Wednesday, December 30, 2015

Return of Kings gets it wrong: The Star Wars anti-MRA agenda earned it tons of cash



Men's Right Activist site Return of Kings claims that its negative reviews of the new Star Wars film cost it $4.2 million in lost ticket sales. Key passage:
Fifty-five percent of respondents to a Return of Kings Twitter poll have said that online reporting of the social justice nature of The Force Awakens influenced their decision whether to see the film. Extended across our readership, with over 900,000 users accessing ROK between November 21 and December 21, this amounts to a potential direct impact of $4,219,456.54 (55% x $8.38 x 915,482) on total revenues.
I'm sure that extremely stupid people will find this persuasive, but there are some obviously stupid analytical assumptions here worth laughing at; regardless, the bottom line is that the Star Wars controvery likely cost it no more than $1.7m - and probably earned at least $34.5m more from women alone.

RoK's monthly unique users =/= RoK's monthly audience

This is web analytics 101: monthly uniques user traffic - which is what their 900k number clearly refers to - mostly just counts the unique IP+cookie combinations accessing the site. This tends to significantly overstate the number of real people who have visited, for all kinds of well-known reasons; for instance, if the same person visits a site from his home and his work computer, unique users would double his presence. A typical adjustment to this number brings it down 25-39%; generously, we should probably bring 886k down to 602k.



RoK's monthly audicence =/= Probable opening week audience

The top five grossing films of the year sold less than half of their tickets during opening week. So why assume that 100% of RoK readers made their decision between the Star Wars opening and the closing of their poll on December 22? Generously, we'll only chop that number in half, bringing the number of relevant readers down to 301k.



Decisions "affected" by RoK =/= Decisions against watching the movie

Hilariously, RoK didn't ask if their negative coverage dissuaded respondents from seeing Star Wars - they just asked if it "affected" their decision. This distinction is important, because some respondents may have gone to see Star Wars precisely because of RoK's opposition to the film! The rigorous response would be to throw away the poll entirely as poorly phrased, but since RoK insists on extrapolating results from it we have to find some way to account for "yes" responses who did see the film. Agnostically we could just split "yes" responses in half, but if you read through replies to their poll, the split is closer to 1:2. So pragmatically, we'll drop the "no" response to 66%.



Total impacts

These considerations more than halve RoK's potential impact: from $4.2m (55% x $8.38 x 915,482) down to $1.7m (66% x $8.28 x 301,000). Compare that to Star Wars' box office haul of $600,949,526 so far, and their negative impact comes down to a rounding error of around 0.27%.

A final obvious point RoK neglects is the potential positive impact of including SJW-friendly content in the Star Wars films. For instance, it's worth noting that while women usually only account for 38.5% of the historical Star Wars fan base, they accounted for 42% of the new film's audience. That means up to four million more women saw the film than previous demographics would predict, buying about $34.5 million more in tickets. And that doesn't account for any of the other audience demographics that also expanded, including racial minorities, Marxists, non-cishet viewers and other oppressed identities who may now feel more welcome in the Star Wars universe.



Clearly, the anti-MRA agenda is both politically correct and financially rewarding, with little risk of any popular backlash to worry about - which means that audiences can expect to see more of it in our favorite pop culture franchises.

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Is it a mistake to focus on economic concerns?

Ed Kilgore, writing for New York Magazine, has articulated a fairly comprehensive liberal critique of left politics. The latter, he argues, speaks "of white working-class voters' concerns on noneconomic issues as representing displaced anxiety about lost jobs and low wages".

To his credit, Kilgore understands his position in the correct terms: his target is an "ancient lefty habit," and his solution is decidedly "progressive". Say what you will about this, it's at least more coherent than modern liberal attempts to co-opt the left and claim it as their own: Kilgore knows that he's arguing against (something like) the historical left position, and he names it as such.

Still, when we tease out his substantive critique from the rhetoric, it doesn't seem particularly strong. Kilgore's argument rests on suggesting that 1) Obama's "Bittergate" controversy and 2) Sander's focus on economic issues were both politically damaging, but there's little evidence for either claim.

Bittergate - the controversy surrounding Obama's 2008 comment that working-class voters who lose jobs "get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them" - is a particularly odd crutch to lean on. Kilgore himself admits that this supposed gaffe was "big but ultimately not decisive", which would seem to call into question any assumption that the left's economic focus is a losing strategy. But was the incident even "big" in any meaningful? The media thought so, but the polls are ambivalent at best:


Remarkably, Obama's lead nearly doubled after news of his comment broke on April 12, jumping from 5.4 to 10.4 points over Clinton. They didn't tighten up again until after multiple major events, including John McCain's win of the Republican nomination, the last Democratic debate, and Clinton's win of the Pennsylvania primary.

The alternative reading of the Bittergate episode is that this quote - like Obama's "pen and phone" quote, his "spread the wealth around" quote, and his "you didn't build that" quote - was just another media spectacle that no one outside of the beltway ever cared about. Pundits looking for a horse race may get excited over such things, and right-wing partisans looking for something to complain about may latch onto them, but this sort of rhetorical maneuvering has no sure relationship to public opinion.

Kilgore compares Bittergate with various economic-focused statements made by Bernie Sanders, but not much evidence of political damage there, either. For instance, though he claims that Sanders got "into hot water" during his supposed conflict with Black Lives Matter earlier this year, Matt Bruenig observed that most of the evidence for this was purely anecdotal. Kilgore also argues that the economic-focused message is hurting Sanders "with immigration and terrorism", but the latest YouGov / Economist poll suggests a different story:

Family Income $50,000 or Less

Whatever Sanders' economic message is doing, it doesn't seem to be having a significant negative impact on working class perceptions of his ability to handle immigration or terrorism: on both issues, working class voters are just as uneasy with Clinton as they are with him. Clinton does have higher confidence scores - but the difference can be significantly accounted for by the greater number of voters who are simply "unsure" about Sanders.

