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Some points on Marx and ageism - 9/16/16
Recently, and occasionally in response to some of my recent writing on ageism, I've received some feedback generally suggesting a tension such critiques and standard class analysis. This general objection takes a couple of different forms. One reader, for instance, insists that "Bourgeois Boomers exercise power over working class Millennials. Attributing class power to age is dangerous for the left." Similarly, David Kaib suggests that "class as a historical actor makes sense in a way generations doesn't." Roger Bellin, meanwhile, dismisses "this generation-cohort stuff" as "completely fake social science".

In response to this, I'd argue that Marxism stipulates temporal dynamics which have direct and necessary implications for both historical cohort and age. A materialist conception of history, for example, will describe various stages of economic development that a given society passes through - and these stages will be generally sequential, mapping roughly onto a succession of historical cohorts. The particulars of these cohorts will of course be historically contingent, but as with classes, they are defined by specific relationships with the means of production.

Trivially, for instance, we could talk about a "feudal generation", defined as the cohort born in a society dominated by a feudal economy, and oppose that to a "capitalist generation", similarly defined. Such generations, so defined in relation to certain regimes of production, are just as real as any class - in fact, they are mostly just a different way of talking about groups of classes, with "capitalist generation" conveying the same information as "the proletariat and the bourgeoisie".

The advantage with this way of talking about Marxism is that historical cohorts allows us to contemplate age dynamics associated with the material progress of history. For instance, consider this famous passage from Marx's Manifesto:
The bourgeoisie cannot exist without constantly revolutionising the instruments of production, and thereby the relations of production, and with them the whole relations of society...All fixed, fast-frozen relations, with their train of ancient and venerable prejudices and opinions, are swept away...
Note that the relations of society that capitalism sweeps away here are not merely feudal - they are definitively ancient. They are necessarily associated with age cohorts preceding the capitalist generation. Thus the sequentiality of various stages of economic history necessarily implies conflicts that will be generationally inflected. This point will presumably be most relevant during stages of revolutionary transition; more significantly, it establishes the general (and I think obvious, though evidently controversial) point that class struggle, proceeding forwards through time, will have historical dimensions that end up mapping onto age.

Such temporal dynamics emerge not just over the broad course of history, but within the quotidian operation of capitalism as well. Indeed, Steve Keen argues that this temporal conception of capitalism was one of Marx's great insights: capitalists, he notes,
in general ignore processes which take time to occur, and instead assume that everything occurs in equilibrium...[but] the process Marx describes was based on an accurate view of the overall structure of the economy...
Once we attend to the fact that capital accumulation, for example, is a process that takes place over time, it's easy to see how the old have economic advantages over the young sewn into the very fabric of the material economy. Are these advantages decisive? Of course not. Are they irrelevant to a discussion of the various factors that contribute to power and oppression? Nope. As with any such analysis, ageism needs to be understood with all of the usual considerations of proportion and priority at hand, but the role of such dynamics in Marxist theory cannot simply be dismissed or ignored.
"Both sides do it" is a reactionary defense of ageism - 9/15/16
Earlier today, Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery openly avowed her hatred of an entire generation:


Understandably, a lot of progressives, who have historically opposed bigotry against oppressed communities, took issue with this. In one pretty straightforward post, for example, Atrios related Jeffery's ageist rhetoric to its more familiar expressions ("Kids Today," "get...off of [the] lawn") and noted that she'd evidently misread the very poll she was quoting. It doesn't take much more than that to point out the problems with what she said - the case is fairly open-and-shut.

Enter, however, Kevin Drum:
Atrios is upset because he doesn't like criticism of young people. Why? Beats me. As near as I can tell, millennials don't actually attract any more abuse than any other age cohort. I'm not sure why they should be any more immune to criticism than anyone else.
Drum changes his mind

