An update on the Spirit of 9/12

A sit-in on the House floor initially seems like the most un-Hillary thing conceivable — a point that was only underscored when Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren put in an appearance. Yet at least one of the measures they’re fighting for fits in perfectly with the call to return to “the spirit of 9/12” in the wake of the Orlando attack. Liberals once would have protested against dystopian Bush-era measures like the no-fly list, and now they’re nonviolently resisting in order to expand their scope.

This bill is the perfect distillation of the signature Clinton gesture: the “pivot.” The term has become a cliche meaning “move on to the next topic,” must as “deconstruction” means “close analysis” in popular usage. But the popular reception misses an important element — maintaining a foothold in one issue in order to swing your policy-leg (or whatever) onto an adjacent one. In this case, Democrats are “pivoting” from anti-terrorism into the vicinity of something like gun control. The result is a centrist pre-compromise that concedes the terms of debate to the “guns don’t kill people, people [specifically Muslim terrorists] kill people” crowd. A spoon full of racism makes the gun control go down.

Except it won’t, and everyone knows it. They are fighting to have an on-the-record vote. And the only purpose behind that can be that they are then able to tar their opponents with that vote in campaign ads. It’s a symbolic gesture to enable a symbolic gesture that they can use to show that they “fought for” a good policy (again, a symbolic gesture — “fighting for” is a substitute for winning, the political equivalent of a participation trophy).

Except it’s not even a good policy. Maybe with 20/20 hindsight it would have prevented this one individual massacre. Maybe he would have just found another way to get guns. I don’t know. But in the hypothetical situation where it miraculously passes, they’re setting themselves up for a big fall when the next attack happens — because suddenly the debate wouldn’t be about those mean Republicans in the NRA’s pocket, it would be about how the Democrats made big promises about gun control legislation but it didn’t work.

We’ve all heard of 11-dimensional chess — this is 11-dimensional idiocy. And again, it’s very much a return to the spirit of 9/12, where the Democrats’ brilliant plan was, “Hey, what if we took this illegitimate president whose brother stole the election for him and gave him literally everything he wants?”

“America is already great”

Nothing could more vividly illustrate the fact that Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the status quo than her pathetic rejoinder to Trump’s “Make America great again” slogan: “America is already great.” The system is fine, we just need a competent and experienced manager to oversee it — and Hillary is certainly competent and experienced at doing the kinds of things the US generally does, both domestically and abroad.

From this perspective, her invocation of the “spirit of 9/12” — which, to satisfy the internet’s demands that every single piece of online writing be completely standalone and not presuppose any familiarity with the author’s views or previous writings whatsoever, I should have more roundly denounced in yesterday’s post as utterly obscene and frightening and contrary to all my political instincts, which were initially forged in total, unqualified revulsion and horror at the crimes of Bush and Cheney — shows just how much the state of emergency in which we live has become the norm.

Under Obama, you could almost forget that the War on Terror was going on, but though he preferred drone strikes to ground troops, he was still pursuing the bipartisan foreign policy of restoring chaos in the Middle East. But neoconservatism with a human face is apparently not good enough for her. Plausible deniability is not good enough for her. She wants the fear, the panic, the uncertainty, the pliability of a public openly at war — an endless war to no rational end.

Am I going to vote for her? Yes, because — unimaginably — Trump could very well be worse. Even if he drops out and they replace him with a “normal” Republican, that would still be worse (on domestic policy, if not on foreign policy). But all that can be said for this particular status quo is that at least we know what it is. It’s not an alternative to chaos, but a slightly more managed and familiar chaos. It will destroy lives, but destroy them predictably — whereas no one can be sure which lives Trump will destroy, only that he will destroy as many as he can.

This is the end result of Clinton-style triangulation: the lesser evil is openly and indisputably evil. The devil we know is very clearly the devil. And we should choose it because there is no hope, because there is no alternative and no other option. The Democratic Party doesn’t know how to do democracy, only democracy as blackmail. And meanwhile the guy who was supposed to be our savior is devoting nearly all his energy to tinkering with the primary process.

Our only hope is that Clinton continues Obama’s halting steps on climate change, so that the planet remains livable for future generations to enjoy the benefits of endless war, market competition, and deficit reduction — forever.

