The dead-end politics of ridicule

It’s fitting that Jon Stewart’s loving tribute came on the same night as the Republican debate, because the politics of hate-watching the Republican clown-car are the politics he gave us. For most educated, white liberals, being a Democrat now has no other content than feeling superior to Republicans. We spend our time mocking their obviously wrong statements and policies to cover up the fact that we have no real idea of what the right thing to say or do would be. Our politics are reduced to asking “where’s the outrage?” — and our disappointment about the lack of sufficient anger covers over the fact that we have no idea how we would harness that anger to produce meaningful change.

It’s absolutely pathological. Politics is completely captured by the GOP media’s “politics as entertainment” model — it’s just that liberals have a supplemental layer of commentary on the politico-tainment, to go with all the other TV write-ups. Does any of this make anyone more likely to participate in meaningful political action? Does it help clarify what policies we should advocate for? Does it do anything but confirm the stereotype that liberals are elitists who think everyone else is stupid?

Know thine enemy, you might say. Well, we already know our enemy. They’ve been saying the same damn thing for 35 years. They say it over and over, every single day, in every available forum. And if they cared about things like coherence or avoiding hypocrisy (the liberal commentator’s favorite form of critique, our weird post-Christian hangover), they would have noticed the problem by now. We are frittering away our time analyzing emotional appeals as though they’re philosophical propositions, because we don’t have a single damn thing to say for ourselves. The “stupid” conservative strategy has dominated our politics for decades, and it even let them regain a stranglehold on government two years after a transformative election in which they were utterly discredited. But we’re the smart ones, right? Because we notice that they claim to be in favor of life when really it’s okay with them if some people die. Wow, zing. Nailed it. Retweeted, favorited, tattooed across my forehead!

The political theater of cruelty

The Donald Trump phenomenon is the logical end point of the “politics as entertainment” model championed by the right-wing media.

And from that perspective, the embrace of a similar model among liberals is alarming — the hegemony of the Daily Show, the endless clickbait about how some right-wing politician said a right-wing thing, etc., etc. Like the right-wing variant, liberal “politics as entertainment” is mostly a theater of cruelty, where we derive joy from mocking those stupid people and feeling superior to them….

It’s not that they’re not worthy of mockery or that people don’t have a right to let off steam. It’s the dominance of this mode of political “commentary” that seems troublesome. Will we get our Trump? Have we already?

What does it mean to be complicit with social injustice?

The term social justice has become almost a cliche, so it can be hard to step back and ask what it actually means. One way to read it is as an attempt to include “social issues” within the sphere of justice. Another way, which I think is more interesting and productive, is as an attempt to think of justice itself differently.

Conventional notions of justice are deeply individualistic. They are about individual guilt and the punishment that accrues to it. That individualistic sense of justice seems to be behind the objections to my claim that all white Americans are complicit with slavery. Many of them point out that in criminal law, complicity is a very narrowly defined concept that could not possibly incorporate crimes committed before one was born. This is true, because criminal law is overwhelmingly individualistic in its approach — hence the difficulty it has had in prosecuting things like organized crime.

Within their individualistic framework, it sounds like I am calling for some kind of collective punishment for the sins of one’s ancestors. That’s why I reached for “committing mass suicide” as a sarcastic response — from the individualistic perspective, which is centered on guilt and punishment, that’s the reductio ad absurdam of my claim. It’s likely that if I had chosen to engage in dialogue rather than gotten impatient, one of my interlocutors would have volunteered the “mass suicide” consequence themselves. I decided to head them off at the pass, which in retrospect was a bad choice.

In any case, a more social concept of justice recognizes that individual choices are not the only relevant factors. We all move within social systems that we did not choose and that we cannot significantly change through individual effort alone. One of the most powerful systems is that of race, which in America grows directly out of the experience of slavery. People of “white” races may have been enslaved in the past, but the fact that they are now recognized as “white” means that the disadvantage that might have accrued from that history is no longer very relevant. The consequences of the enslavement of Africans in America, by contrast, are ongoing and massively relevant. Every white person benefits to some degree from the differential treatment of blacks. Sometimes, as in cases of extreme poverty or social marginalization, that benefit is negligible. In most cases, however, it is significant, constituting advantages in wealth, education, social status, and vulnerability to police violence.

