Liberals gonna liberal

The amount of tone-policing and other forms of meta-discourse surrounding the Democratic primary is overwhelming. Everyone feels patronized, insulted, inundated with negative information about their candidate and apologetics for the opponent. Every day brings us a new meditation on “electability” or abstract “qualifications.” Every primary prompts ad hoc moralizing about whether the rules are fair — though neither side has a pre-existing theory of what fairness would look like, other than them winning.

I can see this kind of maneuvering in a race between fundamentally similar candidates, but they are really asking for different things — either a continuation of Clintonian centrist “neoliberalism with a human face” or an attempt to return to something like FDR’s postwar settlement. Even this genuine, substantive disagreement gets shunted into the meta level. The young people love socialism, so that’s the future of the party, or else socialism is “unrealistic” and we should just try for slight tweaks to the status quo. In other words, even a major ideological difference is primarily grist for the electability mill. And my God, I am so sick of hearing about those secret Wall Street speeches — again, a procedural argument where there should be a substantive reckoning with the public record, which provides ample evidence on all the relevant issues.

They say liberals won’t take their own side in an argument, but it’s worse than that: they won’t even directly have an argument. It’s all proceduralism, all the way down.

What exactly is wrong with Zizek’s political commentary lately?

I find it interesting that the dominant mode of critiquing Zizek’s recent political writings from the left is simply to post quotations from him, with dismissive comments. It’s taken to be self-evident what’s wrong with his statements — and presumably also what should be done instead of what he recommends. What’s interesting is that the explicit critique and alternative never seem to appear in this context. Is it just not worth it, because it’s *so* completely obvious? Is it tacky of me to even ask?

I mean, I should already know. And I do, of course, no question — but just to make sure we’re on the same page…

(I also quietly note that this has been the dominant mode of critique by liberal commentators: pull out a quote about Stalin, then rely on everyone to draw the obvious conclusion that he’s dangerous. Or he says something about anti-Semitism, so he must be an anti-Semite, etc.)

Abolish the states

Seemingly every day brings us another example of Republican state legislators and governors trampling on the rights of their citizens. Today especially, with passage of a despicable anti-trans law in North Carolina, I am seeing a lot of liberals speaking out. As usual, their solutions are completely inadequate: we should make fun of those politicians for being backward and dumb (and bonus points if you can construe it as somehow hypocritical, because yes, the problem with conservatives is that they’re inconsistent in the application of their destructive ideology) and we should moralize about how “this is what happens when you don’t vote in local elections.”

I might be able to take the latter point more seriously if the possibility of actually campaigning or even running in local elections was ever broached — because realistically, not all of these races are contested. But still, it’s a typical liberal half-measure. The only real solution is to abolish state autonomy altogether.

There is no real benefit to having such quasi-sovereign units of government. We often hear that they’re the “laboratories of democracy,” but they could more aptly be considered the “chemistry sets of democracy” — very unlikely to teach us anything we don’t already know, with a non-trivial chance of blowing up in our face and setting things on fire. If we want small-scale policy experiments, there’s nothing to stop federal agencies from carrying them out in whatever administrative units prove convenient — nor indeed from doing so based on recommendations from local activists.

The existence of quasi-sovereign states also perpetuates the original sins of our nation. State-level autonomy is part of a centuries-old compromise to keep slaveholders in the union — a compromise that, when push came to shove, didn’t even keep slaveholders in the Union! Hence the model is a failure even in terms of its shockingly amoral original purpose, one that bakes the ideology of settler colonialism into our constitutional order. The practical effect of state autonomy has been to enable corruption and racial oppression.

The states also lead directly to a distortion of federal-level democracy in the form of the Senate, where Wyoming gets the same number of votes as California. Meanwhile, back at home, giving such power to state-level officers, who are often selected in low-turnout off-year elections and who receive only a trivial amount of scrutiny, directly cuts against democratic representation and accountability. More elections does not equal more democracy — in our current system, a superabundance of elections undercuts principles of accountability and meaningful choice. “Local control” effectively disempowers and silences most local constituencies.

How serious should we be about Trump?

Trump hugging flag

If Trump is a fascist, if he’s a potential American Hitler, how do we respond when family members support him? For instance, I’ve learned that a relative of mine, one I was close to when I was growing up, is a Trump supporter. I’ve also learned that another, one I’ve kept closer to over the years, doesn’t like Trump but would vote for him over Hillary Clinton.