The Spirit of 9/12

The katechōn has spoken: in response to the Orlando attacks, Hillary Clinton believes we need to return to “the spirit of 9/12.” I’m glad she gave us a day to reflect, because the spirit of 9/11, as I remember it, was one of confusion and even awkwardness. On the morning of 9/11, my roommate said, “They bombed the World Trade Center!” From his wording, it sounded similar to the attempted, much smaller attack a few years previous. I got ready and went to do some software training, and during the session, there was definitely an air of… “Should we actually be doing this? I guess we already are?” I arrived in class, and it was decided — apparently on the spur of the moment — that classes would be cancelled. It was as though no one knew they were living through a world-historical event. We make fun of George W. Bush for reading “My Pet Goat” while the attack was occuring, but we were all like that.

For me, the spirit of 9/12 is the dawning horror of realizing, not only what has just happened, but what the US was going to do for revenge. It was my senior year at the very conservative Olivet Nazarene University, and I felt pretty alone in my concerns. I very distinctly remember a group of students crowded around Craig Keen — a professor I would come to treasure, but of whom I was very suspicious precisely because he was popular among Olivet kids — more or less begging him to say something that made sense and wasn’t arbitrarily cruel. I don’t remember what he said, but he met those basic requirements, which was a rare thing in those days.

The thing with 9/11 is that it really did feel like it came out of nowhere. Yes, I know that the short-lived X-Files spin-off The Lone Gunmen virtually predicted 9/11 and, difficult as it is to believe, the iconic War on Terror show 24 actually started prior to 9/11. Maybe it was percolating in our collective unconscious, but it was genuinely shocking. And that’s why this current tragedy can’t and won’t be a new 9/11 — because it’s all too common. It’s a theme and variation of the standard mass shooting, of which there have been hundreds. We all feel pain and anger and even shame about this, but not the shock of someone turning a plane into a suicide bomb. No one woke up on 9/11 and thought, “Oh God, this again?”

Almost everything the US did in response to 9/11 was unforgivable, but in one single respect, we did the right thing: we did exactly what was necessary to prevent another attack like that. Now it is physically impossible to do what the 9/11 terrorists did. Assuming the regulations remain the same, a 9/11-style attack will never happen again. I have my doubts that we will enjoy the same results this time, and not only because politicians are cowardly or corrupt. Box cutters and easy access to the cockpit were not a deeply embedded part of American culture. No one’s sense of belonging and identity hinged on being able to wait in line for the bathroom at the front of the plane.

UPDATE: It has been brought to my attention that this post may be interpreted as being too soft on the horrible crimes the US committed in the wake of 9/11. It may surprise those readers to learn that this is not the first and only thing I have ever written. See, for example, this recent piece on George W. Bush.

The demonization campaign against trans women

When people think of “demonization,” they usually think of the simple act of painting someone as evil and irredeemable. My research for The Prince of This World convinced me that a further step is necessary if you really want to turn someone into a demon — like the medieval Christian God, you must actively set them up to fail, inducing the “free choice” for which you will blame them. A demon is a creature who has just enough moral agency to be blameworthy but not enough to effectively change their situation. The overt “demonization,” making them out to be nihilistic rebels who seek only destruction, is actually only the last step in the complex victim-blaming process.

Hence, for example, the “superpredator” rhetoric against black men in the 1990s was not demonizing simply because it painted black men as malicious for its own sake, but because it was used as justification for sending black men to institutions that everyone knows for a fact increase criminality, and then leaving them few employment or housing options when they got out. The crimes committed are still the individual’s “choice” in some minimal sense, and there are always those exceptional individuals who manage to completely turn their lives around, etc., but the net effect is that society has a reliable pool of “demons” — against whom mainstream society must be protected (even though the individuals involved have suffered immeasurably more violence from society than they could possibly dish out to society at large).

A very similar dynamic is occurring with the trans bathroom laws advanced by various Republican legislatures. Read the rest of this entry »

Bernie Sanders’ next move: A constitutional convention

Bernie Sanders

It seems increasingly likely that Bernie Sanders will fail to win the Democratic nomination. Even if he does manage to beat the odds, however, his entire candidacy is based on the premise that our system is broken. Hence, whether or not he wins the nomination, I believe that the only possible next step for Bernie Sanders is to declare a constitutional convention.

