We all had a good laugh when Apple decided that the future of technology was making you unlock your phone by wiggling it in front of your face, every time you need to use it, in public. But the thing about extremely stupid ideas is that they have real underlying causes, which is why the funniest things are often simultaneously the most serious. This is no exception, and the real issue here is particularly not pretty.
We should start by admitting an oft-ignored truth, which is that passwords are good. They’re the correct form of security at the level of the individual user, and the reason for this is that they are a proper technical implementation of consent. The problem is that, when a system gets a request to provide access to an account, it has no idea why or from where the request is coming in; it just has the request itself. So the requirement is that access is provided if and only if the person associated with the account wants it to be provided. The way you implement this is by establishing an unambiguous communication signal. This works just like a safe word in a BDSM scene: you take a signal that would normally never occur and assign a fixed meaning to it, so that when it does occur, you know exactly what it means. That’s what a password is, and that’s why it works. “Security questions,” on the other hand, are precisely how passwords don’t work, because anything personally associated with you is not a low frequency signal. Anyone who knows that information can just send it in, so it doesn’t accord with user consent. All those celebrities who got hacked were actually compromised through their security questions, because of course they were, because personal information about celebrities is publicly available. They would have been perfectly fine had their email systems simply relied on generic passwords.
Furthermore, none of the alleged problems with passwords are real problems. The reason for all the stupid alternate-character requirements on passwords is supposedly that they increase complexity, but this doesn’t actually matter. The only thing that matters is that the signal is low frequency, and the problem with a password like “password123” isn’t that it lacks some particular combination of magic characters,1 but is simply that it’s high frequency. But anything that wouldn’t be within a random person’s top 100 guesses is, for practical purposes, zero frequency, so a password like “kittensarecute” or “theboysarebackintown” is essentially 100% secure. There’s no actual reason to complicate it any further, and in fact several reasons not to, because forgetting your password or having to write it down are real security threats.
Literally the only problem with simple passwords like this is that they can be hacked; that is, a computer program can derive them from a fixed pattern. If your password is a combination of dictionary words, then a “dictionary attack” can derive it from all the possible combinations of all the words in the dictionary in a relatively short amount of time, because that’s actually not all that much data. The frequency isn’t low enough. But the thing about this is that it’s portrayed as an end-user problem when it isn’t one at all; it’s a server problem. A user can’t actually guess how their password is going to be hacked; the attacker might use a dictionary attack, or they might pick a different pattern that happens to match the one you used in an attempt to evade a dictionary attack. The real way to prevent this is for the server to disallow it – the server shouldn’t allow a frequency of attempts high enough to convert a low-frequency signal into a high-frequency one. Preventing this isn’t the user’s job, because they can’t actually do anything about it. The server can.
And of course no one is ever actually going to hack your password. You don’t matter enough for anyone to care. What actually happens, as one hears about constantly in the news, is that a company’s server gets breached and all the passwords on it are compromised from the back end. When this happens, the strength and secrecy of your password are completely irrelevant, because the attacker already has your credentials, no matter what form they’re in. Again, this is not a problem with passwords. The passwords are doing their job; it’s the server that’s failing.
So the thing about biometrics is that they’re worse than passwords, because they don’t implement consent. At best, they implement identity, but that’s not what you want. If the police arrest you and want to snoop through your phone without a warrant, they have your identity, so if your phone is secured through biometrics, they have access to it without your consent. But they don’t have your password unless you give it to them. Similarly, the ability of passwords to be changed when needed is a strength. It’s part of the implementation of consent: if the situation changes such that the previously agreed-upon term no longer communicates the thing its supposed to communicate, you have to be able to change it. In BDSM terms, if your safe word is “lizard,” but then you want to do a scene about, y’know, lizard people or something, then the word isn’t going to convey the right thing anymore, so you have to come up with a new one. This is the same thing that happens in a data breach: because someone else knows your password, it no longer communicates consent – but precisely because you can change it, it can continue to perform its proper function. Whereas if someone steals your biometric data, you’re fucked forever. So when Apple touts the success rate or whatever of their face-scanning thing, they’ve completely missed the point. It doesn’t matter how accurate it is, because it implements the wrong thing.2
So, given all of this, why would a major company expend the amount of resources required to implement biometrics? We’ve already seen the answers. First, passwords look bad from the end-user perspective, because they feel insecure – unless you’re forced to use a random jumble of characters, in which case they feel obnoxious. And in either case you have to manage multiple passwords, which can be genuinely difficult. Biometrics, by contrast, feel secure, even though they’re not, and they’re very easy to use. They also feel “future-y,” allowing companies to sell them like some big new fancy innovation, when they’re actually a step backwards. In short, they’re pretty on the outside. At the risk of putting too fine a point on it, Apple is invested in the conceptualization of technology as magic.
More than that, though, biometrics demonstrate a focus on the appearance of security at the expense of its actuality – that is, they’re security theater. What all those data breaches in the news indicate is that, for all the ridiculous security paraphernalia that gets foisted on us, companies don’t actually bother much with security on their end. They don’t want to spend the money, so they make you do it, and because you can’t do it, because you don’t actually have the necessary means, the result is actual insecurity. Thus, the appearance of security, mediated by opaque technology that most people don’t understand, provides these companies with cover for their own incompetence. The only function being performed here by “technology” is distraction.3
What this means, then, is that technology isn’t technology. That is, the things that we talk about when we talk about “tech” aren’t actually about tech. Indeed, “tech companies” aren’t even tech companies4. Google and Facebook make their money through advertising; they’re ad companies. The fact that they use new types of software to sell their ads is only relevant to their business model in that provides a shimmery sci-fi veneer to disguise their true, hideous forms. Amazon is not actually a website; it’s a big-box retailer in exactly the same vein as Target and Wal-Mart. A lot of people thought it was “ironic” when Amazon stated opening physical stores, but that’s only the case if you assume that Amazon has some kind of ideological commitment to online ordering. What Amazon has an ideological commitment to is capturing market share, and they’re going to keep doing that using whatever technological means are available to them. Driving physical retailers out of business and then filling the vacuum with their own physical stores is precisely in line with how Amazon operates – it’s what you should expect them to do, if you actually understand what type of thing they are. Uber is only an “app” in the sense that that mediates their actual business model, which is increasing the profits of taxi services by evading regulations and passing costs on the the drivers (Uber’s business model doesn’t account for the significant maintenance costs incurred by constantly operating a vehicle, because those costs are borne by the drivers, who aren’t Uber’s employees. But Uber still takes the same cut of the profits regardless.) Apple is the closest, since they actually develop new technology, but even then they mostly make money by selling hardware (after having it manufactured as cheaply as possible), meaning they’re really just in the old-fashioned business of commodity production.