Set aside the crass rhetorical deck-stacking here ("criticism" vs. "abuse") and Drum's defense is clear: ageism is okay because both sides do it. Clara Jeffery can't be criticized for hating young people because hatred of Boomers also exists. But what I find striking about this is that for Drum, just a few months back, both-sides-do-it was no defense of ageism:
Bruenig's tweets were nasty, apparently unfounded, and a bit two-faced (charging Walsh with "ageism" followed by insulting Tanden as "geriatric").
If Drum actually took his own both-sides-do-it rule seriously, we would expect him to waive off Bruenig's comment and ridicule those who refuse to do so as "upset". But instead, Drum decries the remark as "nasty" and an "insult", and adds:
This is the kind of thing that I'd normally call a non-firing offense, but only if the offender agrees there's a problem and promises to reign it in. The risk of having an employee like this go completely ballistic at some point and write something either libelous or just plain repellent is too great. 
This is infinitely stronger than the mild disapproval Atrios posted. And Bruenig, at least, was responding to the specific ageist comment Drum quotes earlier in his piece ("barely shaven") - this would make his reaction even more justified, if the both-sides-do-it rule held. Jeffery, meanwhile, is simply reacting to a poll in a news report, and one that she evidently misread.

"Reverse ageism" does not exist

It's tempting to say this is just a case of Drum defending his employer - but that just underlines the ageist power dynamic at work here. Boomers are far more likely than Millennials to be employers, which means that these conflicts-of-interest will usually play out in their favor. Even Boomers who aren't employers will tend to have more professional power for Millennials, which means that age-solidarity will also play in their advantage as well. Obviously, Jeffery can say almost whatever she likes about young people, she has few professional consequences to worry about, and she can rely allies to defend her who, like Drum, have aged into large platforms. Younger people, meanwhile, can count on the exact opposite: powerful professional retaliation, both from employers and from people like Drum. Age solidarity is of little help to Millennials, since their young colleagues are typically just as powerless.

And that's the deeper critique of Drum's both-sides-do-it rhetoric. Even if accept that moral equivalence, Drum clearly applies it selectively, using it to exonerate Boomers while ignoring it in his criticism of the young. But if we accept the standard progressive premise that oppression is prejudice plus power, then even a "both-sides-do-it" rule applied consistently would be grossly reactionary, a kind of "reverse-ageism" defense that draws a false moral equivalence between two very different political situations. Both sides don't have giant corporate media platforms, and both sides don't face draconian professional consequences in these intergenerational conflicts. Jeffery's hatred of the young is the bigotry of privilege, and any progressive worthy of the name should condemn it.
The purity politics of radical liberalism, part II - 9/9/16
The continuing and almost entirely contrived interjection of Vladimir Putin into the 2016 elections has, in recent weeks, spawned an interesting sub-controversy between liberals and their critics. On one side, we have a perspective ably articulated on Wednesday by Donald Trump:
I've already said, he is really very much of a leader. I mean, you can say, 'Oh, isn't that a terrible thing' -- the man has very strong control over a country. Now, it's a very different system, and I don't happen to like the system. But certainly, in that system, he's been a leader...
These comments, of course, were folded into all kinds of additional claims about Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Trump's reactionary vision of American politics - but setting those aside, the narrow point he's making here is reasonable to the point of utter banality. Putin is quite obviously the most important, powerful, and influential Russian of the post-Soviet era, and arguably one of the most consequential world leaders of the past two decades. Inasmuch as a leader is someone who has a vision of the world and compels others to implement it, Putin is easily one of the most effective and accomplished leaders of our time.

None of this is praise. Putin is a monster and his imperial aspirations and ethnonationalist sympathies are monstrous, as is his violent, reactionary and antidemocratic political practice. The instrumental conception of leadership that Trump is advancing here - a variety of competence and efficacy - does nothing to imply that Putin will use his gifts and talents towards progressive, socially useful, or moral ends; it simply says that he is good at what he does.

Again, this distinction strikes me as pretty simple, commonplace, and logically independent of the broader political argument in which it appears - someone could make the same point while praising Clinton and Obama.

But time and time again, liberals have taken aim at even this modest and fairly irrelevant point. Clinton's running-mate Tim Kaine objects, "What about invading other countries is leadership? What about running your economy into the ground is leadership? What about persecuting LGBT Russians is leadership?" Alex Shephard, in The New Republic, argues that "Donald Trump is wrong: Putin isn't a strong leader." Think Progress's Jedd Legum seems to think he's calling into question Putin's leadership with some point about Russia's recent GDP, and so on.

