Sunday, March 31, 2013

Debs's Pacifist Speechmaking

I wanted to share this brief article by Bernard J. Brommel with you, on the pacifist speechmaking of my hero, Eugene Debs. He went to jail for his opposition to war. If nothing else, he must be admired for his courage and his integrity.


Saturday, March 30, 2013

getting past feelings

Dan Denvir has written a piece that articulates many of my thoughts on the current state of social liberalism today. (I don't, of course, suggest that he would agree with me in turn.) It's a great essay, and you should really read it. His essential point is that, contrary to the conventional wisdom, conversations and discourse in and of themselves don't move us towards justice. What's more, because we tend to define success based on getting people to say the right things (an indication, we hope, that they think the right things), when we get there, the push loses steam, and little is accomplished. As I've said here before, having come up through the humanities, I can't tell you how many times I've seen fellow students preface their remarks by checking their privilege. Privilege is real, and it's important to recognize yours. But once you've check it, so what? What's been accomplished? That's the beginning of action. Not the end.

Denvir's piece comes in the shadow of a national conversation on marriage equality. I've been struck, following the discussion, by how different the marriage equality fight is from so much of the rest of social liberalism. Winning the right for same sex marriage is a specific, identifiable goal, one that can be achieved through the legislature or through the judiciary, and you know when you've achieved it. It has precious little to do with feelings; every person in the country could feel the right way about gay people and gay rights and it wouldn't change the systematic and material inequality that a lack of marriage rights represents. I don't think it's at all a coincidence that a cause within social liberalism that has the most specific goals is a cause where we've seen the most meteoric success.

I've been following this Adria Richards controversy, and one thing that strikes me is the fact that there's so little consideration, with this topic, of argumentative capital. By that I mean the notion that we have a certain reserve of political will that we can summon at a particular time, and that people experience outrage fatigue, and so we have to play our cards intelligently. What has often struck me is how we have issues on which we are pushed to think nothing but strategically, such as the drone issue (conscience must always take a backseat to politics), and issues on which we almost never consider political strategy at all. I will show my cards: I cannot imagine a better way to inspire a backlash against the nascent feminist movement within tech. I spoke the other day about the backlash against the Antioch Sexual Offense Prevention Policy, and the larger backlash that it was a part of, in part because I interact daily online with those who seem blind to the very idea of backlash. The question is whether this blindness is chosen. There is, after all, social percentage in it.

For every piece I read online about legal challenges to women's rights and equality, such as the recent criminalization of abortion in North Dakota, I read at least three about how someone said something mean at the bar. It's important for people not to say shitty things, it is. But from the vantage point of a man for whom many of these issues must remain necessarily theoretical, it is not as important as a woman's right to terminate a pregnancy. I remain, as ever, willing to be convinced otherwise.

When I think about the focus on pure thoughts, pure feelings, and pure people within social liberalism, I think of bankers and Wall Street. People really don't like Wall Street and the financial industry. But it doesn't matter; they have power, and economic, material power renders personal insult irrelevant. For this reason, I find the essentially strategy of social liberalism writ large-- get to pure thoughts, good feelings, and well wishes first, and from their achieve power-- to be fundamentally flawed. The line runs backwards. Achieve power first, then good thoughts will come or won't.

This attitude will inevitably engender resistance, as it should, and not merely from the usual suspects. The focus on feelings comes from places both legitimate and not. Legitimate, because human beings are emotional creatures, who live suffused in emotion, and for those of us who enjoy the rare privilege of basic material security, social and cultural comfort is essential to the commission of day-to-day life. The prioritization of the material over the affective must not be confused with the denigration of the importance of psychic distress or the imperative to end it. But it is incumbent upon all people of conscience, who seek to make the world into a more just and equitable place, to articulate the endpoint of their political desires. There is no need for one's political goals to be "realistic" in the myopic sense that presses good people to accept the petty cruelty of short-term political realism. There must be, however, a profound fear of the proud uselessness of a politics of personal righteousness. For too many, all ideology collapses into a sorting mechanism into which the righteous and the unclean are sorted, and for such people, it is better that more remain to fill the latter category (and provide an example against which to demonstrate superiority) than that they be brought to the side of justice. You know that, though in the short term it might be convenient for you to deny it.

There is no contradiction between the necessity of a politics that is articulable in the idiom of material change and the moral poverty of a politics that cares only about what is immediately plausible. Indeed, a politics that insists on the achievable while it refuses any narrow predictions about its odds for achievement is the only kind of any real use.

The internet's potential is forever being mistaken for its actuality. Because the internet is a communicative medium, or set of mediums, those who are most engaged with it flatter themselves to believe that they use it effectively to understand the world. In fact, it's been my experience that those who are most connected within the world of internet media are among the least aware of the wider world. The seductive tendency to imagine that one's blogroll or Twitter feed represents the world at large can become overpowering. Occasionally, because I am always fighting and because I am frequently the subject of conversations in which I don't participate, I am asked by sympathetic emailers if it hurts. I always tell them: all I have to do is close my laptop and walk outside. There lies a world where the various controversies of the day-to-day outrage cycle, so inflamed and bloody when viewed through the prism of a Chrome tab, are pointless and mute. So few people out there know that the self-aggrandizing edifice of internet political commentary even exists to be embroiled in controversy; even fewer take the ritualistic, rhythmic ebb and flow of the daily scream seriously.

This is not an endorsement of that worldview. It is, indeed, a kind of myopia, if occasionally a healthy one. Much as how the assumption of a superiority in the particular ignorance of middle America to the lived experience of the coastal elites is, on cursory examination, insulting to both, so thinking that the online world is somehow worse for its particular solipsism than its digitally disconnected counterpart is mere reverse snobbery. I do not posit a superior virtue of the less connected. I mean only to point out that the most prominent netizens are generally guilty of a similarly limited perspective, and that this is a profoundly dangerous tendency. For within online worlds, such as that of online social liberalism, which is ultimately a small one, the tendency to see the opinions and convictions of those around you as those of the world can be irresistible. I remember reading many people assert that "everyone" hated Seth McFarlane's job as host of the Oscars. I could only think to myself, everyone in a position to broadcast their opinion to you hated it. The world is broader than you know.

The fear, therefore, is that progress within the elect is mistaken for progress within The People, and this is disastrous for all social movements. I will tell you plainly: I think that, outside of the specific (and wonderful) advance of marriage equality, social liberalism is losing, and losing quickly. You might, if you're inclined, check polling on who self-identifies as a feminist, or how many people think that racism is a thing of the past. I simply try to remain as alive to the opinions of those next door as I do to those who write on a prominent blog, and I detect reason for discouragement, perhaps panic. But then, I am treating this question as empirical, not theoretical, and surely there are many who would bring their considerable skills in inter-liberal combat to bear against me. Some have, and often effectively. For my part I can only say that I have sat through enough seminars to see bell hooks and Fanon and Butler shot across classrooms like rubber bands, and I no longer know what this internecine warfare accomplishes even theoretically. Except, that is, to elevate one true believer over the next.

Theory, of course, is necessary. The notion of a division between theory and practice is not helpful. As the man said, nothing is more practical than a good theory. The failing begins when the commission of theory becomes oriented towards the short-term interplay of individuals, rather than towards being woven into a broad fabric of productive behavior.

The odd thing is that the vast work yet to be done is alternatively understood or not by the people I am here considering. To the credit of social liberalism, it recognizes the immense injustice and casual bigotry that still pervades our culture like asbestos slowly seeping out of an old building's walls, dangerous not despite its slow-acting nature but precisely because of it. When feminists speak of a profoundly misogynist culture, or when people discuss the casual racism at the core of the American character, it drives conservatives nuts, and yet I think only this frankness and only this honesty could possibly lead to productive work. Yet for all of this wise understanding of all the work to be done, I find that in a strange sense most social liberals profoundly underestimate how hard it will be to shake the foundations that they identify as rotten. Somehow, the work is monumental but straightforward; the mistaken must be educated, and the ultimate vehicle for this education is always the same, the aggressive condescension and heaping irony that has become the dominant idiom of social liberalism. I can only say again: from my limited perspective, the circle is not widening. The accelerating rage of those within it, as understandable and necessary as it is, seems to be mistaken for the efficacy of their utterance.

Perhaps I'm wrong here, empirically, theoretically, personally. I would be happy to be proven wrong, and I'm sure there are those who would delight in doing that proving. Perhaps we'll both end up happy. But when I observe the young people around me, I truly fear for the future, and I am struck once again by the division between those who populate the undergraduate classes and those who live in the graduate world-- and the numerical dominance of the former compared to the latter. My students, writ large, are neither beacons of young righteousness or symbols of creeping reaction. But they are, in my view, overly confident in their own blamelessness, and not possessed of a feeling of personal responsibility to make the world a better place. This is true here at Purdue, and it was true at the University of Rhode Island, and if I can be forgiven for engaging in such crude generalization, it seems true of youth culture. And they will go on to rule the world.

Why are they this way? I would argue that the problem is not that they have not learned the lessons of today's social liberalism, but that they have learned them too well. Because they have emerged into a culture that associates doing right with being right, because they have been told that the way to fight racism and sexism is not to be racist or sexist themselves, they look around the world and see nothing to be done. As they consider themselves to be the furthest thing from racist or sexist (whether or not that self-perception is terribly deluded), and the world of social liberalism has focused so intently on crimes of thought and crimes of feeling, they cannot conceive of a personal duty to social justice that transcends the self. It is, really, a profoundly American conviction: the world is as good or bad as I live it to be. That they recoil from the label feminist, I take to be the product of a ruthless conservative campaign of dishonesty and ridicule. But that they see social movements in and of themselves as at best quaint curios of a premodern world and at best as actively wicked agents of controversy for its own sake, I feel something akin to hopelessness.

