Y’all motherfuckers really need to shut your various holes about Russia. I’ve been trying not to care, but this shit has gotten entirely out of hand.
People keep using the term “skepticism” here, but that concept is entirely inapplicable, because everything that’s been alleged so far has been completely ordinary. All major world governments run disinformation campaigns and interfere in each other’s elections. While it’s obvious and boring to keep bringing this up, it bears repeating until people start to get it through their fat heads: America has forcibly overthrown democratically-elected governments, several times. Rich fucks being in bed with foreign oligarchs is also entirely normal. All of those motherfuckers are all up in each other’s assholes all the time. The only thing different about Trump is that he’s a lot less competent at it. I’m not even going to bother with the notion that American political campaigns are totally clean and above-board except when those nefarious Russians get involved. If you weren’t already assuming that these things were the case, you basically don’t know anything about how the world works.
Furthermore, the actual substantive claim being made here, that Trump is for whatever reason acting on behalf of Russian interests, doesn’t hold up. Trump fawning over Putin is not a mystery that requires some special secret explanation. Trump has fawned over every military strongman he’s met and pouted at every democratic representative, and this is obviously because Trump is an idiot boy-child who likes big strong action men and hates it when lame old schoolmarms try to make him do basic arithmetic. Shockingly, Trump’s habitual mouthing off does not in fact accord with the real policy of the Republican-controlled executive branch of the United States government, which has in fact been as antagonistic towards Russia as one would expect it to be. Indeed, it’s almost as though Trump doesn’t know anything or do anything, and his entire life has just been a constant process of going on the TV to distract everyone from anything that’s really going on. You’ll note, though, that in order to understand this you have to actually check the facts of the matter instead of just watching the spectacle from the front row of the theater, which is how you know that anyone peddling this line is not actually doing politics, but rather acting in a reality show. The people who criticize Donald Trump in this fashion are the same person as Donald Trump.
And not only is this the correct argument factually, it is also the more sensible argument politically, because it gets at what’s actually wrong with Trump as a person, and by extension the entire American conservative movement as an ideology, rather than hinging everything on one coincidental connection that may or may not have happened one time. If your argument is that the main thing wrong with 2016 was Trump and the main thing wrong with Trump is that he’s compromised, then you are implicitly arguing that the normal Republican party is fine, and that a non-compromised version of Trump would also be fine.
Listen. Here’s the thing about this.
One ex-troll told a Russian independent TV network that his job included writing incendiary comments and creating fake posts on political forums: “The way you chose to stir up the situation, whether it was commenting [on] the news section or on political forums, it didn’t really matter.” In 2015, well before the 2016 election, the troll-factory network had more than 800 people doing this kind of work, producing propaganda videos, infographics, memes, reports, news, interviews and various analytical materials to persuade the public.
America never stood a chance.
Can you even imagine what it’s like when EIGHT HUNDRED PEOPLE, ON SOCIAL MEDIA, are posting stupid shit during an election year, or also at literally any other time? Clearly, there exists no recourse the richest and most powerful nation to ever exist could ever bring to bear against such unrelenting horrors.
Also, “stirring up the situation” is a good thing. Like, if Russia was attempting to “divide” us over Black Lives Matter, they were doing us a favor. It’s an important issue! We should be divided over it! The people who want this to not happen are the people who don’t want the issue to ever get resolved, who want to keep it in storage as a prop they can use whenever they want to gin up ratings, who fundamentally care more about their own comfort than about the fact that people are dying.
I’ll tell this story again: when I was watching the election results come in and saw that Trump was getting normal numbers, I knew at that point, before any results were official, that we had lost. But I was actually being delusionally optimistic to think that things could have been any different, because we lost a long time ago. The mere fact that Trump was accepted as a legitimate presidential candidate, let alone the fact that he isn’t in jail but has in fact been rich and famous his entire life, proves that there aren’t really any standards, we don’t really have a political process, and that America is and always has been the country that Trump believes it to be.
Of course, Trump could very well have lost the election itself for any number of reasons. It’s even possible, in the most basic technical sense, that Russian efforts may have made the difference in nudging Trump over the edge. That doesn’t make them matter. What matters is all the other stuff that brought things to the point where a routine rinky-dink hacking operation (or an uninspiring opposition candidate, or an October Surprise, or data-driven ad targeting) was enough to push them over the edge. You’re placing all the blame on the straw that broke the camel’s back and ignoring the mountain of other shit that was on there.
And that shit has been there, the whole time. Trump lost the popular vote by about three points, which means that the Electoral College by itself is responsible for invalidating at least that many votes (it’s actually more, because the existence of the Electoral College causes campaigns to plan around it rather than simply trying to appeal to the most people, which changes which votes get cast in the first place). Is there seriously any credible claim that any of this spy-movie bullshit moved more votes than that? Because if there’s not, but you still spend all your time talking about that, you’re fixing your wagon to a pretty lame horse. And that’s not even getting into the overwhelmingly more obvious issues like the fact that the media doesn’t actually cover issues.
