Endless talk

Given recent developments in Nazis, this is probably a good time for some real talk on the whole free speech thing. While this topic has been discussed to death, it’s attracted a truly staggering amount of dullardry in the process, so I feel the need for boring philosophical clarity.

First, there is no such position as free speech absolutism. You cannot begin understanding the issue until you understand this. We like to talk about “rights” as though they are unlimited, but that’s not how the concept works. In terms of moral philosophy, a right is something that you don’t violate for utilitarian purposes. There are times when killing someone might actually result in the best overall outcome, but you still don’t kill people in those cases, because you have the right not to be killed.1 But it’s for this same reason that you can and indeed have to violate rights in order to preserve other rights. In the real world, rights conflict, so you can’t always preserve all of them.2 This isn’t a novel interpretation, it’s just how rights work. Even Second Amendment zealots don’t argue that individuals ought to be able to own and operate intercontinental ballistic missiles.

When it comes to speech, there are already plenty of laws on the books restricting it on this basis. Ordering an assassination is not “protected speech,” because it violates the target’s right to life. And the restrictions aren’t only for extreme cases; lots of practical, everyday speech acts are prohibited in the same way. Credible death threats are illegal because they violate the target’s right to basic security. Shouting “fire” in a crowded theater is illegal because it causes direct physical harm. Libel is illegal because you have the right not to suffer harmful consequences based on falsehoods (of course, you do not have the right to avoid the consequences of truths, which is why only falsehoods qualify as libel. In other words, this is a specific instance of the right to due process). There’s even a legal category that’s actually called “fighting words,” referring to speech that directly precipitates harm or illegal action. The decision referenced in that link clearly conveys the balance of interests required in making these determinations:

It has been well observed that such utterances are no essential part of any exposition of ideas, and are of such slight social value as a step to truth that any benefit that may be derived from them is clearly outweighed by the social interest in order and morality.

Furthermore, speech not only conflicts with other rights, it also conflicts with itself. One of the problems with libel is that preemptive damage to the target’s reputation prevents them from being able to correct the record – one person’s speech restricts another’s. Similarly, highly provocative speech can prevent a discussion from taking place, and certain types of intellectual climates make certain ideas inadmissible. You can’t respond to these types of situations simply by picking the side with “more speech.” There can be valid speech on both sides, and you have to decide which side you value more.

In a broader and more important sense, this is the real problem with hate speech. It’s not that it hurts people’s feelings or even that it’s “harmful” in general. It’s okay and frequently desirable for harmful things to happen. Racists get their feelings hurt when people call them racists, but this is a good thing, because it’s correct for your feelings to hurt when people call you out for doing bad things. The problem is that hate speech is detrimental to overall human expression.3 Arguing that black people are inferior to white people necessarily reduces their effective ability to speak. The argument itself does this, even before anyone accepts it, because refuting the argument becomes a prerequisite to listening to black people. If you spend all you time arguing about whether black people’s ideas deserve to be taken seriously, you spend none of your time actually taking black people’s ideas seriously. This is exactly why the affected groups often try to shut these discussions down: because they have to, or they will never be able to say anything else.

So if you call yourself a “free speech absolutist” and refuse to make any determinations on the issue, all you’re actually doing is allowing existing forces to make those determinations on their own. The real world has a variety of conditions and constraints that allow certain types of expression to happen and disallow others, and a “hands off” approach means tacit agreement with the results. So you are not in fact an “absolutist” at all, you’re just a naive censor.

This also means that “maximizing speech” (as in “the solution to bad speech is more speech”) is not a coherent goal, because some ideas crowd out others. The idea that black people are inferior to white people and the idea that black people should be equal participants in society cannot just float around abstractly without affecting each other. They conflict on the basis of their inherent content. To the extent that one of those ideas is expressed more, the other is expressed less.

This is compounded by the fact that there is a limit on how much speech can actually exist. We are finite beings living in a finite world, so we can never inhabit a situation in which we are expressing and considering “all” ideas. (When someone says “all options are on the table,” they really just mean that an option that would make them look bad if they directly argued for it is in fact being argued for.) The space of potential ideas is infinite, and choosing which are worthy of consideration is a large portion of what it means to be an intelligent lifeform. Not all expression is of equal quality. Putting forth an argument that has been widely rebutted is inferior to a new version of the same argument that takes the rebuttals into account, or to an entirely new argument. Substituting one of the latter options for the former increases overall quality of expression. The way that the 24-hour news cycle effectively forces some new thing to become the Most Important Thing every day is anti-free-speech behavior, because it restricts the ability to distinguish between levels of real importance. Furthermore, context matters. It matters that the New York Times has completely godawful op-ed columnists because lots and lots of people read the New York Times and take it seriously just because it’s the New York Times. The fact that better ideas are free to exist elsewhere doesn’t cancel this out. Ideas being expressed in more prominent venues matter more.

I’m being pedantic; this is really all just the basic stuff we do when we communicate: we try to understand things and make useful contributions to the discussion and say things that are right instead of wrong. We try to get useful ideas expressed in the places where people can actually hear them. We criticize the elevation of trash, not because we think people don’t know better, but because there are better uses of our limited resources.

Obviously, we do not want to respond to this situation by censoring any idea that someone deems “not good enough.” But that’s exactly the point: the only question here is how we’re going to manage speech. In terms of what we want to accomplish, increasing the overall quality of ideas expressed is the only thing that makes sense. We don’t want a “robust discussion” about fascism, we want a discussion where nobody is arguing for fascism.

There is, of course, a specific meaning to the term “free speech,” which is that the government should not be able to restrict expression on the basis of its content. But this is still not an absolute condition. Here’s Ludwig von Mises being completely wrong about this:

But whoever is ready to grant to the government this power would be inconsistent if he objected to the demand to submit the statements of churches and sects to the same examination. Freedom is indivisible. As soon as one starts to restrict it, one enters upon a decline on which it is difficult to stop. If one assigns to the government the task of making truth prevail in the advertising of perfumes and tooth paste, one cannot contest it the right to look after truth in the more important matters of religion, philosophy, and social ideology.

Of course you can. I think it’s pretty obvious that the slope between banning poisonous toothpaste and banning political opinions is not particularly slippery. There are specific reasons why the government is (potentially) competent at the former but not the latter. First, the government has an obvious bias regarding which political ideas get expressed, which makes it an incompetent judge of which ideas deserve suppression. As the entity that manages power distribution, the government has the strongest possible vested interest in regulating ideas. But the government is just as capable as any other entity of running tests to determine what’s poisonous, and it has no vested interest in the results4. So the problem here has nothing to do with “big government,” it’s simply a matter of competent discrimination.

