Here’s an old one for the occasion.
Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.
Here’s an old one for the occasion.
Story: in elementary school I had a hippie teacher who played an acoustic version of “Ghost Riders in the Sky” with the lyrics replaced by the text of “Jabberwocky.” That’s all.
Ponies are apparently the major political issue of the current era. Some people think everyone should get a pony, others think that all ponies should be distributed exclusively to factory owners for the purpose of making glue, and still others think that ponies are nice in theory, but nobody should actually get to have a pony, because that would just be irresponsible. It’s all very contentious.
The first thing that’s strange here is that the meat of the pony is actually just the standard liberal-democratic agenda: healthcare, education, stimulus spending, and the rest of the welfare state. This is the normal stuff that liberals are supposed to be in favor of, so portraying it as magic beans is somewhat suspicious. The “free college” thing is an especially odd sticking point. We are constantly being told by mainstream politicians that education is the only viable path to the future and that anyone who doesn’t retrain themselves to meet the demands of an increasingly automated economy is going to get flattened by the steamroller of progress. But when people respond by making the completely obvious follow-up demand that education and retraining actually be accessible, they’re suddenly accused of pie-in-the-sky unicornism. The demand here isn’t for “ponies” at all; the demand is simply for oatmeal. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, this demand is being made in a world where some people own multiple mansions with private jets to fly between them at will, while others are being evicted from roach motels and literally starving to death. If this is what we’re talking about when we talk about ponies, it’s long past time for rich fucks to pony up.
But we shouldn’t get complacent just because some people are being completely disingenuous. This is one gift horse that we really do need to look in the mouth. The facts of the matter are that America is a very rich country, and that it contains about 5% of the world’s population. It’s straightforwardly incoherent to rail against the 1% in the name of a guaranteed middle-class existence for all Americans, because middle-class America is the 1% of the global economy. I’m not saying that you’re only allowed to care about the worst things. Anything that’s bad merits opposition and anything that’s wrong merits righting. Given that we can’t transform the economy overnight, there’s nothing particularly immoral about enjoying a reasonable standard of living in America.
And it’s really bizarre and honestly very upsetting that we can’t actually talk about this. Everything is still being framed in terms of what’s good for “the economy” rather than what actually makes people’s lives better. The recent increased focus on inequality has caused a lot of people to start making the argument that inequality is bad for the economy, that it’s inefficient and decreases overall productivity. I’m sure this is true, but opposing inequality on this basis is an extremely terrible argument. When you do this, you’re completely conceding the only part of the argument that matters: the assumption that overall economic growth is the only acceptable value, and that every policy has to be justified on this basis. The omnipresence of this argument is not mysterious: it’s like that because it’s what rich fucks want. Given that rich fucks are already on top of the economy, the only thing that can further benefit them is accelerated growth. There’s only so much money you can steal from poor people, and most of it is already being stolen. So as long as the discourse remains constrained by this framework, not only ponies and oatmeal but even hay and salt licks are going to remain entirely out of our reach. The best we’re going to get is gristle.
Once we decide to take this seriously, though, it becomes incumbent upon us to ensure that we’re betting on the right horse. The thing is, America’s world-historical prosperity is not a coincidence. There is a specific material reason that America possesses enough wealth to provide everything for all of its citizens, and that reason is called imperialism. The whole “two cars in every garage” thing is an ideal of very recent vintage: it’s a direct consequence of America’s global dominance following the devastation of the second World War. America has more resources than everyone else because America takes them from the rest of the world, by force.1 So while it might seem justified to simply make the internal claim that America’s resources should be distributed more evenly, that claim rests upon the availability of those resources in the first place. In order to support such an arrangement, you’re implicitly required to support the conditions that make it possible. This is why liberals are imperialists.
(Also, this is not a theoretical point. Bernie Sanders got some positive press recently for articulating a slightly less psychotic approach to foreign policy, but that approach is still fundamentally imperialist. For people who think that Sanders represents the “extreme left,” anti-imperialism is literally an unthinkable position.)
So, in the final analysis, it is indeed the case that ponies are the ill-considered playthings of spoiled rich kids. In order to create a world that genuinely works for everybody, we have to focus on the basics. It is properly within the realm of human rights to insist that everyone should have a comfortable place to live and access to food and healthcare and maybe even internet-capable computers, but 70” TVs and new smartphones every year and overnight-shipped meal kits are things that we can only afford by offloading their real costs onto someone else. Like, the whole thing about the “information economy” or the “service economy” or whatever we’re calling it now is that it assumes that the resource extraction and manufacturing are being done elsewhere. Someone has to actually build the automated service kiosks, you know. So if we have that type of economy, what we have is precisely a global 1%: we have shit countries doing the shit work and doughy Americans yelling at their robot butlers.