Note that I said “declare.” The existing U.S. Constitution includes an intentionally laborious process by which one may call for an official constitutional convention — but a constitutional convention that follows a pre-existing template is not a constituent assembly at all. It is just a committee to reform the existing arrangements.

The Founders themselves devised a new ratification process for our current Constitution that did not follow the rules set out in the Articles of Confederation. We should follow their example and declare a genuine constituent assembly to replace an order that has become every bit as unworkable as the Articles of Confederation were in their day.

Why should Bernie Sanders take up this solemn responsibility? Because he can, and because no one else will think of it. And if Trump tries to get in on it, he can declare, with the backing of natural law and the custom of all nations from time immemorial, that he has called dibs.

The time is now! Senator Sanders, you owe it to your followers and to all future generations of Americans to reinvent American government from the ground up. In Year Zero of the Third American Republic, we shall all well and truly Feel the Bern.

Further thoughts on the prevailing political affiliations of academics

What if it turns out that no professional group is closely aligned with the distribution of political affiliations in the general public? What if that differential distribution were in part driven by values inherent in the respective professions themselves?

What if — and stay with me here — professional groups are among the demographic segments out of which political parties build their coalitions? And what if some of that coalition-building takes the form of demonizing certain groups — to pick a random example, let’s say… teachers?

That is to say: the two political parties — and the “conservative” and “liberal” leanings that they imperfectly reflect — are neither a fact of nature nor are they exhaustive of all forms of political thinking and loyalty. The two parties are two competing organizations that have basically monopolized American politics over the course of the last 150 years, in large part by being opportunistic in the building of political coalitions.

There is no reason to expect any particular group of people, especially a self-selecting one, to display a 50/50 divide between Democrat and Republican (or liberal and conservative, to the extent that those terms are proxies for the existing political parties). Nor indeed is there any reason to believe that a 50/50 split along those axes would represent an important or meaningful form of intellectual diversity.

It would be safer to assume just the opposite, because a perfect 50/50 split between Democrats and Republicans would indicate that the group in question was completely and exhaustively defined by the conventional wisdom constructed around the current balance of power between the two political parties. If I found a university that was perfectly divided between Democrats and Republicans, I would advise potential students to just save their money and read the New York Times opinion page for four years.

Posted in Academic Freedom, politics of the absurd. Comments Off on Further thoughts on the prevailing political affiliations of academics

What if I told you that the entire world was your safe space?

There is a piece by a well-known New York Times columnist alleging that universities are somehow discriminatory toward conservative views. This is one of the most boring cliches in all of higher ed reporting, not least because it depends on gerrymandering the university: yes, if you cut out economics, business, athletics, and the administration — which is to say, all the most powerful groups at most major universities — then there turns out to be a disproportionate number of Democrats, and that creates social discomfort if someone wants to express Republican views.

For some context, let’s look at what happens at universities that are overtly run by conservatives. I recall a case within the last year where a professor was forced out at Wheaton for making the controversial but arguable theological claim that Christians and Muslims worship the same God. I could name many other similar cases from my former denomination’s higher ed system.

Conservatives may feel uncomfortable talking about how much they love small government at the departmental holiday party, but there’s really no comparison. And if conservatives get tired of the hostile environment in comp lit circles, then I suggest that they practice some self-care and find a “safe place” where their ideas are taken for granted — namely, the entire rest of American society.

The irony, of course, is that conservatives are most opposed to “safe spaces,” but perhaps that’s because they’re so thoroughly ensconsed in “safe spaces” that they don’t even notice them. “Safe spaces” are just the air they breathe. And for that reason, I think campus activists should consider rebranding the “safe spaces” concept.

My suggestion for a new name: “interesting spaces.” It’s not that you can’t handle contradiction or are afraid to hear painful truths — it’s that when you’re dealing with something really important to you, you don’t want to waste your time engaging with someone who feels entitled to pass judgment after 4.3 seconds of half-distracted thought. This is doubly so when we reflect that the compelling ideas that these gadflies are bringing are actually cliches that everyone has heard a million times. If you want to create a space for interesting discourse, you need to do some pruning of tedious, thoughtless ideas. And if you want to participate, you should try to be less boring.

“But I’m not boring!” Yeah, I knew you’d say that. Try again.

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