The unreal and the real

Ursula K. Le Guin is dead. I’m not totally okay with this.

Le Guin is usually glossed as a “big ideas” writer, with a focus on concepts and worldbuilding rather than memorable characters or dramatic scenes, and while this isn’t exactly wrong, it’s misleading in an important way. What continues to impress me about her work is her unflinching focus on the texture of life. She develops ideas by making people live through them, and she explores principles by creating physical locations and functioning institutions that embody them (or don’t). I’ve actually been going through some of her short stories recently and a lot of them aren’t even about anything. They’re just particular but unremarkable people living in particular but unremarkable circumstances and getting along with it, one way or another. Even “The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas,” which is an explicit philosophical treatise, is told exclusively by describing a real society and then the actions of the people who live in it, in response to the way it is. She’s able to make stories like these not only compelling on a technical level (one of the downsides to her writing is the way that its effortless grace makes it painfully clear that you are never going to be good enough at anything to matter) but meaningful not despite but because of their complete lack of anything that would normally register as “meaning.”

Maybe this sounds like faint praise, like I’m just outlining the basic qualities that make someone a competent writer, but it’s not. It’s the most important thing. The only thing any of us actually has, ever, is the experience of lived reality (there’s nothing less “lived” about hearing about other people’s experiences or reading philosophical treatises). Fiction whose only purpose is to supplant this reality with a different one is properly called “escapist,” but so is fiction whose only purpose is to congeal reality into a nondescript mush of Ideas and Statements. In both cases you are ignoring the only thing that there actually is. Le Guin’s great achievement was the creation of worlds unlike our own that show us what our world is really like – unreality that makes the world more real. This is more than merely compelling or thought-provoking writing. It’s one of the secret keys to the truth.

This is also an important point about genre fiction in general. If Le Guin’s work counts as “genre fiction,” which it does, then the term doesn’t mean anything, which it doesn’t. Genre is not a property of a work but an after-the-fact critical appellation; it’s potential use is only as a tool, not a definition. Genre work often falls into the traps of getting lost in minutia or reverting to Big Moral Statements, but literary fiction has exactly the same problem: it’s often nothing but status-signalling lifestyle details coupled with half-baked pretension. The categorization isn’t the thing that matters; in fact, focusing on categorization is precisely a way of avoiding what actually matters, of pretending to do criticism when you’re really just doing bookkeeping. Nor is there anything wrong with the categorization itself; there certainly are comment elements and things that you can use to accurately (assuming you’re being honest about the endeavor and not just parroting received value statements) classify a story as “literary fiction” or “magic realism” or what have you. But if you’re doing this to say that literary fiction is “real” and genre fiction is “just for fun,” then you’re factually wrong, and Le Guin proves it.

Her feminism, for example, is significant not because of any particular big ideas or provocative analyses, but because she actually portrays the lived experiences of women, both in terms of their inner lives and the ways they navigate the social structures they exist in. This particular version of the double bind is that focusing only on “oppression” turns women into a homogeneous class of “oppressed people” who do nothing but reflect the pressures of their oppression, i.e. it makes women not people in exactly the way that patriarchy says they’re not. Whereas insisting on “agency” and “strong female characters” implicitly denies that oppression is a real thing: if overcoming oppression makes women superhuman, then oppression is actually a good thing, because it improves women. (Overgeneralization was the great failing of second-wave feminism, which was then overcorrected for in the third wave, and we’re still dealing with the fallout of that mistake.) These are the problems you run into when you try to talk about things abstractly, but the truth is pretty obvious: people are all kinds of fucked up in all different ways, and that includes social structures, which are made of people, but there are nevertheless recognizable patterns that recur in certain areas, and the combination of these things is what creates real-world behavior.

