The whole “violence in video games” thing made an unexpected comeback recently, I guess because “first as tragedy, then as farce” is some kind of metaphysical law now. Anyway, for all the puffed-up pontificating that pervades this issue, no one’s ever really done a proper analysis of it, so, y’know, someone probably should.
Obviously, video games do not “cause” violence for any reasonable definition of the term. The mental hurdles that have to be cleared before a person can make the active decision to arbitrarily murder a bunch of strangers are somewhat extensive. Specifically, “desensitization to violence” has almost nothing to do with it. The reason people mostly don’t kill each other isn’t because they’re scared of seeing blood, it’s because they don’t want to in the first place. And of course spree killings require a whole other level of motivation on top of that, because in that case you’re killing people you don’t know in a way that doesn’t benefit you at all. Indeed, the entire reason spree killings attract attention is that they don’t make sense; most people literally can’t imagine how you would actually do something like that.
The typical tendency to latch on to the easiest available explanation is particularly pernicious here, because the fact that we’re talking about something very far outside of ordinary experience means that any real explanation would have to be extremely complicated. Remember, spree killings are vanishingly rare (which is part of the reason they attract so much attention when they do happen), so whatever “causes” them can’t be common; indeed, it can’t even be just one thing. You’d basically have to take a person’s entire life experiences into account, at which point you lose the ability to simply point your finger and blame one thing. (So yes, even blaming guns here is not really apropos. Spree killings actually provide an extremely weak case for banning guns. The strong case is the combination of the facts that a) most gun deaths are accidents or suicides, so guns really are the proximate cause there (suicides are generally impulsive, so even though there are other underlying issues there, removing the means can still be a decisive preventative measure) and b) individual gun ownership doesn’t have any positive functions.) One can, of course, imagine a situation where some game or other provides the “but for” cause for a particular killing, but everything that would have to happen for a person to get to that point would clearly be the overwhelmingly more significant issue. Basically, if fucking Doom or whatever can convince you to kill people, then literally anything can.
At the same time, it’s implausible to argue that games have no effect on anything. I mean, this actually was the popular argument back in the day: that games are a purely escapist pastime that have no effect on anything whatsoever. This is honestly pretty hilarious, because it’s precisely the argument for banning games. If games are completely useless, if they don’t do anything at all, then you might as well ban them. Nothing of value would be lost. But of course this is nonsense. Games aren’t in any way “fake”; they’re real things that exist in the real world, and engaging with them necessarily has to have some effect on a person simply by virtue of the fact that they’re things. Furthermore, games aren’t just arbitrary amalgamations of colors and noises – what they actually are, usually, is feedback loops. You take an action, you get feedback from it, you modify the actions you’re taking to account for the feedback and get new feedback in response, and you keep doing this forever. This is the style of interaction that is most likely to have an effect on human behavior; it’s the specific thing that the human brain responds to. And we know this is the case because game developers are completely shameless about it. The most prominent current example of this is the “loot box” system, which is explicitly intended to mimic the effects of slot machines for the purpose of manipulating addiction-prone people into dumping tons of money into them. And the reason games like this get made is that they’re profitable, meaning this works. In short, there really is something going on here, and beyond vague notions of “addiction,” nobody’s ever really bother to figure it out.
In order to understand what we’re actually talking about here, we first have to understand what “violence in video games” actually is. It’s not actual violence, obviously, but it’s also not a simulation of violence. People usually talk about it as though that’s what going on, that violence is being “portrayed,” but it’s clearly not, because if it is, it’s the worst portrayal ever. Two people holding weapons and clicking on each other until one of their life numbers reaches zero is about as far as you can get from an accurate portrayal of violence. I mean, this is usually a joke, like in Street Fighter or whatever you have two people punching and throwing fireballs at each other and they’re perfectly fine and uninjured the entire time until one of their life bars runs out, at which point they suddenly fall over, completely incapacitated. The joke is precisely that this is absolutely nothing like a street fight.
So if that’s not it, then what is it? What it is is a metaphor. “Violence in video games” is an aesthetic layer that exists to help us understand the underlying computational phenomena. What’s actually happening in a fighting game is that each player has a set of spatial coordinates that they can move around and project other sets of coordinates from, and if one player’s projected coordinates intersect with the other’s fixed coordinates, then the counter belonging to the intersecting player gets decremented by a certain amount, and the player whose counter reaches zero first loses. The problem is that that sentence makes no sense; if you actually had to explain games to people in this way, nobody would ever be able to figure out what the hell was going on. So what you do is you draw a picture of a street fight, and then people are immediately like “oh, I get it, I’m supposed to punch that guy.” This also, just as importantly, provides the player with a motivation for what they’re supposed to be doing. We don’t just understand “fighting” in mechanical terms, we also understand what you’re supposed to do when you get into a fight, which is to win it. So while the metaphor isn’t mechanical, it’s actually the more important part of the design: it’s the thing that the players are actually interacting with pretty much the whole time (in fact, it’s probably the thing that the developers were interacting with most of the time, too).
But the thing to note about metaphors is that they’re always somewhat arbitrary. The mechanics are the thing that’s actually happening, and you can always put a different metaphor on top of them. For example, in a RPG the two sides typically have different “attacks,” which are portrayed as things like swords and guns and fireballs, and their counters are portrayed as “life,” so the win condition is that one side eventually runs out of “life” and “dies.” But you could just as easily present the exact same mechanics as, for example, a debate, where instead of “attacks” you have “arguments,” and instead of “life” you have “credibility,” and the side that runs out of “credibility” first “loses” the debate. The game would work exactly the same way. So if violence isn’t a portrayal, and it’s also not a necessary consequence of the mechanics, then this is where we arrive at the real question: why do almost all games use violence as a metaphorical basis when doing so is completely unnecessary? Even in something like a Mario game, which is supposed to be all cute and family-friendly, there are still “enemies” that you have to “defeat,” and the climax occurs when you face off against the biggest enemy and boil him alive in a vat of lava. What’s really going on here?
The question can be answered in one word: dominance. This is the real underlying dynamic. A game might contain more or less explicit violence, but the thing that you’re supposed to do in every case is to “beat” it. This is actually clearer in single-player games: we sometimes talk about playing “against” the “A.I.”, but this isn’t really what’s happening, because the game as an overall system controls your actions as much as it controls your “opponent’s.” What’s actually happening is simply that you’re interacting with a computerized rule system. You’re not really “beating” anyone or anything when you “win” the game, you’re just placing the system into a certain state. But since this is difficult to understand on its own, we explain it to the player by means of ideological content. Everyone knows what it means to “beat the bad guys,” so presenting this situation provides an immediately comprehensible entry point into any set of underlying mechanics.
But explanation isn’t really the main purpose here. The purpose is motivation. Dominance isn’t just understandable, it’s morally significant. The purpose of establishing a “defeat the bad guys” scenario is to make the player want to do so, because it’s the right thing to do. And it’s this aspect that is truly pervasive, far more so than explicit violence. Portal, for example, is notable for being a first-person shooter that doesn’t have any violence in it, but it still presents you with a “bad guy,” and you ultimately “beat” the game by blowing them up. And even in abstract games like Candy Crush or whatever, you’re still presented with a series of “challenges” that you have to “overcome” by getting a “high score” – the game’s metaphor isn’t violent, but it’s still dominance-based.
And of course as soon as you notice this you notice that this happens everywhere. Movies, for example, often don’t have a lot of explicit violence (less so now that we’ve devolved to producing nothing but superhero movies, but still), but the plot almost always gets “resolved” by a symbolic assertion of dominance. There’s often a contest or sports match or something at the end where the good guy winning it somehow solves the interpersonal problems that the movie is supposed to be about. A classic example occurs in Back to the Future: the story of George McFly’s lack of self-confidence gets resolved by him punching someone in the face. What’s funny about this is that it doesn’t even make sense. George obviously doesn’t know how to throw a punch, and punching someone doesn’t generally render them instantly unconscious. But while the situation doesn’t make sense in factual terms – the movie would be a failure if the point of it were to portray violence – it does make sense in ideological terms. What the movie is telling us is that the symbolic assertion of dominance is the most important thing in the world.
And it’s far from the only thing telling us this. Indeed, we frequently hear this message in even more explicit terms from such sources as, oh, I don’t know, the entire United States government.
I believe that the US, UK, & France did the right thing by striking Syria over chemical weapons. It will not stop the war nor save the Syrian people from many other horrors. It is illegal under international law. But it at least draws a line somewhere & says enough.
What this is saying is precisely “this action was illegal, and it killed people, and it didn’t accomplish anything, but it was still the right thing to do, because it was a symbolic assertion of dominance.” This isn’t a pathology or a mistake or a bad trend. It’s how our society works. Spree killings get politicians super hard for the opportunity to put on their serious faces and play-act moral indignation, but when the government decides that some other country is impeding its geopolitical goals, then suddenly unleashing an orgy of omnidirectional violence is the only rational choice.
So you can see where the last dot is now, right? Spree killings don’t make sense in functional terms, but they do make sense in symbolic ones – they are precisely symbolic assertions of dominance. The reason the mental health dodge is a dodge is because it’s trivially true: a person capable of deciding to murder a room full of strangers is by definition not what we mean by “mentally healthy.” It’s not a explanation; it’s a tautology. But the thing that it’s dodging is the fact that the underlying ideology of spree killers is in no way deviant from the general ideology that society constantly pushes on everyone. Indeed, the problem that spree killers have is simply that they take this ideology too seriously. What they’re supposed to do is release their frustrations in socially acceptable ways such as hating foreigners or bullying their subordinates at work or beating their wives. They’re not supposed to act like they really mean it.
In case you care, though, video games still suck. The fact that they’re not important enough to matter when compared to everything else doesn’t change the fact that they’re almost universally doing the wrong thing. There’s still a strong distinction between the general form of engagement offered by video games compared to other forms of media. Other forms of media often rely on symbolic assertions of dominance as a emotional crutch, but the general case when playing a video game is that symbolically asserting dominance is the only thing you do.
If you’re reading a book, for example, you have to work with the language you’re reading it in, which is a social medium created by the interactions of everyone in the society, over time, and you have to consider what effect specific word choices have and how they convey the things that the book is trying to convey, which requires accounting for social context and psychology and all kinds of other things. All of this stuff comes into play even when you’re just reading some juvenile action novel like Harry Potter where there’s an evil wizard who gets blown up at the end. This is why reading and seeing movies and listening to music are all generally healthy habits to have, even when their specific content isn’t all that great. At the very least, their basic structure connects to things that matter. Engaging with them forces you to be a person.
Indeed, pretty much the only activity you can engage in that doesn’t work like this is playing a video game. Ironically for a medium that prides itself on “interactivity,” gaming is frequently a completely thoughtless activity. You figure out – or, more often, the game just tells you – what action you need to take to “win,” and then you just do that over and over again. Engaging with a video game forces you to be a robot.
This problem is so endemic to the medium that its influence is overwhelming even in cases that are explicitly trying to do the exact opposite. I’m not sure if people realize this, but Final Fantasy 7 is actually a prime example. The main character is your typical stoic mercenary coolguy, but the plot twist is that this is a facade. He’s actually a dropout loser whose dreams of grandeur end up manifesting as a severe inferiority complex, such that he has to pretend to be a big strong hero in order to see himself as a worthwhile person. This is an explicit repudiation of the whole idea of the “hero” being the most powerful person who beats up the most bad guys; what the game is saying is that people who need this kind of assurance are delusional children. Except that then the game ends with a one-on-one macho shirtless swordfight where the hero uses his super cool sword attack to beat up the bad guy. What’s amazing is that even within the context of the story, this doesn’t resolve anything: the denouement concerns an entirely separate issue that doesn’t have this sort of easy resolution, such that the game actually ends ambiguously. But the people making the game literally could not think of any climax other than a symbolic assertion of dominance, even though they had written an entire plot about how that sort of thing is stupid bullshit.
So the real problem with the “violence in video games” angle is aesthetic: it’s the wrong criticism. Violence isn’t the thing causing the problem. Indeed, one of the ways to make progress here is precisely by taking violence seriously as a concept. What violence actually is is a constraint: it physically prevents you from doing something. Furthermore, violence is not just one thing. It’s not just about “winning”; there are a lot of different ways you can deploy it. A game that was really about violence would precisely not be a simplistic fetishization of dominance. So in this sense, video games actually need to become a lot more violent. They need to start imposing real constraints.
But the defensive reaction to this criticism is ultimately just denialism. Criticism is always an opportunity to do better (or, at the very least, in the case of bad criticism, to refine your approach such that you don’t attract bad criticism), and games are capable of doing much, much better. Still, it’s correct to point out that this line of argument gets nowhere near the real problem. The real reason that games don’t cause violence is that all the damage a game could potentially do has already been done, far more effectively, by almost everything else in society. If you think banning games is going to help anything, you’d better start by banning the military.
Now that our long national nightmare is formally underway, it behooves us to review the specific parameters of the current situation. This is a war, you know.
Back when this was all just a particularly unpleasant hypothetical, two potential silver linings were foreseeable. One was that Trump’s signature blend of cluelessness and incompetence would prevent him from getting anything significant done. He has no idea how to run a government, no ability to learn, and no convictions that he would ever feel the need to press forward on. If he actually did “drain the swamp” in any significant sense, he’d just wind up with an administration full of equally ineffectual toadies. In short, his term would merely be a period of stagnation. The other possibility was that his fundamental emptiness would relegate him to the role of figurehead, with the Republican establishment doing all of the actual governing and thereby advancing their standard-issue conservative agenda. This would be very bad, but it would be the type of badness that is within the usual operating sphere of American politics. It’d be the same as if any of the other Republican contenders had won.
What we’re looking at now is the worst of both worlds. Republicans have officially commenced with the ramming through of as much of their reactionary wishlist as is ram-through-able in however many years this is going to last, and Trump has also been shoving into his nascent administration the maximum attainable number of goons and cronies, as well as charging on with his own irrepressible instincts towards petty grasping and childish blundering. So what we’re looking at is basically the existing Republican dystopia smothered in low-quality Trump-brand steak sauce. And it’s not like we were doing fine before any of this happened. We were and are facing a large number of vitally important challenges that require drastic remediation yesterday. So we’re now in the worst possible situation at the worst possible time.
The Muslim ban is a great example of how this works in practice. It’s the type of thing that Republicans wanted to do anyway (recall that Cruz wanted to put every mosque in the country under surveillance, which kind of sounds like a big government program to enforce political correctness, but never mind that), but Trump managed to do it in the stupidest possible way. Anyone else would have gone through the necessary layers of lawyers to make sure that the order was basically defensible, but Trump’s Brute Squad just slapped something on his desk for him to sign. And the thing is, doing it this way caused more harm. It fucked up green card holders and other legal residents, who would not have been included in any competently drafted order, and the general uncertainty meant that a lot of people were just randomly detained for excessive periods of time, and even now many people are afraid to travel simply because no one can tell how this is going to shake out. And even with the laudable amount of opposition, the whole thing still has the effect of normalizing animus against immigrants.
More specifically, though, what we are in is the worst possible version of the same previously-existing situation. We were already ramping up inequality and failing to respond to global warming and arbitrarily murdering people at home and abroad. Indeed, even on the specific issues of deporting immigrants and admitting refugees, the United States under Obama was notably zealous and deficient, respectively. The rallying cry du jour is that we need to resist “normalizing” Trump, but you’ll note that this tactic has a rather vicious double-edge: if it is Trump specifically that is not normal, then everything else, the actual agenda that his administration is advancing, is business as usual. Oddly enough, the current sticking point is the opposite of “it can’t happen here.” It’s that people are unable to process the situation through any lens other than “it’s the Nazis again.” So, y’know, we’re all concerned about the rough beast slouching towards Washington to be born, but the fact of the matter is that the center has held, and that’s not really all that encouraging. It is not that our political system’s accommodation to Trump demonstrates that it is capable of holding up even against extreme destabilization. Rather, the fact that a neo-fascist uprising is able to resolve itself into business as usual proves that the potential was there all along. The violence was always inherent in the system.
I have no objection to labelling Trump a fascist. We came up with that concept for a reason; it’s useless unless we use it. But there’s a difference between throwing the F-word around and actually figuring shit out. Specifically, if we’re going to compare Trump to Hitler, we ought to note the obvious difference: Hitler had a plan. He had something that he wanted to achieve. Y’know, unlike Trump, Hitler actually wrote his own book, and it was about ideas instead of just being a self-promotional pile of dubious business bromides. Trump is the exact opposite of a mastermind. He’s a shark – all he can do is move in one direction, on mere instinct. Like, the reason Trump goes after the press is not that he knows an adversarial press is a cornerstone of a free society and he needs them out of the way in order to autocratize in peace. It’s because media criticism undermines his ability to act like a big man on the TV. That’s it. That is the sum total of his political orientation on the subject.
So because nothing about Trump is novel (in the substantive, non-spectacular sense of the term; that is, he’s a “novelty,” but he’s not novel), getting rid of him accomplishes nothing. Indeed, Trump is already impeachable on account of the emoluments thing, and the Republicans probably will want to wash their hands of him at some point. Even as president, his brand is becoming increasingly toxic, and turning against him will be an easy way for mainstream Republicans to reestablish their “Reasonable Adult” credibility. The potential future here is not exactly shrouded in mists: Trump crashes and burns, the Democrats prop up some gutless party hack like Cory Booker, who spends his terms tweaking and formalizing all the hideous policies Trump put into place, the discourse shifts ever rightward, and eight years later the Republicans get one more chance to finally destroy the world for good. This is the real danger that must be avoided. We cannot afford to get distracted by the particular grotesqueries of Trump himself. (He’s only going to be around for so long in any case. Trump’s health is getting surprisingly little attention: he’s the oldest person ever elected to the presidency, and he obviously doesn’t exercise or eat well. A random heart attack or stroke is entirely likely.) Caring about politics means fighting for a real future.
This is not to say that Trump is a fluke, or that he doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, the point is that he is the logical conclusion of the line of reasoning presently embodied by the Republican Party. For example, if you’re concerned about Trump’s administration ignoring the normal processes of the government and overriding checks and balances and soforth, you’ll want to recall that it was the boring old pre-Trump Republican Senate that categorically refused to confirm any Supreme Court nominee put forth by Obama, and it is for that reason alone that Trump now gets to fill that seat. Let’s also recall that the Republican Party’s descent from bad faith into outright idiocy was pioneered by Sarah Palin, who was introduced into national politics by Captain Straight Talk himself, John McCain – the same John McCain who is currently trying to front like he’s got some kind of principled opposition to Trump, despite the fact that he’s not actually doing shit about anything. Let’s try to avoid falling for this obvious of a con.
Still, Trump clearly isn’t a “normal” Republican, so there’s a bit of a paradox to resolve here. One of the reasons people initially thought that Trump would be largely ineffectual was that he wouldn’t be able to work with the rest of his party, on account of heterodoxy. He was constantly clashing with the Republican establishment during the campaign, as well as making inconvenient promises like not cutting Social Security that people are now expecting him to follow through on. Indeed, if Trump really were serious about trying to become a popular and successful president, he would want to follow through on those promises, even if he had to fight the rest of his party in order to do so. He wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but it’s not like he’s ever shied away from wasting his time on a big dumb pointless fight. So it really does seem like it should be one or the other: either Trump is a dangerous eccentric, or he’s an empty ideologue. How, then, can it be both? Why isn’t there any real conflict between these things?
Abortion is one of the more visible issues in American politics, so that example should help us clarify things. As you know, one of Trump’s first actions upon entering office was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, a longtime mainstay of the anti-abortion project. This marks him as a typical Republican: the same thing has been done by every Republican president since abortion became a big national issue. So we can refocus the question by asking: why does Trump give any number of shits about abortion? He infamously defended Planned Parenthood during the primary, he sure as hell doesn’t have any religious motivation, and the idea that he has any kind of opinion on the science of the matter is as laughable as the idea that he doesn’t want to fuck his daughter. When liberals rattle off their obligatory list of Trump’s transgressions, they usually include the time he said women who get abortions should be punished. But this isn’t really justified, because he obviously didn’t mean it. It’s an easy shot to take, but people who want to be able to credibly complain about “fake news” and “post-truth politics” need to hold themselves to a slightly higher standard of intellectual honesty. He never raised the issue himself; it only came up under repeated direct questioning, and his answer was obviously a guess. He figured that it was what he was supposed to say, and he walked it back as soon as someone informed him that it wasn’t. Certainly, this doesn’t mean he secretly supports abortion rights. It means he doesn’t care; he had literally never thought about the issue before the question came up, which is why he was completely unprepared to answer and had to resort to a “tough”-sounding guess.