The individualistic model of justice has a hard time dealing with that form of complicity. It results in frustrated questions about what the individual can or should do — or dismissive rhetorical questions about what the person pointing out the social injustice has individually done. The underlying assumption, that it is impossible for any one individual to change such social systems, is true. What is not true, from a social justice perspective, is that such systems are therefore morally irrelevant. Systems can be changed through collective action, and complicity with social injustice creates an obligation to join into that collective action in some way. It means that black problems, for instance, are not only black problems — they are white problems, too. Blacks should take the lead in defining what it would mean to solve them, but whites also have a moral responsibility to help them reach their goal.

Several of my new interlocutors have objected that if we’re complicit in slavery, that also means that we’re complicit in all other ongoing injustices. Again, from the individualistic standpoint, this is a reductio ad absurdam — if we’re responsible for everything, we’re responsible for nothing. But from a social justice perspective, that is no counter-argument: it’s the whole point. Absolute individual moral purity is not available to any of us given the unjust social systems that shape our lives. That means that individual moral purity is also not a relevant point of reference. If it were the standard, then we would once again be on the road to mass suicide as the only possible response. In a social model of justice that is not focused primarily on individual guilt and punishment, however, the point is not to condemn people to deprivation and death — it is to find ways to live together.

Should white Americans commit mass suicide? If not, why not?

Today I found myself swirling around in the right-wing toilet of the Internet yet again. Last time, the whole controversy centered around tweets that I quickly realized were based on a profound misunderstanding of the situation and just as quickly deleted — but the fact that they were “hidden” seemed to make them all the more tantalizing and revealing in the eyes of the people who screencapped and published them, resulting in a week of constant online harrassment and some unfavorable Google search results. This time, the crack investigative reporters of the right have uncovered an even more damning quote from me, calling for all whites to commit mass suicide out of guilt for slavery! Can you believe anyone would hold such a view?!

If you’re a reasonable person, the answer is no. In reality, I do not hold that view, nor does anyone else in the entire damn world. Why did I say it, then? I was in dialogue with an obviously bad-faith interlocutor on the subject of race, who clearly wanted to bait me into saying something “offensive,” and out of frustration, I decided I’d give them something to cry about and say something really “offensive” — scare quotes intended. My assumption was that the claim was so obviously hyperbolic that the sarcasm would be immediately evident.

Apparently not, though. Apparently there is a critical mass of delusional and paranoid people on the internet who are willing and eager to (a) believe the absolute worst of a total stranger, (b) track that person down, and (c) direct insulting messages toward them. This time, I seem to have hit on the deeper dregs of the #Gamergate crowd, which has now decided that ethics in gaming journalism consists in openly embracing white supremacy and castigating “beta” men for their lack of manliness. Indeed, I learned today that in such circles, there is a well-known insult (“cuck”) that refers to white “beta” men who are so self-loathing — presumably their wimpiness made them especially susceptible to the siren call of the White Privilege Movement, another thing of whose existence I just learned today — that they solicit members of ethnic minorities to cuckold them as they watch. I’ll simply remark that it’s weird that that scenario comes so readily to mind for our “alpha” males.

This has also been an opportunity to learn a lot of racist talking points. Apparently Africans are also complicit with slavery, because the African slaves were sold by other Africans. The Irish, meanwhile, are immune to any complicity with slavery due to white privilege, because the Irish themselves were once enslaved. The same goes for anyone with Slavic ancestry, as an etymological dictionary will reveal. And of course, there’s always everyone’s favorite: Other Cultures Had Slavery Too. And We Abolished It. Boy, do I feel pwned, bro.

Last time I found the whole thing upsetting, but this time it’s more hilarious to me. Aside from the fact that so many people can’t detect the most obvious sarcasm in the history of sarcasm, I find it amazingly hilarious that their damning evidence of me going so far as to “defend” my views was to quote someone responding “no” and me responding “yes.” It’s also becoming more evident to me, this second time through the wringer, that there are people who desperately need someone to actually state the exaggerated liberal views they fear — indeed, that they get off on performing their indignation and outrage. They’ve invested so much libidinal energy in their opposition to views that no one actually has held or would ever hold, and the occasion to release it no doubt comes as a great relief.

As before, people have been e-mailing Shimer trying to get me fired (and also responding to Shimer’s Twitter, surely the greatest power center in any school). I informed the president and communication head of the situation, and they of course support me completely. Shortly after that exchange, I got an e-mail from development soliciting some last donations before the close of our fiscal year — and I got an idea. I tweeted the link, claiming that it was to a Kickstarter to get me fired from Shimer. And at least one person retweeted with a note about how we have to get this idiot fired. I’m well aware that I may be falling victim to my own critique here and not recognizing obvious sarcasm — but I think I’ve earned it.