At the same time, though, people also shouldn’t be obligated to constantly hustle in order to scrape together enough paychecks to survive, or spend eight years bullshitting for the sake of an official certification entitling them to an entry-level office job, or maintain an impeccably professional social media profile to prove right-thinking. Most of the “privileges” of our first-world society are actually shit deals. This is the truly pathetic thing about liberals: the unrealistic utopia they’re trying to sell us isn’t even any good. It’s a lame horse. So we can not only fulfill our moral obligations by evening things out on a global scale, but also provide a preferable alternative to the sad future of austerity and apps by making an actual good deal: dignified living in exchange for civil responsibility. This is the real positive argument that we have at our disposal, and making it effectively requires us to dispense with fantasy and describe the world as it really can exist, and how we really can get there though a long, determined march over the dead bodies of billionaires. Rather than a pony, then, what we need is something more like a pack-bearing mule. It won’t be any of the obvious choices on display; it’ll be a hybrid creature, something that we wouldn’t have expected to exist at all. I’ll be slow, and it won’t be pretty, but that’s okay, because it won’t be for show. For the first time in human history, it will be something that works.
As always, this brings us to the real problem, which is, as always, global warming. American-style outsized resource utilization is not just unfair, it’s literally destroying the world. This is also not a coincidence. The thing about fossil fuels is that they provide an immense amount of energy in a very small and effective package. Their existence is a great boon for humanity: everything about our modern lifestyles relies on the unprecedented amount of energy generation that they afford us. The problem is that, due to the aforementioned social arrangements, this boon has been largely squandered. We’ve used it to drive an unhealthy amount of growth solely for the sake of rich fucks’ desires for ego gratification and escapism. A responsible long-term plan would have used this energy to develop a global infrastructure for keeping everyone fed and healthy and then worked on converting that infrastructure into a more2 sustainable form. This is the kind of bootstrapping that actually works. If we had ever tried to do that, we’d already be done. Again, that’s what’s so frustrating and sad and insane about this whole arrangement. There never should have been a problem in the first place, but we went to the maximum amount of effort in order to create one, and we did it for no reason. We weren’t outmatched or conned; we didn’t make mistakes or fail to figure anything out. The reason the planet is burning is simply that we’ve shoved it into an oven.
As mentioned, the focus right now is on finding “solutions” to “problems” within the existing liberal-capitalist framework, and global warming is the strongest and most important example of why this won’t work. I’ll do you a favor and spare you the full rehashing, but the basic problem is that, while increasing the use of renewables is nice, what we’re ultimately going to have to do is stop using fossil fuels entirely, which is incompatible with a growth-based capitalist framework at all, let alone with the maintenance (and, indeed, promotion) of billionaire lifestyles. Global warming is just plain not a solvable problem within our current societal configuration. The society in which it is solvable has not yet been instantiated, and doing so will require destruction as much as creation. We are facing an Old Testament-level threat, and we require an Old Testament-style solution. We don’t need a pony here so much as we need four horsemen.3
This is extraordinarily important to keep in mind in the current context of “the resistance.” The particular grotesquenesses of the immediate present are strongly motivating a desire to get things “back to normal,” and even those attempting to look forward – the people who are increasingly being called “the left” – are mostly doing so within the parameters of the not-quite-discredited liberal-capitalist consensus (the fact that “socialism” now means “going halfway back to the New Deal era” tells you everything you need to know here). Certainly, some of the “norms” being “eroded” are in fact real accomplishments that we need to preserve, but a norm isn’t a good thing just because its a norm. The more important concern here is that our world was birthed wrong in the first place, resulting in many more and more important norms that are not mere politenesses but are in fact the carrots and sticks spurring us on down our current path to destruction. Most of these are still being upheld, and any real future requires their eradication. If humanity is to have any hope of tightening the widening gyre, the center must not hold.
My last post requires an addendum. I mentioned that expecting social media companies to filter out bad political content is a fool’s errand, because all you’d be doing is shackling yourself to someone else’s biases. So there’s that, but there’s also a deeper, category-level confusion which has been occurring with increased prevalence and which pretty much nobody is picking up on.
Some time ago, Google changed its search interface to add little boxes and things for “recommended” results. This is supposed to make it easier to find answers to direct questions without having to go through a whole page of links. But people have been noticing that this approach leads to a lot of untoward results; for example, queries regarding the Holocaust used to produce Holocaust denial pages in the boxy results. It’s easy to understand why this happens: most people accept the occurrence of the Holocaust as a historical fact, so the only people who actually input queries along the lines of “did the Holocaust really happen?” are denialists (or at least budding denialists), who then click through to denialist sites. So the Google algorithm is just performing its usual function of showing people the most popular results correlated with their input.
There isn’t actually a way around this. As long as there are Holocaust denial sites on the internet, there will exist some query that directs you to them. I mean, if there wasn’t, Google wouldn’t be much of a search engine, right? But that doesn’t mean that there’s no problem here. Rather, the problem is specifically with the boxes that pick out some of the results and stamp them with the imprimatur of officiality. As long as that’s happening, Google actually is recommending those results. So the only sensible option here is to get rid of the boxy results. Google’s job is to show you what’s on the internet and nothing else.
