Worthy Opponents


Jay Rosen has written a summary of the reasons that the traditional model of campaign reporting has broken down. The old approach envisioned the political process as involving “two similar parties with warring philosophies that compete for tactical advantage” — in other words, a struggle between two worthy opponents who recognized each other as such. Now that symmetry has broken down as Republicans increasingly view Democrats, along with the entire traditional field of battle (Constitutional constraints, journalistic balance), as fraudulent and illegitimate. To use Schmittian terminology that Rosen does not, the Republicans shifted from viewing the Democrats as enemies to viewing them as foes. Unfortunately, in Rosen’s view, journalists were too complacent about this process and wound up getting blindsided by Trump, who is the logical outgrowth of this asymmetrical dynamic.

I agree with Rosen’s overall analysis, and I would add that the Democrats in general, and Hillary Clinton in specific, also seem to be in denial about this dynamic. The Democrats have become the party, not of some specific ideological agenda, but of the traditional system as such. One of Obama’s major goals has been to rehabilitate the Republicans and force them to act as a worthy opponent rather than an implacable foe. This approach was naive and in many ways dangerous, as shown most vividly when Obama tried to “leverage” the Republicans’ unprecedented brinksmanship on the debt ceiling to engineer a “grand bargain” on the deficit, but it fits with the view that the system only works if there are two worthy opponents locked in an eternal struggle with no final victories. We can see something similar in Clinton’s controversial decision to treat Trump as an outlier rather than letting him tar the Republican brand as such. It works to her political disadvantage — showing that her centrist opportunism is weirdly principled in its own way — but from within her worldview, the most important thing is to restore the traditional balance of forces.

The situation we are in shows the intrinsic instability of party democracy. An eternal struggle between worthy opponents is not possible in practice. Eventually, one of the two teams is going to decide that they want to win in the strong sense, to defeat the opponent once and for all. And if that desire cannot be achieved immediately, it will inevitably lead to a long period where the old enemy is treated as a foe — as intrinsically evil and illegitimate. Within the American system, with its baroque structure of constraints and veto points, that will lead to a period where government is barely functional, because the natural tendency will be for the radicalized party to refuse to go along with the system until they have full control over it.

One possible outcome would be for the Democrats to recognize the Republicans as a foe and seek their final defeat, a crushing victory that delegitimizes the party entirely. Given the Republicans’ strangle-hold in many regions of the country, though, such a final defeat is not likely in the near term. Without something like the Republican party to channel these groups’ demands through the political system, the only alternative is an impotent frustration that can easily issue in violence, particularly in a gun-saturated culture like our own. From this perspective, we could see police shootings and mass shootings as the first signs of a fragmentary but intensifying push toward civil war.

What Hillary Clinton is offering us is one more chance to put a lid on it, kick the can on the road, and hope that the Republicans somehow get it out of their system and go back to being a “normal” party. Trump, by contrast, is pushing for a solution that we might characterize as more — final. The latter agenda is sure to be hugely destructive, not least because it is delusional. A final victory in the political sphere is impossible because the eternal struggle between worthy opponents is an attempt to intermediate and render survivable the implacable conflict at the heart of American society — a conflict that already resulted in one of the most destructive civil wars in world history.

The fundamental problems of America are not fixable via the traditional political system, which has only served to deny and yet paradoxically maintain the conflict that provides the subterranean energy necessary to keep the eternal struggle between worthy opponents going. Short of a total revolution and refounding of American society (or some number of societies to replace what we currently know as America), somehow rebooting the eternal struggle is probably the only option to prevent the outbreak of civil war and total collapse. Rarely have we been confronted so starkly with the choice between the katechon and the man of lawlessness in the voting booth.

And rarely has it been so uncertain whether the election of another would-be katechon will lead to the collapse or the intensification of the forces of chaos. In retrospect, it may have taken a once-in-a-generation political talent like Obama simply to manage to kick the can down the road. An uninspiring technocrat who has been the subject of a generation-long demonization campaign — who virtually embodies the image of the Democrats as foe for a critical mass of Republicans — may prove to be too fragile a reed to master the forces that have always been tearing America apart.

The ethics of voting

In the field of theology, one sometimes finds a job listing that requires the successful applicant to sign a statement of faith. I am most likely past the point of applying for such jobs, so it is safe for me to reveal that I have always maintained that, if confronted with such a statement of faith, I would sign it, literally no matter what it says.

There are several reasons for this. One is that if I were in that situation, it would not be a question of choosing between a job demanding a statement of faith and one without — I would only consider the former if it were my only option for continuing my academic career. Signing would increase my personal survivability and enable me to reach students who might desperately need an alternative perspective. As for the dishonesty involved, I regard the entire system of demanding a statement of faith from faculty members as deeply fraudulent. Signing it dishonestly shows the appropriate level of respect for their ham-handed attempt at uniformity of thought. Refusing to do so out of protest would actually grant the whole thing too much legitimacy.