So if you try to understand these companies in terms of “tech,” you’re going to get everything wrong. There isn’t a design reason why Apple makes the choices it does; there’s a business reason. Nobody actually wanted an iPhone without a headphone port, but Apple relies on their sleek, minimalist imagery to move products, so they had to make the phone slimmer, even if it meant removing useful functionality. And of course no one is ever going to be interested in a solid-glass phone that shatters into a million pieces when you sneeze at it, but Apple had to come up with something that looked impressive to appease the investors and the media drones, so that’s what we got.
But this isn’t even limited to just these “new” companies; it’s the general dynamic by which technology relates to economics. There’s been a recent countertrend of elites pointing out that, actually, modern society is pretty great from a historical perspective, but they’re missing the point that this is despite our system of social organization, not because of it. That is, barring extreme disasters along the lines of the bubonic plague or the thing that we’re currently running headlong into, it would be incomprehensibly bizarre for the general standard of living not to increase over time. As long as humans are engaged in any productive activity at all, things are going to continuously get better, because things are being produced. The fact that we’re not seeing this – that real wages have been stagnant for decades and people are more stressed and have less leisure time then ever – indicates that we are in the midst of precisely such a disaster. Our current economic system is a world-historical catastrophe on par with the Black Death.
Do I even need to explicitly point out that this is why global warming is happening? It isn’t because of technology, it’s because rich fucks have decided they’d rather destroy the world for a short-term profit than be slightly less rich. It’s somewhat unfortunate that the physics are such that everyone is going to die, but the decision itself was made a long time ago. If it wasn’t greenhouse gasses, it would be something else. There’s always nuclear war or mass starvation or what have you. The fact of the matter is that we’ve chosen a social configuration that doesn’t support human life. That’s the whole story.
To address this technically, it’s certainly true that the age of capitalism has seen a vast increase in worldwide standards of living, but it’s not capitalism that caused that. It’s actually the opposite: trade and industrialization created the conditions for capitalism to become possible in the first place. Capitalism is not the cause of industrialization or globalization, it’s the response to these things. It is the determination of how the results of these things will be applied, and what actually happens it that it ensures that the gains will always be pointed in the wrong direction. The fact of globalization has nothing to do with any of the problems attributed to it; the problems reside entirely in how globalization is happening: who’s managing it, what their priorities are, and where the results are going. Like, it’s really amazing to consider how much potential productivity is being wasted right now. All the people employed in advertising, or in building yachts, or in think tanks, or on corporate advisory boards, or in failed attempts at “regime change,” or designing new gadgets that are less functional then the old ones, or all those dumbass “internet-connected” kitchen appliances, all of that, all of the time and energy and resources being spent on all of that stuff and far more, is all pure waste. Imagine the kind of society we could have if all of that potential were actually being put to productive use.
And it’s deeply hilarious how committed everyone is to misunderstanding this as thoroughly as possible. Like, the actual word we have for someone who negatively fetishizes technology is “Luddite,” but the Luddites were precisely people who cared about the practical results of technology – they cared about the fact that their livelihoods were being destroyed. They attacked machines because those machines were killing them. Every clueless takemonger inveighing about how globalization is leaving people behind or social media is dividing us or smartphones are alienating us is completely failing to grasp the basic point that the Luddites instinctively understood. The results of technological developments are not properties of the technology itself; they arise from political choices. The technology is simply the means by which those choices are implemented. In just the same way, attacking technology is not merely a symptom of incomprehension or phobia or lifestyle. It is also a political choice.
An engine doesn’t tell you where to go or how to travel. It just generates kinetic energy. It can take you past the horizon, but if you instead point it into a ditch, it will be equally happy to drive you straight into the dirt. There’s nothing counterintuitive about that; the function of technology is no great mystery. It just obeys the rules – not only the physical ones, but the social ones as well. All of the problems that people attribute to technology (excepting things like software glitches that are actual implementation failures) are actually problems with the rules. The great lesson of the age of technology is that technology doesn’t matter; as long as society continues on in its present configuration, everything will continue to get worse.
The way you can tell that complexity requirements are bullshit is that they’re all different. There are plenty of nerds available to run the numbers on this, so if there really were a particular combination of requirements that resulted in “high security,” it would have been figured out by now and the same solution would have been implemented everywhere. But because the actual solution is contextual – that is, it’s the thing that no one else is guessing, which also means it’s unstable – you can’t implement it as a fixed list of requirements. The reason it feels like each website’s requirements are just some random ideas that some intern thought sounded “secure” enough is because that’s actually what they are. ↩
I mean, face-scanning can’t actually work the way they say it does, because of identical twins. If the scan can distinguish between identical twins, that means it’s using contextual cues such as hair and expression, which means there are cases when these things would cause it to fail for an individual user, and if it can’t distinguish between identical twins (or doppelgangers), then that’s also a failure. I’d also be curious to know how much work the engineers put into controlling for makeup, because that’s a pretty common and major issue, and I’m guessing the answer is not much. ↩
The real situation is significantly more dire than this. It isn’t just that Equifax, for example, sucks at security, it’s that Equifax should not exist in the first place. Taking the John Oliver Strategy and making fun of Equifax for being a bunch of dummies completely misses what’s really going on here. ↩
I’m not giving up my “tech assholes” tag though, it’s too perfect. ↩
The first thing to consider is why a person would do such a thing in the first place, which is of course to cosplay as a cowboy. We’ve seen the same sort of thing with George W. Bush “clearing brush” or Donald Trump putting on a coal mining helmet. The political significance of these stunts is that they evoke a socially-understood image of rugged, individualist masculinity, the evocation of which acts as an argument for a particular value system. The thing is, though, if these people really did embody their stated values, there would be no need for stunts. In fact, if there existed anyone who embodied these types of values, that person would instead have risen to become the relevant candidate. The reason this never happens is that there exists no such person, which is because the set of values is question isn’t real. It can’t actually be instantiated, which is why it can’t be rationally argued for, which is why it can only exist through theatrification.
So it’s a form of lying, obviously, it’s presenting the candidate as someone they’re not, but it’s more than that. It’s mythologization as support for an incoherent system of values. The images of things like the “cowboy” and the “wild West” are forged copies of an original that never existed in the first place (one of those postmodern sociology nerds probably has a term for this, but I don’t care enough to look it up). Moore’s failure to actually ride his horse demonstrates this quite concisely. Horseback riding is a real skill, and horsemanship has a real history and real functions. Furthermore, cowboys were real people, and there really was a period of Western expansion and pioneering. But the image of the cowboy and the horse has no connection to any of this history. It merely appeals to people’s unexamined instincts in favor of positive-valence concepts like “independence” and “manliness” and “nature.” The thing is, you can make up a concept for anything, but reality is going to stay the same underneath it. The only way concepts are justified is through a connection to that underlying reality that helps people grasp it, like reins attached to a horse. When there is no such connection, evocation of the concept results only in noise, and attempts to act on it result in mere flailing, like an old man barely balancing on top of a presumably very annoyed horse.