Importantly, there is a technical reason why this is the correct solution. It is impossible for Google’s boxy results feature to work “correctly,” because it is internally contradictory. It is intended to be both a dynamically-generated response based on the most relevant data currently present on the internet and an Official Correct Answer. You can’t do both of those things at once. You have to pick one. Furthermore, picking the second one is also impossible, because the number of potential questions is literally infinite. What the boxy results actually are is an illusion. They look like a recommendation when they are actually no different than anything else that happens to come up in the list of results. The reason that boxy results specifically reflect badly on Google is because they are lies. It is correct to say in this case that Google is lying to you, even though the results are completely unintentional, because Google has constructed its interface to look like something that it is not, and is thereby conveying false information.1 So the only logically viable option is for Google to quit fucking around and just be a search engine, which, you might recall, was the whole thing it was good at in the first place.2
People seem to be having a certain amount of difficulty understanding this. Naturally, there’s always a performative moral crisis when something like this happens, but in this case the complaints are almost universally targeted at the same, specific, exactly wrong place. Consider this article, which correctly points out that the problem is specifically with the boxy results:
For most of its history, Google did not answer questions. Users typed in what they were looking for and got a list of web pages that might contain the desired information. Google has long recognized that many people don’t want a research tool, however; they want a quick answer. Over the past five years, the company has been moving toward providing direct answers to questions along with its traditional list of relevant web pages.
Type in the name of a person and you’ll get a box with a photo and biographical data. Type in a word and you’ll get a box with a definition. Type in “When is Mother’s Day” and you’ll get a date. Type in “How to bake a cake?” and you’ll get a basic cake recipe. These are Google’s attempts to provide what Danny Sullivan, a journalist and founder of the blog SearchEngineLand, calls “the one true answer.” These answers are visually set apart, encased in a virtual box with a slight drop shadow. According to MozCast, a tool that tracks the Google algorithm, almost 20 percent of queries — based on MozCast’s sample size of 10,000 — will attempt to return one true answer.
Unfortunately, not all of these answers are actually true.
and then immediately descends into psychotic gibberish:
Google needs to invest in human experts who can judge what type of queries should produce a direct answer like this, Shulman said. “Or, at least in this case, not send an algorithm in search of an answer that isn’t simply ‘There is no evidence any American president has been a member of the Klan.’ It’d be great if instead of highlighting a bogus answer, it provided links to accessible, peer-reviewed scholarship.”
. . .
The fastest way for Google to improve its featured snippets is to release them into the real world and have users interact with them. Every featured snippet comes with two links in the footnote: “About this result,” and “Feedback.” The former explains what featured snippets are, with guidelines for webmasters on how to opt out of them or optimize for them. The latter simply asks, “What do you think?” with the option to respond with “This is helpful,” “Something is missing,” “Something is wrong,” or “This isn’t useful,” and a section for comments.
This is all nonsense. The problem is that Google gives some of its results a false sense of authority, so the solution is for it to give a different set of its results even more of a false sense of authority, while also soliciting comments from everyone and putting in 3,000 different links allowing people to leave 30,000 different layers of feedback, because then the results won’t be confusing anymore.
Again, there are a literally infinite number of possible queries and results, which is the whole reason you write a search engine in the first place. Putting in custom results for specific queries both breaks the functionality of what Google is supposed to be doing, and is a futile game of whack-a-mole, a drop of water in a sea of bullshit. Furthermore, when you go down this road you’re trusting Google to provide the “right” results, which is a task at which it has absolutely no institutional competence. Is there seriously anyone who still hasn’t noticed that nerds are generally extremely bad at anything outside of their direct area of expertise? (That’s kind of the definition of “nerd,” actually.) To precisely the extent that you have a curated system, you do not have a search engine. You have some nerd’s journal.
Again, again, Google can either be a search engine or a source of direct information. It can’t be both things, and the practical effect of “solutions” like this is to transform Google into an extremely shitty direct information source. Think about this for literally five seconds: if the problem is that the web has a bunch of shitty content on it, then how is soliciting more information from the same place going to change anything? Are we seriously assuming that Holocaust deniers are going to be above gaming these sorts of things? The idea that individual people can change Google results by yelling at the company loudly enough is not any kind of solution; it’s properly horrifying. It means that search results are constantly subject to the random whims and biases of the people who are the best at yelling about things on the internet. This isn’t order; it’s chaos.