“Of course the Electoral College is a problem,” you’ll whine, “but that’s just how it is; it’s just not politically feasible for us to do anything about it.” Well, you can’t do anything about Putin either, slick. It’s extremely unclear what all these people demanding that we “take Russia seriously” want us to actually do. More to the point, the fact that “that’s just how it is” is itself the problem. If the Electoral College is a major problem, then the fact that we can’t do anything about it is an even bigger and more fundamental problem. And the same applies to everything else that got us here: it applies to voter suppression, and to the ways in which most voters are ignorant and confused about specific relevant topics, and to how the media generally misleads people as to the state of the world and to how things work in the first place, and to the fact that most people just don’t vote anyway. If your concern is that “the American government should be responsible to the American people,” then you should be spending approximately zero energy on Russia, because literally everything about domestic American politics is a vastly larger impediment to that goal than is anything Russia is ever going to be able to do. To the extent that “Russiagate” actually refers to real political issues, those issues have nothing whatsoever to do with Russia.
Thus, the real function of all this isn’t just to provide desperate liberals a palatable excuse for losing to an overgrown fungus or to beat up on a newly resurgent left (though it is also both of those things). It is to continue to perpetuate, in the face of undeniable and overwhelming counterevidence, the fantasy that the world is basically an okay place where sometimes bad things happen, mostly due to malicious actors. The truth that any intellectually honest person is now forced to accept is that it is the other way around. The world is fundamentally wrong, and the structure of it acts generally to promote bad things and suppress good things. It is only through extreme personal effort that we are able to make some things okay, some of the time. People, particularly the kind of people who can get their long-winded lectures printed in the paper or go on TV to vomit up talking points, don’t want to believe this, because they want to believe that the fact that the world works for them means that they are good people. But it is again the other way around. The reason the world works for these people is that they are bad people, and the world works for bad people. If you’re in this or any similar position, then, you must conclude that your life is wrong, and that your only moral course of action is to take unsparing account of yourself and of the real effects of your actions, and to make fundamental changes in who you trust, what you believe, and how you understand the world. Or you can blame it on the Russians.
The Supreme Court’s recent upholding of the Muslim Ban is significantly worse than a mere “unconstitutional” violation of “religious liberty.” Indeed, the problem is precisely that it is not those things; it is entirely justifiable on legal grounds while also being plainly evil. It is, therefore, not a mere failing of the present composition of the Court, but an indictment of its very existence.
Arguing against something by calling it “unconstitutional” is facile in the best of cases (as with laws and standards in general, the mere existence of something says nothing about whether it’s right or wrong. Slavery was constitutional for a pretty long time), but here it’s just plainly false. What the constitution actually says about religion is the Congress shall make no law respecting its establishment. The executive branch is not Congress, and an executive order is not a law. In fact, the Constitution doesn’t really say a whole hell of a lot about any constraints on immigration policy, which is part of why various governments have pretty much made it up as they’ve gone along. We’ve had quotas before, you know. And in the absence of explicit legal standards, questions such as whether a face-neutral policy that was clearly motivated by religious resentment qualifies as “religious discrimination” or whether a particular action is justified in terms of national security ultimately have to be judgment calls.
Of course, this isn’t a slam-dunk case in favor of the ban, either. Just because an action is within the purview of the executive doesn’t mean that any such action is beyond reproach. And this is precisely the issue. As long as there is not a specific law addressing the exact case in question, the Court is, in a very fundamental sense, free to do as it wishes. And they’re not actually required to adhere to precedent, either, so ultimately the only thing preventing any given case from descending into a free-for-all is personal restraint. The question of whether to ban Muslims becomes simply the question of whether five lawyers want to ban Muslims.
Obergefell is an even clearer example. Scalia was entirely correct that the case was decided not because a particular decision was required by existing law, but simply because the majority wanted to legalize gay marriage. The reason he was full of shit is that the exact same argument applies to his own opinion. While he claimed that he didn’t care either way about the political question, the argument at issue was that gay people have the right to get married, so what this actually means is that he believed that gay people did not have such a right. This is exactly as much of an ideological position as Kennedy’s was – the only difference between the two is that Kennedy was a mushhead while Scalia was a liar. The only way to decide the case was to bring in a political opinion from outside existing law, and that’s exactly what both the majority and the dissenters did.
Given what’s been happening, this might seem obvious enough, but the problem is that it completely delegitimizes the existence of the Supreme Court, as such. That is, it is not the case that the Court is now illegitimate because it has become politicized. Its very conception is illegitimate a priori.
The reason the Supreme Court is an undemocratic and unaccountable body with lifetime membership is precisely because it is not supposed to address political questions. Its composition is explicitly intended to be unresponsive to democratic pressures. It’s supposed to be a technical institution, which is why it’s the only one staffed by actual professionals. And as far as the typical nitpicky lawyer case about whether a taco counts as a sandwich goes, this is all well and good. Cases with defined legal standards and without obvious political implications can in fact be adjudicated technically, by field experts.