It’s been justifiably speculated that Trump has probably paid for an abortion or two in his day, and if we go ahead and assume this is true for argument’s sake, you’ll note what it actually illustrates: Trump believes abortion is a man’s prerogative, not a woman’s. Trump is “pro-abortion” in the sense that he thinks women should be able to have abortions whenever their men tell them to. (The fact that poor men can’t afford to force their women to get abortions is irrelevant; I don’t think Trump is actually aware that there is such a thing as a poor person. The entire premise of Trump University was that anyone can just start conducting real estate deals whenever they want to. That’s how it was for Trump, after all.) This is closer to the pro-life position than it is to the pro-choice position; ergo, Trump is a Republican.
In fact, it’s exactly the same as the pro-life position. See, the pro-life position actually is about controlling women; the idea that abortion specifically is among the most important elements of the Christian faith is baldy implausible outside of the American political context. So the reason Trump and the Republicans are in sync here is quite simple: despite surface-level differences, they believe the same thing. We saw this quite clearly when Trump bungled his “Two Corinthians” reference at Liberty University. Why would people for whom Christianity is the most important part of their lives forgive such a blatant transgression? Because their Christianity as Christianity is merely window-dressing for their real beliefs, and they can tell that Trump’s underlying real beliefs mirror theirs perfectly well. Really, the fact that anyone thought that Trump wouldn’t be able to gain evangelical support just goes to show how shallow our political discourse really is. It doesn’t even account for the fact that people have beliefs that go deeper than basic demographic identification.
This same dynamic applies equally well to everything else. Trump does not actually dissent from Republican talking points, he just expresses them badly. The particulars of Trump’s positions differ from Republican orthodoxy only because Trump is an unsophisticated political actor. The Republicans have spent decades figuring out how to advance a reactionary agenda under the cover of “common sense” and “principles”; Trump has had no such advantage, which accounts for the difference in his messaging. But his underlying ideology is exactly the same. It may briefly disorient you to realize that Donald Trump is not a creative thinker. Everything that he has proposed is something that is already happening. We already have a border fence. We’re already surveilling Muslims. We’re already deporting massive numbers of people. We’re already killing suspected terrorists’ families.
People like to talk about how Trump is “manipulating” the media or “gaming” the system, but that’s not what’s happening at all. Trump’s messaging is completely naive; he lacks the protective layer of cynicism that someone like Obama uses to communicate to multiple distinct constituencies at once. Y’know, the fact that Obama was able to present himself as an anti-racist savior while also placating scared white people is exactly what manipulating the media looks like (and you’ll recall that the media actually does suck (for the opposite reasons from why Trump thinks it does), so there’s some ambiguity as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing). Trump is an inveterate liar in terms of actual information, but the reason for this is that everything he says is driven by ideology. He says whatever has to be the case in order for his beliefs to be true. It is because of this that he is the exact opposite of the family-friendly and mass-appealing Obama: Trump is an unambiguous, crystal-clear image of one particular ideology, so you are guaranteed to either love or hate him. He tells it like it is.
In other words, what’s happening right now is not that an alien presence has descend upon our previously-innocent political system, corroding it from without. It is that Trump is giving us a glimpse behind the veil; ordinary, unsophisticated observers are finally able to see clearly the invasion from within. So you can see why, for anyone who actually wants to do anything about any of this, the whole “this is not normal” thing is kind of unbelievably fucking annoying. Liberals now have the perfect foil, someone who single-handedly justifies their entire ideology as well as a man for whom “foot” and “mouth” aren’t even separate concepts, and they’ve taken the opportunity to stab themselves in the chest.
The critical point is not that Trump is not a threat, or that we don’t need to resist him. It is that we can’t miss this chance. If we merely remove Trump himself and leave everything else the same, we will be doing nothing but drawing the curtain back again, reconcealing the truth. Given the stakes, we cannot allow this to happen. We must accept the deeper truth behind these events; we must walk through the threshold and into the lair of the beast. If this really is a “never again” type of situation, then the only way to make that so is to avoid jumping at every possible shadow, and to instead hunt down the thing that caused this and make it die.
Specifically, what the fuck is all this shit about Russia? I’m really not interested in litigating the details here, so let’s just assume that the allegations we’ve heard are uncontroversially true. Russia hacked both the DNC and the RNC, released the DNC information to damage Clinton, and held onto the RNC information to blackmail Trump after he won. If this is the case, what it means is that the Russians provided true, relevant information to the American voting public, who then used it to make an informed decision. (While drawing moral equivalencies is always tiresome, it bears repeating that the U.S. does way worse shit than this every day before breakfast. We’ve overthrown democratically elected governments, for god’s sake.) The idea that this constitutes “interference” that “tainted” the election is deeply disturbing – again, people who think “fake news” is a problem really need to get their heads in the game here.1 You either care about the truth or you don’t. In fact, the theft and release of this information was more than simply justifiable, it was actively moral. That information is ours by rights. What possible argument can there be against letting people know how the political parties that claim to represent them actually operate? If the Democrats lost due to the truth about them being revealed, there is very obviously only one way to interpret that situation: the Democrats are doing a bad job. There’s no point in helping them win elections absent a justification that makes them deserve to win.
Furthermore, if Trump is being blackmailed, what that means is that Americanselected a blackmailable candidate. It’s still our fault. I mean, the question at issue here is not particularly rhetorical. The reason for these histrionics is that liberals are embarrassed as hell that they lost to a personified temper tantrum, and they’re looking for someone, anyone else to blame. They’re trying to recast the threat of Trump as something foreign, something from out there rather than in here. The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. Even assuming that the worst is true regarding Russia’s intentions and actions, they didn’t make Trump rich. They didn’t make him a celebrity. They didn’t establish a pattern of scapegoating immigrants, promote a culture of anti-intellectualism, or create a discursive structure in which sexual assault can be dismissed as a minor personal foible. I mean, I’m sure they’ve done all of that for themselves, but we didn’t need their help to do it here. That was all us, baby. America, home of the brave.
There’s no getting around the facts here. Lewis Black once joked that even Michael Moore’s harshest critics couldn’t possibly consider him un-American, simply because, as a fat white loudmouth in a baseball cap, no other country could have produced him. The same observation goes triple for Trump. He’s a doughy, ignorant, gauche, small-minded trust-funded bad investor with fake hair, an oversized tie, and a suit that doesn’t fit. Come on. You couldn’t get more American than that if you baked a baseball into an apple pie and shoved it up a bald eagle’s ass. Say literally anything else you want to about him, but “un-American” is just not in the cards. This is the real reason people can’t stop paying attention to him. He’s us. He’s the part of ourselves that we hate. He’s a puppet, but he’s not Russia’s puppet. He’s our puppet. He is doing the things that our society implicitly tells people to do, and he is being rewarded for it in the way that our society implicitly tells people they will be rewarded if they do those things. He’s the monster, but we’re Dr. Frankenstein.
It’s not just the tacky surface-level stuff, though. This is the part that’s really important. The reason Trump won a national election in America is that Trump is the exact embodiment of American ideology. People are having real trouble with this, so it merits a substantive explanation. Trump’s primary character trait is his absolute unreflectiveness on all subjects. This explains the way he talks, for example: he never thinks about what he wants to say before he says it or considers the right way to convey a point to a particular audience, he just immediately barfs something out. And it explains his famous difficulties with basic facts: as soon as he feels like something is true, it becomes one of his basic assumptions, and he never reexamines it. This same dynamic operates on the level of ideology. Each of Trump’s beliefs is simply the unrefined version of something that American society tells people to believe. Capitalism allocates money meritocratically, so the richest people are therefore necessarily the best. Women should be defined by their utility to men, so sexual assault isn’t a real issue as long as you keep it quiet. Society should be organized to implicitly favor white people; any other arrangement would be “playing identity politics.” America is more important than other countries, so what “foreign policy” is actually about is using the rest of the world to benefit America as much as possible. As unhinged as he is, Trump has never once introduced a new concept into American political discourse. Everything he’s ever said has simply been particularly bilious regurgitation of established reactionary phobias and fetishes. It is beyond critical to understand that everything Trump says and does is merely the channeling of our existing social prejudices and the amplification of them up to 11. (Incidentally, the explanation of why 11 is louder than 10 is basically the distilled form of all of Trump’s arguments.)
“When Schwartz began writing ‘The Art of the Deal,’ he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, ‘I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.’ Schwartz now disavows the passage. ‘Deceit,’ he told me, is never ‘innocent.’ He added, ”Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.”
No offense to the guy, I’m sure he’s lost a fair amount of sleep over all of this, but his interpretation here is completely backwards. Hyperbole is always truthful; the definition is literally that it’s an overstatement of the truth. And that’s exactly what Donald Trump is. He’s capitalist hyperbole. He’s a ridiculously overdone version of something that is nevertheless true.
The fantasy of capitalism is that what’s good for business is good for the individual, and Trump is a complete prisoner of this fantasy. That is, the idea behind capitalism is that money is a heuristic: it isn’t itself valuable, but it represents value. Being rich isn’t good for its own sake, but because the way you get rich is by doing things that are genuinely worthwhile, by making the world a better place (this isn’t actually true, of course; the real situation is closer to the opposite, but that’s the idea). Most people, even capitalist diehards, understand this implicitly. Like, Steve Jobs didn’t take a salary, and Bill Gates has his charity foundation; these things aren’t redemptive, but they’re evidence against naivete. Rich fucks of this ilk understand that they have more money than they deserve and they’re trying to do at least a little something about it, which means they understand that capitalism is not a source of moral values. Donald Trump does not understand this; he is incapable of understanding anything in any other terms. This is why, when Trump was asked what he had sacrificed for the country, he answered that he had created jobs. He didn’t understand the question because he couldn’t, because in capitalist ideology there is no such thing as sacrifice. Everyone does best by doing what is best for themselves. That’s exactly what the “Trump brand” represents: the raw, dumb force of the empty heuristic of money. Similarly, the reason he’s fixated on his vote margins and crowd sizes is that he can’t get behind them to the thing that they are supposed to represent. If he actually wanted to do something as president, he wouldn’t have a problem, because he’s already there; he could just do it. But what he actually wants is the accolades without the substance; rather, he doesn’t understand that there is such a thing as substance behind surface indications of success and popularity. And the reason he gains support for acting this way is that his supporters believe the same thing, and this is not surprising, because this thing they believe is exactly the thing that everyone in America gets taught in middle school: that money is your score in life, that the “invisible hand” magically makes everything work out so long as everyone makes sure to act as selfishly as possible – and, furthermore, that history is defined by which white men are the toughest and have the biggest ideas. They think that Trump is going to “get things done” because they have been told their whole lives that people who look and act like Trump are the kind of people who get things done.
But America isn’t that bad, right? Doesn’t our current American society also tell people to be charitable and racially sensitive and respectful to women and soforth? Yes, exactly, which is why Trump thinks that he does those things. Our society does not tell people to, for example, understand racism as a structure and think about how their actions might unwittingly perpetuate it despite good intentions. It does not tell men that horniness and privilege are not justifications for overriding women’s humanity. You have to figure things like that out for yourself, and Trump does not figure anything out for himself.
Ergo, support for Trump is the same thing as support for these underlying social ideals, the kind that people are normally not gauche enough to state out loud. Hence the claim that Trump “tells it like it is”: he doesn’t state these ideas literally, because he thinks he believes in things like equality and freedom, but he conveys them without applying the usual layer of politeness to smooth them out. He cannot appear other than as he is.2 And in the same sense, opposition to Trump is the same thing as opposition to these ideals – or rather, it should be, except that liberals are doing their best to fuck the situation up.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. People get that Trump represents resurgent bigotry and soforth. In fact, there have been a number of encouraging signs in this regard. Opposition to the Muslim ban was both immediate and correctly focused: everyone knew it was about attacking Muslim immigrants, so they responded not by litigating the particular details of the order itself, but by expressing their support for Muslim immigrants. Things don’t usually go this well. During the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, the principled opposition to it (which very much existed) didn’t get much of an airing in the mainstream. There was a big dumb debate about the whole “weapons of mass destruction” thing, which was always just a smokescreen. People didn’t get, at first, that the Iraq War was about imperialism. But everyone got immediately that the immigration order was about racism. This represents progress. Americans in general are now less deluded about what politics is really about than they were ten years ago.
But we’re still not quite where we need to be yet. As mentioned, people keep trying to construct Trump as a foreign threat or a chance anomaly, rather than trying to figure out what it is about our society and our politics that caused this. And people keep talking about how Trump is doing things that are “unconstitutional” and harping on his administration’s “incompetence” and “disorganization” – as though the situation would be better if Trump were playing by the rules and implementing his policies effectively. None of this is to downplay the threat posed by Trump’s administration. Far from it; our moral responsibility at this point is to play up the threat that has been with us all along.
The ongoing drama over Trump’s cabinet appointments provides a good example of the distinction. What we’ve been hearing over and over again is that these nominees are “unqualified” for their respective positions. In fact, while each of them is unqualified for what liberals imagine their job is supposed to be, they are all supremely qualified for the jobs that they are actually going to be doing. I wasn’t totally clear on this at first; I was particularly confused by Tillerson. Certainly, a horrible choice; putting an oil executive in charge of foreign policy is like putting a meteor in charge of dinosaur outreach. But it seemed weirdly random, like Trump had just picked the name of a rich executive out of his rolodex. However, if we make the simple assumption that these choices were all intentional and not mistakes, things become less mysterious. Trump hasn’t stocked his cabinet with random nobodies; he’s taken the termites that were already crawling around in the woodwork and given then more to gorge on. Regarding Tillerson, as this article explains, he was, as an oil CEO, essentially acting as a de facto Secretary of State already:
“In Kurdistan, during the Obama Administration, Tillerson defied State Department policy and cut an independent oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government, undermining the national Iraqi government in Baghdad. ExxonMobil did not ask permission. After the fact, Tillerson arranged a conference call with State Department officials and explained his actions, according to my sources, by saying, ‘I had to do what was best for my shareholders.'”
Tillerson’s previous job was to open up foreign markets to the American oil industry, and as the official Secretary of State, he’s going to be doing exactly the same job. DeVos’s life’s mission has been to destroy public education, and that’s exactly what she’s going to continue doing in a more formal capacity. Pruitt made a career for himself out of suing the EPA to block environmental regulations; he is now being given an opportunity to cut out the middleman. Carson is going to be a do-nothing black figurehead in charge of urban development because the only interest Republicans have in urban development is in using it to ward off charges of racism.
Not only does lining all this up correctly help us to understand what’s going on here, but we’ve also just seen what the consequences of getting this wrong are. Puzder’s nomination was withdrawn not because he was going to be a Labor secretary intent on crushing labor, but because of “controversy.” So now Trump is going to find some other goon to do exactly the same job. This is not a “win” in any sense; no progress has been made, and no danger has been forestalled. So yes, unqualified blanket resistance to Trump’s agenda is the correct approach, but if we simply oppose these things because the ethics paperwork hasn’t been properly filed, we’re merely delaying the inevitable. We have to cut along the veins in order to draw blood.
You may be anticipating that my point here is that we need to focus on the “real issues” and not get distracted by petty cultural trivia. In fact, this is a perfect example of a wrong line to cut across, and the reason for this is that culture is a real issue. It’s the realest issue. As explained, that’s where all of Trump’s horrifying beliefs come from: he absorbed them from the culture. And that’s the real danger of Trumpism: that it’s going to change the culture for the worse, that it’s going to make our society a worse place to live. The arithmetic here is pretty simple. If the threat posed by Trump originates from the fact that he’s nothing but a writhing blob of unexamined ideology, and if that ideology is in fact the general ideology of American society, then the idea that we need to “defend American values” against this threat is exactly wrongheaded. We need to erase and rewrite the parts of the story that led to this particularly nauseating plot development.
This is why Clintonism leads naturally to Trumpism. It’s not a matter of “failing” to win an election; it’s a matter of logical implication. If your entire philosophy of government is to just give constant handjobs to corporations, that opens the door for someone like Trump to come in and say: why bother with “rational” administration at all? Why convolute things unnecessarily? Why not just let businessmen do whatever they want directly? Indeed, why not? If we don’t have a substantive answer to that question, we don’t have a real argument against Trump. We just have our cute little insults and nicknames.
Again, the common framing wherein we must avoid “normalizing” Trump is severely deficient. First, as explained, Trump is already normal. Like, he was already a celebrity and a media draw. That’s why he won despite being completely incompetent (and despite not even wanting to win in the first place). It was Clinton, the one insisting that we respect women and care about structural racism, who was the freak.3 Liberal fantasies notwithstanding, anti-racism hasn’t yet been normalized for real. What we might call the John Oliver Strategy, simply insisting to yourself that “this is not normal,” accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is whether Donald Trump is actually considered a normal American. Norms are not personal fetishes. They are social conventions, and the convention right now is to treat Trump as though he really is a valid occupant of the office. Because of course he is; he’s actually sitting in the chair right now. If that strikes you as wrong, even sickening, you have to make it wrong. This is work yet to be done. Liberals assumed that an overt predator and blithe racist could not possibly gain enough support to win the presidency; they assumed that racism and sexism had already been denormalized. This is not the case. And now, in their confusion, they cling to the notion that what’s happening now is “not normal,” that if we can just make it go away (or worse, wait it out), everything will eventually go back to how it’s “supposed to” be. There is, of course, no “supposed to.” History will be what we make of it – or what we fail to make of it.
Some obvious objections present themselves: Clinton won the popular vote, American culture cannot be reduced to one simple ideology, opposition to Trump is widespread and popular. All true; the problem is that these aren’t actually objections. All of this is the case, and Trumpism is happening anyway. There must, then, be a missing link: something that we think we’re doing right, but we’re actually dropping the ball on.
This is where is gets a bit subtle. The uncharitable interpretation is that most people’s opposition to Trump is merely aesthetic. They don’t like Trump because he’s an uggo and he talks dumb, whereas they liked Obama because he was pretty and he talked fancy, and neither opinion was based on any real convictions. This is exactly half right – the aesthetic angle is half bullshit and half serious fucking business (it seems like this is always the case with aesthetics). So it’s important to clarify which half is which. We’re all aware that Obama was and is subject to a ridiculous amount of celebrity worship regarding such qualities as his handsomeness or his cute family or his good taste in music or his “inspirationalness” or whatever, and this is all bullshit, and to the extent that opposition to Trump is simply the flip side of this, opposition to the fact that he has bad hair and lacks culture, it is equally bullshit. People aren’t robots, though. It’s not just a matter of checking off the correct policy boxes. There is, underneath all the tabloid fluff, a real distinction here.
To make this clear, let’s look at one of the more trivial recent comparisons: Trump’s and Obama’s behavior at the inauguration. Barack and Michelle waited for each other and walked together, while Donald ignored Melania, who was later helped along by the Obamas. If we interpret this incident as the Obamas being “nice” people and Trump being a “mean” person, it is completely meaningless. We’re talking about the Presidency of the United States here, not the Miss Congeniality award. But if we think about what type of behavior we’re looking at, and what it represents, we get to the part that actually matters. What we’re talking about is the way husbands treat their wives, which means we’re talking about one of the basic distinctions upon which we construct our gender ideologies. The Trumps’ marriage models the ideal of the rich man who buys a hot trophy wife as decoration and isn’t really aware she exists outside of that role, while the Obamas’ models a partnership between two different but morally equal humans (I’m not trying to give them any special credit here, but people do perceive them that way). This is a real, substantive distinction. The latter conception of romantic relationships is the type of thing we want our society to move towards. I’m not really willing to call it feminist, since the entire concept of the “first lady” is already irredeemably sexist (and I’d actually prefer de-normalizing romance, but that’s another story), but it’s at least less bad. It’s gesturing in something like the right direction.