Of course, since incoherent values by definition cannot exist, what actually happens when these people get elected is that they revert to their true values. Republicans’ recent attempts at legislation bear this out. The first thing they tried to do was “repeal Obamacare,” which was one of the false images they used to get elected. Since Obamacare is a regulations tweak and not actually its own distinct structure, there’s no such thing as “repealing” it (because the policy has already changed the landscape of American healthcare, changing it back to what it was before would not in fact revert things to the same situation.) All you can do is change the regulations to something else, which is what the actual bill ended up being. But no one actually wants that; free-market zealots just want to slash spending on poor people, and everyone else wants a real healthcare system. The fact that Republicans almost passed a nonsense bill anyway shows how deeply they’re trapped in their own image. When that failed, they moved on to their real priority of just giving money to rich people, which is not something that anyone voted for. Here, again, the constructed image of “resistance to big government” and “job creation” masks a real material policy of direct upward wealth transfer. And it’s not just that the image disguises the real policy, but that, without the image, the policy could never have existed in the first place. The present instantiation of the Republican Party only exists as a vector for this image of “fiscal responsibility” and “traditional values,” and the desires that constitute the source of that image are the real underlying problem.
Democrats have exactly the same problem, only their false image is one of “rational administration” and a “civic religion.” If recent history has clarified anything at all, it is that the actions of elites have nothing to do with expertise or responsibility and everything to do with their own class-driven ideology. Indeed, there’s no such thing as rationality in general; you have to make the decision as to what you actually want before rationality can help you get there. So again, this is a incoherent set of values, and what actually happens is, again, a reversion to the underlying dynamics. Privatization, imperialism, austerity, and wealth concentration all get framed as “smart solutions” when in fact they are nothing more than the blunt advancement of specific interests.
In order to prove that this is actually the most serious issue, I have to demonstrate that it’s global warming in disguise, which it is. Capitalism justifies itself on the basis of the imagery of prosperity and growth. What it actually is, specifically, is a schema for distributing material resources. The resources themselves, including the technologies used to take advantage of them, are just things, we can make different decisions and they’ll keep existing. So when a particular material circumstance comes up, such as the fact that continued use of our primary energy source will destroy the environment, we need to be able to adapt to that on a material basis. But the imagery of capitalism doesn’t allow for this sort of decision-making; quite the contrary, it insists that the operation of capital is necessarily correct under all material conditions. In fact, it doesn’t even allow for the possibility of anything other than automatic capitalist dynamics having any effect on the world; thus, anyone who believes this is incapable of penetrating through to reality (this one I actually know, it’s what Marxists call “mystification”). So the response to global warming, even among right-minded liberals, is to invoke the imagery of “responsiblity” and “sustainability” without any reference to the actual material changes necessary to make those words mean something.
But remember, just “doing the math” is itself a false image, because the math follows from whatever your starting axioms were. You have to have your ideas in order before anything you do is going to make any sense. Otherwise you’ll end up voting for a narcissistic billionaire out of concern for the working class, or voting for an elitist powermonger out of concern for social justice. So, in a rare and shocking turn of events, that pro-horse Twitter pile-on is actually the ideologically correct course of action. It’s isn’t enough to ignore the image in favor of the “real issues,” because as long as you try to do that, the image retains its mystique. (Also, you can only argue in terms of images anyway, because language is an image.) It usually seems like the easiest thing to do in an argument is to accept your opponent’s terms and simply show where they’re mistaken. For example, if the Republicans are trying to “reform taxes” in order to “fix the defect,” and their tax plan that adds a ton of money to the defect and doesn’t actually simplify anything, then you can just point that out. But the reason this is the easiest argument is because it’s the least effective. As long as you maintain a false image, the argument can end up going in any direction, because it isn’t based on anything. You can lose because one of the words you picked makes a particular 4.7-second clip of your speech sound bad, and someone else can win by insisting that ignoring sexual abuse is the best way to protect women.
People sometimes say that humans are gods trapped in the bodies of apes, but it’s actually the opposite: we’re real physical beings bound in the invisible straitjacket of imagery. Representation is the only weapon we have, so correct representation is our only means of adherence to the truth. Ignoring that fact in favor of “facts” is its own form of false imagery. Reason is not self-evident, and the only way to manifest changes in the world is to both explore the territory and chart it out using a system and a legend that makes the map usable by other people. You have to learn how to ride a horse.
Ponies are apparently the major political issue of the current era. Some people think everyone should get a pony, others think that all ponies should be distributed exclusively to factory owners for the purpose of making glue, and still others think that ponies are nice in theory, but nobody should actually get to have a pony, because that would just be irresponsible. It’s all very contentious.
The first thing that’s strange here is that the meat of the pony is actually just the standard liberal-democratic agenda: healthcare, education, stimulus spending, and the rest of the welfare state. This is the normal stuff that liberals are supposed to be in favor of, so portraying it as magic beans is somewhat suspicious. The “free college” thing is an especially odd sticking point. We are constantly being told by mainstream politicians that education is the only viable path to the future and that anyone who doesn’t retrain themselves to meet the demands of an increasingly automated economy is going to get flattened by the steamroller of progress. But when people respond by making the completely obvious follow-up demand that education and retraining actually be accessible, they’re suddenly accused of pie-in-the-sky unicornism. The demand here isn’t for “ponies” at all; the demand is simply for oatmeal. And, at the risk of beating a dead horse, this demand is being made in a world where some people own multiple mansions with private jets to fly between them at will, while others are being evicted from roach motels and literally starving to death. If this is what we’re talking about when we talk about ponies, it’s long past time for rich fucks to pony up.
But we shouldn’t get complacent just because some people are being completely disingenuous. This is one gift horse that we really do need to look in the mouth. The facts of the matter are that America is a very rich country, and that it contains about 5% of the world’s population. It’s straightforwardly incoherent to rail against the 1% in the name of a guaranteed middle-class existence for all Americans, because middle-class America is the 1% of the global economy. I’m not saying that you’re only allowed to care about the worst things. Anything that’s bad merits opposition and anything that’s wrong merits righting. Given that we can’t transform the economy overnight, there’s nothing particularly immoral about enjoying a reasonable standard of living in America.
And it’s really bizarre and honestly very upsetting that we can’t actually talk about this. Everything is still being framed in terms of what’s good for “the economy” rather than what actually makes people’s lives better. The recent increased focus on inequality has caused a lot of people to start making the argument that inequality is bad for the economy, that it’s inefficient and decreases overall productivity. I’m sure this is true, but opposing inequality on this basis is an extremely terrible argument. When you do this, you’re completely conceding the only part of the argument that matters: the assumption that overall economic growth is the only acceptable value, and that every policy has to be justified on this basis. The omnipresence of this argument is not mysterious: it’s like that because it’s what rich fucks want. Given that rich fucks are already on top of the economy, the only thing that can further benefit them is accelerated growth. There’s only so much money you can steal from poor people, and most of it is already being stolen. So as long as the discourse remains constrained by this framework, not only ponies and oatmeal but even hay and salt licks are going to remain entirely out of our reach. The best we’re going to get is gristle.
