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Gaslighting, ironyboarding, and the ideological privation of language - 10/23/16
A while back I noted a recurring feature of liberal discourse - one that appears most distinctly in the sociolect of semi-erudite liberal gamers:
Just as they've invented mostly absurd theories of "sealioning"...these people have also hijacked all kinds of legitimate concepts and critiques in some of the most ridiculous ways imaginable. For instance, gaslighting...This is an indefensible (and frankly disgusting) appropriation of a concept created to protect people who are subject to serious, often life-threatening abuse...[but] The flamewars of Gamergate were, for many...the worst thing they have and will ever experience, even when they were not actually subjected to anything actually qualifying as harassment...
Recently, this popped up on my radar once again when I came across their latest innovation: "ironyboarding". A close variation of this appeared earlier today on CNN's State of the Union, when former Arizona Republican Gov. Jan Brewer attempted to defend Donald Trump from accusations of sexual assault:
Well...he's been waterboarded by these issues. It seems like it's been somewhat of a put-up impression on Donald Trump from all these people lining up. It's just unbelievable.
Conceptually, this rhetoric is pretty straightforward: both speakers complain about what they feel are unfair attacks from a large group of people, and both compare this experience to being tortured by waterboarding. And in both cases, the move is identical with what we saw before: the speaker takes a word that we would ordinarily reserve for a far more traumatic and painful experience, and uses it to suggest that they are going through something comparable.

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

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

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

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

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

Insofar as progress has anything to do with what goes on in the discourse, then, the powerless can really only rely on two things. First, on human creativity: on the amazing, infinite ability that we always have to find new ways of describing our world and talk about our problems - our capacity to develop a new radical language just as quickly as the powerful can co-opt the old one. And second, progress depends on critical thinking: on our ability to look past the mystifications of bourgeois ideology, its appropriation of language, and to pull back that veil of rhetoric and strike at the core of meaning underneath.
Clinton's coordination with journalists is normal and good, which is why they hide it - 10/21/16
Wikileaks has published correspondence documenting the Clinton campaign's efforts to disseminate "Bernie hits" using "people who can help push this behind the scenes without our fingerprints." Among other things, this involved "working with bloggers and columnists to write about this from a [specific] perspective, including a few people who joined us on a call [specifically] to talk about the 'Bernie Backlash'".

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

The emerging defense here seems to be that scoop laundering is actually normal and good. Suffice to say that this isn't the position Olivia Nuzzi took when she was "pitched a story about bernie bros by Hillary's camp". This isn't the position the Burlington Free Press took earlier this year when the Clinton campaign tried to pitch stories that "hit Bernie on guns". By the way, here's what it looks like when the campaign scoop launders stories to hit Bernie on guns:
Here's the draft, which I edited and can personalize depending on who we want to use as an author. A survivor of gun violence? An advocate or family member? If we can find someone, and if folks want, we could get this posted today to Medium in someone's name (not us).
Which is exactly what they did - here's the virtually identical article. I have no doubt that if you asked Lasher about this, she would insist that there was nothing wrong with what she did, that the essay drafted by the Clinton campaign just-so-happened to correspond with what she would have said independently, that no, she wasn't paid to do this, and that all of this is perfectly normal and good. Still, one can't help but wonder why the Clinton campaign insisted on doing such normal and good things "behind the scenes without our fingerprints."
Notes on wrestling - 10/20/16
This continuing series will feature explainers on professional wrestling from a left-Marxist perspective.


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

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


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

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

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


When the business loses control of its product

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

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

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

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

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



An enclave from capitalism

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

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

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

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


* For many wrestling fans, equating pro-wrestling with pro-wrestling as it appears in the WWE will easily be the most controversial remark I make in this series. Obviously this is not at all fair; there are today a million smaller independent promotions hosting a billion professional wrestlers outside of the WWE, and it's generally understood that their work - technically, artistically, and even politically - is often vastly superior to what appears in the WWE. Suffice to say that it's also infinitely more obscure, and in this series I'm much more interested in discussing wrestling in its most influential and culturally consequential venue than in popularizing worthy but fairly marginal promotions. 
Notes on wrestling, Part I: Introduction -
Professional wrestling is not generally regarded as prestige entertainment. Just the opposite - to many Americans, and especially those with the privilege of writing about such things for a living, it's considered an absurdity and an embarrassment. It's something that educated, cultured, and decent people are not only disinterested in, but actually find disagreeable to talk about; the stereotype of a wrestling fan is that of a crass, unfashionable working-class rube with a taste for violence.

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

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

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

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


What is discourse gaming? - 10/17/16
A reader on that curious cat thing has asked me to explain what I mean by "discourse gaming". Normally I would leave this sort of message there, but I use the term often enough in my writing that it would probably make sense for me to lay out a brief little explainer here.

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

Some important caveats. 

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

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

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

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

In general, the sort of extra-rational dynamics that can consequentially influence discourse are often extremely hard to implement; the target has to be completely and constantly immersed in the new discourse environment, not just sporadically exposed to some clever trick of rhetorical framing or sloganeering.
Clay Shirky opposes acts of political principle and conscience - except when they support Trump - 10/16/16
A while back, Clay Shirky wrote a piece arguing that There's No Such Thing As A Protest Vote, where he rehearsed the familiar liberal argument that we should judge protest voting based on its practical outcomes - not on abstract principles or appeals to conscience:
People who believe in protest votes do so because they confuse sending a message with receiving one...But it doesn’t matter what message you think you are sending...People who plan to throw away their vote on Option C usually argue that their imagined protest won’t be futile...[but] none of the proposed theories of change change anything...
Throwing away your vote on a message no one will hear, and which will change no outcome, is sometimes presented as ‘voting your conscience’, but that’s got it exactly backwards; your conscience is what keeps you from doing things that feel good to you but hurt other people.
I've already taken on this odd theory that protest votes are inconsequential, but here I'd like to make a different point: Shirky isn't some kind of results-oriented pragmatist. Shirky does not actually ground his politics in the ruthless logic of the two-party binary choice. Shirky is not operating in some kind of post-ideological space outside of the dictates of principle and conscience. Shirky is an alt-centrist, and it's that ideology that brings him to do stuff like this:


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

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

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