You may recall that the internet already has a source for crowdsourced direct information. It’s called Wikipedia. And, indeed, the problem that a lot of people are having here is that they are expecting Google to be the same thing as Wikipedia. In other words, they are incapable of understanding that a search engine and a source of information are different types of things, and thus, when one of them doesn’t behave like the other, they see it as a “problem” that needs to be “fixed”:
This is a really remarkable comment, especially coming from a guy with a fucking book emoji in his name. There’s not even an argument here, there’s just a completely unexamined assumption that Google and Wikipedia are directly comparable on some kind of “information quality” level or something and that one of them is “better” than the other. This is as far from intellectualism as it’s possible to get. (Don’t even get me started on the pathetic haughtiness of “do better,” as though it were any kind of meaningful statement (as though it imparted any semantic content at all), let alone a solution.)
Since I know I have to say this explicitly, I am absolutely not arguing that there is any such thing as a “neutral” platform or algorithm or that Google is not completely fucked up and deserving of excoriation. This isn’t about “neutrality” and “bias,” this is about what type of thing a thing is. What I am arguing is that things need to be criticized for what they are actually doing. It is correct for people to give Wikipedia shit about, for example, how it addresses trans people, because what’s on Wikipedia was put there by a specific person and approved by other specific people. Wikipedia’s “neutral point of view” thing is largely bullshit, because you can’t actually do that, but it is correct for it to attempt to stick to the facts and avoid editorializing. There’s no point in complaining that Wikipedia doesn’t promote your own personal political philosophy hard enough. But when it comes to something like which gender you use to refer to a trans person, there isn’t a “neutral option,” and the issue can’t be avoided. You have to make a choice, and that choice merits criticism.
So, as mentioned, the part of the Google results that is actually wrong is the boxy results, and they’re wrong in general, not just when they display “wrong” answers. Aspiring detectives may have noticed that I lied earlier. The Holocaust denial thing didn’t actually come up in one of the boxy results, it was just at the top of the normal list. So the people complaining there actually were full of shit. More specifically, they were full of shit insofar as they were directing their complaints at Google. The existence of the site is the problem, not the fact that Google’s algorithm noticed that it was on the internet and displayed it to the people to whom it calculated it was probably relevant.
This does not mean the algorithm is “neutral.”3 There’s no such thing. There are a lot of different methods you can use to find and display search results. They can be based on the site’s overall popularity, or on how many people clicked through from a given source, or on how well the content appears to match the search parameters regardless of traffic patterns. You can even switch this around; you could, for example, specifically promote less popular sites when they match certain search criteria. This would distribute traffic more equally and advance less popular opinions, though it might also increase the bullshit ratio. Hell, you could even take all the valid results and just display them randomly – this would actually have the positive effect of promoting previously unknown sources (hi), even though it would certainly increase the bullshit ratio, perhaps by quite a lot (depending on the extent to which “authoritative” sources are actually bullshit in the first place).
These are the real choices Google has to make even if it stops lying, and any choice made here is going to have political results. Pushing all the results towards the New York Times center is just as much of a political action as promoting fringe sites. So criticism of the behavior of Google’s algorithm is in fact within bounds here, as long as that’s actually what you’re criticizing. Pointing out that one bad result appears in one place is not a real argument, because nobody actually put it there. In order to make that argument, you have to argue against the general behavior that results in that particular output, and when you do that, you are implicitly arguing against all of the behavior that results from the parameters you’re selecting for criticism. You can coherently make the argument that Google should be promoting more “authoritative” results, but only if you’re willing to accept that non-authoritative results that you happen to agree with will also get downgraded. And the reason I’m claiming that people are full of shit here is that I don’t think anyone actually believes this. What people actually want is for the bad results to just not be there, because their existence is actively immoral. Which is an entirely praiseworthy opinion, but you can’t just wish them away. You have to think about how you actually want these things to be determined, because the consequences are going to be far greater than the one or two bad results you happen to encounter. I mean, if you really do want only “officially approved” sources displayed when you perform a general internet search, I’m within my rights to conclude that you’re an authoritarian.
There’s a reason this is happening, though. Google is not trying to act as a search engine and failing; it is choosing to promote itself as an source of information and is doing so dishonestly. The reason it is making this choice is that it is what people want. People don’t actually want to know what’s out there on the internet. They want a magic box to give them the right answer. That’s the only possible explanation for the proliferation of those stupid talking internet cylinders. My ability to comment intelligently on this aspect of the problem is somewhat limited, as I cannot for the life of me imagine why anyone would a) pay to b) put a robot in the middle of their house that c) talks at them and d) constantly monitors them in order to e) sell them shit, all for the sake of f) an inferior version of the functionality that you already have on your desktop and know how to use, because you ordered the thing off of Amazon in the first place. That is literally my idea of hell. Anyway, the reason people buy these things, one supposes, is that they want to be able to yell indistinctly at a robot and have the robot give them the magical Correct Answer. In other words, they want to be lied to. In order to respond to this desire, Google has to be dishonest, because it’s not possible to honestly create an incoherent system.