All of this, as is typical, will likely be seen as terribly critical of those engaged in online social liberalism, but this is not my intent. Who could fail to understand the focus on feelings? I understand, too well, the prominence of emotions, because I have them. More, I have the understanding that, not the victim of systematic regimes of degradation and marginalization like so many people are, I can only imagine the psychic costs of so much assumed disrespect, stirred into our culture like bleach into coffee. Just as, indeed, the material costs of racism, sexism, homophobia, and similar social failings remain for me unalterably academic, despite my desires to understand. I cannot and I do not take any pleasure in seeing so much failure in the people who are working daily to live my convictions. I see them, after all, as my people, even as I know that a vanishingly small number of them see me as one of theirs.

But I insist on a clear, unromantic, and ruthless self-critical perspective on the path of progress, and have neither time nor patience to waste on all the many people who see social justice as yet more fodder for the endless game of social sorting, the ceaseless contest between insecure people to establish their value relative to others. I am done applauding sad stories that have no earthly expression in actual progress, and I am tired of those who mistake the cataloging of injustice for action against the same. We are losing. And that condition cannot change while we occupy the same mindset with which it was first fomented. If business as usual within social liberalism was really moving us closer and closer to justice, we would be so much closer than we are now. You must see beyond the social conditions that compel you to heap praise on your fellow travelers, and the numbing optimism that has infected the political internet, to see the world's continuing, elementary brokenness.

I have and will accept the persistent unpopularity of opinions critical to business as usual, particularly those who exercise their progressive politics purely defensively, working tirelessly to occupy a place of permanent apologia that will save them from becoming the target of political critique. Such people are a dime a dozen, and they are, taken as a whole, a force for reaction. They bring heat but no light; they weigh the movement down. Instead, what is needed now is the recognition that all positive political action comes first from self-implication, and then the insistence on the privileging of concern for material conditions over more pointless braying over crimes of the mind. The pleasing, false narrative of ascendancy through personal purity must fall away, and in its place the only question of enduring value, the fierce, urgent indictment of "what is to be done?"

punching down

This essay by J. Robert Lennon is, surely, less inflammatory and annoying than the headline that accompanies it. But it's still a profoundly useless piece of generalization, exactly as helpful or unhelpful as saying "Most of anything is bad." I also think that it shows a profound lack of perspective. There are tons and tons of people out there who already want to grind an ax against longform fiction and other kinds of challenging art, out of a resentment towards the implied judgment that they project onto those who like different things. I don't think that these people need more ammunition. Insecurity already conditions many to dislike traditional "high" culture.

Also: the world is full of writers who don't read, and they're terrible, and their particular terribleness is  bound up in the belief that allows them to think that they don't have to read to write, which is that they are the center of every universe and their lives are inherently interesting. Stop validating them. Their writing is bad and they should feel bad.

I wrote an essay last year about the total commercial and growing critical dominance of pop culture, in which I pointed out that everyone feels entitled to attack traditional art and culture, but attacking pop art will result in apoplexy and accusations of snobbery. I just want to point out: if I wrote an essay for Salon titled "Most comic books are terrible," the Internet would explode. I think your laptop would catch on fire if you opened it. Links to it would cause instant burn-in on your tablet. They'd sign me up for the sex offender registry. All of this, despite the fact that pop culture is commercially dominant and under absolutely no threat whatsoever, and literary fiction, like so many other artforms, is in danger of extinction. It just goes to show that there is no reality which a committed social group cannot twist to ensure its own self righteousness.

people who won't clean their own house

Scott Lemieux:
It is true that I think that, in some cases, seeing things in Paul that aren’t there reflects the same kind of contrarianism that compels writers prominent enough to write for Salon to farcically assert that Romney might be more liberal than Obama or that Romney’s judicial appointments might be similar to Dwight Eisenhower’s. There is a certain segment of the nominal hard left that is far more charitable to conservative Republicans than to moderately liberal Democrats, and this segment is the almost exclusive province of the privileged. But there are certainly other reasons for what I consider excessive optimism about the Paul filibuster, and I hope the optimists are right about it!
So first things first, again, you've got this bizarre discussion of the privilege of white dudes by a blog that is chock a block with white dudes. I really just think that these guys have been complaining about other people's lack of diversity in political arguments for so long that they have lost any sense of self-awareness or irony about it all. It also suggests, again, that these are people for whom people of color and women are a political tool, a prop of temporary necessity to be used as a bludgeon as they work tirelessly to exclude and marginalize left-wing political commentary. In any case, I would suggest that a bunch of straight white dudes not tell Glenn Greenwald that he is privileged, considering that he's a gay man who is forced to live abroad thanks to a hideously discriminatory set of laws that prevent him from residing in the United States with the person he loves. But for them to get to that perspective, they'd actually have to engage in self-implicature, which simply does not exist at Lawyers Guns and An Unhealthy Infatuation with Glenn Greenwald.

As for the charge that meanie lefties are mean against the centrist neckbeards of the world, well, there's this.


Were this opinion voiced by a Republican in 2004, even in that context of daily insanity, this would be taken as country-destroying extremism. Given that it violates not only every notion of personal freedom, the basic ideals of democracy, and several millenia of civilization, I think it's fair to call it a more extreme utterance than Glenn Greenwald pointing out that, contra Erik Loomis, it's not true that "only a privileged white male" could refuse to vote for Obama out of concern for civil liberties.

Lemieux here, as is the custom of Lawyers Guns Dungeons and Dragons, claims a commitment to civil liberties he's done absolutely nothing to earn. If he actually cared about civil liberties, he'd surely have been posting about this kind of Democrat insanity, which I assure you is now perfectly common. Where are those posts? Where are LGM bloggers freaking out about this utter rejection of the very idea of military constraint and international law? Well, again: this is a guy from their team, not from the left-wing that they hate so completely, so it's pure silence. Crickets. If there's no angle with which to beat up Greenwald or punch a hippie, they just aren't interested. So I say again: if you're so totally unwilling to make a commitment to civil liberties and the rule of law the primary subject of your work, rather than as a brief aside you employ as a defensive feint, stop claiming the virtue of giving a shit about civil liberties, or international law, or Muslim life. You've got no right to such a claim until you actually fight for those things.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

you gotta give people a little sugar

You've undoubtedly seen (if you're on Facebook) many people switching their profile pic to an image supporting equal marriage rights for gay people. You've also probably seen a little snark headed in that direction, or taken part in the same. I'm guilty of that, myself. But I don't mean to be too mean or too glib. I recognize the uselessness of a lot of political gestures, but I also know that politics is not separable from the field of culture and society in which we live, and that democracy is not something you do at a ballot box. Our problems are more to do with not enough people being political than with too many people being political, and if weighing in with easy gestures is the alternative to not engaging at all, I'll take it. I don't mistake this blog for something much more meaningful than a Facebook pic, after all.

More than anything, I just want them to apply this energy and this attention elsewhere, too.

stop digging, Erik

So Erik Loomis has responded-- or, really, "responded"-- to me as follows, in the comments:
I am not tenured, nor are most of the people at LGM.

As to the "substance" of the post, it's not worth a response. I will only say that the original post is specifically grounded in the context of the 2012 elections. If you think that voting for a political party that does not want to overturn the Voting Rights of 1965 is racist, then fine, I guess I'm a racist.
As should be clear, this is totally nonresponsive to my accusation, which is that Loomis's refusal to recognize the existence of nonwhite and women critics of Obama's drone program, as well as his repeated insistence that certain ideas can only be voiced by white men, amounts to racism. He's free to dispute that accusation. But saying that my argument is that it's racist to vote for the Democrats is a flat lie, and he knows it is. What's more, he still hasn't acknowledged that nonwhite people and women criticize Obama's drone program! He appears to be literally incapable of grappling with the fact that there are people who aren't white men who disagree with him. Which is precisely my point: he essentializes people of color and women as being inherently his political allies. He simply refuses to acknowledge the critics I've mentioned exist. If Dr. Loomis wants to actually respond to the substance of my post, he can. But I have a feeling he won't. Like a lot of people who fancy themselves to be Very Serious Political Operatives, as they work tirelessly to forbid left-wing discourse, he is content instead to evade, to mock, and to ignore. It's so much easier to hide among friends than to respond to actual criticism.

Oh, and he also can't read. I never said he had tenure.

Update: If this is really so complicated: I consider it offensive, and frankly racist, to ever say "only a person from this demographic could believe X." That's the definition of essentialism, and I think rather ugly. Now if Dr. Loomis was speaking in haste and regrets that comment, fine. Just retract it. Apologize for it. Because it's an ugly sentiment, and demonstrably untrue. People of color voted for Gary Johnson. Women voted for third party candidates. They might be small or very small in number. But they exist. And to insist that they don't exist is ugly, ugly, ugly.

people believe conspiracy theories because people conspire

I was reading this The American Conservative longread about elite university admissions, income inequality, and "meritocracy" last night. Like a lot of what TAC publishes, it mixes some really great analysis with an unfortunate proximity to creepiness. It also references Jerome Karabel's The Chosen, which I really cannot recommend enough. Combine it with Timothy Weiner's Legacy of Ashes and you'll understand much more about American elite culture.