Second, because the government is the entity with a monopoly on the legitimate use of force, ideas prohibited by the government are absolutely prohibited. It’s okay to ban one brand of toothpaste, because that’s not a significant restriction on anyone’s choices (if the toothpaste really is significantly harmful, it’s actually an enhancement of people choices, because it prevents them from accidentally making a decision they never would have made based on real information). But ideas are more complicated. Even an obviously bad idea might have positive effects through clarifying arguments or inspiring counterpoints. So, unlike being poisoned, which is something you never want, bad ideas are not absolute negatives. You might want to restrict them in particular times and at particular places, but you don’t want them absolutely restricted. Since people obviously disagree about ideas, discrimination is properly applied on the level of voluntary groups – that is, organizations can decide individually which ideas are worthwhile for them and which are not.5 And while there are in fact ideas that deserve complete eradication (again, fascism), this has to be done organically. Ideas are not magic; they have physical causes. If you try to banish an idea without addressing why it came about in the first place, it’s inevitably going to regenerate at some point. That’s exactly what’s happening right now: everyone thought we had gotten over fascism, when in reality all we had done was to shove it into the category of “Bad Things” without doing anything about its real causes. But once you’ve processed an idea and moved into a new situation where it no longer applies, artificially preserving it restricts speech. It prevents you from moving on to the next stage of discussion.

So these are the two actual criteria that matter for assessing speech restrictions. The first is accurate judgment: whether the idea is being restricted on its own merits or out of other motivations such as prejudice or political interest. The second is breadth: whether the restriction is being applied at the correct level. It’s fine for one explicitly capitalist magazine to disallow socialist opinions, because that’s not what anyone reading it is there for. It’s not okay for a larger entity to disallow the creation of any other types of magazines. But banning death threats throughout all of society is the correct level of applicability for that case, because death threats affect all humans.

Understanding the issue in terms of these criteria shifts the terrain of the debate considerably. The main point here is that speech restrictions have to be considered in context and not as absolutes, so I’m not going to try to formulate any kind of rules about what’s good and what’s bad. But since this issue has attracted such an unfortunate amount of misdirected chatter, I will work through a few examples to show how this works.

An extremely important story that has not received nearly enough attention is a recent change Google made to its search algorithm to promote more “authoritative” results. Naturally, this resulted in traffic drops for a variety of “alternative” news sources. This isn’t the kind of thing that normally gets discussed as a free speech violation. After all, none of the affected websites have actually been “censored,” and there are other search engines available. But the result is the same, because it fails both criteria. It’s improper discrimination because it’s intended to improve the “quality” of results, but all it actually does is impose a particular political viewpoint on them, based on Google’s collective internal assumption as to what counts as “fake news.” And it’s also overly broad, because it affects everyone who goes looking for information on any topic, regardless of what their individual desires are. If you’re trying to find alternative news sources, this change will prevent you from doing so, and there’s no way to opt out of it. And of course Google doesn’t tell you how it’s filtering its results, and it’s constantly changing things without telling anyone, so you don’t know whether there really is something else out there or not. Furthermore, Google is entrenched enough that it’s more accurate than not to say that this affects “everybody,” even though there are technically alternatives available. In other words, Google users constitute an involuntary group that has not consented to this restriction. If this were just one explicit, publicly understood option among many – if, say, it were one search engine marketing itself as an “authoritative news source” or something – then there wouldn’t be a breadth problem. The people who chose to use it would know what they were getting.

This applies just as much to the general movement to get social media companies to “do something” about “fake news.” Again, this isn’t an absolute condition; there’s no such thing as a “neutral” platform. But the criteria still apply. Scams and death threats are examples of things that social media companies can (potentially) accurately identify and which merit prohibition. Banning Twitter users who make “jokes” about putting people into ovens is more free-speech-friendly than not doing so. People who pull that shit are specifically trying to intimidate others out of speaking. And this does actually bleed into politics somewhat: if your ideas cannot be expressed without direct dehumanization and death threats, then it is correct for them to be suppressed. When it comes to actually discriminating based on ideology, though, giving Facebook the ability to decide which ideas are worthy of expression means conducting public discourse from inside Mark Zuckerberg’s head, which is clearly the worst possible outcome.

As mentioned, the big issue is Nazis, and unfortunately there isn’t a trivial solution here. If we’re talking specifically about literal Nazis, then censorship is probably fine. We can be as certain as we are of anything that Nazism is not a viable political option, and removing it from the public discourse doesn’t prevent people from cosplaying as Nazis on their own time. But of course there is no actual Nazi Party anymore; the entire issue is identifying which ideologies are really dangerous. Trump was widely condemned as a white supremacist for equivocating after Charlottesville, but all the mainstream Republicans who denounced him are also white supremacists. In fact, they’re more effective white supremacists, because, unlike Trump, they’re actually capable of closing deals. Declaring only overt Nazism beyond the pale sets the paling far too far to the right.

The thing that’s being called the “alt-right” is not one thing. It’s an umbrella term that covers a lot of different ideas and reactions. We can assume they’re all wrong, but even then, they’ve come up for real reasons, in response to real problems. Trying to sweep this stuff under the rug is exactly how you get surprised by someone like Trump. Dealing with these problems for real requires creating a society that fixes them, and developing that blueprint requires engaging with the underlying ideas. Expecting the government to take care of the bad guys is not going to accomplish this. In fact, it’s the opposite: the government is on the side of the fascists more than it is on yours.

Importantly, though, “engaging” here does not mean restricting yourself to the realm of cable-friendly “rational debate.” It means having a real fight. Making group efforts to deny fascists the use of social resources meets both free speech criteria. Such efforts can only come to fruition when there is widespread, non-idiosyncratic agreement as to what’s going on, and shutting down individual gatherings is not equivalent to censorship. People making the collective decision to disallow certain types of speech from the platforms over which they have influence is pro-free-speech activity, because it allows better ideas (by the standards of the involved parties) to be expressed. So shutting down fascists is indeed the right thing to do, but it only works if you do it yourself. Anyone who claims to be doing it for you is actually just fattening you up so they can eat you.