Pressuring Google to censor “bad” search results one at a time doesn’t solve a real problem.4 I don’t actually object to Holocaust denial sites being delisted (good riddance, obviously), but I do object to intentional delusion. I object to people who think that removing unpleasant things from their field of vision is the same as improving material conditions for living humans. Indeed, what we’re really talking about here is removing unpleasant truths, because it is a real fact that these sites really exist, and that their existence accurately reflects the fact that large numbers of people sincerely believe these things. This is real news. All obscuring it does is make liberals feel better because now they don’t have to see the bad things. You may recall that this dynamic has resulted in some problems recently.
The true fact of the matter is that the world is a disgusting place. This should neither be accepted nor ignored. But not ignoring it also means not fooling yourself about where things are coming from. It means choosing high-value targets and not easy ones. It means understanding how the things you are yelling at work so that you can yell at them accurately. It means taking actions that actually move the world in a better direction instead of the ones that merely move you into a more comfortable chair. Above all, it means keeping your eyes open to the things that are the most disgusting to look at. The only option for interacting with reality is to learn how to navigate the sea of bullshit.
It is for this reason that category errors matter. If you can’t tell the difference between a racist website written by a person and the racist output of an algorithm, you are not actually perceiving reality. Even though those things are both wrong – even though algorithms can be just as blameworthy as individual people – they’re wrong for different reasons, and they require different responses. There’s a reason we have different names for different things. Different things are different. A search engine is not the same thing as a news site. Treating different things as though they were the same thing is called stupidity. It makes you wrong about things.
We also have a name for the desire to retreat from a complicated world into a simplistic shell of officially-verified Correct Answers. It’s called cowardice.
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.
The Memo of Doom has occasioned more commentary than anyone requires regarding anything, and that’s actually the main problem. Parsing individual claims in a situation like this tends to involve ignoring what the text actually does as a rhetorical action. So I think it would help to review some of the general principles at work here.
Various strains of activism in the recent past have succeeded wildly at inculcating the idea that “equality” is a good thing and “discrimination” is a bad thing. It’s actually difficult to remember that this is a very modern idea; for most of human history it was exactly the opposite: the idea was that everyone had their divinely-ordained place in the world and the right thing to do was to treat everyone according to their formal status. Of course, it’s much easier to get people to mouth positive-sounding platitudes than it is to actually change their minds (let alone their behaviors), so the practical result of this is that everyone, up to and including literal Klansmen, always says that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body” and they’re “all in favor of diversity” and they’re “just being realistic” and etc. In fact, this effect is so strong that even unrelated arguments get cast in the same language; for example, conservatives will complain of “discrimination” against their “minority viewpoints” which reduces “diversity.” The fact that such statements are always present all the time means that they do not discriminate between disparate situations. Both racists and anti-racists are equally likely to say that they oppose racism, so a statement of opposition to racism proffers no information about which kind of person you’re talking to. So, given that such statements encode no information, the only rational thing to do is to ignore them completely.
Anyone who uses the word “efficiency” is trying to sell you a bridge. Efficiency is a technical concept referring to a process’s ratio of inputs to outputs. An alternative process that costs half as much but delivers the same results is more efficient, despite being not more productive; an alternative with twice the cost and three times the output is more efficient despite being more costly. But in order to make such a determination, you must first specify which inputs and outputs you’re looking at. If you care about reducing pollution, then the question is which options give you the greatest reduction for a given cost. If you care about getting a product to market quickly, then the question is which options reduce your production time by the greatest amount. If you care about preserving a particular rare resource, then the question is which process uses the least of that resource, regardless of other costs. “Efficiency” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve made such a specification.
Due to the nature of the society that we live in, it’s common to talk about efficiency in terms of monetary expenditures and corporate profits. When people talk about whether something is “efficient” or “effective” or “a good idea” or any number of other vague references, they are often implicitly talking about corporate productivity. This is usually an unexamined assumption: people don’t consider the fact that not everything has to be discussed in terms of what’s good for rich fucks. So people often argue that diversity1 is more “efficient,” meaning it helps corporations make more money. Certain types of people will argue that engineering is actually about communication and problem-solving, and diverse opinions and traditionally feminine skillsets are more valuable in that endeavor – in other words, they’re better for the company. This may be true (though I don’t think you can really make a general determination about this sort of thing), but if you actually care about equality, it’s a bad faith argument. Anti-discrimination is the thing you care about; it’s your output. The question is not which amount of diversity results in the greatest profits, but rather which structures most effectively reduce discrimination.
And there’s even another layer on top of that, which is that corporate productivity isn’t one thing either. You could, hypothetically, design a facial recognition system that works really well on Europeans and not very well on Asians, or you could design one that works passably well on everybody. You can’t “compute” which of these is better, you have to make a values-based judgment as to which one you prefer. If Google adopts a particular set of policies and thereby becomes super productive while also being super discriminatory, that’s perfectly “efficient,” but it’s also a bad outcome for everyone except Google. Seeing as our current social system rewards monetary success2 at the expense of all other metrics, this is the kind of thing we need to be on guard against.