I was struck by this passage:
During the 1920s, the established Northeastern Anglo-Saxon elites who then dominated the Ivy League wished to sharply curtail the rapidly growing numbers of Jewish students, but their initial attempts to impose simple numerical quotas provoked enormous controversy and faculty opposition. Therefore, the approach subsequently taken by Harvard President A. Lawrence Lowell and his peers was to transform the admissions process from a simple objective test of academic merit into a complex and holistic consideration of all aspects of each individual applicant; the resulting opacity permitted the admission or rejection of any given applicant, allowing the ethnicity of the student body to be shaped as desired.
This describes a conspiracy. And it occurred to me once again how stupid the supposedly savvy take on conspiracies and conspiracy theories is. People believe in conspiracy theories because people conspire. For every ludicrous conspiracy theory out there, there is some illegitimate scheme being perpetrated by those in power who conspire together. Often enough, I'm sure, we just haven't heard about it yet. You only need to look at the history of the crack epidemic and the CIA, the Gulf of Tonkin incident, MK Ultra, or similar to understand that conspiracies are not some unheard of phenomenon that only crazies could think about. The fact that there are many conspiracy theories that are looney tunes and persist against all evidence (say, the supposed Apollo 11 hoax) doesn't mean that people should be nearly as quick to dismiss all allegations of conspiracy as the work of cranks. After all, 9/11 was a conspiracy. It just happened to have been a conspiracy undertaken by Al Qaeda.

Now many people will tell you that the conspiracy among elite colleges to exclude Jews is not of the same kind as the ones typically discussed by the less evidence-based conspiracy theorists out there. But I think that's actually a mistake, an analytical mistake. Part of the point here is that you don't have to posit a shadowy cabal to argue that there is a conspiracy afoot. These college admissions officer probably weren't meeting in secret rooms while wearing robes and swearing oaths. Rather, they were engaged in an organic expression of bigotry against one of the most maligned and oppressed groups in history. By making conspiracy a matter of secretive cults and nonexistent organizations like the Illuminati, both conspiracy theorists and their critics underestimate the ways in which petty bigotries and self-interest can congeal quite suddenly into ugly, illegitimate crime.

Which brings us to Benghazi. I haven't discussed it, in large part because as a frequent critic of the Obama administration, my complaints would be easily dismissed as a matter of grinding an axe against it. And indeed, that's the tack that most defenders of the State Department and its handling of Benghazi has taken: those who bring up that bizarre string of connected incidents are merely out to attack Obama. Well, I've got to tell you, there's a lot of smoke, there, in a part of the world where we have an enormous amount of history telling us to suspect American misbehavior. And this is a perfect example of a situation where you don't have to posit some secretive taskmasters planning everything out in advance to think that there is conspiring going on. I don't think that the Benghazi attack was planned by the Obama administration or anything similar. I suspect that they were up to no good, some things went wrong, they panicked, and are now covering up various illegal and illegitimate actions. They weren't pulling all the strings from the very beginning. But that doesn't mean they didn't conspire and aren't conspiring now.

My suspicion is that there are more people who think that Benghazi doesn't pass the smell test, but are worried about saying so. And I don't think that it's pure partisanship that keeps them from saying so. I think, in fact, that what keeps them from speaking out is a fear of not looking savvy. Because if there's anything people in our political class are interested in defending, it's their commitment to appearing to be savvy insiders who are concerned about the right things. Few things get you considered a naif or a kook quicker than alleging conspiracy in a way that seems to elide with the conservative media. That's a mistake; letting other people's self-interested, bad analysis dictate your own is no way to better understand the world. Constant incredulity about the claims of one wing of the media merely makes you overly credulous about the claims of different wings. Once again, people are made naive by their desire to appear nothing but.

Monday, March 25, 2013

the bigotry of nonexistence

Awhile back, I asked a very simple question.

Falguni Sheth had written a post attacking the Obama administration for its murderous campaign against Muslims. Her argument was remarkably similar to that of Conor Friedersdorf, when he said that he couldn't vote for Barack Obama, given Obama's habit of murdering Muslims. Erik Loomis had attempted to undermine the legitimacy of this argument without actually rebutting it, by claiming that only a white man could possible advance it. That's not my editorializing. That is the text of the post.

So I asked: would Erik Loomis accuse Falguni Sheth of being a privileged white man? He never responded. To respond would require him to admit that there are nonwhite people, and women, who disagree with him politically. And like a lot of white male liberals, Loomis's consideration of nonwhite people and women is restricted solely to his ability to use them as leverage for his political points. To many or most white liberals, nonwhite people have become a political prop, essentialized nonentities who are useful only insofar as their interests can be used to shut down debate, the way Loomis tried to do against Conor Friedersdorf. That this is ugly towards both his targets and the people he uses as instruments of argument should go without saying. At the very least, the notion that any particular argument could not possibly be voiced by women or people of color is the worst kind of condescending liberal essentialism that denies such people personal choice and agency.

Now, Glenn Greenwald is making a very basic point, one he and I and others have been making for a long time: Obama's drone campaign and its terrible cruelty are allowed to continue because of who its victims are. No one would ever countenance a drone campaign in Sweden or Canada or Australia. It would never happen. And it would never happen because we only permit that kind of aggression against certain kinds of people, most often Muslims, who have been subject to a brutal campaign of collective punishment since 9/11, and a whole host of aggressions and indignities for decades longer. Our country permits the murder of Muslims because our country refuses to treat Muslims as human. If Loomis or the rest of the gang at LGM want to dispute that, I suggest they look up the record of hate crimes against Muslims or those thought to be Muslims in this country since 9/11, or read a fucking newspaper.

More directly to the point against Loomis, many, many people who are not white males have condemned drones. Greenwald has, helpfully, provided a list of people who supported Rand Paul's filibuster (without supporting Paul). There are many others who have not supported Paul explicitly but have repeatedly and angrily condemned the drone program that LGM has worked so hard to protect from criticism. Loomis and the rest of his merry band of hippie-punchers at LGM refuse to acknowledge that they exist. Here's another go round from Loomis. Where are the people Greenwald has repeatedly mentioned in Loomis's post? Why that silence? Why doesn't he respond to Greenwald's point, which has been made directly and repeatedly? Is Van Jones a privilege white male? Is Zaid Jilani? Is Margaret Kimberly a "bro-gressive"?

Two things reveal themselves in Loomis's silence on people who aren't white males and don't agree with him. First, that he has no argument that is not a genetic fallacy, that he is literally incapable of expressing an argument on this subject that does not stem from his self-identified proximity to the needs and desires of women and people of color. And second, that to Erik Loomis, nonwhite people are useful political tools to be used as a cudgel against his political opponents, and to be ignored when their opinions are inconvenient for him.

Glenn locates racism in the refusal of many to take Muslim life as a non-negotiable priority the way they make, say, defense of Social Security a non-negotiable priority. He's right to do so. I have a more particular accusation. I would personally accuse Erik Loomis of racism of a less direct kind: by refusing to acknowledge the existence of nonwhite people who oppose the drone program, because of the political inexpediency of such acknowledgment, he is projecting a level of disrespect and contempt far worse than active insult or degradation. To refuse to acknowledge that someone exists is worse even than outward derision. And if you insist on using that frame, as pure a matter of white male privilege as I can imagine.

You'll note that I am willing to say that I believe that Erik Loomis is being bigoted in this behavior. I don't say that this is nearly bigotry, or like bigotry, or says things that only a white dude can say. I say that in his refusal to acknowledge the existence of women and nonwhite critics of Obama's assault on civil liberties and the Muslim world, and his complicity in the same, he's guilty of racism. Loomis, meanwhile, continues to work LGM's favorite trick. LGM's bloggers constantly chum the waters by tiptoeing up to the line of accusing people of racism or sexism or similar, as they did with Friedersdorf, and then letting their cowardly, anonymous commenters come out and say the really noxious stuff. It happens any and every time LGM bloggers attack leftists for insufficient fealty to Obama, and that happens often.

It happened, for example, to me, during the late stages of last year's election. When LGM ran a series of posts repeatedly attacking me because I refuse to be a good Democrat, the comments section was filled with repeated lies about me and about what I believe. There were dozens of them The employed professors behind LGM, safe in their employment and their tenure, were well aware it was happening. Unlike the LGM crew, I am but a poor graduate student, living a precarious existence. But I would sooner give it all up than engage in the pathetic farce of having anonymous commenters do my dirty work for me. So openly and aware of the consequences, I say that Loomis's continue refusal to acknowledge the existence of those critics of Obama is flatly racist.

In the post, Loomis makes that tendency of LGM as plain as it ever has been, by out-and-out quoting a commenter. The commenter, sadly, lies. "And yet Loomis does not dismiss these concerns, and does not 'mock and scorn those who work against them' – he shares the concerns; he only opposes the idea of sacrificing the lives, health, and well-being of millions of people for the sake of a completely futile, symbolic gesture." What can it possibly mean to "share concerns" when you have done nothing to address them? I said, before Election Day: the boys at LGM are setting themselves up for a lot of criticism of Obama in the new term. The way that they have constantly insisted that the time for criticism of Obama comes after the election certainly suggests that they will have a lot of criticisms to make. Have they made those criticisms? Judge for yourself. Look over their posts. See just how much attention they are devoting to the lives of men, women, and children who happen to be guilty of living in the wrong place and looking the wrong way.

