For-profit social media is not fixable

Yesterday, I received a Facebook direct message telling me that I was a Jew who should get into the gas chamber. Normally I just block and delete such things, but this one was so flagrant that I felt I had to report it. This morning, I got a message telling me that Facebook had taken action — they sent that user a note reminding him of the Community Standards.

This is more response than I have gotten from the dozens of reports I have sent to Twitter over the years. To be fair, I have seldom been in the mood to write the dissertation they expect me to write, so maybe it’s my own fault. Or maybe the form is a placebo and they set it up to be intimidating on purpose, so that they can blame the reporters for not providing adequate information.

From their perspective, this tepid response makes sense. They get more money if they can show higher user engagement. Right-wing hordes are among the most engaged users of Twitter especially. The same goes with fake news on Facebook — the combination of outrage and in-group formation that fake news stories generate is an engagement gold mine.

We need to admit that right-wing harrassment and conspiracy theories are baked into the business model of social media at this point. And with right-wing political hegemony for the foreseeable future, it will only get worse, because the range of “acceptable opinion” will shift even further to the right. Asking nicely and filling out all the proper paperwork will not change this underlying material reality.

If social media is worth having, then the answer is to build a non-profit alternative to the for-profit sites. Wikipedia could provide a model here. It is not-for-profit, it includes strong self-policing mechanisms, and it is arguably the most trusted and useful site on the entire internet. Wikipedia shows us that a non-profit internet not only can work, but can thrive.

Žižek and ‘the Left’

I’ve just finished reading Žižek’s book on the refugee crisis,  Against the Double Blackmail: Refugees, Terror and Other Troubles with the Neighbours. Don’t read it: it’s terrible. It’s all of the worst bits of Žižek with none of the best bits, except for a bunch of the same tired old arguments he repeats in twenty of his earlier, better books. I wish that he would stop, and I wish that people would stop enabling him.

The biggest problem with the book is its sheer laziness. Žižek can’t even be bothered to connect up the bits of his own argument, let alone spend any meaningful time paying attention to what’s going on in the world. He argues that the good thing about religious fundamentalisms is that at least religious fundamentalists won’t ever form political alliances with each other across religious lines – right after a discussion of the role of religious fundamentalism in contemporary Israeli politics. He argues that it’s all very well to argue that we should abolish borders but we can’t do that unless we’re also willing to abolish capitalism, as though the people arguing for the abolition of borders aren’t mostly anarcho-communists. He argues that (unlike in other parts of the world) in the West acts of terrorism are shocking because violence isn’t woven into the fabric of our daily lives, and then goes on to talk about Ferguson and violence against indigenous women. He argues that Ferguson was just a spontaneous outburst of aimless frustration that achieved nothing, as though it wasn’t a catalyst for political organising around the world.

Read the rest of this entry »

Help me plan a course about Jesus

Next semester I’ll be teaching a module on ‘The Many Faces of Jesus’ that I’ve inherited from a predecessor. This is the module description and indicative course outline I’m working with: I’ve got some freedom to work within these constraints but what I teach has to broadly fit this framework, which has been officially approved by the department (in case any pedagogy nerds are interested in the different constraints at play in UK teaching):

This module engages critically with some of the key ways in which the Christian tradition has understood Jesus and his saving significance. The module begins with a study of key New Testament texts concerning Jesus. Then crucial debates in the patristic era will be looked at in detail, including the critical decisions reached at the Councils of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Contemporary discussions surrounding the historical Jesus and Christ of faith will also be evaluated, as well as contemporary theological understandings of Jesus. The module will also examine non-Christian understandings of Jesus, especially in Judaism and Islam.

Indicative Outline Content
a.i.1. Who did Paul think Jesus was?
a.i.2. Who did John think Jesus was?
a.i.3. Who did Jesus think Jesus was?
a.i.4. How on earth did Jesus become a God? The Arian Crisis
a.i.5. Was Jesus truly human? The Nestorian controversy
a.i.6. The Chalcedonian Definition… and its Aftermath
a.i.7. The Birth of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.8. The Death of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.9. The Resurrection of Jesus in Contemporary Theology
a.i.10. The Quests for the Historical Jesus
a.i.11. Jewish and Islamic perspectives on Jesus
a.i.12. Can a male saviour save women?

It’s obviously going to be a bit of a whistlestop tour of Christology through the centuries, and I’m struggling to work out how best to manage things – I’d like to give a bit more space to non-Western Christologies in the second half of the model, and I’d really appreciate any recommendations for good primary and secondary readings to assign my students. Is there anything important missing from this outline? Are there any books I really have to read as I get planning? I’m definitely going to go back to Virginia Burrus’ Begotten Not Made, Boyarin’s Border Lines, and I’m trying to figure out if there’s a way to squeeze in Du Bois’ Jesus Christ in Texas.

The fiction you’re not able read right now builds worlds; poetry breathes.

I’ve been hearing & reading a recurring sentiment since the election: I can’t read fiction right now. That I hear it most commonly from those I consider “serious readers” (those who don’t read fiction strictly for entertainment or diversion), is cause for concern — as I understand both the importance they place on reading and the mournful loss they’re experiencing at not being able to do so.

I have a suggestion. It will sound so pithy that some of you will stop reading. But here goes: try poetry.