Everyone thinks that their opinions are “thoughtful” and “nuanced” and “fact-based,” and that anyone who disagrees with then is a shallow ideologue who hasn’t done their homework. It’s temping, then, to express this by writing something extremely long. I mean, if you write 10,000 words about something, it has to be nuanced, right? It can’t just be a simplistic expression of unexamined prejudices. Anyone who dismisses it on that basis clearly didn’t read the whole thing.
So obviously writing a ton of words isn’t the same thing as actually saying something worthwhile, but it goes even farther than that: the act of writing a big long manifesto is itself a statement about the underlying topic. It’s the statement that there exists a big long manifesto’s worth of discussion to be had, when that is not necessarily the case. I talked about this earlier with regard to rape apologetics. Trying to “cover the whole story” by including a detailed examination of the rapist’s perspective makes the implicit statement that that perspective is valid. And this can then become a defensive gesture that prevents you from reassessing your own argument, because anyone dismissing you just “doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the topic.” That might be true, but they might be right anyway.
The fact that you sometimes need a certain level of detail to make a point does not entail that anything with that level of detail is necessarily making the same kind of point. When you fail to examine your assumptions, it’s possible to make a lengthy, nuanced argument that says nothing.
Act like it
Speech is a physical phenomenon that occurs in the real world. In no case is the content of speech ever a “pure idea”; it is always an action that has a particular effect, which is partly (and often mostly) determined by the context in which the action takes place. You can’t “neutrally” argue about whether black people have lower IQs than white people in a society with a history (and present) of using intellectualism as a vector for dehumanization. Whining about how it’s “unfair” that you can’t just have a “reasonable discussion” doesn’t change that. I mean, it really is unfair that you can’t bring up certain topics without engaging with racism, but tough shit. You have to decide whether you care more about racism or more about masturbating over bell curves.
One of the major problems that this results in is the idea of “proving” things. After all, “proof” is undeniably objective, so it has to be valid in any possible context, right? But arguing within this framework in the first place necessarily imposes an extremely high standard on whatever it is that “requires” proof, while also slipping in underlying assumptions that are not only not proven, but not even argued for, because you can’t start the discussion without some kind of grounding. With regards to global warming, for example, the underlying assumption is that we have to have capitalism, and the debate is only about whether the negative consequences have been “proven” to a high enough standard to require us to do anything about it. The idea of it being the other way around – of the potential environmental impact preemptively discrediting capitalism – is not a permissible line of argument. And since the future is indeterminate, the more responsible standard is one of risk mitigation: to the extent that our current system of production has possible negative consequences, we should be working to make them less possible. Insisting on “proof” biases the potential responses heavily toward not doing anything, because you’re never going to be completely sure about what’s going to happen. It’s important to remember that the popularly-cited 2° target is not the “everything’s okay” threshold; it’s the catastrophe threshold. If the living standards of humanity in general were really what we cared about, we would have been taking major steps long before Armageddon became a visible possibility, without requiring any sort of “scientific consensus.”
The big catch is that responding to these sorts of shenanigans carries the same caveats. A point-by-point refutation might seem like the most “thorough” way of debunking a claim, but as an action, it implicitly concedes the very point under discussion: that it’s all very complicated and we ultimately just don’t know whether women are good enough to deserve equality. If you’re writing a scientific rebuttal to something, you’re validating the point that scientific debate is the right way to handle it – doing that constitutes having that debate. And while science is all well and good, its modern prominence tends to function as a dodge away from moral issues. You can’t ever “conclude” scientifically that women are definitely being discriminated against, but you can make the moral case that certain behaviors are harmful to human development and ought to be combated. When you don’t do that, you leave people’s existing ideological assumptions in place, which generally means that people reading the discussion will see a bunch of charts on one side and a bunch of charts on the other and go on believing what they already believed anyway.
In order to deal with the amount of noise we all have to deal with these days, you have to remember the basics. You have to figure out what your actual priorities are rather than just accepting the parameters of whatever discussion you happen to be having at the time, and you have to take the specific actions that will advance those priorities rather than just saying the thing that seems like the right answer. Failure to do this is one of the reasons why, despite the wild open-endedness of the internet, everything feels stuck. And it’s why, despite the outcry and the rebuttals and the firing, the true goal of the Google memo has already been accomplished: we’re still having this discussion.
I’m going to suppress my instinctual reaction to the Taylor Swift trial on account of there’s a much more important implication lingering in the background which I’d prefer it if we could try to focus on. I mean, there’s nothing really interesting going on here otherwise; as though it’s at all impressive that one of the richest and most powerful people in the entertainment business was able to . . . er, no, right, I’m not doing that. Seriously, good for her. She was entirely in the right and she dealt with the whole thing as accurately and sincerely as possible. It was actually a just resolution of the situation, for once.
