Friday, May 20, 2016

On tenure and civility

Most major academic institutions in the world have some form of tenure. There are all kinds of historical and economic reasons for this, but in liberal societies there has always been a philosophical justification as well.

The theory, as it is usually laid out, is that intellectual institutions must protect free speech and robust debate from censorship and political pressure. Hypothetically, you could do this - while still enforcing all kinds of norms and civility - by laying out objective and unambiguous discourse rules about etiquette and argumentation. And occasionally, some institutions have tried to do just that. But the danger - which has played out time and time again historically - is that powerful people will try to game these rules in order to exercise de facto censorship. There are all kinds of obvious ways that this can happen: you can write rules that ban as "obscene", "blasphemous" or "unprofessional" or "rude" some things but not others, you can selectively enforce the rules, and so on.

Instead, the solution that liberal intellectual life has consistently returned to is to avoid any policing of speech. While this does leave open the danger of uncivil and unconstructive discourse, liberalism has always viewed that as a preferable alternative to placing instruments of censorship in the hands of power. This, by the way, is precisely the rationale underlying the First Amendment's absolute ban of speech restrictions. Literally centuries of liberal thought and jurisprudence have recognized that when powerful institutions - including the government - are given any kind of pretext to censor, they will be tempted or pressured to use it.

And that's also why we have tenure. Liberalism insists that, in addition to the government, intellectual institutions also have a responsibility to protect free speech. Tenure disarms the powerful of the means to censor by disqualifying speech rules as grounds for dismissal. Anyone with any minimal experience in academia - where the discourse is frankly far more combative and uncivil than anything anyone ever sees online - knows why this is necessary.

The subtext of all of this, of course, is the chilling series of tweets we saw last night from Demos scolding one of its own writers, Matt Bruenig, on behalf of two of the more powerful figures in elite liberal media and policy. Gasp and wring your hands all you like at personal attacks like "troll", "go to hell", "dudebros", comments about what "takes a lot of intellect", and so on - oh wait, those were all written and disseminated by the people in that argument who were not Bruenig! - but what is clear here is that Demos seems to be deciding that their own writer does not deserve the protection of liberal forbearance so vital to intellectual discourse and free speech.

This is a curious decision from an organization whose motto is "An Equal Say And An Equal Chance For All." It will be interesting to discover what they think those words mean.

Thursday, May 19, 2016

FFS get Gamergate out of my mentions

I paid approximately roughly zero attention to Gamergate as it rolled out. Evidently I was too caught up with writing about civil war in Ukraine, Fight for 15, and the murder of Eric Garner to pay much attention to it. Looking back on it, I'm fairly comfortable with my priorities.

As far as I can tell, the major offenses in Gamergate involved instances of sexism in the video game industry, in the media, and online, compounded by instances of intimidation and doxing. People who were paying attention to this among the liberal-left rightly concluded that this was gross and condemned it. Weird Twitter, which is so often on the right side of history, trolled these guys too - but this is where my perspective starts to diverge from a lot of liberals.

Here, my impression is that a lot of nerds like Arthur Chu and bourgeois liberals like Amanda Marcotte took the outpouring of support for the actual victims of Gamergate as some of kind popular endorsement of the whole of their own idiosyncratic and often ridiculous politics.

So for example, some guy made some cartoon about "sealioning", and some critic of Gamergate who goes by the name of Dragonmaw wrote some things about how sealioning is an "insiduous" "forced violation of empathy" that is "only one step removed from actual interrogation techniques". And then, insanely, the nerds and liberals who agreed that this was a serious problem concluded that everyone else thought this was a serious problem, too. Which means that today, we actually have guys who think that sealioning, by popular consensus, is some kind of deontological taboo that must be rejected even when it's indistinguishable from a sustained critique of drone strikes:


Just as they've invented mostly absurd theories of "sealioning" (old enough to remember when we just talked about "passive-aggression"), these people have also hijacked all kinds of legitimate concepts and critiques in some of the most ridiculous ways imaginable. For instance, gaslighting is generally recognized as a real psychosocial phenomena that typically occurs in cases of domestic abuse and clinical malpractice. This is not some incidental point of trivia about gaslighting; it's a significant prerequisite, because for gaslighting to actually take place, the target generally has to be in a psychologically intimate relationship with the gaslighter, and thoroughly immersed in their domination. Yet a whole genre of nerds and liberals now think they can be "gaslit" simply if someone disagrees with them:


This is an indefensible (and frankly disgusting) appropriation of a concept created to protect people who are subject to serious, often life-threatening abuse; and yet liberals and nerds not only invoke it, constantly, but seem to think there is some kind of popular mandate behind them.

You may have noticed a recurring theme in these examples: sealioning and gaslighting are both terms used to delegitimize criticism. This, in practice, is the raison d'etre for this whole genre of politics: its idiosyncratic and half-baked narratives are consistently (and often blatantly) centered around building a defensive wall against criticism or dissent of any kind. 

So it's easy to see how the politics of Gamergate has (hilariously) become the go-to analytical lens through which semierudite internet dorks have come to interpret the course of history. They've misunderstood everyone's general revulsion by specific acts of sexism and harassment as a license to invent a whole politics which places them above reproach. Because these are generally middle-to-upper-class liberals, often employed in the white collar media or tech industries, these people are used to living a privileged life sheltered from controversy, and see that as the natural order of things. The flamewars of Gamergate were, for many of them, literally the worst thing they have and will ever experience, even when they were not actually subjected to anything actually qualifying as harassment; this is why they'll even mobilize their arguments in defense of drone strikes or a neoliberal war criminal. The murder of powerless, innocent people overseas is just some abstract intellectual problem for them (if it's a problem at all), but the danger of getting owned on Twitter dot come Has To Stop Now.