But, while there are many such cases, their existence is ultimately a coincidence. Laws affect real-world material outcomes, so there’s never actually an “apolitical” law. It’s just that in some cases the political effects are narrow or obscure, and in others they’re obvious and far-reaching. In some cases, a legal question about whether a particular standard for operating a medical facility is justified is a simple technicality, while in others it is a fundamental judgment about whether abortion should be accessible or not. What distinguishes these cases is not the law itself, but the social circumstances surrounding it, which is why this problem is unavoidable. You can’t pick only the “non-ideological” cases for the Court to hear, because it is not the case itself that determines its political significance.
Thus, it is necessarily the case that the Supreme Court cannot function as intended. The question of whether this or that judge is a “moderate” or an “ideologue” is entirely beside the point. It is a logical impossibility. There will always be some number of cases whose outcomes are unavoidably political, such that the only way to judge them will be on the basis of political ideology. Which is exactly what happens.
It is important to emphasize, repeatedly, that this is not a matter of “corruption” or “decay” or “extremism” or what the fuck ever. It’s a matter of design. The “Founding Fathers” fucked this up: they designed a system that can’t work as intended, because they weren’t smart enough to figure out the stuff that I just described. I obviously have the benefit of hindsight, but wrong is wrong, and the design of the United States government is in this respect objectively wrong. You’re not going to get anywhere until you give up your childish fantasies about the “wisdom” of “great men” and start looking at how things actually function.
Except that’s not quite true either, because, despite the fact that the actual operation of the government today is quite far removed from how it was when it was first designed, there’s a significant sense in which we really do have the society that the founders wanted. “Democracy” for them meant something completely different than it does to us – there’s a reason they felt no compunctions talking big about it while denying the franchise to the vast majority of the population (and also raping slaves). What it meant for them was, rather than the rule of a specific class of elites (royals), rule by the elites in general. Non-elites did not, for the sake of political representation, qualify as people.
The reason we have a society dominated by businessmen and lawyers is that the founding fathers were businessmen and lawyers who wanted to dominate society. That’s the order they created, and it’s the order we still have today, with the Supreme Court acting as one of its most powerful enforcers. So, from one point of view, the founders were even wiser then they’re given credit for: even after thoroughly misunderstanding, distorting, and bastardizing their vision, we’re still pretty much doing what they wanted. (On the other hand, creating a new order just to re-replicate the same patterns that have existed for all of human history isn’t, like, particularly impressive.)
To be fair, though, there really isn’t a solution to this problem. If you have a society of laws, you do have to have some sort of body for adjudicating them, and doing so is unavoidably going to be a political endeavor a lot of the time. The solution for us, though, once we’ve cleared away the obfuscating fog, shines though with painful clarity. Because the Supreme Court cannot ever be relied upon for anything, it must never be the case that it matters at all to our political activity. The whiny liberals screeching about how important it is to Vote Democratic for the sake of the Supreme Court have it exactly backwards: if all you can rely on to advance your agenda is friendly judicial rulings, you have already lost. You are relying solely on rearguard actions that will never allow you to claim new territory.
The looming fate of Roe is the perfect example here. The only reason that decision matters is that abortion is already inaccessible, so its technical legality is the only thread it has left to hang on to. By contrast, this isn’t a problem for birth control in general. The same zealots would also love to ban birth control, but that aspect of their cause is a complete non-starter, because the battle for birth control has already been won. It’s a normal thing that everyone uses openly in their daily lives. Despite noble efforts from many quarters (well, one quarter), the same cannot yet be said of abortion. But that’s the only way to actually resolve this; a technical legal argument in favor of abortion doesn’t do anything for anybody. Avoiding the fight by adhering to the garbage status quo is a coward’s plan. The only moral option is to win the war.
Also, we really need to admit that Roe was a shit decision in the first place. Establishing a touchy-feely sort-of-right to abortion that came with built-in restrictions ensured that actual access would inevitably be chipped away by a bunch of bullshit pseudo-regulations while obligating absolutely no action toward helping people actually utilize their supposed rights. The correct decision is for abortion to be established as a positive right that the government is obligated to provide, based on the fundamental right to bodily autonomy – which is not enumerated in the Bill of Rights. Also, this is identical to the argument for universal health care, which is the only workable way to implement it. The Constitution won’t tell you any of that, though. You have to figure it out for yourself.
Jurisprudence is not going to save you. The political institution that is responsible for the advancement of values is you.
This immigration thing is exactly what I was just talking about. Trump and Obama both have the same goals regarding immigration policy; the thing that makes Trump worse is simply that he’s a moron, which results in him doing a bad job of meeting those goals, which causes additional unnecessary human suffering.
The thing about DACA is that it’s actually just prosecutorial discretion, which is a normal thing that always exists. Prosecutors can’t do everything at once, so they have to pick the cases that they think are the most worth prosecuting. This applies most strongly to immigration, since in that case you’ve got a ton of people just hanging out and living here, so you have an extreme luxury of choice as to which ones you want to try to deport. What DACA is is just the acknowledgement that people who a) came to the country as children and therefore did not themselves make the decision to immigrate and b) have been living and working here their whole lives, just like everybody else, represent the absolute lowest priority for deportation.