Also, violence is not a unique problem. The problem with violence is simply that it violates the criteria: it discriminates on the basis of who’s better at fighting rather than which ideas are better, and it completely prohibits expression rather than singling out particular ideas. But in situations where this isn’t the case, or where violence is already being applied, there’s no case for rejecting violence as such. Like, it’s pretty ridiculous to get all huffy about individual acts of defensive violence when they only stand out because you’re living in a cocoon created by the greatest purveyor of offensive violence in world history. Violence is generally a bad thing, but, given the current situation, a lot of the time it’s less bad than doing nothing.

(By the way, antifa has nothing to do with any of this, because they don’t start shit. As Cornel West and others have testified, their whole thing is defending people against fascist violence. From what I understand, they will actually escort neo-Nazis out of danger in order to defuse violent situations. Fretting about “violence” here, especially in the face of fascists who come armed to what they intend to be public confrontations, is nothing but typical anti-leftist bogeymanning.)

On a lighter note, the whole thing about university speakers being protested is a perfect example of something that is not a real problem. First, such protests can only happen through mass mobilization on the part of the affected constituency, which is proper discrimination. Second, being denied a speaking slot at a university has basically no other repercussions. Your ideas are still out there for people to engage with. Even the specific students at that university can look them up if they want to. In fact, the direction of suppression here is exactly the opposite of how it’s normally portrayed. It is the granting of the speaking slot in the first place that is suppressive behavior. If a group of college students wants to create a discursive climate in which trans people are not bullied, giving Milo Yanniopolis a speaking slot censors that political opinion.

To be honest, none of this is particularly relevant. Invoking “free speech” is almost always a dodge away from discussing actual political issues. It’s a way for people who don’t have the guts to take a meaningful stand to pretend like they’re principled when they really just want to avoid the discomfort of genuine values conflicts. The real problem is the fact that it works. As long as “free speech” is thought to be at issue, everyone has to spend all their time preemptively defending themselves instead of making real arguments. In other words, talking about free speech is a means of suppressing speech.

 


  1. You might want to keep in mind that this is all highly theoretical, because of course the government kills people and commits other rights violations for utilitarian reasons all the time, so talking about any kind of “pure” standard here is fantasyland from the getgo. 
  2. This applies broadly. If you try to take just one right and treat it as absolute, you run into internal contradictions. For example, treating the right to life as absolute and sacrificing everything else to it leads to the Repugnant Conclusion: valuing only life destroys the things that make life valuable in the first place. 
  3. So, if you hadn’t noticed, “hate speech” is a complete misnomer. Hatefulness has nothing to do with anything. The problem is with dehumanizing speech. This is actually why a lot of people get confused: they think they’re looking for “hate,” so when they don’t see it, they assume there’s no problem. Having a level of conceptual organization beyond “bad things are bad” matters. 
  4. There can, of course, be other interests at work: the relevant agency might be in the pocket of Big Toothpaste (this is called “regulatory capture”), or the government might want to direct poisoning at a specific undesirable community (this is called “environmental racism”). But these aren’t arguments against regulation, they’re arguments for good regulation. 
  5. This doesn’t work for involuntary groups. You can’t argue both that people need to work to eat and that their employers should be able to restrict their political opinions, unless you’re willing to accept that people with the wrong kind of ideas ought to be murdered. Either work is involuntary and employment is protected, or working is not a prerequisite for staying alive and associations can be fully voluntary. 

Dethrone

This whole saga with Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments is entirely bizarre, but it’s bizarre for the opposite reason that everyone been saying it’s bizarre. We already knew that Trump was a casual white supremacist. I know people have short memories these days, but we saw this exact scenario play out in exactly the same way during the campaign. When David Duke endorsed him, Trump initially acted like it wasn’t any kind of deal, and was eventually pressured into making a formulaic and entirely unconvincing disavowal. The clear implication is that Trump doesn’t see his being supported by white supremacists as anything particularly notable. It’s true that he had a meltdown this time, presumably because his new job is forcing him to miss naptime and he’s getting cranky, but all that did was reconfirm what we already knew (for like the twelfth time). And this is all aside from the fact that his entire political appeal in the first place was a paean to “traditional” white identity. (This includes the whole globalization/economic anxiety angle. The anxiety is over the fact that white people are no longer guaranteed comfortable middle-class existences at the expense of everyone else. This is neither an either/or nor a both/and argument; they’re the same thing.) So what’s bizarre isn’t the fact that Trump sympathized with Nazis; what’s bizarre is the fact that anyone thought there was any possibility of him doing anything else.

The difference, of course, is that Trump is technically president right now, so he’s expected to “act presidential.” This is a con. It was obviously a con that first time he gave a “normal” policy speech and hack columnists started falling all over themselves to declare that he had “become president,” and it would be just as much of a con now, if he were competent enough to execute it. So it’s bizarre for someone opposed to Trump’s agenda to want him to make the “right” kind of statement here, because the only actual function of that would be to provide that agenda with political cover. This is exactly what’s happening with the rest of the Republican establishment: they are competent enough to recognize that neo-Nazis qualify as Official Bad Guys and that there is therefore no downside to denouncing them. By doing this, they are successfully distancing themselves from Trump and the alt-right, which is a bad thing, because a) the alt-right is a natural outgrowth of standard Republican politicking and b) mainstream Republicans have the power and savvy to actually execute policy (well, sometimes. I’m not crediting anyone around here with any real talent or anything). The Republican establishment has done far, far more to advance the cause of white supremacy than Trump will ever be able to. He would never have been able to get anywhere had white resentment not already been established as one of America’s primary vectors for political sentiment. He’s not creative enough to come up with something like that on his own. The fact that Trump has clarified this, has made what previously required decoding legible in plain text, is the one and only positive function he has ever performed in his life (and of course it’s entirely unintentional and the opposite of what he thinks he’s going for. He’s a bit dim, if you hadn’t noticed). You can’t have it both ways. You can either have a shallow patina of formal dignity camouflaging calamity or you can have honesty. I prefer honesty.

There’s also a tactical aspect at work, which is that, regardless of either policy or personality, the mere fact of the person who happens to be The President of The United States sympathizing with racists promotes racism. White supremacists have been pretty clear about the fact that they see Trump as “their guy” and that they consider his presence in the White House official validation of their beliefs, and they’re not wrong. This cuts both ways, though. The fact that he’s there at all indicates that those forces were already at work. It wouldn’t have been possible for any of this to happen in a genuinely anti-racist society. So there’s still the question of why anyone really gives a shit about what Donald Trump has to say. Specifically, Trump’s opponents don’t consider him a legitimate president for a variety of reasons, and they’re nominally on guard against “normalizing” his behavior. But that’s exactly what would happen if Trump were to cease acting like a stupid asshole: he would turn into a normal president. In order to make real progress, we need to make use of what’s happening here: now that it has become nauseatingly clear that the president does not speak for the nation, we should stop pretending like such a thing was ever the case. The tactical countermeasure to the potential harm of presidential statements is to stop imbuing them with undue significance.

So the whole “normality” angle is a huge problem, because it both implies that racism isn’t normal and states explicitly that the solution is for “abnormal” things to stop happening. Liberals don’t actually want to confront racism. The Obama years, when America was still a white supremacist country but we had a “respectable” person making “thoughtful” statements that made us feel like everything was okay when it manifestly was not, was the true liberal goal. The reason they got complacent in the middle of a crisis was because what little they had what was what they actually wanted. They wanted Daddy to give them life lessons and chase away the monsters under the bed and pat them on the head and tell them they’re good little boys and girls, and their primary objection to Trump is the fact that he doesn’t do this. He makes a scary world seem like it’s actually scary, he makes intractable problems look like they really don’t have solutions, and he makes a godless universe look like one where there really is no force of justice pushing things in the right direction and no one looking out for us. He makes us feel like we’re on our own.

This isn’t a good thing, though, because Trump is trying to have his second scoop of ice cream and eat it too. He wants to be a big important man, but he doesn’t want any of the concomitant responsibilities. His entire life has been devoted to promoting the image of himself as a Big Important Man, without any achievements that might make such an image qualify as an accurate representation. All of his projects were empty advertising campaigns with his name plastered all over them and all of his news coverage was sleazy tabloid trash. This gambit has proven entirely successful. Not only was he treated like an important person his whole life, but the only reason he was able to present himself as a credible presidential candidate in the first place was becasue our conception of the presidency is precisely that of a Big Important Man. Trump’s “lack of experience” and “temperament” were always entirely beside the point: the role he actually inhabited, the fake one, was the only one that ever mattered. The image is what people actually want.

When liberals lament that Trump is degrading our national discourse, or making us look bad in front of the cool countries, or act like he’s going to end the world with a tweet, they are buying in to that image. Assuming he can do those things is what gives him the power to do them. Inflating his importance covers for him by masking the fact that he has no substance. Even his support for white supremacy does not actually rise to the level of political conviction. He lives in a country where white people are in charge, and he assumes that this is how it’s supposed to be simply on the basis of that very fact. He’s done any of the reflection or investigation necessary to form an opinion on the matter. All he has is the raw, unprocessed background ideology of his society.

The problem with attacking Trump for making a bad statement is that it implies that the Big Important Man role is in fact the role that matters, and that the correct thing for him to do is to play it according to the script. You’ll note that this doesn’t just apply to the current variety of extremely unhinged statements: whenever someone doesn’t respond to something soon enough, or when they say something that doesn’t emphasize exactly the right points, we get all outraged and demand an “apology” or whatever. (Actually, the “public apology” concept is a whole other level of bizarreness, but one thing at a time here.) We throw a tantrum becasue Daddy isn’t reading us our bedtime story on time.

The thing that we ought to be attacking is the script, not the actor. There are actually two completely different things that we refer to as the “president.” There is the managerial role of running the executive branch of the United States government, and there is the person on the TV who makes speeches and gets his (it’s still “his”) name attached to official actions and policy statements (recall how much Trump loves making a big show of signing things, regardless of whether they have any real effect). Assuming for now that the former role is necessary, it doesn’t necessitate the latter. That role is an artifact of the fact that the human brain is only really good at understanding the world through individual figures and personalities, and we’re ready to evolve beyond it. People complain about elections being reality TV shows, but as long as we continue to understand the world in this way, that’s the only possibility. If you’re electing a figurehead, then the election is going to be a contest over who’s the better figurehead. Again, this is the only reason why Trump, whose only ability is being a figurehead, was able to get anywhere near the process. It isn’t the president that’s the problem; it’s the presidency.

Regarding the initial instigatory issue of removing statues of Confederates, then, the implied approach is pretty straightforward: don’t fucking make statues of people. Trump had one of his rare moments of accidentally stumbling into the right angle from the wrong direction when he said that, by the same logic that says that statues of slaveholders should be taken down, statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would also have to go. Obviously this is a shallow equivalency – there’s a pretty clear moral line between people who held slaves while doing other worthwhile stuff and people who are only historically notable becasue they fought directly for the cause of slavery – but the fact that people like Washington and Jefferson did a bunch of evil shit actually does mean that they should not be idolized. Moreover, the fact that pretty much nobody lives a blameless life logically implies that nobody should be idolized, so the concept of idolization is simply a bad concept. Specific achievements can be honored and specific evils denounced without crossing the line into judging historical figures as “good” or “bad” people. (Judging living people is a different matter, as there exists the possibility of changing their behavior.) Seeing as they’re dead, there’s no sense in which their moral status as individuals matters (or exists at all), but the things they actually accomplished, both positive and negative, still live on and affect the world we currently live in. And we really do have to remember the history of American slavery (not just the Confederacy; again, almost all of the “good guys” were also active supporters of the institution): we have to remember that it was one of the worst things that has ever happened, that it ranks among the greatest crimes in all of human history, and that we have not come even close to redeeming ourselves for it.

So, practically speaking, the thing to do is to have monuments to notable historical events rather than statues of notable people. Even for morally unimpeachable figures (if any; even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizer), having a statue of them puts the focus on who they were, which no longer matters, rather than on what they did, which is the part that’s still important. And focusing on events allows you to address morally ambiguous and even incomprehensibly horrible history without collapsing into shallow judgementalism. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial shows the promise of such an approach. Recognizing the inadequacy of mere information to convey the necessary enormity, the memorial instead creates an abstract experience that living people can walk into and feel. (I’ve never been, but my sister reports it to be deeply unsettling.) Names and dates are for textbooks; the value of memorials is that they collect the intangible mist of the past and turn it into something solid, something real that exists in the present and affects people. This is how you actually preserve history.

[Addendum: For more examples, here’s a pretty great collection of slavery memorials. Note that the ones representing individual personages are boring, while the ones with metaphorical content are actually affective. There’s even some in the U.S., so it’s not like this is beyond our abilities.]

And this isn’t just an aesthetic issue; turning all issues into referenda on individuals carries heavy practical consequences. A concrete and also terrifying example is the nuclear situation. There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of having a madman with his finger on the big red button, but disturbingly little about why that button is there at all. From what I understand, it’s basically a Cold War relic; the worry was that a Soviet first strike could take out our chain of command and remove our ability to retaliate, so the “solution” was that a formal order to launch basically gets carried out immediately with no oversight. In other words, our priority as a society is to preserve above all our ability to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. Recall, for example, the furor raised when Jeremy Corbyn said there was no situation in which he’d push the button. How dare he refuse to commit genocide in order to make white people feel safe. Clearly we can’t have someone like that in charge. It would just be irresponsible. The fact that we’ve made and continue to make this choice about our priorities as a society is far scarier than any bogeyman Trump can conjure up. Having a “rational” finger on the trigger should not comfort us – the truly disturbing part is the existence of the trigger. Insisting on electing someone “responsible” to administer this vile function is suicidally short-sighted. The correct thing to do here is to make it so decisions of such overwhelming consequence are not made by one person. I mean, the correct thing to do here is to not have this decision be available at all, because jesus christ, but in general, the point of designing a system is so that it’s not subject to these sorts of arbitrary whims. Nothing should ever come down to one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Unfortunately, people like it that way. They don’t want to make decisions and hold responsibilities, they just want to have the Right Person in charge taking care of that for them. Conservatives think a tough-minded businessman is going to lay down the law and single-handedly reverse worldwide economic trends, and liberals pine for Obama’s ability to lull them to sleep with friendly smiles and full sentences.

The good news is that this half of the dynamic is under our control. We have very little influence over the specific machinations of the government, but the culture we live in is something we all create together, continuously. It’s a precept of American mythology that the country was based on the idea of not having a “king” and instead having a government “of the people,” but this is total horseshit. We act like we’re all enlightened becasue we have a “president” instead of a “king,” but then we go ahead and treat the president exactly like a king anyway. Furthermore, Americans use “king” is a general-purpose positive metaphor (the semantics of “queen” is a whole other story): we look to suit-wearing leaders and official statements to understand anything, we consistently privilege the perspectives of the charismatic, wealthy, and well-connected over everything else, and we’re thirsty as fuck for celebrity gossip. Americans fucking love worshipping people who they perceive as superior. In fact, as the rise of microcelebrity demonstrates, we actually create the perception of superiority just so we can have something to worship. Lacking a god to fill the role, we just start worshipping every stupid thing we run into. And, more relevant to our present purposes, demonization works the same way: we inflate an enemy into a larger-than-life figure so that we can safely rail at it in the abstract and feel like we’re doing the right thing, even as we avoid engaging with the material conditions that that have real causative power.

We can solve the problem by ceasing to do these things. We can stop making up fake form and start understanding real function. And it’s the nature of the issue that we – meaning you – are going to have to do this while the rest of the culture goes on babbling about mission statements and Twitter beefs and thought leaders and red carpet dresses and, yes, presidential speeches. That stuff is going to keep happening as long as you keep validating it. This is your fault, and you have the power to make it stop.

Certainly, the importance of someone like Trump is not illusory, but it’s not illusory in either direction: it’s not phantasmic, but it’s also not fantastic. There are certain things that he’s capable of doing and certain things that he’s not. He’s not capable of dominating the discourse without our consent. And regarding the things he is capable of doing, we need to seriously consider whether anyone ought to be capable of them. If we’re really that scared of what he might do, the only real solution is to design a society where nobody can do those types of things. I know it’s hard to get past just being disgusted by all of this, I’ll be as glad to have it off my mind as anybody, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a job to do. Cleaning up the pus and bile after this is over won’t resolve anything. We have to carve into ourselves and excise the beliefs that make things like this possible. Let the head that wears the crown mouth off as it pleases; our mission is to destroy the throne.

Against facts

The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.

Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.

In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.

That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.

There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.

The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.

This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.

More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.

You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.

A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the fact that the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – are doing basically nothing about it. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.

Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.

In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.

 


  1. A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. 

Heal thyself

This whole healthcare debacle is starting to get under my skin. I’m used to everything being terrible, I don’t have any expectation of living in a just or rational society or anything like that, but this is different. It’s not just that the situation is empirically untenable (every country with universal healthcare is healthier than the U.S.), or even that it’s morally scandalous (if you can spend money to save someone’s life, you should obviously do that, even if it has other negative consequences). It’s that the argument against universal healthcare is actually, in the strict sense of the term, illogical. It contradicts itself.

While Obama was in power, Republicans went on at some length regarding the need to “repeal” Obamacare. This is a least a coherent statement. If you think a law does the wrong thing, your goal should be to repeal it. But as soon as they gained the ability to sign legislation (specifically, as soon as it became the case that throwing millions of people off of health insurance would be their fault), the phrase suddenly morphed into “repeal and replace.” This no longer makes sense. The objection to Obamacare was supposedly that the government shouldn’t be meddling in the health insurance market, in which case there obviously shouldn’t be any “replacement” for it, since that would also involve the government meddling in the healthcare market. And if the problem was just that Obamacare was a poor implementation of a good idea, then there was never any reason to cry “repeal” in the first place. The specific problems should have just been fixed.

Now, the actual motivation here is pretty transparent: Republicans are lying about wanting to improve healthcare in any way other than reducing the amount that rich fucks have to pay for it. But the same logic applies to Obamacare itself. While, politically speaking, it’s sensible to defend Obamacare against an alternative that’s going to be worse, what we’ve been seeing recently is a bunch of people arguing for Obamacare and against universal healthcare. This is incoherent. If you believe that the government should intervene in order to improve healthcare outcomes, then there’s no reason that needs to be tacked on to a system of private profit. Healthcare is basically just risk pooling: everyone pays a little bit in and less fortunate people take more out. Certainly, there are all manner of details to be worked out (I heard recently that healthcare is actually really complicated), but that’s the basic structure of the endeavor, and it works that way regardless of whether you have private insurance or a government-run system. Private insurance has the disadvantages of a) siphoning away some money as profit, making it more expensive and b) denying care based on cost, making it less effective. There are no “innovation” or “quality” advantages, because the insurance companies are not themselves the ones doing medical research or providing care. In short, Obamacare is only comprehensible as either a band-aid or a half-measure in the direction of the real solution (or both). It’s not the kind of hill that you die on.

So, the thing about this is, even before Obamacare, we already had socialized medicine. Private insurance companies are part of society, and they redistribute wealth based on need. Also, they’re already choosing who lives and who dies based on cost-effectiveness; we already have death panels. The only thing that would actually qualify as a “free-market” solution would be to ban insurance and force everyone to pay their own way on everything – which would include all other forms of insurance, which are redistributive in exactly the same way. The fact that people voluntarily choose to enter into insurance contracts is irrelevant because a) they don’t, insurance is almost always mandatory, and b) that doesn’t change the functional nature of the endeavor. If people are going to be doing this anyway, you might as well manage it such that moral standards can be applied and profiteering can be reduced.

In other words, civilization in general is a collective endeavor that exists for the purpose of redistributing wealth and reducing risk. I mean, obviously, right? Even on a straight Hobbesian view where you’re forming literally any type of society just so you can survive, that’s still what’s going on. The only way to coherently argue against universal health care is to argue against society.

Which means there has to be something else going on. People have problems with this sometimes; they think that once they’ve shown that something is “illogical,” they’re done, but that’s actually where you have to start. People don’t just have opinions beamed into their heads by cosmic rays. If something doesn’t hold up along one line of reasoning, there must be a different line of reasoning along which it does; otherwise it could never have come from anywhere in the first place. That is, the current healthcare system didn’t just randomly contort itself into the worst possible shape – it has to be serving an actual positive function.

Let’s start by considering the function of the term “Obamacare.” This name was made up by Republicans to make the law sound bad. Their strategic purpose was, of course, the same strategic purpose that Republicans always have: to associate the things they’re opposed to with black people. This has been successful to the point that we now have people who oppose the heavy-handed and disastrous Obamacare in favor of the reasonable and effective Affordable Care Act (non-comedy version). You’ll note that this is essentially the same opinion as “keep your government hands off my Medicare”: it draws a distinction between the good kind of benefits for good people and the bad kind of benefits for bad people. And in America, the bad kind of benefits, the kind we call “welfare,” are coded black. It is generally the case that the bad kind of government meddling (“your government hands”) is the kind the benefits black people, and the good kind of government meddling (“my Medicare”) is the kind that benefits white people. So what we’re talking about here is segregation.

The thesis that mass incarceration constitutes a “new Jim Crow” is in fact not hyperbolic enough. Segregation is one of the primary purposes of society in general. As mentioned, society is inherently a collective endeavor, which is a problem for rich fucks. They’re only capable of getting rich in the first place through collectivity (think through the logistics of owning and operating a corporation), but they wouldn’t be able to get rich if they actually had to pay what they owe. The way they square the circle is through segregation. Segregation is how you get around the fact that society requires you to care about other people. You establish a class of people who “don’t count,” and therefore contribute labor without receiving its full benefits – or without receiving any, in cases such as prison labor. In fact, prison labor is an extremely clarificatory example, because it shows us how things work now. Rather than branding certain types of people at birth with the mark of Cain, condemning them to wander through society as permanent exiles, we now have the proper procedures for this sort of thing. We fill out all the paperwork and consult with panels of experts and make the rational decision that some people aren’t really people. The old “Whites Only” signs strike us today as hopelessly backward, but the truth is we never really rejected them. We just evolved beyond the need for them. We no longer require explicit signage, because we now have a society that segregates itself automatically, as though it were the natural order of things.

So this problem is all over the place, and liberals are totally in on it. Charter schools are all about resisting integration by picking out “deserving” children and giving them real educations, while the rest languish in underfunded hellholes. Abortions are easily obtainable if you live in a major urban area and fuck you if you live anywhere else. Highly skilled workers don’t need unions, so there’s no reason to protect them; they don’t help anyone who matters. And the police are always there to protect and serve you – for certain values of “you.”

This is why running the numbers and arguing about what’s going to cost what and who’s going to get taxed this much to pay for that is all entirely beside the point. The point is that we’re having a debate about segregation. After all, health is pretty much the best possible thing to spend money on. Arguing about cost-effectiveness blunts the issue’s moral edge. And because that edge is extremely sharp, it’s very important for us to keep it honed. We need it to cut things. This is the real importance of this decision. We’re deciding whether the benefits of civilization are for everybody, or only for the “deserving.” And because segregation is no longer explicit, this is no longer an explicit decision. Simply trying to do the right thing for yourself (finding the “best deal” on healthcare, or sending your child to the “best school”) maintains the existing situation. Even if you don’t actively want the underprivileged to suffer (which, frankly, most people do), their suffering is required in order to maintain your lifestyle. It’s the cost of doing business.

Universal health care does have majority support, but that’s only because it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Ideology is a hell of a drug, but it’s not all-powerful. Still, even if we eventually get this one very basic issue under control, the general dynamics aren’t going away. You have to decide what you really want and do what it requires. Otherwise you’re just managing symptoms.

We pay to play the human way

On May 22, 2017, a suicide bomber attacked the foyer of the Manchester Arena in England at the end of a concert. 23 people were killed and 116 were injured. These deaths are “appalling” and “sickening” and “barbaric” and “horrific.” Meanwhile, on that same day, worldwide, approximately 3,425 people died from road accidents, 22,466 people died from cancer, 3,014 people died from AIDS, 8,640 people died from starvation, and 2,192 people died from suicide. These deaths are not appalling or barbaric or sickening or horrifying. They’re fine.

Tabulating statistics is a good way to get yourself labelled a robot or an asshole or a robot asshole, but seriously: why are deaths from terrorism more important than other deaths? Are people who die from “ordinary” causes any less dead? Are their deaths any more justified? Do their friends and family suffer any less? Are those other things even any less scary? Is it really more terrifying to think that you might be killed by someone who hates you just because of who you are than to think that you might be killed for no reason at all?

Obviously, everyone’s going to have their own emotional reactions, and there’s very little point in judging people for how they express themselves, but that’s still the same question: why do we care more about terrorism deaths? Why is our instinctive emotional reaction here to grieve publicly and demand that Something Must Be Done, and why is this not our reaction to the rest of this blood-strewn hellscape we’ve been cursed to inhabit? It’s not because terrorism is some sort of “extra” evil that doesn’t “normally” exist in the world. As long as people have conflicting desires and are killable, murder happens. That’s the cost of being human in the first place. We conceive of terrorism as special because we view it not as random death, but as an attack on “us,” and for that reason, we get scared. This is entirely unjustified. The sorrow of this event belongs to the people who were personally affected by it and to no one else. We are not being “compassionate” by proclaiming our own grief. We’re doing the opposite. We’re fetishizing our immediate subjective reactions, imposing a narrative of generic drama, and eliding the real human reality of the situation. We are devaluing real kindness.