A major nuance these people seem to have missed is that the popular critique of Gamergate was not just a critique of sexism and harassment - it was also a critique of the ridiculously disproportionate liberal-nerd fixation on the entire controversy. For instance, hilarious gimmick account Moms Against Gaming relentlessly trolled all gamers with spurious arguments that video games are responsible for international terrorism; and whether you were in on it or not, the joke was obviously that many gamers had lost all sense of perspective.

As a bystander, it's pretty clear to me that this trend continues today. And not just with the Gamergate dead-enders like Milo Yiannopoulos and the usual Reddit teens and anime-avatar trolls. An embarrassingly huge number of liberals and nerds who barely had a thing to say about the civil war in Ukraine, or Fight for 15, or the murder of Eric Garner are still talking about Gamergate like my grandpa talks about The War. I don't really expect them to change, any more than I expect my grandpa to change, but The War was much bigger than anything you've gone through, and I don't think it's relevant to everything, either.

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Lorde - on race, class, and solidarity

It is a particular academic arrogance to assume any discussion of feminist theory without examining our many differences, and without a significant input from poor women, Black and Third World women, and lesbians...What does it mean when the tools of a racist patriarchy are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy? It means that only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable. - Audre Lorde
An enormous volume of writing on intersectionality is centered on a basic call for thoroughness: it is argued that we should include multiple vectors of oppression (racism, sexism, classism, and so on) in our analysis of power instead of just relying on one. Thus, we get the "My feminism will be intersectional or it will be bullshit" genre of essay:
...if you cannot see how [feminism] is so deeply interconnected with...racism, with violence on WoC, with rape culture, with colonialism, with our disdain for people from the Global South...with institutionalized violence, with wars waged by our Nations on the countries where these people come from...then maybe I should not call myself a feminist.
Superficially, Flavia Dzodan seems to be making here the same point as Lorde: an intersectional analysis should account for things like racism instead of neglecting them. But this, as the former continues, is "some pretty basic homework." The simple demand for thoroughness is just the starting point of intersectional theory, not the whole of it. Once we recognize this, it should become clear that Lorde, in the passage above, is actually getting at a more sophisticated point - and one that popular intersectional analysis routinely neglects.

Erasure is oppression

An analysis of power that fails to account for particular kinds of oppression is certainly inadequate, Lorde argues: "The absence of these considerations weakens any feminist discussion of the personal and the political," and it "leaves a gap within this conference and within the papers presented here."

But insufficiently intersectional analyses aren't just inadequate, she continues - they're actively oppressive. Here, they are "the tools of racist patriarchy", because when such simplistic analyses "are used to examine the fruits of that same patriarchy...only the most narrow parameters of change are possible and allowable." When our understanding of oppression omits certain kinds of oppression, or gives them insufficient consideration, it erases them from political struggle and thus facilitates their persistence and domination. Thus, she famously continues, this sort of bullshit analysis can never succeed,
For the master's tools will never dismantle the master's house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change. And this fact is only threatening to those women who still define the master's house as their only source of support.
Again: one must appreciate that when Lorde talks about "the master's tools" she is specifically referring to things like conferences, papers, and panel discussions that advance an inadequate theory of oppression. It is this inadequacy that the masters use to maintain their domination, and only people who benefit from their domination will feel threatened by calls for an adequately intersectional analysis.

Accounting for race and class

Today, I would argue, this point should be our compass as we navigate internecine left-liberal debates over race and class. Far from feeling threatened by the inclusion of multiple vectors of oppression in our analysis, we should rather feel threatened by their exclusion. This principle may seem obvious, but it is directly at odds with a recurring subtext of liberal-left criticism which suggests that to focus on or even address one vector of oppression is necessarily to neglect or downplay the other.

And it's specifically at odds with the argument of Lorde, who went out of her way to account for race and class in her critique. When she refers to those "who stand outside the circle of this society's definition of acceptable women," she explicitly names "those of us who are poor" and those "who are Black," returning time and time again to "poor women and women of Color" in the same breath.

Consider, in that light, Connor Kilpatrick's recent article in Jacobin, Burying the White Working Class - which has come under fire from critics for allegedly dismissing the problem of race. Slate's Jamelle Bouie, for example, reads the article as a demand for "sympathy for white racism...or at least silence"; he continues "How do you read these passages?" Here's the specific passage in question:
Liberals...have two options: blame the individual moral failing of white workers or call into question the very nature of capitalism itself...Guess which one they choose. More and more, liberals just point and scream: "racist."
Kilpatrick's argument strikes me as pretty straightforward. He is not applauding people who see oppression as an either-racism-or-capitalism question; he is condemning liberals for framing it that way. And correctly, he observes that if you reject intersectionality, insist that either racism or capitalism is responsible for oppression, and acknowledge the obvious existence of racism, then you are logically cornered into denying that capitalism is a problem. Kilpatrick is not condemning liberals who talk about racism - he is condemning liberals who "just" talk about racism, and specifically because of the way that liberalism uses this exclusion to erase problems of class.

This is a standard and fairly uncontroversial point of intersectional analysis: if you maintain a one-dimensional politics that just points out certain vectors of oppression, you will erase and enable the others. That's precisely the argument Lorde makes in her critique of bourgeois feminism, and it holds here as well. Bouie sees a critique of liberals who "just" attack racism, and he reads this as "sympathy for white racism". As it stands, his line of reasoning only makes sense if we must indeed only critique one form of oppression - to the exclusion of every other oppression you can name. This is directly and openly at odds with the foundational premise of intersectionality, and with the tradition of solidarity between black Americans and the poor that Lorde worked to build - one that we must continue to build today.

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Oppression and identitarian error

Radical left writers have spent a lot of time in the past year picking apart basic demographic errors in liberal identitarian arguments. When I do this, I usually try to stick to the specific questions of fact at hand. Here, however, I want to talk a little more generally about how in addition to being counterfactual, identitarian demographic arguments can become directly oppressive.

