. Untold thousands of people, I’m guessing hundreds of thousands, made the same observation: the response by the police to the MAGA insurrectionists was far gentler and less aggressive than that towards Black Lives Matter protesters. And that’s true. That’s a correct observation. And it is bad. The question that someone has to ask is, what is the utility of thousands of people making the same observation, to each other? You had so many people united in the same action, but an action that had no concrete relationship to the problem at all. What were all those people doing? What difference did they think it would make? Appealing to the country? But the country has heard this complaint for years and done nothing. You don’t appeal to the undecided by complaining about injustice but by appealing to their best interest. But the attitude is always that we should have to offer undecided people nothing, that they should get on board with our program simply because of our claims to justice. But nobody cares about that. They just don’t.

A darker possibility, for why the left has devolved to only identifying injustice rather than grappling with power, is that people are fixated on naming injustice rather than solving injustice because this is what the social systems reward. People spend all day pointing out inequalities like racial inequalities all day because they receive praise for doing so. Saying “black people have to live like this, white people get to live like this” – with no attendant consideration of how to change the world so that black and white live similarly – rakes in praise in person and in digital strokes online. Careers in media, academia, and the professional organizer industrial complex are built on these statements. These statements are surefire crowd pleasers on social media. They’re easy and they get you points and so people repeat them. That’s another theory.

The darkest possibility is that the left is fixated on identifying injustice without doing anything about it because its members don’t actually want things to change. They are better served by the status quo, either because they benefit from the unequal distribution of power in the world or, as I think is true for very many, they are more comfortable being beautiful losers. There is something very beguiling about being the permanent plucky underdog. You can speak truth to power but never have to grapple with the weight of wielding it. You can throw spitballs from the back of the class, devoting your life to the pleasures of critique. And then there are the allies. The very concept of the ally has always made me shiver; there is something so parasitic about it, so stuffed with condescension. When I see loud white allies, self-identifying as such, I always see head-patting, treating black people as poor little vessels for benevolent white appeals to justice rather than autonomous agents who want things and strive for them and are sometimes wrong. And in the most materialist sense there is a huge constellation of “social justice” organizations that generate a ton of money and keep a lot of people in jobs, and if they ever fulfilled their ostensible function they would cease to exist. So who wants change?

I have, at this point, essentially abandoned the concept of justice, at least as a political phenomenon. I’m sure I still often use the language of justice casually. But in a fundamental sense I do not understand who the concept of justice is helping. Justice, as a target, has made the left into a cult, one that appeals constantly to a higher power that never appears and never delivers on anything. The appeal to justice is the most common act of left-wing practice and the most useless. I have never seen a single bit of good done through an appeal to justice. Instead I only see millions of people, ringed around a ziggurat, praying to a God who isn’t there. Justice does not exist in the corporeal universe. There is no justice. There is only power.

What do you want? Who doesn’t want you to get it? Which of you has more power? How can you gain more power to get what you want if you need it? Those are the only political questions I care about anymore. Unfortunately, the left seems not only unable to answer them, but indifferent to whether they have answers at all.

Update: This.

it’s all just arms and noses

For years I’ve debated writing a book about the self-care industry. I probably couldn’t get one published, but it’s fertile ground. The self-care industry is dedicated to the proposition that everyone who buys into it should live a life that is about nothing but self-actualization, self-improvement, and self-interest. The individual is sacrosanct in every sense, and anyone that suggests that what the individual desires is socially undesirable is simply an energy leech who wants to stop you from ascending to your final form. It’s Ayn Rand laundered through yoga memes and clod spirituality.

There’s an awful, awful lot you could say about all this – like I said, a book worth. But what seems to me to be the most obvious objection is also the most inevitably devastating to the self-care project. Consider this self-care meme, which is typical of the genre.

That you should never feel guilty is a commonplace in this world; guilt is never an appropriate response to something wrong that you’ve done but always a dysfunction, a failure to see the hidden righteousness in everything you’ve done. But please take a look at the last entry on the first line, “Saying No to Others,” and the second on the second line, “Asking For Your Needs to Be Met.” The immediate question is, what if what one person is saying no to is the other person asking for their needs to be met? What resolves the tie? Who does this philosophy say should be favored when these conflicts inevitably arise?

For an ethic of self-care to reign, there are two unworkable options. First is a bleak Nietzschean society where every individual asserts their own will wherever they can, where their “self-care” is actualized by relentlessly pursuing their naked self-interest at all costs. This has, I hope you’ll agree, certain social drawbacks, but more importantly for our concerns here it undermines self-care’s weird claim to both individualism and universality. If someone else who’s self-actualizing is stepping on your neck, it’s really hard to live your truth or whatever the fuck.