Now I suppose Loomis will get all sore about this, and as is the fashion around there, he'll get his tenured buddies to jump in, and they'll work the commenters into a frenzy to get the really ugly stuff going. But if he would stop and actually think about all the checks he's cashed, all the times he's claimed not to care for Democrats or Obama or drones, he might think of a different course of action. He might actually criticize them, and make them the subject of his argument. Not express them as an aside; not mention his disagreement with them while forbidding other people from voicing their own; not writing a thousand words about how Glenn Greenwald is an asshole and a dozen about how oh yeah it would be cool if Obama would stop killing Muslims please; not engaging in yet another go round for Lawyers Guns and Concern Trolls, where they claim to support a particular position but dissemble, evade, equivocate, and complain. Just make the argument. If you really stand for what you stand for, if it really matters to you, just fucking stand up and speak out.

It's not about Glenn Greenwald, and it's not about me. It's about one of the most shameful campaigns of aggression in the history of a country that has had more than its fair share. If you are a person of conscience, then be counted against that campaign, or admit that you are part of the problem. But stop claiming virtues you don't have. Stop waving your hand in a direction you refuse to actually go. Stop making it about the personal failings of Glenn Greenwald instead of what you've failed to do. I can't fucking listen to it anymore.

The Twitter Feeds of Justice

The great, corrosive temptation: mistaking the extremity of your idiom with the power of your utterance. Or, worse, to mistake your personal purity as something that could make a difference for anyone at all.

Update: (yes this is self-implicature)

Sunday, March 24, 2013

personality hunger and the regulation of consumptive choice

Think Different

One thing to understand about the rise of consumer-behavior-as-totalizing-definition-of-self is that people know, intuitively, that these definitions are weak; the fact that consumptive choices can be and are mimicked by thousands or millions of others erodes the potential for these choices to create distinctions between people. What's more, because the alternative choices are material and obvious (literally advertised), the paradox of choice that attends us when we buy toothpaste or socks becomes an omnipresent fear that the various bric-a-brac we have assembled as a stand-in for personality are imperfect or inferior to possible alternatives. The widespread tendency to treat personality formation as an act of collage, the stapling together of various consumptive choices into a kind of character quilt, interfaces easily with the material and social conditions of late capitalism. But the fabric is thin.

I've said for some times that more form factors are an inevitability in tech, that the iterative consumption of a new phone every two years, a new laptop every three, a new television every five, etc., cannot possibly sate the revenue demands of the world's largest tech firms. Instead, they must constantly push out into more and more product categories. In order to do so, they must create demand out of whole cloth; the antique notion of "see a need, fill a need" is far too passive. Need can be and is created. This was most obvious in the sudden rise of the tablet. If you're like me, you have many friends who started out being deeply skeptical or even mocking towards the concept of a tablet, once it became clear they were coming to market, who nevertheless ended up at the Apple store waiting for the first generation iPad. And, indeed, it is not unusual for the affluent to own an HDTV, desktop computer, laptop computer, tablet, ereader, and smartphone, despite the claims of many of them to be "all in one." More, of course, are coming. Enter the smartwatch.

Now, it's at the confluence of my first paragraph and my second that comes one of the odder, sadder facets of the internet and its tendency to act as an apparatus for revealing our anxieties to each other. The internet is a network that has the capacity to show us nearly limitless human diversity that is often used to undermine the legitimacy of alternative choice. You will take my word for it that you never need to go far to find someone on the internet claiming that their particular consumptive choices are necessarily better than those of others, particularly when it comes to media. Pick around Amazon, or Pitchfork, or Yelp, or the AV Club, or similar, and you will find the notion of the inherent subjectivity of personal taste a quaint relic of a discarded age. People don't merely assert what they like, but the objective superiority of what they have chosen. "You're doing it wrong" is a meme for a reason; it expresses aggressive judgment of other ways, means, and choices, rather than an equivocal statement of what the individual prefers. The former offers defense of the self; the latter, mere respect for others. Taken to extremes, you get cultures like cosplay, which constantly traffic in self-aggrandizing ideas about how they are the most elevated form of liking things.

What people like must be a matter of rightness or wrongness, because in the context where human beings are nothing but what they purchase, disagreement signals not a minor conflict in subjective tastes but judgement of the individual's basic architecture.

So take this piece on Gizmodo by the whimsically named Mark Spoonauer: "Why You'll End Up Wearing a Smart Watch." This particular title is not an accident. What is to be argued here is not that there are relative merits to wearing a smartwatch which the reader might be convinced of, leading, if he or she has the means, to a purchase. Such a hands-off approach risks failure. Instead, the command is plain: you will buy this product. To entertain any other opinion would risk judging the consumptive choices of Mark Spoonauer, and as a tech writer, Spoonauer is almost certainly of that class of individuals whose consumptive choices are essentially the stitching of the person. There's a perturbed, twitchy quality to Spoonauer's piece; it's as if he is affronted that he even has to make the argument. I think that'll become more common. These people are tired of having to convince you to justify and validate their lives by aping their consumptive habits and would like it if you would please just get on with it. I would argue that real self-possession (and real relaxation) can only come from not letting other people's choices affect you in this way, but perhaps this is beyond the bounds of the possible.

Of course, the reason why demand has to be created for such a product is pretty plain: it is among the most colossally unnecessary objects for which coin has ever changed hands. Spoonauer knows that, they all know that. So while there is exhaustion in their effusive praise, there is also panic. To read tech writers advocating for the purchase of the latest useless gizmo is to be confronted with the tension between the absurd hyperbole of their words and the minimally useful nature of the products for which they wax effusive. So take Brian Ries here. As he strains to evoke the orgasmic power of wearing a little computer on his wrist, he focuses on... the time saved in removing his smartphone from his pocket. He is hardly alone in this focus, as you'll see if you read the many glowing considerations of the smartwatch that are out there. Quoth Brian, "You wouldn’t know the inconvenience of reading your text messages on the phone retrieved from your pocket until they pop up seamlessly on the device sitting coolly on your wrist." Well, I've just pulled my smartphone out five times, just to double check, and I'm gonna tell you... I feel like I do know the inconvenience of reading my text messages on a phone. Specifically, I know that there's no inconvenience at all.

I feel like we should appoint a counsel of Bangladeshi shipbreakers to examine the claims of any tech article and see if they can, in fact, believe the supposedly incredible changes being wrought by the latest jimjaw. Hard to imagine a headline and a subhead that do more to undermine each other; the headline reads, "The Smartwatch Revolution, or How the Pebble Changed My Life." The subhead promises that the article tells us "why he never needs to reach into his pocket to read a text message again." A revolution indeed! We should retire the word "revolution." It has reached its zenith.

Now, though the projection of your preferences onto others is rude, the crime is small, and the punishment baked in. That Brian Ries could actually say that his life has been changed by having a device that projects his text messages onto his wrist means that there's not a lot going on, emotionally, for Brian right now. And, so as not to be too harsh, it also indicates that Brian is generally a healthy, comfortable dude who wants for little. (The fact that Henry Blodget believes the iPhone to be the most important invention in history, when things like food refrigeration and water purification save millions of lives every day, reveals that Henry Blodget lives in the mental universe that could compel someone to think that way and amounts to its own punishment.)

What's more, with tech in particular, I merely continue to observe constantly repeated human nature: many of us become convinced, over and over again, that there is one missing element of our lives, and often it's a better phone or a new computer or our first tablet. We salivate over it, we wait for it, and it arrives, and for maybe a couple days we get the expected rush of endorphins as we play with it. And then, somehow, our lives are still just our lives-- hectic, harried, incomplete, vaguely dissatisfying. Then we decide we need a new product, or a new service (once I use Evernote I will be unstoppable!), and the cycle continues. And we never, ever learn. It just seems that the tech heads are the most likely to engage in unlikely flights of fancy about how cool their lives are going to be, and the most susceptible for falling for their own hype. Brian Ries's revolutionary, life-changing Pebble watch is a couple of months from being the slow pain in the ass that he feels obligated to wear and is tired of talking about.

I am of course whistling past the graveyard. While I flatter myself to believe that I have ethical and moral commitments that define my character in a way that transcends the consumptive, in the context of late capitalism there is precious little non-market context from which to observe this principled living. The power and profligacy of market-based living makes it very difficult to say where consumption choices end and moral choices begin. You can certainly say that my disdain for consumptive choices and what they signal is merely a negative expression of the same phenomenon. And I'd have a hard time disagreeing.

So who knows? Ask not for whom the smartwatch chimes, it chimes for thee. You will end up wearing a smartwatch. There is no resistance. Kneel before Zod.

progress comes from demand

So I was reading a Jessica Valenti column on Steubenville and I saw this comment.



Now, these are just a couple of blog commenters. But this is a dynamic I have seen again and again when it comes to this issue: an argument that sex is only consensual when consent is explicitly verbalized, followed by someone questioning it, and a person sympathetic to the basic philosophy broadening the rules until they become meaningless. The Yes Means Yes philosophy is a broad movement to insist that explicit consent must be given for every sexual encounter or else that encounter amounts to rape. The argument, articulated by Valenti and others, intends to fight the defense of sexual aggression (legal or otherwise) through ambiguity or grey area by insisting on the necessity of explicit consent. Once explicit consent becomes the expectation, sexual aggression and rape can no longer be excused through reference to misunderstanding; and, perhaps, some men might be prevented from doing something terrible if we make explicit consent the requirement.