Once we decide to take this seriously, though, it becomes incumbent upon us to ensure that we’re betting on the right horse. The thing is, America’s world-historical prosperity is not a coincidence. There is a specific material reason that America possesses enough wealth to provide everything for all of its citizens, and that reason is called imperialism. The whole “two cars in every garage” thing is an ideal of very recent vintage: it’s a direct consequence of America’s global dominance following the devastation of the second World War. America has more resources than everyone else because America takes them from the rest of the world, by force.1 So while it might seem justified to simply make the internal claim that America’s resources should be distributed more evenly, that claim rests upon the availability of those resources in the first place. In order to support such an arrangement, you’re implicitly required to support the conditions that make it possible. This is why liberals are imperialists.
So, in the final analysis, it is indeed the case that ponies are the ill-considered playthings of spoiled rich kids. In order to create a world that genuinely works for everybody, we have to focus on the basics. It is properly within the realm of human rights to insist that everyone should have a comfortable place to live and access to food and healthcare and maybe even internet-capable computers, but 70” TVs and new smartphones every year and overnight-shipped meal kits are things that we can only afford by offloading their real costs onto someone else. Like, the whole thing about the “information economy” or the “service economy” or whatever we’re calling it now is that it assumes that the resource extraction and manufacturing are being done elsewhere. Someone has to actually build the automated service kiosks, you know. So if we have that type of economy, what we have is precisely a global 1%: we have shit countries doing the shit work and doughy Americans yelling at their robot butlers.
At the same time, though, people also shouldn’t be obligated to constantly hustle in order to scrape together enough paychecks to survive, or spend eight years bullshitting for the sake of an official certification entitling them to an entry-level office job, or maintain an impeccably professional social media profile to prove right-thinking. Most of the “privileges” of our first-world society are actually shit deals. This is the truly pathetic thing about liberals: the unrealistic utopia they’re trying to sell us isn’t even any good. It’s a lame horse. So we can not only fulfill our moral obligations by evening things out on a global scale, but also provide a preferable alternative to the sad future of austerity and apps by making an actual good deal: dignified living in exchange for civil responsibility. This is the real positive argument that we have at our disposal, and making it effectively requires us to dispense with fantasy and describe the world as it really can exist, and how we really can get there though a long, determined march over the dead bodies of billionaires. Rather than a pony, then, what we need is something more like a pack-bearing mule. It won’t be any of the obvious choices on display; it’ll be a hybrid creature, something that we wouldn’t have expected to exist at all. I’ll be slow, and it won’t be pretty, but that’s okay, because it won’t be for show. For the first time in human history, it will be something that works.
As always, this brings us to the real problem, which is, as always, global warming. American-style outsized resource utilization is not just unfair, it’s literally destroying the world. This is also not a coincidence. The thing about fossil fuels is that they provide an immense amount of energy in a very small and effective package. Their existence is a great boon for humanity: everything about our modern lifestyles relies on the unprecedented amount of energy generation that they afford us. The problem is that, due to the aforementioned social arrangements, this boon has been largely squandered. We’ve used it to drive an unhealthy amount of growth solely for the sake of rich fucks’ desires for ego gratification and escapism. A responsible long-term plan would have used this energy to develop a global infrastructure for keeping everyone fed and healthy and then worked on converting that infrastructure into a more2 sustainable form. This is the kind of bootstrapping that actually works. If we had ever tried to do that, we’d already be done. Again, that’s what’s so frustrating and sad and insane about this whole arrangement. There never should have been a problem in the first place, but we went to the maximum amount of effort in order to create one, and we did it for no reason. We weren’t outmatched or conned; we didn’t make mistakes or fail to figure anything out. The reason the planet is burning is simply that we’ve shoved it into an oven.
As mentioned, the focus right now is on finding “solutions” to “problems” within the existing liberal-capitalist framework, and global warming is the strongest and most important example of why this won’t work. I’ll do you a favor and spare you the full rehashing, but the basic problem is that, while increasing the use of renewables is nice, what we’re ultimately going to have to do is stop using fossil fuels entirely, which is incompatible with a growth-based capitalist framework at all, let alone with the maintenance (and, indeed, promotion) of billionaire lifestyles. Global warming is just plain not a solvable problem within our current societal configuration. The society in which it is solvable has not yet been instantiated, and doing so will require destruction as much as creation. We are facing an Old Testament-level threat, and we require an Old Testament-style solution. We don’t need a pony here so much as we need four horsemen.3
This is extraordinarily important to keep in mind in the current context of “the resistance.” The particular grotesquenesses of the immediate present are strongly motivating a desire to get things “back to normal,” and even those attempting to look forward – the people who are increasingly being called “the left” – are mostly doing so within the parameters of the not-quite-discredited liberal-capitalist consensus (the fact that “socialism” now means “going halfway back to the New Deal era” tells you everything you need to know here). Certainly, some of the “norms” being “eroded” are in fact real accomplishments that we need to preserve, but a norm isn’t a good thing just because its a norm. The more important concern here is that our world was birthed wrong in the first place, resulting in many more and more important norms that are not mere politenesses but are in fact the carrots and sticks spurring us on down our current path to destruction. Most of these are still being upheld, and any real future requires their eradication. If humanity is to have any hope of tightening the widening gyre, the center must not hold.
Nowadays this is generally indirect, modern imperialism is less about pillaging and slave labor and more about opening up markets, but the basic idea is the same, and economic force is still force. Also we still have slave labor in America through the prison system, so there’s that too. ↩
Nothing is literally sustainable. Ozymandias, entropy, etc. ↩
Global warming is the third horseman, by the way. The first is conquest, a.k.a imperialism. The second is war, which is the state of nature that the world descends into when imperialism inevitably fails (for something that’s supposedly about spreading civilization, it’s a notably uncivilized endeavor). The third is famine, or more broadly resource depletion, which is what’s going to happen when we lose half of our agricultural yields, all of our port cities, and exist at the mercy of constant natural disasters. So, y’know, we’re getting there. The fourth is what happens after that. ↩
The acquittal of the officer who murdered Philando Castile is as unsurprising as it is unbelievable. It’s exactly the same grotesque spectacle that we’ve seen played out so many times before – but it wasn’t supposed to be. This time was supposed to be different.
Castile was pulled over for a routine traffic stop; he allegedly “fit a profile” or something, like, we all know what was really going on there, but the point is that the officer was just going through the usual checks and had no reason to expect an altercation. Castile was compliant, but he knew he had a problem: he was carrying a legal firearm, and he knew that if the officer saw it unexpectedly and got nervous, things could easily become unmanageable. So he did literally the only thing he could: he disclosed the existence of the weapon and proceeded carefully. And then he was shot to death.