Would it be appropriate to tell these relatives of mine that their moral judgment is so hideously impaired that I never wish to have any further contact with them? If not now, what about after he gets the nomination? Am I obligated to threaten that if they affirmatively vote for Trump, and they’re not ashamed enough to lie to me about it, I will never speak to them again?

Is this the point when quietly tolerating the conservative uncle crosses over into refusing to come to Thanksgiving if the now Trump-supporting uncle is invited?

And what if I had kids? Would I be within my rights to say that Trump supporters in my family will never see my children again, because I don’t want my children to be around such people, to be influenced by someone who can be seduced by such ugliness?

These measures seem harsh, but if Trump really is a sui generis evil, then unprecedented and difficult measures are called for. If we’re not willing to make and carry through with such threats, does that mean that we don’t really view him as a sui generis evil? That this is just the latest thing we’re willing to humor for the sake of family peace and avoiding social awkwardness?


There was a time, not so long ago, when Neil deGrasse Tyson was univerally beloved as an icon of science and rationality. He made the rebooted Cosmos an unlikely hit, and his take-downs of scientific ignorance on Twitter were staples of virtually everyone’s feed. Then something changed. His Twitter feed became a series of exercises in #WellActually-ism, as he took it upon himself to take down views that no one held. #WellActually, New Years Day has no astrological significance — take that, person who… held that view, if you exist. #WellActually, the Earth doesn’t leap at all during Leap Year — apparently this is supposed to be a common misconception, rather than an idea that had literally never occurred to anyone. And now, the very worst depths of #WellActually: you don’t oppose Trump, you oppose his supporters — see, because you don’t want them to vote for… um, well, Trump. Zing!

This sad tale should be a warning to every academic who is tempted by the siren-song of Twitter. There’s something about the drive to constantly craft witty, counter-intuitive aperçus that is obviously corrosive to the mind. Inevitably one reaches the level of self-parody. Thankfully for Tyson, his self-parodic version is merely smug and too-clever-by-half. There are worse “worst selves” out there, such as the racist demagogue that Dawkins’ self-parody version turned out to be.

In retrospect, I can admit that I was reaching that level with the tweets that got me in trouble last year — too quick to opine, too cynically “knowing,” too self-indulgently sarcastic, too entitled in my assumption that everyone was somehow “in on the joke.” In retrospect, it may have been an unintentional act of mercy for the right-wing hordes to drive me away from Twitter, at least as a frequent improvisational tweet-crafter (I do like to retweet funny things and respond to friends’ tweets now and again).

The sad part is that I still feel a certain pride in my Twitter virtuosity. I look at Tyson’s decline and think: I could do better than that. But the end result would be the same — compulsively returning to the same tired formulas, gradually alienating more and more people. When my paranoia about fresh waves of harrassment drives me to search for my own name, it’s clear that there are people who are just vaguely annoyed at me, who use me as a byword for smugness or arrogance. It’s yet another way in which being good at Twitter produces only bad results. The better you are at crafting tweets, the more you get retweeted and the more people get sick of you. The more “exposure” you get, the more exposed you are to harrassment.

Twitter eats through the talent and reputation of its most dedicated users. Even more than Facebook, I think, it’s a “user” — and so it makes sense that the quintessential Twitter user turns out to be none other than Donald Trump, whose apparently unlimited supply of contempt and resentment renders him immune to the platform’s corrosive effects, which only make him even stronger. He thrives on the “hate retweet,” the “get a load of this guy.” Trump is the truth of Twitter.

Deleted tweets are the truest kind

My heavily left-wing Twitter feed has seized upon a tweet from some obscure right-wing account that made the bonehead error of saying that Tammy Duckworth failed to “stand up” for veterans and then deleted it. By all accounts, they aren’t handling the situation as graciously as they could be, but still, the scene is ugly. It is literally a mirror image of right-wing harrassment campaigns — mocking the very idea of being able to delete a Tweet, fantasizing about people losing their jobs, etc.

If it turns out they were consciously mocking Duckworth’s disability and then thought better of it, I suppose the treatment is more justified. But from what I can see right now, this is just another instance of the bipartisan “smell weakness, then mercilessly swarm” routine that everyone has apparently decided is a healthy and beneficial norm for online life.

One of the most disturbing things to me is how many people are apparently opposed to the very idea of deleting a tweet or post, as though it’s an illegitimate attempt to avoid the “punishment” you deserve. Maybe Twitter should just remove the deletion function altogether, right? Is that the world we all want to live in now — a world where once you hit post, it is on the permanent public record for ever and ever and you can never escape it? Maybe universal vigilante surveillance is the way to go. Maybe the problem with the NSA is that it’s not participatory enough. In either case, if you never make a small mistake ever, you have nothing to fear.

