A thought experiment on Clinton vs. Sanders

[Editor’s note: Comments have convinced me that this scenario is excessively pessimistic.]

Let’s grant from the outset that both Clinton and Sanders are “electable,” particularly against the crew of fools and mediocrities that the Republicans have to choose from. Let’s even further stipulate that either one of them would definitely win easily, to stay within my strictures against electability-based strategic voting. Finally, let’s assume that both of them maintain Obama’s modest progress on the environment, hence contributing to the literal survival of the human race. What does the situation look like the morning after?

On the one hand, you’d have the status quo. I see no evidence that Hillary Clinton would make things materially worse than they have been under Obama. She may be slightly more “hawkish,” but she’s also a craven opportunist — hence we’re not likely to get the Iraq War redux. On domestic policy, she’d probably continue to cut the same kind of discouraging deals with the Republicans, with the occasional micro-achievement to brag about.

What about the Sanders morning after? You would have a Democratic candidate who has never officially been a Democrat and has effectively run against his own party. His most significant policy proposal so far would be to undo the one major achievement of his predecessor and replace it with something totally different. Party leaders at every level have openly mocked this proposal, including the powerful House leader, Nancy Pelosi, whose political skills will be absolutely crucial to keeping the Democrats united and extracting concessions from the Republicans. Sanders’ most natural ally, Elizabeth Warren, has been unwilling to go so far as explicitly endorsing him.

It’s not unthinkable that the mainstream Democrats would support Sanders enough to avoid Trump, then hang him out to dry. They would be bad people for doing that, and in an ideal world, they would not be in a position to. Yet we have the system we have, and part of that system is that an effective president needs the support of his party. And if the Sanders revolution results in four years of government shutdowns, debt-ceiling scares, and recess appointments, will it have been worth the huge amount of money and energy it will take to grind out a victory against Clinton? For instance, that nurses’ union that gave a million dollars to Sanders — is that really the best use of their money when there’s so much organizing work to do?

And do we have any sense of how Sanders, who has been relatively sheltered as a popular small-state senator, would react to such sustained opposition, how he operates under conditions of brinkmanship? For instance, is it possible that he’d go along with a repeal of Obamacare in order to force the issue on single payer? I hope that’s a ridiculous suggestion, but jumping straight to single payer when there’s an obvious fix to Obamacare that could take us there — the apparently forgotten public option — is a strange tactic. Or could conservative Democrats join forces with the Republicans to create a veto-proof majority that would cut Sanders out of the equation altogether?

If we were voting for dictator, yes, I’d be 100% behind Sanders over Clinton. If Sanders is secretly plotting with sympathetic generals to suspend the Constitution and rule by decree, then this analysis obviously looks a lot different. But if he’s planning to operate within our baroque system of government and within the party system, I think there’s a serious risk that a desperate “Hail Mary” straight for the presidency could end up backfiring and discrediting his cause for a generation.

Could it perhaps better to spend a little more time in the wilderness, harnessing discontent at Clinton’s “not as bad as it could be but definitely not good enough” to continue building a movement that can actually exercise power?

This is all a thought experiment. It’s not an argument in favor of supporting Clinton — in fact, if I’m right, that will take care of itself. And it’s possible that the six-month-old pro-Sanders movement will turn out to be just the movement we need, though I have never seen an explanation of the mechanism that will turn mass mobilization into legislative success within the actual existing system. I certainly haven’t seen a roadmap to Democratic control of Congress, much less control by Democrats who would actually support Sanders’ agenda. I understand the appeal of the Sanders gesture, but it would take a huge amount of money and person-hours to make that gesture.

“Political Correctness” and Lucy’s Football

We often hear that “political correctness” is to blame for the left’s failures. Though the fundamental message of the left is presumed to be automatically popular in itself, that appeal is obscured by language policing and the narrowly particular demands of “identity politics.” Only once the left purges its “politically correct” elements will it be able to command widespread appeal.