In every previous case of this nature that has attracted mass-media attention, there has been some kind of controversial factor for people to argue about. Eric Garner and Alton Sterling were engaged in illegal activity; Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown allegedly assaulted their killers; Tamir Rice was supposedly brandishing a toy gun. None of these provide actual good angles – at the very least, they all require you to argue that minor transgressions are deserving of an instantly-applied death penalty without trial – but they’re all technically something. It’s broadly conceivable that a person of honorable intentions could make the good-faith argument that these were individual tragedies and not indicative of a widespread social calamity. But when you make an argument of the form, “if the victim engaged in certain behavior, then the killing was justified, so there’s no real political problem,” you are implicitly conceding that, had the victim not engaged in the proscribed behavior, then there is a real political problem.
That’s why the Castile case was supposed to be different. Castile committed no crime and did everything right, so there is simply nothing available on the “if” side to lead to the “then.” In which case the battle lines should have been drawn differently. The “all lives matter” crowd should have had no problem taking Castile on as a martyr and rallying for reforms to prevent such unacceptable occurrences. This should have been the thing that overcame the perils of “race relations” and provided an example that everyone could agree on. But of course there was no such reconciliation. The sickening thing about this case in particular was that nothing mattered; everything remained as it was and the same vile story was recited yet again, and yet again faded away with no conclusion in sight. The unavoidable inference, then, is that the facts of the case simply do not matter. Everyone has already decided what they believe, what policies they support and what catastrophes they are willing to countenance, and nothing is going to change that. And of course one must be honest enough to apply the same standard to one’s own side: had definitive evidence emerged that Michael Brown really did rob a convenience store and then bum rush a cop, that wouldn’t have changed the substance of the critique or the need for political action. In no case, then, are the facts of the situation ever relevant. There is only ideology.
There has been a great deal of recent lamentation over “fake news” and “alternative facts,” and one must concede that this is largely justified. Politicians certainly are a craven pack of liars, and people in general really do have problems getting their heads around the fact that facts are facts. But if we’re talking about politics, what we ought to be talking about is the connection between facts and political action, which is whence arises the problem: there isn’t one. Getting the facts right doesn’t help, because facts don’t matter either way to people’s political opinions. This sounds terrifying, but it actually makes perfect sense. Politics is about how we want the world to be, not how it currently is. Deciding on a political opinion means deciding in which direction you want to move. The value of facts is that they tell you how to get to what you want; they tell you where you are in relation to your goal. It’s entirely possible, perhaps even easier than not, to design counterproductive policy, in which case your actions will end up moving you in the opposite of your desired direction. Adherence to facts is how you avoid this problem. But this only becomes relevant after you’ve decided what it is you want.
The situation is often portrayed as a matter of novel facts spurring people to action. That is, everyone already believes in peace, love, and understanding, but they don’t know about the many injustices regularly taking place, so they simply need to be informed that things are going wrong in order to start doing something about it. This is wishful thinking. What the facts clearly demonstrate is that the revelation of facts doesn’t change people’s political opinions. At the end of the recent O.J. Simpson docudrama, there’s a moment when Johnnie Cochran sees then-president Clinton on TV talking about the need to address systemic racism and revise police practices, and he’s terribly gratified that the truth has finally come to light and that something can now be done about it. What’s striking about this is that people said exactly the same thing when the same issue recently started to be documented guerilla-style via smartphones and social media: now that the truth is unavoidable, things have to change. But what we’ve seen is that in neither case was this actually the case. Obviously, Rodney King and Mark Furman didn’t precipitate a solution to the problem, or we wouldn’t still be talking about it. But the current situation, where far more facts about far more dramatic occurrences are available on a daily basis, has seen no greater effect. All those cases listed above, plus others that have received equal attention and many more that have been forgotten or lost to the news cycle, were not the result of a single spate of increased attention. The issue has been risen on a regular basis over the course of many years, and the situation has never changed.
This is why the current fetish for “fact-checking” is largely misguided. It is not due to factual ignorance that people form harmful opinions. It’s much closer to being the other way around: people come to believe ridiculous things when those things align with their pre-existing ideology. Adherence to the facts can’t change this, because you have to use ideology in order to understand facts in the first place. A big table of numbers doesn’t do anything for you until you analyze it with political intent. In fact, “fact-checking” itself is a result of the same dynamic. Sociologically speaking, it’s pretty clear that the actual function fact-checking performs is liberal escapism. The people who check fact-checks are not those who require the information, but those who wish to reassure themselves that they are the good people for believing what they already believe. Liberals have already decided – in advance of the facts – that they’re the “rational” ones who “believe in science,” and the act of fact-checking allows them to perpetuate this belief.
More specifically, fact-checking as political activity is the result of a category error. It is indeed the news media’s job to report the facts and correct lies, and policymakers’ job to account for the real facts rather than the facts they wish were true. But the vast majority of us are not engaged in the activities of either journalism or policy-making, whereas all of us are permanently engaged in the activity of advancing values. Indeed, it is often our moral responsibility to ignore facts in favor of the truth. This is necessary because the world is a complicated place. It really is true that there are laws on the books prohibiting discrimination, and that there are scholarships and other programs aimed primarily at aiding black people, and that claims of disadvantage generally get sympathetic hearings in the media, and that Barack Obama was elected president twice – by healthy margins, even. But none of these facts compel the conclusion that we shouldn’t care about racism anymore.
You can dig up a real fact from somewhere or other to support basically anything. For example, false rape accusations really do happen sometimes. There’s no point in arguing whether any one case is valid or not; to fall into the trap of arguing the facts here is to fail to press the issue. The question of whether to treat rape as normal and false accusations as anomalies, or the other way around, is only answerable by ideology. You can’t engage with the issue until you’ve made that choice. (Equivocating doesn’t count as engaging with the issue; it counts as ignoring it.) And you can’t let the numbers make that decision for you, either, because you have to decide what the numbers mean. It’s true that there are more rapes than false accusations, but it’s also true that, even on the highest estimates, the vast majority of women never experience rape. The vast majority of black people never get murdered by the police, either. The numbers themselves don’t tell you what matters. Rape doesn’t become an issue once the number of occurrences rises above a certain threshold. It becomes an issue once you start caring about it.
A strong potential counterexample here is global warming. This seems to break the script: it’s genuinely novel information that could not have been reasonably foreseen, and it requires us to change our behavior and beliefs in ways that would not have been necessary without it. As Naomi Klein has it, it “changes everything.” So what’s crucial to note is the fact that the people who do “accept the facts” on global warming – who, in fact, loudly and self-importantly trumpet their fealty to the scientific consensus, as though that were something to be proud of – are doing basically nothing about it. Funding renewable energy and tweaking regulations do not come even close to addressing the true scale of the problem. The reason actions such as these are the ones being taken is that they are the ones that fit within the existing liberal-capitalist framework that basically every world leader adheres to unquestioningly. And on the other side of the ledger, liberals never seem to consider the fact that there are reasons that people resist facts. If someone encounters a fact once and ignores it, it’s pretty irrational to imagine that “explaining” the same thing to them over and over again will have any additional effect. Rather, the relevant logic is quite simple: if you believe that capitalism is a moral system, then it cannot be the case that capitalism is going to destroy the planet. It must simply be a case of certain groups gunning for competitive advantage, because that’s what happens under capitalism, and capitalism explains everything. And of course you wouldn’t be able to solve the problem with government intervention in any case, because government intervention always produces results inferior to the “natural” actions of market forces. Ideology determines both which facts are acceptable and which actions are possible.