Fact checking the identitarians

To see how this works, consider two statements from just the past week, both from wealthy liberal elites. First, Elie Mystal:
Bernie Sanders is, of course, welcome to continue to fight on behalf of disaffected white people everywhere. But he can’t be the nominee...Sorry guys...I’m sure the LGBT community has a pamphlet or something that you can read.
The suggestion, of course, is that Sanders and his base are at odds with the LGBT community. This is demonstrably untrue: Sanders leads among the LGBT community by 22.6 points. This is the sort of basic point of fact that left critics of identitarianism often have to establish and defend at length, but here I'm just going to assume it, and you'll either accept the data or you won't.

The second statement to consider came in an exchange today with pundit Clay Shirky:


Shirky's point relies on the same identitarian premise that Mystal's does: just as we should accept the consensus of the LGBT community, we should also accept the consensus of the black community. And similarly, Clay's argument crashes on the shoals of demographic fact. As Leslie Lee III noted immediately, "Black voters aren't a monolith" - and once we account for non-voters as well (as we must), a full 30% of black Americans support Sanders. This, as Matt Bruenig writes, presents us with an obvious problem:
Individuals in a particular oppressed group are not a monolith, and therefore necessarily disagree with one another...You can require that ID only attach to the majority view, but there are problems with such an approach...it seems odd to think that the majority view will tell you what is correct.
This is not, it must be emphasized, some kind of remote or obscure logic problem: it's an immediate and inescapable consideration we run into as soon as we notice that a significant number of black Americans support Sanders. I could make this point again, just like I did two months ago, but it would be redundant: the numbers are what they are, and either you accept them or you don't.

What's going on here

So far, this is the form much of the liberal-left debate has taken over the past year: a liberal makes some identitarian argument, and a critic points out that the demographic premises are demonstrably incorrect.

But what I think is telling about the above statements in particular is that they are so obviously incorrect. Numbers on both LGBT and black community support for Sanders are easily accessible, and the trends pointed to above have been fairly consistent for several months. No one who makes any kind of minimal effort to look at what these groups are saying should walk away making the sweeping and incorrect generalizations about them that liberal identitarians throw around on a continual basis. As Chomsky notes, when we run into this kind of issue,
a rational person will ask two sorts of questions: 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 scientific pretensions are undermined.
Having dispensed with the first question time and time again over the past year - repeatedly, and decisively - let's consider the second.

The basic justification for liberal identitarian discourse is that it prioritizes and empowers the voices of the voiceless. In practice, however, what we see is that it routinely misrepresents the voices of the voiceless, floating claims about "the LGBT community", "the black voters", and so on that are demonstrably untrue. In the case of the Democratic primaries, for example, majorities in every oppressed identity group have had their voices thoroughly and relentlessly misrepresented by people making liberal identitarian arguments.

It's not difficult to see how this works to the advantage of the powerful. On one hand, the power of the elite can be threatened and undermined when oppressed people have a voice. On the other hand, elites can also foment resentment and opposition if they try to silence the oppressed. What is needed, then, is an ideology that appears to give the oppressed a voice while it in fact silences or misrepresents them. In this sort of political culture, we should absolutely expect to encounter a discourse that claims to value, privilege and empower the oppressed while it in fact does the exact opposite. Just like any other instrument of power, this discourse should be recognized as complicit in bourgeois white male straight supremacy, and the people who engage in it should be understood as participants in that project.

This is all to say that whether they are being cynical or just making innocent mistakes, and whether they are abusing liberal identitarianism or wielding it as intended, Mystal and Shirky are making statements that contribute to oppression. This goes for every pundit and journalist out there who misrepresents demographic support for various candidates, positions, and policies. We do not have to float some conspiracy theory or get stuck on question of intent to notice that there is a persistent way of talking about the oppressed; a massive media-academic apparatus, largely funded by massive capital investments, that produces this message; that this same message gets relentlessly disseminated through all kinds of marketing and promotion; and that all of this functions as a mechanism for silencing and misrepresenting the powerless.

This is precisely the sort of systematic / institutional / discursive oppression that we rightly condemn in other contexts. Here, resisting it begins with acknowledging that it exists. When Mystal misrepresents the opinions of the LGBT community, we can acknowledge that this is not just an error - it's an error that silences them. When Shirky erases the 30% of black voters who support Sanders, we can acknowledge that this is not just a benign omission - it perpetuates the same white supremacist politics that have always disenfranchised black voters.

Editors and colleagues in the media often seem content to dismiss these mistakes as subjective or simply "dumb". That's not how we treat other forms of oppressive discourse, and it's not how we should treat this one.

Thursday, May 12, 2016

The oppression of Clinton supporters

A recurring genre of article this primary season has argued that Clinton supporters - particularly young ones - have been silenced and oppressed:

  • "I learned quickly this primary season that if I openly support Hillary Clinton, I will be confronted," Mary Juhl writes
  • "If you're engaged in activism and you're a part of the campus left, and then you choose to support Clinton's campaign...that's almost a traitorous act," Sam Koppelman said.
  • "There's a feeling of having to come out as a Hillary supporter," Jessica Grubesic said.
  • "I have discovered...that any positive statement about Clinton is typically followed by a barrage of negative pushback from Sanders supporters," Lorraine Devon Wilke writes.
  • "It is highly probable that one reason for the silence of Clinton supporters is sexism..." Cassidy Ellis writes.
  • "I'm not alone in being reluctant to advertise my support for Clinton," Michelle Goldberg writes.
Almost without exception, these articles have three things in common. First, they routinely appear in major publications, such as The New York Times, Slate, The Guardian, and the Huffington Post, or get promoted by people with prominent platforms, like Howard Dean and CNN's Eugene Scott. Second, they are all written by or about relatively privileged Clinton supporters. Juhl is a legislative assistant in the Minnessota Senate; Grubesic is a Columbia student and intern with Hillary for America; Koppelman is a Harvard student and executive editor for the Crimson; Wilke is a fine arts dilletante and wife of an attorney and film producer; Ellis is a grad student and expat who worked for a Clinton pac; and Goldberg is a writer for multiple prestige publications and a NYT bestselling author. And third, of course, all of these articles are being written in advocacy of the most powerful woman in the world and the frontrunner for the nomination, Hillary Clinton.