In addition to the fact that seemingly trivial things can point to real issues, “official” political problems are frequently bullshit. One of the big things people are still tripping over their own feet on is the issue of Trump’s tax returns. Releasing your tax returns is an important part of the Official Democratic Process, so it’s a Real Issue that Serious People care about. It doesn’t actually matter, though. Trump’s conflicts of interest are way down the priority list of things we need to care about right now. Furthermore, there’s no point in litigating this issue any further, because we’ve already lost. Pushing the issue during the election would have been a decent tactical move to prevent Trump from being elected in the first place, but nobody bothered, and now it’s too late. Trump has absolutely no incentive to release his tax returns, and he already knows he can get away with not doing it, so he’s not going to. That’s it. Further furthermore, even if you get the information and get Trump impeached or whatever, all you’ve done is gotten rid of one guy. You have had absolutely no effect on the underlying issues, and you have done nothing to prevent a version of Trump with clean tax returns from gaining power in exactly the same way.
Again, though, there is a non-bullshit version of this issue, which is the version that applies to our social dynamics in general rather than solely to one person. That version is this: Trump gets extreme benefit of the doubt based on the fact that he’s rich (and white and male and etc.; you can apply this line of reasoning the same way in other cases, but one thing a time here). The assumption behind this is that our society allocates resources justly – that people without money are not worth listening to, whereas people with money are necessarily better than everyone else. This is, of course, the exact argument made in Trump’s favor: sure, he’s a ridiculous jackass, but he’s rich, so he must be doing something right. And when liberals argue that Trump is a “failed” businessman or a “fake” billionaire, they are actually making this same argument: that’s it’s only because Trump is not a real rich person that he is not worth listening to. A “good” businessman who wasn’t “corrupt” and who really “earned” their wealth by building “successful” casinos would be the kind of person we should have as president. Now, more than ever, we are obligated to advance the exact opposite ideal: anyone who gets rich in this society must be doing something wrong. So the focus on tax returns specifically masks a deeper and more important issue: rich fucks should not be president. The correct situation would be almost the opposite of what we have now: anyone whose tax returns are so complicated that reading them would actually reveal anything should be automatically disqualified from participating in the government.
In short, we need to split aesthetics down the middle in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ignoring aesthetics is both undesirable and impossible. Aesthetics are how people see the world. Understanding this gives us a clear opening: we can show people a better view.
One important consequence of this is that we should not forsake insults, but rather start getting our insults right. Certain types of people like to claim that insults are always wrong, that you should always address the issues and not the people, but there’s no real justification for this (plus there’s an obvious ulterior motivation to this argument). Ideas are made of people, which is why insults are the exact tool required to drag self-important blowhards down into the muck that the rest of us have to live in. The catch is simply that, like everything else, insults can be executed well or poorly; good insults are truth-apt. Insulting Donald Trump for being fat and ugly is not truth-apt, because plenty of fat and ugly people are decent human beings, and plenty of slim and attractive people are fascists. However, pointing out that Trump is a rich person who eats garbage food and can’t seem to find a suit that fits is truth-apt, for a particular reason. That is, it’s not that there’s something wrong with you if you dress poorly or like KFC. Everyone sucks at something, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. But the justification for wealth is that being wealthy is better than not being wealthy in an absolute, substantive way; this distinction is pretty much Trump’s entire argument for himself. So, if that’s not true, if wealth isn’t really enough to buy you a better life, if care and discernment earn you more of a return than throwing money around, then that justification falters, and that argument fails. The fact that Trump is a rich person who nevertheless has no culture or discernment demonstrates that wealth by itself is not necessarily any good. And of course this goes further: the fact that we have a society organized around accumulating wealth and not around cultivating traits that are actually worthwhile is why people who are conventionally successful within current social parameters are bad people.
In other words, good insults, like good aesthetics, go somewhere. Trump’s obvious boner for his daughter, for example, is entirely within bounds, because it illustrates the fact that patriarchy is disgusting. Such behavior follows naturally from the assumption that women are required to present themselves in a manner that is sexually gratifying to men. It is the same assumption as that behind diet crazes and ass implants and pornographic pop music videos. If, then, you feel that Trump’s behavior toward women is disgusting, that means you have your head on straight. Being disgusted by disgusting things is the aesthetically correct reaction. But you have to realize what it is you’re actually disgusted by. You’re disgusted by Trump’s deviance from norms of politeness, but also by his adherence to norms of gender relations. Your resolution, then, should be to follow your disgust through to its necessary conclusion. When you’re doing it right, hate is a productive force. If you really hate someone, surface-level pokes and jabs don’t cut it. You don’t pick fights that you aren’t willing to see through. The only thing that suffices is to get inside the thing that they really are, deep down, and destroy it for real.
The most common narrative that has arisen from the election results is that Clinton lost by playing up “culture war” issues and ignoring “economic fundamentals.” Now, obviously, the Democrats have abandoned labor and this has been both electoral suicide and a moral catastrophe. I don’t think anyone’s confused about that. But this is not a dynamic with any specificity to this election; it has always been the case. I have never known a world where labor had real political influence. Furthermore, Trump obviously didn’t win on economic policy, because he did not have an economic policy. All he did was jump up on a platform and hoot “bring back jobs!” over and over again like a badly-trained baboon. In short, the people claiming that Clinton lost by relying on non-white and female identity politics are missing the rather glaring point that Trump won by relying on white male identity politics. This is evidence in favor of identity politics: it proves that this is something that people really care about, that white men still have this advantage, and that there remains work to be done here.
There have been a lot of people pointing to “culture war” issues like nonbinary pronouns or whatever and saying “this is why the Democrats lost.” These people are either cowards or traitors. If they’re only willing to take a stand on an issue when it’s popular, they’re cowards. If they are pretending to care about things like gender equality when they actually don’t in order to gain credibility, they’re traitors. Either way, these people are the real threat. They are the ones who are trying to stop us from fighting the battle that actually matters. This is why god invented the guillotine.
Exactly this was Clinton’s true fatal flaw: she failed to make this a real fight. For instance, during the first debate, Clinton baited Trump by bringing up Alicia Machado, a pageant contestant whom Trump had publicly degraded. This was clearly an intentional gambit, as Clinton had the name at the ready and brought it up pretty much out of nowhere. And it worked: it led to the man who is currently President of the United States advising the nation to “check out sex tape” at three in the morning. So why didn’t it matter? Well, because it was just one more dumb controversy in an already insufferable election full of them. Why do we care about Trump being mean to some random lady? It’s not because we care about her personally, but because no one should be treated that way. Specifically, we care because this sort of behavior is part of a general pattern of sexist degradation, which affects all women. Ergo, the fact that Trump engages in this type of behavior demonstrates that bullying and misogyny are among his basic values, and that his administration would be harmful to women.
Indeed, shortly after this happened, the Access Hollywood tape came out, providing clear evidence that Trump was not merely a brash and unrestrained type of guy, but in fact a serial sexual predator. Again, Clinton brought this up in the next debate to score a point, and then dropped it completely. She never actually advanced the argument that Trump should have been disqualified from the presidency on feminist grounds rather than just because of all the “qualifications” bullshit that no one cares about. For example, those ads where women repeated all the mean stuff Trump said about women do not actually rise to the level of being feminist. They’re just claiming that Trump is a bad person who says bad things. It’s actually impossible for an argument of this type to be convincing, because only people who were already opposed to that stuff will find it to be affecting (indeed, people who agreed with that stuff in the first place may come out with their convictions strengthened). If you want to make an issue of something, you have to raise the issue.
It isn’t that Clinton overplayed her hand here, what with the glass ceilings and the empowerful messages to little girls and soforth. It’s that she played the right card on the wrong trick.4 She didn’t have the temerity to actually make the argument that voting for a woman to beat Donald Trump was the morally correct course of action. But she should have, because that was always her best argument. Contrary to tired denigrations of “vagina voters,” the vagina opening should have been made bigger. Consider: if we actually took sexual assault seriously as a society, this whole thing – everything that is going to happen because of this – would have been prevented.
So this is not a limited point about how one person could have won one election, nor is it my own personal advocacy for the kind of politics I would like to see. It is the only way to save the world. People have been going on a lot about our “democratic institutions,” and whether they’re “strong enough” to resist Trump’s attempts at autocracy. This question is entirely irrelevant. State institutions can’t stop fascism, because fascism is a state phenomenon. It’s what happens when the state stops fucking around. Like, the fact that Hitler is a dictator doesn’t mean that he goes around personally telling each Nazi solder which Jews to kill. He uses state institutions to do that.
Since Hannah Arendt is currently popular among people who buy famous books so that they can pretend like they’re intellectuals, let’s try engaging with something she actually wrote. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses a period towards the end of World War II, in which Heinrich Himmler attempts to halt the Final Solution, imagining that this will put him in a better bargaining position with the Allies. Himmler, Eichmann’s superior, orders him to stop transporting Jews, and Eichmann ignores the order, believing it to be against the will of the Fuhrer and therefore “criminal.” As Arendt explains, this situation inverts our normal conception of “legal orders”:
“The extensive literature on the subject usually supports its case with the common equivocal meaning of the word ‘law,’ which in this context means sometimes the law of the land – that is, posited, positive law – and sometimes the law that supposedly speaks in all men’s hearts with an identical voice. Practically speaking, however, orders to be disobeyed must be ‘manifestly unlawful’ and unlawfulness must ‘fly like a black flag above [them] as a warning reading: ‘Prohibited!” – as the judgment pointed out. And in a criminal regime this ‘black flag’ with its ‘warning sign’ flies as ‘manifestly’ above what normally is a lawful order – for instance, not to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews – as it flies above a criminal order under normal circumstances. To fall back on an unequivocal voice of conscience – or, in the even vaguer language of the jurists, on a ‘general sentiment of humanity’ (Oppenheim-Lauterpacht in International Law, 1952) – not only begs the question, it signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century.”
Opposing something like the Muslim ban on the grounds that it is an “illegal order” begs the same question. Immigration policy and national security are explicitly the President’s job. If you’re just trying to be a good American and uphold cultural values, you’re going to follow those orders. The people who opposed the Muslim ban did not simply look up the correct thing to do in their book of official regulations. They came to their own interpretation of the situation and made their own choice. The fact that the order was issued in so rushed and haphazard a manner clarifies this point: because there was not a big legal infrastructure built up around it, the only reason it was ever enforced at all was that some people made the individual choice to do so. And some people didn’t.
“We’re turning a blind eye—we’re pretending we haven’t seen the Syrian passport.”
And in that very same link you can see the problem:
“’Policies don’t execute themselves by magic. They actually have to be carried out by people,’ he said. ‘This travel ban…is not just horrific and unwise, but it’s illegal. It’s requiring the people who execute it to break the law.’ If you’re a government official—CBP, ICE or otherwise—and you’re being asked to do something that violates the law, he said, just don’t.”
Okay, so, if the order didn’t “violate the law,” if it was issued “wisely,” then that would be just fine, right? Like, the reason Rosa Parks is a hero is because forcing black people to move to the back of the bus was an “illegal order,” so she was just standing up for traditional American values when she disobeyed it, right? The fact that the people who stood up to the ban were praised by its opponents for “upholding the law” at the same time as they were attacked by its supporters for “failing to uphold the law” proves exactly that there is no “unequivocal voice of conscience” in this matter.
This applies on a much more basic level. Trump is the president right now. That’s just the fact of the matter. So it’s also a fact that anyone who wants to play ball has to deal with him. And yet people like Elon Musk get criticized for serving on official advisory committees – for following the rules and doing their job. If you’re opposed to that, if you think the fact that some jackass has a fancy title imparts no obligation on your part to respect or accommodate them, then what you are actually opposed to is the concept of formal authority, and hence the idea of the presidency itself.
To put it simply, you can’t praise “American values” and the “rule of law” and “process” and soforth as the source of everything just and righteous while also advocating resistance to “illegal orders.” It is incoherent for the United States to say “you must follow our orders at all times, unless they are illegal, in which case you must not follow them,” because the United States itself is what determines what’s illegal or not in the first place. (Retreating from legality to morality does nothing to resolve this problem; replace “the United States government” with “United States cultural norms” and you get the same contradiction.) This is, after all, what totalitarianism means: the state determines everything. Obviously, then, the only way to oppose it is to have standards and values that are independent of the state, and that are therefore capable of contradicting it. It is not our institutions that have to stop Trump; it is us. It is you and me, personally.
And it is you and me who have not been doing a very good job of this. People keep pointing to shit that has been happening this entire time and being like “welcome to Trump’s America,” like that means anything. Like, can you believe that America is racist now? And that we have an incoherently aggressive foreign policy? And that we’re stockpiling nukes and inflating the military for no reason? And that the government spends all its time making sweetheart deals with corporations and ignoring real problems? As a particularly dramatic example, Trump’s first approved military action killed an eight-year-old girl, so of course this is evidence that the American military has just now become a horrible child-killing monstrosity. Yet, in a disgustingly poignant twist of fate, that eight-year-old girl was Nawar al-Awlaki, whose equally innocent brother, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed by Obama in pretty much the same manner. If you care about one of these killings and not the other, you are not engaged in politics. You are acting in a reality show. You’re the puppet.
Rhetoric also matters here. Both Trump’s RNC address and his inauguration speech were criticized for being “dark” and portraying America as a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. News flash, assholes: America is a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. That’s exactly what liberals are supposed to care about. Like, when liberals need to signal their support for Black Lives Matter, we’re in an emergency situation and the police are fascists and there’s death in the streets and racism is intractable, but when they need to signal their opposition to Trump, then America is a wonderful land of magic and opportunity, and anyone who thinks it needs some kind of fundamental change must be some kind of crazy person, probably a demented narcissist. The reason this dynamic is really pernicious is that liberals have ended up arguing against things that are actually good, simply because Trump happens to be standing in the general area near them. For one thing, the fact that a political outsider won a national election by appealing to common sentiments and attacking received wisdom is unambiguously a good thing. It removes barriers to entry, allows new ideas into the conversation, and creates the possibility for change. More importantly, we really are in an era of “American carnage,” but it’s not because of terrorist immigrants or gang violence or political correctness or lack of competition. It’s because of America’s murder-driven neocolonial foreign policy, because of police brutality, because real political values are subordinated to media-friendly horse-race vapidity, and because capitalism has developed to the point where it’s now devouring itself. We must have the courage to articulate the true response to “make America great again”: the past was bad. Coal mining was bad. Child labor was bad. Jim Crow was bad. Marital rape was bad. And, to the extent that these things from the past still exist in the present, the present is also bad. The only thing that holds the possibility of being good is the future, but that can happen only if the future is something different from both the present and the past – something new.
Fucking this up is how you get shit like this (the first paragraph is from Trump’s inaugural, the second is some liberal trying to criticize it):
“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ In the first three minutes of his presidency, Donald Trump has already eviscerated that notion.”
Breaking news update, assholes: Trump is right and JFK was wrong. Liberals have gotten so deranged over this whole thing that they are now arguing against the idea that the purpose of a nation is to serve its people. When you don’t have principles, when you think the problem is that there’s a “bad guy” and you have to “stop” him, your arguments end up incoherent. People object to Trump’s insistence on the centrality of a single strong leader, but they do this by wistfully reminiscing about how great Obama was. People object to Trump’s cheap appeals to patriotism, but they do this by claiming that he’s going against American values. In short, the liberal argument against heavy fascism is simply to advance light fascism as the preferable alternative – as the only alternative. But being able to hold more than one idea in our heads at a time is the advantage we have over people like Trump. It’s tempting to retreat to the basics in the face of scary situations, but it is precisely times like these when we require the power of our best tactics.
Furthermore, trying to pin everything on Trump himself is itself the thing that we’re supposed to be arguing against: the idea that rich white men should always be the center of attention. Obviously, Trump has a huge amount of formal power right now, and we can’t just ignore him. But we also don’t have to hang on his every tweet and obsess over every quirk of his phrasing. We have better things to do with our time – not just things that are far more enjoyable, but things that matter more. Trump fronts like he’s the big dynamic decider man who does whatever he wants, and the media abets him in this by portraying him as a black swan. We have to stop doing this. We have to stop pretending like he matters as a person, because he doesn’t. He’s not a black swan, he’s a white swan. He’s the whitest possible swan. He’s a white swanpremacist.
This is what it actually means to take the high road. It does not mean staying positive or playing nice or following the rules. Playing nice in a situation like this is more accurately referred to as cowardice. What taking the high road means is doing the thing that is right rather than the thing that is easy. It means adhering to the truth absolutely, no matter how inconvenient it is, no matter what advantages it requires you to forsake, and no matter what it forces you to do. Mocking Trump for being dumb and incompetent is easy. Attacking the underlying causes of his support and developing a substantive alternative is right. The reason fascism extends naturally from capitalism is that capitalism is an empty ideology, and fascism, say what you will about its tenets, is at least an ethos. It’s not so much something to believe in as it is anything to believe in. There’s no point in “stopping Trump” is you don’t have something that you’re stopping him for. Ergo, our very straightforward task is to create something better to believe in – and, given the causes of this situation, this has to be something better than “progress,” better than “success,” and better than America.
Of course, we can’t simply do this ourselves. We have to construct a common framework that goes beyond easy digs and makes all of this make sense. Assuming that our reasons for opposing Trump were the same as everyone else’s is what made the election results “surprising.” Remember, being surprised doesn’t mean that something “weird” happened; events themselves are not “weird” or “normal,” those characteristics come from our interpretations of them, so what being surprised means is that your understanding of the situation is lacking. The fact that everything’s going so wrong now does not mean that we’ve gone astray and we need to get back to where we were before. Understanding Trump as hyper-normative rather than merely grotesque reveals that events are unfolding according to their own internal logic, and it also reveals the necessary character of any possible resolution. Avoiding this conflict is indistinguishable from surrender. “Winning” will not mean anything unless and until this becomes a real war.
And yet you still get motherfuckers claiming that Russia “hacked” the election, when there has been not even the suggestion of any such thing. And of course these are the same people who rend their garments every time Trump talks about illegal voters, lamenting how, oh how could our glorious political process ever have descended to the depths of such tawdry accusations. ↩
This is what the term “authenticity” refers to, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to consider whether authenticity is actually a good thing. ↩
Yes, Clinton is a grasper and was never really going to follow through on any of these things. That strengthens the point: even insincere, token acknowledgment of these points is too much for “normal” Americans to handle. ↩
I ran into this review of the new La Sera album before I had gotten around to listening to it and it basically irked the hell out of me. The specific claim at issue is that the album is “pretty but defanged,” which first of all is kind of an annoying thing to say in general, and also it’s one of my buttons, and it’s the kind of thing where you know you’re going to be thinking about it instead of being able to just pay attention. Like, I got over it (since I know you were worried), and I also realize that the review itself is not making a particularly substantive claim and is basically just a random #content fragment, but I think this is a fairly common confusion, and it’s also something that the album in question addresses as fangfully as possible. So, personal idiosyncrasies aside, I’m gonna go ahead and hit it.
La Sera’s obvious Thing has always been Katy Goodman’s distinctive singing voice. It’s impossibly high and sweet – “sunny” is a difficult adjective to avoid – but it’s not small or distant in the way that high voices sometimes are. It’s engaging and enveloping, grounded in a subtle but solid forcefulness. She’s a good singer, is what I’m saying. And while this gives the project an immediate obvious appeal, Goodman doesn’t rest on her laurels. She’s been at it for a while now, and she’s been advancing her songwriting and pushing into new areas the entire time. Which is actually where the confusion comes in. The new album is rather bluntly titled Music for Listening to Music to, and the addition of guitarist and occasional vocalist Todd Wisenbaker as a permanent bandmember, combined with slightly heavier production that melts soft vocals into an oceanic guitar sound, makes it feel less quirky and more professional. As a particular point of contrast, the previous album, Hour of the Dawn, had more of a hard-rock edge, opening with the relentlessly driving and mercilessly cruel “Losing to the Dark.” So whereas the new one is basically a country/western album, which classifies it pretty definitively as Not Punk, it’s easy to understand this as the “smoothed out” version of La Sera, in the way that wrong things tend to be easy.