Worse, by doing this, we are not opposing the attack, but conspiring in it. We are fulfilling our role in ISIS’s plan. The point of dramatic attacks like this is not to kill people. It’s to make us feel personally threatened, and to make Muslims feel like our personal enemies. It’s to make this made-up “war of civilizations” fantasy feel like a real thing, and to make us assign outsized importance to it. By itself, ISIS is only capable of killing tiny numbers of people, one sad little bomb at a time. It is only with our active support that they are able to terrorize millions.

But, guilty though we may be, we’re no match for the experts. Every time a politician opens their filthy mouth and pollutes the air around these tragedies, the world becomes a more disgusting place. It is now de rigueur for politicians to compete amongst themselves over who has the biggest and most raging hard-on for skull-fucking terrorist corpses. More to the point, the politically mandatory response to these attacks is to do the attackers’ job for them. The fact that ISIS “claimed responsibility” for the attack doesn’t change anything about the event itself. What happened and who died are all the same either way. (Also ISIS “claims responsibility” every time a dog shits on a Western sidewalk.) Rather, the claiming of responsibility is itself a political act. It is the act of declaring war, of telling you which deaths to focus on and how to feel about them, of forcing one particular understanding of the world onto you. And when Western newspapers print up their headlines making the same claim, and politicians declare Terror Threat Level Burgundy Omega Five, they are taking the same action. They are telling you to be afraid. What we should expect from politicians here is not sympathy or respect or what the fuck ever. It is professional decorum, which in cases like this means keeping their fucking mouths shut. Even if this stuff weren’t directly their fault, even if they weren’t themselves mass murderers, they still have no right to care. They’re fine, and they’re going to be fine. We’re the ones who have to live with their decisions.

Which is of course the point. By appropriating tragedies like this, politicians redraw the battle lines. They point out “those people” as our enemies in order to portray themselves as our allies. They’re lying, and we know this because we can run the numbers. If they were really looking out for us, if they really cared about our lives, they would not be spending billions of dollars on the military and intelligence agencies and a burgeoning police state for the sake of slightly ameliorating a statistically insignificant threat. They would be spending it on fixing the things that are actually killing people, right now, in numbers far greater than any bomb-toting jackass could ever dream of. In order to make these things sound scary, people always like to say that every attack is the deadliest of whatever type since whenever – in this case it’s the deadliest bombing in England since 2005. This sounds dramatic, but what this statistic actually demonstrates is the opposite. It emphasizes the fact that these things almost never happen, that preventing terrorism is among the lowest possible moral priorities of modern society. Numbers don’t signify a lack of compassion here. They signify the truth. It was Dwight Eisenhower who said that every bomb dropped and missile fired directly represents food stolen from the hungry and medicine stolen from the sick, and he was right.

Unfortunately, this is still our fault. Politicians aren’t demons, preparing secret rituals to summon beasts and rain fire on the world. They’re lizards. They find the warmest rock in the near vicinity and they plop themselves down on it. They’ve chosen the terror rock because we’ve kept it warm for them. They are able to blackmail us only to the extent that we convince ourselves we can be saved. The mechanism by which we do this is sympathy. We imagine that there is such a thing as “people like us,” that we’re the “good guys,” and that we “deserve” to be safe. We do not share in people’s suffering for their sake; we appropriate it for our own. People who complain about the “us vs. them” effect usually focus on the “them” part, but it’s the “us” that’s really dangerous. The function of public grieving is to create an “us.” An eight-year old Arab girl killed by a U.S. military action is not “us.” It’s a real shame she had to die, but we’re not actually going to do anything about it. An eight-year-old British girl killed by a terrorist attack is “us.” If we have to keep killing eight-year-old Arab girls in order to prevent that from happening, well, that’s just the cost of doing business.

It is of course impossible to bring this up in the American political context without addressing the attack on the World Trade Center. Even a catastrophe on that scale belongs to the people who were directly affected by it and not to the rest of us. When we say that “everything changed,” we are saying that some deaths count and some deaths don’t – that some victims are real people and some are not.1 This dynamic is easy to understand when actual ghouls like Giuliani use it to jack themselves off, but the rest of us aren’t really any better. We do not have the right to grieve for those people. We have the obligation to do the motherfucking arithmetic.

AIDS is the perfect example. People tried to compartmentalize it away, imagining that it only happened to junkies and degenerates, but eventually they realized it could happen to anybody, and only then, only when rich white people started to feel personally threatened (or, if you prefer, when the activism around the issue was successful enough to garner general sympathy for the existing victims, but that’s the same problem), did they start taking it seriously. This is what happens when you make sympathy a prerequisite for action. People die preventable deaths. What should have been done in the first place, instead of trying to sympathize, was to run the numbers. We should have looked at how many people were dying and spent that much money on the problem. That is the only justifiable political response. Note, for example, that every time a terrorist attack happens, the blood banks always have to put out a statement saying that they’re full up and everybody can calm down. People rush into frenzied action when something sympathetic happens, and they sit on their hands the rest of the time. Resource misallocation kills.

This is also why cancelling concerts in the wake of the attack was objectively the wrong thing to do. If Ariana Grande or whoever else couldn’t personally handle it, then sure, they’re only human, but it’s still wrong. The attack didn’t change anything. People could have died driving to the venue, or there could have been a fire,2 or any number of other things more likely than a terrorist attack could have happened. Cancelling events only serves to reinforce the narrative that this is more important than everything else that’s happening, that these deaths matter more than others. It is not just “okay” to enjoy your life in the face of tragedy, it is the right thing to do. It’s how ISIS loses, and it’s also how our own ruling class loses. If you’re going to get sad and broken down every time something bad happens, you are either sad and broken down 100% of the time, or you are a liar. You risk your life every time you go out your door, and you also risk your life every time you stay home. The cliche that “the show must go on” is deeper than it sounds.

The one sort of tolerable thing about death is that it’s just death. It removes a single unique human from existence and it doesn’t do anything else. How we feel about it, what significance we choose to impart to it, and which actions we choose to take in response to it all remain in the realm of the living. The dead have no claim on us and no power to compel us; transitively, we have no further ability to hurt them. Everything remains, as it always is, up to us.

