Saturday, September 29, 2012

you're either with us or against us

Liberals are an interesting species.

The time has come again for the liberals to attack those on their left. Such things are cyclical, like the coming of the cicadas. This is interesting timing because the liberals I know and read are very, very confident that Obama is running away with the election. And this itself is interesting, as the typical justification of the rampant redbaiting and Peter Beinart-style calls for purges of the unfaithful is that we're in a trench war, here, people, and Charlie is everywhere, and so if the Democrats were to nominate Zell Miller your job would be to shut the fuck up and support him as he destroyed everything we believe in, because it's a two party system. But, now, see, because they think that their guy is winning, it's also not the right time because... well. You know. It's never the time. They are, in every sense, kept people, owned by a party and its leader, and they have given away every part of themselves that is capable of critical thought.

I don't know how else it say it, considering I've said it a thousand times. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. I want it so bad I don't know how to act or what to do. I want it so bad I can't sit still or sleep at night. I want it with everything I have that's capable of want. And I know that this is the kind of talk that invites pure contempt from those like Tbogg, who have only the idiom of sarcasm and derision and cannot imagine straightforward moral sentiment. But that's the truth. I want my country to stop killing innocent people. And the innocent people we kill the most, these days, are Muslim. And the policy of the Obama administration has expanded the zone in which we kill innocent Muslims, they have shown no interest in stopping killing innocent Muslims, and in fact their campaign constantly brags about the drone program which kills innocent Muslims. That's just true. All of it is just true. Obama is directly responsible for the expansion of hostilities against Muslims targets which result in the death of people who have taken no violent action against the United States. Voting for him cannot, does not, and will not challenge that reality.

So what do you want me to do? Break bread with the establishment liberals, try to reason with them, bring these ideas into the discussion? I've tried. Many have tried. Check a Tbogg comment thread. See what happens to people who criticize the drone program. Try a Balloon Juice thread. Try and insert some anti-drone sentiment into the comments. Believe me, I've tried. The result is total, immediate, and angry dismissal. Always. These ideas are not permitted. For all the talk of "lesser evils," you are far more likely to find conventional liberals defending the drone program than speaking of it as evil at all.

This is the most elementary, most important point of all: there is no internal pressure for Democrats to reform, precisely because of people like Tbogg and the crew at LGM. Defenders of Obama lay down lines you can't cross in every direction, shrinking the bounds of the responsible or the fair or the mature or the realistic or the pragmatic or the strategic... And then you look up and there is nothing for you to do. You become Paul Begala or you are a traitor. What would Tbogg tell me to do, if he actually stopped building a monument to his own sarcasm and cleverness, if he stepped outside of his meticulously curated temple of snark and flippancy, and if he actually considered the question of what to do if you want America to stop killing children? He'd say to grow up. He has no other arrow in his quiver.

So what else, if liberals themselves refuse to discuss anything? Wait for the "appropriate time"? It is never the right time for supporters of Obama. Now that it is the general election, some people say "you should have primaried him!" Well, back in primary season, the idea of primarying him was seen as the ultimate in unserious posturing. After the election? Do you honestly believe that most Balloon Juice commenters will allow criticism of Obama after the election, if he wins? Do you believe Tbogg will countenance such a thing? The crew at Lawyers Guns and Money? Adam Serwer? Of course not. These positions are simply off limits, in ways that a whole host of positions that conservatives hold are not.

It's a funny thing, this division into two parties that supposedly divide the world's "legitimate" opinions between them. Many of the commenters at Balloon Juice think that they hate Republicans more than anything. But their behavior suggests that they hate Glenn Greenwald more. Tbogg might say that he hates conservatives more than anyone. But he sure hates Yves Smith more. That's what his behavior tells you. That's what his rhetoric tells you. People who say they hate conservatives start to sound like them at the merest hint of criticism.

For a brief moment in the height of the Bush hysteria, conventional liberals of the Tbogg variety knew what it was like to be one of us-- to be reflexively dismissed from the conversation, to be asked to take loyalty oaths and purity tests, to be subject to redbaiting and McCarthyism, to constantly hear dark talk of culls and purges from within. I mean they literally say, these days, "you're either with us or against us," talk that they themselves rightly ridiculed as the language of fascism not five years ago. Back then, they correctly perceived that these kind of tactics are inherently illiberal, totally contrary to the spirit of free inquiry and skepticism that is the deep structure of democracy and liberal society. They knew, then, that blind adherence to parties and leaders was a moral and intellectual failure. They knew, then, that bullying groupthink and categorical exclusions and affinity pledges and threats were each and all ugly, unfortunate, and totally antithetical to the more equitable and just world they seek to build. And then, they forgot. And it makes people crazy in a truly frightening way; it takes reasonable, progressive people like DougJ and turns them into Manichean monsters.