Let’s start with the end – that is, with the fact that this album ends sad. “Too Little Too Late” isn’t just about failure, it’s specifically about doing your absolute best and facing up to the fact that it’s not enough. Think about what this means in the context of a polished and professional album that’s part of a consistently successful career. No matter how well you’re doing, there are always regrets. It’s always too little, and too late. You might, for example, be an experienced musician doing your best work, only to find that, at the height of your powers, you still can’t accomplish what you wanted to. Or you might be a fan, committed to “always find the voice you love and follow it until it fades,” and you might find yourself at the point where that actually happens, abandoning you before you were able to grasp what you were after, leaving you with nothing. This takes direct aim at not only the album itself, but also at you, at the thing you are doing by listening to this music. The approach this album is taking is not at all naive; that’s not what the title means. The sorrow in the vocals weighs the whole thing down like a curse, retroactively haunting the rest of the album.
Which is to say that, at the same time that this album is bright and enjoyable, it’s also pretty consistently sad. “I Need an Angel” is a cute title for a cute song, but it’s not actually a positive sentiment. It’s desperation. The whole point of that phrasing is that angels don’t exist. Saying “I need a miracle” specifically indicates that the thing that you can’t live without does not exist in the real world; you’ve “tried all your luck” and you’re still screwed. That’s pretty fucking hardcore. And, on balance, most of the album lives in similar territory. “One True Love” is the opposite of what both its title and its tone imply: “The woman I love, she said she’s running away, she’s leaving me today.” So if that was your one true love, y’know, that has certain implications. “Take My Heart” is equal parts devotion and despondency: “it’s the only way I know to live,” and that’s not necessarily a good thing. A sharp guitar line slices through the chorus, creating an emotional gap that deepens the sense of ambiguity. The delivery of “do you believe in me?” makes it clear that this is a real question without an easy answer – it may even be that either possible answer isn’t really going to work out.
But it’s not that simple either; these aren’t just songs that sound happy but are secretly sad. Each song does what it has to to get its point across; the issue isn’t which means of expression the album uses, it’s that its means of expression aren’t restricted. This applies both on the macro level, to the conception of this as a pop-country album in the first place, and on the micro level, where each individual song is open to sounding silly or maudlin if it needs to. This is where you fail when you’re looking for things that sound “intense” or “tough” or whatever. You’re living in the shadows. And even if it’s a shadow cast by love, even if the conditions you’re setting are ones born of justified devotion, they’re still stifling.
“Shadow of Your Love” is an extremely down song, but it’s not depressing so much as it is a genuine lament. It’s a sympathetic acknowledgment of the limitations that people inevitably place on themselves, often for the best of reasons. But that sympathy doesn’t go very far, because it’s just the fact of the matter that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.” The negativity here points to what’s positive about the rest of the album: it stands in the daylight, and that requires a toughness that no amount of screaming or thrashing can match up to. “Are you with me now? Have you ever been?”
And all of this is happening at the same time that this album is smoothly written and just really nice to listen to. So the most basic version of the point here is that trying to categorize things as “hard” or “soft” or whatever is just a dumb way to go about it. Pop songs and hardcore songs are equally capable of childishness; basic songwriting can reveal hidden emotions as easily as complexity can obscure them; explicit inaccessibility can be a challenge or it can be defensiveness. There are a lot of different ways that things can get inside you. “Eyes can meet a thousand ways.”
See, even if you go back to Hour of the Dawn looking for something “harder,” you’re just going to get hit by the same force moving in the opposite direction. The album cover shows Goodman, face obscured, rocking out against a clear blue background while wearing a Poison Idea shirt.1 There’s nothing contradictory about any of this. It’s expressing a total situation that can’t be understood though a myopic focus on individual aesthetic effects. “Running Wild” sounds exactly like its title, but the content turns it completely around. Like the inverse version of “Shadow of Your Love,” this song is also doing both things at once: it’s sympathizing with the motivations that lead a person into this situation, and simultaneously clarifying why things can’t work that way. It’s just a fact that “running wild” is useless when you’ve “got no place to go,” in exactly the same sense that “nothing grows in the shadow of your love.”
Just as Music for Listening to Musicto makes its point even as it’s being as cute as possible, Hour of the Dawn makes its point even as it’s going as hard as possible. As mentioned, the first song, “Losing to the Dark,” is both vicious as hell and totally hardcore, tearing the album open with an extreme immediacy. But conceiving of it as a “fuck you” song is too simplistic. For one thing, it’s actually positive, declaring the singer’s intent to step out of the darkness and into the light. But the context of this affirmation is that the singer has been losing this entire time, and that this has been happening because of love. Meaning it’s a love song. The fact that it’s about how love can be a evil force doesn’t change that fact; in fact, it enhances it. It’s a song about being in love, about one of the things that being in love can be like.
In short, aesthetics are non-trivial, and this is true even when you’re talking about something as dumbed-down and overcooked as the concept of the “love song.” You can think of Music for Listening to Music to as an album full of “love songs” if you want, but that doesn’t work as a criticism, because a love song can be just about anything. In fact, it doesn’t really get you anywhere. Even when something really is just a verse-chorus-and-such song, there are still a lot of different ways that can go.
“A Thousand Ways” makes this point explicit. “Love can be cruel, gone and wrecked this town”; “love can be real, it can stick around.” The serial variations on the chorus, rising in intensity, affirm that love can do all of these things. It’s not one affect; it’s a force. Sometimes it’s comforting, and sometimes it’s devastating. Love does not preclude claws. Quite the opposite. In other words, what La Sera is doing here is exactly what they’ve been doing from note one: aiming for the heart. There is nothing more vicious than that.
As though intuiting that this was all too subtle for people, Katy Goodman recently teamed up with Greta Morgan of Springtime Carnivore to produce what is essentially a master’s thesis on this very topic. Take It, It’s Yours is a covers album that redoes classic punk songs in an old-timey slow-pop style. Its approach is very consistent: low-intensity, wall-like synths create a background of noise, simple guitar parts set the basic song structure, and huge vocals shove all the way to the front. This has interestingly different effects on each song. “Bastards of Young” comes across pretty similarly to the original, but it’s refocused towards a different corner of the same emotional space; “Ever Fallen in Love” makes the opposite initial impression but ultimately draws up the same underlying feeling; “Pay to Cum” is completely unrecognizable.
This is easy to understand as a gimmick, so it’s crucial to emphasize how wrong that is. Like, sometimes this kind of thing is done as a joke; you take an “aggressive” song like “Straight Outta Compton” or whatever and you have someone with a little girl voice sing it over acoustic guitar, and it’s like, ha ha, that’s so funny, like it’s different from the regular thing. Take It, It’s Yours is the exact opposite of that. These songs are not ironic in the dumb “joking” sense of the term. They’re ironic in the correct sense of the term: they use context to convey additional, extra-literal information. The contrast is there, obviously; that’s still part of the point. But it’s part of a real point. In one sense, these songs feel reverent, like hymns to dead gods; in another, they’re explicitly blasphemous, intentionally destroying a lot of what people liked about them in the first place. But the stronger impression conveyed by their simplicity and directness is that they’re just songs. They stand on their own; their reinterpretive aspect isn’t required in order to feel what they’re getting at.
Let’s look at “Bastards of Young” a little more closely. The original has a very explicit “angry young man” affect that is closely tied to its meaning. So you might think that if you don’t have that, you don’t have the song; you might even think that that’s the entire thing that the song is, that attempting to remove it can only be an exercise in point-missing. Under this interpretation, aesthetics only operate on the surface, they don’t point to anything deeper. In which case aesthetics are meaningless; it doesn’t matter one way or the other if you “defang” something, because the fangs never sank into anything in the first place.
As a matter of fact, I saw another band cover this song earlier this year. They were a pretty straightforward rock band, and it was a pretty straightforward cover. This would seem to be uncomplicated: a perfectly “faithful” cover, one as close to the original song as possible, should consequently get as much of the original meaning as possible. But this is precisely the shallow understanding of aesthetics that we need to avoid. There wasn’t anything wrong with the performance, it sounded good and everything, but it was basically just “here’s a song you recognize.” Instead of pointing to the same thing that the original song was pointing to, or turning it around to point to something different, it merely pointed to the original song itself. Insisting on intensity can enforce shallowness; trying to be cute can create complexity. Staying as close as possible to something can drive it further away. And given that this song is about emptiness, this approach misses both coming and going. If you’re trying to express an “unwillingness to claim us” and the fact that you’ve “got no one to name us,” claiming it and naming it is kind of the opposite of what you’re after.
That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that . . . well, I’m going to have to get a little bit technical here, because I’m about to use the word “essence,” which is not something that someone in my philosophical position can just throw out there, so I need to be clear about what it is that I’m talking about.
That is, there’s nothing wrong with doing a faithful cover, it’s just that, either way, what you’re aiming at is the essence of the song.2 Essence is not real, but it’s also not magical; it’s a concept. The essence of an apple is what you infer about it from all the different ways you can physically interact with it. So the essence isn’t the “complete” or “ideal” version of the apple, because there’s no such thing. The essence is simply (or not so simply) the aggregation of all potential apple-experiences. The catch is that this isn’t a fixed thing; it doesn’t all add up to the One True Apple. Different people are going to have different reactions to different apple-aspects. If you lived on an apple farm as a child, apples might, for you, be inseparable from the concept of childhood. For someone else, who is allergic to apples and has had a near-death experience from accidentally eating one, the smell of apples might evoke the nameless terror of the true void. And the way you feel about apples might be the way I feel about oranges.
So a) things have different meanings for different people, but b) these meanings are contained within (or at least represented by) the same physical object, and c) the same meanings can be reached through multiple distinct physical means. Does this mean that there is no connection between subjectivity and objectivity? Uh, I fucking hope not, because that would pretty straightforwardly imply pure chaos on the level of meaning. The subjective aspects of the object are what matter, but they can’t be aggregated into any kind of understanding of it, both because they are potentially infinitely many and because subjectivity is not accessible to investigation in the first place. Rather, what it means to understand things is to use objectivity to get at subjectivity. It’s not really a bridge, because subjectivity is absolutely unreachable, but it’s sort of a signpost.
If you’re traveling and you’re trying to find a certain town, there are different ways you can go about it. You can look for signs to guide you there, or you can consult your map, or you can survey the geographical features of the area looking for indications of civilization, or you can ask someone. And maybe your map is out of date, or maybe the person you’re asking doesn’t remember things quite right, but all of these things will still, in some capacity, point towards the thing you’re looking for. Whereas if the terrain changes, if a rockslide blocks off a path or something, this is no longer the case. Nothing about the sign itself changes, but now it doesn’t actually point to anything. It is no longer capable of directing you to the town. Someone has to make a new sign. And a sign whose only purpose is to point to another, already-visible sign isn’t particularly helpful. The artist is the person who has at least some idea of where we need to go.
A song is also an object, albeit a complicated and loosely-defined object, so the same principles apply. The subjective aspect is far more obvious: of course people’s subjective reaction to music is the part of it that’s actually active. That still doesn’t make it magic; a songwriter produces something that can be written down and understood by others, and a performer takes specific physical actions to produce explicable phenomena. But the purpose of these things remains to get to subjectivity, so if you just copy the actions themselves without trying to get behind them, what you are engaged in is mimicry without understanding. You’re working off an old map that doesn’t account for the current terrain. You can do a faithful cover, but you can’t expect it to be a simple apples-to-apples comparison. As a counterexample, I saw another relatively straightforward rock band do a cover of the Pixies’ “Debaser.” It was also a faithful cover, and it wasn’t like a revelation or anything, but it was messy and deranged in a way that drew out the “slicing up eyeballs” aspect of the song. It pointed at something.
The Morgan/Goodman version of “Bastards of Young” is essentially a mellowed-out version of the original, but this doesn’t flatten the song’s intensity; it draws out the sorrow and earnestness that were masked3 by the original’s aggressiveness. It’s a different means of pointing to the same essence. And of course this means it’s not going to work for everybody, but what must be realized is that this was equally true of the original song. This understanding has always been there, and the Replacements themselves are actually a great example of it. They used their “young, loud, and snotty” style to great effect on songs like “Tommy Gets His Tonsils Out,” but they also used that same style to convey naive confusion on “Sixteen Blue,” self-pitying resignation on “Swingin Party,” and anguished desperation on “Answering Machine.” Eyes can meet a thousand ways. Raw power has a healing hand, and it can also destroy a man.
For any song that is meaningful to you, there is someone out there who heard it and actively hated it, and someone else who heard it and had no idea how anyone could possibly care about it one way or the other. So if you really think that there’s something there in a song you like, you should want it fucked up in as many different ways as possible. Assuming this is being done competently, it will broaden the general understanding of the thing that you care about. And if there’s a band you think has something to say, you should be happy to hear them trying different things, including or even especially things that are foreign to you. Not just for the sake of others, but also because you don’t have it all figured out either, and an honest challenge from someone you trust is invaluable guidance towards doing better.
In a sense, what’s happening on Take It, It’s Yours is that these songs have all been redone as “love songs,” but because the results are so strong while being, at first glance, so divergent from the originals, what this ends up doing is problematizing the typical “love song” concept. Because these covers don’t actually change anything in this sense; they reveal that these songs were all love songs in the first place. This version of “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” the song that Danny Fields called the one true punk song, actually feels like it’s the original; it makes the Stooges version sound like the ironic reversal. Because of course it does, because the song was always a slow, tragic love song. And it’s not like it’s an anomaly or anything; songs like “Touch Me I’m Sick” or “The KKK Took My Baby Away” are also love songs. These aren’t a bunch of different songs being redone as the same thing, they’re a bunch of different songs being redone as themselves. Love can do all of these things.
Again, aesthetics are not shallow. A “love song” isn’t one thing, and neither is a “punk song.” Any affect can achieve lots of different effects. Aesthetics are also not neutral. You can’t just redo anything in any arbitrary style and have it mean the same thing. If the only purpose of aesthetics is to put a wrapper around stuff you could just say directly, then aesthetics don’t actually do anything. This is not a contradiction. Words aren’t neutral, but you can theoretically use words to express anything you want. In fact, the reason you can do this is because words are not neutral. Contextual connections are what give words their power. In the same sense, what makes any particular aesthetic mean something is the situation in which it exists. Punk meant one thing at one time, and it doesn’t necessarily mean that thing anymore. Actually, that isn’t even it; punk never did mean “one” thing; like love, it was always a force. The obvious paradox of punk has always been that, if punk is about rejecting traditions and standards and doing your own thing, then as soon as punk comes into being and sets a standard, you’re obligated to reject it. But this is only a paradox if you’re an absolutist. All it really means is that the true meaning of punk is that there is no true meaning of punk. It’s yours.
So I guess I should stop beating around the bush and get to the fact that there’s an obvious political angle here. Saying that something is “pretty but defanged” is basically equivalent to saying that it’s “too girly.” Y’know, speaking of the fact that aesthetics aren’t neutral, the idea that “hardness” is better than “softness” is some pretty basic patriarchal ideology. Everybody gets this backwards: feminism is not an ideological imposition that ignores the obvious truths of reality. It is merely the insistence that ideology be visible, that ideals be justified and not simply assumed as the “natural order” of things.
(While I’m certain that you’re not so unsophisticated as to claim that I’m “overthinking” this, I’ll go ahead anyway and clarify the fact that I’m not. I’m just telling you what I learned from these albums. The fact that music is so unsusceptible to analysis is part of what makes the attempt so useful. It happens to you without your permission, so then you have to go back and figure out what the hell just happened. I’ll spare you the diary entries, but “Running Wild” and “Shadow of Your Love” are both direct criticisms of me. When I first listened to “Running Wild” I noticed that the lyrics were kind of weirdly perpendicular to the tone, and then I started to sort of understand what they were saying, and then I got the hell scared out of me when I realized the song was about my exact situation and behavior. This is the type of thing that becomes possible once you stop trying to line things up properly in boxes and start listening; it is the sense in which apolitical statements are the most political of all.)
So the fact that the songs on Take It, It’s Yours are essentially “girlified” versions of songs that are known for being “manly” makes a non-trivial statement about both the songs themselves and the context in which they are being understood. As maleness is taken as default and femininity as fetish, the masculine versions of things are always considered “normal.” Per the title, Take It, It’s Yours insists on its own normality, and it also insists that you insist on your own normality. The slow, dreamy version of “Pay to Cum” is exactly as justified as the psychotic rush version, and so are the thousands of other versions that people have not yet imagined, because they’re strapped in to the notion that only certain types of people are allowed access to certain affects. We live in a big, complicated world, where many apparently contradictory things are true at once. Multiple simultaneous approaches are required to deal with any issue of substance. Until we start understanding this, we will never be able to understand anything.
And this is why creating “music for listening to music to” is not a simplistic retreat from significance, but rather the basic precondition for significance to exist in the first place. It seems insightful to say that something that’s just “fun” or “pleasant” to listen to is empty, that it doesn’t do anything, that it’s ear candy. This sounds incisive, but it’s actually nihilistic. It denies lived reality in favor of unattainable ideals; it puts meaning eternally out of reach. The fact that music sounds good to listen to is a real thing, and that’s only a problem if you conceive of real things as fake versions of ideal things. This is backwards. The point of ideals is to help us get to reality. The ideal doesn’t supersede the thing itself, it outlines it from behind. Clinging to ideals means hiding in the shadows of reality. If you have to choose, you choose earth, because the experience of living is the only thing that we actually have. Music is for listening to.
So, I mean, the obvious contradiction here is that I’m explaining why you should be able to listen to a record without explanation. Indeed, Music for Listening to Music to is fairly impressionistic; it resists analysis, in this sense. You’re not supposed to respond to it by . . . doing the only thing that I know how to do. In fact, it’s worse than that, because I’ve kind of been screwing around this whole time. The first song on the album, “High Notes,” addresses the situation as directly and completely as can be done in two minutes and five seconds. If you’re actually listening, there’s little else that needs to be said. So, in the spirit of things, I’m going to go against my instincts and let this one take care of itself. This is yours:
A little girl pulled me aside and said I wouldn’t make it through the night
Well thank you darling, this I know
I threw a look over my shoulder towards the guys who look dissatisfied
I’m sorry, is this song too slow?
Well I can’t sing it for you just the way you want me to
I might be tall but I’m not half the man you thought you knew
I’ll hit the high notes, wink as you walk by
I’ll sing a sad song, smile as you cry
Taking the high road, look me in the eye
Time waits for no man, old man, I’m saying goodbye
If you’re unfamiliar, Poison Idea is a hardcore band that’s more on the “crazy asshole” end of the spectrum. They have a record called Record Collectors Are Pretentious Assholes, which is basically the same sentiment as Music for Listening to Music to. ↩
This still applies if you’re fundamentally reinterpreting the song; you’re just reversing the essence, or coming at it sideways or whatever. If what you’re doing has no relationship to the original essence, then there’s no sense in which it’s a cover. Like, that’s actually why it’s called a “cover,” right? It’s a different surface over the same thing. ↩
Just FYI, masking something is different from concealing it. ↩
Light observations on a recent Screaming Females show. I went though a few phases with this band. At first I just thought they sounded good, and I honestly felt like their songs were kind of whatever, but I eventually came around. The fact that their songs are engaging but not terribly easy to get a definitive handle on is the point (it might even be intentional, although who cares).
Seeing them live clarifies a few things, the most obvious of which is that Marissa Paternoster is a demon. Both the unrealistic facility of her shredding and the deep intensity of her singing are entirely piercing. I’m really not the romantic type, but this just isn’t the same thing as being good at playing music. It’s magic. It’s not, however, an explanation. The other members are just as impressive and just as important, it’s just that they have less flashy jobs. More than that, they are crazy tight as a band. They actually stretch their songs out a lot live, with lots of solos and extended bridges and soforth, but none of it feels superfluous. Their cohesiveness makes it feel like they’re not showing off; for all their intensity, it feels like they’re working. Maybe this is kind of an obvious thing to be impressed by, but I was impressed regardless. It was invigorating, and I don’t feel invigorated very often.