Furthermore, you don’t actually need the facts of global warming to make the right argument here. The problem follows directly from the general logic of capitalism. Economics has a concept called “externalities,” which refers to the effects of a trade that aren’t accounted for within the trade itself.1 A better way to understand this is that capitalism basically means that rich fucks set the agenda, and they aren’t going to account for anything that doesn’t affect their pocketbooks. Other people getting polluted or regions of the planet becoming uninhabitable are just going to end up being the cost of doing business. So if you already oppose this arrangement ideologically – if you believe that resource use should be governed democratically such that the resulting decisions take into account their effects on everyone involved – then you’ve already solved global warming. Conversely, if you believe that rich fucks should be allowed to allocate resources autocratically, but that the government should be empowered to mitigate the consquences of those decisions, then you will never be able to solve global warming, no matter how cleverly you design policy or how tightly you cling the facts to your chest, because you have already made the values-based decision to give the fox VIP access to the henhouse.
In short, facts are real, but that’s all they are. By themselves, they’re inert. If you want to apply force to something, you can’t just gather up a bunch of chemicals and expect them to leap up out of the beakers of their own accord. You also won’t know which chemicals you need until you’ve drawn up your plans. And even then, nothing will happen until you actually build the bomb.
A professor of mine once quipped that his introductory Econ textbook had five pages devoted to externalities and five hundred devoted to the rest of economic theory, and that it should have been the other way around, since what “externalities” actually means here is literally everything in the world other than basic economic theory. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
Freed from the anguish of choosing, music listeners can discover all kinds of weird, nettlesome, unpleasant, sublime, sweet, or perplexing musical paths.
I honestly can’t remember the last time I encountered a howler as blatant as claiming that choice is now less important because of the multiplicity of options offered by the internet. Obviously, the opposite is true: choice is now so omnipresent as to have become tyrannical. It used to be that you were justified in just listening to whatever was on the radio, or whatever the officially-licensed music weirdo at the record store recommended, or whatever bands happened to be playing at your local venues, because you didn’t really have any other options. Now you have all the options; you have to choose. At every moment of every day, you must choose the one thing out of an infinity of options that you will spend this portion of your finite human existence on, and you must do so with the full knowledge that you are damning yourself to miss out on all the things you didn’t choose, forever.
I think that much is pretty obvious. But here’s the important part. This:
These paths branch off constantly, so that by the end of a night that started with the Specials, you’re listening to Górecki’s Miserere, not by throwing a dart, but by following the quite specific imperatives of each moment’s needs, each instant’s curiosities. It is like an open-format video game, where you make the world by advancing through it.
is also wrong. (Also this is a typically terrible video game analogy made by someone who has no idea what video games are actually like, but one thing at a time here.) Just because you have theoretical access to every song ever made (which is not actually the case, but seriously, one thing at a time) does not suddenly transport you into an unfettered wonderland of pure personal choices. In fact, the author cites a rather strong piece of evidence against himself: Spotify carries about four million songs which have never been listened to, by anyone, ever. So it is clearly not the case that people are freely venturing into heretofore unexplored terrain. Indeed, the fact that internet discourse is crammed full of nostalgia suggests that people actually aren’t seeking out new experiences at all. You may have noticed that, post-internet, pop stardom and celebrity are bigger industries than ever. The paradox of internet culture is that a practical infinity of choices makes people more likely to stick with what they already know. Except that’s not a paradox at all, because of course that’s what’s going to happen. The internet does not magically remove society’s existing constraints. On the contrary, by strengthening people’s ability to engage, the internet enables people to cleave more strongly to the things that they were already into. Ergo, Beyoncé’s Twitter mob.
This part makes the failure of analysis pretty clear:
Just five years ago, if you wanted to listen legally to a specific song, you bought it (on CD, on MP3), which, assuming finite resources, meant you had to choose which song to buy, which in turn meant you didn’t buy other songs you had considered buying. Then, a person with $10 to spend could have purchased five or six songs, or, if he was an antiquarian, an album. Now, with $10, that same person can subscribe to a streaming service for a month and hear all five or six songs he would have purchased with that money, plus 20 million or so others.
What’s missing here is very obviously the non-monetary component of opportunity cost. A person has only so many hours in the day to spend listening to music. So yes, it’s great that money is less of a constraint now, but the more important constraint, the issue of what you’re actually going to choose to do with your finite human existence, is as strong as ever. In fact, it’s stronger: there is now more nonsense to engage with, more to attend to, more demands on your attention, and hence less time to make these supposedly free choices we’ve all been gifted with.
These factual inaccuracies point us to the deeper philosophical problem, which is that choice is not simply a matter of the raw number of options you have. Having more options makes it more likely that your choice-set will include good choices, but it also makes it harder to find those choices amidst the noise.
Think of it this way: imagine all the songs on Spotify were unlabelled. All you could do was listen to songs at absolute total random out of its entire catalog. Total horrorshow, right? But this is the maximum amount of free choice: it is totally unencumbered by any kind of bias, including your own. Now imagine that the songs were all labelled, but there were no other discovery tools. This is better, because you can at least find things you’ve already heard of and check out new songs with interesting names, but it’s still pretty hard to discover stuff. Now consider the internet as it currently exists, where you’re constantly being barraged with recommendations and promotions and soforth. This is both more constrained and better than any permutation of the above examples, because you actually have stuff to go on: you can find recommenders you trust and branch out from things you already like and etc.
What’s happened here is that our choices have gotten better as they’ve become more constrained, and the reason this happens is because the constraints are operating in the correct direction: towards things you might actually want to listen to. There are, of course, also constraints that operate in incorrect directions; the reason most of what’s on the radio is garbage is because it’s selected based on what executives think will make money rather than what actually sounds good. So, naturally, there is a situation better than the current one, which is one where all of those recommendation engines and music bloggers and soforth don’t have ulterior motives in the areas of commercial appeal and popularity. This is, of course, an additional constraint that removes things from your search queue that got there because of advertising or whatever, and it, again, makes things better. Choice is a false idol; freedom isn’t free.