Not that this will help them win. They're Democrats, after all; they lose more than their share and then they making winning a kind of losing. It looks like Obama is going to win, and this will occasion another orgy of liberal self-congratulation and overconfidence. And then they will find that on issue after issue, they lose. They will lose on what the wonks consider "the serious issues," the policy issues, the votes in Congress. But they will also lose in their broader goals of making the world a more just, equitable, and peaceful place, for the simple fact that they will mercilessly attack anyone who demands justice, equality, or peace. They will never ask themselves  if their own behavior is in part to blame, the way that they make the logical extension of their own ideas into a matter of shame far worse than the revanchist conservatism they say they hate. This is the privilege of the people who anoint themselves the arbiters of responsible liberalism.

You know how the rest goes. I'm always a little bit charmed by the commenters who pop up to berate me on this stuff, to tell me that, for example, pacifism is juvenile and that I should feel shame for what I believe in. They have to believe that contempt has an inexhaustible ability to change minds; I have heard it, after all, for the entirety of my adult life. And it will continue. I used to wonder, quite often, why people like Serwer or Spencer Ackerman or Tbogg or the endless host of centrist Democrats are so endlessly enthusiastic in their hippie punching, why their passion for it is so clearly superior to their passion for fighting Republicans. I don't, anymore. They defend our brutal and murderous system for the same reason that everyone does, because it is their system, and they have grown up into an ecology of propaganda that conditions them to justify it. But they also espouse a political doctrine that insists that human beings deserve equal dignity and an equal right to life. So those that highlight the contradiction in their support for the establishment and their liberal convictions are more dangerous than those who simply oppose those convictions.

Like I said: you know what my comments section will be like. But past all of the insults and the equivocations and the distortions and the focus on the personal failings of those who point the violence out, there remains dead innocent people who wouldn't be dead if it weren't for Obama and his policy. And nobody-- not Rebecca Solnit, not Tbogg, not Robert Farley or Adam Serwer or John Cole or anybody-- can tell me a single fucking thing to do about it.

Update:  A commenter asks:
 How do you respond to this, from a LG&M post?:
"More centrally, though, the Friedersdorf-on-drones/youthful djw-on-welfare reform mentality on the purpose of voting is based on an indefensibly narcissistic account of democracy. The moral purpose of democracy is not to keep my hands clean and feel good about myself, no matter how much politicians and other demagogues claim otherwise. The moral purpose of democracy is the reduction of abusive power in the world. Unfortunately there’s a lot of it, and democracy’s pretty clearly an insufficient tool to address it, but that’s no reason not to use the tool, when and where you can."

Like so: that's a bullshit definition of democracy's purpose; that this is the purpose of democracy is pure assertion, with no attempt whatsoever to defend it; even if I were to accept that definition of democracy's purpose, I don't believe that in fact voting for Obama would achieve what that dude is claiming it would achieve-- he advances no argument whatsoever to prove that voting for Obama would, in fact, reduce abusive power-- and that in fact is exactly Conor's argument; and finally the conflation of not voting for Obama with giving up the tool of democracy is question begging of the most absurd order. It's an empty piece, one that, as with most hippie punching, depends far more on posture and pose than on actual argument. The stance of haughty, disgusted superiority is meant to stand in for actual argument. (Calling an argument about the moral status of dead children "narcissistic," for example, is a perfect example of changing the subject to the virtues of the people arguing and refusing to countenance the actual content at hand.)

Sunday, September 16, 2012

blogic and the ways of the wonk

During the arguments about teacher unions this past week, I made a simple point: we say we value education, but we don't pay teachers nearly as well as jobs that do nothing of benefit to society. A rejoinder I heard constantly was "see, the difference between a public school teacher and Well-Compensated Useless Job X is that taxes pay for the former. That's why people want to fight to reduce teacher compensation." And I really think that's indicative of a certain shortsightedness that comes from constantly reading and thinking the types of arguments that are featured on blogs. Yes: in a deracinated kind of way, that argument makes sense. But in the larger perspective, it doesn't matter why we don't want to pay teachers. In capitalism, what is valued is what is paid for. As long as teachers make less than those in their same educational cohort, teaching will be correctly perceived as a low paying occupation. The genesis of opposition is irrelevant. And that's what really matters for what we were talking about, what the consequences are for our society.

