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.

The scourge of political correctness on campus

Noted online leftist Freddie deBoer has seen some shit. No lie. And though he once weirdly castigated me for being paralyzed by political correctness — indeed, for being exemplary of the self-hating white man terrified of offending anyone — it seems, as Angus Johnston points out, that our dear Freddie is so paralyzed himself that he can’t bring himself to intervene when college kids use p.c. rhetoric as a weapon against each other. What should he have done in those cases? I don’t know in detail, since I was thankfully spared the profound trauma of witnessing those horrific events, but I think the baseline is, you know, something. Something in keeping with his role as a teacher and mentor of young people.

I’ve spent a lot of time with college-age kids in my day, and I too have seen them be mean to each other. When I was in college, I was mean to people and had others be mean to me as well. That’s because college is a really intense period in most people’s lives. In college, you’re trying to stake out your own identity while navigating complex social situations in a setting that is most likely much more diverse than you’ve experienced in the past. The whole process is pretty stressful, especially when we note that most college campuses are also extremely competitive environments — academically, socially, etc. In that context, it should not be surprising that some individuals will reach for any weapon at hand to police boundaries and show themselves to be better or more in the know than someone else. “Politically correct” rhetoric unfortunately fits the bill sometimes, but so do traditional gender expectations or class markers — indeed, I would venture to guess that the latter two are resorted to much more frequently at almost every college in the world.

If we can still embrace leftist politics despite the Gulags, I daresay we can still embrace the concerns behind what is pejoratively called “political correctness” despite the fact that college kids sometimes express their jerkiness and insecurity through the misapplication of half-digested “politically correct” rhetoric. I would even go so far as to say that if we’re concerned about people being turned off of leftist politics by such abuse, we should actually step up and intervene in the (likely rare!) cases when we see such abuse getting out of hand.

The perpetual adolescence of the right

When I was a teenager, I went through a libertarian phase. A lot of factors contributed to it. One was my desire to connect with my father, who was (and remains) an avid Rush Limbaugh fan. Another was my desire to piss of my high school history teacher, who was obnoxiously liberal in a way I’d never encountered before (for example, he had the class since union songs, etc.). I think what appealed to me most, however, was the simplicity of it all, which I took as a measure of its elegance and explanatory power. So few principles to explain every important question of public policy! And best of all: despite its simplicity and obvious correctness, so few people had embraced it. I was part of an intellectual elite, far above the benighted masses.

In other words, I went through a libertarian phase because I was a teenage boy and smart teenage boys tend to be arrogant dicks. I grew out of it, though, not through some kind of epiphany or dramatic encouragement, but out of simple boredom. The answers no longer seemed satisfyingly elegant — they just seemed repetitive and predictable. Even leaving aside the question of their truth value (which I was really in no position to assess), there just wasn’t enough “there” to hold my interest.

Things might have gone differently, though. Read the rest of this entry »

The story of the first Black Friday

In those days a decree went out from Emperor Augustus that all the world should enjoy unprecedented savings on all their favorite brands. This was the first Black Friday and took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria. All went to their own towns to find their discounts. Joseph also went from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to the city of David called Bethlehem, because he had his eye on a new laptop. He went to be registered at Target with Mary, to whom he was engaged and who was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for her to deliver her child. And she gave birth to her firstborn son and wrapped him in the latest styles from Old Navy, and laid him in a shopping cart, because they were waiting in line to get into Walmart.

Posted in economics, empire, politics of the absurd. Comments Off on The story of the first Black Friday

On the de-politicization of voting

Historically, I have been a pretty avid voter. This particular election, I feel an urgency to keep Illinois from getting a finance-asshole Republican governor, but there’s only so much damage he could do as the legislature will remain Democratic basically regardless of what happens. Most of the time, my reason for voting is that I live in an urban area and can easily walk to my polling place and I have a job that allows me great flexibility — hence I figure, “Why not?”

I don’t have a big theory as to why voting is necessary for everyone. I sympathize with those who choose not to do so on principle, and I also sympathize (moreso) with people who think it’s worth the effort to try to influence election outcomes because even a marginal, incremental change for the better is still better.

The one group I definitely don’t understand are those who say: no matter who you’re voting for, make sure you vote! I’m going to be honest — I would prefer that Republicans stay home. Unlike actual Republicans, I don’t favor laws that make it more difficult for my political opponents to vote, but I certainly am not in the business of encouraging people to vote against my own political preferences.

It’s this strangely de-politicized view of voting that seems to me most dangerous and insidious. The de-politicized vote, the aesthetics of voting-for-voting’s-sake, has no content other than a gesture of legitimation for the system as it now stands. The content-free demand for people to make their voice heard on election day strips their voice of any determinate content, turning it into a sheer acclamation of the actual-existing order.

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