Notably, a similar dynamic appeared when Bruenig examined Sanders' numbers among black adults: they lagged behind Clinton's, but largely part because 67% of black voters were simply unfamiliar with him. This is the trend that emerges time and time again whenever you listen to what the voters are actually saying: voters are unsure about Sanders' message, so they haven't formed an opinion about it. Liberals may see these numbers as an opportunity to make ridiculous accusations of "economic reductionism" against the left, but they would do well not to confuse popular uncertainty about left politics with opposition to it.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

First impressions of Dinesh D'Souza's "I served hard time" memoir

As you may have noticed from my tweet storm earlier today, I've begun reading Dinesh D'Souza's Stealing America: What My Experience with Criminal Gangs Taught Me About Obama, Hillary, And the Democratic Party. It will probably be some time before I get around to a more thorough review, but a few first impressions.

First and foremost: I am absolutely certain that most of the anecdotes I've read so far are entirely fabricated. D'Souza buttresses his polemic with an endless parade of experiences and conversations from his detention, and all of them ring false. They are always far too convenient for his narrative, and they all speak with his voice - or at least, with his impression of what a criminal sounds like. This, for the moment, is just my bullshit detector sounding, but I'm as confident about this as I have ever been about anything: any journalist who wants to visit the halfway house where D'Souza stayed and conduct some interviews is going to find a story.

You will not be surprised to learn that, from his trial, conviction, and eight month detention in a halfway house, D'Souza appears to have learned absolutely nothing. His entire experience is filtered through a completely impenetrable ideological bubble that warps everything in powerful fields of denial, confirmation bias, and doublethink. A typical moment occurs early on, when D'Souza submits a request to the Bureau of Prisons to be excused for a media appearance:
What happened next played out in my imagination. I could see some petty Obama official at the BOP scratching his head. I could see him calling a meeting. I could see a group of bureaucrats around a desk, wondering if there were First Amendment implications to silencing a guy like me. I could feel their fear as they considered whether they would be called on to answer for this... 
My suspicions were vindicated when the decision came down. Williams informed me that the BOP had decided it no longer needed to approve my media appearances. I felt pleased. I had had a mini-skirmish with the BOP, and the score was Dinish 1, BOP nil.
Obviously, this entire melodrama exists only in D'Souza's head, and his persecution complex would have been just as "vindicated" if they'd rejected his request. There was never any chance that anything about his harrowing detention experiences was ever going to teach him anything, and it was always completely obvious that he was going to leave the halfway house with all kinds of gritty, exotic anecdotes proving that actually the capital gains tax is Bad.

Perhaps the most striking point of cognitive dissonance in the entire narrative is his persistent refusal to identify with his fellow criminals. Briefly D'Souza adds the token admission that "was not an outsider looking in; I too was one of the natives" - but immediately, he claims a "special vantage point among the convicts" and explains, "I considered myself an anthropologist in a strange land." 

Horrifically, his perspective is closer to that of a zoologist. "I had read somewhere - I think in Charles Murray's The Bell Curve - that criminals have very low IQs," he writes. "Prison...resembles the state of nature. The inmates cannot stop cursing. When they feel like it, they belch and fart. Spitting is very common, especially into trash cans." There is nothing here of the anthropologist's effort to understand the humanity of his subjects: D'Souza wants to sensationalize and titillate, even when he doesn't know it.
One night, while I was trying to read, I heard a half-hour conversation about the breasts of the waitress who works at Del Taco down the street. She was, in the words of one voyeur, "a hot tamale." Apparently several of our guys were there, and each one took turns describing her endowments, their angle of vision, what they woudl do if given the opportunity, and so on.
Again, the utter lack of self-reflection is breathtaking. D'Souza describes his fellow criminals as voyeurs - what does he think he is, listening in on a sordid conversation about a woman's body? And what do D'Souza's readers think they are? More than anything, as I read through Stealing America, Theodor Adorno's discussion of fascist propaganda comes to mind:
In other words, propaganda functions as a kind of wish-fulfillment. This is one of its most important patterns. People are "let in," they are supposedly getting the inside dope, taken into confidence...Lust for snooping is both encouraged and satisfied. Scandal stories, mostly fictious, particularly of sexual excesses and atrocities are constantly told; the indignation at filth and cruelty is but a very thin, purposely transparent rationalization of the pleasure these stories convey to the listener.
That is what I'm getting from D'Souza's detention memoir so far: perversely, an exercise in wish-fulfillment. His audience wants to know that the real world - the state of nature, stripped of all its liberal elitist civility and government interventions - confirms everything they already believe about the righteousness of the Republican agenda. D'Souza is giving them everything they want; and to sex things up, he's even giving them some working class tits. 

Class-only leftists do not exist

I've made this point indirectly in the past, but the zombie seems to be crawling out of its grave, so let me spell it out as directly as I can:

Class-only leftists do not exist. This is a dank, embarrassing right-wing talking point that no IRL adult should entertain for even a moment. The accusation betrays a pathetic ignorance of both political history and Marxist thought. The very idea is facially absurd, and attributing it to one's critics is self-flattery of the dumbest sort.

Economism - the actual historical term for class-only politics - is mostly a relic of Enlightenment-era determinism. Their shared premise was that everything in the universe could be reduced to the basic interactions of the fundamental constituents of the material world. Saying that "everything is based on economics" here is just a shorthand for saying that everything is related through clockwork universe physics, which even governs things like the distribution of resources. Classical economists - capitalists as well as Marxists - quite often understood their work in precisely these terms. The guys who took this kind of thing seriously looked like this:


ICYMI, the common denominator here is that these pictures are old. These people have been dead forever. Lenin and Stalin purged most of them as "vulgar Marxists" - essentially their term for guys who held an incorrect and oversimplified version of Marxism. That's right: if you believed what liberals keep saying Marxists believe, the Soviets would straight-up kill you for being that dumb.