But the fact that this argument was so incomplete and so unsatisfying (in an discussion where I was explicitly speaking about larger-order societal values) ultimately didn't matter; it was blogical, and in that context that's all that mattered. It ignored the broader substantive implications of what was being discussed, but followed the well-worn patterns of Twitter-friendly argumentation. Blogical arguments proceed from A then to B then to C, even if what we're discussing lives in the interstices between L and Q. Common to blogic are responses that neither reflect on the deeper concerns at hand nor rebut the arguments they consider but rather drag the conversation down whatever alleyway of obfuscation and minutiae is necessary to win a temporary victory. Blogic is the language of those who look for the missing key under the lamp because the light is there.

Blogic is a signalling-laden communicative mode. In addition to expressing the point at hand, blogical argument performs the frequently more-important task of demonstrating that the speaker knows how insiders argue. Terms common to a sophomore economics seminar are the coin of the realm, and their significance and appropriateness are always assumed, never proven. Typically they are dispensed they way an inexperienced cook uses spices, a little more thrown in here and there. These terms are used to defend some simplistic deductive explanation of a complex and shifting phenomena, using the human capacity for narrative to give the sheen of plausibility to explanations that cannot possibly be verified through evidence. All blogical stories are just so stories.

I thought Dylan Matthews fared quite poorly during the Twitter debate that ensued over the CTU strike. (Pardon me for not being able to gracefully link to it all, but then, ephemerality is part of why people like Twitter.) In part this is simply because people like Doug Henwood and Corey Robin are smart and good at arguing. But on a deeper level, I think he failed simply because he is so thoroughly a creature of a narrow blogical mindset. Confronted by people who do not believe that moral arguments can be settled through reference to pie charts, Matthews's instinct was to dig deeper, to reduce away precisely the issues that his interlocuters wanted to discuss. Typical of blogic is the claim "that is not an argument," which always actually means "that is not an argument expressed in the idiom that I expect." This insistence should naturally attract suspicion and rejection, but because so many of prominence are existentially blogical, you can usually get away with it, and thus your substantive weakness becomes rhetorical strength.

Matthews is Ezra Klein's researcher. He's not bad at that job. But research for blogs is a particular, peculiar kind of research. It involves the sifting of abstracts for choice nuggets that can be shined to perfection by removing the sediment of context, limitation, and qualification which researchers stubbornly provide. This is then referred to as "the research" or "the data." The research and the data are dispositive when they confirm the preexisting assumptions of the blogical and not when they don't. (In discussions of education, they very rarely do, for school reform types.) The misunderstandings of what research says is ultimately a consequence of misunderstanding what research is. Shorn of the necessary context developed by spending hours reading full studies in a particular field, and invoked by those who lack the experience of generating research and the attendant skeptical  understanding that comes with it, research become just another argumentative piece, used to assemble some jigsaw puzzle of cleverness, plausibility, and "seriousness."

None of which is to say that all blogical discourse is unhelpful or unnecessary. Wonks are sometimes necessary. You need look no further than Klein's blog, and Matthews's research within, during the debate on health care reform. Their work was essential. When discussing complex situations like American health care, which lies in the intersection of politics and economics and science and morality, it is essential to have populizers and explainers. Of all the potential complaints about the wonks, the oddest to me are complaints about their generalism. Policy generalism is a consequence of democracy; the idea of a polity is founded on the idea that all citizens should aspire to be informed on as many issues as possible. And though wonkery is usually underpinned by the intellectual architecture of capitalism, it needn't necessarily be. Mike Konczal is a leftist wonk, as well as one of my favorite people on the Internet. I don't deny the importance of wonks and blogic; I merely deny that their mode is universally applicable. Ezra Klein is necessary but not sufficient.

The trouble is that the popular Internet discourse has become dominated by blogic, and I encounter people all the time who seem literally incapable of assimilating arguments not expressed in that style. And that's what was happening in the arguments during this strike; sundry Tweeters complaining that those supporting the teachers weren't "arguing in the right way." It wasn't that they were choosing a preferred kind of argument; that was all they knew. Blogic dominates professional blogs for various structural reasons. Professional blogging is largely made up of magazines, think tanks, and nonprofits, and the leadership of magazines, think tanks, and nonprofits is dominated by the kind of Ivy League pedants who want to be knowing more than they want knowledge. And because networking effects from the earliest days of the blogosphere still define the contours of the blogosphere, to a great degree, many of the most prominent voices out there sound very much the same. The more that people see argument expressed in the same mode again and again, the more they start to believe that there is no other mode, and the harder and harder it becomes for us to understand other ways to address our problems. There are alternatives.