The problem is this:
This is exactly the opposite of what’s happening here. If Swift were really “refusing to be a victim,” she could do that very easily by simply ignoring the issue. From what I hear, she has some other stuff going on for her, so if she didn’t choose to make an issue out of this, it wouldn’t be an issue. (I’m aware that she was sued first, but she could have just let the lawyers wrap it up and it would have been washed away by the news cycle and completely forgotten in about 3 hours. I mean, that’s probably going to happen anyway, but now it’ll at least have a paragraph on her Wikipedia page.) On the contrary, by taking the stand and turning this into a media thing, she has made her status as a victim an indelible part of the public record. When she says things like this:
“I am critical of your client for sticking his hand under my skirt and grabbing my ass.”
“Gabe, this is a photo of him with his hand up my skirt — with his hand on my ass,” she said. “You can ask me a million questions — I’m never going to say anything different. I never have said anything different.”
“I am being blamed for the unfortunate events of his life that are a product of his decisions and not mine.”
what she is saying is precisely, “I am a victim.” She’s saying that this happened to her without her consent and she was completely powerless to do anything about it. If this is “badass,” it’s badass because she’s accepting her victimhood.
Now, the original feminist aversion to the “victim” concept resulted from a laudable motivation. Part of the way sexism works is that the things that disadvantage women are blamed on the individual women themselves. Rape is an especially salient example, because not only are women portrayed as “asking for it,” but even blameless victims are still considered to have been “damaged” by the experience. (And of course it’s the other way around for the perpetrators: raping someone is just one of those things that men do sometimes, so there’s no sense in ruining someone’s life over it.) So the counter-tactic here was to assert that, rather than being “victims,” people who have undergone sexual assault are instead “survivors.” This turns the negative into a positive: rather than being a “victim” who will never be able to escape their experiences, a “survivor” is someone whose accomplishments are all the more admirable due to having been achieved despite duress.
So that’s all well and good, far be it from me to tell anyone how to understand their own experiences, but this approach stops working when you try to apply it as a general prescription. The fact of the matter is that rape really does harm people severely, and sometimes you don’t get over it. Some people literally don’t survive rape, and many more fall into trauma, give up on themselves, curtail their ambitions, or simply slog through the rest of their lives latched to a dull, throbbing weight that never really goes away. If these things were not the case, rape would not be a real issue. That’s kind of the whole thing about oppression: it creates an environment in which being casually restrained and put-upon is normal. Furthermore, the people most harmed by rape are the people who are most in need of help – they’re the people that our theory has to be centered around. If our conceptualization of the issue tacitly abandons them, we’re not doing feminism very well.
This is, of course, exactly what’s been happening. The modern mainstream conception of feminism is essentially a self-help program for rich white women based on a skin-deep conception of individual empowerfulmentness and manifested largely through bastardized pop-psych-sci-mythology and snake-oil saleswomanship. I mean, just so we’re clear, I’m not addressing what random Twitter morons are saying about this; I’m talking about the general conception of what feminism is right now. (Also, the real kind of feminism is still alive and well, it’s just that there are now two different things with the same name, and, as always, the bad one is more popular.) “Refusing to be a victim” is a perfect one-line description of this ideology: it’s an individual denialistic response to a society that is assumed to be unchangeable. Hence, among many examples, the current trend towards “advice” about how to properly mangle your own vocabulary to ensure that you aren’t saying anything that will “hold you back.” Rather than analyzing why it is that speech patterns characteristic of women are considered “flawed” in some way, or why we expect people to jump through ritualistic hoops unrelated to the actual work they’re doing in order to succeed (and certainly rather than suggesting that anything about men’s behavior ought to change), we simply assume all of that to be fixed and ask the only remaining question: how can each individual woman act so as to most effectively mitigate her own inherent disadvantages? It is in this sense that the correct response to sexual assault is understood to be “refusing to be a victim”: dealing with your specific personal complications on an individual level and ignoring any broader context.
There’s a reason things have turned out this way. Sexism has its own unique characteristics, but the general dynamic here is the same was what’s happening to everything. Our society has be de-politicized in general such that all problems are understood on the individual level. We see exactly the same dynamic when, for example, liberals respond to unemployment by advocating education and retraining. Rather than modifying society so that it works for everyone, we force each individual person to contort themselves into one of the few permissible shapes.
“Women’s issues” are at the heart of this problem, because the fundamental motivation for patriarchy is to force women into a limited set of socially necessary roles (child rearing, housework, emotional labor) so that these things can be assumed to be taken care of and men are free to do whatever else they want. (The fact that some men may very well want to do the things we’ve cordoned off for women is one of the reasons that patriarchy hurts men too.) As long as our society is organized on the basis of this dynamic, we will continue to see it replicated in different ways for different groups of people. We can’t solve this problem for anyone until we can solve it for women. This is among the many reasons that feminism is for everybody.