So they’re kind of the Platonic ideal of a rock band, and this is somewhat unexpected, because they present themselves in the opposite manner. Their major theme is ugliness, which is reflected in all of their album and merch designs. It’s aesthetic-ugly and not ugly-ugly, of course, but it still conveys the sense of initial off-putting-ness that is the salient part of ugliness as a concept. And they have the expected corresponding lyrical preoccupation with the “down” side of things, i.e. failure and misery. So because of all this and because they just hit harder than hell, it makes some amount of sense to think of them as a punk band.
The first time I saw them I was actually thinking a little about how you would classify them (not because that matters or anything, but just because you wonder about things sometimes), and seeing them perform I suddenly felt that it was overwhelmingly obvious. They’re a metal band. Assuming one does not understand genres reductively, this straightforwardly describes the type of music they play. They have expansive songs filled with squeedly solos and big theatrical vocals. And they’re not really that noisy; something like Dinosaur Jr. is a relevant point of comparison, but Screaming Females are more precise and clean without going all the way into pop songwriting (and they actually have quite a facility with slow songs). They’re about as far from three-chord thrash as you can get while still being a rock band. In this sense, metal is the opposite of punk: in lieu of simplicity and directness, it focus on musicianship, complexity, and theatricality (actually, metal is sort of pop hardcore, when you think about it).
If this all seems obvious, that’s great, but people sometimes have difficulties in this regard. There was a guy in the merch line talking about how this was “totally a punk show” and “bands are so tame nowadays” and blah blah blah (and using the precise “sick, bro” demeanor which you are currently imagining), and I just felt like this was a really sad perspective to hold (as well as being a deeply ironic way to feel about punk, of all things). You imagine that there’s some kind of holy grail out there, and you spend all your time looking for it instead of noticing everything else that’s going on. And even when you think you’ve found it, the only thing you can actually see is what you’re already expecting. Like, there was Bad Moshing at the show, which is fine, I honestly don’t even care, it’s just that I feel like people are using pre-scripted fake engagement to avoid real engagement. You can mosh to anything that’s loud and fast enough, so, like, go ahead, but if that’s all you’re doing, if that’s the only point you can conceive of music as having, then what you actually have is nothing. This is what’s so toxic about the idea that “things used to be great and now they’re not like that anymore.” When you think this way you both ignore everything that’s actually happening right now and reduce anything good you find to a shallow veneer of idealized aesthetics. Bands are like this right now. This band is like this right now. This is what it means for a work to possess immediacy.
This was, of course, the point of punk itself, to the extent that there can be said to have been such a thing. Speed and intensity don’t necessarily characterize punk music – “I Wanna Be Your Dog” is a slow love song. And it is actually this tradition that Screaming Females is upholding, just by being a working band that keeps moving and doesn’t pander. They used to close with “Boyfriend,” their punkest song, but they cut that in favor of doing “Criminal Image” with multiple Big Rock Finishes, after which they explicitly refused an encore with a throat-cutting gesture to the sound person.
Regarding the moshing, Paternoster did the obligatory thing and reminded everyone to not be violent assholes (she’s smallish, so there may have been some personal relevance there), and it’s the fact that this is obligatory which is the point. Musicians understand the situation, but people haven’t caught up yet. There’s a sense in which this is as it should be – if artists weren’t ahead of their audience there wouldn’t be any point – but it also feels like it’s been a while and we’re still working on these basic problems. You obviously have to have some kind of pretty strong self-motivation to be doing this sort of thing, but I feel like it must still be frustrating, to be trying to convey something non-trivial and to have people interpret you in the most trivial way possible.
So, you know, you can approach things from whatever angle you want, obviously. But it’s sad to think that people are missing things that are right in front of them, just because they think they already know what they’re looking at. It’s limiting. There’s more going on than just the stuff that people always talk about. The way something looks isn’t the same as what it is.
Hot take alert: Donald Trump is the most politically correct candidate ever to compete in American politics. That was a joke, about it being a hot take. I’m completely serious.
Listen, I’m as interested in writing an internet blog post about political correctness as I am in discussing slash even being aware of Trump in the first place, but this is what the situation is. We should be better than this, but we’re not. The temptation, certainly, is to throw up one’s hands and declare that none of it makes any sense. But what a contradiction actually means is that your assumptions are wrong – the facts cohere based on a different standard than the one you’re applying.
And this is precisely what’s being lost in the chatter: that there are actual facts on the ground that have very little to do with Trump or with the media or with the electoral process or anything other than the actual politics of the situation. Someone like John Oliver can, for instance, do an entire segment on Trump that’s all about who he is as a person and says absolutely nothing about the politics behind why anyone supports him.1 I mean, the man’s definitely a head case, there’s a psychology dissertation or two in there for whoever’s got the stomach, but when it comes to the actual politics of the situation that ain’t really matter. He’s been bloviating for years without ever rising above D-list tabloid fodder – it’s only now that the planets have aligned and the first seal has opened (the first horseman is a false prophet bent on conquest, just FYI) that his politics (such as they are) have coincidentally attained national significance. Trump is not the test, he is the failing grade you get a week later after not studying. There’s a real reason this is happening.
And remember, Trump is our mistake – the people’s choice. The elites wanted to stop him, but they either couldn’t get their act together or they decided that it ultimately wasn’t going to be worth it. At this point, the actual direct cause of Trump showing up on the TV and being taken seriously is that many millions of people voted for him. And now it’s the general, and he’s been consistently polling in the 40% range. This is not a statistical anomaly; that number represents real human people who want him to be President. Trump supporters do not view him as merely a conveniently-placed fool; they view him, frankly, as a hero. They are voting for something that they feel Trump embodies. Our task, then, is not to “stop Trump.” This would merely be to chase away the vampire’s shadow, leaving the real monster free to feed. Our task is to determine the nature of the thing that Trump supporters are supporting, and kill it.
So yeah, I’m going to do this once and then I’m going to stop and also get off my cross. The last thing I want to say before we get started is that I’m definitely right about this. This is the one true Trump take,2 so after this you will be fully and correctly informed and you won’t have to read any more thinkpieces or anything. You’re welcome.
The Trump campaign begins and ends with racism. Anyone who tries to dodge this fact is not a credible source of political analysis. There are exactly two statements of Trump’s that have actually mattered in terms of gaining him support: The Wall, and Ban All Muslims. Nothing about how he acts or the media coverage or anything else matters unless people have a reason to support him in the first place, and racism is the reason.
Neither is Trump properly understood as a protest candidate. Certainly, part of Trump’s appeal is the way he ruthlessly attacks traditional politicians in impolitic terms, especially because most of these attacks are entirely justified. But taking this as an explanation belies the fact that Trump’s supporters are the most zealous that we’ve seen in recent history – they take him seriously. They do not view their candidate as a destructive buffoon who happens to be useful at the present time; they actually like him. Hard to believe, I know, but you can’t get anywhere with your analysis until you learn to cool your projectors. Trump supporters also do not think that he’s going to “tear down the system” or any such thing; part of his appeal is the idea (fiction) that he’s a “successful businessman,” meaning his supporters view him as competent (again, deep breaths).
Trump is, however, seen as an alternative to the existing Republican establishment, and this does not make sense. The Republicans have always (that is, since the party realignment in response to the Civil Rights Movement) been the party of racism, so supporting a conventional Republican candidate is a perfectly effective way of expressing your support for racism. And this isn’t just a misperception, because the Republican establishment also sees Trump as a dangerous outsider rather than as a useful idiot. So something about him really is different; racism as racism is not a complete explanation.
One proposed difference is that Trump is “explicit” about his racism, as opposed to the “political correctness” of typical Republicans, and this is what his supporters are supporting. They don’t want someone who merely advances racist policies, they want someone who gives full-throated voice to their grievances, who stands up and says “yes” to racism. But there’s a rather overwhelming flaw with this interpretation, which is that Trump never does this. I’m a little weirded out that no one seems to have noticed this. Trump expresses his racism in exactly the sameterms that all Republicans do. Trump takes precisely the standard Republican line of claiming that the Democrats are cynically exploiting anti-racism as a political shibboleth (a useful line because it happens to be true), whereas he’d be “so good for the blacks.” Trump always makes the standard move of couching his opinions in plausible deniability by saying things like “some of them, I assume, are good people”; he follows to the letter the typical discourse pattern of saying something racist, denying that it’s racist, then calling his critics the real racists. He’s walked back basically all of his “controversial” statements in response to media pressure. These are the exact behaviors that Trump supporters are supposedly rebelling against! And yet, when white supremacist Andrew Anglin said that Trump was “giving us the old wink-wink,” he somehow saw this as a new, positive thing, even though it’s what every Republican politician has been doing this entire time.
In exactly the same way, all of Trump’s “dangerous” policy proposals are merely gaudier versions of Republican boilerplate. His global warming denialism, gun humping, torture fetishism, myopic focus on the national debt, glib slashes to taxes and spending, and dick-swinging foreign policy have all been standard-issue for decades. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, but Cruz wanted to sic COINTELPRO on every mosque in the country. Indeed, The Wall itself is just a bigger and dumber version of something Baby Bush came up with: the whimsically-named Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even Trump’s rhetoric is unusual only on the most basic level of tone. In terms of content, he’s saying exactly what every Republican always says. He attacks Clinton by saying she’s a “corrupt” political operative who panders to disadvantaged people solely for their votes, which is how every Republican attacks every Democrat. His claim that Obama “founded” ISIS is exactly the claim that Republicans always make about Democrats on foreign policy: that they’re “weak” and possibly secret anti-American traitors, meaning they don’t murder people indiscriminately enough and therefore allow “the terrorists” to do whatever they want. His insinuation that “Second Amendment people” could “do something” about Clinton follows directly from Sarah Palin’s “target map” and Sharron Angle’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies,” and uses exactly the same thin layer of plausible deniability. His histrionic paranoia about the election being “rigged” is exactly how Republicans justify voter ID laws. Indeed, his only transgression is that he cleaves to the Republican party line too strongly for his plausible deniability to remain plausible – his deviance is actually excessive conformity. Trump is nothing but an amalgamation of the various body parts the ruling class has collected over the years – the Frankenstein’s monster of American politics, a Republican in Republican’s clothing.
So this is the dilemma: if Trump support is about racism, then why is literally any other member of the Republican party not good enough? The Republican Party is already the party of racism; an insurgency is not required on this issue. Anyone who values white supremacy should be comfortable supporting basically any Republican candidate. This applies just as well to every other issue, as none of Trump’s policy stances are at all unusual. How does Trump represent an alternative to mainstream conservativism when all of his policies are entirely in line with conservative orthodoxy (the only real differences are the incidental hip-shooting claims that he later walks back or ignores, such as his praise for Planned Parenthood)? And if it’s about image, if it’s a rejection of the self-aggrandizers and empty suits that constitute the existing political class, then how in Loki’s name is daughterfucking Donald Trump the person who represents an alternative to that? The only reason he’s not twice as empty as the usual politician is that he’s three times as full of shit. He panders, hedges, vacillates and dodges, he uses extreme vagueness to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he harps on low-content talking points, he substitutes insults for discussion. He has backpedaled and then repedaled and then rebackpedaled on every issue he has actually addressed, including The Wall. He is not an “unconventional” candidate at all; as someone with no beliefs, he has nothing going for him other than typical campaigning behavior, so all he actually does is double down on it. He is the most conventional candidate, ever.
So what’s odd about all of this is that it seems like a bunch of sound and fury and more sound signifying no substantive policy distinctions. And of course Trump himself is a high-concept parody of a human being, so there’s significant difficulty in understanding how anyone can even tolerate being aware of him for extended periods of time, let alone want him to be the person with his finger on the button. And this is where the confusion comes in, because after running down all the possibilities, there doesn’t seem to be anything left. It’s not like anyone can possibly be unaware of any of this; the one thing you can certainly say about the media’s coverage of Trump is that there’s been enough of it. It seems, then, that Trump supporters have deliberately chosen the worst possible candidate.
One thing that actually does distinguish Trump supporters is a particular strain of desperation. They are not just middle-aged whites, but middle-aged whites undergoing a suicide epidemic. In other words, Trump supporters are desperate in the philosophical sense: they are people in the throes of an existential crisis. And when you’re having an existential crisis, what you want isn’t money or stability or progress. What you want is to feel important. You want to feel great again.
If we’re going to get this right, we have to pay attention to what Trump supporters are actually saying. Primary sources are a critical safeguard against confirmation and status quo biases. Still, you can’t just trust what people say, and people’s statements about their own motivations are perhaps the least trustworthy category of things. You have to get the story from the horse’s mouth, but you also have to translate it out of horse-language, if you follow me.
So step one is to listen to what Trump supporters have to say for themselves. Seeing as this task does not require insight, The Atlantichas done a fairly good job of it. Okay, I shouldn’t be making fun; The Atlantic is awful, but Conor Friedersdorf has asked Trump supports the exact question at issue here, which is: how is Trump anything other than a less-competent version of a standard politician? So I guess I’m grateful. I guess. I mean, a lot of this is just flatly hilarious:
“We have to stop talking about complete nonsense, and start talking about Making America Great Again.”
But no, we’re being serious here. This is serious. Serious disease.
Distilling, there are essentially three ideological vectors for Trump support. The first is what we already know: these people are fucking racists:
“The world is rising while America falls.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“I think my interest stopped right around 2008 because everything started to get really nasty.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“He could take the “black lives matter” group and show them how to make black lives matter.”
“A stage on which extremists are permitted to gesticulate and spew their venom via freedoms initially formulated by the much-maligned ‘angry and wimpering’ white male”
Sorry, let’s keep moving. One thing to note here is that this stuff is completely baked in to our political discourse, such that, for example, “the middle class” is basically just code for “white people.” Check this out:
“Politicians pay lip service to the middle class but spend no time helping them. Black lives matter more and illegal immigrants who break the law get a free pass.”
See how “black people” and “illegal immigrants” are the groups that contrast “the middle class”? But again, this type of expression is typical in American politics, so it’s unusual that it would drive support for Trump. The fact that this whole spectacle is based on racism should always be kept in mind, but there has to be more to it than that. We have to be talking about a particular aspect of racism.
The second angle is that Trump is going to “fix things” because he’s a “successful businessman.”
“He’s spent his whole life and career making deals and negotiating deals. In his own words, he negotiates to win.”
As opposed to people who negotiate to lose?
“Trump is not the caricature that pundits would have you believe. Trump did not build his economic empire just with luck.”
“I am thankful for his support and I am ‘Trusting’ that he will treat AMERICA as a business & focus on her sucess.”
“Like him or hate him, he is a businessman”
So yeah, this is all dumb for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s going to become important later, so just keep it in mind. Specifically, the idea that a politician is going to “fix things” actually reflects support for the status quo – it assumes the system as constituted is correct, that it simply has flaws that need to be removed, rather than the whole thing needing to be reimagined/destabilized. So this is another point against the idea that Trump is a protest candidate.
That is, it’s true that Trump voters are mad at the establishment, but who isn’t? While there is an aspect of anti-elitism here, it’s anti-elitism of a very particular type:
“Guess what? They just called me dumb. Now here is the problem. The arrogance and ignorance––together, the dumbness––of these ‘elites’ at the NYT, economics departments, etc. is the true source of misinterpretation of the Trump movement. We are not dumb. We are investment bankers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rocket scientists. And yes, we might also be farmers, but farmers can actually also be quite smart.
But guess what. We believe YOU (not you, Conor), are very, very dumb. If you are an established economist, you understand NOTHING about economics, and now everyone knows it. If you are the NYT, you printed fake evidence that led to a corrupt and bankrupting war. We believe you are very, very dumb, and shouldn’t say anything, whatsoever. You lost ALL authority over the last 15 years. Most people around me could take on any NYT journalist or professor from whatever fancy school and destroy them––intellectually––on any stage, anytime. We laugh at these people, and we laugh when they are called ‘elites’. They are not elites, they are complete failures.”
This isn’t anti-elitism in general, it’s actually pro-elitism in opposition to the current set of elites. The claim is that they aren’t “real” elites. Which is why it doesn’t contradict Trump being a rich fuck. It isn’t that he represents “ordinary” people, it’s that he represents the good kind of elites. So another way to think about the issue here is to ask: what kind of elite is Trump?
Relatedly, “make America great again” is more than just a slogan. Many of these people are quite preoccupied with the idea of “greatness”:
“He will expect greatness from us, he will tell us how to get to great, he will inspire people to be better than they are and have hope that their efforts will not be thwarted by bigger government.”
“Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies? The Trump Family is the picture of the American Dream, and I believe Donald Trump is an honest man. When Donald Trump says that he wants to make America great again, I believe him. He has written books for all to read but that is not enough. He wants to lead.
Granted, Donald Trump cannot promise greatness among us as a society or a country. However, he can promise to be a leader for greatness, and he is fitted to do so.”
“He truly wants to make America Great Again, the same way he wanted to make his company great.”
So, again, the question is: what kind of greatness are we talking about here?
The third argument is that Trump is “politically incorrect,” and that this is a good thing.
“I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports. Rather, I feel that political correctness has run amok in this country”
you don’t say
“Beyond speech codes, ‘trigger warnings,’ or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different.”
“Political correctness is a main reason why America is in trouble because it is a grind and so draining to be so politically correct everyday in our personal and professional lives.”
You’ve heard all this before, but look at what’s actually happening here. These people aren’t just saying that they like Trump because he’s politically incorrect. They are saying that, for them, political correctness is a substantive policy issue – one that they prioritize highly enough for it to be a determining factor in deciding who they support, as well as something that they actually expect the President of the United States to do something about. Friedersdorf, understandably confused by this line of thinking, followed up on it in a more in-depth interview, and received the following response:
“This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.”
“Having Trump in the White House would both give me more confidence to speak my own opinion and more of a shield from instantly being dismissed as a racist/xenophobe/Nazi (all three things I have been called personally) [ed: waaaaaaaaaah].
Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness (despite his denunciations), but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?”
It’s at this point that the Atlantic Effect kicks in, as Friedersdorf is unable to come up with an explanation for this beyond “liberals have gone too far.” So this is our starting point.
The obvious interpretation is that “politically incorrect” is just a more palatable way of saying “racist.” This is why the speech at issue is always racial slurs. The fact that people will deny this is not informative; everyone in America denies that anything is about racism at all times (which they have to do, because everything in America actually is about racism, at all times). Whereas the overwhelming majority of anti-PC complaints originate from white people upset that they can’t use slurs, the clear conclusion is that white people want to be racist, but don’t want to actually make the argument “I should be allowed to be racist.” Thus, the going interpretation is that people are tired of politicians pretending like everything is proper anti-racist policy, and they like Trump because he comes right out and “says what they’re thinking” re: race.
But again, this is not enough of an interpretation, because Trump does not actually do this. He also pretends like he’s the one offering the best anti-racist policy. Despite the baffled protestations of the explainer class, Trump is not operating sui generis; he is navigating the same constraints that all politicians face. He actually does have to disavow white supremacists and make up a fake women’s healthcare plan and pretend like he cares about black people. The only difference is that he’s bad at it.
Furthermore, you’ll note above that none of his supporters themselves avow their racism in explicit terms. They express their opposition to political correctness in politically correct fashion. Thus, the thing that they’re supporting as an attack on “political correctness” must be something other than bluntly stated racism, because they’re not getting that, and they don’t even seem to really want it. So what do they want?
And remember, this is not a matter of mere aesthetics. People think that this is a real, substantive political issue, and that Trump is going to do something about it. Moreover, it is not just that people like hearing their own values stated bluntly, it is that these people consider “politically incorrect” expression itself to be an important value. So this is it: we need to figure out what we’re actually talking about when we talk about political correctness.
(Look, I told you I don’t want to do this, alright? Just give it up. You weren’t doing anything useful today anyway.)