And this is a good thing, because if your choices really were totally unconstrained, they would be essentially random, which is to say chaotic, which is to say meaningless. Remember that bit above about “each instant’s curiosities”? Yeah, that’s nihilism. If you’re seriously just going off of your pure momentary whims, you’re an animal. Whereas when you do things like check out formative artists in genres you like, or explore the various bands that were part of a scene you’re interested in, you are engaging with the structure of reality and making choices that are actually connected to the things you care about. While there is a real and important distinction between coerced and uncoerced choices (and lack of options can be a form of coercion), a choice has to be based on real-world conditions in order to be meaningful; the concept of an “unconstrained” choice is oxymoronic. It’s only by being attached to contingent circumstances in the real world that your choices have any chance of being worth a shit.
Indeed, this “free choice” framing betrays a disturbing assumption: that any experience is just as good as any other. If the pure number of options you have is what’s meaningful, that can only be because the content of the options themselves is not meaningful. Which, if true, would mean that all experiences are meaningless. This, for example:
When I hear a song for the fiftieth time, I remember the wall color of my studio apartment on Mt. Vernon Street in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1996, and I remember how cold the awful landlady kept it, and I remember her shivering whippet scratching at my door so that he could come in and curl up in the hollows of my giant furry Newfoundland.
is nothing but the worst kind of banal egoism. If the only significance of music is that it reminds you of some arbitrary shit from your past, then music is meaningless. It might as well be a scrap of paper or an oddly-shaped rock.
Luckily this is a lie, which is obvious when you consider why this is wrong:
Play the songs you heard on February 2, 2013, in the order in which you played them, and you can recreate not just the emotions but the suspense and surprise of emotion as it changes in time.
Dude has literally never heard that a person cannot step into the same river twice. What makes music powerful is the fact that its substance emerges out from particular experiences, not that it is buried within them. Contingency and temporality are what make existence meaningful; without them, you are a portrait and not a person.
Oh and by the way all of this actually has dick to do with the internet. Internet technology enables all of this, but the actual power sources behind these dynamics are political and psychological, just as they always have been. The basic failing of almost all writing about the internet is that it assumes that the same old patterns of behavior somehow assume an unprecedented radical significance now that they’re happening On The Internet.
So, okay, let’s hit this. The first part is easy: the reason people want their experiences to be permanently frozen in time and eternally retrievable is because they don’t want to die. Tough shit, friends. Your name has not been written in the book of life. You’re going to exist for a while, and then you’re going to stop existing.
Moving on, the choice fallacy is a clear outgrowth of consumerism. The idea that picking your very own very special choice from the largest possible menu of options is the ideal situation is a fantasy concocted to sell shit in supermarkets. If contingency matters, then goods are not fungible and capitalism loses its claim to meaning. Which is of course the case; even under the most charitable interpretation of capitalism, what it’s good for is producing enough goods to give people the opportunity to do things that are actually meaningful. Taking economic growth itself as a goal is a blatant capture of the ends by the means. In the same sense, to assume that having the largest number of possible options for which music or movies or books or whatever to experience is what matters is to forget what makes these things worth experiencing in the first place.
The last piece of the puzzle is why everyone constantly talks about The Internet like it actually has its own agenda, rather than simply being an amplifier (or a suppressor) for existing motivations. This is pure ideology. The internet just happened yesterday, so it’s easy to take it as an explanation for everything that’s happening right now and thereby avoid any examination of the underlying forces. Because those forces are not the lizard people and the reverse vampires; those forces are you. The actual conspiracy is the one inside your head, constantly arranging everything you experience to serve its invisible ends. Aggregating data ain’t going to get you out of this. You’ve got to fight theory with theory.
This extremely boring controversy over Facebook’s topic sorter algorithm or whatever it is is extremely boring, but it’s at least good for one thing: it’s clarifying how people implicitly view Facebook, and, correspondingly, what kind of society they think they live in.
Now, the whole thing has obviously been ginned up by the Right-Wing Scandal Generator, which at this point seems to have self-actualized and gone Skynet. It’s essentially conspiracy theorist Mad Libs: take any liberal-ish group or any government agency except the military, slap on a charge about converting kittens to Satanism or saying something mean about white people, and see if it has legs. Which it usually does, since these people are operating under a severe case of epistemic closure.
Anyway, for the rest of us, the newsworthy bit was that Facebook actually has people deciding which stories are popular instead of blind algorithms. Of course, in practice, there’s no difference. Algorithms are written by people, and they carry whatever implicit or explicit biases went into their creation. The point, though, is that people were assuming Facebook didn’t have its fingers in the pie, and they were upset to find out that it did. This has happened before. When Facebook ran its emotional manipulation experiment, for example, there wasn’t any practical consequence anyone could point to, but people didn’t like the idea of Facebook picking and choosing what they saw instead of letting it happen “naturally.”
What makes this all not make sense is the fact that Facebook is a corporation. Corporations obviously have their own interests and biases. In fact, we expect them to; we understand corporations as actors, if not persons. This is why we expect them to do things like withdraw advertising from bigoted programs or support charities, and why we get mad when they outsource jobs or use stereotypes to sell products. It’s also why we talk about pointless things like corporate “greed” or “corruption” instead of focusing on the actual structure that causes them to act the way they do. So if people thought of Facebook in this way, there wouldn’t be anything untoward about its behavior. Of course Facebook, staffed largely by young liberals (or at least tech libertarians), is not going to be interested in promoting Racist Grandpa’s email forwards. Accusing Facebook of censoring conservative stories makes exactly as much sense as accusing Fox News of censoring liberal stories. And remember, it’s the small-government fetishists who are getting mad about this, which, yeah, it’s opportunism, but it’s not even a sensible claim unless you assume that Facebook has a general public responsibility. After all, these same people are currently engaged in a deathly struggle to save private corporations from such scourges as having to sign contraception coverage waiver forms and having to bake cakes for gay people.
So what this means is that people don’t think of Facebook as a corporation. And this makes total sense, because Facebook doesn’t do any of the things that corporations are supposed to be for. It doesn’t create a product that people buy, or create content supported by advertising. It’s not even something like Google’s search engine where it feels like a utility but is still a tool with an actual function. Facebook is a bulletin board. It allows people to do things with it rather than doing anything itself. Sure, it’s a piece of software that requires development and maintenance, but in terms of function, Facebook is essentially a park. It’s a public space where people come to interact with each other. It’s a commons. The only reason demands for neutrality in its operation are comprehensible is that everyone implicitly understands that it doesn’t make sense for anyone to be profiting off of it.
The funny thing about capitalism as a world-defining ideology is that nobody actually believes in it. We expect corporations to be good people rather than to follow the incentives that define their existence in the first place. And we expect the commons to be respected and maintained rather than privatized and pillaged. Despite the much-vaunted “cynicism” of the American public, people actually go around assuming they’re living in a much better society than they actually are – one that basically works for people, and whose problems are the result of bad actors rather than the necessary consequences of the systems that constitute it. A world of bad actors is quite a lot better than a world of bad systems, because a world of bad actors can be fixed by getting rid of the bad actors. But a world of bad systems will go wrong no matter how the people in it act, and we haven’t yet figured out how to reliably change systems for the better. One assumes there’s a way, but one also doesn’t get one’s hopes up.