Why is this even a controversy? I can think of two possible reasons:
1. Liberals are so ideologically blinkered that they literally cannot comprehend an instrumental conception of leadership. Managerial and entrepreneurial culture have so thoroughly indoctrinated them into fetishizing leaders and leadership as absolute goods, always cultivating productive, progressive and profitable outcomes, that they simply cannot imagine the idea of a bad leader. That's why Tim Kaine insists that there's "a difference between dictatorship and leadership"; he is so completely radicalized that he cannot permit the merely rhetorical idea of a bad leader, even though his reference to dictatorship indicates that he clearly understands what Trump is getting at. 
2. Liberals have become so radicalized in their opposition to Trump that it isn't even enough to say "99% of Trump's interview was incorrect and crazy" - literally every aspect of everything he says has to be attacked in every way possible, and it is that imperative that dictates political truth. It seems clear to me that at least some of Clinton's partisans are thinking about politics in this way, which is why (for example) even gentle mockery of liberal Twitter etiquette is considered dangerous enough to put victory at risk. Trump has to be wrong on every front and in every way imaginable, so that even when he goes on an odd but mostly benign tangent about Putin's strength as a malevolent leader, even this has to be eviscerated as some kind of horrific gaffe.
These dynamics aren't mutually exclusive, and they're largely variations on the same theme: some combination of ideology and expedience has completely divorced liberals from any ability to engage with an obvious observation about Putin's power and influence. The semantics of a "bad leader" are so verboten in their ideology, and the prospect of agreeing with a Republican presidential candidate so anathema, that liberals have become uncoupled from reality; leadership must be treated as purely good, and Trump as purely evil. Thus, liberals are completely incapable of parsing a truism so dull that even the blandest media outlets were treating it as conventional wisdom a decade ago.

And that, as I put it earlier, is what radical liberalism looks like.
The Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown -
Wednesday night, Jonathan Chait kicked off one of my favorite election year traditions: the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown. The most famous version of this was Andrew Sullivan's hilarious Did Obama Just Throw The Entire Election Away? freakout in 2012, when he proclaimed that "Obama has instantly plummeted into near-oblivion" after a relatively lethargic performance in his first debate against Romney. This time around, our pundits didn't even wait for a proper debate. Chait has declared Matt Lauer's back-to-back interviews with Clinton and Trump the Scariest Thing I've Seen in This Campaign, and elaborated:
The shock, for me, was the realization that most Americans inhabit a very different news environment than professional journalists. I not only consume a lot of news, since it’s my job, I also tend to focus on elite print-news sources. Most voters, and all the more so undecided voters, subsist on a news diet supplied by the likes of Matt Lauer.
This, note, is a direct echo of an anxiety Sullivan hinted at four years ago:
I’m trying to see a silver lining. But when a president self-immolates on live TV, and his opponent shines with lies and smiles, and a record number of people watch, it’s hard to see how a president and his party recover.
In both cases, elite pundits are horrified by the prospect that a substantial number of Americans live outside the ideological bubble of elite media.

Sullivan's meltdown, of course, turned out to be premature, but at least it was grounded in something resembling reality: over 67 million Americans watched Obama-Romney I, accounting for more than 20% of eligible voters. What I find telling here is that while Chait is expressing identical concerns, his are almost entirely baseless. Only about 11 million Americans watched Lauer's forum - that's roughly what America's Got Talent pulled in on the same night, and only accounts for about 3% of eligible voters.

Here is my theory: every presidential election, elite media spends a good year building a grand partisan narrative in favor of one candidate and against the other. And every four years, these carefully constructed narratives crash head-first into reality the first time both candidates get live comparative exposure on national television. When that happens, candidates have their first major opportunity to circumvent the entire elite media apparatus and make a comparative case for themselves directly to the voters. For a moment, at least, our pundits are reminded that media control of the political narrative has significant limits - and this scares the hell out of them. Thus the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown.

This theory is actually pretty similar to Chait's premise that low-info voters aren't being adequately informed by our experts and politics-knowers; but there are two important differences.