It occurs to me that we could view voting under a bourgeois democracy similarly. We all know that the system is fraudulent at many levels. The most important and destructive policies are a bipartisan consensus, meaning there is no way to vote against them. All candidates are fake in the sense of being media phenomena, and they all represent a front for the power of moneyed interests. Yet there is a difference between the candidates, and in a big powerful system, a small difference can make a big difference. One choice really is more survivable than the other.

Refusing to vote out of principle or voting for a third-party candidate who supposedly reflects your “real” views grants the system too much legitimacy. It gives the impression that the system could and should give us a positively good option, when we know that it cannot and never wanted to. Holding your nose to vote for the less destructive class enemy is in a way as dishonest as signing the statement of faith, but as a gesture, voting cynically shows the appropriate level of respect for a corrupt system.

Free speech debates, terminable and interminable


I’m never sure what to do with an article like this one by David Bromwich in LRB. The discussion of free speech on campus seems to carry with it a series of rhetorical traps, as though it is impossible to criticize the phenomenon in question (“speech-policing,” “shaming,” “censorship,” or whatever else you want to call it) while maintaining a sense of proportion. It can’t be a bunch of late adolescents trying to figure out their identity in a complex world and sometimes making mistakes — it’s got to be a form of creeping totalitarianism that threatens to undo free speech and democracy once and for all. It’s as though the critics have thoroughly internalized the culture of offense and victimhood they are castigating and can do nothing but reverse it: you think you’re serving social justice, but it turns out that you are oppressing me!

It does seem to me that people sometimes overreact in the other direction. It’s difficult to register a criticism of any kind without being made to feel like the enemy. Sometimes that has made me self-censor in advance, just to avoid being hassled. But it’s not as though the world was deprived of world-shaking insights by my silencing, nor is it the case that “being made to feel like the enemy” is actually that big a deal. I wish the critics of oversensitivity could stop being so damned oversensitive themselves, so eager to take on the mantle of the noble martyr to the cause of free speech.

What worries me about the whole debate is that everyone is working within severe imaginative constraints. There is no positive vision of the world that follows from either of the two opposed positions on acceptable speech on campus — both are a version of “leave me alone.” Both rely heavily on shaming. This is obvious in the case of the dread “social justice warriors,” but it is equally true that their critics proceed mainly by name-calling: you’re oversensitive, you’re entitled, you’re fragile, you’re (God forbid!) a millennial! Both lean heavily on the slippery slope, so that the microaggression is on the same spectrum as a police shooting and the 19-year-old clumsily accusing you of being “problematic” is in training to join the Stasi.

I want to ask the SJWs: What comes after we have appropriately purged our speech of offensive and hurtful phraseologies? What prospect opens up for humanity once I finally train myself to stop saying “you guys”? And I want to ask their prickly critics: What amazing benefits will we derive from a “return” to this fragile utopia of free speech that we have so thoughtlessly left behind? What do we gain once everyone has reached that elusive perfect level of sensitivity, taking offense only when absolutely warranted?

We can’t change the world just by changing the way we talk — not by shaping our language into an instrument of sensitivity and inclusion, nor by finally purging it of the scourge of political correctness. Language isn’t unimportant. The questions people are dealing with by means of trigger warnings and microaggressions and safe spaces are real. But they aren’t the questions, they don’t point us toward a viable solution. Language is a field of power relations but it isn’t the only or even the primary one. We need to change our life, not just our talk.

The Real Progressive Case for Hillary Clinton

Kevin Drum has posted what he believes is an “overwhelming” progressive case for Hillary Clinton. (Or at least that’s what the headline says — in the actual text of the post it is downgraded to a “liberal” case.) The post consists of a lengthy numbered list of things that I assume Drum thinks progressives should like — though #23, “She voted for TARP,” makes me wonder which progressives Drum is hanging out with, as do the references to debunked 90s scandals toward the end. In sum, the thing is a total hodgepodge, not at all a coherent case.

I think we can all agree that the ideal outcome would be for Bernie Sanders to ride a wave election and implement smart progressive policy because he believes in it and always has. You would have to be a fool to assume that Clinton will be as aggressive and consistent as Sanders would have been, even if she winds up controlling Congress. She is not a principled progressive, and though she has opportunistically adopted some progressive stances under pressure, there is no particular reason to believe she wouldn’t opportunistically reverse herself again if that seemed to be advantageous.

Under Clinton, then, progressives won’t be able to sit back and cheer as the president gives them everything they want. They will have to push her to do some good things that she has said she will do but might not really want to, and they will probably also have to protest when she wants to do bad things. Her very opportunism indicates that she is susceptible to such pressures, as Democrats tend to be. Even the most evil of Democrats, Rahm Emanuel, showed some responsiveness to BLM protestors.