I agree that a fixation on “political correctness” contributes to weakness and division on the left, but in a different sense: too many of the most visible and powerful members of the left (mainly, though not exclusively white men) are absolutely obsessed with distancing themselves from the spectre of “political correctness” and are willing to publicly and repeatedly throw their ostensible comrades under the bus in the service of this goal. Often, it is these privileged leftists themselves who do the most to draw attention to the “politically correct” actions that they decry, using their public profile — which is often incomparably higher than that of the “politically correct” malefactors who are supposedly ruining the reputation of the left — to air the left’s dirty laundry.

Here it might be helpful to recall that the trope originated on the right as a way of belittling the left. They will never be satisfied with any level of purge of “political correctness.” If we sent everyone who expressed a “politically correct” sentiment to the Gulag, the right would just ratchet up its expectations further and unleash another torrent of “political correctness gone mad” hysteria.

The attempt to gain mainstream respectability and become a “good leftist” by denouncing “political correctness” is a classic Lucy’s Football maneuver. “Maybe if I throw this group of naive but well-intentioned young activists under the bus, I’ll finally have a chance to win over the white working class!” It’s never going to work, guys. “Political correctness” was made up to trap us, and we keep falling for it.

The object of satire

Every kind of indirect communication, which is what satire is, presupposes some kind of in-group. It could be a preestablished in-group, as with an “inside joke,” or it could be an in-group by anticipation (which is what seems to be going on in Nietzsche and Kierkegaard, for instance).

Satire that uses racist tropes — like a certain publication’s cartoons about Muslims and refugees — presupposes an in-group that knows that of course that publication isn’t really racist, etc. And though I do wonder how far total indifference to being perceived as a racist can be separated from “direct” racism, let’s grant their non-racism for the sake of argument. My question is whether a faithful Muslim or refugee is ever presupposed as the audience, as part of the in-group. And the answer seems to be pretty clearly no. Even if the object of the satire isn’t the Muslims or refugees themselves, but instead the “politically correct” liberal discourse about them, Muslims and refugees are not envisioned as potential dialogue partners.

From this perspective, then, Muslims and refugees are the object of the satire in a different sense, insofar as they are completely objectified and instrumentalized when they are “thrown under the bus” in the service of the presumably more important goal of skewering “P.C.” liberals. So even if this kind of satire isn’t “directly” racist, it’s ultimately dehumanizing.

But then I’m probably just exposing myself as another one of those humorless “P.C.” liberals who can’t allow myself a good belly laugh at the thought that a drowned toddler would have turned out to be a sexual harrasser.

A frank assessment of Žižek’s work as a political commentator

I am a veteran of online discussions about Žižek. My constant refrain, for over a decade now, has been that Žižek’s critics have not actually understood what he is saying. And until that can be clarified, I refuse to enter into a discussion of whether I agree with Žižek — because without a shared understanding of what he’s saying, I would be walking into a rhetorical trap. The net result of this is that virtually no discussion ever got to a point where I felt comfortable “weighing in” on the merits of Žižek’s argument. (In biblical studies terms, I’ve been stuck at exegesis and never made it to hermeneutics.)

At this point, however, I believe that I have sufficiently laid out my understanding of Žižek’s rhetorical strategy in his political commentaries. I arrived at my interpretation not simply because I wanted to put a “good” spin on his arguments, but because I literally could not make sense of them in any other way. In my view, no other interpretive framework stands a chance of producing anything approaching a coherent reading of Žižek’s interventions in the public sphere.

And that’s a pretty serious problem. It defeats much of the point of writing for the general public if the only person who can construe your writings in a coherent and non-inflammatory way is a scholar of your previous work.

Further, once we’ve arrived at the proper reading, is it really worth the effort? I joked in yesterday’s post about how the ultimate critique of Žižek is that he turns out to be a boring liberal in practical terms, and I clarified in comments that I find that critique much more plausible than the inflammatory racist-fascist stuff. Do we really gain much by going through a series of dialectical reversals if we are going to wind up in the ballpark of a Paul Krugman column? Sometimes his rhetorical strategy seems exceptionally high-risk, low-reward.