Seems like these facts alone would call into question the general narrative that Clinton supporters are some kind of oppressed constituency. She is literally the most popular candidate in the primary. More than forty percent of the country views her favorably. Moreover, if anyone has tried to silence this support, they have abysmally failed. Whatever criticism and ridicule they have endured, Clintonites have been able to leverage their extraordinary privilege to gain the kind of national exposure that Sanders supporters can only dream of. This has been an indispensable component of Clinton's broader media strategy, which ultimately aims, of course, to create an approving and sympathetic climate of national opinion. By their own measure - winning at the polls - they've clearly succeeded.

Moreover, even when we take these writers at their word, it's often fairly unclear in what sense they are being oppressed. Only a few of the articles above specify incidents of Sanders supporters even being rude: Juhl reports that she has been called a "moron"; The Guardian vaguely alleges that "Columnists in favour of Clinton have drawn special ire – sometimes in an aggressive way, sometimes in a sexist way"; and Ellis complains "of being patronized by 'Bernie Bros' online and/or in person."

But far more frequently, when these articles document the "oppression" and "silencing" of Clinton supporters, they are complaining about things that are quite different:


OPPOSITION
  • "We're constantly having to defend our positions."
  • "When I speak positively about her online, I can expect to be swiftly reprimanded and even shamed by people who support other candidates."
  • "...while I have never gone on the thread of anyone touting Bernie's virtues...offering my criticisms of the man, how his votes on certain issues do not align with my own, etc., the reverse cannot be said."
  • "Often when speaking in support of Clinton, our progressivism is called into question."
  • "And this attitude on college campuses that 'if you're an advocate for social justice issues, you need to be a Bernie supporter' is really dismissive of those people across the country who are voting for Hillary."
  • "[They're] like: 'What do you mean why don't you want free tuition for everyone? It's not fair. What don't you want equal pay for everyone? Why don't you want to tax the rich?'"
  • "But during Clinton's speech, multiple anti-Clinton protesters were removed from the event..."
  • "They see the Hillary supporter as someone who doesn't really want as much equality as they do."
CONVICTION AND ENTHUSIASM
  • "I can't imagine being so rude as...to counter with my 'clearly superior opinion.' But it happens all the time. All the damn time."
  • "...the much documented and oft-discussed "fervor" (aka: fanatacism) of some Sanders supporters...the sheer fanatacisim and idealization of Sanders supporters has made it impossible to have an adult conversation..."
  • "Sanders fans seem to be more enthusiastic..."
UNFLATTTERING CRITICISM
  • "...if I say something positive about Clinton, someone will show up to question...my understanding of politics..."
  • "I'm not used to being labeled as one of the bad guys..."
  • "I've been called a '$hill' more times than I can count. I've been accused of being paid by Super PACs to support her publicly..."
CLINTON'S UNPOPULARITY
  • "To be 18 or 25 or in your early 30s and support Hillary Clinton...is a lonely and alienating relationship..."
  • "Oh, there's a Hillary group on campus? I thought I was the only one."
REFUSAL TO VOTE FOR CLINTON
  • "I do expect you to vote blue."
  • "If Sanders wins the nomination...I will vote for him in November...But [Sanders supporters have shown a] refusal to offer a similar committment."
Overwhelmingly, the grievance outlined by Clinton supporters in these articles is that people support Sanders, refuse to support Clinton, disagree with her politics, and insist that supporting her reflects poorly on people who do so. This is not a description of oppression or being silenced - this is a description of what happens when people have the audacity to think that you are wrong.

Coming from the people who tend to be featured in these articles, of course, the outrage makes sense. If you are privileged enough to attend top-tier universities and write for prestige liberal publications, you are used to getting what you want, used to being told that you are politically savvy and wise and noble, and used to deference from people who might disagree with you. In that case, I'm sure it's extraordinarily traumatic to discover people who reject your politics and who will fight to keep you out of power.

We should not, in any case, be surprised when this genre of article reaches its logical conclusion: in the latest, Mary Juhl admits that "this primary has even made me empathize with Republicans who are villainized for their choices at the polls." Of course it does.

Tuesday, May 10, 2016

Yes, Bros4Hillary is a part of Clinton's million dollar troll campaign

Since yesterday, I've been getting endless complaints because of this tweet:
You can see a typical example of the criticism I've been hearing here. In general, the group and its various supporters are mad because I identified them as a part of CTR's "goon squad"; like most of Clinton's media surrogates, the standard defense is to insist that they are not actually receiving checks from Clinton or her super PACs.

This sort of defense, as I've noted before, is grossly misleading. Clinton's messaging operation is deliberately designed to give participants plausible deniability while leveraging campaign funds and resources in defiance of both campaign finance law and basic progressive doctrine.

