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 Real Problem with the Clinton Foundation: It’s the neoliberalism, stupid!

I grow weary of the vague gestures about how the Clinton Foundation “raises questions” about Hillary Clinton and the influences she is subject to. It’s not that the concerns are unwarranted, though they often seem to be exaggerated — which of us would appear righteous if a hostile observer had access to our e-mail archives? The problem is that they miss the forest for the trees. What makes the Clinton Foundation appear potentially corrupt — its combination of state and financial interests in charitable projects — is not fixable by disproving any individual accusation of influence-peddling. The problem is the model of neoliberal governance that the Clinton Foundation embodies.

The Clintons are “reaching out” to various “stakeholders” to solve problems, without being overly fussy about the line between the public and private sectors or other traditional divisions of power. Secretary Clinton could prioritize donors at the State Department because her donors are the people who are contributing toward causes that she would pursue whether in or out of office. No matter what her official role is, she’s taking a classical neoliberal, ostensibly post-ideological, “problem-solving” approach that “leverages” all available resources.

We need to remember that Clintonian Democrats are meritocrats above all, which means that they trust that both traditional authoritative institutions and markets favor the “smartest” people. And in the neoliberal model, “smartness” is transferable, so that someone who made a fortune off of clever licensing models for a knock-off operating system is a natural fit for fixing education, for instance. Why wouldn’t you “reach out” to tech billionaires or accomplished financiers? Who else would you want at the table?

From the outside, it looks like corruption, but from the inside, it’s best practices. If you’re worried about the Clinton Foundation, you’re either really worried about neoliberalism or else you’re in bad faith.

The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

Donald Trump’s latest “gaffe” is his claim that Obama is the founder of ISIS. Now even Trump seems to admit — to the extent compatible with his “never back down” policy — that this is a hyperbolic way of saying that Obama’s Mideast policies “caused” ISIS to come into existence. We can easily imagine a leftist making a similar claim about George W. Bush, insofar as there is a very plausible case to be made that ISIS never would have come into being if not for the disastrous and criminal Iraq War.

I would suggest, however, that neither Obama nor Bush “caused” ISIS to exist. In reality, the founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS. There was no inner necessity growing out of the Iraq invasion of 2003 that leads to the ISIS of 2016. Is it likely that a militant Islamist organization would emerge under the circumstances created by the Iraq War and its aftermath? Absolutely. But there was no necessity that it should take this particular form and pursue these particular goals. The organization and its priorities are the product of its own leaders and membership, who exercised their own agency in circumstances that they did not choose and cannot fully control. The emergence of something like ISIS may have been predictable to some extent, but the existence of the ISIS we actually know is a contingent outcome of historical forces and human decisions.

The very fact that the Iraq War is at the root of the phenomena we’re discussing should actually highlight the role of contingency in this process. One of the greatest critiques of the war is that it was a war of choice, taken up gratuitously and arbitrarily by a particular circle of politicians (Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al.) with the ear of a pliable president and a submissive public. To some extent it was a “natural outgrowth” of the long-standing US policy favoring regime change in Iraq, which is probably why it attracted bipartisan support, but the shitty equilibrium that had persisted for over a decade (Saddam in office, but hemmed in by sanctions and a no-fly zone) could presumably have persisted indefinitely. There was no inner necessity that Saddam should be removed right then.

And indeed, the reference to Trump should further emphasize the role of contingency in politics. Yes, Trump is riding on certain deep trends in American politics, and his success thus far was predictable to some extent — though I suspect that many such predictions are more like lucky guesses. But Trump is a very particular person, with a very particular life trajectory, and the “movement” that has coalesced around him seems to be very, very dependent on Trump the individual. After all, there were over a dozen empty suits who were clearly willing to take up Trump’s “message,” but none of them seemed to pass the laugh test for Trump supporters.

What does all this add up to? Basically, I’m tired of reading too-clever-by-half post-hoc analyses of how everything that happens grows directly out of historical necessity — the “I can’t believe you’re surprised by this” school of political commentary. There has to be some way to acknowledge the contingencies growing out of human agency without collapsing into individualistic moralizing.

Posted in blog posts, politics of the absurd. Comments Off on The founder of ISIS is the founder of ISIS: Or, Contingency exists

The Republicans cannot overreach

In American poltical discourse, legitimate opinions are represented by two different, but equally important groups: Democrats and Republicans. Political debate, as it is commonly understood, just is the dispute between the two parties. This is why it is possible to implement policies using American political institutions while at the same time “putting the politics aside” — because politics is defined as a dispute between Democrats and Republicans, a bipartisan consensus is no longer political. And since American political discourse lives in mortal fear of political division — a condition that is taken to be unnatural and illegitimate — bipartisan consensus is the most highly desired outcome.

Failing that, of course, political commentators and journalists reflexively return to the idea that the two parties, which should agree in all things, are at least in agreement as to their faults. If “both sides” were not of the same moral caliber, evincing the same degree of corruption, dishonesty, ignorance, and other undesirable traits, then that would call into question the legitimacy of one of the two sides and forever close down the possibility of bipartisan consensus. It would open up the possibility of permanent political division, rather than momentary disagreement between people of good faith whose different starting points ultimately enrich our great national dialogue, etc., etc., etc.