Valenti herself seems straightforward on the question: "if we’re serious about preventing the next Steubenville, it’s time to get serious about affirmative consent. Only a 'yes' can mean yes."

I have a few feelings on the general philosophy, but I am also aware that my expertise and investment are not equivalent to that of Valenti and many other women like her who are working to fight the horror of sexual assault. So I am content, at this point, to listen and to learn. I do have to insist that exchanges like the above threaten to derail the Yes Means Yes movement before it really begins. Again, were that a one-off situation, I would ignore it, but it happens constantly: someone defends the general philosophy by watering it down to the point of meaninglessness. The entire rationale for requiring explicit consent is that it removes the potential confusion of implied consent, a confusion that, I'm sorry to say, far too many judges and juries find sufficient reason to acquit accused rapists. If Yes Means Yes is to have any meaning at all, it cannot mean "Yes Means Yes and Also Sometimes Silence If You Feel Like She's Into It." Countless men who have been accused of rape have insisted that they in fact had employed common sense in reading body language that indicated consent. To broaden the definition in this way is to abandon the very logic of adopting it in the first place.

I've made a similar argument in a somewhat different context when it comes to women who are made to feel uncomfortable or unsafe when approached by men on the street. After reading many women describing encounters that left them feeling unsafe, I've said that perhaps the standard needs to be that men shouldn't approach women they don't know on the street, period. Perhaps that's a social expectation we have to engender. I'm not sure if that's best (and it seems extreme to me), but I do think that it is exactly the kind of clear rule that we need to pursue if we're serious about educating men in how to behave. That idea led to some horrified reactions, from both men and women. What I heard, and hear constantly, is that men should approach women they don't know on the street only if the woman in question "is sending the right signals" or if she "is in his league." To which I could only reply: that is precisely what socially awkward men are incapable of adjudicating. I have heard arguments of this type so often, I've lost count: the problem with these men is that the know when their advances are unwanted, and so it's offensive when they ask a woman out, or try to hit on her, despite the clear disparity in their social value.

No. They don't know. That is a facet of exactly what makes them socially awkward, and what makes them romantically undesirable. I was never myself one of the awkward men that I'm describing, but I grew up around them, and have observed them for my entire life. Underestimating their difficulty in parsing social cues does no good for anyone. Perhaps they should know which women want them to approach, but should is irrelevant. What they need is clear rules for their behavior. While I recognize that my proposed rule is extreme, it is an honest attempt to establish clear guidelines to men who need them. These men need rules. Whenever you ask them to negotiate body language, or sort social cues, in order to act in socially acceptable ways, you are ensuring unhappiness, and as much as for the people around them as for them.

Now that's where the analogy breaks down; the Steubenville rapists certainly knew that what they were doing was wrong, and if they really needed prosecution to convince them not to sexually violate an unconscious woman, then something has gone terribly wrong with them and their parents. But in both cases of rape and unwanted advances, the need for clear boundaries is important. And the tendency of those advocating for them to then turn around and obscure those boundaries through reference to what people can intuit makes the whole argument useless.

I have been thinking, lately, of the Antioch Sexual Offense Prevention Policy. The infamous policy required students to seek and obtain explicit consent for every stage of a sexual encounter-- may I remove your shirt, may I touch you here, etc. It became the subject of a national backlash, including an SNL sketch. I remember it being one of the first aspects of the anti-"PC" backlash that I was cognizant of as a kid. To some degree, I understand the backlash: I don't want to live under the Antioch policy's rules. I can't imagine anybody who does. And yet I see something to admire in the Antioch policy: a recognition that if we really want to make the kind of radical changes in sexual behavior that we say we want, we have to actually change our behavior in a radical way. Actual meaningful adult change never comes without difficulty and sacrifice. While I don't want to live under it, and it proved to be a massive democratic failure, the Antioch policy was a mature document in the way that vague, toothless talk about a "culture of consent" never will be. Rape will never be stopped by your Facebook status.

Nor do I want, I confess, to explicitly ask for consent in every sexual encounter, nor do I think that most people want to live that way. In fact, my reading on human behavior is that most people would be horrified at the notion of having to be explicitly, verbally asked to have sex and having to give explicit verbal consent every time they have sex. Such a thing seems, to me, to be antithetical to how most people want to live their sexual lives. But perhaps I will have to get over it, I don't know. Like I said, I can only admit my ignorance of the best thing to be done, listen, and try to learn. I know only that it will take actual sacrifice to get to justice. Sacrifice, meanwhile, is a topic Internet social liberalism ignores almost entirely. To exist within the narrow boundaries of social liberalism online is to simultaneously believe that our world is wildly unjust and that solving this injustice is totally easy: all we all have to do is be pure.

As you are aware, I am not impressed by the culture of online social liberalism. As I said during the Quvenzhane Wallis tweet controversy, the evidence to me suggests that much of the heat that emerges form the Twitter Feeds of Justice is designed not to make positive change in the larger world but to elevate certain people within that smaller one. The fact that relevant, possibly discouraging history such as the backlash to the Antioch policy is never discussed is emblematic of a disinterest in extending the conversation outside of the boundaries of the self-selected. I am very happy to be proven wrong in this regard. One way that might occur is for people to recognize that all positive change always comes from sacrifice and the conflict between opposing values, that if our culture is as suffused in rape and aggression as we say it is, then changing it cannot and will not come painlessly. If social liberalism is to be a force for positive good outside of the confines of the converted, it must abandon its deep love for the idiom of aggressive condescension and its conviction that all problems are problems of mind that can be solved if only enough people are pure. Rape and sexual assault are not problems of mind. To feel and think the right way about rape is not to do anything at all to fix it.

More than anything, those who espouse the philosophy of Yes Means Yes must do so consistently and clearly. The purpose of that philosophy is to engender clarity and to disarm those who use uncertainty as a weapon against victims. The message must therefore be unequivocal. And those who voice this philosophy must practice it as well, at all times and without exception. Those who insist on a sexual ethic of explicit consent must ask for it from their partners and demand to be asked by their partners, every time, without exception. Anything less is abject hypocrisy, the kind that can only lead to the premature death of the movement in question.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

looking back

First, please do read Conor Friedersdorf, who takes my dashed-off post and researches it extensively. I think that this is a good reminder of why professional political commentary is so important, if so uncertain. I never would have had the time or energy, nor the familiarity with media research, to dig through the archives and pull up all the quotes Conor did for that piece. If we value informed and rigorous political commentary, we need to find a way to pay for it.

I am, today, permitting myself a little guarded nostalgia. I have found this old listserve entry from the immediate aftermath of the city of Hartford finally granting my old protest organizations the right to take the streets against the war, without having to pay the police to come oppress us. This was the culmination of tons of hard work by tons of good people-- people who were, daily, subject to the most absurd ridicule and abuse, both in the media and in their day-to-day lives. It was, for me, a period when antiwar activism was a 20-30 hour a week job. Not long after this event-- actually, the day after the state killed Michael Ross, which is a story I'll have to tell someday-- I stopped working as an activist. It felt and it feels like a kind of surrender, but for various reasons, I just didn't have it in me anymore. In many ways, I miss those days. (For one thing, I miss antiwar Democrats.)

The "delay, misdirect, and obfuscate" line below is key. One of the most important things I learned: when the state wants to put the clamps down on you, they don't have to do it with truncheons and riot shields. They can do it by shuffling you from the Department of Licensing and Inspection to obtain form J-81 from the Office of Planning and Zoning, so you can take it to Precinct 14, where they will sign it for you, to then take to a notary public before filing application 65-Z.... I believe in the value of good government, and more I believe in the necessity of government intervention to check the excesses of capitalism. But I also know that violence is the vocabulary of the state, its native language, and that the state is by its very nature a system of repression. I also know, indeed, that capitalism is only made possible through the violent power of the state. Sometimes that violent power is getting clubbed in the street. Sometimes, it's the quiet coercion of filling out forms. I wore out the tread on my tires shuttling back and forth between city offices. So I say: use the state. Grow it when necessary to prevent suffering. Fear it always, and work towards its inevitable dismantling, along with the economic system it makes possible.

I have not seen most of the people I worked with for many years. I know that many of them are still doing the day-to-day work of opposing war and oppression, long after the carpetbaggers like me burnt ourselves out. I will always admire their passion, their commitment. My fellow activists gave me the great honor of being the individual recipient of the permit for this event. The local paper said we got 1,000 people to the event; our count was closer to 2,000. I keep the permit framed in my office still. It's a record of a small victory, and a far greater failure.

Wednesday, March 20, 2013

where's all the hippie punching?

You know, I'm reading all of the Iraq mea culpas, some good, some bad. But they are all systematically ignoring one of the most obvious and salient aspects of the run up to the war: the incredible power of personal resentment against antiwar people, or what antiwar people were perceived to be. As someone who was involved in day-to-day antiwar activism at the time, the visceral hatred of those opposing the war, and particularly the activists, was impossible to miss. It wasn't opposition. It wasn't disagreement. It was pure, irrational hatred, frequently devolving into accusations of antiwar activists being effectively part of the enemy. Yet for as visible and important as this distaste was for the debate, it's missing from the postmortems. Why?