First, as Chait proves in the very disproportion of his concern - he worries about "most Americans" and the "average undecided voter", when in fact only a tiny fraction of voters saw Lauer's show - our media elite isn't necessarily better informed than anyone else. They don't even have a very realistic conception of their own influence, and of where and how voters get their information. People like Chait think that we have an education problem here, which is why we're supposed to be "stunned and appalled" may not see things his way; but Chait is a guy who approves of invading Iraq and complains about Marx without actually reading him. There is, contra Chait, considerable reason to be grateful that most Americans live outside of the elite media bubble.

This brings us to our second point, which is that what our elite pundits are really worried about is control. This is, again, proven in the very disproportion of Chait's concern: the prospect that a mere 3% of voters could be beyond his ideological reach is enough to send him into an insane late-evening tailspin of anguish over The Fate Of Our Republic.

Like Sullivan, Chait views his absolute control of American political discourse to be a matter of existential, world-historical importance, when in fact their fairly inept contributions to the national debate are thankfully fairly irrelevant. That's why the Quadrennial Elite Pundit Meltdown is such a beautiful thing: it reminds us of how ridiculous and unimportant media discourse really is.
Bro essay postscript - 9/6/16
This point didn't fit comfortably in the bro essay I posted yesterday, but it's nagging at me. From Jezebel's piece: a bro is
An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding...a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing.
Given what we know about the economy's impact on youth marriage rates, this is just extraordinarily vicious. It is true that young unmarried men are more prevalent than they used to be, but this isn't because of immaturity - it's because they can't afford it. Millennials don't have the luxury their parents and grandparents had of marrying early and building social lives around their families. To fill that void in community, young people have different socialization patterns than previous generations did; this is all an entirely predictable consequence of yawning economic inequality that falls disproportionately on the young.

Especially since the people throwing "bro" around tend to have families - or are well-off enough to afford them - I see no way of uncoupling this slur from one of the more odious symptoms of inequality in America today. It is a way for privileged people to ridicule the victims of their success, and to disclaim responsibility for the economic and cultural conditions they have created by blaming youth marriage rates on immaturity. The subtext of "bro", at least as constructed by Jezebel: bootstrap yourself out of capitalism, get a danged career, start a family like your mother and I did, and stop spending so much time with your friends.
Bros are actually good - 9/5/16
Finally, Gilgamesh threw the wild man and with his right knee pinned him to the ground. His anger left him. He turned away. The contest was over. Enkidu said, "Gilgamesh, you are unique among humans. Your mother, the goddess Ninsun, made you stronger and braver than any mortal, and rightly has Enlil granted you the kingship, since you are destined to rule over men." They embraced and kissed. They held hands like brothers.
Reflecting on this passage from Gilgamesh, two things stand out to me. First, by the time this - one of our oldest surviving texts - was written, "like brothers" was already a simile the audience would have understood. The notion of brotherhood, not just as a familial relationship, but as a special kind of interpersonal bond, emerges from the mists of prehistory in the third millennium BCE already fully formed; it strikes me as probable that the idea has been with us for nearly as long as we've had language. As Jaynes notes, "In early times, language and its referents climbed up from the concrete to the abstract on the steps of metaphors" - and the biological fact of siblings has always provided a rich, immediate and obvious basis for such abstractions.

Whatever its ultimate origins, the presence of such similes in Gilgamesh reminds us that brotherhood has always been a ubiquitous and honored facet of human culture. Colonialist historian George McCall Theal complained of South Africans that "they claim every other person they meet as a brother or sister." In the Phra Malai Klon Suat, the buddha Maitreya explains that he will not appear until "the people of [the human realm]...love each other as if they were one family - like brothers and sisters". The Proverbs of Solomon praises the "friend who sticks closer than a brother." Plato, in his imagined utopia, insisted that "her citizens they are to regard as...their own brothers." Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed that "the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners [would] be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood"; and Engels praised the belief that "Every one should be a brother to each other" as proof of "a budding revolutionary spirit".