In this case, it's fairly straightforward how they do it:
1. CTR claims the right to coordinate online communications with the Clinton campaign. This, in a campaign messaging operation, can entail coordinating everything from what groups and individuals to promote and market to what messages they should disseminate. 
2. CTR then uses its massive warchest for "thanking [read: promoting] prominent supporters and committed superdelegates on social media." It also "serve[s] as a resource...for positive content and push-back to share with...online progressive communities" - that is, it disseminates communications and materials designed using CTR's massive resources, potentially in coordination with the official campaign. 
3. We know that Clinton's communications operations has already used its resources to promote Bros4Hillary: on Twitter, through CTR's "Barrier Breakers" initiative, and through David Brock's Blue Nation Review. There are of course all kinds of other ways to promote groups like this, with or without their coordination; for example, the group's main organizational hub is a Facebook page, which anyone can easily set up ads for. (Notably, The Wrap reports that "The group started as little more than a Facebook page, but for reasons even its organizers can’t quite explain, it took off.") 
4. Content coordination is obviously more difficult to verify. It can include anything from proprietary image assets (publicity shots, stock photos, etc) to video footage to their branded font (Unity) to messaging guidelines (specific themes and talking points, particular phrasing and hashtagging, deployment schedules, and so on) to completely prefabricated material produced in-house. Assets and materials can just sit in an online content bin, ready for the taking; coordination can just be a matter of CTR sending out "suggestions" or "here's what we're talking about today" communications to third parties, who may be passively "inspired" to disseminate their messaging. We know that CTR does this with journalists.
Bros4Hillary are not, of course, a significant or influential group by any stretch of the imagination, but they are exemplary of the appratchiks complicit in Clinton's operation. They deny coordinating content with CTR, of course, though as far as I can tell no one has ever admitted this. And Bros4Hillary denies a lot of things. But instead of disavowing CTR, they've openly embraced promotion by Brock and his illegal front groups. That's incriminating enough. Promotion is an in-kind donation, and you can't accept funding from a de facto campaign finance laundering racket and expect to walk away with your hands clean.

Sunday, May 8, 2016

Identitarian demographic arguments have to account for non-voters

In what appears to be a continuing series documenting the pathetic grievances of American elites, The Guardian has published an article exploring the embarrassing self-pity of Harvard students who feel rightly ashamed of their support for Hillary Clinton. There's a lot to ridicule in this piece, but one point in particular caught my eye:
Koppelman...wanted to address what he sees as a double standard among some Sanders supporters – that to support Clinton is to fail to support the fight for equality. “Around the country, low income people, low income minorities are voting for Hillary in vast majorities,” Koppelman said.
See what he did here? Koppelman insists that Clinton is the candidate of the oppressed. He tries to prove this, however, by noting that she is the preference of oppressed people who vote. Those are not the same constituencies! And when we look at all poor people and all minorities, the picture looks quite different:


These trends have all been clear for months: Sanders is the candidate of the poor, and Clinton the candidate of the rich. Clinton has a significant lead among Black voters, while Sanders has a significant lead among Hispanic voters and other races.

There is a basic methodological nuance here that pundits routinely neglect. If you are making claims about voters, then you should obviously look at things like exit polls, eligible / registered / likely voters, and so on. But if you are making a claim about which candidate is drawing more support from a person of a certain identity - that is, if you are making an identitarian argument - then you have to look at everyone who belongs to that group. Otherwise you are guilty of erasure, which is a serious analytical and moral error.

This point is particularly urgent because non-voting is often a sign of significant oppression. When poor people don't vote, for example, it is often because their boss won't let them off of work, or because they don't have reliable transportation to and from the polls. When minorities don't vote, it's often because of deliberate voter suppression tactics. To ignore the plight of non-voters is to ignore a major vector of oppression in the United States - a curious move to make when claiming the high ground in the fight for equality.

Friday, May 6, 2016

Three critiques of liberal discourse

1. The discourse is controlled by capital. Barack Obama, in The Audacity of Hope, articulates a vision of discourse that has always been central to liberalism:
After all, the Constitution ensures our free speech...[and] the possibility of a genuine marketplace of ideas, one...of "deliberation and circumspection"; a marketplace in which, through debate and competition, we can expand our perspective, change our minds, and eventually arrive not merely at agreements but at sound and fair agreements. (145)
The subtext here - that good and virtuous ideas will necessarily prevail in the public discourse, absent government censorship - dates back to at least the early seventeenth century. Then, we saw the sort of controversies that largely shape our ideas about free speech today. Milton, for example, in protest of a law subjecting any publication to Parliamentary approval, made just the sort of argument we hear from liberal rationalists today: "Let [Truth] and Falshood grapple...who ever knew Truth put to the worse, in a free and open encounter?"

The left's critique of this intellectual tradition has always been that under capitalism there is no such thing as a "free and open encounter" of ideas. What actually happens, under capitalism, is that good and virtuous ideas get drowned out by people with large platforms and expensive megaphones. Even if the government protects "a genuine marketplace of ideas", it will not be a free market when capital gives some people louder voices than others.

It is easy to misunderstand this as a narrow point about what happens when say a poor person tries to argue with a rich person, or about how the rich can deliberately and actively use their wealth to propagandize society. Both of those are problems, but the bigger problem is how capitalism passively and systematically gives advantages to favored ideas. No matter how powerless and marginal I am, and no matter how idiotic and ridiculous the thing that I say is, if it is something that the rich find agreeable, I am far more likely to get a platform and a megaphone. This means that our entire intellectual climate is constantly shaped and dominated by the interests of the rich.

A leftist understanding of discourse, as Chomsky writes,
focuses on this inequality of wealth and power and its multilevel effects...It traces the routes by which money and power are able to filter out the news fit to print, marginalize dissent, and allow the government and dominant private interests to get their messages across to the public. (Manufacturing Consent, 1)
The media (which Chomsky specifically has in mind here) is the most obvious ideological organ through which capital controls our discourse, but it must also be emphasized that literally everything that exists under capitalism, and that is subject to the power of the wealthy, also becomes an instrument for controlling our discourse. These "Ideological State Apparatuses", as Althusser called them, also include our religion, our system of education, our family, our laws, our politics, our unions, and even our general culture.

For this reason, what liberalism teaches us to think of as the "marketplace of ideas" is almost completely irrelevant to the state and evolution of our discourse. The way society talks and thinks about things, the problematic tendencies and ideas that dominate our culture, the proliferation of microaggressions and bigoted narratives, the erasures and framings and subtexts that liberal discourse policing fixates on constantly - all of this largely expresses the power and preference of capital.

