Public shaming as a political strategy

In the social media age, the prospect of being socially shamed has become a real site of anxiety for mainstream culture. Jon Ronson has written a book on the topic, and columnists routinely meet their wordcount by repeating cliches about the dangers of Twitter hordes. The primary anxiety seems to be centered on social media storms coming from the Left, which seem to represent a new weaponized form of Political Correctness. And there are many on the left, particularly in campus activism circles, who are understandably intrigued by the potential power of shaming as a tool.

Tim Burke has already thoroughly addressed the potentials and pitfalls of public shaming. Arguably his most salient point is that “stigma is a dangerous tool generally, and has far more often been a tool of oppression or domination than the other way around.” While he is quick to clarify that this observation “doesn’t necessarily mean that it has no purpose or legitimacy as a goal,” he encourages activists to be more cautious and realistic in their deployment of shame.

As the victim of public shaming, I want to amplify what Burke is saying. Even though people are most worried about shaming from the left, it’s the right that is really mobilized to carry out this kind of thing. They are absolutely relentless and merciless. Literally everything you say in response becomes more fodder for harrassment — above all the claim that you are being harrassed, which indicates your intolerance of criticism and unwillingness to consider other views. Here as elsewhere, whatever you do, however you respond, it proves that your harrassers are the real victims, who are thoroughly justified in defending themselves against you by any means necessary.

This is only one of many repeated rhetorical strategies. Indeed, what is striking about right-wing harrassment mobs is their crushing tedium. The same phrases and talking points are repeated over and over and over — and all with the clear presumption that you have never heard it before. It’s like they workshopped it ahead of time, and in a sense they did. Becoming a movement conservative (or aligning even further right) consists largely in learning the strategies of shaming and silencing, of drowning out and driving out opposing views. For us it might seem like a useful tool, but it’s their native language.

Hence I would like to add my own small point to Burke’s analysis: one danger of using shaming as a tool is that the right is way better at it. In fact, I think there’s a case to be made that they are especially prone to mobilize a shaming campaign precisely when they detect an attempt to shame them. And when it comes to a head-to-head shaming battle, there’s just no way we can win. Given the huge number of divisions and constituencies operating on the left, there’s no way we can generate that kind of lockstep relentless campaign. Nor, in the end, do I think we really want to — certainly not as an end in itself.

The varieties of oppressive experience

In many debates about leftist political strategy, the various forms of oppression tend to be mapped out onto the opposition between class and an indefinite string of “identity”-based categories. The latter are often castigated by traditional Marxists as divisive, and attempts to show how various forms of “identity”-based oppression overlap and reinforce each other (intersectionality) are taken as furthering the division by proliferating new identities rather than creating grounds for solidarity. In short, the “identity”-based categories are a Hegelian “bad infinite” that endlessly distracts us from the truly decisive struggle over class oppression.

What I want to do in this post is to displace the debate by reframing forms of oppression in a different way. Read the rest of this entry »

Racism in American culture: Some observations

It seems to me that since the late 1990s and early 2000s, structural and personal racism in American culture have gotten significantly worse, undoing much of the progress that was achieved from the 60s through the 90s. Representation of people of color in popular culture has declined, and the criminalization of blacks through the War on Drugs was accelerated by the advent of “broken windows” policing. The War on Terror exacerbated the problem, leading to racial profiling and a situation where the majority of people of color portrayed in the media were either domestic criminals or foreign terrorists. Meanwhile, Islam was racialized in a much more intensive way. The same administration that demonized Muslim countries could display criminal neglect of the black victims of Hurricane Katrina, whom the mainstream media shamed as looters and savages.

Paranoia surrounding Barack Obama, a black man with Muslim heritage, brought together both of these racist threads. His presidency was widely viewed as showing that we lived in a “post-racial” society, but the practical effect was to intensify the racist paranoia of a non-trivial portion of the population — it was as though their worst fears had come true. Obama himself is studiously centrist in all of his policy proposals and has consistently been eager to make a deal with Republicans at almost any price, but racially-driven hatred of Obama and a desire to deprive him of any achievements or legitimacy have led them to refuse to take yes for an answer almost constantly.