Notably, only one other political faction has ever equated leftism with economism: capitalists. That was a huge part of Max Weber's schtick, it was a big part of Reagan's schtick, and it's a go-to line of criticism on the American right even today:
History was then simply a question of economics to Marx and his friend Engels, and about who controlled the flow of goods and Capital in the world. This materialistic view of the world is thus what finally took over and mobilized the whole socialist movement until very recently. ​After coming up with this world view that basically everything is just money wearing different costumes, Marx went on to develop just how the whole system functioned so he could better topple it.
It's easy to see why Capitalists would be so eager to associate Marxism with class-only politics: economism is as dead as it gets. What little intellectual currency it maintained in communist states utterly collapsed as it encountered the realities of governance - particularly faced with the rising tide of European fascism. For instance, in 1924, Carl Grünberg was arguing that "from the point of view of the materialist conception of history every single expression of the life of society is a reflection of the current form of economic life". But only six years latter, Torres notes,
Horkheimer replaced him as director [of the Frankfurt School]. He shared none of his predecessors' “scientific” optimism. In view of the threat that the rising tide of Nazism presented to an academic institution run by Jewish Marxists...the traditional Marxist economics of Grünberg, Grossman and Wittfogel were no longer able to explain the shape the world was beginning to take.
Again: this was in nineteen-thirty. The last significant bastion of class-only politics among Marxists repudiated its own economism more than 85 years ago. Almost all of the people who lived to see the death of economism are dead themselves.

The Frankfurt School - which largely pioneered the more sophisticated investigations into relationships between sex, race, class, and so on which are today popularly explored through "intersectionalism" - represents just one of the diverse and prolific efforts among Marxists to understand power and oppression in its full multiplicity of expression. Generally, this enterprise can be described as an attempt to delimit what class analysis can tell us about the world - and what it can't. Liberal capitalists (and their conservative counterparts) who try to characterize Marxism as class-only politics are relying on an embarrassingly antiquated, cartoonish line of red-baiting, and revealing a frankly stunning ignorance of over a century of leftist thought.

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Coherent intersectionality is quantified

Power is complex. This point seems obvious today, but it's a relatively modern insight, and represents a significant break from the relatively reductive political theory of previous centuries. In this light, Michel Foucault, as Gavena writes, was "the most influential theorist of power of the late 20th century" - and Foucault puts it best:
Power is everywhere...it is permanent, repetitious, inert, and self-reproducing...exercised from innumerable points, in the interplay of nonegalitarian and mobile relations.
For this reason, as I have written elsewhere, modern left thought often devolves into a wild goose chase, "hunting out ever-more-obscure microaggressions and ever-more-elaborate forms of privilege". But here, I'd like to note how this tendency also devolves into extremely limited and compartmentalized analyses of power that fall short of the more holistic conceptions Foucault had in mind.

The problem is one of missing the forest for the trees. Consider, for example, this exchange:
These points are both true as far as they go, but they cannot provide any sort of holisitic analysis of the role of sexism in Clinton's campaign. And the reason, here, is simple: the advantages and disadvantages that sexism provides to Clinton are not being formulated in comparable terms. Are we talking about the polling advantages and disadvantages? Fundraising? The emotional / psychological highs and lows? Some nebulous combination of everything? These are all important considerations, but unless you can place them into some kind of economy of power with each other you will be left with making vague observations like "Sexism hurts Hillary in some ways and it helps Hillary in other ways."

Beyond just being generally obvious, one major problem with that kind of analysis is that it trivializes the overall impacts of oppression. If all we can say about sexism against Clinton is that it hurts her and helps her, we've done nothing to distinguish her from the Men's Rights Activists, who can come up with plenty of cherry-picked instances of bias against men. The difference, clearly, is that while MRAs may face isolated incidents of sexism, they are incomparable in magnitude to what women face - and they are obviously completely outweighed out by the ways that MRAs benefit from sexism. It is easy enough to establish this difference quantitatively, for example by demonstrating that men get nominated for office far more frequently than women; but if you don't want to look at the numbers, you're going to be trading anecdotes all day.

Intersectionality means finding ways to account for the ways that extremely diverse forms of power and oppression interact with each other, compare with each other, and compound each other. As far as I can tell, quantification is the only way to do this with any kind of rigor, coherence and depth. It may abstract away certain intangible aspects of oppression, but it allows us to escape the vague and superficial conceptions of power that always leave the left spinning its wheels. Especially if we keep the trade-off in mind, this, I think, is a worthy trade-off to make.

Monday, December 21, 2015

Pro-choice and market-choice positions on abortion

At first glance, left and liberal positions on abortion in the United States can seem indistinguishable. This is because our debates have been largely framed by Republican partisans, forcing everyone else into the usual coalition. When misogynist grandpas float ideas like "Let's doom single mothers to either a lifetime of poverty with dependents she can't afford or extremely dangerous home surgery in lieu of legal abortion," most sane people are going to start looking for alternatives.

Still, libertarians also routinely end up as allies with the left on abortion -- but no one would accuse them of sharing the left's values, philosophies, or political calculations. And though these differences may seem academic under some circumstances, they become extremely relevant if we consider long-term questions about coalition building and strategic framing. In that light, while affirming my committment to continuing access to safe and legal abortions, I'd like to contrast two distinct positions that are routinely conflated: pro-choice, and market-choice.

Pro-choice

The pro-choice position, which happens to be the consensus position in most of the world, does what it says on the tin: the goal is to give women as much choice as possible over their lives. In the United States, this position was best articulated by Barack Obama on the anniversary of Roe v. Wade:
“I am committed to protecting this constitutional right. I also remain committed to policies, initiatives, and programs that help prevent unintended pregnancies, support pregnant women and mothers, encourage healthy relationships, and promote adoption.”
Crucially, choice is formulated here not just in terms of legal rights, but also in terms of socioeconomic conditions. Women's reproductive choices are governed not just by the law, but also by their material conditions, their access to things like contraception, adoption, and child support, and so on. For this reason, the pro-choice position entails a wide-ranging agenda that focuses on the full range of items Obama lays out.

From here, of course, how one prioritizes and pursues these fights for choice is just a matter of strategic judgment. If for example you think that poverty does more to impede choice for women than inflexible work conditions, you will prioritize the fight against poverty. If you think that child support issues are more consequential than maternal leave issues, those are the issues you'll prioritize. If you think that abortion access issues are more consequential than any of these, that's what you'll focus on. Support for a woman's right to choose implies no necessary strategic priority for these issues, since other things like questions of proportional urgency and calculations about political expedience inevitably come into play. That's why among the opposition to outlawing abortion you'll find little to no consensus on how all of these issues should be prioritized.

Market-choice

Routinely conflated with the pro-choice position, the market-choice position is, as far as I can tell, mostly unique to the United States. Explicitly held by many self-identified libertarians - and implicitly held by a significant faction of bourgeois liberals - its central premise is that government restrictions on women are the only ones that matter. The market-choice position is probably best articulated by Reason's Elizabeth Nolan Brown:
"Libertarian feminists bring overlooked or under-emphasized issues into the liberty movement, such as reproductive freedom (not just abortion but things like making birth control available over-the-counter, state coercion of pregnant women, surrogacy law, and the emerging legal issues surrounding things like IVF and artificial wombs), state overreach into parenting, the over-regulation of female-heavy occupations, how decriminalizing sex work fits into overall criminal-justice reform efforts..."
This, of course, is just a thin glaze over standard libertarian ideology. Conceivably, a pro-choice position could deprioritize other issues and focus on the state oppression of women; but the market-choice position goes a step further. It doesn't just deprioritize material concerns - it delegitimizes them. Welfare, for example, is clearly off the table in Brown's discussion, and the market-choice partisan obviously considers it illegitimate to prioritize welfare over state oppression.

Thus the market-choice position is in crucial contrast to the pro-choice position, which demands a more expansive conception of liberation, and accepts a diversity of strategy and tactics in pursuit of more choice for women. But unfortunately, it aligns perfectly with a common liberal perspective on choice, which not only prioritizes the fight against state oppression but demands its priority and delegitimizes other material concerns.

Perhaps the most prominent exemplar of the market-choice liberal is the archetypal Hillary Man: the middle-to-upper-class culture warrior who thinks that being a feminist is just a matter of supporting legalized abortions - while utterly disregarding the horrific outcomes Clintonian economic policy would impose on women. These are generally people who have little experience with or understanding of poverty and the shackles it places on the lives of women, and whose position on abortion has more to do with tribalism than with a serious engagement with the stakes and arguments. Of course, the market-choice liberal may happen to accept things like child tax credits or expanded maternity leave as well; but their trademark move is to bracket these issues off of pro-choice issues, and to reduce one's pro-choice position to the priority they give to abortion issues.


ICYMI, the implication here is that market-choice liberalism has more to do with the libertarian fixation on state oppression than it does with an expansive, leftist conception of a woman's right to choose. It is one thing to prioritize the fight against abortion as a matter of judgment or strategic calculation, but it is quite another to then delegitimize leftists who have other priorities as somehow less committed to choice and the rights of women. That is an intrinsically right-wing move, and should be reviled by the left as such.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

How should we fix the CEO gender pay gap?

Emily Crockett, writing for Vox, has posted a thing about The CEO gender gap, in 3 depressing charts. I ultimately agree with Clickhole's take on this problem (h/t Abi Wilkinson) and am on record with my general criticism of this genre of leftism. If you don't believe that grieving the identitarian woes of our oligarchic overlords is an actual genre, maybe these Vox headlines will change your mind:


In any case, sure, optimizing pay discrepancies among the top 1% should have a place in the left's agenda (perhaps we should talk about it ~1% of the time). But how would we go about doing this? Ryan Cooper has directed me to a piece by Jessica Valenti where she floats a solid, constructive proposal:
But what if the boldest solution for the wage gap isn’t about raising women’s salaries at all? What if we paid men less?
By any leftist analysis, this is a fantastic idea: it satisfies the socialist imperative of reducing net inequality while addressing identitarian concerns over gender discrepancies.

The only problem, as Valenti acknowledges, is that this approach happens to be illegal, since you can't lower wages for men just to combat pay discrimination. One solution here would be to simply legalize it; in general, affirmative measures to directly legislate gender inequality out of existence can be extremely productive, as I noted in my recent article about getting women on the ballot.

But here is an alternative, which I think deserves some reflection among the identitarian left. If we care about material inequality, and not simply symbolic milestones, you can also reduce it (in absolute terms) with salary cuts across the board. Cut the median compensation for all bank CEOs in half, and women are still making only about 77% what men make - but instead of making $147k less, they're only making $74k less. And on top of that, you suddenly have $573k to redistribute to the working class, in any way you like.

Unlike Valenti's proposal, this approach is completely legal. And it narrows the absolute pay gap while providing even more funds for redistribution than you would have if you only lowered men's pay the same amount. But it makes no symbolic progress in terms of reducing percentages, and it asks us to acknowledge that even women can have privilege that needs to be torn down. Of course, the approach I just outlined is really just the classic socialist project of redistribution. Is there a coherent argument against it?

Tuesday, December 15, 2015

Schlichter takes exactly the wrong lesson from modern American insurgencies

Once again, known chicken-hawk Kurt Schlichter is fantasizing about what it would be like to actually see combat - this time, amid an imaginary resistance movement to an imaginary government gun confiscation program. Most of his ridiculous ideas about how that would play out are easily debunked, as I did a while back, but I thought one point he made in particular deserves some reflection:
There are millions of Americas with guns, many of them veterans who know how to employ them. We would certainly see more Ruby Ridges and Wacos as people took up arms to resist, if not much, much worse. A dedicated effort to forcefully disarm our citizenry would cost lives on both the pro-freedom and pro-fascism sides.
It's true that this sort of conflict would probably end in casualties on both sides - but we don't have to just guess blindly about it! Because in the specific instances Schlichter brings up, a total of 5 government combatants died - as well as 84 combatants fighting against the government.

I'm not sure why anyone would want to point to these instances as a warning against the government. Setting aside political questions about gun regulations, it's fairly clear that Waco and Ruby Ridge did not set encouraging precedents for the prospects of domestic insurgency in the United States. There may very well be compelling arguments in favor of expansive gun rights, but despite what the militant right would have us believe, "or else" is not one of them.

Saturday, December 12, 2015

The racial apologetics of Marco Rubio's faith



This clip of Marco Rubio speaking about Christianity is making the rounds lately, and two things stand out to me:

First, despite the outpouring of praise about how "inspirational" this is, Rubio isn't actually saying anything particularly out of the ordinary. For the Christian right - and particularly for the devout - Rubio offers no new insights or perspectives on the Gospel. He's not even articulating the usual message in an especially unique or eloquent way. If the people praising this heard it on the radio, and didn't know who was speaking, they'd readily dismiss it as the generic sermon that it is.

What Rubio's admirers actually appreciate here is his mastery of Christian-right knowledge and discourse. This is not simply a matter of signalling his religious / political alliance with them; Rubio is proving that he is one of them by rehearsing talking points and turns of phrase that they are intimately familiar with. For instance: even though the technical details are not in and of themselves inspiring, American Protestants in particular are culturally fascinated with the theanthropic details of Christ's dual nature as both God and man. Did Christ actually get the cold or the flu? This is just a matter of historical trivia, depending on what illnesses he was exposed to and the quirks of his immune system as much as anything, with zero theological implications - but it's still a point of immense curiosity. "Probably," Rubio concludes.

The spectacle of a politician laying out his religious cultural bona fides isn't at all unusual in our politics - but one should not understate how uniquely important this is for Rubio, a Cuban American trying to rally the support of an increasingly white Republican base. Certainly the devout will find plenty to appreciate in this video, but there is also an unmistakable subtext of celebration that this Hispanic gentleman is, indeed, one of us.


Around 9:50, Rubio touches on a point that his audience undoubtedly finds particularly meaningful, and that plays a crucial role in modern Christian-right discourse, even though its theological roots are relatively dubious. "Any time you face adversity," he insists, "God is going to shield you from the adversity - He's going to protect you from it."

This, as Johns Hopkins associate professor of political science Lester Spence observes, is a central premise of so-called "prosperity gospel" - an enormously popular genre of teaching that warps Christianity around capitalist ideology. Adherents, he writes, believe that 
those who choose god will be saved from the worst of the economic crisis while those who don't, won't...Note the logic here. People are materially poor because they don't think right. 
This, Bret McCabe writes, functions as "a way to make questions about who lives comfortably and who lives in poverty a matter of which one spiritually deserves to do so." It's easy to understand why Rubio's audience would want him to affirm this understanding: it legitimizes their prosperity as justified, invests them with a sense of control over their fortunes, and defers ultimate responsibility for economic justice from the state to God. And there are, again, obvious reasons why this message especially resonates when it comes from a man who isn't white.

Thursday, December 10, 2015

Trump lets liberals remain confused about fascism, for now

"Calling Trump a fascist risks misleading voters about his agenda, which is not that much different from that of his rivals for the GOP presidential nod...One common characteristic of fascist regimes was their insistence on collective rather than individual identity. Fascist leaders believed the life of the nation as a whole took precedence over the lives of the people who made it up, imposing a brutal uniformity on the lives of their citizens..." - Max Ehrenfreund
Not only does this fail to understand the role of the collective in fascism as historically understood - it also fails to distance Trump from fascism on its own confused terms.

Consider for example Trump's proposal that the Constitutional rights of Muslim Americans be suspended in order to banish them for the good of the country. What is this, if not an explicit argument that "the life of the nation as a whole [takes] precedence over the lives of the people who made it up"? Trump openly rejects the foundational liberal doctrine of universal individual rights, such as the right to equal protection under the law, and replaces it with a radical "emergency" policy grounded firmly in volkish ideas about America's national identity. The question at this point isn't merely whether we should consider Trump a species of fascism - it's whether we should consider him a species of Nazism, grounded in more or less explicit Protestant white supremacy.

Ehrenfreund's understanding of fascism - he variously equates it with collectivism and anti-capitalism - has more in common with Jonah Goldberg's ahistorical revisionism than with scholarly accounts of its theory and practice. In particular, his fixation on particulars of Trump's proclaimed agenda blesses fascism with principles where none exist. Above all, it is politically pragmatic - pragmatic to the point of utter cynicism. As Paxton notes, "Fascism - a political latecomer that adapted anti-socialism to a mass electorate, using means that often owed nothing to conservatism - drew on both right and left, and tried to transcend that bitter division".

What defines fascism is not its ends, but rather its means - it is not a political goal, but a way of doing politics that tends towards predictable outcomes. Adorno was quite clear about this:
All these demagogues substitute means for ends. They prate about "this great movement," about their organization, about a general American revival they hope to bring about, but they rarely say anything about what such a movement is supposed to lead to, what the organization is good for or what the myserious revival is intended to achieve.
Listen to any given Trump speech - say, one of his most recent, in South Carolina - and this pattern is unmistakeable. The collective looms large in his ideology: not one that is organized around state institutions, but one organized around a national identity, and imminently embodied in the crowds at his rallies. Trump compulsively uses the collective "we" and openly rejects the very existence of dissent. Here's how he responds to protesters:
I'll bet you if I spoke to that young woman...quickly, I think I could convince her we are all in this together, folks. We want to have a strong country...
He goes on to acknowledge that there are a few "troublemakers", but only to insist that even his "friends who disagree" with him actually agree that "we have to have strong country". Notably, this is only moments before Trump scolded, "I don't want the person [the protester] to be hurt, but I will tell you security is very weak, I can't believe these security people."

This, of course, is just the latest episode of Trump openly musing about dissenters from his collective movement getting hurt. What's telling in this case is that while Ehrenfreund credits Trump for his commitment to civil democracy, Trump openly says that he's fine with a more forceful crackdown on dissent, and explicitly blames third parties - in this case, hired security - for failing to make it happen. People who are inclined to give Trump the benefit of a doubt, and insist that Trump would respect liberal democracy once in power, should consider listening to what he is actually saying.

A socialist case for Hillary

The problem with giving so much attention to terrible "socialist" cases for Hillary is that you start to give the impression that socialism is just about voting for the left-most Democratic candidate and against their centrist rivals. Which is obviously untrue! For instance, as Clare suggested this morning, you could actually shoehorn a case for Hillary into the broader framework of accelerationist socialist politics.

I suppose it would have to go something like this: a fairly orthodox (though by no means authoritative) genre of Marxist thought insists that revolution can be triggered by advancing capitalism to the point of crisis. In practice, this would involve the abolition of the democratic welfare state, the consolidation of power into the hands of the bourgeoisie, absolute privatization, the heightened immiseration of the proletariat, and so on. Make all of this happen, and capitalism becomes completely unsustainable and digs its own grave, as Marx put it.

If you suppose that it's possible to make this happen through electoral politics, and calculate that we would all be better off if this happened sooner than later - again, all entirely orthodox Marxist positions, though not at all authoritative - then it follows quite directly that you would want to elect the absolute worst capitalist candidates you possibly can.

That makes the case for nominating Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders completely straightforward. There are plenty of Marxists who (correctly, I think) insist that Sanders is himself a standard welfare capitalist, but I don't think one can defensibly argue that he's a worse welfare capitalist than Clinton. If we had one of our decennial economic crises under Sanders, for example, it seems probable that he would take the opportunity to strengthen the welfare state, advance various financial regulations, and perhaps even break-up and/or nationalize key banks; Clinton, meanwhile, is far more likely to react with austerity measures and less ambitious regulations (if not de-regulations).

Again, I don't think there's anything particularly heterodox or implausible about any of this. I personally suspect that the certain harm of a Hillary regime is not an ethical tradeoff for the uncertain prospect of possible revolution, but this is mostly a judgment call. The more significant challenge for Clinton supporters is that they can't maintain this argument against Sanders in the Democratic primaries and then justify a vote against Trump in the general election; still, if you're a Clintonite who wants to call yourself a socialist, you have better arguments at your disposal than the ones you're making.

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

What would an anti-Trump look like?

Then along came Donald Trump... The current GOP front-runner is advocating policies that represent the mirror-image extremism to the Left's race and identity-soaked politics. - David French
It's been amusing to watch the right decide how to best blame the left for Trump - is he, as French and Noah Rothman argue, the inevitable extreme-right reaction to liberal politics? Or is he actually himself an exemplar of liberalism, per the viral #tcot meme?

This is utter cynicism, of course, but it also reflects an atrophied public imagination that can no longer imagine what a radical leftist politician would look like. Some simple reminders: a radical leftist politician would call for

  • immediate and substantial reparations for Black, Hispanic and Native Americans.
  • immediate and substantial reparations to the international victims of American empire, EG the Philippines, most South American states, and so on.
  • forgiveness of all international debt.
  • massive international aid, on the order of trillions of dollars, to fight climate change, curable disease, starvation, and other global problems rooted in international inequality.
  • the immediate expropriation of wealth from the richest Americans.
  • the immediate nationalization of the banks, the health care industry, the transportation sector, the military-industrial complex, telecommunications, energy, and so on.
  • a pardon of most non-violent criminals and even some of the violent ones.
  • a universal withdrawal from all countries occupied by US military, including allies hosting US military bases.
  • absolute limits on carbon emissions across all sectors.
  • the abolition of the Presidency and the Senate.
  • the immediate subordination of all US governance to international law.
  • the universal and automatic unionization of all workers.
  • the guarantee of multiple welfare entitlements, including universal healthcare, education, childcare, leave, and some variation on basic income.
  • full 100% employment.
  • the unconditional imposition of expansive affirmative action quotas across a wide range of identities (race, gender, orientation, class, and so on).
This is an extremely incomplete list, and it's not even the most radical list you could come up with. For example, a significant number of leftists would not even accept as adequate the multiple redistributive programs listed above, and would call for the outright abolition of private property. Similarly, advocates of direct democracy would not even accept the survival of some "representative" legislative body like a redistricted House.

Yet even though this is modest, it is still light-years beyond the most radical agenda of the most radical candidates the Democratic Party ever runs. Not even Jill Stein proposes a platform this ambitious, much less candidates like Bernie Sanders or (lol) Hillary Clinton.

That the right, with a straight face, can blame Trump on leftist radicalism - and even go so far as to call him a leftist radical - just demonstrates how radicalized in their direction our politics have become. We are nowhere near seeing what hard left politics would look like in the United States.

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Identitarian deference is an enemy of civilization

A long while back, Matt Bruenig wrote a pretty good thing about the philosophical failures of identitarian deference:
Roughly, identitarian deference is the idea that privileged individuals should defer to the opinions and views of oppressed individuals, especially on topics relevant to those individuals’ oppression...To practice ID, you already must have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed. But if you already have a detailed theory of what makes someone oppressed, then what do you need ID for?
This is an excellent critique of ID as a truth-finding procedure and one that I'm inclined to agree with, but I think there's also a powerful progressive argument against ID that doesn't assume preference for rational discourse.

That's because ID can also be understood as a political instrument. It can be evaluated not as a mode of rational discourse, but as a mode of irrational discourse, one that mobilizes raw tribal psychology against ideology. Arguably, this makes ID intrinsically anarchic insofar as it rhetorically nullifies asymmetric advantages conferred by ideology, reducing political discourse into a raw power struggle between competing identity groups. This case for ID relies on a series of claims that I think are at least arguably true:

  1. People find tribalistic argumentation as persuasive, if not more persuasive, than just about any other mode of rhetoric - including rationalism. Tribal cognition historically antedates most features of rational cognition as a matter of uncontroversial evolutionary fact, and extensive research demonstrates that it still significantly governs our ability to reason, our perception of facts, and so on. That includes specific research that tribalism strongly influences political thought, and even operates as a rational substitute for exhaustive political deliberation, since "voters are only acting rationally when they cut information costs by using shortcuts like partisan identification or demographic facts to evaluate complex vectors of political variables." (Ferguson)
  2. Politically, tribalism tends towards an anarchic war of all against all as interest groups vye for power. It's the logical conclusin of capitalist / Objectivist self-interest.
  3. Tribalism can only be overcome by ideology. As Hume writes, "men resign their own sentiments and passions to those of their rulers. When we enquire by what means this wonder is brought about, we shall find, that as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion. 'Tis therefore, on opinion only that government is founded..."
  4. ID essentially undercuts this function of ideology by preempting it with a raw power struggle over discursive franchise. It refuses to let rationales and justifications for Humean governance get off the ground by delegitimizing them with claims about privilege. 
It's not difficult to imagine how all of this works out in practice. ID ends up being a powerful rhetorical weapon that literally anyone can mobilize in their own self-interest, simply by demanding deference and undercutting objections with tautological demands for further deference; from there, it becomes an unbreakable lock on the door of epistemic closure. 

This tendency is certainly agreeable if you want to overthrow civilization and return society to the bellum omnium contra omnes, but it doesn't seem like one that progressive should be inclined to support.

Friday, December 4, 2015

How should left criticism talk about mental illness?

Particularly in the last day or so, the American left has seen a lot of behavior that one might be tempted to describe as "crazy". For example - to drop another plug for her fantastic Baffler piece - Amber A'Lee Frost describes the ongoing "Bernie Bro" smear campaign against Sanders supporters as "histrionic". Elsewhere, I described game show personality Arthur Chu's open criticism of human interaction as "definitionally sociopathic."

Predictably, these kinds of comments have provoked all kinds of (mostly affected) outrage about the violation of liberal discourse rules. The grievance, as I understand it, is that it plays on various forms of bigotry to suggest that mental illness is playing a role in our politics. So for example, when Frost calls PUMAs histrionic, she isn't simply incorrect: she's allegedly endorsing and wielding an oppressive sexist stereotype about women being afflicted with hysteria.

Undoubtedly this indictment seems uncontroversial to certain varieties of leftists, and there are some good reasons for that. But it's worth noting that, both historically and theoretically, the taboo against a role for mental illness in political criticism is hardly universal, and is actually directly at odds with another prominent and powerful tradition of leftist thought.

The Foucauldian and Frankfurt tendencies

Perhaps the best way to understand the conflict here is by identifying two opposing tendencies.

The first I'll call "Foucauldian", since it's most famously exemplified by the work of Michel Foucault - particularly in Madness and Civilization. There, Foucault argues (among other things) that mental illness is socially constructed, and that it is therefore an instrument of power and oppression. This perspective became most influential in the second half of the twentieth century; its stronghold has always been in academia, but on occasion it has had significant impacts on medical practice and public policy, for instance in the Hearing Voices Movement, which advocated the depathologization of schizophrenia. Today, this perspective is largely expressed on the left in protest against ableism, as we see in the criticism of Frost.

Against all of this, however, there is what I'll call the "Frankfurt" tendency, since it's most directly and exhaustively demonstrated in the work and theory of the Frankfurt School philosophers. Largely inspired by Marx and Freud, who sought to understand human affairs from a strictly scientific perspective, the Frankfurt School (mostly) described mental illness as an empirical phenomena. They also differ from the Foucauldian tendency in understanding mental illness as not only an instrument of oppression, but as a cause of oppression. Thus, for example, writers such as Adorno and Fromm developed sophisticated theories about the psychological basis of phenomenon like fascism and the so-called authoritarian personality (theories that may have some relevance today).

Today, the Frankfurt tendency's empirical conception of mental illness has almost entirely triumphed over the Foucauldian tendency's social constructionism. we generally accept, for example, that schizophrenia is a disease of the brain, even though we do not yet have a clear understanding of the neurological specifics. Similarly, even though the left now understands hysteria as a social construction, we primarily think of it that way because it was proven to have no scientific basis. Now the medical perspective usually takes precedence, and speculation about the social construction of mental illness is only admissible once we agree that there's no scientific basis for it. Chomsky, in his discussion of theories of psychology, makes these priorities quite clear:
What is the scientific status of the claims? What social or ideological needs do they serve? The questions are logically independent, but the second type of question naturally comes to the fore as scientfic pretensions are undermined. 
Again, this likely has the ring of common sense to the modern reader, but only decades ago leftists would have been far more skeptical about Chomsky's "scientific" claims, and would have begun first by investigating mental illness's social construction. As Foucault himself put it, what defines mental illness
is the action that divides madness [from non-madness], and not the science elaborated once this division is made...we must speak of these actions re-examined in history... 
Certainly the left indulges in episodic bouts of skepticism about the social construction of mental illness; we are for instance always guaranteed at least a handful of radical thinkpieces within the Foucauldian tendency every time a new edition of the DSM makes the news. But these are exceptions.

The contradiction of "mental illness"

And yet, the Frankfurt tendency's victory has not been complete, either. For while we largely accept mental illness as a scientific rather than an ideological term, the left remains distinctly ambivalent about its role in political oppression. Sundry grad students and writers like George Lakoff will occasionally venture theories about (for example) differences between the Democratic and Republican brain; but for the most part, the left still meets talk about mental illness with decidedly Foucauldian suspicion.

As mentioned, this usually takes the form of allegations of ableism. Critics who recognize in bourgeois or reactionary behavior the symptoms of mental illness are typically accused of demeaning it, or othering it, or in some other way oppressing it, particularly if the diagnosis comes at the expense of another aspiring leftist.