Le Guin transcends the dilemma by mastering both worlds: she puts believable people in understandable societies and lets us watch what happens. A simple example of how this works is the story “Semley’s Necklace,” where a fallen noble goes to ultimately self-destructive lengths to retrieve a priceless family heirloom. We understand this decision both in terms of who this person is and the pressures of the structure they inhabit (also, we understand who she is both as a product of and a reaction to the social structure she inhabits), and not in terms of handwaving ideological abstraction, a.k.a. magic. (I haven’t read a lot of her fantasy, but she understood that if magic were real, it would be rule-bound in the same way that everything else is; what she says about this is that, in fantasy writing, “you get to make it all up, even the rules of how things work, and then follow your rules absolutely.”)

This aspect of her work is why The Dispossessed is such an important book. The problem that all varieties of revolutionary politics share is that, because they are talking about a world that has never existed, they are necessarily completely abstract. The common complaint that they “only work on paper” is simply a failure of imagination; after all, actually-existing capitalism is precisely a system which sounds good in theory and is destroying the world in practice. The Dispossessed creates a believable anarchist society, and it does so by portraying the way that people actually live in such a society. The point isn’t that the book makes any particular political argument; the point is that reading it grants you the ability to imagine the world other than as it is, in practical terms.

In fact, the novel even has an explicit hero-character, Odo, the original leader of the anarchist revolution, who is revered and referenced as a source of wisdom and insight, but even in this case, her work is portrayed through people’s use of it in their own lives. That is, we see them reference and quote her as part of real-world in-the-moment arguments – we see how even explicit idolization unavoidably manifests itself as just another part of practical reality. Indeed, there’s even a separate story about Odo that portrays her as a confused old woman, puttering about and embarrassing herself and not accomplishing much of anything. Even when she creates explicit heroes, Le Guin insists on making them people. She denies everyone, including the reader, the ability to in any way “get out of” ordinary life.

And, of course, including herself. I don’t really know how she pulled this off, but she managed to become a famous writer without becoming a Famous Writer. She’s revered, sure, but not in the sense that people “praise but don’t read” her; she’s revered because people read the hell out of her. (On second thought, genre fiction might be more than categorization – it might be a mask. Maybe you have to embrace trivialization in order to avoid the greater danger of idolization.) Part of this can be ascribed to simple intellectual modesty. The Left Hand of Darkness, which is set on a planet whose inhabitants have only one gender that performs both human reproductive functions as needed, uses masculine pronouns to refer to them. At the time, Le Guin judged this to be the least bad of the available choices – as explained in the novel, “he” is, while not actually neutral, more neutral than “she” or any other alternative. But she didn’t insist on this choice as a matter of dogma; quite the opposite, she knowingly walked into one branch of a trap. For a later republication of “Winter’s King,” a short story set in the same world, she switched gears and used feminine pronouns, while preserving gendered titles, so the story features “Kings” and “Princes” who are referred to as “she.” This isn’t necessarily the “right” choice, either, but it gives the story a different subconscious color that reveals different aspects of it. So she ultimately did better than making the right choice; making both choices gave us both things to think about. And it also prevents her from being anyone’s hero on the subject. She was nowhere near dumb enough to think it was possible to be “neutral,” or to “just ask questions,” but the stands she took were impossible to piggyback off of, so the only available action was to take your own stand in response.

So the problem I’m having is that we really need this right now, because we’re falling into both holes. We’re suffocating in a flood of daily minutia that doesn’t connect to anything and vanishes as soon as it’s done stealing our oxygen, and we’re also falling back on vague generalizations and unexamined principles without instantiating them in real-world actions. We’re creating as many heroes and villains as we possibly can in attempt to understand the world, yet in every case we use them as an escape from understanding, as a simplistic substitute for reality. We need to make the connection the Le Guin was capable of; without her key, we’re locked in this room.

And yet, it is precisely here that she bequeaths us her final gift. Because she was never a hero, we always had to get along without her anyway. Nothing has changed. There’s really nothing to even complain about; we haven’t missed out on anything. She gave everything she had to the world, and she left what she didn’t have up to us. So now that we finally have to accept that we aren’t getting anything more from her, we have no remaining choice but to do what we should have been doing all along: we have to take what we’ve got and figure out what we’re going to do with it. We have always been on our own, and now, at the end, she forces us to confront that fact anew.