On the grassroots level, a growing movement of people who are literally protesting against state-sponsored random murder of blacks has faced an uphill battle for recognition and legitimacy in the public sphere, as the criminalization and demonization of black men leaves the majority of whites still giving the police the benefit of the doubt.

Thoughts? Am I being naive about previous eras? Are there some signs of progress that I’m missing?

Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

Fiscal austerity gets the most attention, but there’s another type of neoliberal austerity that is arguably just as important: possibility austerity. Every policy “debate” is backed into a corner by artificial constraints, where certain obvious solutions are ruled out in advance. For instance, once the idea of Medicare for all or some other single-payer solution is deemed “off the table,” our only options become continuing the status quo or something like Obamacare. Under those constraints, I obviously choose Obamacare — but why were those even the options to begin with?

It’s not just in domestic policy. Perhaps the crassest example of this paint-yourself-into-a-corner logic is the “debate” about drone strikes. Whenever someone criticizes Obama’s flying robot murder program, it’s all but inevitable that a sensible liberal centrist will come along and point out that it’s preferable to sending in ground troops. And maybe it is! The idea certainly has an initial plausibility when we reflect on the trainwreck of Iraq. But again, why are drone strikes and ground troops the only options? There’s one particularly tantalizing option that you never hear much about: simply not killing those people at all. They’re thousands upon thousands of miles away. There’s no evidence I’ve seen that any of them have terror cells based in the US. So just leave them alone. That option leads to no civilian deaths and reduces the deficit.

For my money, the most elaborate version of this logic is education reform. Here we start with the premise that urban public education is impossible. Funding cannot be increased, even though many urban areas are gentrifying at an astounding rate and hence there should be more property tax money available than ever before — but Tax-Increment Funding districts make sure that money never materializes. So basically things are just going to get worse and worse.

That’s the baseline. Within that set of constraints, you know a lot of children will inevitably be left behind, and so you figure out a way to make sure that the good old talented tenth has a way to escape (and join the mainstream power structure). You also might try a few hail-Mary passes, like setting aside public money to gamble that talented edupreneurs can devise some magical new mode of education, or cutting teacher salaries to make sure that everyone who goes into the field is motivated sheerly by love — hence presumably increasing your odds of an inspiring educator and an “O Captain My Captain” moment (although you shouldn’t stand on the desks because the maintenance budget was cut a while back).

In this context, the most heroic political gesture of the last decade came during Bush’s attempt to privatize Social Security. Republicans admittedly aren’t as good at coming up with convincing constraints, and so the ruse was much more immediately transparent: either we switch to a private retirement system or else Social Security will go bankrupt and everyone will die. Nancy Pelosi rejected the privatization plan, and when pressed for an alternative, she said: “My alternative is nothing.” In a world of fake crises and forced choices, perhaps doing nothing is the most subversive gesture possible.

Posted in neoliberalism, politics. Comments Off on Policy debate in the age of neoliberalism

The good inequality

My working theory is that virtually no one wants equality as such. They want inequality, but the good kind, the justified kind. Hence it is plausible that someone could rail against the power of the 1% and yet still get snippy: “They want $15 an hour for flipping burgers?!”

The good inequality now would be based on getting a college education, but whether you received that education and the degree of quality would be based solely on your merits and efforts rather than your wealthy parents. Hence the focus in mainstream education reporting on making sure that Harvard’s student body is representative. Never mind that Harvard commands such vastly superior resources in a world where adjunct professors have to buy their own chalk.

It’s weird the directions that meritocracy starts taking you, though. Have you ever noticed how many firm believers in meritocracy seem to assume that taking race into account automatically cuts against a merit-based approached? How the people displaced by the “affirmative action” candidate are always qualified white men? It’s not surprising if we realize that racism was once considered the good kind of inequality. The racial hierarchy — scientifically established, mind you! — was a reflection of inherent merit. After all, how could whites be so much more powerful if they weren’t somehow better on the ontological level?