First, some might say that personality doesn't matter, that what matters is substance. But personality influences substance. A huge amount of the arguments in favor of the war were essentially genetic: look at the people opposing the war, dirty fucking hippies! How could you stand with them? From the space of 10 years, people are putting all of their arguments into the most rational, logical light. Even in the commission of apologizing, they can't stop themselves from trying to rationalize what they advocated. But I don't, actually, think that they were being rational when they advocated for war. I think they were tribal, and they were being emotional, and that it mattered. And the refusal to recognize that makes it more dangerous that they will get it wrong in the future.

Second, I think people don't want to admit that hatred of the left-wing was part of their problem in 2002 and 2003 because they still hate the left, and recognizing the irrationality of their earlier hatred would compel them to think over their current hatred. Jon Chait, to pick one of the people doling out so-so-sorrys, certainly has never stopped treating the left with open-mouthed contempt. (Far more contempt than he has for most Republicans.) Look, casting your eyes back a decade, no matter how much you couch it as a matter of self-criticism, is easy. You're operating at a remove. You get to consider a much younger you. Thinking about how you currently are animated by petty resentments is harder.

And more important. Again: this conversation is useful only so long as it provokes better outcomes in the future. Better outcomes cannot come from the same old people pulling the weight. The left opposed the war, and was correct to oppose the war, because the left is correct on the merits when it comes to foreign policy. If you want to do good, listen to them in the future. Remember the eliminationism and ugly recriminations from the past. Recognize the ways in which the terms of the debate were artificially constrained by personal disapproval and social factors. Change.

non-interventionists in prominent positions would help

I could go into a long analysis of all the things that this period of media self-flagellation over Iraq says about our culture and media, but I'll keep it brief. As I've said many times before, being sorry is no substitute for making actual, structural change. The problem is not that people aren't sorry. The problem is that almost nobody got fired for being wrong about one of the most important issues of our time. If what matters is not the ritualistic display of contrition, but actually preventing another Iraq in the future, the composition of the media is what is important, not the apologetics of the same-old media. People respond to incentives. Many, many people apologizing now have been nothing but rewarded since they were wrong.

Now I have essentially given up on the idea that people who were pro-war will face professional consequences. They're dug in like ticks. But perhaps what the powers that be could find some room, within the prominent media, for genuinely, consistently non-interventionist voices. I know that serious people in the media love to act as though being categorically anti-war is a disqualifying position, but perhaps they'll consider that there are many people who are categorically pro-war in the prominent media, and push for a little balance. Whoever it is doesn't have to be a flaming lefty; hell, it can be a conservative. But putting people who are consistently anti-war into positions of prominence within our media is essentially the only way to balance the conversation.

It's important to say that you're sorry. But apologizing, by itself, makes nothing happen.

(Necessary addendum: I am not talking about me. I don't want a career in media. I have only wanted one career since I was 11 years old, and I'm trying to make it happen. I'm not talking about me.)

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

a little additional info

A few people have asked for a bit more about the situation with Moi-- not Muy, as I incorrectly put it in the original post. We had stopped at the bus depot in Kansas City, one of three longer stops on my trip, the other two being Denver and St. Louis. At Denver, I had to give a separate ticket, for some reason; at the other two I was able to give a reboarding pass that they handed out when I gave my original ticket. I dunno why they have that distinction. Moi got on the bus at the same time as I did, in Vegas, at 3:05 on Friday. I believe that he was supposed to have transferred to a different bus at Denver to go on to Chicago, but I'm not entirely sure. All I know is that I loaded back onto the bus at Kansas City without incident, but that he was detained at the doorway. It's fair to say that he might not have been doing any good in getting back on the bus if he had already missed his connection, but it's worth saying that there was a bus leaving for Chicago from St. Louis when we were stopped there, so that seemed to be an easy solution.

I couldn't throw Moi his jacket because he was on the other side of glass at the door to the depot, and again, there was a Greyhound employee waiting at the door of the bus, adamant that I couldn't get off. Why he felt he couldn't take the coat over to the door, I don't know. I understand the point some people make about little delays adding up to a lot in a national system, that if Greyhound had a looser policy, then buses would be constantly running behind, and that a slowdown on one bus can screw up a big part of the system. But we were sitting there for at least five minutes after I realized what was going on, and probably more like ten.

The jacket is just indicative of a system where rules become their own reason for being. And while Greyhound was generally good about having signage and announcements in both English and Spanish, the situation was a harsh demonstration of how difficult it can be to get around this country without English skills. As someone with professional expertise in evaluating oral English proficiency, I would guess that Moi had a pre-elementary grasp of English. Like I said: I was worried about making all of my connections myself. I once tried to get to Charles De Gaulle Airport from the Metro and fucked it up so bad that I almost missed my flight.

I have no idea what Greyhound's national policies are. All I can tell you is what I experienced.

Monday, March 18, 2013

my bus ride


I fucked up, to begin with. I went to this conference in Las Vegas this past week, and for once in my life I got my shit together to buy the tickets early enough that I could fly for cheap. But when my itinerary came a few days before I traveled, my return flight home was  for a month after it was supposed to be. I called the discount airline website I had used to find the tickets, knowing precisely how everything would go, despite their aggressively chipper advertising. And so it went. The fees to change by themselves obliterated the price of my return ticket and the difference in price for a new ticket was more money than I had.

When I started the phone call, I was sure that their system had screwed up, and then during the course of it, that thing happened where you stop being convinced that you're right while in the middle of angrily arguing with someone that you are. I'm not saying the screwup really was mine. I just don't know.

I still had my flight there. The return ticket just had to burn itself off. I was presenting at the conference and I couldn't let the three other guys I was rooming with in the lurch. So I got a Greyhound bus ticket home to Indiana from Vegas. Much cheaper than any of the return flights. Went Nevada-Utah-Colorado-Kansas-Missouri-Illinois-Indiana. Got on the bus at 3:00 PM Saturday, got off in Indianapolis at 9:30 Monday. From there, a cab ride to the airport and the shuttle home to school.

The trip was fine. I've never seen that part of the country from the highway before. There just were a few incidents on my way home that chipped away at my resistance. I really do try to remember how incredibly fortunate I am. I really do. I just can get worn down.

The truth is also that knowing about your own privilege and working to remember it aren't a reliable shield about being alive to the things that aren't working for you. Like a lot of people who come from a socially liberal, academic culture, I have taken a defensive posture against expressions of my own bad luck. That's a good thing. Look at this conference: for all you care to say about academic pathologies, I heard very straightforward, jargon-free discussion of what it means to be among the disfavored, and to adjust your understanding of your own situation accordingly. I heard, yet again, from instructors who felt they could not get their students to respect them the way an instructor should be respected, to be taken seriously by them. That's a problem I simply can't identify with; my students typically listen to me as if I'm the voice of god-- because I'm a dude, and I'm white, and I'm tall, and I happen to look the way their culture says a professor looks.

But when I was scrambling around, trying to figure out how to get home without running through my meager bankroll for the trip, I confess that all of that seemed distant. And the truth is that I made $18,000 last year, and while I have cataloged all the ways in which my life is materially better than people who make twice that, could tell you with statistical precision all the ways in which I am fortunate, until I found a cheap bus ticket, I felt deeply alone. And the truth is that I am so tired of being poor. I am so tired of being poor. I know everything that's wrong with saying that, I know I shouldn't say it. But I am so tired of being poor.

I won't go into the various aspects of Las Vegas that are hard on the human psyche. You've read them before, by considerably more talented writers than me. It'll suffice to say that my walk to the bus station from my casino hotel cast a different shadow on the already-unpleasant gaudiness of the strip. On the walk, two old homeless men were fighting in a parking lot. They knocked over one of those metal containers that you can take free newspapers out of. There was a crowd gathered around, and they were cheering. Some of them had emerged from one of the scuzzier casinos, drinking from those neon-colored tubes filled with alcoholic slushie. The fight made me feel bad but the cheering section, who unlike the two men fighting likely did not suffer from mental illness or addiction, made me feel worse. A woman said that the cops had been called. But I still could have tried to stop it, and I didn't.

The bus ride was okay, aside from the expected physical discomforts, and a couple of guys on the bus. They were young, one in his early twenties, the other probably still a teenager. And they had one of those American bro downs, where they talked exclusively in ways that projected whatever strangled definition of manhood has implanted itself in their brains. They talked about all the girls they got and the kids they had and the laws they'd broken and they days they'd spent in prison and how good they were at high school football (despite failures to grasp even rudimentary football vocabulary) and how many girls they'd fucked and how many knives they owned and how many drugs they'd taken and how wasted they'd been and how many gruesome injuries they'd withstood and always, always, always about the fights they'd won, about whichever asshole said whichever thing at whichever time and then it was on. Again and again. The thing is that they just didn't stop. They got on, I think, in Denver, and they started peacocking in that way there and were still doing it when I crawled off the bus in Indianapolis. They went on for hours and hours. I'd finally fall asleep and when I woke up again they'd still be at it.