A second feature of the Gilgamesh passage - which happens to emerge repeatedly in the other examples I've noted - is the distinctly progressive cultural character of brotherhood. The relationship between Gilgamesh and Enkidu has long been understood as a metaphor for both the civilization of humanity (in Enkidu's departure from the steppe) and the humanization of civilization (in Gilgamesh's grappling with the facts of friendship and death). Even the signifiers of their friendship - the physical affection of embracing, kissing, and the holding hands, all in reconciliation after conflict - are in tension, as brotherhood has always been, with what today we would characterize as heteronormative toxic masculinity.

Similarly, the view of brotherhood recounted by Theal is immediately implicated in anti-colonialism in its rejection of Eurocentric norms ("Among the natives of South Africa relationship is viewed differently from what it is by Europeans," Theal complains). Maitreya understands brotherhood as a force of sympathy at odds with reactionary provincialism - it emerges when we are "concerned even about those far away". Solomon understands brotherhood as a form of solidarity and social stability, contrasting those who stand together with "unreliable friends [who] soon come to ruin"; Plato, similarly, points to the solidarity of brotherhood as a basis for citizenship (it is our sympathy with each other that should compel us to "advise [the state] for good, and to defend her against attacks"). MLK recognized brotherhood as a force for antiracism, and Engels, of course, as a motive for revolution.

***

It'd be obtuse to insist that the recent political pejoration of the word "bro" expresses some open liberal rejection of brotherhood as such - but the term still begs for an explanation. In the face of a deep and abiding cultural fondness for bros, rooted in both progressive values and one of the most intimate human relationships that exist, a handful of media activists have taken it upon themselves to wield it as a term of abuse. What stake do they have in fighting this uphill battle? Where are these negative connotations of "bro" coming from?

As it so often does, etymology provides us a clue. From Here Comes the Berniebro, widely credited with coining the term:
The Berniebro, now that you think about it, was the kind of person who’d show up to a college party in a toga. You remember it maybe being the Berniebro’s profile picture once.
Obviously, what the author has in mind here is the frat bro - but it's striking, particularly in this article, how utterly vacuous that designation actually is. Consider the standard criticism of fraternities:
  • Frat bros are unserious jocks and partiers. The Berniebro, however, is serious to the point of humorlessness ("His face does not seem to entertain the possibility that [jokes at Sanders' expense] could ever be humorous"); and he is directly politically engaged, as he "always writes with an urgent, anxious seriousness when discussing national politics". 
  • Fraternities are known for their implication in rape culture. There's nothing even approaching that accusation here; at worst, the Berniebro is a feminist, but an allegedly "performative" feminist.
  • Frat bros are elitist and "heritage"-obsessed reactionaries. Berniebros, however, want to "change the country" by "nominating an actual democratic socialist" and advocating "highly principled, pie-in-the-sky progressive policies".
There is, that is to say, little about the "bro" of liberal imagination that corresponds to the usual political criticism we have of people in fraternities. Nor does it even correspond to the general cultural stereotypes. The various activists, media figures, and trolls routinely implicated in "brocialism" are hardly distinguished by their love of beer pong, or the Dave Matthews Band, or any unusual athleticism; they are not guys who wear Eddie Bauer polos or backwards Tapout hats; off the top of my head, I don't know of a single Jacobin writer or reader who was ever involved in an actual fraternity. 

***

So even if we consider its narrower, frat-related sense, we're still no closer to figuring out why the "bro" has come to play such a pejorative role in liberal rhetoric. I suspect this is why, little more than a year after its popularization, the term has already become stale - the province of lazy hacks and out-of-touch pundits - and why others have already begun migrating over to the functionally identical prefix "alt-". The term simply has no connection to the lived experience of most of the population, and no rhetorical resonance outside of exceedingly narrow media circles.

Notably, Here Comes the Berniebros' author has tried to distance his own piece from frat associations - he ridicules the objection "that Berniebros per se aren't canonical PBR-chugging bros," and insists that "Bro long ago took on a way more fluid, more interesting definition", namely
An adult male whose social life revolves around collegiate homosocial bonding and who also presents himself in a way that assimilates to the prevailing aesthetic of men with similar socialization patterns...a bro is a young, usually unmarried, often immature guy who just does what everyone else his age seems to be doing. 
This strikes me as revisionism: the original Berniebro essay says nothing about being unmarried, for example, or conformist, but it does place him in a toga, and confers on him an interest in "jangly bearded bands." What seems more likely is that the author, for the same reason that he wrote his initial essay in the second person, is distancing himself from owning personal specific grievances with fraternities - while still playing on whatever personal grievances his readers might have with them.