Given that Trump is seen as an alternative to the current crop of Republican elites, we can start by asking what it is that distinguishes Trump’s brand of racism from the rest of the Republicans’. As mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction at all. Trump always claims that he’ll be the best for “the blacks” and that Democrats are the real racists and blah blah blah. This is the same nonsense we’re always subjected to.
Actually, the first question we should ask is why Trump’s signature issue, illegal immigration, is an issue at all. It’s not a real problem, because Mexican immigration has been falling and immigration is not exactly an economy-killer. It’s also not a culture war thing; liberals don’t care about it (nor do they care about all the people Obama has deported). It’s an internal issue amongst conservatives, and if we think about why the Republican Party itself would care about it, the answer becomes clear. The Republican Party is the White Man’s Party, and it’s getting to be the case that there aren’t enough white men left for them to be able to win national elections. The largest and most quickly rising minority population is Latinxs,3 so that’s where the numbers have to come from. And this actually shouldn’t be that hard; we’re talking about people who are mostly religious and family-focused, and there isn’t really any overwhelming historical issue preventing Latinxs from voting Republican the way there is for black people. So that’s the angle: an immigration policy that appeals to Latinxs while placating the usual racists could help the Republicans overcome their demographic disadvantage.
But of course the voters themselves don’t care about party strategy, so if that’s all it is, then why do so many Republican voters list illegal immigration as one of their highest-priority issues? Well, because they’re looking at the same situation, but their motivations are reversed: they don’t want to compromise; they want immigration policy to work in white people’s favor. They don’t want to take advantage of the demographic shift; they want to stop it. What “political correctness” means in this context is taking Latinxs’ concerns into account. Trump voters want someone who won’t do that.
And precisely this was Trump’s original claim to political fame. By referring to immigrants as a bunch of criminals and rapists, he unambiguously signaled that his immigration policy was intended for the benefit of white people and only white people. And this is why it doesn’t matter that his policy is completely impractical and makes no sense: because this isn’t a real issue, it doesn’t have to. The establishment’s half-hearted opposition to Trump is half-hearted precisely because it is purely tactical: Trump represents a bad strategy for achieving the same goals the ruling class wants to achieve. But for the voters, because this is a symbolic concern, the desired solution is also a symbolic one. And the unavoidable symbolism of The Wall is: Whites Only.
We’re not quite there yet, because, again, this isn’t actually how Trump’s rhetoric works. Continuing with the symbolism of The Wall, Trump has also said that it will include a “big, beautiful door” for those who want to come here “legally.” This echoes the concerns of the voters: they often say they don’t object to immigration itself, but to people who don’t “play by the rules.” So the “door” symbolizes something slightly more complex than simple segregation. We can be more specific here. Consider this:
“I don’t have a problem necessarily with Mexicans who come here legally, obey our laws, and eventually learn to speak English. I do have a problem with those who look at our immigration laws and say, ‘Nah, I’d rather not obey those.’ This is one of my biggest issues with Hillary Clinton and her policy of amnesty.”
What is “learn to speak English” doing in that list? Why does that matter here? It’s not a law. Mexican immigrants are perfectly capable of coming here legally and contributing to the economy while still speaking their own language in their own communities. Why is that a problem? Yes, I know, racism, but why specifically? I mean, these people don’t get mad when they hear white people speaking any other foreign language, right?
Again, the significance is symbolic: immigrants who don’t learn English are maintaining their own culture. It isn’t just that immigrants are people of a different race, it’s that they’re not from here, they have their own beliefs and ideals, and that’s not okay. The “good” kind of immigrants, the ones who “follow the law,” who properly assimilate themselves into Whitopia, are acceptable; the “bad” kind, who stubbornly insist on retaining their own inferior cultures, must not be permitted. Hence the seemingly irrational anger with which some people react to hearing Spanish spoken in public: such an experience smacks you in the face with the fact that there are other worlds out there. To a certain type of person, this feels like a personal attack.
In fact, our misguided friend is quite explicit about this:
“[Referring to himself]: In favor of “melting pot” culture instead of multiculturalism.”
“I think most of my opposition comes from what I feel is a loss of the patriotic American identity and the advancement of multiculturalism and political correctness.”
So “political correctness” is the same thing as “multiculturalism,” and this is different from the “melting pot culture” which represents the traditional “American identity.” Thus, the connection between anti-PC and anti-immigrant ideologies is not mysterious. Both targets are faces of the same demonhead.
The idea that non-white people are actually inferior used to be the primary justification for racism, but today it’s a fringe belief (though it does very much still exist). What we now like to talk about instead is “culture.” It isn’t that black people are less capable than white people, it’s that “black culture” is holding them back. It isn’t that people from the Middle East are genetically prone to violence and intolerance, it’s “Islamic culture” that drives them to it. This is also the connection between “political correctness” and “moral relativism”:
“I think it comes down to a perception that America has already drowned in a post-modernist nightmare of moral relativism, from which extreme political correctness and protest culture stem. Trump, on the other hand, is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms. His personal morality is clear: He respects people who work hard, are loyal, innovate, and ‘win,’ and he shuns those who don’t meet the criteria. Cruel as it may sound, I think America needs to reenergize these fundamental cultural values before we can ever hope to create a better society.”
Obviously, this person has no idea what the words they’re using actually mean – how could “protest culture” possibly stem from a lack of strong morals?4 What they’re talking about is accepting other culture’s values and practices as potentially valid ones. That’s why the preferable alternative is “absolute” support of America’s own “cultural values.” And that’s why it’s okay for people of any race to live and work in America – as long as they adhere to the right standards. The correct ones, in terms of politics.
It isn’t just that these people don’t want to explicitly argue that white men should be the center of everything, it’s that they can’t. When the implicit centering of white male opinions is the foundation of your worldview, requests that you incorporate other people’s opinions into your understanding become literally incomprehensible. Because the demand doesn’t make sense, it gets understood as something else. Ergo, the request that you let other people talk becomes an attack on “free speech,” and the insistence that other people’s opinions are more valid than yours on certain issues becomes “censorship.”
To understand this technically, the old regime of pure segregation is dead, for a number of reasons, and there are two possible alternatives we can pursue in its wake.5 The issue is not whether we’re going to have an all-white society or a diverse society. That ship has sailed. Globalization is the fact of the matter. The question is how we’re going to respond to it, and this is what Trump supporters are supporting: one answer to that question. They oppose “multiculturalism,” under which there are multiple valid cultural standards, and support “inclusiveness,” under which there is one standard that everyone is allowed (meaning required) to follow. “Inclusiveness” means including many different types of people in one culture. “Multiculturalism” means multiple different cultures all overlapping and interacting with each other.
If this seems overly theoretical, some practical examples should clarify that this is both a wide-ranging issue that is currently in high contention, and a basic practical distinction that you probably understand implicitly. Once upon a time, there was a thing called the “Western literary canon,” which included all of the most important stuff that white men ever did. This was a single standard for intellectualism: if you were familiar with it, then you were “educated”; if not, then not. Eventually, it was subjected to the obvious criticism that people other than white men have also done important stuff, and there are two possible responses to this criticism. One is to include non-white-male works in the canon, so that it’s still a single standard, but now it’s fair and representative and accessible to everybody. The other is to kill it, based on the argument that you can’t come up with any kind of objective standard as to which works are the “most important.” Were this situation to obtain, there would not be a single standard, but rather multiple different overlapping sets of works that different groups of people considered important for different reasons.
Another good example is music, which, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this already-bloated post, is ground zero for multiculturalism. The most prominent instance here is gangsta rap. The reason white people flipped their shit when gangsta rap got popular was that it operates under a different standard of values than conventional pop music; it does a different type of thing. It presents black criminals as subjects to be understood as subjects rather than as cautionary objects to be pointed at from a safe distance. Hence the claim that it “glorifies bad behavior”: white people were trying to understand it using their own set of values, whereby pop music is supposed to be abstracted and aspirational. Naturally, then, the hip-hop artists that white people single out for praise are those who are “socially conscious” and “professional” – the ones who follow the correct set of values.
Arbitrarily many examples of this pattern may be accumulated. We have TV shows like Master of None, where an Indian-American is portrayed as an everyman and immigrant experiences are normalized, plays like Hamilton, which reverse-whitewashes American history, and pop stars like Rhianna, whose persona is based on the idea that she’s the “bad” kind of black woman. Regardless of how good any of these things are, the point is that they represent a fundamental shift in perspective. The ideal of inclusion is that non-white people are accepted as long as they acclimate themselves to white people’s standards and practices. Everybody can, in theory, have equal rights, as long as what they’re equal to is white people’s standards. We are currently on the border between this ideal and the ideal of multiculturalism: the idea that there are multiple, simultaneous, equally valid (at least potentially) sets of standards.6
So the reason this distinction is flaring up right now is that we’re on a tipping point: multiculturalism exists, but it isn’t fully accepted, and the wave is eventually going to break one way or the other. And the reason the issue has specific political significance is, of course, Black Jesus. It is the least coincidental thing ever that this is happening at the end of the first black president’s term and in opposition to the possibility of the first female president – and in response to both of them being heralded as “progress,” as the wave of the future. Trump supporters see that the tide is turning against them, and they are desperately trying to hold the line.
Now, you might find this is a little odd. Surely Obama, though a black man, represents the interests of the white supremacist ruling class, and is therefore a perfect example of inclusiveness and not multiculturalism, right? And Clinton re: feminism7 and both of them re: capitalism and everything else are all pretty much the same deal. So why the animus? Well, one way to look at it is that Obama has a bad habit of saying things like “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Policy aside, when Mr. America says things like that, it conveys the idea that black people count as equal participants in society. That, y’know, they matter.
Liberals like to imagine that this whole problem is just a misunderstanding. If only conservatives knew “the facts,” and gave up their “conspiracy theories,” they’d stop “voting against their own interests.” Conservatives, whether they realize it or not, have a better understanding of the situation – they understand that symbols are real things. You can’t just put a black man in charge of a fundamentally racist country and expect everything to keep humming along. Something has to give, and what conservatives are doing is trying to make sure that the future breaks one way and not the other. They know that if they allow the door to be left ajar, it’s eventually going to get kicked open.
This might not seem like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is. I said earlier that this was not a matter of mere aesthetics, and it’s not: it’s a matter of deep aesthetics. Going from being the center of the universe to not being the center of the universe is actually the largest possible transition. It’s the death of god. Remember when everyone got all freaked out at the possibility that the Earth might revolve around the Sun, and not t’other way ’round? Why would that matter? What possible implications for daily human life follow from the particular implementation details of how planets move around? The answer is that it implies that humans are not the center of the universe, that we happen to exist in the universe rather than the universe existing for us, and this is an unacceptable conclusion. Consider similarly the broad popularity of Lovecraft-style “cosmic horror,” where the entire thing that’s scary about it is that humans are not accorded a privileged position in the universe.
Again, symbols are real things, which means that these sorts of shifts have real, practical consequences. The recent sea change regarding rape culture is entirely due to the fact that women have centered the conversation on themselves. This change would not have been possible as long as men controlled the discourse – no amount of “argument” or “reason” would have done the job. Like all political questions, it’s a question of who counts. There remains the work of translating symbolic gains into both policy changes and broader cultural changes, but what makes these next steps possible is the initial symbolic action of changing perspectives.
Understanding this, Trump supporters are trying to shut the door – to recenter white men’s opinions as the universal standard of judgment. This is why it is coherent for Trump to propose an ideological test for immigrants. Everyone is welcome, as long as they properly assimilate themselves to our standards. The reason conservatives constantly harp on symbolic culture-war issues is because they know that there’s a fight to be had. It’s not misdirection or confusion; it’s good tactics. Which is not to say I’m accusing anyone involved of an excess of imagination. Going “back” to the days of unquestioned white normality is just as impossible as “staying the course.” But this raises a contradiction, because we never actually stopped clinging to “traditional American values.” What happened in response to the post-war equality movements was that we reinterpreted them as being about traditional values all along – as though the founders actually had desegregation (or even abolition) in mind when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” And, as mentioned, the ruling class has fully assimilated these movements in the name of inclusiveness, staving off (for now) their radical potential. But if no one who matters is actually advocating multiculturalism, then why have conservatives devolved into aggrieved reactionaries?
You’ve probably been waiting for me to point out the most obvious flaw in the anti-PC argument, which is that it gets the situation exactly backwards. It is black people who are forced to tiptoe around the issue of racism; white people are more than welcome to express their grievances as bluntly and stupidly as possible. Most of all, what characterizes anti-PC arguments is manliness: we need to “toughen up” and stop being so “sensitive.” This is the same thing that characterizes most of Trump’s rhetoric, and it gives the lie to the idea that anything he’s doing is actually unacceptable, because there is nothing more socially acceptable then masculinity. The sad truth is that the situation that reactionaries long for is already the case: white male opinions were never decentered. This explains the fundamental paradox of political correctness. Anti-PC people attack the idea that one’s means of expression should be restricted, and they do this by insisting that others adopt the correct means of expression. “Merry Christmas.” “Islamic terrorism.” “All lives matter.” We must use these exact words, the politically correct terminology.8 What political correctness actually is, then, is the maintenance of white male normativity.
We got a very clear example of how this works recently, when Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment. This should have been a slam dunk: it’s an entirely accurate and damning description of the situation, and it’s also an appealingly honest assessment of the type that a normal uncoached human would make. Clinton was both making a strong argument for herself and overcoming her primary flaw. She was telling it like it is. As it turns out, though, what she said was politically incorrect: she was immediately and roundly criticized not for being wrong (she wasn’t), but for saying something she shouldn’t have said. There was no praise for her “authenticity,” no celebration that a politician was finally speaking the unvarnished truth, no defense that she was just making a point and didn’t really mean it. She had committed the unforgivable sin of violating white people’s safe space, and she did it without even issuing a trigger warning.
And it is because political correctness is the maintenance of normativity that Donald Trump is its avatar. This is why someone as incompetent as Trump has been so successful: because he’s on the winning team. Trump is not the less conventional version of the typical Republican candidate; he is the more conventional version. He is the most conventional person possible. This is the truly fatal flaw in the argument against political correctness: the people who rail against it are the most conventional, unoriginal, safe thinkers of all. Their transgressions are barely even performative. Speaking out against political correctness is easy. It’s expected. It’s politically correct.
Think about the content of Trump’s insults toward his opponents: they’re corrupt, they’re liars, they’re not tough enough. These are all completely conventional arguments! They’re the exact things we hear over and over again in every election, and yet somehow when Trump says them they become some sort of horrifying breach of civilized norms, or something. The position that all politicians are clowns and we need a rough tough action ranger to come in and shake things up is the most conventional political opinion that it is possible to hold. Do I really need to point out that Trump, is, like, famous? That he’s conventionally successful within current social parameters? That he gets constant media coverage? That none of this would be possible if anything he said or did were actually beyond the pale? That, in certain circumstances, criticism actually functions as validation? That this can only mean that all of his statements and actions are socially acceptable?
For example, Trump doesn’t explicitly support fringe conspiracy theories; rather, his characteristic move is to fail to deny them. “Some people are saying that, I don’t know, you tell me.” Again, it’s odd that people view this sort of thing as “telling it like it is.” So what is it, actually? What it is is a matter of perspective. If you want to know what Obama’s religion is, the obvious thing to do is to ask him, because, like, he’d know. But this requires you to do something unusual: it requires you to accept a black person’s perspective as a valid source of truth. Thus, the basic act of raising the question, of refusing to consider the matter settled, performs an important political function: it recenters the issue on white people. It isn’t a fact until white people accept it. And the media is, for the most part, completely fine with treating things this way. As long as white people have opinions on something, no matter how dumb they are, it’s a “controversy,” and we need to “hear both sides.”
Trump’s strength is not that he is an “unconventional” candidate who’s willing to “say anything” because he’s not bound by the “normal” constraints of politics. It is exactly the opposite. Trump is a hyper-normative candidate: what is unusual about him is that he takes the conventional wisdom too seriously, without a protective layer of cynicism. It is this that comes across as “sincere” to his supporters, who are also true believers in the lies. It’s not just the deep unoriginality of all of Trump’s (attempts at) policy proposals; it’s that his entire angle rests on appealing to cheap cliches and uninterrogated conventional wisdom. This lack of nuance is not an intellectual failing; it is itself a value. It is the point.
The truth behind Trump’s blatant lack of substance is not that he has “fooled” people and “fallen through the cracks” of the vetting process, but that he has passed the actual test. He may have dented the empty shibboleths of respectability (which exist primarily so that pundits can congratulate themselves on upholding them), but he has obeyed to the letter the real rules of the game – he has succeeded according to the parameters of the system. This is what’s really scary about his campaign: not that it is “abnormal,” but that it is the most normal thing that has ever happened.
But now we’ve actually worsened our contradiction; it seems like political correctness isn’t even a matter of optics anymore. What is haunting Trump supporters is only the specter of multiculturalism. But if the ruling class supports a standard of inclusiveness to ward off the threat of multiculturalism, and if Trump supporters are fighting for the same thing, for the same reason, then why the conflict? And if Trump supporters are merely drawing at shadows, then whence their zealotry? Why are they acting like this is some sort of civilization-defining struggle? What could they possibly want that they don’t already have? Are they actually fighting for nothing?
Yes. That’s exactly it. They are fighting for nothing.
(Christ, this is ponderous even by my standards. Music break.)
We still haven’t quite answered the question of “why Trump?” Again, his angle isn’t actually different from the Republican party line, so it seems like any other candidate should have been able to ride the same wave. I mean, all of them made a big show about being the most opposed to Obama and hating Muslims the most and all the usual garbage. Why the preference for the least competent and most clownish version of the same old thing? At this point, to simply ask the question is to be confronted with the truth, in all its terrible clarity. It is precisely because Trump is a pudgy, bumbling, fraudulent, crude, petty, egotistical know-nothing that he is the only candidate who can carry this torch. Donald Trump is the human personification of mediocrity, and this is the true source of his power.
Recall that Trump supporters like the idea that he’s Big Bobby Businesspants and he’s going to “make deals” and hire “the best people” and so forth. The question, again, is: why is this a difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican clown car? The idea that “government should be run like a business” is among the party’s most tired cliches. Specifically, they just had a candidate who was precisely an empty business suit with magic underwear beneath it: Mitt Romney. And yet Romney is now somehow part of the craven political establishment that Trump voters are telling to take a hike. So: what is the substantive distinction between Business Douche Mitt Romney and Business Turd Donald Trump?9
The difference is just that: one of them is a douche and one of them is a turd.10 Romney presents himself like a professional. He doesn’t look like a hamster wearing a chinchilla suit or talk like an abortive Turing Test attempt. He seems like he might actually know some stuff about business, as opposed to being an expert in bankruptcy, he’s genuinely religious, as opposed to quoting from “Two Corinthians,” and he’s an actual family man, as opposed to . . . well, you know. Romney acts like an actual elite, whereas Trump acts like a hobo’s idea of a rich person.
Pay attention, because this is where it gets important. Certain types of people will look at a dynamic like this and conclude that Trump supporters must be stupid: why else would they support the wrong kind of rich person? Thinking of people you don’t understand as stupid is how you prevent yourself from learning anything. We’re all familiar with Donald Trump the television character, but that’s just it: we’re all familiar with him. No one is confused about who Donald Trump is. Trump supporters are looking at the same person the rest of us are, but they’re judging him by a different standard. So, given that Trump supporters actually like their candidate, what is their standard of judgment? What are the criteria, the values, by which Trump as opposed to Romney is judged to be the right kind of rich person? Trump supporters want him to hold the highest office in the land; they are trying to create a world where Trump is the true definition of an elite. (Continue to take deep breaths.)
Some intriguing evidence here comes from one of Friedersdorf’s correspondents, via an analogy to The Great Gatsby:
“Perhaps Nick Carraway is representative of the disillusioned ‘Silent Majority’ wishing to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Donald Trump personifies a modern-day, extremely brash Jay Gatsby, clawing feverishly for that elusive ‘green light’ at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s beckoning dock. Is it not better to place your chips on hopes and dreams rather than certain nightmares? Those of us who buy into Trump’s vision, nearly to the point of blind trust, are loudly professing our disgust with the current immoral situations that taint and threaten our blueprint of the American dream.”