At the St. Louis bus terminal someone disrespected the younger one's girlfriend. It was not entirely clear to me what the story was, but the story is generally not important in these events. Supposedly a black man had said "fuck you white bitch" to her as he walked by in the terminal, unprovoked, which seemed about as plausible to me as the claim that the 5'10 older guy had been "300 pounds of solid muscle" during high school football season. But real or fake, it caused their conversation to devolve into the expected racism, not a half hour after they had been talking about their love of hip hop and fetish for black women. In any event, the ritual began, one that will be familiar to just about every guy, the choreographed expression of offense, the hyperbolic discussion of one's own fighting prowess, the insistence on the rights of women to not be disrespected by men who had moments before been talking about them as brainless babymakers, and the painfully obvious reality that no one would fight anyone but that everyone would have to stake out a certain claim to projected manliness. It was important that the older one was older and that the younger one had to justify all of his extended riffing on his own fighting ability and cred. So they did the dance, and eventually we got on the bus.

I wondered if they knew how quickly they might become a couple of spotty old alcoholics, impotently throwing punches at each other in the parking lot of a circus-themed casino, while frat boys on spring break hooted in between sips from yards of margaritas. I try to tell myself that masculinity has improved within my own memory, but it just isn't true. Then and now, for so many masculinity's value has been indistinguishable from its capacity to commit violence.

My seatmate for a long while was a man named Mui Moi. He spoke very little English. He told me he was going to Chicago. It occurred to me, in a vague way, that were he a promising young engineer from China, I might have worked with him in my campus's oral English program, working on his prosodic quality, his phrasal stress, his morphosyntax. Instead he was from Mexico, trying to get from Las Vegas to Chicago via Greyhound bus.

In Kansas City, they wouldn't let him get back on the bus. He had missed a transfer somewhere. It seemed easy enough to do; I worried about it the whole time. I loaded up while he talked to them. It became clear that they wouldn't let him back on. His leather coat was in the storage space above our seats. I grabbed it and came to get off the bus to give it to him. The Greyhound employees wouldn't let me off the bus. They said if I got off the bus I wouldn't be able to get back on, and I'd have to purchase a new ticket for the bus that left the next afternoon. I said to the guy, here, this is that guy's leather jacket, he's 25 feet away, can you bring it to him. But they wouldn't. They just wouldn't. I wanted nothing more than to just walk out past them and hand it to him. But I didn't have enough money in my bank account to buy another ticket, and my suitcase was stored in the bus, and I was so tired. So I got back on and put his jacket back up in the storage. Then I had nothing to do but sit and think about it.

My politics exists to understand the difference between him and me, between both of us and the people who will never worry about how to get home. It is political. Perhaps if he were me, if he were white and spoke the English that power speaks like I do, he would have been able to get back on that bus, or to talk them into letting him have his leather jacket. But it's not just political. It's the way that human beings can help others, simply, at no costs to themselves, and don't, every day, every day. You cross active cruelty out of the equation, just don't think about it, and still, there's so many times every day when someone could punch a button on a computer or look the other way, and don't, and in so doing contribute to human misery. This is part of what libertarians always talk about. But you can get crushed up in the machinery of industry just as well as the machinery of government. Greyhound bus can fuck you just as well as the DMV. I don't know how anyone who has ever talked to Bank of America customer service remains a libertarian. What scares me is that, even past politics, after victory, there will be something in humans that compel them to do harm when they could as easily help.

The conference was nice. It's so good to be among my people; I need it. I got to see the mountains in Nevada as the highway snaked between them. Listening to the Hold Steady in the Las Vegas bus depot was something. And I'm home, now. Coming home to my dog after a long trip never gets old.

On the drive, I listened to David Foster Wallace's commencement address. I tried to do what he said we were tasked to do-- to expand my empathy in the way I ask that the employees at Greyhound or Priceline expand theirs, to think about all the reasons that the employees might have felt it necessary to keep me on that bus, to remember that they were also tired. I tried to imagine how those boys, performing manhood for each other, came to get it so wrong. I tried to think that there was some mitigating circumstances that would compel adult human beings to root on two desperately broken people as they tried to hurt each other in a casino parking lot. I tried to remember that this is water.

But I failed, I'm not strong enough. I could see myself in them, but I don't. Just like I could have gotten in between those two homeless men, just like I could have stepped off the bus and given that guy his jacket. I just didn't.

When I write like this, I am accused, of sanctimony or pretense. Somebody will make fun of this post. I could posit, against all sense and history, that some new computer chip will end human misery, and join a chorus of thousands who make that claim. I could insist on the moral necessity of committing violence against some disfavored group, and earn a career in doing so. What I am asking for is the right to reserve a space for human despair. All I ask of my detractors, who meticulously curate their online identities, so much effort invested in appearing so dry, that they recognize something in themselves that feels the same impulse, that necessitates their defensive posture. And I ask that they let me occupy the same space, just free of the relentless ironizing, just to speak it plainly. I only ask for the right to say that I don't know how to exist in a world where people do the things that they do to each other.  I ask for the right to say  that I don't know how to live with myself when I let go the things I let go.

I lost my earbuds, this morning, the nice ones my sister gave me for Christmas. I had kept track of them obsessively and then, somehow, they were gone. It will please my detractors to see that here, this nice white whine, this feeling sorry for myself. I can only confess that I feel the loss of those earbuds as keenly as I've felt everything else I've talked about here. I know I have worked so hard to understand the difference, I just came from a conference where people talked about it endlessly. But right now it's as hard to grasp as the purpose of my political anger. I can't remember what it's all been for.

Indiana

Illinois

Missouri

Monday, March 11, 2013

keep the fires burning

Gang, I'm off first thing tomorrow morning to a conference, where I'll be all week. In that time I intend to avoid the nonacademic internet like a plague, or locusts, or a plague of locusts, or a monster that shoots plagues of locusts out its mouth. So I'll be out of pocket for awhile. I'll keep a candle burning, and be back next weekend. Unless I run away and join the circus, and never ever come back home.

Feeling very fortunate lately, very lucky. All my best.

Oh, and: always remember that they only complain about your manners when they cannot respond to your argument. Always remember that they will always say they disagree with your style when what they hate is your substance. Always remember that they will use the idiom of maturity in order to enforce conformity. Always, always remember: when they forbid what you say, rather than responding to what you say, they do so because you are strong and they are weak. Never forget that.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

sometimes the punishment is being the person who deserves the punishment

I have puzzled over this piece in the Times, by something vaguely human referred to as Nick Bilton, for a little while now. I have decided that the Times is not nearly a smart or subversive publication to publish this piece as exceptionally dry satire. I am therefore moved to conclude that Mr. Bilton is, in fact, as profoundly pitiable a creature as he presents in this piece. Since Mr. Bilton's purpose is actually to insist to the world at large that he is very, very important-- not at all the type of person who frequently finds himself desperately worrying that he is in fact not important at all-- and is therefore strapped for time, I'll try to be quick.

Let's review.
Some people are so rude. Really, who sends an e-mail or text message that just says “Thank you”? Who leaves a voice mail message when you don’t answer, rather than texting you? Who asks for a fact easily found on Google? 
Don’t these people realize that they’re wasting your time?
You cannot waste something that has no value. The attention and time of people who are offended by receiving a text message or email that has the intent of demonstrating respect and caring are people whose time and attention have no value. Therefore there is nothing to waste.
Then there is voice mail, another impolite way of trying to connect with someone. Think of how long it takes to access your voice mail and listen to one of those long-winded messages. “Hi, this is so-and-so….” In text messages, you don’t have to declare who you are, or even say hello. E-mail, too, leaves something to be desired, with subject lines and “hi” and “bye,” because the communication could happen faster by text. And then there are the worst offenders of all: those who leave a voice mail message and then e-mail to tell you they left a voice mail message.
Politeness and manners are the ways in which societies inculcate the assumption of the value of strangers, the presumption that they are worthy of respect and kindness. At their best, manners remind us that the bellboy has a life of perfectly equal value to that of the hedge fund manager he attends to. More, they remind us that not one of us is indispensable, that the death or disappearance of any individual never upsets the balance of society very much, and that none of us are mourned for long. Manners emerged from wisdom; Mr. Bilton, being of a type, is unfamiliar with the concept.
My father learned this lesson last year after leaving me a dozen voice mail messages, none of which I listened to. Exasperated, he called my sister to complain that I never returned his calls. “Why are you leaving him voice mails?” my sister asked. “No one listens to voice mail anymore. Just text him.” 
My mother realized this long ago. Now we communicate mostly through Twitter.
My own mother has been dead since 1989, my father since 1997. And yet I feel lucky to have enjoyed a fully human relationship with both of them for the short time I had them. Mr. Bilton, meanwhile, apparently regards his parents as the human equivalent of a pop-up ad or a sponsored tweet from Dominos. This passage seems to me a failure of Mr. Bilton's own desire for concision; simply writing "I have traded everything good in life for empty monuments to my own self-regard" saves him a few characters.
Now, with Google and online maps at our fingertips, what was once normal can be seen as uncivilized — like asking someone for directions to a house, restaurant or office, when they can easily be found on Google Maps. 
I once asked a friend something easily discovered on the Internet, and he responded with a link to lmgtfy.com, which stands for Let Me Google That For You. 
Human beings ask for things of each other because we are limited, fallible creatures. We give to each other mostly because it is right to give but also because we recognize in ourselves the same limitations that compels others to ask us for help. Sometimes the things that we are asked for are little things, like our time, our full attention, our regard. We extend them, not in spite of their inefficiency but because of their inefficiency, because the purpose of human effort is to become more human; it is not to save more time for the least human parts of our lives. Once you recognize human society as a series of apologies, a long chain of forgiveness that extends from each of us to each other, you will never mistake being asked for a tiny courtesy as itself a tiny matter. Nor will you allow your self-obsession to grow to such a level that you mistake being asked for something with an imposition; what about you is so grand that could come to feel imposed upon?
In the age of the smartphone, there is no reason to ask once-acceptable questions: the weather forecast, a business phone number, a store’s hours. But some people still do. And when you answer them, they respond with a thank-you e-mail.
In an age of human tolerance, there is no reason to suppose that being asked a question is not acceptable, and more, no standing on which to believe that you are such an advanced creature that you can assess what is acceptable and what isn't.
“I have decreasing amounts of tolerance for unnecessary communication because it is a burden and a cost,” said Baratunde Thurston, co-founder of Cultivated Wit, a comedic creative company. “It’s almost too easy to not think before we express ourselves because expression is so cheap, yet it often costs the receiver more.” 
Mr. Thurston said he encountered another kind of irksome communication when a friend asked, by text message, about his schedule for the South by Southwest festival. “I don’t even know how to respond to that,” he said. “The answer would be so long. There’s no way I’m going to type out my schedule in a text.”
Mr. Thurston is clearly in need of a few facts, but perhaps these aren't as easily Googled. So let me supply them for him. Mr. Thurston: no one is remotely as impressed with you as you are with yourself. No one else mistakes your time for a precious commodity. Self-regard does not make you important, nor does a chronic overestimation of your own value actually make you valuable. You are not the cosmos. Most of the people around you are laughing at you, all the time. They are right to laugh, because you have violated a basic social compact. You believe that what you want and value is more important than what others want and value. In fact, no one thinks much about what you want at all. Some of the best advice you can give: remember that the minute you leave a room, no one is thinking about you. Harsh, but necessary.
The anthropologist Margaret Mead once said that in traditional societies, the young learn from the old. But in modern societies, the old can also learn from the young. Here’s hoping that politeness never goes out of fashion, but that time-wasting forms of communication do.
"Learning" is a powerful word, a misunderstood one. I'm sure Mr. Bilton spends much of his time absorbing little facts, churning through the deracinated information that the internet spreads out endlessly, shorn of context or curriculum, just true enough to be mistaken for knowledge. Perhap this is how it has to be. Maybe Bilton is the wave of the future. For myself, I don't think that there's anything to be done; the punishment for people like Mr. Bilton is living the life that they've endeavored to live. I'm sure their manic effort to degrade and destroy any genuinely human connection is proceeding on with great efficiency; I have no doubt they will reach that rarefied territory where there is nothing human at all on the other end of that well-loved smartphone. I picture him writing this piece in a dark apartment, face lit up with the sickly blue glow of his laptop, chattering away in the dark alone about all the people who have failed him. 