This is not an exhaustive picture of how discourse works; for example, there are also fundamentally bio-psychological factors, like instinctive tribalism and various quirks of cognitive psychology, that not even the power of capitalism can overcome in our discourse. But even in cases like this, liberal rationalistic discourse is largely irrelevant (instinctive bias for example can generally only be overcome through personal therapy, not through logical argumentation or deliberate norm-setting). Ultimately, the only thing that can meaningfully impact the discourse is to tear down the platforms and turn off the megaphones. Everything else is shouting into a fugue.


2. The discourse is not personal. Jacques Ellul put it best:
[T]he individual must never be considered as being alone...All are tied together and constitute a sort of society in which all individuals are accomplices and influence each other without knowing it...The current flows through the canvasser (who is not a person speaking in his own name with his own arguments, but one segment of an administration, an organization, a collective movement); when he enters a room to canvass a person, the mass, and moreover the organized, leveled mass, enters with him. No relationship exists here between man and man... (Propaganda, 7)
This is perhaps the most difficult point for liberals to grasp. When liberal capitalism teaches us that the discourse is a "marketplace of ideas", it also teaches us that we are discourse producers and consumers, and that the discourse is ultimately a direct expression of our individual contributions. Implicitly, we are all potential John Galts of the discourse, and through sheer individual wokeness, savvyness, and force of will, we can "start a dialogue" and "stop the engine of the world."

This might very well be true in a discourse that is not dominated by capital - but for all the reasons given above, our individual contributions just don't amount to much. If the rich are not behind you, then at the level of society, no amount of interpersonal policing you do will significantly "improve the discourse", and no amount of problematic behavior will significantly deteriorate it.

Obviously, to say that individual discourse has no significant impact at the level of society is not to say that everything an individual says is good, virtuous, or defensible. For instance, we can condemn bigoted slurs for all sorts of reasons. Interpersonally, they are cruel and unfair; symbolically, they are an offense to anyone who has ever been hurt by them; logically, they often function as ad hominem; psychologically, they often express infantile and primitive neuroses; and so on. We can find these things deontologically wrong ("just wrong") or wrong on other grounds without also insisting on some additional theory about how problematic individual discourse impacts society.

Here, the point is merely that there is no reason to believe that it's ever the individual that is "driving", "fomenting", "perpetuating," or "enabling" problematic discourse. As Foucault suggests, we should think about discourse
...not from the point of view of the individuals who are speaking...but from the point of view of the rules that come into play in the very existence of such discourse: what conditions...[does one] have to fulfil, not to make his discourse coherent and true in general, but to give it, at the time when it was written and accepted, value... (The Order of Things, xiv)
Those rules and conditions, of course, are set by the rich; they are the ones who decide whether discourse has "value" and who produce it and amplify it accordingly, again as outlined above. Discourse can (and I would say circumstantially should) be interpersonally policed for the sake of building and maintaining relationships, or as a matter of solidarity on behalf of people who are being victimized by problematic discourse, or simply for the moral and symbolic sake of speaking truth to power - but as a political project aimed at changing discourse on a social level, it is almost entirely impotent.


3. Most discourse is catharsis. Though the ideology of liberalism understands our discourse as a marketplace of ideas, and though elites in particular embrace this ideology (and are often even paid to do so), most people get the critique articulated thus far, at least intuitively. Most people understand that they are not and cannot be personally influential in our society - and for that reason, they get that anything they do to try to improve our discourse will be mostly inconsequential.

Nevertheless, most people still participate in our discourse as if what they say can significantly change the world we live in. How can we explain this? Here, I'll simply repeat the standard point of psychology that most irrational behavior is a form of catharsis. Human behavior can express coherent and logical reasoning, but just as often it expresses all kinds of internal drives and external stress. I think that Marx, when writing about another expression of human behavior that he considered irrational, gave us a good way of thinking about this:
Religion...is at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature... (A Contribution to the Critique of Hegel's Philosophy of Right)
Once we recognize the essentially religious grip that the capitalist "marketplace of ideas" ideology exercises on liberal society, it's easy to appreciate why people participate in it. Every day, people struggle with the powerlessness they feel under capitalism to improve their lives and make their world a better place. One of the few solutions to this that liberal society offers to us is the discourse: as Obama wrote, it is "through debate" that we may "eventually arrive...at sound and fair agreements." People take liberalism up on this, not because they expect it to accomplish anything, but simply out of desperation, or to express their exasperation - and more and more, as a form of morbid gallows humor.

The real solution to this, of course, is to overthrow capitalism - and insofar as we suppose that we have any discursive agency whatsoever, that is what we should advocate, in order to prepare a world where "Truth and Falshood" can "grapple" in a genuinely "free and open encounter". There is, on the other hand, a significant tradition of Marxist thought which maintains that if capitalism is overthrown, it will be overthrown not because of the advocacy of some intellectual vanguard - but because the material progress of history has created conditions in which capitalism can no longer survive.

I think that latter point is more true than we are often willing to accept - still, either way, to understand how capitalist ideology works is to understand just how limited discourse is as an avenue of resistance and change. Moreover, to recognize the primarily cathartic role discourse plays within capitalism is to judge it in an entirely different light. Liberalism rarely engages with this perspective, for obvious reasons - but the Marxists did, and its poets probably appreciated it better than anyone.


...Ah, what an age it is
When to speak of trees is almost a crime
For it is a kind of silence about injustice!

...There was little I could do. But without me
The rulers would have been more secure.
That was my hope.

...You, who shall emerge from the flood
In which we are sinking,
Think -
When you speak of our weaknesses,
Also of the dark time
That brought them forth...
In the class war, despairing
When there was only injustice and no resistance,

For we knew only too well:
Even the hatred of squalor
Makes the brow grow stern.
Even anger against injustice
Makes the voice grow harsh. Alas, we
Who wished to lay the foundations of kindness
Could not ourselves be kind.

But you, when at last it comes to pass
That man can help his fellow man,
Do not judge us
Too harshly.