Those for whom the race-based meritocracy was too crass leaned on the superiority of cultural institutions. Westerners had developed a better culture, more open to innovation, less beholden to sclerotic traditions, more rewarding of good hard work. Never mind that the average peasant from any part of the world worked unimaginably harder than an enlightened colonial administrator could ever claim to. Never mind that every culture by its very nature is continually changing and thus innovating, that every tradition is an ongoing dialogue with the past and not some kind of robotic carrying out of obscure ancient instructions. And of course, one should ignore the fact that Islamic institutions had always been more supportive of commerce and social mobility, highlighting the dumb luck of the West in stumbling upon new technological approaches first.

The same strategies are repeated today when we learn that the black community’s culture is defective, insufficiently supportive of monogamy, sobriety, and responsibility. It’s not that they’re racially inferior, of course, it just so happens that one racially defined group has developed systematically better institutions than another racially defined group, which justifies the differential treatment of the two groups… And so we’re back to classic racism in all but name.

More enlightened approaches to the good kind of inequality recognize that every race has its “talented tenth” — and seeks to harvest that 10% to serve the dominant power structure. This seeming equality of opportunity, by depriving subaltern communities of their most talented potential leaders, reinforces the subordination of the whole even as it allows greater room to maneuver for selected individual members. One might think here of the juxtaposition of a black president and the callous murder of blacks by the police.

Even in the best kind of inequality, someone’s life chances have to be thwarted. Someone’s single life on earth, the only shot they get, has to be squandered. People demonize equality as totalitarian uniformity — but true equality would be the equality of a livable life for everyone. That would look different for different people, and I think it’s fair to say that such a life might contain its share of tedium and toil (rendered more bearable by its being shared and unstigmatized). It’s hard to predict in advance how to achieve this in all cases, but it seems to me that seeking the good, justified form of inequality is always going to lead us back to racism — hence it’s worth the effort of trying to figure out the elusive “what it would look like.”

What’s lost in the immigration debate

The majority of immigration to any given Western country comes from areas that have either been colonized by that country or else stand in a looser relationship of subordination and dependency. While presumably there are still at least two or three people who believe the ideological bullshit of the “civilizing mission,” most adult human beings recognize that the whole point of colonization and subordination of other countries is to gain access to their wealth and resources so that they can be expropriated for the enrichment of the colonizer or dominant country.

Hence it’s not just that the target country happens to be rich while the immigrant’s home country happens to be poor (or, I might add, in political turmoil, in a state of civil war, etc., etc.). Those conditions hold in the home country because of the destructive effects of Western involvement — not just during the era of “official” colonization, but on an ongoing basis. People generally don’t leave prosperous, self-sufficient countries en masse in order to drive cabs and clean hotel rooms in a foreign country where they will be hated and scapegoated.

Rather than recognize this simple truth and act with some basic human decency, though, the former and current imperial powers choose to demonize the immigration their own exploitative and unjust domination has produced — and they would rather let the people whose nations they continue to despoil drown or die in the desert than let them drive those cabs and clean those hotel rooms.

Expelling the Demos

If dramatic inequality and profound immiseration are the phenomenological appearance of the manifold contemporary economic technologies for extracting surplus value and enacting surplus populations, these ever more primitive accumulations require thinking beyond the usual terms of “injustice” and “poverty.”  Saskia Sassen has recently proposed the paradigm of “expulsion” to understand today’s plutocratic brutality. In the domain of politics, Wendy Brown has similarly suggested that “the demos” has been expelled from democracy.  What are the interrelations of these dynamics?  InterCcECT is delighted to host a mini-seminar on these questions with Professor Ignacio Sanchez Prado, who will guide us through the first chapters of Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution and Expulsions: Brutality and Complexity in the Global Economy.

4pm, 4 May, Institute for the Humanities, UIC

request readings from interccect at gmail dot com

While he’s in town, Professor Sanchez Prado will also give a talk at the University of Chicago on 5 May, “The Golden Age Otherwise: Cosmopolitanism and Mexican Cinema, circa 1950″


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