I trust that you have some initial difficulty understanding how anyone can look to Jay Gatsby as a positive archetype. It is true that, unlike everyone around him, Gatsby actually wants something, but he goes about it in the worst possible way. In blind pursuit of an uninterrogated goal, he embraces everything base and grotesque about his society, squandering his talents and charisma, such that his downfall becomes inevitable. There’s ultimately no possibility that Daisy will accept him, because he has nothing different to offer her. He is merely a less stable instance of the same pile of trash. The whole point of the book is that the standards to which Gatsby acclimates himself are horrible; if he’s the best kind of elite we’ve got, we’re screwed. All of which is to say that the word “great” in the title of The Great Gatsby has a very peculiar meaning – the same meaning that it has in the slogan “make America great again.” It indicates inspired adherence to hidebound goals, the subordination of the flame of life to the dead weight of the past. It is, in other words, not greatness at all. It is mediocrity.
Take special note of the phrase “threaten our blueprint of the American dream” (also go ahead and laugh at “taint” if you need to cheer yourself up). In 2005, in response to a reported design flaw in the original PlayStation Portable hardware, Sony President Ken Kutaragi argued that “nobody would criticize a renowned architect’s blueprint that the position of a gate is wrong.” Obviously, this is absurd; the whole point of being a “renowned architect” is that you don’t get things like this wrong. More significantly, an expert, properly understood, is not someone who simply knows how to do one thing well and doesn’t accept criticism. It is someone with a deep and broad understanding of their discipline, such that they can draw from different traditions and techniques as applicable, in order to meet a variety of standards at once. A true expert must be multicultural.
So if we want to be better at creating a society than Sony is at creating hardware, “threatening the blueprint of the American dream” is exactly what we ought to be doing. Like, this isn’t super hard to understand. America was founded on slavery and genocide. It is not a legacy to uphold; it is a challenge to overcome. America is just a blip on the historical timeline, and even within that blip, what we consider “American values” today would be unrecognizable to the people who founded the country. To embrace the “American dream” as being “good enough” is to embrace mediocrity. To pursue greatness is, instead, to challenge our received values: to strike at the old idols, to destroy the standards that constrain rather than elevate, and to create new, better values.
And this is the exact thing that Trump supporters are afraid of. Remember how the only demographic correlate that explains them is that they’re suicidally desperate white people? What causes desperation? It’s not setbacks or difficulty, it’s when standards change, such that you realize that you have no hope of succeeding, no matter how well you do. These people were born into a world where they were inherently important just because of who they were, and that world is passing them by. The new world will, in fact, be just as bad: the crumbs will simply be portioned out based on utility to capital rather than identity. But when it’s your identity that’s on the chopping block, it’s a little hard to care about getting things right. Much easier, and much more comforting, to simply reassert your initial claim: to reappropriate the concept of greatness for yourself, based on nothing. Who better, then, to represent this ideology than a mediocre white man who thinks he’s better than everyone else? What better enemy than a historically accomplished black person?
Now, obviously, all politicians are mediocrities, it’s the nature of the enterprise, but the thing about Trump’s primary opponents is that they all had something going for them. Bush was the well-bred, establishment-backed dynast, Rubio was the bright young star, and Cruz was the sharp, passionate intellectual (I guess). Rubio in particular is an important point of comparison, because he was the Chosen One, the person who was going to bring balance to the Force save the GOP from itself. He was supposed to have crafted the Great Compromise on immigration, enabling him to ride the wave of accomplishment and Latinx support into higher office. He blew it about as hard as possible, but the point is that he represented a new direction for the party, and this was scary. Not to mention the fact that, you know, he was a Cuban named “Marco Rubio.” What Trump represented that no other candidate did was a steadfast refusal to accommodate to a new future. It is appropriate, then, for the man who represents this to be a gigantic baby, because he actually functions as a security blanket.
While Trump also “has something going for him” – his alleged business acumen – it’s a very particular type of “something.” It doesn’t require him to know anything or have actual skills, he just has to “delegate” and make “judgment calls.” He has to have “leadership,” which is not actually a thing.11 And of course he has to have been born rich, such that being a rich fuck is his identity rather than a contingent result of particular circumstances. It doesn’t even matter if his tax returns come out and he turns out to be broke – he can never not be a rich fuck. Trump is not a Steve Jobs type who is known for his vision and for pushing new ideas. He doesn’t actually advance anything, he just “makes deals.” He defends his sorry escapades in Atlantic City not by pointing to anything he actually accomplished or any lives that he actually made better, but simply by pointing out that, hey, he made out all right. What else is there?
The critical contradiction in the schoolbook version of capitalism is that, on the one hand, the only rule of capitalism is fair exchange: giving equal value for equal value. A worker is supposedly hired at a rate that equals their marginal contribution to production, meaning it should be a wash for the business. A perfectly efficient market is one where nobody makes any profit – but the possibility of profit is the only thing that motivates businesses to exist in the first place. The missing ingredient is exploitation: getting more out of an exchange than you put in. In other words, making a “good deal.” Of course, this is not a hypothetical argument. The fantasy of capitalism is actually true: some people really do get their money for nothing and their chicks for free.
The reason for the popularity of MBAs and management books and soforth is that they promise entry into the fantasy world. The idea that there is such a thing as a “business secret” betrays the fact that there is no real skill involved; it is merely a matter of positioning yourself on the right side of “the deal” (The Secret itself is exactly the same thing). And this, also, is why real estate and stock picking and other forms of capital investment are such hot topics among wannabe business assholes: because they let you make money without actually doing anything. It is this desire that Trump University exploited. If you just learn Trump’s “business secrets,” you too can be a self-important jackass with more money than sense. Per capitalism, business – the “art of the deal” – is actually the art of taking credit for other people’s work.
(Hence it is beyond appropriate that The Art of The Deal itself was 100% ghostwritten. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Trump is the most normal candidate possible: everything about him lines up perfectly. Honesty, the only thing that’s strange is that we didn’t see it coming.)
Some people consider things like skill and wisdom to be beneath them. Not only do they care only about being “in charge” rather than actually being good, they specifically desire arbitrary power. It’s not really power if you have to earn it; authority is necessarily unjustified. The Trump fantasy is about becoming rich and powerful without ever learning anything or developing any skills, and the reason it’s convincing is that Trump is exactly that person. In other words, the fantasy of the business mogul is the same as the fantasy of the white master race, or the fantasy of the masculine genius. It is the fantasy of abstract greatness, untethered from any of the inconveniences of hard work or introspection or compromise or doubt. Rather than having the capability of greatness, you simply are great, just because, and you can just sit there feeling great without actually doing anything. It is about being someone great rather than actually doing something great.
If Trump’s appeal is his self-presentation as a great businessman, then the specifics of his business practices – the nature of his “greatness” – is the critical point. Liberals have attempted to exploit this by pointing out that Trump isn’t actually any good at business, but this argument falls to one of the most basic rejoinders: if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? The fact is, entirely apart from any practical assessment of what he’s done with his life, Trump lives like a successful business mogul, and for his supporters, that is the entire game. It is, in fact, better for them that Trump has gotten where he is without ever actually accomplishing anything, because that just makes him more of a winner. The truth is that Trump’s mediocrity is not a liability that must be covered by a con; it is an asset – it is his only asset. People support Trump precisely because he is a mediocre businessman.
Another way of saying this is that Trump is a mansplainer. The salient aspect of his much-parodied speaking style is that he talks as though everything he can think of to say is meaningful simply because he’s the one thinking it and saying it. More notable than anything that he actually says is the fact that he just keeps talking. He has to be sure that everyone knows his dumbass opinions about every single thing that happens (hence also his identification with Twitter). The core element of mansplaining12 is believing that you know better than someone else just because of who you are, and who they are. If you try to interrogate the situation to determine who knows what, you run the risk of exposing yourself as ignorant, having your preconceptions shattered, and losing your glib self-assurance. In order to maintain your own sense of importance, you lock yourself in your own perspective, and talk over anything that might refute you. Rather than trying for greatness, you settle for mediocrity, and then just mouth off as though there were no discussion to be had. This is exactly what Trump does, every second of every day. He obviously knows nothing about anything, but he thinks he does, just because he’s a rich white man. His own perspective is the only one he sees any value in considering. It doesn’t matter how long the generals have been fighting ISIS, or what the demographic and economic indicators say about immigration, or what the actual crime statistics are. They can’t possibly tell him anything he hasn’t already figured out, because if they could, that would mean that he’s not special. He’s just some guy. And it is because he is not actually good at anything real that he has no option other than to embrace every practice designed to make useless white men feel better about themselves. Trump is every oppressive social schema crammed together into an approximation of a human being; he is the anthropomorphic personification of unearned and unjustified advantage, and people support him because they want to maintain those advantages for themselves. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that what Trump is doing could never come close to working for anyone other than a white man, right? That even a milquetoast centrist like Hillary Clinton has to constantly walk on eggshells to cover for literally the one thing that differentiates her from any other central-casting political operative?
This is also the significance of Trump’s beyond-parody aesthetics: he’s too good to have good taste. Good taste requires learning about things and placing them in context and exercising restraint and taking other people’s subjectivity into account. All that shit is for poor people. What’s the stuff that only rich people can afford? Gold. Marble. Tall buildings. Whatever, just cram it all together and put my name on it so everyone knows I have more money than them. Oh, you think it’s tacky and stupid and wasteful? Fuck you, I’m going to make it ten feet taller and slap another coat of gold paint on it.
In the same sense, this is why, for some people, a burlap mannequin like Trump is actually appealing as a person. His personal shoddiness proves that you can be a big fancy rich asshole without actually having to make the effort to be any kind of worthwhile person. You don’t actually have to bother trying or looking halfway presentable, as long as you’re the right kind of person. Trump’s “authenticity” has nothing to do with whether he’s sincere or truthful; it’s that no amount of money can disguise the fact that he is a true schlub.
You may be thinking that all of this sounds like the opposite of Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” but remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the feeling of greatness minus the substance. The key word is not “great,” but “again.” Hence the advocacy of simplistic nationalism in response to globalization. Hence unjustified confidence and bluster as a response to the hollowness of standard political discourse. Hence, especially, The Wall, which represents escaping from all problems by simply shutting out the rest of the world, responding to the fear of the monster in your closet by hiding under the covers. The slogan would be better rendered as “make Americans feel like precious little angels again.”
All the statistical details about how immigration affects the economy are entirely beside the point. What immigration means is change: it means that the country is going to become something different than what it is right now. The ideal of inclusiveness – of “melting pot culture” – is a safeguard against this. It’s okay for lots of different types of people to come here, as long as they play by our rules, as long as they do their part to keep our country the way we want it, as long as they don’t do upsetting things like speaking Spanish in public or wearing burkas to the beach. People seemed to get a little bit confused when Trump referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” but whether he actually had any idea what he was talking about or not,13 he was exactly right. Brexit represents exactly the same thing as The Wall: responding to the big scary outside world by shutting your eyes and plugging your ears.
It is a necessary aspect of greatness that you can’t get it back – it is something that flares up and then burns out. This is the danger that’s always present in “comebacks” from great artists. They’re exciting because they offer the promise of the same original inspiration channeled through improved skills and experience, but that can’t actually happen. They’ll either be trying to do the same thing they did before, in which case it will necessarily manifest itself as a pale imitation, or they’ll do something different, in which case it might actually be great, but it won’t be the same greatness. The recent Stooges album (yes, there was one; no, you don’t need to know anything about it) was completely pointless, because the Stooges can’t exist in the current situation, even when they are the actual Stooges themselves. Whereas Sleater-Kinney’s recent album (which wasn’t really a comeback, but close enough) is actually great, because, as they always do, they did something different. It’s not another album from a ’90s band, it’s a new response to a new situation. What Trump supporters are opposed to is doing something – anything – different.
And since this is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about “traditional American values,” this isn’t some new thing that’s happening just now. We’ve been slowly drowning in it for a very long time. Consider the commonplace idea that “real Americans” are “salt-of-the-earth types” who believe in “traditional values.” Even ignoring how much bullshit this is and taking it on its own terms, isn’t this a completely lousy ideal? It’s an attack against any kind of self-improvement at all; not merely acceptance of current circumstances, but active embrace of the idea that one ought not do any better then one is already doing. It is love of mediocrity.
It’s been noted that Trump is the least plausible candidate to garner evangelical support, ever (especially since Clinton appears to have sincere religious beliefs that she doesn’t go around throwing in people’s faces), but this assumes that evangelicals adhere to the commonly-portrayed peace-and-love fairydust version of Christianity. They don’t. That is not their actual religion. In truth, Trump is a devout believer in exactly the same faith as evangelical Christians. You may have heard recently about something called the “prosperity gospel,” which is essentially bizarro Calvinism. The world is divided up into the “saved” and the “damned” (a.k.a. “winners” and “losers”), but what separates them is not divine predestination, and it’s also not faith or good works. It’s just money. But money by itself is an empty heuristic, and the prosperity gospel mostly appeals to poor people. So it’s not about being rewarded for hard work or anything like that. It’s just about showing up and deciding that you’re going to be one of the “saved.” It is, again, exactly the same appeal as that of The Secret, and of Trump University.
In other words, “positive thinking” is an alternative means of support for the belief that you’re special just because of who you are. And for people with that belief, the fact that the world is simply too complex for any one person to understand is unacceptable. If understanding the world requires keeping an open mind and listening to lots of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, this necessarily compels the conclusion that white people, and men, and you, are not special.14 Each person simply has one perspective among many.
The psychological aspect of white supremacy is the belief that a mediocre white person deserves more than an accomplished black person, a.k.a. Abigail Fisher Syndrome. When Abigail Fisher doesn’t get into UT Austin because she’s a mediocre student, she doesn’t take advantage of the transfer program and resolve to work harder. That would be admitting that she wasn’t good enough; she doesn’t actually want to go to Austin, she wants to be thetype of person who gets in to Austin. That’s why she has to argue that she deserved it in the first place. She can’t just live her own life, she has to make a federal case out of it. Trump becoming president would prove that white male privilege trumps everything else, and that is what his supporters are voting for.
If white people really were superior, there would be no need for white supremacy. This has always been the central contradiction in oppressive discourse: it tries to portray the oppressed group as both hopelessly inferior and overwhelmingly dangerous at the same time. If black people are simply criminal thugs, how are they capable of destabilizing a well-designed society? If women are fundamentally unserious, then why do they have to be bullied out of public spaces? The truth is that oppressed groups really are a threat to polite society, for the precise reason that polite society sucks.
So when your John Oliver types try to argue that Trump is not actually a winner, but is in fact a loser, they are entirely missing the point. Trump is evidently on top of the world; he has won. So the only coherent response here is to argue that Trump has won at a bad game – but that game is American society itself. Again, regardless of how much of a fraud Trump is, he actually is a rich fuck. Our society has decided, implicitly, to value his contributions at an extremely high level. If this was a bad decision, then the aspects of our society that enabled it have to be destroyed. There is no other way to prevent the next Donald Trump from arising. Trumpism actually does represent the limitations of American politics, not because it is an “aberration” that has “broken” the system, but because it is the complete fulfillment of our current discursive structure. To counter it with “normalcy” is to ensure its survival. To respond to the specific immorality and incompetence of Trump himself by clinging to “American values” is to accept a state of permanent Trumpism. I mean, if Trump himself is the problem, then an honest, even-tempered, respectful candidate who advocated the same policies would be perfectly acceptable. Right? Actually, the inverse case is far more apropos: a candidate who was just as much of a ridiculous jackass but who actually advocated good policies would be someone we would be right to support, even though we would have to fight the New York Times in order to do it.
What the Trump campaign truly represents, then, is the retrenchment of mediocrity against the threat of greatness. This, finally, is the real danger, the worm gnawing at the roots of the human project. If mediocrity means accepting what we’ve already got as being “good enough,” then it is a natural fact that mediocrity rules. Once achieved, goals become crutches; once instantiated, vision becomes constraint. As soon as you settle, you’re dead. Which is why fighting for the absolute validity of any one standard is ultimately the same as fighting for nothing. If you win, you will accomplish only the destruction of your sole defense against the inexorable march of time, which is guaranteed to leave you bleached in the desert alongside Ozymandias.
This dynamic was well understood by mediocrity’s most implacable foe: Friedrich Nietzsche. First, because this is just completely amazing, here is Nietzsche’s commentary on our current situation:
“We ‘good Europeans’ – we, too, know hours when we permit ourselves some hearty fatherlandishness, a plop and relapse into old loves and narrownesses – I have just given a sample of that [ed: Nietzsche is referring to his own feelings about Richard Wagner] – hours of national agitations, patriotic palpitations, and various other sorts of archaizing sentimental inundations. More ponderous spirits than we are may require more time to get over what with us takes only hours and in a few hours has run its course: some require half a year, others half a life, depending on the speed and power of their digestion and metabolism. Indeed, I could imagine dull and sluggish races who would require half a century even in our rapidly moving Europe to overcome such atavistic attacks of fatherlandishness and soil addiction and to return to reason, meaning ‘good Europeanism.’
As I am digressing to this possibility, it so happens that I become an ear-witness of a conversation between two old ‘patriots’: apparently both were hard of hearing and therefore spoke that much louder.
‘He thinks and knows as much of philosophy as a peasant or a fraternity student,’ said one; ‘he is still innocent. But what does it matter today? This is the age of the masses: they grovel on their bellies before anything massive. In politicis, too. A statesman who piles up for them another tower of Babel, a monster of empire and power, they call ‘great’; what does it matter that we, more cautious and reserved, do not yet abandon the old faith that only a great thought can give a deed or cause greatness. Suppose a statesman put his people in a position requiring them to go in for ‘great politics’ from now on, though they were ill-disposed for that by nature and ill-prepared as well, so that they would find it necessary to sacrifice their old and secure virtues for the sake of a novel and dubious mediocrity – suppose a statesman actually condemned his people to ‘politicking’ although so far they had better things to do and think about, and deep down in their souls they had not got rid of a cautious disgust with the restlessness, emptiness, and noisy quarrelsomeness of peoples that really go in for politicking – suppose such a statesman goaded the slumbering passions and lusts of his people, turning their diffidence and delight in standing aside into a blot, their cosmopolitan and secret infinity into a serious wrong, devaluating their most cordial inclinations, inverting their conscience, making their spirit narrow, their taste ‘national’ – what! a statesman who did all this, for whom his people would have to atone for all future time, if they have any future, such a statesman should be great?’
‘Without a doubt!’ the other patriot replied vehemently; ‘otherwise he would not have been able to do it. Perhaps it was insane to want such a thing? But perhaps everything great was merely insane when it started.’
‘An abuse of words!’ his partner shouted back; ‘strong! Strong and insane! Not great!’
The old men had obviously become heated as they thus flung their truths into each other’s faces; but I, in my happiness and beyond, considered how soon one stronger will become master over the strong; also that for the spiritual flattening of a people there is a compensation, namely the deepening of another people.”
Returning to business, and sparing you the disquisition on how thoroughly Nietzsche has been misrepresented on this point, the relevant argument is as follows:
“In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war that they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing (for example, Epicurean or Christian) medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally attained unity, as a “sabbath of sabbaths,” to speak with the holy rhetorician Augustine who was himself such a human being.
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction, whose most beautiful expression is found in Alcibiades and Caesar (to whose company I should like to add that first European after my taste, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II), and among artists perhaps Leonardo da Vinci. They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes.”
The narrowness of a single set of unquestioned values, as seen most prominently in nationalism, is a source of power, but also a fatal restriction. It offers an easily-understood goal to aim for, at the cost of being completely unable to operate outside of the context of that one goal. When one gains the “historical sense” of other cultures and value systems, one comes to understand one’s own values as transient, contingent, and even accidental, and one is inflicted with doubt. It becomes impossible to advance once you start thinking that every step you take might be in the wrong direction. This is the threat of multiculturalism – it is what the ranters against “postmodern political correctness” are actually afraid of. Recall that the argument is often along the lines of “things are changing too fast” and “it’s impossible to keep up with all the new terminology” and “you can never know what the right thing to say is.” This is exactly what we’re talking about: people don’t know how to deal with clashing standards.