Still, on this particular subject it’s only polite to let her have the last word, so here’s a not entirely random passage from the story I happen to be reading at the moment:

Our daily life in the auntring was repetitive. On the ship, later, I learned that people who live in artificially complicated situations call such a life “simple.” I never knew anybody, anywhere I have been, who found life simple. I think a life or a time looks simple when you leave out the details, the way a planet looks smooth, from orbit.

Good albums of 2017, part 2

Trebuchet – Volte-Face

Volte-Face

This one’s kind of a problem for me. In theory, I hate it. It’s all slow strings and churchy harmonies and soft compassion. Like, it’s pleasant. It sounds nice. Give me a fucking break. The problem is that, actually listening to it, I have exactly zero negative feelings about it. It’s obviously great. I’m capable of objectively appreciating things that aren’t my thing, but that’s not what this. I really like this on a personal level, and that fact contradicts things that I’m pretty sure I know about myself. I mean, it’s not really that confusing. It opens with a literal hymn, but it inverts the meaning: not eating the fruit – failing to act recklessly enough to push the world out of its state of grace – is framed as the act requiring forgiveness. The rhythms are pretty hot; they’re not emphasized, but they do a lot to mitigate the austerity and get a little bit of blood flowing. And it’s not actually deniable that the singing is great, the songwriting is elegant and the whole thing is emotionally affecting on a very basic level. So it’s not like I have to renounce my faith here, but I still feel unreconciled. I suppose that has its own value, though. The world’s a complicated place. You’re definitely wrong about a bunch of stuff, and you’re never going to figure most of it out, so, if not caution, at least a little bit of magnanimity is called for. It’s parochiality that truly numbers among the greatest sins.

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Good albums of 2017, part 1

Kristeen Young – Live at the Witch’s Tit

Live At The Witch's Tit

The implication that this is an opera set in hell is pretty much accurate – it’s theatrically intimate, as clear as it is confusing. The furiousness of this album is not the shallow shoutiness that characterizes typically “negative” music but is rather a deep and abiding bitterness distilled into paralyzing venom. It’s a serious work whose depth merits its execution (even on the joke song). The vocals are a complete tour de force, screeching, thrashing, and soaring in all directions with precision insanity, huge basslines bulk the songs up to a monstrous amount of presence, and the way the drums snake together the disparate parts of each song, maneuvering through transitions and holding on to misshapen rhythms without relinquishing their own thundering intensity is beyond impressive. Even the production, which is often a strong presence (uh, this isn’t actually a live album, if you missed that) is extremely smart and well-deployed, substantive while also respectful towards and in service of the personality and emotion that constitute the core of each song. So it has the advantage of sounding great (Young really is a hellaciously powerful singer), but it’s extremely resolute about not letting you get comfortable. The songs don’t have tempo shifts so much as a completely alien sense of pacing that supports the off-message biliousness of the lyrics. It’s the perfect inverse of go-nowhere empowerment bullshit: it’s productive hatred, a flashing claw backed by tense muscle, coalescing around the one actual source of victory, shining in plain sight through the darkness: “You always win everything, but you lost me.”

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Mixmas ’17

Cry rape

Now would appear to be the opportune moment to discuss the rape-specific aspect of the general euphemism treadmill phenomenon. This pretty much always happens but it’s been especially difficult to avoid lately. Basically, rape-culture-related claims are always described as one level less severe than what they really are. Rape gets euphemised as sexual assault, assault becomes harassment, harassment becomes “inappropriate misconduct” or some shit, and everything else basically falls off the map.

There are a few reasons why this is more than typical bourgeois overpoliteness. The first is the general instinct to soften claims against powerful people. It’s not exactly news that society is built around flattering the prejudices of elites, but there’s an ideological tilt to it as well: pretty much everyone gives benefit of the doubt in proportion to how powerful the target already is. Naturally, this is backwards. Claims against powerful people are automatically going to be downplayed simply by virtue of that fact; that’s pretty much what being powerful means. So it’s much safer to err on the side of viciousness, since there’s basically no chance a powerful person is ever going to face consequences that are too severe relative to their behavior (especially since they should all just be killed a priori). For example, the Iraq War is usually described as a “mistake” or “quagmire” or something along those lines, when the truth is that even “catastrophe” is far too genteel – what it actually was, and still is, is a war crime. People have literally been executed for less. But calling it a war crime isn’t going to bring Bush any closer to a guillotine, so if anything the correct move is to overstate the case just to push the envelope further in that direction (assuming there’s actually a way to overstate “war of aggression”). Being skittish about this completely defeats the purpose of bringing up the issue in the first place. Just throw the punch.

But this type of euphemism also plays an important role in rape culture specifically. One of the key aspects of rape culture is an implicit denial of not just the severity of particular cases of abuse, but of sexual violence as a concept. People sometimes like to say that rape is the worst thing that can happen to a person, but once the issue actually comes up it’s clear that they don’t really believe it. Typical excuses are frequently things like “she was being a tease” or “he’s a guy, he couldn’t help himself” or “what did she expect, doing <insert literally any action>”, and in cases of obvious guilt the lines become things like “she was acting friendly with him afterwards, so it couldn’t have been that bad” or “it’s not worth ruining his life over.” What’s notable about these arguments is not just that they’re always bullshit, but that they’re extremely weak. Swap murder in for rape and even vaguely implying any of these things would make you look like a straight up sociopath. After all, if someone has an “instinctive desire” to say, kill people and eat them, and if the victim of such a person “brought it on themselves” by acting carelessly, we don’t consider that to be any kind of excuse – if anything it just makes the person even more condemnable. In fact, these claims are so weak that they are only comprehensible at all if you are operating under the assumption that rape is nothing more than a minor inconvenience. Even things like theft and adultery that are genuinely several orders of magnitude less harmful than rape don’t elicit these kinds of responses. We don’t always think they’re that big of a deal, but we address them with an appropriate level of seriousness.

So one of the functions of euphemisation is to uphold this order of values. This begins with the false distinction between “violent rape” (or, in Whoopi Goldberg’s famously idiotic formulation, “rape-rape”) and “date rape.” Since the entire thing about rape is that it’s physical coercion, a lack of injury doesn’t indicate a “less severe” type of rape any more than asphyxiation or poisoning are “less severe” types of murder. Rather, the fact that some rapes involve more bodily harm than others simply means that in those cases an additional crime is being committed – they’re cases of rape and also battery or murder. Euphemising some rapes as “sexual assaults” is one of the ways that people convince themselves that a distinction exists, when it doesn’t. From what I understand, Harvey Weinstein has been credibly accused of multiple counts of rape and attempted rape, so the term to use here is not “harasser” or “creep” or “asshole” or anything like that. Those things sound superficially condemnatory, but given the actual facts of the situation, they’re just letting him off the hook. The correct term is “rapist.”

Other distinctions do of course exist – the proper use of the term “sexual assault” is to indicate situations involving physical coercion but not intercourse. (There is some slipperiness here, but it’s a direct result of the slipperiness in what counts as “sex” in general; the assault part is straightforward by comparison.) In fact, groping, which often gets glossed as “harassment,” is actually worse than assault. Assault, legally, requires only a physical threat rather than actual contact – actual contact is called “battery,” hence the term “assault and battery,” because they’re different things, but when you punch someone you’re committing both of them. Groping is sexual battery. Louis C.K.’s actions – masturbating in front of people in situations they felt unable to exit due to intimidation – are correctly classified as sexual assault. Direct verbal intimidation – for example, walking up to someone on the street and telling them “what you’d like to do to them” – is not “creepy” but is in fact assault.

Continuing down the line, “harassment” means to impede someone by creating a hostile environment for them. For example, the extremely lame joke that that one Uber guy made during the Uber meeting about how Uber is totally going to start doing something about sexism was described as “sexist” and “inappropriate,” but what it actually was was harassment. The attitude that it expresses stifles women’s actions on the basis of their being women and creates an environment in which they cannot operate effectively. It wasn’t “tone-deaf” or “out of place,” it was actively harmful (or it would have been, had there been any non-extremely-rich women present).

It’s important to insist on the correct terms not just for the sake of conceptual accuracy, but because without them, the real issue drops out of the picture. The issue is not about sex; sex in these cases is the means by which dominance is exercised. This obviously results in a unique set of dynamics – sex is uniquely suitable for exercising dominance due to the fact the we conceptualize ordinary sex as dominance in the first place – but getting rid of the sex doesn’t get rid of the coercion. Precisely because the issue is not really about sex, men who “act appropriately” are nowhere near off the hook. Recognizing the conceptual gap between sex and dominance reveals the possibilities of being a filthy pervert who only gets off consensually, and also of being a prude whose ordinary non-sexual behavior oppresses women. The Mike Pence Strategy of not interacting with women in the first place is actually just as bad as the Harvey Weinstein Strategy of using women for your own gratification in the course of working on their careers, because both have the same practical effect of relegating women to second-class status and denying them access to power. (Honestly, while it’s not for me to say, the Weinstein approach could be considered the preferable alternative, because someone like that might actually end up helping your career in the course of otherwise being a shitbag, whereas someone like Pence simply has no role for you other than “Mother”.)

Thus, the net effect of this whole chain of expressions is to negate the part of each concept that relates to the actual problem. Rape folds into sex, assault folds into flirting, and harassment folds into jokes and banter, and in each case the true central dynamic – coercion and dominance – precipitates out of the solution. (By the way, there’s still room for umbrella terms such as “abuse” or “violence,” and in fact it’s important to these terms when grouping together behaviors like Weinstein’s and C.K.’s, so that you’re accurately generalizing rather than conflating distinct behaviors.) The importance of defining deviance upward is not just not respond to the issue with the appropriate ardency, but to respond to the part of the issue that is the actual issue.

Doing this requires arguing in terms that the Keepers of the Norms will dismiss as “extremist” and “hysterical” and “shrill” and “intemperate” and I could literally go on all day with this, also you should probably notice how many gatekeeping terms are simultaneously sexist insults. While we do, at long last, have a culture that actually talks about abuse, this should provide no comfort. In fact, it introduces a significant new danger: the conversation about abuse is being conducted on patriarchal terms, with the implicit goal of channeling outrage and placating anxiety without actually changing anything. Seeing yourself acting in accord with rich fucks is the number one red flag that your tactics are counterproductive.

It is therefore critical to draw a distinction between extremism, which is potentially justified depending on how big the problem in question really is, and inaccuracy, which is never justified by any amount of good intentions. Centrist op-ed assholes fucking love to conflate these things, but they’re entirely different. You can be a frothing ideologue while also being right, and you can be a polite even-hander who is wrong about literally everything. In the same sense, though, trying to overstate the issue as much as possible (such as if, hypothetically, you were trying to make yourself look good on some kind of public forum) is generally a good way to take a correct stance and make it wrong.

Specifically, current events have encouraged a number of people to back themselves into the following corner:

I really doubt you could find a lot of women outside of ethnic cleansing campaigns who would be willing to describe their life experiences in this way, and if we’re talking about the experiences of successful women in Hollywood, which we mostly are right now, then this is downright farcical. (Also, acting all shocked and aghast about basic information that you didn’t know because you’ve somehow failed to ever pick up a fucking book in your life while transparently begging for head-pats re: what a good sensitive boy you are is not an attractive look.) (Also, if you’re a man and you believe this, you are the movie monster, so you’re ethically obligated to kill yourself, which you aren’t going to, so stop lying.)

The problem with this isn’t that it’s overwrought (although still stop it please), it’s that it’s a factually incorrect description of the situation. While all men are complicit in patriarchy by virtue of the fact that their gender allocates privileges to them without their consent (and this is actually bad for men in the long run, which is why patriarchy hurts men too), very few men are actual abusers. Rape rates along the line of one-in-four are occasionally cited as ridiculous overestimates, but what a number like that actually says is that the vast majority of women go their whole lives without being raped. And because predators are predators, they usually attack multiple victims, which means the number of male assailants is even lower than that. None of this makes the issue less serious – indeed, the fact that a tiny minority of abusers is able to define what gender means for an entire society is properly horrifying – but it does mean that the issue operates differently than a simplistic conception in which all men are constantly out to get all women (also, plenty of women are collaborators, which is one of the problems with “believing women”). Inaccuracy in the advocacy of a just cause harms that cause, and should therefore be considered just as dangerous as outright opposition. Once you’ve got the dynamics, right, though, you should address them in the most extreme terms that you possibly can. Being extreme when you’re wrong makes your wrongness worse, but being extreme when you’re right makes your rightness better. So, you should get things right, and you should be an extremist about them, in that order.

For example, one of the classic radical feminist arguments is that, because patriarchal society does not take consent seriously as a concept and instead assumes that male sexuality is inherently predatory, “rape” in patriarchal terms is simply sex that violates certain social norms. Thus, patriarchal ideology does not draw a real conceptual distinction between sex and rape, making it accurate to assert that, from the patriarchal point of view, “all sex is rape.” (To be clear, since everyone constantly gets this backwards, it is sexists who believe this proposition, and feminists who reject it in favor of the proposition that men are people.) To insist on this interpretation of the situation while simultaneously insisting on the facts that few women experience rape and very few men are actual rapists (as opposed to unreflective rape-sympathizers) is to describe the true dynamics of the situation with maximum severity.

No matter what issue you’re working on, you’re eventually going to run into a “Rolling Stone campus rape article” situation that puts you on the wrong side of the consensus and threatens to discredit your approach. The correct response to these events is to ignore them – you shouldn’t even try to argue against them, because even if you win, it doesn’t actually help your case. That Rolling Stone article appropriately reflects on no one but the people who wrote and edited it, and the lie itself reflects on no one but the liar. The fact that one person lied and one magazine sucks provides zero evidence one way or the other about how rape operates in society. I mean, if you seriously thought that no women ever lied about rape, then yeah, that’s news for you, but nobody’s really operating under that assumption, and no similar belief is required for making sense of the issue. There’s all kinds of fucked up people in the world, and getting hung up on the details of this or that case is exactly how you fail to understand anything. Narratives can be useful tools, but narrative cannot be allowed to supersede analysis. If your analysis is actually correct and not merely convenient, then it’s correct even in the face of complicated real-world situations, and you should continue to advance it even as a response to those very situations. The correct response to a woman falsely crying rape is for women to continue to cry rape.

I’ll close with a personal example. Back when I first started reading about feminism on the internet, I was briefly stymied by frequent use of the term “rape culture.” I’d be reading an article and finding it persuasive, but that term always caused me to stop short, since it seemed so straightforwardly wrong. Rape is obviously officially proscribed by society, to the extent that you can ask pretty much anyone what the worst thing you can do to a person is and “rape” will almost always be right at the top of the list. So it seemed to clearly be “too much” to describe the problem as a pervasive cultural effect rather than specific areas that weren’t being accounted for or taken seriously enough. But I kept running into the term, so I kept having to think about it, and eventually I realized where the gap in my understanding was. First, “rape” as a term does not have a necessary mapping onto a particular category of physical behavior (because no term does), which means that the things people officially proscribe are only a tiny subset of what sexual violence actually is. Shifting standards from a general sense of impropriety to a specific technical definition of violation changes which things count as rape, and a lot of the things that count under the latter standard end up being things which most people condone. Second, just because people say they’re against rape doesn’t mean they’re going to do anything about it. (What cultural criticism does a lot of the time is just to get people to change the way they talk about things while continuing to take the same actions as they were before.) It’s easy to talk big in the abstract, but when an actual person is being accused of something, interested parties tend to revert to denial and excuse-making. And these problems aren’t personal idiosyncrasies, but rather general aspects of the way we define and discuss the issue as a society – they result in predictable behavior that has predictable effects. Ergo, rape culture.