Let me stop you at the first all-too-common, immediate objection: “But I don’t know how to read poetry.” Nonsense. You’re not dead. If you’re this far into this post, you’re obviously still breathing: that’s all it takes. The rest is negotiable.  Read the rest of this entry »

Self-Defeating Centrism

During his eight years in office, Obama deported a record number of immigrants, which is traditionally a Republican thing to do. He can’t openly take credit for it, because it would alienate his base — and if he tried, Republican voters literally would not believe it. Part of that is the right-wing echo chamber, but part of it is also that people reasonably expect the liberal party to do liberal things.

Obamacare is another great example: it IS the market-based alternative to socialized medicine, which is traditionally a Republican thing. But he can only sell it to his base as a necessary compromise (despite the fact that it passed solely with Democratic votes), and meanwhile Republican voters still think it’s socialized medicine — because, again, they expect the liberal party to do liberal things. In this example, we have the added twist that they assume anything the liberal party does is liberal, hence the health care debate is now skewed sharply to the right as a Republican policy becomes the far left edge of possible options.

We can see the same dynamic with gun control. Democrats basically decided to give up on this issue and haven’t pushed any serious gun control measures in a long time, other than symbolic gestures after particularly horrifying mass shootings. But the gun lobby refuses to take yes for an answer: they still rile up their base with images of Obama or Hillary sending in the jackbooted thugs to take all the guns. Yet again, we’re dealing with the self-enclosed fantasy world of the right, but also with the fact that people reasonably assume that both sides of a controversial and important issue will be represented in the political system.

In these and so many other cases, centrism is a clear political loser — you turn off your own supporters and gain nothing. If you were designing a political strategy with the goal of long-term defeat, I don’t think you could do better than actual existing Democrats.

An interview on Agamben’s Kingdom and the Glory

[The following is the English transcript of an interview that will appear in Portuguese translation in a special issue of the IHU Online Review on Agamben, published by Instituto Humanitas Unisinos in Porto Allegre, Brazil. The questions were provided by Prof. Márcia R. Junges.]

  1. From the perspective of Giorgio Agamben in The Kingdom and the Glory, could you explain what Trinitarian oikonomia is?
  2. Giorgio Agamben takes a unique approach to the doctrine of the Trinity. Rather than focus on the various debates that led up to the formation of Trinitarian orthodoxy, he traces the fate of one particular key term: oikonomia, which is the Greek term for “economy.” Oikonomia originally referred to the management of the household but spread to other improvisational forms of management—managing the emotions of the audience in a political speech, for instance, or managing conflicts within a multi-cultural empire. Agamben argues that when Christian theologians, including “heretics,” used this language, they were drawing on the same general concept. God has to “manage” his relationship with creation, which means first of all “managing” God’s relationship to God—the inner life of God, meaning the Trinity, has its own “economy,” which allows God to manage the “economy of salvation.”

  3. What is the novelty of this perception and its contribution to the debate of political theology and economic theology?
  4. Agamben is not the first to draw political consequences from the Trinity. Read the rest of this entry »

The bankruptcy of hypocrisy critiques

I thought that Trump’s seizure of the presidency would put an end to hypocrisy critiques, but liberals are still reaching for the same tired “point and laugh” gotchas. One that came across my Facebook feed today points out that conservatives think that flag-burning shouldn’t be protected by the First Amendment, but that they should have the right to take assault rifles to McDonald’s under the Second Amendment. See, the contradiction — and try to stifle your smug laughter — is that they think one constitutional right should be restricted, but another shouldn’t! How can they even live and function with such cognitive dissonance going on?!

In reality, I can construe those two positions as mutually consistent. American national identity is the guarantor of all constitutional rights, and therefore there must be a limit to acceptable critique or protest, to avoid undermining the very right to critique and protest. Particularly potent symbols of national identity — in particular the flag — should be held as sacrosanct for that reason. Prooposing otherwise would be, in this viewpoint, the true contradiction. Similarly, America is a nation founded on individual empowerment. There is no contradiction between a strong social bond and an armed populace — indeed, they go together because an armed populace is best positioned to fight for the individual rights that make America America.

If that construal seems incoherent or artificial, I encourage you to read Pericles’ funeral oration in Thucydides, which uses exactly the same rhetorical moves. This is all straight out of the standard toolbox of democratic patriotism, from time immemorial. It is not an ideology I embrace, but it is one that makes sense on its own terms, and it is one that is obviously very compelling for a strong plurality of our fellow-citizens.

Part of its power is its respect for emotions and symbolism, for something other than cold logic. A right isn’t an abstract formula, it’s something embedded in how you live every day — the kinds of symbolic identities you embrace and revere and the ways you perform your own self-reliance as part of that symbolic identity. From this perspective, the liberal “gotcha” point feels empty and meaningless. Worse, the hypocrisy-policing pose always implicitly assumes that the target is trying and failing to embrace empty liberal formalism. If they don’t draw the “correct” conclusion — in this case, that some old sheet of paper should be obeyed when it tells us people should be able to desecrate our sacred symbols but ignored when it says we should be able to have means of self-defense — they must be stupid. Isn’t it funny how stupid they are? You almost wonder why they keep winning so many elections.

I submit that assuming everyone is trying to be a good liberal but is too stupid to pull it off is a losing strategy. Of course, I’m probably being hypocritical because I keep trying and failing to persuade people of this. Or something. I don’t know. I kind of hate everything right now.