You might find all of this harsh! I confess that I feel some vestigial guilt about it, some antique notion of kindness and compassion; it's the manners talking. But those are concerns for another era. The world ran out of time for such things.

Saturday, March 9, 2013

admiring the shade on somebody else's deck chair


Ta-Nehisi Coates effects another defense of The Atlantic internal to its machinery:
Over the years I've had writers come here and "work for exposure" with some regularity. My friend the historian Jelani Cobb has done yeoman's work, some of it based on actual reporting. Judah Grunsteinwas nice enough to allow me to publish an e-mail, which I thought had a lot of substance, as a piece.Aaron Schatz from Football Outsiders has been here. The great historian Thomas Sugrue has come into this space and done awesome work. So has Adam Serwer. So has Brendan Koerner. So has Ayelet Waldman. So has Mark Kleiman. So has Michael Chabon. So has Shani Hilton.Last year we brought historian Kate Masur, film critic A.O. Scott and writer Tony Horwitz together to discuss Lincoln. None of them were paid.
But, of course, all of them are now paid, and as far as I can tell, all of them were paid in other capacities when they worked for free. Again: this is not about where you came from. It is about where the people who have no money are right now. Everybody in this country has a "I came from nowhere" story. Some are facile and distorting. Others are poignant and constructive. But while I read and evaluate them all with interest, for this conversation, each is ultimately irrelevant to the person who needs to pay the rent.

Let's be clear, here: the Internet is absolutely full of people who work for exposure thinking that it will someday lead to dollars, only to find that it never does. And many of them are just as talented and dedicated as the people who make it professionally. You don't have to have as low of an opinion of our professional writing class as I do to admit that many of the people who write for the most prominent, well-paying places are inferior or indifferent prose stylists. Meanwhile, people work for exposure and work for exposure and work for exposure and they end up looking around at an empty apartment. I don't blame anyone on salary for failing to grok that, but it's reality.

One of the dynamics that's played out here is how hard it is to maintain a belief in the randomness and luck involved in success when you're talking about your own job. I know, from reading his work, that Coates doesn't believe that talent and drive lead unerringly to success. Far from it; in fact it's hard to think of someone who has done a better job of voicing the importance of chance in success. But some nontrivial portion of his readers are going to see him as saying exactly that he and the financially secure, celebrated people he mentions above are successful because of the quality of their work, their intelligence, their drive. Certainly, Alexis Madrigal's piece was pregnant with such pride. The bare calculus of winners and losers has attended this conversation at every step, and people who ordinarily know better have risked falling into a banal narrative about talent and work ethic. I have been reminded, in this conversation, by nothing as much as that tech writer who lectured Jamelle Bouie for "underestimating the hustle."

The flat reality is that the simplistic "exposure leads to dollars" formula is far less certain than we all might want, especially when the publications at the top of the chain, like The Atlantic, are looking to get people to do it for free. (Again: if The Atlantics of the world don't pay, in time, who will?) Exposure doesn't pay the rent. Look at Jacobin. They got a positive, buzzy write up in the most prominent newspaper of all. I'm so glad they did. But I'm also sure that they're still struggling. And unless you put actual money in their hands, the exposure is useless.

I'm not talking about the value of writing for no pay, or people who do it for love. It's not unusual for me to write 12,000 words in a given week, precisely none of which I'll be paid for. But I'm a full amateur, at least in the world of writing that we're talking about here, so that's irrelevant to the discussion. We're talking about the conditions for people who want to value and respect writing in part by doing it for a living. And we're talking about the importance of professional commentary and journalism. We're drenched in empty optimism about the world of arts and media in the digital age; people talk endlessly about some new golden age of media made for free and distributed for free. But the quality of this free culture is frequently avoided. There's a million short films on Vimeo which were painstakingly, lovingly crafted by dedicated people, and the vast majority of them are fucking awful. Lawrence of Arabia could never have been made by dedicated amateurs, nor could The Secret of Monkey Island, nor could Rubber Soul. And neither can the kind of journalism we deeply need.

I dunno. Predictions are bad business for an enterprise like this. It's hard not to worry for the future, and at times it's hard not to feel a little satisfaction. For awhile now, there's been a trope in paid commentary of "If you do X, you're a chump." With the financial crisis and the collapse of many job markets, it became a commonplace for bloggers to write mocking pieces about how people who have dedicated themselves to certain professions or fields were ensuring their own failure. (I guess there's clicks to be had in making people feel better about their own shitty deal.) As a PhD student, I've read more of those targeted towards me and people like me than I can count. Well, I think we're probably all chumps, now, and those same bloggers should keep their bags packed.

I thought that this conversation was about as good as it possibly could be, given the format and the culture of the people within. (Branch.com essentially exists for people to say "I AND THE OTHER PEOPLE IN THIS CHAT ARE VERY VERY IMPORTANT.") There's a lot of fear in there, and a lot of effort to not show that fear to the other people involved, which is certainly understandable. I doubt any of them individually thinks that they will be the one to end up on the outside, though. My useless prediction is that some large majority of them will not be writing or editing professionally ten years from now, and not by choice.

I can't feel anything but unhappiness about that. I don't want the world where most every piece from a professional publication is either clickbait garbage or "sponsored content." I don't need any more "The Fourteen Hottest Raccoon Twinks" or "Experts Say 7-11 Leads in Snacktacular Savings" in my life. But I fear I'm going to get it; I fear that's the future.

I think everybody in this conversation might just be whistling past the graveyard. But then, is that any different for the rest of us? I keep posting these charts and graphs, that show how deeply broken our basic deal is. Our system says that you must work and that work is central to who you are; meanwhile, work for the vast majority of us gets worse and worse and worse. So maybe we're all just fucked, not as writers, but as workers, as regular people.

Update: Two additional points, both from that Branch.com deal. First, several people tell stories about how some piece that they thought would get them know money got republished somewhere and ended up getting them money.... But anecdotes are memorable because they are rare, and none of these suggests anything like a sustainable model.

Second, somebody writes, "Agreed with Sara and Max w/r/t the troubling, self-perpetuating ubiquity and dominance of the shitty and slipshod. It's bleak to see insultingly artless, lame-unto-awful stuff -- in sports, where I spend most of my time, that's Bleacher Report -- dominate through sheer Google-gigging volume (and, now, adoptive corporate parentage), despite being widely unloved/loathed and mostly unlovable/loathsome."

Unloved by whom? By the people in that chat? For sure. By the people who click and generate the ad revenue? Seems not to be the case. And that's a deep problem here, conflicting notions of what is quality and what is valuable. That tension contributes to the sense I already identified in which these are people who know better than to claim that they are responsible for their own success and yet want to anyway. (As I sometimes do, as many of us sometimes do.) The sad fact is that the public may want "15 Gayest Pictures of the Pope" more than "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold."