Sunday, December 4, 2016

"Do better": the ideological Taylorism of liberal activism


One of the most odious and monstrous features of capitalism is its ever-intensifying and all-consuming demand for productivity. This drive is most visible in the workplace, where scientific management - also known as Taylorism - is constantly coming up with ways to optimize the performance and efficiency of workers in order to drive up production and drive down costs. Taylorism is why offices are always experimenting with new innovations like standing desks, suggestions for how to get work done during one's commute, Inbox Zero rules, and so on; the goal is to exercise such absolute control over employees that you can squeeze as much work out of them as possible.

But as we see in Taylorism's interest in commuting, capitalism's efficiency and productivity obsessions have a way of creeping into our personal lives as well. Sometimes this is clearly a matter of taking our jobs home, as when employees are expected to be on-call; but Taylorism also infiltrates parts of our lives that have no immediate relationship to work. How many of your smartphone apps are designed to organize and manage various aspects of your life as efficiently as possible? How much of your self-image revolves around eating, exercising, dating, and even relaxing as optimally as you can?

Even our politics can become infiltrated with the ideology of Taylorism, demanding that we must constantly exercise our political agency with absolute efficacy - that we must always, as the liberal catch phrase goes, "do better". We should watch every penny we spend to make sure that it doesn't end up in the pocket of some right-wing corporate oligarch; we should refine our rhetoric so that it has a maximum consequentialist impact on The Discourse, regardless of whether what we are saying happens to be true or correct; we should personally recycle every last soda can in order to drive down our carbon footprint and save the earth through sheer popular meticulousness - you can even get a quantified score on your efforts!

Taylorism is so deeply ingrained into capitalist ideology that all of this seems obvious, even trivial, to most people: we should seek to live our lives as efficiently and productively as possible.

Return, however, to the workplace. What if, instead of exclusively valuing productivity and profits, we also valued the worker's experience of being at work? After all, adults spend an enormous percentage of their waking lives in the office, or at the cash register, or in the warehouse; so it seems like there should also be some value in making the experience as edifying, as pleasant, and yes, even as relaxing as possible. Consider for example Homer Simpson's plan to improve workplace productivity with hammocks. Even if this had no impact on productivity either way, wouldn't there still be some value in having a workplace where we could lie in hammocks? What if, in fact, there were an extremely tiny negative impact on profits; might that not, for society, still be outweighed by the sheer luxury of having hammocks in the office?

Now, extend this line of thought to the political sphere. As political scientists have long observed, being an informed voter takes effort: you have to educate yourself, you have to constantly keep up with current events, you have to study topics that you might not know much about but that can have major consequences for society, and so on. This is all labor that we do in order to exercise our political franchise as productively as possible. But obviously, no one spends all of their time watching the news, or studying policy, or researching candidates. It doesn't matter how serious the circumstances are, or how high the stakes: ultimately, no one believes that they should have to spend every waking moment of their life actively fighting political battles.

If you are a socialist, this makes perfect sense. The fight against capitalism can completely destroy your life, if you let it; we all do what we can, but ultimately, everyone also has the right to try to enjoy their brief time on earth, to try to experience something beyond the class struggle, to live not as mere foils to capitalism, but as humans. There is certainly a balance to be struck here, but it is not the socialist who argues against striking a balance - it is the totalitarian ethic of capitalist Taylorism, with its endless demand for productivity in all things, that rejects any sort of balance. That is the voice that incessantly and relentlessly asks, "Why are you doing this instead of being productive? Why must you indulge in this tactic or that rhetoric, when this thing or that approach would be marginally more efficient and effective?"

Buy into that kind of critique, without placing any value in things like "having a laugh with friends" or "being honest", and you'll have liberal scolds giving your every tweet a ruthless utilitarian score for its infinitesimal effect on the political bottom line. A totalitarian politics that exercises such ruthless control over the minutia of our lives in the name of class struggle is not one that the leftist should accept. On the contrary - we must always remember that the class struggle is itself a form of oppression, and that while socialists have taken up this fight, we did not ask for it. It has been imposed upon us by the domination of the powerful. But Emma Goldman put it best:
One evening a cousin of Sasha, a young boy, took me aside. With a grave face, as if he were about to announce the death of a dear comrade, he whispered to me that it did not behoove an agitator to dance. Certainly not with such reckless abandon, anyway. It was undignified for one who was on the way to become a force in the anarchist movement. My frivolity would only hurt the Cause...I grew furious at the impudent interference of the boy. I told him to mind his own business. I was tired of having the Cause constantly thrown into my face. I did not believe that a Cause which stood for a beautiful ideal, for anarchism, for release and freedom from convention and prejudice, should demand the denial of life and joy. I insisted that our Cause could not expect me to become a nun and that the movement would not be turned into a cloister. If it meant that, I did not want it.

Friday, December 2, 2016

How to come up with any voter demographic argument you want

A few weeks ago I posted some charts laying out the basic demographic trends of this year's presidential election. One of them looked like this:


Even though the data here is objective and indisputable, there are all kinds of different ways that you can read it if you want to measure the performance of millennials. The takes that I've seen, for the most part, largely differ based on two questions:
1. Do we care about candidate support or candidate preference? This is the difference between allowing a "neither one" vote or forcing a choice between two options. A "support" measurement cares about only about whether one actively and affirmatively backs a particular candidate; a "preference" measurement also cares about whether one in some sense opposes a particular candidate, even if one does not affirmatively back the other. There are all kinds of analytical and philosophical reasons why one might use one measure rather than the other. If for instance you're interested in latent dispositions that people don't express through their actual voting behavior, you might care more about preference; but if you want to measure things like apathy, you might care more about support. 
2. Do we want to make a static analysis or a comparative historical analysis? This is the difference between just looking at this year's numbers or placing them in the context of previous elections. A static analysis, for example, would conclude that Clinton's numbers among black voters were extraordinarily high - but a historical analysis would conclude that they were actually low compared to the past few elections. That sort of approach might be useful if, say, you suspect that there are structural / systematic issues that guarantee a baseline of demographic support for a party regardless of candidate, and are more interested in how candidates vary from that baseline; a static analysis is more useful if you reject that sort of assumption.
Crucially, millennial performance in 2016 will look quite different depending on what we decide to measure:
Reading the numbers in a way that flatters or blames millennials is really just a matter of picking the right analytical lens. If you want to attack millennials, do a 2016 support analysis, or a 2016 vs 2012 preference analysis; if you want to praise them, do a 2016 preference analysis, or a 2016 vs 2012 support analysis. These approaches are all perfectly rigorous and legitimate, as far as they go, even though they can give you dramatically different outcomes.

Obviously, coming up with some kind of objective and dispositive conclusion about millennial performance in 2016 is less a matter of (fairly straightforward) number-crunching, and more a matter of defending analytical methodology. This means grappling with all kinds of extremely thorny philosophical and poli-sci controversies about agency, culpability, structural determination, and so on - the kinds of controversies in play when we asked the two basic questions above.

That the overwhelming majority of election analysis doesn't even pretend to care about such issues says everything you need to know about how serious one should take them. In reality, most of our election punditry is just a matter of deciding on a conclusion and then back-filling the corresponding analytical approach, with zero attention to the decisive methodological questions at hand.

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Notes on wrestling, Part III: The athletes

Wrestling is fake. Somehow, this is both its dark secret and its obvious critique; inevitably, it is the great truth that critics declare to wrestling's partisans, who have all this time somehow failed to notice. As a rule, the standard point is to concede this criticism, but to insist that wrestling is a worthy enterprise despite this flaw; even though it lacks the prestige and excellence of true competition, it's still an interesting spectacle nevertheless. We accept what is fake about wrestling as a failing and a blemish; critics decide this is damning, and fans decide to love it anyway.

Here, I want to offer a different defense: wrestling is not actually fake. The outcomes of particular matches are (usually) predetermined, and (usually) neither wrestler is actually trying to beat the other into submission. But despite the pretext, winning matches through physical domination is not actually the point of wrestling. In reality, wrestlers have two goals:
1) To maintain an extreme degree of physical conditioning - not only in order to accomplish the second goal, but also in order to create and advance a personal brand built around body aesthetics; 
2) To master the physically demanding set of skills needed to perform matches safely and convincingly.
That's it. These are by no means trivial goals, or even remotely attainable for most people; a wrestler's struggle to achieve them is definitely not fake and certainly not scripted. Both require the raw talent, physical gifts, relentless training, and excellence in performance one expects of any athlete; the price of failure ranges from a legacy of mediocrity to employment problems to serious injury. A wrestler who succeeds will avoid injury, and at least have a shot at building a reputation, holding down a steady career, and making enough money to live and retire on. Fans, meanwhile, are acutely aware of all of this, and evaluate a wrestler's performance just as one would evaluate any other athlete's.


TRAINING

One of the first things that anyone who watches professional wrestling notices is that most of its performers are in ridiculously good shape. Not just "they could be athletes" good shape - we're talking good shape compared to athletes themselves.

In terms of conditioning, your typical professional wrestler is most comparable to basketball players, and only exceeded by extreme endurance athletes like distance runners and swimmers. They typically perform multiple times every week, periodically in Iron Man or Royal Rumble matches that can run for more than a full continuous hour. During that time, they are expected to run around the ring, to land acrobatics and execute stunts, and to do all of this safely and convincingly, with almost no margin of error. Wrestlers who are too tired to do this are "gassed", in wrestling jargon, and are considered inferior performers. Fans generally develop an intuitive sense of when a wrestler is gassed, but some even break it down into a science:
I wanted to know just how many minutes The Rock “worked” his match with CM Punk at Elimination Chamber. So, the match still fresh in my DVR, I re-watched it and, with my trusty stop watch timed whenever The Rock “worked”... 
Approx Bell-to-bell Match Time: 20 minutes
Rocky’s total “worked” minutes: 4 minutes 30 seconds
Percent of match “worked”: 22.5%
This, needless to say, was considered a poor performance, and evidence that The Rock - having spent about a decade away from the ring making movies - was out of shape. By the way, this, in professional wrestling, is "out of shape":


One reason why a professional wrestler can look like this and still be out of shape is that professional wrestlers are huge. Most are easily as large as professional football players, and they're generally much more muscular - for comparison, check out this clip from Wrestlemania II, when they actually fought NFL players in a battle royal. The Rock's diet is so insane that FiveThirtyEight has written about it multiple times (it basically involves truckloads of cod), and his workouts are comparable to a bodybuilder's.

Historically, of course, prolific steroid use was a major contributor to pro-wrestling physiques. After a 1993 federal drug trafficking prosecution, a 2007 Congressional investigation, and a horrific high-profile murder-suicide, the WWE implemented a "Wellness Policy" program featuring random drug testing and a strict disciplinary process. Like most such efforts in professional athletics, this solution isn't perfect; there are still loopholes in the program that are probably being exploited to this day. Still, the Wellness Policy has had an obvious impact on the industry. Performers are noticeably less massive than they used to be, and those who are often appear to have come by it honestly.

Aside from performance demands, a wrestler's fitness regimen is also significantly driven by an expectation - by management, and by the public - that they maintain a certain look. Some, like Mark Henry and Paul Wight, are simply promoted as enormous giants, and their regimens involve maintaining high body weight and enough cardiovascular fitness to perform. Others, like Big E Langston and Mason Ryan, are essentially bodybuilders; still others, like Tyler Breeze and Roman Reigns, are promoted as sex icons. As they age and their bodies break down, this level of fitness always becomes more difficult to maintain, which is why only a select few keep wrestling in their fifties.



FIGHTING

Ultimately, the art of wrestling is built around two skills: attacking an opponent, and reacting to (or "selling") the attacks. Both are to be done as convincingly - and safely - as possible, though these standards have fluctuated over the years. Decades ago, audiences were fine with cartoonishly unrealistic, Popeye-style windup punches and absurdly exaggerated flops...


...today, this usually only happens as a joke, and audiences generally expect to believe what they see. During the mid-to-late nineties a grittier wrestling style punctuated with high-risk stunts became popular - most famously culminating in Mick Foley's iconic, definitely-not-fake 16-foot fall through a table in 1998. Today, such stunts are less frequent (though they do still happen), and wrestlers try to avoid serious injury risks while still maintaining a realistic performance.

That is what "safety" means in the modern era. Wrestling has never been "fake" in the sense that nobody gets hurt; performers routinely land actual strikes on each other, and many falls, slams, and tumbles are physically impossible to pull off without some degree of pain or risk. The actual goal, in practice, is to avoid injury and minimize pain. To do this, performers master a large set of techniques and moves that are either standard practice for stuntmen, or that have been painstakingly developed in the industry over the years.

For example, one of the most basic skills a wrestler has to learn is how to take "a bump" - a hard fall, typically onto one's back. Taking a bump has two major components. First, one must try to hit the ground in a way that spreads the impact across as wide a surface area as possible; this diffuses the force hitting any one part of the body. Second, one has to try to avoid the whiplash that can accompany a bump, generally by tucking one's chin into the neck.

This technique may sound simple, but in practice it's very difficult to get right every time: it's physically counterintuitive and requires significant, active concentration. All-time wrestling great Ric Flair, for one, was known for his ability to take bumps, which is one reason why he managed such a long and relatively injury-free career. Obviously, however, a wrestler has to know how to do more than just fall down correctly - in fact, many of the stunts they have to master become absurdly elaborate.


While there is a technique to taking hits, there's also an art to it; after all, the aim isn't merely to be safe, but to be safe while conveying that one has actually been hurt. For this reason, ironically, some of the most gifted and respected athletes in professional wrestling are the ones who are best at getting beat up. One of the best at this, right now, is a guy named Dolph Ziggler:


Ziggler is a master of looking like he's just been murdered. He typically looks like he's doing nothing to protect himself from serious injury: his body goes limp, he hits the ground hard, and it often even seems like there's some whiplash going on. No matter how clumsy and stunted his opponent's performance actually is, Ziggler can make them look like a million bucks simply by taking his lumps convincingly.

Other wrestlers are better known for their offense. Sometimes, this just means being able to execute an attack safely: for example, even though it's one of the sport's most iconic moves, the "piledriver" is so dangerous that only a few performers (such as The Undertaker) are even allowed to try it. Other moves are simply too difficult for most wrestlers to even attempt, particularly flying acrobatic moves like the Red Arrow; botching a stunt like this can be extraordinarily dangerous, as Brock Lesnar discovered at Wrestlemania XIX when he attempted a Shooting Star Press and got a severe concussion for his trouble:


Incidentally, if you've heard the name Brock Lesnar before, there's a reason. Even outside of professional wrestling, Lesnar is a premiere athlete: he is an NCAA Division I wrestling champion and a former UFC heavyweight champion. And Lesnar consistently incorporates both amateur wrestling and mixed-martial arts elements into his professional wrestling performance, for example here working in kimura locks and knee lifts from his fighting background. The use of diverse fighting styles, each with their own arsenal of moves and holds, is a defining feature of the performance, which is why most wrestlers have some minimal training in "real" wrestling and fighting sports. Many, of course, have much more than minimal training. Kurt Angle is an Olympic gold medalist; Dolph Ziggler and Jack Swagger are both accomplished collegiate wrestlers; Alberto Del Rio and The Undertaker both have backgrounds in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu and kickboxing; and so on. Here's how John Morrison describes his training:
...I practiced gymnastics. I also did martial arts. I wanted to be like a Hollywood stuntman...I had a lot more aerial coordination from all the hours I was spending in the gym. I could jump and twist and flip. All that skill set had a lot of carry-over into wrestling...how many steps to take between the ropes. The footwork. A lot of subtleties that people might not notice.
Morrison is right that these subtleties are easy to miss - but this is simply a testament to his skill as a performer and an athlete. It's precisely because wrestlers are so talented that their performance comes off, to critics, as so effortless.

Saturday, November 12, 2016

2016 was the apathy election

In the wake of the 2016 elections, pundits are poring through the exit polls to tease out the preferences of various key identitarian demographics. As I've noted in the past, however, these analyses almost invariably leave out a significant preference in American politics: the preference not to vote for either major candidate. If we hope to gain some kind of insight into how various groups think about American politics, we have to take into account the possibility that they may simply not care whether one candidate or the other wins. For that reason, I've been digging through the numbers and am going to break them down here into four main groups: gender, race, age, and income.*


From 2012 to 2016, both men and women went from caring about the outcome to not caring. Among Democratic men and women, as well as Republican women, care levels dropped about 3-4 points; Republican men cared a little less too, but only by one point. Across the board, in any case, the plurality of voters simply didn't care.


White voters cared even less in 2016 then in 2012, when they also didn't care; most of that apathy came from white Republicans compared to white Democrats, who dropped off a little less. Voters of color, in contrast, continued to care - but their care levels dropped even more, by 8 points (compared to the 6 point drop-off among white voters). Incredibly, that drop was driven entirely by a 9 point drop among Democratic voters of color which left Democrats with only slim majority 51% support; Republicans, meanwhile, actually gained support among people of color.


The story when we break down the vote by age is more complicated, though across the board everyone cared less about the outcome than they did in 2012. Care levels dropped most dramatically among the elderly (-12) and Gen-Xers (-10), who went from caring to not caring this year. Neither of those drops was significantly inflected by party. Boomers, predictably, were the only age demographic who continued to care, and were also the only age demographic where support for Republicans increased; support for Democrats, meanwhile, dropped by 3 points. Millennial care levels also dropped significantly, driven mostly by disinterest in the Democrat (though they also cared less about the Republican, too).



Again, the same pattern holds: everyone cared less this time around. Here, deterioration of support is clearly driven by class. Among poorer demographics, Republicans mostly held the line, while Clinton only had minor losses among richer demographics. The big hit for Clinton came among the lower two brackets (losing 7 and 6 points, respectively), while the big hit for Trump came among the rich (-8). 

The major trend in 2016 was one of increasingly apathy. Within that broader trend, the demographic patterns are muddy. Deviations in relatively support from group to group don't map well onto the standard media narratives that dominated this election; for example, apathy grew more among women and voters of color than among men and white voters. Among the candidates, Clinton either broke even or lost support among every single demographic group, while Trump won support among voters of color and boomers. 

Ultimately, Trump managed to stem his losses among men, the poor, and millennials - and among boomers and voters of color he actually improved the GOP's numbers. Clinton, meanwhile, lost voters in every demographic across the board; she took major hits among voters of color and the poor, and only managed to minimize her losses among wealthier voters. Trump took his largest hit among those same wealthiest voters, but it turns out that pandering to the rich while abandoning the poor just isn't a winning strategy.


* All numbers are based on Edison exit polling cross-referenced with total population numbers from the US Census.

Friday, November 11, 2016

Trump's GoFundMe donors did more to help Trump in North Carolina than Jill Stein

It's simple arithmetic:
These aren't surprising numbers. A cost of $5.11 per vote is just slightly lower than the average $7 that winners spent in 2008 House races, and Trump ran an extraordinarily cost-efficient campaign. The more controversial question is how much of the GoFundMe funding we can consider a direct investment in the Trump campaign. I would argue that we have to include all of it, since our concern here is risk: Trump may have not have benefited from all of that money, but he could have. Even if we only want to count a fraction of it, though, it doesn't end up mattering.

That's because according to the North Carolina State Board of Elections, Jill Stein only earned 692 votes. So even if we only give half of the GoFundMe total to Trump - or even a third - they still did more to elect him than Stein voters did.

By the way, it's worth adding here that the 1:1 correspondence between a vote for Trump and a vote for Stein is itself analytically dubious; as David Roberts noted earlier this year, a vote for Stein is at worst a half-vote for Trump, not a full one. If we accept this distinction, then we should divide Stein's vote total by two when comparing it to donations to Trump. So now we have two variables: how much of the GoFundMe total we give to Trump, and whether we count Stein votes as half votes or full votes. Again, the arithmetic is completely straightforward:


So depending on your assumptions, the GoFundMe may have had around seven times the impact on Trump's numbers that Jill Stein did - and regardless of your assumptions, it certainly at least had more of an impact.

Ultimately, Trump won North Carolina by such a wide margin (177,529 votes) that neither Stein nor the GoFundMe decided the outcome - but of course, we hardly knew this at the time. In fact, the polling had North Carolina so close that Nate Silver ranked it fourth among his "tipping point" states, with an 11.2% chance of deciding the election. If you give the GoFundMe donors a pass on this, you have to give a pass to Stein voters in virtually every other state, where their odds of deciding the election were far less significant. Only in Florida, Pennyslvania, and Michigan can Trump's GoFundMe donors even possibly claim any kind of moral high ground over Stein voters, and even then the claim is hilariously tenuous at best.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Nothing polite to say

Earlier this year, the Bernie Sanders campaign made a few comments that earned more media coverage than most of his actual platform. First, in late January, rapid response director Mike Casca advised in a tweet that "if you support @berniesanders, please follow the senator's lead and be respectful when people disagree with you." And just a couple weeks later on CNN, Sanders himself added, "Look, anybody who is supporting me that is doing the sexist things is—we don’t want them."

Predictably, Clinton partisans seized on both comments as evidence that the campaign was "very concerned", not just about potential sexism, but about "trolling" and the generally "cultish behavior of his supporters". That's what Jamil Smith wrote - neatly echoing the campaign's plan to insist that "Sanders supporters are flooding the internet with troubling comments about women" (a necessary line of criticism "since most of our attacks haven't been working"). And now, of course, we know that Smith wrote this just weeks after coordinating with the campaign to roll out "Bernie hits...without [their] fingerprints".

The so-called "Bernie Bro" controversy, it turns out, was always more complicated than it appeared. As many of us were at pains to point out, it was always an exaggerated and cynically hyped smear campaign by Clinton. But here, I want to point out that even the Sanders response has to be understood cynically - as an attempt to parry political attacks, win the Democratic nomination, and defeat Donald Trump.

In fact, today we can be fairly certain that the Sanders campaign was privately just as infuriated by Clinton as her critics, the notorious Bernie Bros. One reason we know this is that Sanders has admitted it himself:
Trust me, if they went into our emails...I’m sure there would be statements that would be less than flattering about, you know, the Clinton staff.
It's pretty easy to understand why they would be angry: by just about every metric imaginable, Hillary Clinton led one of the worst presidential campaigns in modern history. It was a profoundly reactionary campaign, built entirely on rolling back the horizons of the politically possible, fracturing left solidarity, undermining longstanding left priorities like universal healthcare, pandering to Wall Street oligarchs, fomenting nationalism against Denmark and Russia, and rehabilitating some of history's greatest monsters - from Bush I to Kissinger. It was a grossly unprincipled campaign that belligerently violated FEC Super PAC coordination rules and conspired with party officials on everything from political attacks to debate questions. It was an obscenely stupid campaign that all but ignored Wisconsin during the general election, that pitched Clinton to Latino voters as their abuela, that centered an entire high-profile speech over the national menace of a few thousand anime nazis on Twitter, and that repeatedly deployed Lena Dunham as a media surrogate.

But Clinton's campaign wasn't just reactionary, unprincipled, and stupid; it was also doomed. Obviously doomed. Until the bitter end, the Clinton campaign and its partisans projected an absolutely triumphalist front of inevitability; even its most "pessimistic" apparatchiks, like BNR blogger Sarah Kendzior were still predicting "an ultimate HRC win" just hours before she lost. In contrast, by May, the Sanders campaign was already warning that "Hillary Clinton... [is] deeply unpopular" and questioning her ability to win "key battleground states like Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania". (She only needed two; in the end, she lost all three.)

This was a point the Bernie Bros - with increasing urgency, desperation, and yes, even anger - made time and time again. For my part, I cannot even begin to convey how horrific it was to watch pundits relentlessly hype Clinton's electability, even to the point of implying that skeptics about this were racists:
[E]lectability is much more important to black and Latino voters than it is to whites...[Clinton] has the strong backing of those who are the most dispossessed and threatened. Why is it we hear so...little about [this]? I’ll leave you to ponder that one on your own.
As it turns out, one reason we heard little about black and Latino confidence in Clinton is that she lost 5% of the former and 6% of the latter from 2012. Even during the primaries it was clear to me that Clinton was already having trouble turning out black voters, and that this reflected a whole range of serious, underlying problems:
Black Americans...report little faith in the government in general: a majority (58%) say that "the government is pretty much run by a few big interests looking out for themselves" (21% report not sure); a majority (52%) say that "most of the time" special interests are "able to get what they want by contributing money to political campaigns" (22% report not sure); and a majority (57%) report that politicians "lie to get elected" (6% report not sure). Moreover, Pew reports that only 41% of black Americans believe "that voting gives people some say in how government runs things and that ordinary citizens can do a lot to influence the government in Washington".
These were the kinds of points that Bernie Bros made time and time again: that Clinton's strength among women and voters of color was being dramatically exaggerated; that her weakness among young people was a serious liability; that third-party attrition was a marginal problem at worst; and so on. These were points we made constantly, aggressively, and even obsessively, to anyone who would listen, and even when no one would. And when elites like Tomasky, or political operatives like Smith, smugly dismissed us as trolls and bigots, we just made these points with increasing exasperation, and yes, even belligerence - because we saw exactly what was happening and how it would end.

As Trump takes office, I simply cannot imagine the sheer infantile pettiness and conflict aversion it would take to begrudge anyone their anger about this. Just as Sanders had to issue token apologies to defang the cynical Bernie Bro smear campaign against his candidacy, so today his role as the de facto standard bearer of the American left demands a certain degree of decorum. For the rest of us Bernie Bros, there may be nothing polite to say about what the Clinton campaign has done to our country - but god help us if we don't raise hell.

Thursday, November 3, 2016

Hillary Clinton's incrementolution

Dylan Matthews's latest for Vox, Hillary Clinton's quiet revolution, has successfully trolled me. Congratulations out of the way, let's compare the two ways that Matthews talks about liberal politics in general and Clinton in particular. On one hand,

  • Clinton often gets described as an incrementalist, with a relatively modest agenda. This makes sense...
  • "I think a lot of Clinton's proposals are very much a step..."
  • Clinton does not get the US up to European standards...she moves the ball forward...
  • It's doubtful that [Clinton's] reforms would get to 100 percent universal coverage...
  • Her plan for universal pre-K for 4-year olds is almost the definition of a half-measure...it's one year closer...
  • Clinton would take an important step towards...
  • "I see a lot of her proposals as moving in the direction of..."
  • Clinton's policies go a long way toward...
  • The sheer ambition of Clinton's agenda...really did pale in scale to that of her primary opponent...
  • Her plan is full of...tweaks of existing policy rather than...big overhauls...
  • Clinton is, at root, a pragmatist who...works within the system...She doesn't propose totally overhauling the way it does taxation; she proposes tweaks and nudges and expansions of existing programs.

On the other hand,
  • This is not incrementalism.

Say what you will about the substance of Matthews' policy analysis, but it's pretty bizarre for him to insist that the way other people depict Clintonian incrementalism "misleads more than it informs." What does it inform us of to insist that her politics are not incremental - even as we describe them in terms of taking steps, moving the ball forward, tweaks and nudges, and so on? How does this not mislead the reader?

That, of course, is the point: Matthews didn't write this article to clarify anything, but rather to muddy the waters, and grant Clinton the prestige of revolution while openly insisting that she is not revolutionary in any coherent sense. Left and liberal wonks will have plenty of fun relitigating the familiar policy and strategic debates touched upon in this piece, but tethering all of that to iconoclastic redefinitions of "incremental" and "revolutionary" betrays some profound ideological weakness. Matthews trying to rebrand liberalism as "a minimal viable product of social democracy" reads like nothing so much as Charles C.W. Cooke trying to rebrand himself as "conservatarian" after both "conservative" and "libertarian" got too embarrassing. With Vox trying to sell Clinton as both an incrementalist and a revolutionary, can incrementolution be far behind?

Wednesday, November 2, 2016

Relax - or, Why I Will Not Be Voting For Hillary Clinton

Back in 2011, as Republicans hard-balled Obama by refusing to raise the debt-ceiling and the president moved ever-closer to capitulating to their demands, it occurred to me, "You know who'd put up a better fight than this? Hillary Clinton."

This, in fact, had been a central premise of her 2008 campaign: Obama was a naive optimist who didn't understand the realities of partisan warfare, while Clinton was a hardened political veteran with no illusions about Republican good faith. At the time, a common left position was that Obama should either call the GOP's bluff, refuse to negotiate, and let Republicans take the blame for a national default - or that he should aggressively finesse the problem with all kinds of legal maneuvers, like minting a trillion dollar coin. I wondered if, perhaps, Clinton would have the inclination and political courage to do what Obama wouldn't; I suspected that, just maybe, she might.

Largely for this reason, I occasionally wondered if perhaps Clinton would have made a better president than Obama. Not because of any significant ideological difference between the two - as I've written for years, "Clinton, like Obama, is a liberal state capitalist" - but simply because Clinton, unlike Obama, is instinctively combative. Sometimes you can do better with a good negotiator who aims low than a mediocre negotiator who aims a little higher.

Since then, three things began to change my assessment of Clinton.

First and foremost came my gradual realization that the so-called "McConnell strategy" was working. This was not always a sure thing; particularly during the debt ceiling crisis, it seemed to me entirely possible that absolute obstruction could become a major political liability for Republicans, and that they would be punished for it at the polls. Yet the backlash never came, and today it seems to me that the GOP has no reason to abandon its strategy. Which means that the major difference I saw between Clinton and Obama - negotiating competence - is basically moot. The GOP's intransigence completely negates whatever advantages as a politician Clinton may have over her predecessor, and in fact they've already telegraphed their plans to escalate their obstruction to unprecedented levels.

The second thing to change my assessment of Clinton has been the rise of Donald Trump and the utterly ineffectual response by American liberals. Academically, I knew that this is how it works: the postwar left was quite explicit about the impotence of liberalism before fascism, and even some of our more insightful liberals long recognized the uniquely decadent impotence of the modern Democratic establishment. But watching Clinton and other liberals victim-blame black, Latino and Muslim protesters for defending themselves at Trump rallies; watching Clinton and other liberals routinely misrepresent racism as a problem that doesn't afflict the rich; and watching wealthy Democrats even go so far as to fundraise for Donald Trump, it's become clear to me just how close to the precipice of fascism we are, and how little liberals will do to stop it. Democrats, of course, have tried to hype this danger as the reason we must vote for them - but even if Clinton wins tomorrow, this behavior proves that it is only, with modern liberalism, a matter of time until the next Trump wins.

The third thing to change my assessment of Clinton has been the sheer extremity of aggression of her campaign against the American left. As I wrote a while back:
Not only do the Clintons disagree with left politics - they clearly see the movement left as a political enemy that they need to actively destroy...Practically speaking, this means that Clinton is likely to invest more time, energy, resources and political capital into attacking the left than Obama did. 
Perhaps most damning on this count has been mounting proof that Clinton successfully co-opted the Democratic Party itself into a campaign arm against Bernie Sanders, leaving the left with no democratic voice within the two major parties. The notion that the left ever had any road to power within the Democratic Party was always mostly a rhetorical sham, but with even the pretense of fair cooperation and competition among the liberal-left now jettisoned by party elites, it would be madness to view liberals as anything more than the enemy of an enemy.


These three considerations - insurmountable Republican obstruction, the rise of fascism, and broken faith with the left as allies - have all conspired to push me away from Hillary Clinton. It didn't have to be this way. Had Obama shown the will to overcome the McConnell strategy instead of capitulating to it, or had the Clinton demonstrated anything more than ambivalence about winning back Congress, I might placed some value in her skill as a politician. Had Clinton and her liberal allies shown a serious appreciation for the danger of fascism - rather than simply using it as a threat to cow the left into submission - I might have some confidence in the Democratic party's ability to ward off future challenges. If Clinton had won clean against Sanders (which I believe she probably would have!) instead of betraying the solidarity of the American left, I might have had some reason to move forward as an equal partner in the Democratic Party.

And here's the twist: despite all of this, I still might have voted for Clinton. But when I look at Clinton's numbers today in my home state, this is what I see:



And all of the drama over lesser-evilism and the privilege of people who spoil elections becomes completely academic. For the overwhelming majority of Americans, these endless strategic / semiotic debates about what one's vote means and what it says about you are statistically irrelevant, because for most of us, our vote - as a matter of basic probability - won't change anything. If you live in Florida, North Carolina, or Ohio, feel free to bite your nails and brood over this as much as you like. But if you live in New York, or Washington DC, or really any state where either candidate's lead is well outside the margin of error - if you live in any of these states, and you're feeling anxious - do yourself a favor, and let go of the paranoia that your vote is going to be the one that matters. It won't.

Personally, I have an old Beavis and Butthead pog that I've taped two names to: Stein on one side, La Riva on the other. Depending on how motivated I feel tomorrow, I'll stop by my polling station and flip a coin.

Tuesday, November 1, 2016

Crony capitalism is bad, but cronies are very good

Work is just one of many ways that we satisfy our needs as people living in relationships with other people - and one of the most sinister aspects of capitalism, Marx argues, is the way that it severs this direct link between work and our relationships.

When I make a widget, for example, I rarely do this because I need one, or because my friends or family need one. When I work in cooperation with someone, I am not doing this as a personal favor for them, and if they compensate me, that's not personal either. These kinds of personalized social interactions - doing things for people because you care about them, building relationships around trust and intimacy, and so on - these are all deeply a part of what it is to be human. But under capitalism, all of my labor is just input into a giant impersonal machine that outputs money, which I can then put back into the machine so that it will output something that satisfies some personal need. None of this really involves empathy or intimacy of trust or anything of the sort: as Marx puts it, the "immediate consequence of the fact that man is estranged from the product of his labor...is the estrangement of man from man."

This is why I suspect that in a better world, nepotism and cronyism wouldn't just be permissible - they'd be the rule. Work would be a natural and direct extension of our relationships with other people. Helping people succeed in their goals would be an obvious thing that friends do for friends. The problem one runs into so frequently under capitalism is that the powerful try to have it both ways:


This is from an exchange published by Wikileaks in which John Podesta attempts to secure a job at the Center for American Progress for the daughter of a friend. The problem here is that even as Civic Ventures maintains that "helping Sarah get access is what we do for the kids of our friends," its founder, Marc Freeman, calls for "labor market efficiency" (Encore, 177) and decries when workers are "skilled...yet out of the labor market" (Prime Time, 115); even as Podesta pulls strings for his friend, he decries "crony capitalism" (The Power of Progress, 7) and insists that we can "save capitalism from its worst excesses" (The Power of Progress, 26); and even as Tanden apologizes to Podesta for failing to hire his friend, she declares that "what distinguishes America from every other country is this investment we have in meritocracy, that anyone can do well based on their own hard work." (CSPAN, 2/2012).

In other words: socialism for me, but not for thee. The rich and powerful get to escape from the "estrangement of man from man" imposed by capitalism; they have the privilege of helping each other like any friend would. But at the same time, they are all fighting for a world where none of us can do the same: they hoard wealth for themselves, and insist that they earned it through an impersonal system of merit which must be kept in place. As a result, of course, the rest of us live in a state of austerity and precarity, and can barely take care of ourselves, much less each other.

The rich have done everything they can to give "cronyism" a bad name, but faced with so-called crony capitalism, we should ditch the capitalism and keep our cronies.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Gaslighting, ironyboarding, and the ideological privation of language

A while back I noted a recurring feature of liberal discourse - one that appears most distinctly in the sociolect of semi-erudite liberal gamers:
Just as they've invented mostly absurd theories of "sealioning"...these people have also hijacked all kinds of legitimate concepts and critiques in some of the most ridiculous ways imaginable. For instance, gaslighting...This is an indefensible (and frankly disgusting) appropriation of a concept created to protect people who are subject to serious, often life-threatening abuse...[but] The flamewars of Gamergate were, for many...the worst thing they have and will ever experience, even when they were not actually subjected to anything actually qualifying as harassment...
Recently, this popped up on my radar once again when I came across their latest innovation: "ironyboarding". A close variation of this appeared earlier today on CNN's State of the Union, when former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer attempted to defend Donald Trump from accusations of sexual assault:
Well...he's been waterboarded by these issues. It seems like it's been somewhat of a put-up impression on Donald Trump from all these people lining up. It's just unbelievable.
Conceptually, this rhetoric is pretty straightforward: both speakers complain about what they feel are unfair attacks from a large group of people, and both compare this experience to being tortured by waterboarding. And in both cases, the move is identical with what we saw before: the speaker takes a word that we would ordinarily reserve for a far more traumatic and painful experience, and uses it to suggest that they are going through something comparable.

This move is not unique to modern internet liberals. In fact, Barthes argues that it is in fact the defining move of "bourgeois ideology itself, the process through which the bourgeoisie transforms the reality of the world into an image of the world, History into Nature." (Mythologies, 140)

Barthes is using the somewhat dense and idiosyncratic language of mid-twentieth century radical French philosophy here, but one of its implications is quite simple. Continually, powerless people are coming up with ways to talk about their exploitation and oppression. This language and way of talking is directly rooted in history: it expresses the lived experiences of the powerless, which are often quite painful and horrendous. For the powerful, the ability that powerless people have to talk about their shared experiences is extremely threatening. There are all kinds of things they try to do about it, censorship being one of the most blatant and draconian examples; but under capitalism, a far more common approach is for powerful people to simply co-opt the language of the powerless. Since they control so much of our culture - our news sites, our book publishers, our television, our film, and so on - this is extremely easy to do: they just use the old words in new, less threatening ways, and insist that this is what the word naturally means. This is what Barthes means when he talks about the transformation of "History into Nature". Language loses its historical connection to real oppression and exploitation; it becomes abstracted into something less threatening to the bourgeoisie, who then deny the word's history and insist that it naturally always meant something like its new meaning.

Note that none of this implies conspiracy or deliberate Orwell-style language manipulation. All that matters are two things: first, people tend to use language in ways that they find personally convenient. And second, the people who are inclined to use language in a way that isn't threatening to the bourgeoisie are the people who happen to have the most influence in how our language is used. These are the people who write our books and produce our digital media, or who at the very least consume most of it. Together, both of these facts create a systematic tendency of our culture to neutralize language, to make it less threatening to the powerful and less emancipatory for the powerless.

Once we understand this property of language - what Barthes calls its privation - it's easy to see why liberal capitalist culture is so prone to the specific kind of hyperbole we see in the co-option of "gaslighting" and "waterboarding". Both terms were developed in opposition to quite specific afflictions of the oppressed; by their historical meanings, it is absolutely impossible to "gaslight" or "waterboard" someone on the internet. But with sufficient abstraction and generalization, privileged and powerful people can leverage their control of our culture to make it seem like they, too, are experiencing something analogous to the plight of the oppressed. Note that this is not simply a problem of "appropriation", as if all forms of linguistic borrowing are equally sinister; what makes privation dangerous, specifically, is the way that the people who control our culture can use this appropriation to disempower everyone else.

Unfortunately for liberalism, privation makes language an (at best) unreliable vehicle for political progress. It will always be impossible to develop a vocabulary of critique and resistance that the powerful cannot, eventually, neutralize and co-opt for their own ends; today's rhetoric of justice and equality will always be tomorrow's rhetoric of oppression and hierarchy.

Insofar as progress has anything to do with what goes on in the discourse, then, the powerless can really only rely on two things. First, on human creativity: on the amazing, infinite ability that we always have to find new ways of describing our world and talk about our problems - our capacity to develop a new radical language just as quickly as the powerful can co-opt the old one. And second, progress depends on critical thinking: on our ability to look past the mystifications of bourgeois ideology, its appropriation of language, and to pull back that veil of rhetoric and strike at the core of meaning underneath.

Friday, October 21, 2016

Clinton's coordination with journalists is normal and good, which is why they hide it

Wikileaks has published correspondence documenting the Clinton campaign's efforts to disseminate "Bernie hits" using "people who can help push this behind the scenes without our fingerprints." Among other things, this involved "working with bloggers and columnists to write about this from a [specific] perspective, including a few people who joined us on a call [specifically] to talk about the 'Bernie Backlash'".

Note the interpolations. I added them to highlight a point that one can miss without a close reading: the Clinton campaign is only "working with blogger and columnists to write" specific things from specific perspectives. This is not, that is to say, journalists coming up with their own takes and then pursuing them in an interview - it's textbook scoop laundering.

The emerging defense here seems to be that scoop laundering is actually normal and good. Suffice to say that this isn't the position Olivia Nuzzi took when she was "pitched a story about bernie bros by Hillary's camp". This isn't the position the Burlington Free Press took earlier this year when the Clinton campaign tried to pitch stories that "hit Bernie on guns". By the way, here's what it looks like when the campaign scoop launders stories to hit Bernie on guns:
Here's the draft, which I edited and can personalize depending on who we want to use as an author. A survivor of gun violence? An advocate or family member? If we can find someone, and if folks want, we could get this posted today to Medium in someone's name (not us).
Which is exactly what they did - here's the virtually identical article. I have no doubt that if you asked Lasher about this, she would insist that there was nothing wrong with what she did, that the essay drafted by the Clinton campaign just-so-happened to correspond with what she would have said independently, that no, she wasn't paid to do this, and that all of this is perfectly normal and good. Still, one can't help but wonder why the Clinton campaign insisted on doing such normal and good things "behind the scenes without our fingerprints."

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Notes on wrestling

This continuing series will feature explainers on professional wrestling from a left-Marxist perspective.


Notes on wrestling, Part II: The business

Perhaps one of the most distinctive features of modern professional wrestling (and by that I mean the WWE*) is that it represents itself as a business. This wasn't always the case. Particularly in the late eighties and early nineties, wrestling shows came off more as a kind of spontaneous yet highly organized spectacle: athletes put on a show, a few announcers narrated the proceedings, a mob of fans showed up, and somehow all of this was caught on tape. Today, on the other hand, wrestling goes out of its way to make sure you know that you're consuming high-quality branded entertainment, that it's produced by a cast of highly-skilled professionals, all under the management of a powerful bureaucracy, and all, ultimately, making a handful of owners extraordinarily rich.

In practice, this means that prominent, recurring characters who appear on the show and play a role in storylines have included the WWE's CEO, COO, Assistant to the COO, Chief Brand Officer, Director of Operations, Senior Vice President of Talent Operations, Senior Advisor, Legal Advisor, and various Presidents, Commissioners, General Managers, and Assistants to the General Manager. Routinely, they'll appear on the show and talk about the company's managerial decisions, ratings, profits, sales figures, and marketing; in a running catchphrase, they'll justify various storyline decisions (rulings about who fights who and such) as what's "best for business".


Already, then, professional wrestling features an odd dramatic dynamic with no real analogy in any other form of mass entertainment: many of the entertainers are themselves actual managers of the production, and that role is itself incorporated into the entertainment. For example, Paul Levesque - better known by his stage name Triple H - is one of the company's highest ranking corporate executives, and appears on the show as such. But when he inexplicably comes out of retirement and wins the championship - a development that necessarily bolsters his real-world prominence - one cannot help but ask: did he actually leverage his real-life power as a corporate executive to make this happen? Did Levesque, for purely self-interested reasons, actually pressure the show's scriptwriters to give him one last victory lap, and at the expense of the other workers?

It may seem like a bizarre turn of events for a multi-million dollar company, completely beholden to profit-seeking shareholders and customers who demand conscientiously crafted storylines, to let one man turn its main product into a vanity project; the closest parallel would be if George Lucas fired Harrison Ford halfway through filming so that he could play Indiana Jones himself. But amazingly enough, a significant majority of people who watch the industry agree that this is exactly what happened. In fact, it's generally understood that Paul Levesque constantly uses his power and influence in the company to rewrite storylines in his own interest - either to burnish his legacy or to bury his rivals.

This sort of development is far from exceptional - it is actually one of professional wrestling's primary sources of drama. A common misconception about the performance is that, because it is scripted, it proceeds in predictable and uninteresting ways; for instance, the good guys always win and the bad guys always lose. But incredibly enough, wrestling storylines don't just pander to the audience, or follow dramatically logical, coherent narratives - they also emerge from a cauldron of backstage politicking, idiosyncratic vision, and elaborate industry norms and traditions. And because all of this is boiling just below the surface, it creates a genuinely fascinating metadrama - not about what the script will say, but about how it will be written.


When the business loses control of its product

Consider, for example, what is generally recognized as one of the most fascinating and exhilarating storylines in the modern history of professional wrestling: Daniel Bryan's struggle to compete in the main event at Wrestlemania 30.

Historically, WWE management has always preferred to promote wrestlers who fit the popular image of a wrestler - think Hulk Hogan or John Cena, giants with square jaws and enormous biceps who look good on promotional posters and lunchboxes. And in 2014, it became quite clear early on which meatheads the company had decided to push. One, Randy Orton, already held the championship, and was thus by the logic of wrestling entitled to a spot in the main event. The other, Dave Batista, was a veteran who had just landed a prominent (and for pro wrestlers, rare) role in a major blockbuster film, Guardians of the Galaxy. WWE executives plainly saw in him an opportunity for cross-promotion, so in short order they scripted Batista a preliminary victory that entitled him to his own spot in the main event.

In this way, the industry tradition of promoting heavyweights, the financial incentives of Hollywood synergy, and the narrative logic of main event entitlements all aligned to virtually lock in a main event between the two. Yet in the months leading up to Wrestlemania, it became clear that fans were completely uninterested in that fight, and instead wanted to see someone else compete for the championship: the charismatic, athletically gifted, but unusually small and somewhat odd-looking Daniel Bryan.

What made this development fascinating was precisely the odd tension, not between the wrestlers, but between the company and its fans. Week after week, the WWE tried to gin up excitement for its main event; but week after week, the fans openly booed both Orton and Batista, while meeting Bryan with cheers the industry hadn't seen in decades - cheers that got so loud that they routinely threatened to derail the entire show. Eventually, as David Shoemaker wrote,
the fans literally cheered Bryan into the WrestleMania main event, and changed the course of scripted history — even if you believe that that was WWE’s plan all along, it remains true that Bryan’s success hinged on fans’ reaction to him. If he hadn’t exploded, he would have been discarded. But respond they did, to nearly unheard-of levels, and Bryan was the biggest star of the biggest WWE show of the year — or, if round numbers mean anything, of the decade.
In passing, Shoemaker touches on another unique aspect of professional wrestling: one can't always easily distinguish what's scripted from what isn't. In this case, I personally suspect that it wasn't scripted at first, and that fans legitimately forced the company to change its initial plan and place Bryan in the main event; among other things, his rise came at the expense of Batista, and clearly devalued what had been for the company one of its premium assets. Regardless, the mere possibility that the outcome wasn't entirely scripted was more than enough to create powerful dramatic tension in the way the story unfolded - particularly in the way that it mobilized the audience and gave them (possibly?) a significant role in the struggle over Bryan's fate.

Bryan's story demonstrates how dramatic tension in wrestling can emerge from the uncertainty over what real-world factors will dictate the storyline. Returning to the previous story of Triple H awarding himself the championship, however, it becomes clear that a lot of that uncertainty can emerge from the idiosyncracies of the managers themselves. And in his case, what we see is that despite their aspirations to bourgeois business-culture legitimacy, the company's corporate presentation is often a pretty thin facade.



An enclave from capitalism

Beneath the suits and ties, the professional posturing and the slick branding, the WWE's major decision makers are best understood as a clique of ageing jocks and carnies. Dan O'Sullivan, in this piece for Jacobin, ably charts their rise to power - but here, suffice to say that even the company's CEO, Vince McMahon, is less than 50 years from announcing matches for a shoestring promotion that took in as little as $1,000 per week. Many of the company's most influential decision makers come from even more modest backgrounds; today, stories of old-timers who worked their way up from working matches in high school gyms and sleeping in cars have become a notorious interview cliche in the WWE. Just as importantly, many of the company's managers (including McMahon himself) were in fact once wrestlers themselves. 

This makes the WWE's management quite different from other companies of comparable size and publicity. The people steering the ship aren't the usual cast of soulless, ruthlessly efficient profit-seeking MBAs and Ivy League elites - a significantly number of them are deeply weird nouveau riche wrestling fetishists who are clearly in over their heads. As CM Punk famously put it:
Vince McMahon's gonna make money despite himself - he's a millionaire who should be a billionaire. You know why he's not a billionaire? It's because he surrounds himself with glad-handing, nonsensical, douche-bag yes-men...
Again, note what's going on here: this is an actually legitimate and extremely damning critique of the company that one of its employees openly made on national television on the company's own show. His tirade (dubbed a "promo" in wrestling lingo) was so unexpected that it made mainstream national news. Here is how GQ put it:
Punk absolutely laid into the company in a blistering, wild-eyed promo speech that indicted everything about the WWE. He invoked the names of fired wrestlers, he lamented the loss of emphasis on wrestling itself...and he even tore into company figurehead Vince McMahon and his entire family...
What other company would deliberately publicize criticism of its own layoffs, or brutal personal attacks against its own CEO? So much of what happens in wrestling is genuinely difficult to explain through the ordinary logic of modern corporate capitalism, and comes as a shock when we encounter it.

The reason for this, I think, is simple: professional wrestling has not yet been entirely consumed by capitalism. The WWE is a virtual monopoly - its closest competitor is about to file for bankruptcy - which leaves it largely shielded from the crucible of competition and market pressures. It's an extremely young organization, which means that capitalistic norms and practices have had very little time to infiltrate and entrench themselves into company culture. And that's why the individual and often bizarre personalities of the company's management are so consequential. When egomaniacs like Triple H marry their way into power and co-opt the entire business to advance his own personal legacy, there are not - yet - any institutional or systematic mechanisms to push back against this. In a very real way, the patients are running the asylum.

Economically, then, what makes professional wrestling most distinctive is that it is, for now, a historical aberration. The WWE is more-or-less a regional travelling carnival show that exploded into an international multimedia juggernaut within a single generation - and we are still living in a unique time when the business of wrestling has yet to completely consume its culture. What this means in practice is that the WWE provides a spectacle unlike anything one can see in the soulless, corporate, brutally focus-grouped worlds of television and film, or the rigorously managed and increasingly depersonalized world of pro-sports. For now, we are seeing what happens when a bunch of working class grandpas who spent much of their careers in headlocks suddenly come into a lot of money and decide to put on a show.


* For many wrestling fans, equating pro-wrestling with pro-wrestling as it appears in the WWE will easily be the most controversial remark I make in this series. Obviously this is not at all fair; there are today a million smaller independent promotions hosting a billion professional wrestlers outside of the WWE, and it's generally understood that their work - technically, artistically, and even politically - is often vastly superior to what appears in the WWE. Suffice to say that it's also infinitely more obscure, and in this series I'm much more interested in discussing wrestling in its most influential and culturally consequential venue than in popularizing worthy but fairly marginal promotions. 