- Brecht, "To Posterity (Excerpts)", 1939

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Chomsky, on simplicity

"I'll tell you the honest truth: I'm kind of simple-minded when it comes to these things. Whenever I hear a four-syllable word I get skeptical, because I want to make sure you can't say it in monosyllables. Don't forget, part of the whole intellectual vocation is creating a niche for yourself, and if everyone can understand what you're talking about, you've sort of lost, because then what makes you special? What makes you special has got to be something that you had to work really hard to understand, and you mastered it, and all those guys out there don't understand it, and then that becomes the basis for your privilege and your power.

So take what's called 'literary theory' - I mean, I don't think there's any such thing as literary 'theory', and more than there's cultural 'theory' or historical 'theory.' If you're just reading books and talking about them and getting people to understand them, okay, you can be terrific at that, like Edmund Wilson was terrific at it - but he didn't have a literary theory...if someone came along with a theory of history, it would be the same: either it would be truisms, or maybe some smart ideas, like someone could say, 'Why not look at economic factors lying behind the Constitution?' or something like that - but there'd be nothing there that couldn't be said in monosyllables.

In fact, it's extremely rare, outside of the natural sciences, to find things that can't be said in monosyllables: there are just interesting, simple ideas, which are often extremely difficult to come up with and hard to work out. Like, if you want to try to understand how the modern industrial economy developed, let's say, that can take a lot of work. But the 'theory' will be extremely thin, if by 'theory' we mean something with principles which are not obvious when you first look at them, and from which you can deduce surprising consequences and try to confirm the principles - you're not going to find anything like that in the social world.

...I mean, it's not that some of these people whose stuff is considered 'deep theory' and so on don't have some interesting things to say. But it's nothing that you couldn't say at the level of a high school student, or that a high school student couldn't figure out if they had the time and support and a little bit of training.

I think people should be extremely skeptical when intellectual life constructs structures which aren't transparent - because the fact of the matter is that in most areas of life, we just don't understand anything very much. There are some areas, like say, quantum physics, where they're not faking. But most of the time it's just fakery, I think: anything that's at all understood can probably be described pretty simply." - Chomsky, Understanding Power (228-230)

Wednesday, May 4, 2016

Would Gore have gone to war in Iraq?


Might have hesitated to make this remark if I'd anticipated so much curiosity and skepticism about it, not because I think it's wrong, but simply because I'm not too invested in litigating counterfactuals about a war that began more than a decade ago. Still, perhaps it's worth remembering that from the very invasion of Iraq, the American left saw the war as a bipartisan effort that could never be pinned entirely on George W. Bush. Some key points:

1. The Iraq Liberation Act, which made it "the policy of the United States to support efforts to remove the regime headed by Saddam Hussein from power in Iraq," was passed in 1998 under Clinton/Gore. 

2. On that basis, Clinton/Gore actively provided political and even military support to anti-Hussein opposition groups in Iraq. Among other things, this included CIA support for bombing and sabotage campaigns by Wifaq, a militant group trying to mount a coup against Hussein. 

3. Also on that basis, Clinton/Gore actually launched a military intervention in Iraq, Operation Desert Fox. Despite significant domestic and international opposition, absent Congressional approval, and absent direct UN authorization.

4. 9/11 created two enormous political incentives that would have created pressure for any administration to go to war. First, the intelligence and defensive failures precipitating 9/11 were enormous political liabilities that demanded a dramatic and proactive response. This is particularly true given the public's dissatisfaction with progress in Afghanistan. Second, 9/11 was always going to provoke an unfocused drive for retaliation among reactionaries, and demand a show of strength among Americans with ideological / psychological / financial investments in American empire. Clinton/Gore never faced drives to war of this magnitude, and yet even absent such incentives they still engaged in multiple military actions.

5. 9/11 also removed enormous political deterrents that kept Clinton/Gore from expanding their ambitions in Iraq. First, it damaged the reputation and influence of foreign policy elites who argued for a constrained role for the American military. Second, it undercut international diplomatic and economic opposition to American interventions. Third, it undercut domestic resistance.

In short, Gore supported past interventions in Iraq, accepted two major arguments for further intervention (pre-emptive defense and humanitarian), would have been subject to tremendous pressure to go to war, and would have been freed from many of the major disincentives. Moreover, in his own direct statements on the matter at the time, Gore's major objection to war was a preference for more international support - a preference that he had a record of setting aside in the past.

There's a more detailed argument to be made here, but that's a start.

Tuesday, May 3, 2016

You have a choice

You can elect Bernie Sanders, or you can elect Donald Trump.

For nearly a year, our media and political class was in complete denial about Trump. Don't be fooled by the posture of weary inevitability they strike today - just a few months ago, most of them were still publishing all kinds of armchair essays and half-baked demographic analysis insisting that he was going to lose. Because their jobs depend on maintaining a facade of credibility and expertise, these people will give you at best a token mea culpa, and then they will give you absolute surety and certitude in their general election predictions as if nothing ever happened.

A lot of the people who didn't see Trump coming - and didn't see Sanders coming, for that matter - are now going to insist that Clinton is a safe bet and that Sanders would be likely to lose.

If you aren't actually that worried about Trump, go ahead and listen to them again. Listen to their wishful conjecture, their telling anecdotes, their poll unskewing, and their gut intuitions; we can talk ourselves into anything, if we try hard enough. Or just look at what the polls have been saying for months and months on end:


Maybe there's a reason for this.

The actual facts on the ground, gathered in the most rigorous and objective way that we have, are telling us that Bernie Sanders would win this election. And they're telling us that Hillary Clinton's chances of beating Trump are half that - and shrinking. On a bad day, she loses. And she will certainly have more bad days ahead.


Did Michelle Goldberg just admit to coordinating an attack on Sanders with the Clinton campaign?

Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad. Not one...The Sanderistas appear to believe they were treated unfairly, even viciously, in this primary. In fact, they’ve been handled incredibly gingerly. - Michelle Goldberg
The Clinton campaign openly coordinates its messaging with super PACs. The super PACs, in turn, coordinate their messaging with "former [sic] reporters, bloggers, public affairs specialists, designers, Ready for Hillary alumni, and Hillary super fans". They also have direct financial and staffing ties with third-party propaganda organs like Blue Nation Review. They also have a giant cohort of suspiciously on-message media surrogates and prominent "independent" allies who invariably get signal boosted by the usual suspects.

All of this may be a clever enough way to get around FEC regulations (aka "democratic governance"), but the artfully phrased claim that "Clinton has not hit Sanders with a single negative ad" is preposterous. No one with any minimal familiarity with Clinton's history of campaigning or with how campaign communications work actually believes this. The notion that the Clinton has no ties to the attacks going out is so ridiculous that Goldberg accidentally contradicts it just a few sentences later:
A source close to the Clinton campaign tells me that because Sanders has high favorability numbers with Democrats, Clinton would have damaged herself by attacking him, especially since she didn’t have to in order to win.
Did you catch that? Goldberg, who has a demonstrable record of advancing some of the most common negative attacks on Sanders [1][2][3][4][5][6], is working on an article that will literally rehearse the most damning attacks on Sanders she can think of. (Given a "the media isn't saying this" pretext, which is particularly amusing since Goldberg herself wrote the exact same article just a few months back.)

And she admits that while working on this, she consulted with an anonymous "source close to the Clinton campaign" specifically about negative attacks on Sanders.

Monday, May 2, 2016

Who is the greater enemy of the left?

Out of curiosity, I recently ran a grossly unscientific poll on my Twitter account:


Though the phrasing suggests one question, I actually framed the poll with another one in mind: does the left tend to recognize meaningful differences between various Democrats? This poll suggests they do, by about a 2:1 margin. Still, I was surprised by how strongly respondants singled out Hillary Clinton as an appreciably greater threat to the left. Over half of all respondants picked her - nearly ten times as many as those who picked Obama.

Two incidents

Presumably the immediacy of the fight against Clinton for the Democratic nomination has at least something to do with that result, but even so I'm inclined to agree that it's the right one. The question is purposefully vague and hard to evaluate with any significant rigor, but here I'll point to two recent episodes that I think point at a distinct difference between the two. Yesterday, on May Day, Obama issued this proclamation:
I, BARACK OBAMA, President of the United States of America, do hereby proclaim May 1, 2016, as Loyalty Day.  This Loyalty Day, I call upon all the people of the United States to join in support of this national observance, whether by displaying the flag of the United States or pledging allegiance to the Republic for which it stands. 
The left, of course, largely recognized this for what it is: a deliberate, reactionary erasure of a central cultural institution of the international working class, one that ignores May Day and sets a creepy nationalistic substitute in its place. It's idiotic and gross that Obama would do this, and the left is right to view it as an attack on the dignity and solidarity of workers.

Still, it is historically important to understand that Loyalty Day is not Obama's initiative. Though a few leftists missed this point of (minor) trivia, Loyalty Day is actually the legacy of the mid-twentieth century red scares, and was ratcheted into law in 1955. It's not entirely clear if Obama even has the legal discretion to not issue a Loyalty Day proclamation; but here, suffice to say that Obama is best understood as a participant in the reactionary status quo.

Contrast that with a second public statement, posted Wednesday by economist Brad DeLong:
The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for Guevarista fantasies about what their policies are likely to do. The day will come when it will be time to gleefully and comprehensively trash people to be named later for advocating Comintern-scale lying to voters about what our policies are like to do. And it will be important to do so then--because overpromising leads to bad policy decisions, and overpromising is bad long-run politics as well...But that day is not now. That day will be mid-November.
DeLong is an influential economist, a prominent Clinton surrogate, and a former staffer in Bill Clinton's administration. He is rehearsing a line of rhetoric that the Clintons themselves clearly believe: the Democratic left flank should be dismissed as radical commies, and Sanders is overpromising to his supporters. He is also reminding us of the well-known Clintonian predilection for retaliation against political opponents, even opponents to the left - a tendency so notorious that people who work in policy openly fear for their careers if they oppose her.

An enemy of the movement

This, I think, marks a (perhaps) minor but appreciable difference between Obama and Clintons.

Obama has certainly targeted the left as a movement on occasion - in his administration's infamous criticism of "the professional left", his efforts to destroy Occupy Wall Street, his war on whistleblowers, and so on. But undeniably, his greatest attack on the left has been an attack on left positions and priorities. He has participated in all kinds of odious historical trends of neoliberalization, militarization, and imperialism, and presided over a continuing erosion of civil liberties, enormous increases in economic inequality, the institutionalized racism of the carceral state, and so on - and all of this, not his occasional direct jabs at the left as a movement, will be his primary legacy. Indeed, it is the very contrast between these two tendencies that define the most sinister aspect of Obama's politics: his pose of relative detente towards the left, which deceptively veils his ongoing war on their substantive politics.

There is no such ambiguity with Clinton. 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. We should take DeLong at his word: Clinton and her allies think it is "important" to "gleefully and comprehensively trash" their opponents to the left, and they are already making plans to do so. Practically speaking, this means that Clinton is likely to invest more time, energy, resources and political capital into attacking the left than Obama did. This isn't a particularly ambitious claim: the odd thing would be if Hillary invested the exact same effort into attacking the left as her predecessor, no more and no less.

None of this is an apology for Obama. Chomsky's famous observation is as true of him as it has been for everyone else: if we observed the Nuremberg laws consistently, we would have to find him guilty, too. But there's probably a reason why Obama has always maintained higher favorability ratings among self-identified liberals than Clinton, culminating in a 15-point lead today. Polling consistently shows a distinct preference on that end of the spectrum for Obama over Clinton, and however minor the basis for this may be, I suspect that it's justified.