But the original impulse here is still valid: conceiving of patriarchy as a vast ineluctable darkness and woman as hopelessly downtrodden is equally fatalistic. Rewriting the script to give yourself a flashier role doesn’t change the fundamental problem, because the fundamental problem is the existence of the script. Creating a new model for how women are supposed to act will make women’s oppression look different while continuing to be oppression, and continuing to leave anyone who doesn’t fit the model out in the cold. “Refusing to be a victim” actually means buying in to the idea that victims have something wrong with them, that only by responding to a tragedy in the proper, socially-approved manner do you qualify as a human being. It is not incumbent upon oppressed people to respond to their oppression in a way that makes everyone else feel good about themselves. To insist on this is precisely to blame the victim. You have to accept how people feel and provide resources to help them regardless of whether they’re sassy sheroes or whether they’re useless losers. The society we want is a society that works for all women, one where even women who are complete stupid assholes are disadvantaged only by their own stupid assholeness and not by sexism. Making moral sympathy contingent on the ability to act in a way that makes other people feel good about themselves is deeply sick.
And it’s more than sick; it’s factually inaccurate. “Victories” make it seem like the current situation is okay, when of course the fact that these things happen at all unavoidably illustrates that it is not okay. Even someone like Taylor Swift, who is privileged enough to be immune to almost everything else, is not immune to the banal impulses of whatever rando she ends up standing next to. The significance of the case is not that Swift “won,” because she didn’t. She broke even: she took a bad thing that happened to her and fixed it (and she really didn’t even do that, because she still had to waste her time going to court and arguing with some asshole lawyer). The significance is that, hopefully, the next guy who gets it into his head to pull some shit will instead think twice. Victory isn’t winning a court case; victory is being treated like a person in the first place.
The state of being a victim is morally neutral. That is, the thing that happened was bad (meaning the state of being a victimizer is morally negative, obviously), but it can happen just as easily to a good person or an awful person, and the fact of it happening does not make the person any better or worse. What being a victim actually indicates is that someone else did something immoral. Not only does it not reflect badly on you, it doesn’t reflect on you at all; the whole point of the term is that the situation was outside of your control. If we accept this, we have to accept that how a victim responds to their victimization is absolutely irrelevant to the situation. It’s fine to prefer certain types of responses to others (especially since many possible responses are themselves immoral in different ways), and we might have advice about how to respond in a healthy manner, but none of that should have any effect on our evaluation of the initial violation. It’s either wrong or it’s not, and if it’s wrong, then we can’t excuse it in either direction: we can’t wave it away as “the way things are,” but we also can’t accept an “inspiring” resolution as a “happy ending.” Because it’s not an ending; the only ending will be when this actually ends, when the last page of the last book of the old order’s precepts is reduced to ashes and scattered to the four winds. Since that’s not going to happen anytime soon, it’s not a fantasy that we can reasonably console ourselves with. We must accept that we are doomed and also accept our responsibility to fight for the sake of the true future. Our only option is to continue to live as victims.
Sadly, the current conception of things hasn’t really been forced on us. It’s certainly something that the ruling class has promoted to their own advantage, but it’s only worked because people have gone along with it, and the reason they’ve gone along with it is because it’s easy. It’s comforting to imagine that any problem can be resolved by simply finding the secret code that turns it off. Actually, it’s more than just comforting; acknowledging that there are vast historical forces arrayed against you but imagining that you can overcome them through nothing but your own cleverness and determination doesn’t just make things okay, it makes it so you’re the hero. And since this rarely works out in practice, we instead find the few people privileged enough to make it work and experience the fantasy vicariously through them.
Neither being a queen nor slaying is a good thing. It isn’t “badass” to pretend like you’re perfect and nothing affects you. It isn’t badass to only pick fights that you’re sure you can win effortlessly. It is badass to admit your weaknesses, to be honest about your history and your emotions, and to confront things that are scary. It’s badass to fight things that you’re probably not going to be able to defeat, to choose just struggle over shallow success.
What this means in practice is that we must, all of us, refuse to refuse to be victims. We must insist on our own victimhood, and on the validity of our cause regardless. We aren’t right because we’re the coolest people with the best hair and the sassiest comebacks. We’re right because we’re right. Victorious or defeated, we remain victims; together or alone, we remain united in the cause of justice.
This is the thing that we all have in common. We all have different situations, but each of us is vulnerable to something. Each of us has been, in some important way, failed by our society. We have all had our potential stifled, our opportunities curtailed, our selves denigrated, and our dreams deferred. We all bear the scars of irretrievable losses; we are all less than we could have been. We’ve all run into walls; we’ve all encountered painfully decisive evidence that we are not equal to the task before us, and we’re all going to keep trying anyway. We’re all broken robots play-acting at personhood. It is this realization, not the cheap glamour of hero-worship, that creates the foundation for real solidarity.
You’re a victim. Admit it.
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.