By contrast, under Trump, activists will constantly have to be protesting against not just bad things, but stupid things that obviously shouldn’t happen. What’s more, those protests will not get any results, because Republicans habitually double down in response to protest. Bush could look at literally the biggest coordinated global protest in world history and say, “See, that’s the kind of freedom we want to bring to Iraq!” When we factor in Trump’s unique personality — not to mention the right-wing extremists his victory will embolden — things look even worse.

A vote for Clinton isn’t so much a vote for a person as it is a vote for a certain landscape. Do you want the atmosphere to be like the Obama years, which were discouraging and yet punctuated by moments of genuine progress? Or do you want to go back to a wasteland of utter despair and futility like the Bush years? Clinton is not a natural ally, but she will at least hold open the space where the left can grow. Trump might stamp it out for a generation.

The work of literature in the age of Netflix


The Girlfriend and I are at different points in Ferrante’s Neapolitan Novels, having both finished vol. 4 of Knausgaard’s My Struggle. I’m sure we are hardly the only couple to both be making our way through these two Major International Literary Events, which are so often paired. In some ways, this phenomenon is puzzling, because what binds the two — memoiristic detail — is hardly unique to either of them, and in any case Ferrante’s focus on her friend Lila is radically different from Karl Ove’s obsessive fixation on Karl Ove.

Why are Knausgaard and Ferrante both such literary darlings, at this particular historical moment? I propose that the reason is precisely the fact that both have produced series, and the series-form is the signature form of our age. I’m not thinking only of the ways that young-adult fiction, most notably Harry Potter, has shaped the reading habits of those who are now adults (in addition to the adults who read them while already being adults) — though this is obviously hugely important, insofar as it took the series-form, once the redoubt of sci-fi and fantasy nerds, and mainstreamed it. No, even more than that, I’m thinking of the High Quality Cable Dramas that are virtually replacing the novel for many knowledge workers today (and here I must shamefully include myself to some extent).

We are used to investing time in exposition for TV shows, but only if they eventually “get good” and can therefore promise us an ever-expanding reward of ongoing entertainment immersion for our efforts. Literary fiction is a poor fit from this perspective, because no sooner have you become immersed than you are finished and have to start totally from scratch. Even in mainstream movies, the one-off format is becoming intolerable, as “franchises” dominate the scene — so how should we be expected to put up with such a poor ROI on a more labor-intensive format?

The giveaway is that people talk about the two canonical Literary Events in the same way as series. “You have to be patient with the first [book/season], it only really gets good 3/4 of the way through” — am I talking about Ferrante or Boardwalk Empire? Similarly with the loyalty: I’m not sure I’ve met any reader of Knausgaard who isn’t in it for the long haul, despite the widely acknowledged drop-off in quality in vols. 3 and 4.

In an era where TV feels like literature, we want our literature to feel like TV.


I feel unmoored. Only in the last few days did I turn the corner of having been home from Australia and New Zealand as long as I had been there. The first week we were back, we had to deal with our dog Max’s sudden illness, which caused him to act very differently and threw us into a state of emergency where, for instance, we felt that at least one of us had to be in the house at all times. And since we put him to sleep, the apartment still feels foreign.

My normal strategy for asserting control over my space is cleaning, and I did a lot of cleaning in the days after we lost Max. It only emphasized the absence, though. The spot where his bowl used to be cries out for the bowl — the lack is more visible than the bowl itself ever was. The same goes for the space where his dog bed used to be, for the couches with no drool spots or fur, for the pristine white duvet cover that shockingly stays that way for more than a couple hours.

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First Contact


In his excellent piece commemorating the 50th anniversary of Star Trek, Gerry Canavan says, “The Idea of Star Trek is that the future might be good; we might be good; we might find a way, somewhere far beyond the stars, to become our better selves.” And much of the article is taken up with how shockingly little of “actual existing” Star Trek lives up to that Idea or even seriously tries to.

It seems to me that among the films, First Contact does the best job of living up to the Idea, even as it complicates it and potentially undermines it. Gerry emphasizes that in Star Trek mythology, the utopian future is not a natural outgrowth of our present. The progress of liberal democracy and individual liberty does not lead to the Federation, but just the opposite: it collapses into the horror of endless war, and only on the other side of that horror do we finally start building something new. And First Contact dramatizes how fragile that transition really is, because it turns out to hinge on an independent inventor, Zefrem Cochrane, testing his new warp drive technology while a Vulcan ship is around to notice him. This leads to the titular “first contact” with the most iconic Star Trek aliens, and it is this momentous event that the Borg seek to prevent by traveling back in time.

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