Notes on wrestling, Part I: Introduction

Professional wrestling is not generally regarded as prestige entertainment. Just the opposite - to many Americans, and especially those with the privilege of writing about such things for a living, it's considered an absurdity and an embarrassment. It's something that educated, cultured, and decent people are not only disinterested in, but actually find disagreeable to talk about; the stereotype of a wrestling fan is that of a crass, unfashionable working-class rube with a taste for violence.

I want to begin this essay, then, by reminding leftists that all of these attitudes - and particularly, all of them clustered together into the same stigma - are extraordinarily suspicious. First, they mark a set of often arbitrary and subjective tastes and norms that just so happens to be disproportionately shared by the privileged, and disproportionately rejected by the powerless. Second, they critique and villify what is at worst an extraordinarily marginal form of violence - and out of all proportion to the often insidious and far more pervasive violence that afflicts our society. And third, the stigma against professional wrestling rarely comes from a place of lived experience or even cursory knowledge of its culture; as a rule, critics are not merely unfamiliar with it and its history, but proudly ignorant, and would be ashamed to know anything more than the barest details.

Consider, for example, a typical series of remarks from liberal columnist Katha Pollitt, who touched on professional wrestling a while back. How should the democratic egalitarian respond when she sneers that it is "witless - Americans can't get enough of it"? Today, Pollitt insists that we should support Hillary Clinton for president, since we supported other candidates who "voted for [the] Iraq war also". What is the ideology that embraces this repetition - and then broods that professional wrestling "is popular because it corresponds to reality...which fights one war after another"?

To be sure, there is a left critique of wrestling. Historically, it has been afflicted with every bigotry you can name. This does not much distinguish it from anything else in our culture, and particularly in recent years wrestling has made significant strides, even stepping ahead of the curve on some issues; still, it has a history of racism, sexism, and homophobia that must be grappled with. Wrestling also remains a horrifically exploitative industry characterized by union busting and gross inequality between the richest and poorest workers; again, this hardly distinguishes it from any other industry in late capitalism, but it cannot be disregarded.

Still, whatever the merits of the popular stigma against professional wrestling, it is clearly caught up in a discourse that fosters elitism and that, through scapegoating, confounds our understanding of violence. This should be enough to raise the hackles of anyone concerned about the insidious ways that ideology can entrench hierarchy and perpetuate oppression; it should at least compel the skeptic to suspend her judgment, and to reconsider, with fresh eyes, the profound and even revolutionary spectacle of grown, greased-up men wrestling in their underwear.


Monday, October 17, 2016

What is discourse gaming?

A reader on that curious cat thing has asked me to explain what I mean by "discourse gaming". Normally I would leave this sort of message there, but I use the term often enough in my writing that it would probably make sense for me to lay out a brief little explainer here.

To speak generally, discourse gaming is the practice of trying to persuade people in ways that don't involve appealing to their discretion and judgment. The theory is that you can get people to think about things in a certain way - or make them more likely to think about things in a certain way - without their active intellectual consent. Contrast this with another style of communication, where you simply present information to people as clearly as possible and accept that they're going to interpret it and evaluate it in ways that you can't necessarily control.

Some important caveats. 

First, obviously, all kinds of things influence discourse. It isn't just some cut-and-dry process of exchanging and then actively, rationally evaluating information. On the contrary, discourse can be influenced by factors as minute and remote as how much sleep one had the night before, whether the speaker's tone of voice reminds one of one's mother, the personal associations one has with certain turns of phrase, etcetera etcetera.

Second, it's clear that we do have some ability to manipulate the things that influence discourse - to game the discourse, that is - in predictable and consequential ways. This is the scientific basis of all kinds of productive and important fields like marketing, public relations, and even psychotherapy.

When I object (and ridicule) discourse gaming, as I so often do, it's always for the same reasons. Usually, it's because people have absolutely unrealistic ambitions about what they think they can accomplish with discourse gaming. A great example is the guy from The Hill who thought that he would be able to manipulate Sanders supporters into backing Clinton by covering him favorably during the primaries and then backing her in the general. This is not completely crazy - people are usually more persuadable by voices they trust than by voices they have a combative relationship with. But here, the theory seemed to be that a few kind words about Bernie from an obscure journalist would somehow build enough affinity with readers to overcome the deep and powerful material / cultural forces pushing Sanders voters away from Clinton. That is completely ridiculous, insulting to the intelligence of his readers, and betrays a certain hubris about the extent of his influence.

If (say) this guy were to kidnap a Sanders supporter and spend several consecutive months ego-stripping him and engineering a deeply co-dependent relationship, perhaps the resulting emotional / psychological investment might be enough to overcome the victim's political sensibilities - but short of something along those lines, it's just extremely unlikely The Hill guy's plan would work, and the far more probable outcome is that Sanders supporters would simply start disagreeing with him once he pivoted towards Clinton.

In general, the sort of extra-rational dynamics that can consequentially influence discourse are often extremely hard to implement; the target has to be completely and constantly immersed in the new discourse environment, not just sporadically exposed to some clever trick of rhetorical framing or sloganeering.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Clay Shirky opposes acts of political principle and conscience - except when they support Trump

A while back, Clay Shirky wrote a piece arguing that There's No Such Thing As A Protest Vote, where he rehearsed the familiar liberal argument that we should judge protest voting based on its practical outcomes - not on abstract principles or appeals to conscience:
People who believe in protest votes do so because they confuse sending a message with receiving one...But it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending...People who plan to throw away their vote on Option C usually argue that their imagined protest won’t be futile...[but] none of the proposed theories of change change anything...
Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people.
I've already taken on this odd theory that protest votes are inconsequential, but here I'd like to make a different point: Shirky isn't some kind of results-oriented pragmatist. Shirky does not actually ground his politics in the ruthless logic of the two-party binary choice. Shirky is not operating in some kind of post-ideological space outside of the dictates of principle and conscience. Shirky is an alt-centrist, and it's that ideology that brings him to do stuff like this:


Let's be clear: Shirky can rationalize giving the Trump campaign money by appealing to all kinds of principles. He can argue that he is "sending a message" to whoever attacked Trump's office. He can argue that helping out any campaign that was victimized by a violent attack is just "the right thing to do", and that we should listen to our conscience and follow his lead. If you happen to agree with Shirky's principles, or if you want to "send a message" for the sake of symbolism, or if your conscience is prevailing upon you to give your money to Trump, you might find these kinds of arguments persuasive.

What Shirky cannot do, however, is claim any kind of consequentialist high-ground over protest voters. By the accounting of most political scientists, Shirky's investment in the Trump campaign has certainly just bought him votes. The zero-sum logic of FPTP voting combined with the realities of campaign finance leave us no way around this conclusion. In fact, at this point, the self-identified Democrats who've donated $13,167 to the fund have now bought Trump anywhere between 75 and 2,633 votes. One can plead that this money is exclusively to be spent on the rebuilding effort, but obviously this is just an accounting designation, and any money that gets donated to the rebuilding fund is money that won't come from Trump or the NC GOP.

By any electoral calculus, the material support these Democrats have just given Trump far outweighs the marginal impact your typical protest voter will have by (say) supporting Stein on social media or voting for her next month. But the odds that they will receive even a fraction of the criticism that protest voters have endured are approximately zero.