Within this system, neither political party can be wrong. Individual outliers within a given political party can be wrong — indeed, they can make statements and propose policies so ridiculous that, in the eyes of respectable discourse, all citizens of good faith should put the partisanship aside in order to vote against that person. Most often, those outliers are painted as outsider populists who abuse the primary system to subvert the real spirit of their party. It is even possible for the party as such to err in the short term, as the Republicans may well be doing by nominating Trump and pushing through a scary right-wing platform. Yet in the long run, each party is definitionally in the right, insofar as the Democrats and Republicans represent the only two legitimate options within the American political field. Trump will have been an overreach if the Republicans decide that he was — if they double down, Trumpism will turn out to be legitimate Republicanism.

It goes without saying that such a system is gameable, that the Republicans figured this out long ago, and that the Democrats believe so deeply in respectability that they are forced to play along with the charade of two equally legitimate “sides” — because to do otherwise would be to open up the prospect of a permanent and unbridgeable political division, which may well be the one sole taboo of American political discourse.

Posted in blog posts, politics of the absurd. Comments Off on The Republicans cannot overreach

No lives matter

When it comes to real, tangible effects, human lives matter because other human beings say they matter. We can imagine that all lives matter from God’s perspective, but here below, mattering takes recognition. Mattering is not a given, but a historical outcome. For some of us, mattering comes easily. For others, it takes struggle. But in no case is it guaranteed. Even though I’m white, straight, and male as they come, with a credit rating that could move mountains, there could come a day when, in some concrete situation or under some political regime, I don’t matter anymore. That situation may be a hypothetical in my case, but for others, it is a daily lived reality. Everyone who is not a naive child realizes that there are lives that objectively don’t matter to American society, lives that society at large does not recognize as making any legitimate claim upon anyone.

One such group is the homeless. Individual homeless people matter to their friends and family. As a group, they matter to many activists and charity workers. But in the eyes of mainstream society, they don’t matter. Not only does mainstream society fail to set up an impersonal welfare mechanism that could eliminate homelessness at a trivial cost (after all, it’s not very expensive to make someone merely poor, rather than desperately poor). Mainstream society takes it a step further. It lays down spikes in secluded corners, puts in armrests to keep people from laying down on public benches, and criminalizes panhandling. What are homeless people supposed to do in that situation? Only one answer is possible: They should just disappear. They should stop existing. That’s how little the homeless matter to the most powerful institutions in American society (and in other Western countries as well). To say that the homeless do matter can only be a protest against a situation in which they objectively don’t, at least not to the people who matter.

So what happens when black people, seeing that there are so many ways in which they objectively don’t matter in American society, seeing that they can be essentially thrown in the trash and posthumously slandered to save the reputation of a trigger-happy cop, push back and assert that they do matter? What happens when they demand to be recognized?

They hear in response that “All Lives Matter.” And oh, what a pious thought that is! What a beautiful utopia it would be if all lives really did matter — concretely, in the real world of mutual recognition, not in some heavenly ledger.

In some contexts, “all lives matter” could function as a moral imperative, a harsh and urgent critique of our society. But in this context, even though it is saying something admirable (if vague), what that phrase is doing, what it is really accomplishing is a power play. By asserting “all lives matter,” the mainstream is effectively saying, “No, you don’t get to decide which lives matter. You don’t have the perspective or authority necessary for that. We get to decide — and what we decide must be best, as you can tell from the pious sentiment we are mouthing right now.”

In other words: “All lives matter — to the precise extent that we decide they do.” Only the first half needs to be explicit, whereas the second half is implicit in the very act of saying it. All it takes is a moment of reflection to realize this. But for many of us, black people apparently don’t matter enough to spare even that small solitary moment — even after years and years of pointless deaths. A black life does not even matter enough to think about the situation from the perspective of someone who has a gun pulled on them for no reason or from the perspective of someone who has lost that person, for no reason. Our own comfort, our own belief in the system that recognizes that we matter and therefore must be a good and wise system, matters too much to risk even that small solitary thought.

Why not Mormonism?

Periodically, one reads of an evangelical leader or Republican legislator who believes that the Bible has a great deal to say about America. Yet biblical scholars are buzz-killingly insistent that all of the biblical writings were composed during a time when no one in the Eastern Hemisphere had any idea that the Americas existed. Even more buzz-killing: if there is an analogue for America in the Bible, surely it is Babylon or Rome, both of which are demonized as simultaneously opponents and unwitting tools of God.

There is an existing version of Christianity that gives evangelicals everything they want: Mormonism. As people my age learned repeatedly from watching commercials offering free Books of Mormon, that book includes accounts of “other sheep” who will “hear my voice” (John 10:16) — i.e., Jesus’s post-resurrection visit to America. It’s a bold retcon, but it’s not the only one. It makes the American West the explicit promised land. It dials the emphasis on family up to 11 compared with traditional Christianity. It takes a belt-and-suspenders approach to textual inerrancy: the original document is written on metal plates (hence no need for a manuscript tradition that might introduce errors), and Joseph Smith’s translation is “re-inspired.” And if there is any worry about the Church becoming irrelevant or behind the times, there’s a principle of progressive revelation that takes the fundamentalist idea of dispensationalism (where God has different requirements in different historical periods) and shifts it into the contemporary world.

Perhaps there are signs of a rapprochement in the evangelical embrace of Romney last time around and the general trend of greater alliances on social issues. But if anything, the question is why it’s taken so long — Mormonism actually is what evangelical Christians think Christianity should be.

(Note: I do not say this to make fun of Mormonism, which I think is a really interesting historical phenomenon and which, all things being equal, seems to contain a similar mix of bad and good as evangelicalism or any other mainstream contemporary religious movement.)