But the thing about this is that you can only get DACA if you are already proceeding from the assumption that your goal is to deport as many people as possible as efficiently as possible. It’s entirely distinct from amnesty: “deferred action” is right there in the name. DACA is not the “left-wing” immigration policy, it’s just the least stupid version of the right-wing immigration policy. It’s an anti-immigrant policy, because it’s based on the assumption of deportation.
Of course, this doesn’t make it a bad thing by itself, and that’s exactly the problem that people have: they have to sort everything into “good thing” or “bad thing.” This is not, as defensive liberals would have it, a matter of “deflecting” from Trump by “blaming Obama,” or a “false equivalency.” It doesn’t matter whose “fault” it is or whether one thing is “just as bad” as another. Answering those questions doesn’t help anybody. What does help is figuring out how and why things are happening, and what can be done to change them. It’s a matter of the underlying logic of the situation: of how things happen. That’s what you have to know in order to stop it. It is precisely because child separation is such a vicious policy that we can’t understand it in isolation: without understanding the causal chain that created it, you can’t fix the thing that you’re claiming is so uniquely horrible that it has to be fixed right now.
In short, the myopic focus on individual media-friendly outrages is exactly how politics doesn’t happen. The most common example of this is the persistent focus on the Supreme Court. Everyone’s all atwitter about Roe v. Wade potentially being overturned, but the thing is that wouldn’t actually change the status quo on abortion all that much. Abortion is already practically inaccessible in areas that are hostile to it, so allowing states to formally outlaw it would simply change the situation from “almost unavailable” to “completely unavailable.” And areas that already have accessible abortion clinics would just stay that way.
This doesn’t mean that it wouldn’t matter, it just means that it’s one thing at the very end of a long chain of things that matter. Focusing solely on this one last piece of the puzzle means ignoring 99% of the issue. Furthermore, it means focusing on the one thing that we’re least able to affect. We don’t have any real control over what the Supreme Court does, and in fact that’s supposed to be the point. The reason the Supreme Court has no democratically accountability is that they’re not supposed to be setting policy. The constant liberal droning about how much the composition of the Supreme Court matters completely misses the point: it shouldn’t matter. The Court only matters when everything else has already gone wrong, such that it becomes the last resort. If abortion is already accessible everywhere, then not having formal constitutional protections for it doesn’t change much. Whereas if abortion isn’t practically available anywhere, it doesn’t really matter whether it’s theoretically “protected” or not.
This is also exactly what happened the other way around with Obergefell. A majority of states had already legalized gay marriage, and that trend would have continued either way. Indeed, the decision only became possible due to decades of hard political work advancing the proposition that gay people were not “sodomites” but were in fact people. There is no way in hell that mushhead Kennedy would have written that opinion had the tide not already decisively turned. And the cake thing shows that it in no way “resolved” the issue; this is still a site of active conflict. Again, this doesn’t make Obergefell meaningless. It’s still a good thing. And overturning Roe would be actually horrible, just like child separation is actually horrible. But these things are what they are at the same time that they are not deus ex machinae, that they are properly understood as the logical culmination of underlying dynamics.
Both things are true. Not everything is equally as bad as everything else, there are real worthwhile distinctions to be drawn among existing political alternatives, but the fact that these alternatives are distinct does not mean that they are actually opposed to one another. They function symbiotically. As long as we’re concerned about Roe being overturned, we’re not thinking about how to make abortion available to people who need it. As long as we’re horrifying ourselves with recordings of children crying, we’re not taking a real stance on immigration. If you only care about things when they get dramatic portrayals in the media, you aren’t actually a moral person. You’re a child, and you’re locking yourself in a cage.
Those who yearn for the halcyon days of empirical statements and complete sentences in politics will find Barack Obama’s defense of the Iran deal a long-awaited balm. As well they should; Obama is an intelligent person with a genuine command of the issues and the ability to explain them clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, he’s also clever.
Read this passage carefully:
Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium — the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and achieved real results.
Now answer this: before the Iran deal was established, was Iran building nuclear weapons? It sure sounds like it, right? It was “steadily advancing,” “approaching” the point where it might have achieved “breakout capacity.” Scary! Also, 13,000! That’s a big number!
The correct answer, however, is no. There’s no evidence that’s Iran’s “weapons program” was ever anything more than a bogeyman conjured up by people with political interests in facilitating an invasion of the country. One does not need “access to the intelligence” to be able to state this with relative confidence. Because the U.S. has been constantly scaremongering about this for years now, we can be sure that, if there really was hard evidence, we’d have heard all about it. You’ll note that Obama’s statement above is composed entirely of weasel words. The “raw materials” for a bomb do not constitute a weapons program, saying that something is “approaching” the point where it could be “rapidly produced” specifically means it is not being produced, and the whole thing is based on the conflation of “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.” None of this is a mistake; Obama is obviously apprised of the real intelligence on the subject, and he is choosing these words deliberately.
(By the way, for anyone who’s not aware of this: the reason the U.S. government hates Iran is that they overthrew our puppet government there. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with theocracy or human rights or terrorism sponsorship, since we’re still BFFs with Saudi Arabia, which is way worse on all possible counts. And of course it would be perfectly rational for Iran to choose to pursue nuclear weapons now, since it’s been demonstrated that the American mind only understands force.)
So this raises the critical question of what the hell Obama thinks he’s doing. Presumably, the argument in favor of the Iran deal is that Iran is not in fact part of an “axis of evil” and should simply be negotiated with normally. Indeed, one might have imagined that this was the entire point, that the deal was built on the recognition that the United States and Iran have no real reason to be in conflict with each other and should be working together towards deescalation and a normalization of relations. Should one hold such a belief, though, one would be in for some pretty strenuous disagreement from, for example, Barack Obama:
Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.
While I don’t normally recommend that anyone pay any attention to politicians, I really wish all the people slobbering about how rational and thoughtful Obama is would actually read what he’s saying here. He is explicitly saying that, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be justified in launching a war of aggression. In fact, he’s saying more than that: by framing the situation as a “losing choice,” he’s saying that the U.S. would be required to do so. (It’s always pretty hilarious whenever someone uses the phrase “all options are on the table,” because there’s actually only ever one option on the table.)
This is important because it illuminates what Obama’s actual goal here is. It is not peace. If it were, he’d be responding to the present situation by arguing that there’s no reason to invade Iran. Instead, he’s doing the opposite: he’s specifically arguing against the possibility of “living with the threat.” So the question is why exactly the two choices he presents are both supposed to be “losing” ones. The reason Obama thinks war is a losing choice is that he’s smart. He knows that war is the worst thing and, moreover, that, for all the destruction it causes in the name of “necessity,” it generally doesn’t even achieve it’s own explicit immediate-term goals (the Iraq War, for example, exacerbated the spread of terrorism rather than containing it). But the reason he thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a losing choice is that, in that case, the U.S. government’s dominance over the region would be weakened. In both cases, then, that is what he’s actually after: the successful expansion of U.S. imperialism.
And Obama genuinely does deserve credit for being smart. I actually want to emphasize this. The Iraq War was evil in terms of intention, but it was also badly executed, which made it worse. So the fact that Obama took the “smart” approach to Iran is not something to be underestimated. The Iran deal was by far the best thing Obama did as president. It was an unambiguously positive development that prevented one of the worst available outcomes from occurring – the U.S. government’s constant saber-rattling means that war really was an immediate danger, and unfortunately now still is.
But objecting only to the “stupidity” of war means you agree with its goals. The tide of official opinion has shifted against the Iraq War, but not out of morality. Almost everyone objects only to the fact that Iraq became a “quaqmire,” and Obama is one of those people. Maybe he would have been smart enough not to go into Iraq in the first place. He did speak out against the war, but he was a political unknown at the time, so he wasn’t really under any pressure not to. More to the point, we know full well what he really believes from what he actually did as president: he not only maintained but accelerated the state of perpetual warfare by expanding targeted assassination and surveillance programs and constantly engaging in unilaterally-declared undebated military actions. In this sense he was actually a far more effective imperialist than George W. Bush, because he expanded the franchise without provoking any opposition – despite the fact that all the things everyone was supposedly opposed to were still occurring. “Smart” imperialism may not get us Iraq, but it does get us Libya and Syria.
The situation with the Iran deal is frequently framed as a matter of Donald Trump trying to “undo” all of Obama’s accomplishments, but it’s actually just a matter of him being a moron. He lacks the mental capacity to assess either the merits of the deal or the consequences of withdrawal. (For example, a lot of people noticed that reneging on the Iran deal would make negotiations with North Korea untenable, meaning it was a bad idea regardless of the merits of the deal itself. It’s clear that this problem never even entered Trump’s mind.) He isn’t capable of processing the situation on any level other than labeling the deal a “bad thing” and therefore getting rid of it.
So what’s critical to understand is that, while this is a real difference – we’re worse off without the Iran deal – it’s a difference of execution rather than intention. The motives on which he’s acting here are the same as Obama’s: he’s trying to advance U.S. imperialism. During the campaign, a lot of political analysts thought Trump was an “isolationist,” basically because they’re incapable of doing political analysis. His objections to the Iraq War were entirely circumstantial: it wasted a bunch of money and caused bad things to happen (specifically, it had become unpopular and it was indirectly associated with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, so it was a convenient attack vector). They were not moral; he was quite clear that his preferred approach to foreign policy was to “bomb them and take their oil,” which is precisely imperialism expressed in its crudest terms.
(I don’t totally understand why people think Trump is “evasive” or has “no ideology.” He’s entirely transparent. On second thought, I lied, I understand it perfectly well. The reason is that Trump only has the basic underlying ideology that most of the people talking about him implicitly share, so they don’t understand it as an ideology. (For example, Trump is obviously in favor of capitalism, and since most people don’t realize that capitalism is optional, they don’t understand that this is an ideological position. Same with imperialism.))
On Iran, Trump’s interpretation (generously defined) of the deal as a “bad deal” meant that it didn’t advantage America enough, and therefore did not exert the necessary dominance over Iran. This is the same motivation that lead Obama to pursue the deal in the first place: Iran having nuclear weapons would have allowed it to exert its own influence. This is the only reason anyone in the ruling class cares about anything. It’s exactly the same thing with North Korea: it’s only now that they’re beginning to acquire nuclear capacity and can therefore threaten our dominance over Asia that there’s suddenly a “crisis.” For anyone with the goal of peace, there was never an “Iran issue” in the first place, because Iran is not a threat to anyone – it has not been the instigator of any of the regional conflicts currently transpiring, and its involvement has been entirely defensive. Note that this is not something that the United States can claim.
Indeed, nuclear proliferation really is a vitally important issue, but not for the reasons you’ll hear from anyone in the media. For most of us, the reason nuclear weapons are a serious issue is that they can be used to murder millions of people in the blink of an eye – and they can just as easily do this accidentally as intentionally. The reason this matters to me is that Los Angeles is a priority target for anyone who wants to nuke the U.S., and there are a small number of people here whom I care about, and I refuse to accept that they can be instantly annihilated by the random whims of a tiny handful of sagging fleshpiles failing to play geopolitical checkers. (Also, blinding followed by irradiation doesn’t quite make my top 10 list of ways to die.) That’s my personal reason, at least. To be clear, the overwhelmingly more likely threat is the U.S. nuking someone else. Any other country that used nukes would be committing suicide, but the U.S. could potentially justify it and/or resist a beheading by the international community, not to mention we’re the ones with enough nukes to black out the sky, as well as the ones doing such a shit job of securing them that accidental global annihilation is actually a salient possibility. While I strongly resent my life being under this stupid of a threat, anyone being honest about this has to admit that America is the monster here, and it’s therefore everyone not being “protected” by America’s nuclear umbrella who has the real moral authority.
For politicians, though, none of this has anything to do with anything. They’re already murdering people on a constant basis; they don’t care about that. They’d be perfectly happy to kill everyone in Los Angeles if it would benefit them and they thought they could get away with it. We know perfectly well from the immediately available historical evidence that they will kill whoever they want for whatever reason they want and they will use nukes to do so if they think they can justify it. The only reason they care is because of power. Countries with nuclear weapons have the ability to resist U.S. dominance. Nobody can beat the U.S. in a straight war, but we can’t stop nukes, so a country with nukes can credibly threaten us – which is to say they can make the costs of invading them outweigh the benefits. Nuclear weapons give other nations the power to assert their own desires against the will of the U.S. government, and this is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Obama doesn’t actually want war. At least that much can be said for him. He’s not John Bolton salivating for violence, nor even John McCain singing about bombing Iran. But he is Barack Obama making jokes about killing people with drone strikes. What Obama wants is American dominance. He’s smart enough to realize that it’s better to have dominance without having to resort to war, but if we do end up having to kill a few million people here or there, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. He’s “anti-war” only tactically, as a result of being moderately intelligent. Unlike the rest of the slack-jawed crocodiles that this country calls a government, he at least realizes that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But he’s totally cool with taking that refuge. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
The thing about Trump is that opposing him is easy. Indeed, it’s difficult not to, which is why so many objectively terrible people are now doing so. This is because Trump is the worst possible person. It’s actually kind of amazing, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Almost everybody has at least something that could be said for them. Y’know, Hitler loved his dogs or whatever. More to the point, Hitler had real goals that he felt passionately about and he was skillful and determined in pursuing them. Obviously, this made the consequences of his life much worse than they could have been, but it remains the case that these are respectable traits to have as a person. One can at least view Hitler as a formidable villain.
But the thing that’s amazing about Trump is that he has nothing like this going for him. There are a few things about him that would seem to be positives, but he manages to make them into negatives anyway. For example, he doesn’t actually “speak his mind” and thereby get through the “media filter,” because he’s only capable of thinking in media tropes in the first place, and he only talks to draw attention to himself, not to express ideas. So he actually uses his impulsiveness and irreverence to play into existing media narratives, resulting in him being an even more conventional and obfuscatory speaker than the typical talking-point parroting politician.
Similarly, while it may seem that Trump is a dynamic person who takes action and makes a difference in the world, he doesn’t direct his energy at anything that actually matters. He started a whole bunch of different businesses and ventures and so forth, but none of them actually did anything – none of the products he hawked are still around and none of the buildings he promoted do anything significant, so what his “high-energy” personality actually means is that he wastes more time and money than someone who just sits around and does nothing.
This is even clearer now that he actually has formal power and is doing absolutely nothing with it. If he actually cared about doing anything, he could have, among other things, made an immigration deal such as the DACA-for-wall proposal that had bipartisan support or pushed for the big infrastructure bill he likes to talk about sometimes. These things would have broken out of the political stalemate and precipitated actual changes in the country, but because Trump doesn’t actually know how to do real things, they never even came close to happening. His “energy” is instead spent playing golf and yelling at the TV. He was entirely energetic and committed when he was running for president, and this was a bad thing, because presidential campaigns are bullshit spectacles that eclipse real issues. So the practical result of this was not that anything “changed,” but that Trump simply made the 2016 campaign an even bigger and more bullshit-filled spectacle than ever before. He only knows how to do things that aren’t real things.