In short, I learned something, and this only happened because the people I was reading were willing to describe the situation in extreme terms that were also accurate. If these writers had been describing the situation incorrectly, such as by saying that most men were rapists, I would have correctly concluded that they weren’t worth paying attention to, and I wouldn’t have learned anything. But if they had been accurate while also “to be fair”-ing themselves into oblivion, I would never have noticed that I was missing anything, and I would have considered myself enlightened without actually changing anything about my beliefs or behavior. Properly applied extremism is the thing that distinguishes empty talk from effectiveness.

If this really is a crisis, then it merits yelling loudly and unpleasantly enough to make people uncomfortable. Talking about “inappropriateness” or “misconduct” is not going to convince anyone of anything (because those terms are non-specific except for their built-in negative valence, they’re incapable of telling anyone anything they don’t already know). Correct analysis requires extremism, and actually doing something about it requires extreme actions. The best moderation can do is manage the danger, temporarily, until the day when it finally gets fed up with your bullshit and lunges.

Shut up and jam

Charles Barkley:

Speaking to CNN’s Jake Tapper from Jones’ election night party, Barkley said Democrats have “taken the black vote and the poor vote for granted for a long time.”
“It’s time for them to get off their ass and start making life better for black folks and people who are poor,” Barkley said.

Huh. I guess he is a role model after all.

Horsin’ around

Hot take alert: Roy Moore pretending to ride a horse is in fact the most serious of all political issues. This is a serious argument which I am making seriously.

The first thing to consider is why a person would do such a thing in the first place, which is of course to cosplay as a cowboy. We’ve seen the same sort of thing with George W. Bush “clearing brush” or Donald Trump putting on a coal mining helmet. The political significance of these stunts is that they evoke a socially-understood image of rugged, individualist masculinity, the evocation of which acts as an argument for a particular value system. The thing is, though, if these people really did embody their stated values, there would be no need for stunts. In fact, if there existed anyone who embodied these types of values, that person would instead have risen to become the relevant candidate. The reason this never happens is that there exists no such person, which is because the set of values is question isn’t real. It can’t actually be instantiated, which is why it can’t be rationally argued for, which is why it can only exist through theatrification.

So it’s a form of lying, obviously, it’s presenting the candidate as someone they’re not, but it’s more than that. It’s mythologization as support for an incoherent system of values. The images of things like the “cowboy” and the “wild West” are forged copies of an original that never existed in the first place (one of those postmodern sociology nerds probably has a term for this, but I don’t care enough to look it up). Moore’s failure to actually ride his horse demonstrates this quite concisely. Horseback riding is a real skill, and horsemanship has a real history and real functions. Furthermore, cowboys were real people, and there really was a period of Western expansion and pioneering. But the image of the cowboy and the horse has no connection to any of this history. It merely appeals to people’s unexamined instincts in favor of positive-valence concepts like “independence” and “manliness” and “nature.” The thing is, you can make up a concept for anything, but reality is going to stay the same underneath it. The only way concepts are justified is through a connection to that underlying reality that helps people grasp it, like reins attached to a horse. When there is no such connection, evocation of the concept results only in noise, and attempts to act on it result in mere flailing, like an old man barely balancing on top of a presumably very annoyed horse.