Finally, at its worst the rhetorical strategy I extract from Žižek’s political commentaries can devolve into cheap contrarianism — especially since Žižek harbors an exaggerated allergy for anything that smacks of “political correctness.” It does give me pause that the overwhelming majority of praise and thanks I received for my post yesterday came from white men (though by the same token, the vast majority of idiotic abuse I received also came from white men). I hope he doesn’t wind up in a Christopher Hitchens-esque reversal of being “so left-wing he’s right-wing,” but I do view that as a real danger. Though I disagree with them, I understand why people think he has already crossed that line. And the more he insists on over-production, the more likely it is that his complex dialectical strategy will in fact devolve into the cheapened contrarian shadow of itself.

How to Read Žižek on the Refugee Crisis

Žižek’s recent remarks on the refugee crisis have provoked considerable ire in online leftist circles. For some, this article is the final proof that Žižek is a racist and quasi- (or not so quasi-) fascist. Though many people I respect share this view, I believe that it is a terrible misreading.

Ultimately, I would argue that even this article can be read through the lens of my piece How to Read Žižek. In that article, I argue that Žižek’s political interventions always try to highlight a fundamental conflict or deadlock. He does so not by laying out a step by step argument with a clear thesis statement, but by overidentifying with the (inadequate) terms of public debate in order to press beyond them.

That same basic strategy is at work in the refugee article, though he is uncharacteristically direct in antagonizing left-wing and liberal readers. I believe his goal in doing so is to provoke those readers into showing that they refuse to ask concrete questions about how to exercise power, preferring instead to demonstrate their purity through denunciation of others.

Read the rest of this entry »

Paul Ryan’s family time

There is a meme going around to the effect that Paul Ryan, the candidate for Speaker of the House, is demanding family time as a condition of taking the job, while meanwhile he opposes mandatory paid family leave for other workers. This is precisely the kind of “hypocrisy attack” that I hate, and I think it is a particularly vivid illustration of the weakness of the genre.

First off, it is not actually hypocritical for Paul Ryan to individually attempt to negotiate family time into his contract while opposing a universal requirement for employers to offer family leave. Presumably he would encourage everyone to negotiate such concessions — individually.

Even worse than the misdiagnosis of hypocrisy is the missed opportunity to highlight the real problem with Paul Ryan’s position. He is, for better or worse, viewed as being uniquely qualified for an important job, which gives him considerable negotiating leverage. The problem isn’t that he’s using that leverage — the problem is that his worldview assumes that his situation is the norm for all workers. In reality, the vast majority of jobs are offered on a take-it-or-leave-it basis, and most don’t even include an explicit contract. Workers have no leverage in such situations, and hence the state needs to step in to make sure that they have protections and benefits that they could never negotiate individually. This could also serve as a teachable moment for the necessity of unions.

Or, you know, we could mock Paul Ryan for asking for something everyone wants and should have.

The root causes of mass shootings

After each of our increasingly routine mass shootings, there is a predictable exchange: liberals advocate gun control laws, while conservatives say we shouldn’t do that. I have to say that at a practical level, I’m with the liberals on this one. No matter what some dangling participle in the Constitution seems to imply, one of the primary goals of forming any human society is increased safety from unpredictable interpersonal violence. No law can stop people from getting angry and lashing out, but those people will do a lot less damage if they don’t have access to military-grade weaponry, for instance.

That being said, it cannot be the case that access to firearms is the root cause of nihilistic violence in American society. It is a symptom — an incredibly urgent one that must be treated immediately, but still a symptom. The deeper problem is the profound alienation and callousness that American social formation produces. That is to say, even if all our guns were raptured today, leaving us behind to fend for ourselves, American society would still be producing the kind of person who wants to randomly murder as many strangers as practically possible. More than that, it is not just producing the kind of person who fleetingly thinks that — presumably the thought has crossed the mind of many people who have been on a crowded subway car or in a long line — but someone who stays with that bitterness and rage in a way that allows them to carry out practical plans for making it happen. If that person didn’t have guns, he [sic] would be less dangerous, but on another level he would still be deeply frightening.

And I would even suggest that it’s the very same alienation and callousness that makes gun control — literally the most commonsensical measure possible — into such a hopeless cause. In other words, our empty, futile ritual of mourning follows so reliably after mass shootings because both stem from the same deep pathologies in American society.

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