Yet all of this actually makes Trump a less bad president than a lot of others, at least so far. He’s at least going to stay ahead of Bush Jr. as long as he doesn’t start a major war. And his total lack of policy understanding might actually lead to him not fucking up the South Korean president’s efforts at a peace treaty, which, given the current context of U.S. foreign policy, would qualify as a significant passive achievement. But this obviously doesn’t reflect well on Trump – it’s just a coincidence, or what philosophers call “moral luck.” It’s actually part of why he’s the worst possible person: being ineffective in an immoral situation results in better outcomes.
By contrast, Obama has plenty of admirable character traits, but these don’t necessarily lead to good results. I mean, Obama isn’t nearly as good of a person as people make him out to be. The fact that he immediately cashed in upon exiting the presidency really does reflect quite badly on him – anyone making excuses for Obama on this front is presumably unaware that Jimmy Carter exists. I mean, he’s, like, “nice,” but he’s clearly not any kind of moral paragon, so there’s really quite a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It would be nice if the “first black president” were a deep moralist and a bold, original thinker, but things that would be nice tend to not actually be the case.
Anyway, the point is that Obama applied his admirable skills towards the execution of his goals, so the actual results of his actions depend on what those goals were. In response to the financial crisis, Obama’s goal was to preserve the stability of financial capitalism, and that’s exactly what he did. A less skilled individual might not have been able to pull it off. But Obama did, so the speculators kept speculating, the entire value of the recovery went to rich fucks, and we now have a less equal society that retains all of the same problems that caused the crash in the first place, along with a “healthy” economy where no one can afford housing.
Of course, stabilizing the economy was better than not stabilizing it, but that’s not much of a laurel to rest on. This is clearer in the case of Obamacare. While the law had a lot of negative consequences, such as the rise of high-deductible plans, the situation was already pretty well fucked, so it’s probably better that it passed. But while we may want to defend Obamacare on a tactical basis, we should still be opposed to it on a moral one, because it still supports a system in which people live or die based on how much money they have. This isn’t about demanding perfection. Its perfectly rational to take what you can get, but it would be entirely irrational not to then continue on to pursue something that’s actually good. Indeed, it would precisely be an insistence on ideological purity at the expense of engaging with real conditions in the world.
And the thing is, if you try to do something like this, Obama is going to be against you. He’s against war with Iran, so if you’re engaged with the specific issue of trying to prevent a war with Iran, he may be effective as a situational ally. You know what they say about politics. But if you then move on to trying to stop U.S. imperialism, he’s going to be just as opposed to you as he is to Trump. More so, in fact, because in this case he will actually disagree with your goals rather than merely your methods.
Being against the worst thing in the world doesn’t make you a good person, and being the preferable alternative to the worst thing in the world doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that you’re the second worst thing in the world. More to the point, there’s opposition, and then there’s opposition. If you’re against someone because you think they’re doing a bad job of implementing your goals, what that means is that you’re on their side, you just have some constructive criticism for them. Barack Obama is on Donald Trump’s side, not yours.
This is a hard thing to convince people of, because the superficial differences are so great – and, as mentioned, they’re things that actually matter, so you can’t just ignore them. But acting in the real world rather than merely indulging in conformable fantasies requires doing things which are hard, such as drawing distinctions that aren’t readily apparent, and making choices other than those that are explicitly presented to you. Sometimes you have to cut against people’s instinctive personal reactions rather than indulging them. We don’t always have the convenience of our enemies manifesting themselves as sneering grotesques, broadcasting their vileness for all to see. Sometimes the ones who smile are the villains. The lines aren’t always clear or straight, either, and the complexity of any significant issue makes it easy to get things wrong. But I can say this: if you care about progress, if you care about equality, if you care about justice – indeed, if you care about anything at all other than the continued stability of the American Empire – Barack Obama is your enemy.
The decision in Epic Systems Corp. v. Lewis has a clear, unavoidable, and devastating takeaway: the system doesn’t work.
Supposedly, we have this thing called “society” which organizes everything to allow for normal people to live happy and productive lives, as long as they follow the rules. If you behave and get good grades in school, you’ll be able to go to college, and then get a good job, which will allow you to participate in the market economy with the money you make and thereby pursue whatever goals you might have (because of course the market provides everything you could ever want). And if anything in this process goes wrong, there are also rules for how to resolve it. If someone steals from you, you can call the police in order to get your stuff back. Even in the case of outright unpredictable and unavoidable disasters such as tornadoes or earthquakes, we have insurance and emergency management services.
Naturally, nothing’s perfect, so there are plenty of times when things don’t go as they should: when cops kill the people they’re supposed to be protecting, when corporations don’t pay the amount of taxes that the law says they’re supposed to, when people make electoral decision based on false or misleading information, etc. But these things aren’t necessarily system failures. They may just be unintended consequences, or mistakes in how a law was drafted, or new technological developments that haven’t been accounted for yet. So the natural recourse here is to reform: fighting fake news, closing tax loopholes, and retraining the police. This is also built into the rules: we have various mechanisms for making these sorts of changes when it’s recognized that there are problems of this sort that need to be corrected.