White men of the left, unite!

As a white man of the left, I have observed mixed reactions to members of my tribe among subaltern groups. On the one hand, they are often appreciative, at least in principle, of white male allies and very willing to engage with them. On the other hand, white men’s participation in left-wing causes is often found to be problematic in a variety of ways, often having to do with the ongoing effects of white male privilege. There is a tendency to want to be in charge, to pose as the neutral arbiter, etc., and many white men of the left are characterized by a prickly defensiveness when critiqued by members of subaltern groups.

At this point, I feel constrained to issue a disclaimer: I have been guilty of all of these negative behaviors, and though I hope I have gotten past some of these issues, I’m sure I have fallen and will fall into my old white male ways periodically. I do not believe that any of the behaviors I am discussing are inherent to white men or incapable of being changed — hence this post does not necessarily represent a performative contradiction, etc., etc. White male defensiveness is such that this disclaimer will probably be found to be inadequate, but I have to try, for the sake of my own sanity.

To resume: I think we should be good materialists about this and ask, “Why would a white man, qua white man, affiliate with the left?” I understand immediately why a woman who is conscious of her situation in a patriarchal society would be drawn to the political left. Similarly, it is utterly clear to me why a black person would have left-wing political convictions. The same goes for sexual minorities and, well, everyone in our racist, patriarchal society — except for one group: white men. Here I don’t mean to deny that white men may also belong to other subaltern groups, such as the working class. Yet the white male leftists I’m thinking of are normally not current members of the working class (even if, like me, they come from a working class background), but have at least some form of cultural capital if not monetary capital. Why not be reasonable pragmatic centrists?

I think there are two factors at work here. The first is that such men are typically going to be those who are uncomfortable with typical modalities of white male privilege and/or those who have been unsuccessful in their attempts to participate in that regime. They may lack the peculiar social graces necessary for glad-handing and back-scratching. They may be very uncomfortable in all-male environments, or have a temperament incompatible with callous disregard for one’s inferiors. Hence another route to feelings of belonging and purpose becomes appealling — particularly one that can take feelings of isolation and marginalization and transform it into a defiant opposition to the status quo. This likely accounts for the extreme defensiveness of many white male leftists when they believe their leftist bona fides are in question, because their sense of belonging and purpose are in question along with their leftist identity.

None of this is to say that the convictions of leftist white men are less sincere simply because they are also getting some form of emotional compensation and social prestige from their affiliation. Active participation in a social movement should provide emotional satisfactions in the present as well as promises for the future. Further, I count myself as falling into this category. Due to accidents of my temperament and a childhood surrounded constantly by strong women and submissive men, I simply am not good at male bonding, for example.

The second factor is perhaps less flattering. I suspect that for many white male leftists, part of the appeal of leftist ideology is an affinity for conspiratorial thinking. I’ve written previously about the appeal of libertarianism for intellectually curious young white men, who thrill to the prospect of belonging to an intellectual elite that recognizes the simple but essential truths everyone else rejects. From that perspective, many versions of Marxism — especially the class-first, class-only variant so strongly favored by white male leftists — are a perfect fit. The romance of the lost cause surely factors in here as well.

Once again, I have to plead guilty here. Conspiracy theories seem to be in my genes, as my grandfather once took me aside to tell me about the Federal Reserve’s role in the Oklahoma City bombing and my father has been seduced by the siren-song of right-wing radio. In the link above, I confess that I bought into something similar for a time. Now, of course, I’ve figured out the correct conspiracy theory — but I can’t pretend the intellectual itch that’s being scratched isn’t fundamentally similar.

These two factors are complimentary. Both show us that our patriarchal, racist society isn’t even working for all white men. The first shows that it’s failing to provide social and emotional satisfactions, and the second that it’s failing to provide intellectual satisfaction. Neither point is especially flattering, and I anticipate some people will be really pissed off at me for writing this. But the very fact that these factors drawing one to the left are closely associated with adolescent immaturity indicate that it’s possible to grow out of them — and many white men manage to do so. It’s possible to learn that solidarity and belonging actually requires openness to criticism or else it’s too rigid and fragile. It’s possible to give up the insistence on simplistic answers by taking seriously what other subaltern groups say about their experience and being open to things like intersectionality.