Wonks should work their work, and the rest of us ours. But too often I find them defensively, angrily protective of their prominence, quick to dismiss arguments outside their own idiom with a "LOL" or some shitty invocation of what a big deal they are. We have big problems, intractable problems, and solving them means we have to not just look for new solutions but look for a new language in which to express them. Everyone should feel free to float around in their own pond, just stop insisting that there are no other waters in which to swim.

I cannot tell you how many times I've gotten counsel, from strangers and friends, telling me that I could be somebody if I just played ball a little bit more and expressed myself the right way. And there are indeed times when I know that I could express my arguments in the expected way and see them get better play. But I reject the internal logic of that mode of argument, and the professional apparatus which rests upon it. And ultimately my rejection comes from a desire to oppose not just the arguments but the deep structure, the firmament of our system, the architecture of capitalism.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

they hate us for our freedoms

I've been reading a lot about how the recent unrest and violence in the Muslim world, directed against American targets and reflecting broad anger towards America and its actions, actually shows the superiority of Western values and freedoms. See, the right of that horrendous imbecile to make his little film shows that Anglo commitment to freedom of speech is absolute, even when we find the content of such speech offensive. Muslim reaction to this film, and calls for the prosecution of the people responsible for it, show that they just do get freedom the way we do. We defend our freedoms even when they cost us.

Except, that, no we don't.
Azhar Ahmed, 19, of Ravensthorpe, West Yorkshire, was charged with sending a grossly offensive communication.
He told Huddersfield Magistrates Court he accepted the message had been "unacceptable" but had denied it was "grossly offensive".
The judge said his comments were "derogatory" and "inflammatory"....
The offensive message, which said "all soldiers should die and go to hell", was posted by Ahmed just two days later on 8 March....
Ahmed told the court he was only trying to make his point that many other deaths in Afghanistan were being ignored and added he had no idea it would cause so much upset....
District Judge Jane Goodwin said Ahmed's Facebook remarks were "derogatory, disrespectful and inflammatory".
He will be sentenced later.
Freedom of speech, you see, unless it is directed against our precious, fragile troops, or when it is invoked by a Muslim. Since the West's decade-plus long effort to collectively punish Muslims began, we have taken a novel approach to our inconsistent application of human rights: human rights are for humans. Muslims don't qualify. Not now. Maybe not ever.

Wednesday, September 12, 2012

I like everyone I argue with, it's just one of those things

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

a man should use a word like "essential" carefully

1. So Jake, if you think that their task is too essential to allow them to strike, why do you want to pay them like shit and destroy their benefits? 

2. Seriously: what in the holy name of fuck has Jacob Weisberg ever contributed to the human species, beyond occasional sensual shoulder rubs for Mickey Kaus and cleaning up enough of Matt Yglesias's relentless misspellings that his conjectural musings can be appreciated by the world's imbeciles? And I guaran-goddamn-tee you that Jacob Weisberg makes way, way more than your average Chicago teacher. So what are the priorities here? People like Weisberg always talk a big game about how teaching is important, but they don't want teachers to make a significant fraction of what they make, even though their jobs are, well, meaningless bullshit.

Is your job essential, Jake?  Does the world really need articles like "A Better Way to Prepare a Mint Julep" and "Why It's Feminist to Call Your Mom a Cunt" and "Maybe Mitt Romney is Actually the Blacker Candidate" and shitty TV recaps by twee undersexed Wire-quoting pencil-dicked mawkish "post-political" Harvard-philosophy-major careerist grinders whose sole concerns are playing grabass with underage interns and worrying about whether anybody important will tweet their shitty piece comparing Sons of Anarchy to late period Walter Benjamin? Would we all suffer without those things? I mean Jesus, I think Troy Patterson can come up with yet another article proclaiming what an advanced sophisticate he is without the late night Gchat mutual fellatio sessions. We will find a way to survive without another article about how black is actually white and how the Monkees were secretly better than the Beatles and how it's actually pleasurable to pour scalding hot coffee on your balls and also too innovative innovators innovating innovatively. Your painfully unfunny sports podcasts and senior semiotics seminar paper-like hamhanded movie reviews would probably limp their wretched ways onto the Internet without you. 

I'm saying: we make choices, all the time, about the kind of society we really want, about what we're willing to actually pay for.