Of course, since incoherent values by definition cannot exist, what actually happens when these people get elected is that they revert to their true values. Republicans’ recent attempts at legislation bear this out. The first thing they tried to do was “repeal Obamacare,” which was one of the false images they used to get elected. Since Obamacare is a regulations tweak and not actually its own distinct structure, there’s no such thing as “repealing” it (because the policy has already changed the landscape of American healthcare, changing it back to what it was before would not in fact revert things to the same situation.) All you can do is change the regulations to something else, which is what the actual bill ended up being. But no one actually wants that; free-market zealots just want to slash spending on poor people, and everyone else wants a real healthcare system. The fact that Republicans almost passed a nonsense bill anyway shows how deeply they’re trapped in their own image. When that failed, they moved on to their real priority of just giving money to rich people, which is not something that anyone voted for. Here, again, the constructed image of “resistance to big government” and “job creation” masks a real material policy of direct upward wealth transfer. And it’s not just that the image disguises the real policy, but that, without the image, the policy could never have existed in the first place. The present instantiation of the Republican Party only exists as a vector for this image of “fiscal responsibility” and “traditional values,” and the desires that constitute the source of that image are the real underlying problem.

Democrats have exactly the same problem, only their false image is one of “rational administration” and a “civic religion.” If recent history has clarified anything at all, it is that the actions of elites have nothing to do with expertise or responsibility and everything to do with their own class-driven ideology. Indeed, there’s no such thing as rationality in general; you have to make the decision as to what you actually want before rationality can help you get there. So again, this is a incoherent set of values, and what actually happens is, again, a reversion to the underlying dynamics. Privatization, imperialism, austerity, and wealth concentration all get framed as “smart solutions” when in fact they are nothing more than the blunt advancement of specific interests.

In order to prove that this is actually the most serious issue, I have to demonstrate that it’s global warming in disguise, which it is. Capitalism justifies itself on the basis of the imagery of prosperity and growth. What it actually is, specifically, is a schema for distributing material resources. The resources themselves, including the technologies used to take advantage of them, are just things, we can make different decisions and they’ll keep existing. So when a particular material circumstance comes up, such as the fact that continued use of our primary energy source will destroy the environment, we need to be able to adapt to that on a material basis. But the imagery of capitalism doesn’t allow for this sort of decision-making; quite the contrary, it insists that the operation of capital is necessarily correct under all material conditions. In fact, it doesn’t even allow for the possibility of anything other than automatic capitalist dynamics having any effect on the world; thus, anyone who believes this is incapable of penetrating through to reality (this one I actually know, it’s what Marxists call “mystification”). So the response to global warming, even among right-minded liberals, is to invoke the imagery of “responsiblity” and “sustainability” without any reference to the actual material changes necessary to make those words mean something.

But remember, just “doing the math” is itself a false image, because the math follows from whatever your starting axioms were. You have to have your ideas in order before anything you do is going to make any sense. Otherwise you’ll end up voting for a narcissistic billionaire out of concern for the working class, or voting for an elitist powermonger out of concern for social justice. So, in a rare and shocking turn of events, that pro-horse Twitter pile-on is actually the ideologically correct course of action. It’s isn’t enough to ignore the image in favor of the “real issues,” because as long as you try to do that, the image retains its mystique. (Also, you can only argue in terms of images anyway, because language is an image.) It usually seems like the easiest thing to do in an argument is to accept your opponent’s terms and simply show where they’re mistaken. For example, if the Republicans are trying to “reform taxes” in order to “fix the defect,” and their tax plan that adds a ton of money to the defect and doesn’t actually simplify anything, then you can just point that out. But the reason this is the easiest argument is because it’s the least effective. As long as you maintain a false image, the argument can end up going in any direction, because it isn’t based on anything. You can lose because one of the words you picked makes a particular 4.7-second clip of your speech sound bad, and someone else can win by insisting that ignoring sexual abuse is the best way to protect women.

People sometimes say that humans are gods trapped in the bodies of apes, but it’s actually the opposite: we’re real physical beings bound in the invisible straitjacket of imagery. Representation is the only weapon we have, so correct representation is our only means of adherence to the truth. Ignoring that fact in favor of “facts” is its own form of false imagery. Reason is not self-evident, and the only way to manifest changes in the world is to both explore the territory and chart it out using a system and a legend that makes the map usable by other people. You have to learn how to ride a horse.