It’s important, therefore, not to respond to these types of things by changing the structure itself, because the structure is what allows you to respond in the first place. If, for example, you were to respond to police violence by delegitimizing the police, you would a) no longer have their protection, opening you up to more violence, and b) implicitly create a new structure without police protection in general, meaning no one would any longer have any recourse against unjust violence. (This is essentially the argument that cops have tried to make in response to Black Lives Matter, except that they’ve been too stupid to make it correctly; they’ve instead gotten defensive and petty and thereby conceded the moral high ground.) This means that more important than any particular violation of the rules is the rules themselves, because as long as we have the rules, we have a functioning society. It’s all well and good to try to fix things, but this must always be done through the proper channels, and never by attacking the channels themselves.
What the Epic decision demonstrates is that this is formally not the case. The rules are intentionally designed not to work for you, and this includes the rules that are supposed to account for the times when the rules fail. The case specifically concerned the fact that the company wasn’t paying overtime. In other words, they were stealing from their employees, meaning they were both breaching the contract they had with them and breaking the law. So this is already a failure of the normal rules. The recourse for this is supposed to be that the affected parties can file a lawsuit, and the only thing that an arbitration clause does is to remove this recourse; it specifically prevents the rules from being followed. Arbitration clauses are an explicit power grab by corporations, and the only reason they exist is that corporations have the power to make it so: they dictate terms that are not open to negotiation, and these terms include the clause that, if you get fucked, there is nothing you can do about it. And what the Supreme Court of the United States has just decided is that this is absolutely correct. Powerful people should indeed have free reign to ignore the rules for their own benefit.
So, as it turns out, there really is no such thing as society. There are individual teeth and claws. The thing that Hobbes was wrong about was the idea that the social contract gets us out of the state of nature. It doesn’t. The state of nature is still there, the whole time, waiting. Nothing can actually stop someone from murdering you; all society can do is provide sets of incentives and disincentives to affect people’s behavior. The kind of “law” that says you can’t murder people is qualitatively different from the kind of “law” that says that if you get shot in the face, you die.
Furthermore, the social contract itself is just another state of nature on top of the default one, because nothing prevents it from being exploited. A court of law can potentially arbitrate a dispute to reach a just resolution, but it can also allow an unethical lawyer with a vindictive client to destroy someone’s life just because they want to. And anyone capable of preventing this will necessarily have the power to commit the same abuse themselves (this is the “who watches the watchers?” problem: whatever the highest level of authority is in any given situation, someone at that level can simply choose to do whatever the fuck they feel like). Regardless of what kinds of “rules” and “regulations” there are, there’s always going to be underlying material conditions that determine what people can actually do, and what will (or won’t) happen to them as the result of particular actions.
This dynamic has seen some surface-level discussion recently in the guise of “norms,” but this has mostly been cheap handwringing about the fucking filibuster or whatever. The real issue here goes all the way down: to the home you live in, the clothes you wear, and the food you eat. You do not have a “right” to anything: you either have the ability to steal or the luxury of noblesse oblige. Your very existence is contingent on the random whims of senile jackasses and stunted sociopaths. The only reason you are alive is that no one has yet chosen to kill you.
This is cause for one type of fatalism: it means that utopia is logically impossible. Any possible society will include avenues of exploitation. More practically, in our current situation, it means that we never were and will never be in a situation where the “rules” and being “followed” and we are therefore “safe.” “Normalcy” is only ever a pocket of delusion created by fortuitous circumstances. Every atrocity ever committed was a free choice made by someone who had the power to do so, and the worst thing that will ever happen is locked, loaded, and ready to go, just waiting for someone to pull the trigger.
But this is also true of everything good that has ever happened. Nothing worthwhile was ever supposed to happen; it happened because people made it happen, the hard way. It happened because someone was willing to bloody their hands, or willing to scar themselves. But I’m not sure anyone has ever really learned this lesson. Pretty much everyone goes back to sleep as soon as they get an official proclamation or a law passed or a president elected or something. Indeed, the vast majority of the time people settle for almost nothing: they’re happy to get bread crumbs and call it a banquet. No one ever pushes the knife all the way in.
It’s not enough to simply have a court system and to say that it allows people to resolve disputes. Contracts don’t matter if one side can dictate terms that the other must accept, courts don’t matter if powerful people can force arbitration, and laws don’t matter unless something actually happens when you break them. In order for any of these things to do what they’re supposed to, we have to fill in the other side of the equation, and by the very nature of the problem, this cannot be done with “rules.” It must be done with force.
I don’t know how to do this. Like, I can assure you that I am not making a self-interested argument here. This is the worst possible conclusion for me. I am a child of order, and I do not know how to live wild. But I have to accept this, because the highest court in the land just told me that it’s not going to countenance any alternative. This is a war, and the only rational response is to act like it.
There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.
So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.
Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.
And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.
This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.
In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.
This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.
So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.
I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.
If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.
The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.
If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.
It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.
This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.
This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.
It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is that bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.
For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”
Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.
The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussion and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.
You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.
Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.
- Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves. ↩