Still, if we accept this new definition, I think it explains a lot; set aside the question-begging judgment that Berniebros / brocialists are immature, and what remains are two points of anxiety. First, a bro is "young", and "does what everyone else his age seems to be doing"; and second, he engages in "homosocial bonding" characterized by "similar socialization patterns" (often with "a group of 5 or 6 other" bros).

Put this way, it's perfectly obvious what the "bro" slur is about: utterly banal generational and in-group/out-group conflict. 

On one hand, olds - and conservative young people who've internalized the perspective of their elders - see kids these days as faddish and conformist; this is how the Boomers were seen by their parents, and how Gilgamesh's parents saw him just a few years earlier. That's why the "bro" slur is so "fluid" (read: general); it just devolves into the vague disapproval by reactionaries of modern culture, which can be articulated and taxonomized however you like.

On the other hand, the anxiety about "similar socialization patterns" and the "groups" that "bros" move in suggests that much of this devolves into sheer tribalism. Out-groups look at the bonding that emerges among in-groups, and at the shared culture that emerges among them, and predictably see all of this as artificial and motivated; what matters is not that these Berniebros and brocialists all wear togas or drink PBRs, but that they are all the same in some (shifting and often unspecified) sense. "Bro" is the empty signifier of that sameness - and it's the signifier because what animates their anxiety, whether liberals know it or not, is consciousness of emerging comradery and solidarity among their opponents.

That's why even women, we have learned, can be bros: what is at stake here is not some critique about gender norms, but rather concern about the brotherhood and sisterhood of the opposition. As noted, these have always been progressive forces in human history, mobilizing our empathy, our shared humanity, and our collective power against the forces of oppression; to call someone a "bro" is simply to see her as part of a larger collective, one with shared norms and politics that have brought them together. And that's all it has ever meant - "bro" is nothing more than the sarcastic "comrade" the last generation of capitalists sarcastically hurled at communists, a last-ditch attack on the power of a unified left.
Who trusts Clinton? - 9/1/16
It is with a heavy heart that I must announce that Joan Walsh is at it again:


This is of course true in the utterly trivial sense that white voters distrust Clinton more than anyone else, but that's as far as it goes. Polling on this is pretty clear:


Clinton isn't considered honest by a majority of any racial group, and only even earns a plurality among black voters. Among all other demographics, more voters distrust her than trust her. Even among black voters, around 31% say that she's dishonest. Overall, by pretending that only white voters distrust Clinton, Walsh is erasing the more than 40% of non-white respondents who don't trust her, either.

More to the point, however, political assessments of trust are hardly disinterested: they are significantly correlated with partisan affiliation, which is why Democrats will always tend to trust Democrats and Republicans will always tend to trust Republicans. To control for that, the better comparison would be between different racial groupings among self-identified Democrats:


Here, the trend is quite different. Clinton still enjoys disproportionate trust among black Democrats (though even a quarter of those respondents still distrust her), but she also enjoys plurality support among white Democrats as well. Her distrust numbers are higher among white voters than among black voters, but only by 9.7% - compare that with the 37% distrust gap between white and black voters when we don't control for partisanship. Meanwhile, the only group of Democrats who do tend to distrust Clinton are not whites, but Hispanics, by a slim 3% margin. Among other races, Clinton's distrust numbers are directly comparable to whites (at ~36%), while her trust numbers are appreciably lower (37% vs. 43.1%).

So when we control for partisanship, what we see is that distrust for Clinton is hardly driven by whiteness. The two most remarkable trends are, first, her outsized trust among black Democrats, and second, her plurality distrust among Hispanic Democrats. More white Democrats trust her than distrust her; that latter number, meanwhile, is comparable or less than her distrust among Hispanic and "other" Democrats, and only varies from her substantial distrust among black Democrats by around 9%.