Naturally, then, there are two possible responses. One is simply to reject doubt – to build a wall against the influences of other cultures. This allows you to “go back” to advancing in the way you were before, but only in the sense of mere denial. You already know that your teleology is phantasmic, so all you’re really doing is going to sleep. The other option is to embrace danger, to harness the conflict within yourself and start moving, even in uncertainty, even knowing that your pursuit may soon reveal itself as quixotic. Indeed, one may even value this danger itself, accepting that the struggle to determine how to advance is part of what advancement itself actually is.
We are, of course, living in an “age of disintegration” with far more “mixing” going on than Nietzsche could ever have anticipated, and the primary response to this has been cowardice. There’s too much noise, too much tension, and all anybody wants is for it all to go away. We want things to “make sense” again. And while it actually is legitimately scary, this is still a better situation than any possible alternative, because it means that we have a chance. We are not obligated to retreat; we can accept the terms of the battle against ourselves, and we can fight. This is our opportunity to turn our gaze towards actual greatness.
The catch is that it doesn’t come lightly; in fact, everything is organized against it. The revolt of mediocrity is not just expected, it’s built in to the basic structure of how the world works. As Nietzsche points out, morality aside, Social Darwinism doesn’t actually happen. Greatness is not the natural result of an optimization process – any optimization process. It can’t be, for the very reasons we’ve just discussed. On the contrary, all roads lead to mediocrity:
“As for the famous ‘struggle for existence,’ so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering – and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence – and, indeed, it occurs – its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them – namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority – and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (‘Let it go!’ they think in German today; ‘the Reich must still remain to us.’). It will be noted that by ‘spirit’ I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).”
“Survival of the fittest” is a somewhat inaccurate term. “Fittest” connotes “strongest” – that is, “greatest” – but what it actually means is “best adapted,” which means it is a quality that is not just contingent on but entirely defined by its environment. Certainly, nothing can be said to be “great” which only applies to one tiny set of arbitrary conditions. In the context of evolution, anything more than what is required for survival and reproduction is a waste of energy. Hence, cavefish evolve to lose their sight – to become weaker and less capable, simply because such capabilities are not required of them. With no adaptive pressure, capabilities above and beyond what is immediately required never evolve – no animal ever becomes any better than it absolutely has to be. Naturally, this trend reaches its zenith in the human body, an absurd tangle of vulnerabilities that barely performs its one function of supporting a bloated mutant brain. In short, evolution does not tend towards greatness; it tends towards mediocrity.
Social evolution works in exactly the same way. From a functional perspective, the most successful people are, in fact, people like Trump: those who do exactly what is required to accumulate resources under the current set of rules, and who don’t waste their time with anything extraneous like imagination or taste or morality. The “starving artist” is a somewhat inaccurate stereotype – people who are genuinely good at something tend to be at least somewhat successful – but it remains the case that the people at the top are generally not the best, but the most broadly palatable – the people with the fewest complications and the simplest focus.
Nietzsche’s counterideal to the rising nationalism of his own time was the “Good European”: one with expansive values and broad allegiances, who undertook the difficult task of loving “the farthest” rather than settling for the easy comfort of merely loving their neighbors. Just so, our present task is to reject the simplistic, small-minded ideals of Americanism, understand ourselves as citizens of humanity, and act accordingly.
I mean, globalization is really a good thing, right? It’s kind of hard to keep this in mind under the current circumstances, but increased cultural exchange and productive efficiency really are beneficial. They make people’s lives better. That’s not where the problem is, and even if it was, the clock’s not going to turn back. The only way to go is forward. We have no other option than to make this work, and a return to an imaginary past – whether the blind conformity of the pretend ’50s or the blithe complacency of the pretend ’90s – is not going to work. We require a different future.
And just so no one gets any silly ideas, the Democrats are not capable of resolving this. They are also the problem. Supporting a candidate based on “competence” and “qualifications” is also active embrace of mediocrity and a retreat into the past – as is claiming that “America is already great.” Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the neoliberal consensus, the goal of which is precisely to establish a fully inclusive system of global exploitation. At this point, that may be the preferable alternative, but it’s still evil. And as the evil that’s actually going to happen, it demands our opposition. To defeat Trumpism via Clintonism is to win the battle and lose the war.
It is no accident that The Wall has become the synecdoche for this entire campaign. It is, of course, the perfect representation of Trump himself: as dull as it is senseless, impressive only in what an absolute waste of space and resources it is. But it is also the prefect representation of the ideology that informs his support. It is something understandable that doesn’t actually make sense. It is the simplest, easiest response to the new problems of a complicated world. It is something that looks big and impressive, but is in fact pathetically small-minded. It is a toddler’s idea of greatness. Look what I built, Mommy. Look how big it is. Aren’t I special? Did I do a good job, Daddy? I did it all by myself; you don’t have to bail me out this time. Are you proud of me? Do you love me now, Daddy?
The Democrats have exploited this metaphor in their amicable, self-serving way, promising instead to “build bridges.” But of course this is no solution; the point is precisely that all those bridges lead to the same place – while leaving the existing walls intact. Because The Wall is not actually something new that is going to be built “over there”; it is something that exists directly in front of each of us. There are walls going around us and through us; they divide our homes and criss-cross our streets; they direct our movements, curtail our futures, and overshadow our thoughts. The job of politics is to decide where to build walls, and the task of liberation is to advance the negative response to this question.
Which is why, despite everything, we’re actually not screwed. Quite the contrary: this is a fight we can never truly lose, because the existence of the struggle itself is already victory. Mediocrity rules, but desire burns. You can quell the voice of doubt in your head down to a whisper, but you can’t silence it. It’s still there, waiting for the still of night to rise up again, to get its claws back in you.
Ultimately, Trump is not the enemy. He is merely the shadow cast by our society, something that has to exist given the way things are right now. He really is just some guy. I’m pretty sure everyone realizes that it’s impossible to avoid picking a side at this point – not that it was ever possible before. But there are more than two sides to each story. It’s not enough to merely be opposed to the worst possible thing. You have to look underneath the speeches and the processions, feel the blood pulsing through the hidden veins of the world, identify the real fault lines, and strike. This is how to tear the walls down.
Not to mention that substituting personality for politics, complete with the culmination of soundbytifying the whole thing into a goofy nickname, is Trump’s exact strategy. Abyss/monsters/etc. ↩
Somebody please come up with a better way to do this. ↩
This is actually pretty funny: the anti-PC argument is that PC types are “relativists” for whom “anything goes,” while simultaneously being uncompromising tyrants who insist on one exacting standard of behavior. ↩
These alternatives are typically conflated via the absolutely meaningless umbrella term “diversity,” which is why we have to go through all of this. ↩
By the way, multiculturalism is not going to be the “end of history” or anything. There will still be a ways to go from there – or, rather, multiple different wayses to go. For one thing, we can question the idea of having standards at all. As Marx said, even true liberation will not be the end of history, but rather the end of “pre-history,” i.e. the beginning. ↩
This is what the term “white feminism” refers to in this context: inclusive but not multicultural feminism. ↩
And this is only a paradox for people who claim they’re opposing the “restrictiveness” of political correctness, because words actually do matter. Not in the Sapir-Whorfian sense that they control what we’re allowed to think, but in the Wittgensteinian sense that they represent collective agreement. ↩
Holy Hera I hate this post. What am I doing with my life. ↩
This is the fatal contradiction in egoism, by the way. If the self is all that matters, then no one can ever have any claims on anyone else, meaning that the self doesn’t matter. In order to argue that, for example, men’s opinions matter more than women’s, you need patriarchy to exist as an external structure that can be appealed to for judgment. Without anything external, you can’t make any claims at all. Egoism is a spook. ↩
Ossuary is an adventure game about Discordianism. Despite the underlying philosophy, this is a very straightforward approach, so it’s useful for determining whether this kind of thing actually works, at all.
Our first order of business is to understand what type of thing an “adventure game” is. That is, you walk around and you talk to people and you use things on other things and your progression is typically heavily story-based, but the question is: what are the underlying rules that define your interaction with the game space? To get an idea of what we’re talking about here, consider a typical combat-based RPG. You have an attack stat, and the monster has a defense stat and an HP value, and based on those things there’s an equation that determines what’s going to happen when you execute a particular attack. Or, in an action game, there’s maybe a physics engine or something (which is also just an equation) that determines what’s going to happen when a particular set of objects is in a particular configuration. So what’s notable about adventure games is that they lack any framework of this type, and what they have instead is nothing. Rather than being able to calculate the right answer, you just have to guess it.
The mechanics of other types of video games are like physical laws: they can’t (in theory) be broken, but you also don’t necessarily know what they are. You can be mistaken about them, and they may not accord with whatever conceptual frameworks you employ to understand them, but they’re there anyway. In an adventure game, there are no such laws, which means there are only conceptual frameworks. As you’re playing, you form the idea that, for example, you need a key to open a locked door, but there’s nothing that requires that to be the case. In a Metroid game, a green door can always be opened with a Super Missile; there may be an additional route around it, but that rule is always there. In an adventure game, there is no “always.” You might find a key for the door that breaks off when you try to use it, and instead have to talk a nearby guard into opening the door for you, even if neither of those things ever happens anywhere else in the game.
What’s important to understand here is that, while any type of gameplay can be reductively understood as a matter of “guessing” the right answer, adventure games are still different. Returning to our RPG example, you’re also selecting from a number of options, one (or more) of which is the “right answer,” but the underlying framework tells you something about what’s going to happen when you choose each option. When you have an attack that deals 50 damage and you use it on an enemy with 45 HP left, you know in advance that you’re going to kill it. Furthermore, those variables can change: the enemy might have a defensive property such that it only takes half damage and survives, and you might then have a “piercing” attack that ignores defense, so you can use that and kill it anyway. Learning about these rules as you play the game enables you to make informed decisions, and to take advantage of the available variables in order to accomplish your in-game goals.
What distinguishes an adventure game is the complete lack of any of these sorts of variables. Using the blue key on the blue door will open it and allow you access to the next area, and that’s it. That is absolutely everything there is to be said about the gameplay from a mechanical perspective. There’s no rule you can follow to predict what’s going to happen in advance, and there are no confounding variables that can change that result. In short, an adventure game is a game with no mechanics.
By itself, this sounds pretty bad, as though the gameplay were merely a matter of making random guesses until one of them works and allows you to watch the next cutscene – and, indeed, in the worst adventure games, this is exactly what happens. So adventure games are kind of the mechanical equivalent of free verse: there’s nothing that necessarily holds them together, so you have to come up with a way of doing it yourself. What’s needed is a way of making things make sense; in other words, the gameplay in an adventure game is aesthetic rather than mechanical.
A simple example of how this can work occurs in the game Savoir-Faire. The player character has the innate magical ability to link two objects together, such that actions taken upon one object affect the other. The first puzzle you encounter is a locked door, which can be opened by “linking” it to a teapot; “opening” the teapot then correspondingly “opens” the door. Knowing that you can do this type of thing reliably means you’re not just fumbling around in the dark when it comes to puzzles. You’re still “guessing,” in a broad sense, but you have something to go on – you have a reason to expect certain potential solutions to work. A more popular example is the Ace Attorney series, where your actions have a very specifically defined context: you’re trying to select a piece of evidence that refutes a particular argument. Because you always know what type of thing you’re trying to accomplish, you have a basis from which to make intelligent choices. And this is why the concept of “puzzles” is appropriately associated with adventure games: rather than simply having a list of options to try, there’s something you have to actually figure out.
There is, of course, a next step, which is to make the puzzles actually mean something. Guessing what door-opening technique the author was thinking of isn’t any more interesting than guessing what number they were thinking of. And what’s significant about Ossuary is that it actually gets really close to doing this. It has a coherent theme that provides an aesthetic foundation for its puzzles.
The game is set in an unexplained foreboding netherworld, with the aesthetics set to maximize the forebodingness. Raw blackness is offset only by the tiny, misshapen figures of what barely count as people. The crunch of bones underwrites every step you take, everywhere in the entire game, while spooky dirge noises reverberate continuously in the background. It is very clear that the place that you are in is a bad place.
The gameplay uses the traditional adventure game approach of “inventory” items that you “use” on things, but it’s both radically simplified and semantically amplified. There are only seven “items,” which aren’t actually items at all: they’re the seven Christian sins. You gain the use of each sin by being “infected” with it, thereby becoming able to infect others with it. Every puzzle is solved by choosing the sin that will motivate someone to do what you need them to do.
The conceit, then, is that sins are good things. The descriptions in the “inventory” are all framed positively, inverting the usual valence: rather than sins being threats against purity, here they are the only spark of life in a world of darkness. The aesthetic thread that ties the puzzles together is this idea of positive corruption. Your goal is to introduce meaningful disorder into a world of pernicious order.
The basic idea of Discordianism, if there can be said to be such a thing, is that society is currently constructed along an order/disorder axis, with a preference for order. This points towards the false goal of an eternally true “perfect order” that will solve all problems and account for all things. Hence, we end up pursuing order even when it’s harmful. The proposed redress is not to make the same mistake in pursuing pure chaos, but to sometimes pursue order and sometimes pursue disorder as appropriate.
The world of Ossuary is, like ours, a world toiling under what Discordians refer to as the Curse of Greyface.
“In the year 1166 B.C., a malcontented hunchbrain by the name of Greyface, got it into his head that the universe was as humorless as he, and he began to teach that play was sinful because it contradicted the ways of Serious Order. ‘Look at all the order around you,’ he said. And from that, he deluded honest men to believe that reality was a straightjacket affair and not the happy romance as men had known it.
It is not presently understood why men were so gullible at that particular time, for absolutely no one thought to observe all the disorder around them and conclude just the opposite. But anyway, Greyface and his followers took the game of playing at life more seriously than they took life itself and were known even to destroy other living beings whose ways of life differed from their own.
The unfortunate result of this is that mankind has since been suffering from a psychological and spiritual imbalance. Imbalance causes frustration, and frustration causes fear. And fear makes for a bad trip. Man has been on a bad trip for a long time now.
It is called THE CURSE OF GREYFACE.”
Ossuary is an ironic portrayal of this situation. It’s all imposing black backgrounds and haunting sound effects. It even has slowly-fading-in Famous Quotes displayed in isolation, which is like the calling card for pretentious over-seriousness. In fact, in the last ending, the quote displayed is “The human race will begin solving its problems on the day that it ceases taking itself so seriously” – presented in the most serious manner possible.
So, I mean, that’s the joke, right? It’s a somber and serious explication of why it’s bad to be somber and serious. Hence, all of the endings are bad endings. There are five possible goals, each of which allows someone to take over the netherworld according to some principle of how things ought to be ordered. This even applies to the goal of exposing the lies of the other potential rulers, because that just gives power to the one claiming the authority of the truth.
But it’s not just that Ossuaryportrays this situation, it’s that the entire logic of the game accords to this framework. As an adventure game, all it involves is slotting the right answers into the right questions. It’s perfectly ordered: use A on B so you can get C, use C to get to D, and then you’re done. The gameplay, as gameplay, is rigid and boring in the way that adventure games generally are. You just walk around and click on things until the puzzles get solved, and you have to constantly track back and forth to get the necessary items from one place and use them in a different place. In terms of game mechanics, it’s a fully ordered system illustrating why fully ordered systems are bad. So, in fact, the player’s introduction of disorder is merely aesthetic, because it is executed in the most orderly way possible.
So, like, that’s still kind of the joke, it’s an expression of the fundamental emptiness of order, but we’re getting into dangerous territory here, don’t you think? The thing about satire is that it’s actually not a joke; it takes its subject more seriously than the subject takes itself. The corresponding danger is reification: if Ossuary works for you as a game, that necessarily means that you’re totally coolwith expressing things through fully ordered systems.
To understand the problem, consider the Principia Discordia itself, as a document. It is, of course, an explanation of Discordianism, which makes it an orderly work. It even contains some substantive philosophical statements and political arguments. The reason is doesn’t suffer from the same problem that Ossuary does is that it’s presented in the most haphazard manner possible. It jumps between different weird sort-of-parables while making up a bunch of goofball terminology and fake history, accentuated by crude sketches and bad jokes. And throughout it all, it presents itself as a religion, injecting unseriousness into what is normally the most serious of affairs. The concise way to put this is that it’s fun1. This isn’t done out of defensiveness; it’s an active illustration of the document’s own principles. It embodies the upsurge of disorder into order.
Ossuary lacks this upsurge; it offers only one extremely narrow pathway of progression; it’s all hodge and no podge. In fact, there is a sort of alternate hidden goal in the game other than empowering the rulers, and it’s not an ending, which sets it apart from the rest of the game’s framework. It allows you to remove the Curse of Greyface, returning light to the netherworld and replacing the spooky dirge noises with happy glow noises. But you’ll notice that this is the most boring and conventional way to express this state of affairs, “bringing light to the darkness” or what the fuck ever, and, indeed, the way you achieve this goal is even more arbitrary and dull than the rest of the game. You have to solve a couple of nondescript click-on-things-in-the-right-order puzzles, so you don’t even get to talk to people or anything; you’re just inputting the correct answer into the system.
So, is the point that this sort of thing is impossible to express through the necessarily hyperconstrained format of the adventure game? It is the opposite: it is precisely because an adventure game does not have an underlying set of mechanics that it is the perfect vehicle for illustrating the simultaneous use of multiple, overlapping frameworks.
This is a specific point; we’re not just talking about “chaos” in general here. Like, an action game can be “chaotic” in the sense that there’s a bunch of stuff going on and it’s hard to make sense of it all, but that’s not very interesting in this context. Remember, for Discordians, valorizing disorder is just as much of a straitjacket as valorizing order. What’s required is dynamism, and just as the Principia Discordia incorporates this understanding into its text, Discordianism incorporates it into its philosophy. As opposed to most conventional religions, which have a bunch of different sects that each think they are “correct” in opposition to the others, Discordianism has infinitely many contradictory sects which are all simultaneously correct.
To get technical, what Discordianism promotes is the ability to juggle conceptual frameworks. That is, there’s “reality,” which is the actual collection of stuff that exists, and then there are the ideas that we have about reality, which are frameworks that we use to understand it. Any given framework implies a set of constraints, which means it illuminates some things while obscuring others. Thus, adherence to a single framework is necessarily limiting; the ability to switch between frameworks as required allows one to perceive more of reality than anyone can under a single framework.
So if we’re talking about gameplay, what we ought to be talking about is a game with multiple rulesets that the player must switch between of their own volition. Again, you might think that adventure games, without mechanics, cannot accomplish this, but in fact they are optimally suited for it. Remember what we were discussing before about adventure games being held together with aesthetics rather than mechanics? In any other genre you would have to actually implement multiple different systems, which, like, go for it, but also good luck. But in an adventure game, you can get right down to business: you can simply portray the thing you want to portray. The frameworks won’t “technically” be implemented in the game, but they will end up where they actually matter: in the player’s mind.
The idea of productive corruption via sin that Ossuary advances is just one aesthetic approach. Indeed, Ossuary has five goals that you can pursue all at once, but you pursue them all in the same way. This problem is most obvious when it comes to the lie-exposing goal: this ought to be a different type of thing than the other goals, but it’s actually just the same walk-around-and-trigger-flags rail-ride. Only the negative half of the argument against excessive order is made; the ability of games to require behavior of the player provides the opportunity to force them to do the thing that you are claiming is important for them to be able to do. Miring the player in only one system undercuts the argument.
More important than any one conceptual system is an understanding of what a conceptual system is and what it does, and more important than perfecting any one set of game mechanics is understanding what those mechanics are for in the first place. Mastery has already been achieved, and it hasn’t helped. We need better art and worse games. We need a little chaos.
I’m aware that I am no fun, so don’t bother pointing that out. I’m not claiming to be the Pope of Discordianism here. ↩