The other option is the one most self-care people seem to embrace, which is to simply pretend like there’s no such thing as a conflict between sincere people. We can all go about our lives as busy little cauldrons of self-esteem and positive attitudes and we’ll all end up fulfilling our destinies, if we only give up our guilt and our introspection. But our desires are everywhere in conflict; what I want will frequently be directly contrary to what you want. We can’t both fulfill our destinies because our perceptions of our destinies conflict. Under a wiser ideology we would be able to accept that we inevitably will lose out on many of the things that we want, that in fact the default state of adult life is not getting what you want. But self-care can’t countenance that; its basic conception of how the world should work is inimical to accepting disappointment.

Social justice politics are now dominant in our culture and ideas industries, like media, academia, and publishing. The inevitability of their rise in other arenas seems quite oversold to me. But they are the default language of those who write our culture, and so they are influencing our basic conceptions of what we can expect from our world. What they advance is a vision of a frictionless universe where, with better regulation of language and thought, everything can be orderly, just, and happy.

My politics ensure that I am a kind of utopian, and I think that with some easily-achievable changes society could be vastly more equal and just. But even in utopia we will live in a broken world, one where people want things that other people don’t want and where unhappiness and disappointment are something like the default state of human life. I understand that a lot of people in the world walk around feeling that they don’t matter, and that this is frequently because of systemic inequalities. I understand the validity and humane intentions of trying to make them see themselves in a different light. But I don’t know how self-care survives in a world where we understand the inevitability of conflicts between noble desires, the ineradicable incompatibility between us all.

oh you’ve got a particularly pessimistic and mature attitude towards Covid? that’s so fucking brave

We are living through a plague and things are very serious and we all need to sacrifice and endure in order to survive. We owe it to ourselves and to others to follow all of the protocols, wearing a mask, social distancing, and abiding by lockdowns and other rules from government and the medical establishment designed to prevent transmission of Covid-19. I am obeying them all and I hope that you all do too.

There has been, in these plague years, the emergence of a particular kind of creature. Though I had never encountered them before they appear to be an opportunistic parasite, one that was waiting in stasis for years to emerge into a period with the proper combination of desperation and moralism. This creature feeds on the unprecedented opportunity to lecture. It looks out and all it sees are people who are not as serious as it is, not as careful as it is, not as dedicated to protecting every life as it is. We have all failed in its eyes. I will call it, I guess, the Covid realist, for that is surely how they see themselves.

For the Covid realist, no amount of pessimism about the virus is deep enough. No amount of adherence to the rules is strict enough. No surrender to the inevitability of more and more restrictions is complete enough. With the Covid realist you learn quickly that the only correct response is to nod along more deeply with every new, more pessimistic thing they say. Every utterance becomes a referendum not only on your apprehension of where we stand relative to the virus but on whether you are willing to accept the harsh, brutal truths of the Covid realist.

The Covid realist religiously follows the Atlantic‘s pompous, self-impressed, imperious coverage. The Covid realist says, “you think you’ll be able to see your friends after the vaccine? Fat chance!” The Covid realist tells you that, when you’re feeling upbeat about the medical advances, the virus could always mutate. The Covid realist wants you to know that you’ll never see the lower half of a stranger’s face again. When you say that you’re looking forward to going to a basketball game next fall the Covid realist says, “Ha, good luck.” The Covid realist thinks that imagining holding a birthday party a year from now is not only deluded, but irresponsible. The Covid realist does not just want to regulate your behavior. The Covid realist wants to purify your thoughts.

The existence of idiots who resist masks and dismiss the virus as a hoax is lamentable. But while making up your mind to be the opposite is better than that alternative, it is also a way to make yourself into a cruel person, cruel and self-satisfied and righteous. It is a way to trade on other people’s misery to attain some sort of momentary social standing in an exchange which should never have been a contest in the first place. The restrictions we are enduring as a response to Covid are devastating. The human costs of lockdowns are immense. People die due to lockdowns. People miss their last opportunities to see their loved ones during lockdown. Children and teachers struggle through compromised schooling. Battered wives and neglected children are forced by the circumstances of lockdown to stay in dangerous environments. And the things we are locked out of, the restaurants and bars and museums and ballgames and concerts – these things are the stuff of life, the stuff of human social life, the kind of things that we endure the grind for.

Let people feel things. Follow all of the protocols strictly. Advocate for others to do so, even stridently. Be pessimistic in your assessments when you feel it’s appropriate. But let people feel things. Including optimism. Including investing great hopes in the vaccine. Including planning ahead for better futures, like ones where they don’t have to visit their parents through a window or where they can walk around in a park without a mask. This fucking sucks. It hurts so bad. I am surviving but that’s what it is, surviving. To be a Covid realist is to say to most everyone, “you are failing, even at this, at surviving.” Don’t be one.