In short, it’s possible to grow up — and I would even go so far as to say that only by taking the left-wing route of genuine solidarity with the marginalized and oppressed can a white man find anything like an adulthood worthy of the name.

On the old saw, “Islam isn’t a race.”

It’s the ultimate get out of jail free card: when a critic of Islam is accused of racism, they point out that “Islam is not a race.” I agree on a certain level. Islam is a faith that embraces believers on every continent, in hundreds of ethnic groups. While Arabic has a special privilege as a language, there is explicitly no racial requirement for accepting and practicing Islam.

That’s why it’s so strange that critics of Islam constantly treat Islam as though it’s a race. They claim to be nervous about the religion, but then it turns out that the largely secularized and only episodically observant “Muslim” population in France is a big problem for cultural homogeneity, for instance. And even when an intellectual from a Muslim background renounces Islam, they become famous precisely as an ex-Muslim. Within this rhetorical framework, Islam looks suspiciously like a race in the sense that it is a social grouping one is regarded as belonging to from birth and from which one can never “opt out,” at least not fully.

What’s worth remembering here is that even the traditional racial categories “aren’t a race” in the sense of corresponding to an identifiable biological reality. Every race is a social construct. Even black Africans (the quintessential “race” of Western racism) were not “a race” before Westerners incorporated them into a racial hierarchy and began oppressing them on that basis. We usually think of racism as prejudice against a race that somehow preexists the prejudice, but the historical reality is the reverse. Racism creates the racial group as a race in order to legitimate differential treatment.

Hence I propose that we are today witnessing the construction of Islam precisely as a race in Western discourse. Obviously the racialization of the Islamic Other has always been a part of the Western arsenal — though it’s interesting to note that the regions where Islam has been traditionally dominant (North Africa, Middle East, Indian subcontinent) have always fit awkwardly into the traditional scheme of races — but today it is proceeding with a thoroughness and level of explicitness that is largely unprecedented.

Hence the only response to the “Islam isn’t a race” dodge is, “Perhaps it wasn’t before, but you are making it into a race.”

Recursive offensiveness

Level 1: I am offended at what you said.

Level 2: I am offended that you took offense at what I said.

Level 3: I am offended that you would imagine that my taking offense is the truly offensive aspect of this scenario.

Level 4: I am offended that you are so offended that I would be offended by your being offended.

We could go on, but let’s stop here for a moment and analyze. Level 1 is obviously the most natural and straightforward. Level 2 is also relatable, though more specialized. I can recall times when I was admittedly in the wrong and nonetheless felt legitimately aggrieved that the person’s response was disproportionate.

What’s puzzling, however, is that Level 2 is apparently growing in popularity by the day. This increase of recursive offense seems to stem from what one calls “political correctness” — i.e., the fact that we are now expected to take seriously and account for the feelings of groups who could previously be casually slandered with impunity. The truly offensive thing in this scheme isn’t what I said, it’s that you people are allowed to respond. Why, back in my day, etc.

Where we’re starting to lose people is Level 3: namely, the position that deploying meta-offense to “politically correct” incursions is actually more offensive than being forced to recognize that someone else has been offended, and indeed more offensive than the original occasion of offense itself. While I agree with this position and actually think it may count as urgent to get the message out, the extremely “meta” nature of the complaint is bound to confuse and alienate less invested bystanders.

Yet I think there is a possible strategic advantage to staking out Level 3 whenever possible, using it as a kind of judo attack. While we are likely to lose some people initially, I believe that people inclined toward the Level 2 move will generally rise to the bait and go in for the truly convoluted and incomprehensible Level 4. The number of people who would be turned off by this dispiriting performance is likely greater than the number of people turned off by our invocation of Level 3. Indeed, it is likely that once goaded into taking a Level 4 position, the former adherent of Level 2 will be unable to shut up about it and will reveal their addiction to being offended, being “the real victim,” etc., etc. Whatever goodwill the Level 2 move generated will quickly be exhausted, leaving bystanders to wonder: Hey, maybe those Level 1 people had a point? Maybe Level 2, despite its objections to the oversensitivity and prickliness of others, is the true case of unjustified sensitivity? Maybe the much sought-after “real victim” is the actual victim of the initial offense, rather than the person who caused the offense?

And maybe Level 3 has a point, too? Should I just always go with odd-numbered levels of offense recursion? Yes, that will be my rule of thumb: odd-numbered levels of recursion all the way.


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