This, I think, is the central contradiction of the modern left-discourse on mental illness. There is, as the Foucauldian tendency (I think rightly) points out, an inescapable normative judgment being made as soon as one identifies a certain ordering of the brain as a dis-order; but instead of owning this judgment, and accepting the necessary implications about deviance, we reflexively disown it at the point of etiological analysis. Indeed, this move is absolutely necessary if we are to then understand the mentally ill as victims of a disease - who should be protected from potential ableism - rather than as victims of a socially constructed label - and who are thus already victims of ableism by the very at of diagnosis. So the way that the left talks about mental illness today may very well be expedient, but it is not all that coherent.

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Who opposes the election of women in the United States?

Hillary Clinton's media surrogates continue to advance the notion that opposition to her candidacy is significantly motivated by popular opposition to the election of a woman. Since sexism remains endemic in the United States, the charge would seem to have a certain plausibility.

Nevertheless, PUMAs can't seem to make this one stick. First we had variations on the unqualified claim that Clinton's critics are mostly men "attracted to the opportunity to fight against a female President", but that was easily debunked. Then we had the admission that this "gendered animus" doesn't come from "the majority of Hillary Clinton's critics" - but followed by immediate accusations of sexism against "a small group of writers" and their "impassioned followers". This too has been easily addressed every time the charge gets leveled at anyone specific, which is why the charge itself has taken yet another step back: now it's half-baked conjecture about a plague of "unconscious sexism" holding Clinton back.

All of this strikes me as a baffling problem for a feminist to have, since it's exceedingly easy to prove that our elections are afflicted with sexism. The numbers are completely straightforward and uncontroversial: the majority of eligible voters are women (52.1%), and even though the majority of actual voters are women (53%), women make up less than 20% of our legislature. This is an open-and-shut case: clearly something is standing in the way of proportional representation for women.

The difficulty seems to come when you want to insist that this something is significant public opposition. The evidence for that is relatively slim. Gallup reports that about 91% percent of Americans would vote for a woman, compared with 91% for a Jewish candidate, 60% for a Muslim, and 47% for a socialist. That first number jumps to 97% among Democrats. And while one might speculate that, as with black candidates, there's a discrepancy among voters between professed and actual support, that case is less compelling for women. One Harvard study, for example, notes that while there is indeed an 8 point bias against women running for open House seats, there is actually a slight .5% bias in favor of women compared with male incumbents. The study goes on to observe that on every criteria ranging from "is a strong Leader" to "is Qualified", "Women are consistently advantaged by their gender, when being evaluated from the perspective of Democrats and Independents." It is only "female Republicans [who] will have a more difficult time getting nominated" in the primaries; "Democratic voters have shown a higher propensity to choose a female candidate....where a woman has run".

That last qualifier suggests an alternative explanation for sexism in our elections, though not one that Clinton voters will find particularly convenient. It may turn out that, instead of being a throng of "he-man woman-haters", Americans are just as amenable to voting for women as much of the rest of the world - and simply never get the opportunity. 

It's not that sexism doesn't exist in our elections. Just the opposite: sexism in American elections is so powerful that Americans rarely even get the chance to support women.

This problem is pretty obvious to anyone who has actually spent any amount of time trying to put more women in office. Most organizations that make this their mission make recruitment and ballot access their central focus, and it has been this way for decades. As Steven Hill notes,
The National Organization for Women (NOW) and other women’s political organizations fought in the 1970s and 80s against the Democrats’ old boy network for nomination of more women candidates, as well as equal representation in party committees and structures, eventually succeeding in creating more internal female leadership (which can be a steppingstone to public office). To an extent, these cumulative endeavors have paid off: representation in Congress has increased from thirty-four women (six percent) before the 1992 election to a total of 102 (19 percent) in the House and Senate today (out of 535 seats).
Hill goes on to add that this approach is not enough, and he's correct. Though the general public has a limited role in nomination, the actual process of selecting, funding and endorsing candidates - promoting them from anonymous names on a party ballot to viable contenders - is controlled by tiny groups of party operatives. And lobbying party officials can only ever do so much, which is why one frequent international solution is to actually impose legal gender quotas on nominations. For instance, in Chile, a new electoral law taking effect in 2017 will require parties to
nominate not less than 40 per cent and no more than 60 per cent of women and men as part of their candidate lists. The reforms will also establish a higher compensatory fee for women candidates for every vote won in elections, designed to help reimburse campaign expenses.
Note how the latter measure aims at another serious barrier to women: access to campaign financing in an economy dominated by men. Any serious attempt to address the representational gender imbalance in the United States would have to consider this economic problem - but since Hillary Clinton is already rich and a competitive fundraiser, this major obstacle to women has, for our PUMAs, been completely off the table.

In fact, since their player is already in the game, Clinton supporters are almost universally ignoring such barriers to candidacy - even though they're clearly the major obstacles keeping women out of office. Worse still, Clinton defenders have repeatedly been openly dismissive and contemptuous of critics who are focused on this problem. Rebecca Traister, for example, calls it a "get-out-of-sexism card" and a "dodge" to say that you would vote for a woman who "happens to not be in contention." The passive phrasing here says everything: Traister is talking about the absence of progressive women to compete with Clinton as a thing that just "happens", as if by chance.

And that, for the Clinton voter, makes perfect sense. If you believe that our democratic system is essentially sound, then you can only blame sexist outcomes on the voters themselves. And if neither the polls nor political science supports that explanation, you end up having to invent insane rationalizations, like Doyle's theory that unconscious sexism is tricking people into thinking Clinton is a literal giant (again, she actually wrote this). It's only if you're willing to consider the possibility that sexism is systematic, institutionalized in our electoral system and party rules, and highly concentrated in our ruling class of oligarchs and party kingmakers, that you can begin to understand the actual obstacles to proportional representation. That approach doesn't generate as many excuses for Clinton's failings, but it does have the advantage of corresponding with the facts.