Meaning this is on you. None of us chose to play this game, but the chips are on the table. So, assuming you’re not going to fold, you have to accept the hand you’ve been dealt. If you try to pretend like there’s any other solution here, you are going to get hustled.

 


  1. In the spirit of intellectual honesty and/or killing one’s idols, there’s a relatively godawful Sleater-Kinney song that is specifically about not being personally affected by 9/11, but being scared of it anyway just because you’re a cute white person with a cute white baby. Not that a song is a political platform or anything, but it’s an expression of exactly the reaction that ought to be avoided. 
  2. This in fact happened recently. The Oakland Ghost Ship fire killed 36 people. Fire safety codes are more important than counterterrorism. 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

Against science

You’ve probably heard that there was a “march for science” this weekend, and you may have asked yourself what the hell that was supposed to mean. This is one of many things nowadays that is “common sense” and “shouldn’t be a partisan issue” and “it’s so ridiculous that it’s 2017 and we’re still talking about this,” which is exactly how you know that this is not where the real issue is. That is, there’s a notion that certain strains of political thought are “anti-science,” but of course this is absurd. Science is a methodology, not a goal, and for this reason, no one is actually opposed to it as such. Republicans are more than happy to support science when it’s being used to construct giant bombs and mass surveillance tools. Nobody is insisting that these things be done according to Biblical instructions. People who have goals that they want to achieve use the means that are available to them, and science is one of those.

First of all, the specific issue we’re talking about here is global warming, which is something that we should not euphemize, as it is and continues to be the single most important issue in politics. (If we’re particularly unlucky, it will continue to be the most important issue for the remainder of human history.) There’s a lot of talk concerning a “scientific consensus” on this issue and the fact that certain politicians won’t “accept” it, but this does not amount to an explanation. Science is, again, a method that can help you understand what the situation is right now, and potentially help you figure out how to do something about it, but only after you’ve decided what it is that you’re going to do. As explained by the Big D himself, David Hume, in a much-quoted-but-apparently-not-quoted-nearly-enough passage:

In every system of morality, which I have hitherto met with, I have always remarked, that the author proceeds for some time in the ordinary way of reasoning, and establishes the being of a God, or makes observations concerning human affairs; when of a sudden I am surprised to find, that instead of the usual copulations of propositions, is, and is not, I meet with no proposition that is not connected with an ought, or an ought not. This change is imperceptible; but is however, of the last consequence. For as this ought, or ought not, expresses some new relation or affirmation, ’tis necessary that it should be observed and explained; and at the same time that a reason should be given, for what seems altogether inconceivable, how this new relation can be a deduction from others, which are entirely different from it. But as authors do not commonly use this precaution, I shall presume to recommend it to the readers; and am persuaded, that this small attention would subvert all the vulgar systems of morality, and let us see, that the distinction of vice and virtue is not founded merely on the relations of objects, nor is perceived by reason.

In short, science can, ideally, tell you exactly what the present situation is, but what it can tell you about what you ought to do about it is – again ideally – exactly dick. After all, the group of people who accept the scientific consensus on global warming includes Barack Obama, who, well, I’ll be generous and not say that he did nothing about it during the time that the issue was on his desk, but considering the scale of the problem, it’s difficult to argue against the conclusion that he basically sat on his hands.

Worse, “science” is in fact the thing that caused global warming in the first place. It’s more than a little peculiar to oppose global warming by demanding more science in politics, seeing as what actually happened is that extreme advancements in industrial technology outstripped our ability to monitor and control them via policy. If it weren’t for science, if it were simply a matter of choosing a policy, no one would ever have chosen for global warming to happen. But, you’ll object, that’s not science’s fault. It was the profit motive, or human short-sightedness or whatever. You are entirely correct. To attach the label “science” to the results of a scientific process is a category error. Science is the process and is not the outcome. The first sentence of this paragraph makes the same category error. Science is not the cause of anything; it can only be the means by which a cause produces its effect. For this same reason, science cannot save us. Indeed, treating science as a real thing and not clinging to it as a fetish means respecting it even when it cuts against you – when it demonstrates that getting what you’re after requires sacrifice.

And also for this same reason, “science” cannot be the thing that our recent marchers were in fact marching for. They are making the same error: what they are actually in favor of is the results of science. A common grievance is the fact that the current administration seems to be attempting to neutralize the function of the EPA, if not eliminate it entirely. This is usually framed as an attack on “science.” But “science” and “the environment” are not the same type of thing. “The environment” is what we want; “science” is potentially how we get there (again, it can just as easily be how we don’t get there). Insisting on “more science” does nothing to oppose those who don’t want to preserve the environment in the first place.

More than that, “the environment” is not actually what we want, either. There’s always going to be an environment, no matter what. Even a Mars-like lifeless rock is still “an” environment. What we want is an environment that is good for humans, and it is here that we finally get around to imposing some fucking constraints. The thing that’s really disgusting about global warming is that rich fucks are going to be fine. They have high-tech doomsday colonies in which to while away their decadent lives while the rest of the world burns. The thing that allows them to do this is science. The other thing that allows them to do this is a hell of a lot of money – money that could be used to help the people who are actually going to get fucked to death otherwise. This is the only thing that is intelligible as a political demand. We don’t want rich fucks to jump up and down and shake their pom-poms when they see a pretty picture of a nebula. We want their fucking money. To actually argue this, though, you’d have to argue that rich fucks are not entitled to spend their money however they please – indeed, you might even end up arguing that people in general have a moral obligation to use their resources to make things better for others. And that’s just not how we do things in America.

The reason, then, that one “fucking loves science” is because it is easy to do so. Like, I wouldn’t normally do this stuff. Y’know, everything’s so partisan these days. I don’t like engaging in politics, like some kind of union laborer. It’s just that I love facts, you know? Facts are the best.1 Which, like, yeah. Facts are facts, which is why that is a worthless statement. What matters is what you’re going to do about them. And if what you want to do about them were something that the people in charge of this society were okay with, it would already be happening. If you want something different, then, you should be honest about what it is you’re saying. After all, most of the problems that we aspire to solve using science have already been solved – for some people. As William Gibson famously put it, the future is already here, it’s just not evenly distributed. So if you’re going to protest, don’t settle for taking the easiest possible stance out of fear that you won’t get a sympathetic writeup in the New Yorker. Make a real claim. What you are actually in favor of is coercive economic redistribution.


  1. Like, there’s apparently a hat with the word “facts” on it, because wearing that in public will totally show everyone what a functional and intelligent person you are.