The astonishment that such things are “still” possible

Klee - Angelus Novus (1920)

Benjamin’s “Theses on the Philosophy of History” relentlessly attack the notion of any form of necessary social progress, whether liberal or Marxist. In the current election cycle, we may be witnessing a fresh “now of legibility” for this much-quoted text. Who can follow the bizarre events unfolding before us and still hold onto the illusions that the arc of history — or demographic change — will “automatically” save us in the end?

“Progress” in the conventional sense is simply not on offer here, in large part because we’ve had decades of “regression” in those terms. In the ostensibly “progressive” party, we are offered a choice between perhaps the most authentically conservative candidate in recent memory — Hillary Clinton, who promises to fight to keep things exactly as Obama left them — and an opponent who, in terms of the “progress” of recent history, counts as nostalgic and even regressive — Bernie Sanders, who wants to restore the elements of the postwar settlement that have been eroded and destroyed. To go forward, we must go back.

Meanwhile, on the ostensibly “conservative” end of things, we have people who are either “progressive” in the sense of wanting to hurry along existing trends (the neoliberal “Republican establishment,” such as it is) and outright revolutionaries — most notably Trump, but also Cruz. While much of their rhetoric seems “regressive” in the traditional “things should get more lefty” terms — how can anyone “still” embrace the KKK, for instance? Buy a calendar! — in reality they are offering us something unprecedented, something we truly cannot predict. The superficial nostalgia of “Make America Great Again” should not hide the fact that nothing Trump or Cruz is proposing is actually a “return” to any previous era. The embrace of white supremacy at the current moment, for instance, means something radically different than a similar move would have meant when even abolitionists were pretty much racists.

We can see the same thing on the state level. Bruce Rauner is not aiming to return Illinois to some previous state — he wants to impose an unprecedented arrangement upon it, and to achieve that he appears to be willing to literally shut down all state agencies for his entire term if need be. Here the Democrats are most vividly the conservative party, the party that is in favor of having a state government at all. And the telling thing, I think, is that — due to Rauner buying off a Democratic legislator — the Democrats are one vote short of the supermajority needed to render him totally irrelevant to the political process. All it would take is one Republican to say, “My God, this is lunacy” and it would all be over. And not a single one will.

We see a similar dichotomy in the response to public pressure. Republicans, going all the way back to George W. Bush, simply do not care. They’re going to do what they’re going to do, and the only question is when they’ll get bored of the spectacle and call in the national guard. Democrats, by contrast, are the party of at least pretending to respond to protest. Illinois offers an instructive example here: there have been countless fruitless protests against Rauner, but the terrible, corrupt, conservative Democrat Rahm Emanuel has made some token gesture toward meeting protestors’ demands and even allowed protestors to disrupt Christmas shopping unmolested. His responses have been token at best, but even Rahm — who is surely the very worst the Democrats have to offer — acknowledges and responds in some way.

This is why I distrust all those who smugly inform us that Trump’s most outlandish plans are a dead letter. Presumably this is because of institutional constraints — but since when are Republicans known for working within institutional constraints? During the Obama years, they have systematically weaponized those constraints, turning the fillibuster into a de facto minimum vote threshold, repeatedly playing chicken with the debt ceiling, and now flatly refusing to entertain any Obama nominee for the Supreme Court. They have fought aggressively from a position of virtually unprecedented weakness and repudiation, and they have been rewarded electorally.

Does this mean that Trump really will carry out the most massive population transfer in human history? I don’t know. I hope not. But we can’t rule it out. We can’t rule anything out. He would be the commander in chief of the United States armed forces, and he would have Republican allies at all levels of government, who control militarized and deeply racist police forces. Will the Republicans in the Senate literally let the Supreme Court die off one by one before they allow a Democrat to confirm a new justice? I don’t know. I hope not. But they could. They have the power to do that. Similarly in Illinois, do we really know that Rauner won’t continue his crusade for all four years? I don’t know. I hope not. But he could — there is nothing compelling him to sign any budget ever — and I don’t think we really know what that will look like for the state to be shut down for four years. And then we don’t know that he won’t be reelected.

In any case, demographics will not save us. The longer they’re in power now, the more opportunity they have to entrench their power. Conservative overreach will not save us. The more public institutions they destroy, the more they destroy the constituencies for them. Trump won’t lose automatically, because neither Hillary Clinton nor Bernie Sanders can fully control events. The normal back and forth of politics, the trends and data, will not save us — because the unprecedented can and does happen. It is happening before our eyes.


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