In the meantime, if you really want a neutral platform, there’s only one reasonable course of action. Nationalize Facebook.
I’m doing my best to avoid contributing to the noise vortex surrounding the Tangerine Muppet, but as some people have pointed out, the real story is what this whole cowboy cosplay convention reveals about the values of a disturbingly large number of Americans. So let’s talk about that.
People have been more willing than usual to throw around the r-word recently, which is nice. Yes, it’s largely an empty signifier at this point, but if you can’t call a racist a racist, you can’t really do anything. The problem is that there’s this persistent idea that race is an “identity” issue, that it’s sort of an add-on to the “real” political issues like jobs and taxes. Specifically, the story is that economically disadvantaged white people who are “low-information voters” are being “fooled” into thinking that people of color are the problem and are therefore “voting against their own interests.” All of these terms should trigger maximal skepticism. People know what their interests are, and you don’t really need a whole lot of information to make basic political decisions. Furthermore, racism is severely off-putting to all decent people; if there was a candidate with really good policies who also happened to be a Klan member, few of us would be able to overlook that and support them. So the only honest conclusion is that people who support racist policies do so because they’re racists.
This conclusion is supported by history. The two political parties as currently constituted are defined by their attitudes toward racism; the historical shift was finalized in response to the Civil Rights Act. And the “Southern Strategy” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick – basically all of the “conservative principles” that supposedly define the Republican Party are actually just restatements of racism. Most famously, opposition to “big government” isn’t really something that makes sense on its own. Nobody actually thinks there’s a correct “size” for the government to be. Rather, everyone has certain specific things they think the government should be in charge of. Nobody argues that we should defund the military in order to make the government smaller. Also, Republicans obviously don’t support “small government” in any sense; whenever they’re in office they run up deficits, inflate the military, and expand executive powers (Democrats also do all of these things; the point is that there isn’t a difference between the parties on these issues). The truth is that, for Republicans, the part of the government that’s “too big” is just the part that helps black people. This applies equally to just about every other conservative shibboleth: universal healthcare, welfare, and economic stimulus spending are all bad things because they mean spending money on black people. Recall the old insult “tax-and-spend Democrat” – you’d think that both taxing and spending would be the budgetarily responsible thing to do, but it’s a different story when it’s white people being taxed and black people being spent on.
Recent history also bears this out. The Tea Party arose in response to Obama’s election, rather than any actual policy he advanced. In fact, Obama hasn’t really done anything dramatic enough to have credibly provoked a backlash – it’s cliched by now to note that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. And there’s plenty of pure nonsense like the claim that Obama is secretly a Muslim, when he clearly comes from a typical black Christian tradition (there was that big controversy regarding his minister, remember?). The only explanation for this is people projecting stereotypes – either about scary black Muslim radicals from the 60s, or modern-day “Muslim extremists.” So, racism. The people who claimed that Obama’s election heralded a “post-racial era” were obviously morons, but it’s important to understand just how wrong they were: not only is racism as strong a political force as ever, but Obama’s visibility as the most powerful black man in the world has made race an even more salient issue.
What all of this adds up to is that racism is and always has been the central issue in American politics. In other words, the fact that one of the primary motivating factors in people’s political alignment is now vulgar racism and nothing else is the least surprising thing that’s happened in recent history. What this election cycle represents is actually a return to normalcy. We’re no longer pretending that we all share the same fake centrist consensus; we’re finally beginning to regard our enemies as enemies. Or at least we’re getting closer. Racism as a concept has been permanently hexed; people still make transparent excuses about how banning Muslims is about “national security” and building The Wall is about “the economy.” But anyone operating with a basic level of honesty can clearly see the bright line dividing the two sides of the current debate: you either think that the government is for everybody, or you think it’s only for The Right Kind of People.
White people don’t like to think about racism this way. They like to think of it as an issue where certain “backwards” people just don’t like certain skin colors for inexplicable reasons (the adjective “ugly” is often applied to racist opinions, as though the issue with them were merely cosmetic). This impulse is understandable – at first glance, discriminating against people based on their ethnicity doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything (as a contrasting example, there’s direct motivation for sexism: men want control over sexual access and the reproductive process). When a person is facing the issues of a) losing their job and not having enough money to live on and b) encountering non-white people on a slightly more frequent basis, it seems like one of those issues would be the obvious priority. But that’s assuming that everyone has the same standards of value, and it’s also assuming that race and class are actually different issues.
Historically, it’s obvious that the function of racism has been to create an underclass. This serves two very important purposes. The first is economic: it creates a group of people who can be exploited with maximum efficiency, due to the fact that they lack both legal protections and public sympathy. This doesn’t just apply to black people; we saw the same dynamic with the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and we see it today with the Mexican immigrants doing our farm work. The second function is psychological: when it comes to social standing, people are motivated above all else to not be on the bottom of the pyramid. People care more about relative standing than absolute standing; we would rather make things worse off for everyone while preserving a tiny advantage for ourselves than improve the general condition while resigning ourselves to not being special. Racism puts white people on the side of the ruling class by promising them that, no matter what happens, they will always have someone to look down on.
This dynamic is required in order for capitalism to survive. Marx’s argument that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself was based on two important assumptions: that there are only two classes, and that the members of the working class would naturally develop solidarity. Racism undoes both of these assumptions. It essentially turns non-rich white people into a buffer class: one that is still mostly exploited, but which understands itself as a beneficiary of the status quo. This understanding is not entirely illusory. Being white actually is enough of a real advantage that many white people will fight to preserve it, out of rational self-interest – the same self-interest that created racism in the first place. Everyone knows that America was settled via genocide and slavery, but it’s crucial to understand that these crimes were not “mistakes.” They were foundational: America would not have existed without them. This is why Malcolm X said that you can’t have capitalism without racism.
And this is what connects current socioeconomic conditions to the modern resurgence of racism: white people are no longer confident that the old bargain will continue to hold. It seems absurd when racists claim that because of things like affirmative action and minority-targeted scholarships, white people are now the group without any advantages, because these things are obviously amelioration-based policies that don’t actually harm white people. But this perspective starts to make sense when you think of it in terms of psychological superiority: if people of color have any advantage that white people don’t have, then white people are no longer special. We’re all just different people with different advantages and disadvantages, trying to get by in a fucked up world.
So, since attempting to hold on to white superiority is, of course, the wrong solution, the right solution can only be to negate the advantages that white people have accrued via white supremacy. Thus, a general economic solution, one that appeals to everybody by attempting to lift all boats equally, cannot work because of racism – because such a solution would maintain white superiority. Affirmative action may be a hacky band-aid solution, but in this sense it’s at least a step in the right direction. The fact that it aggrieves racists is actually how you can tell it’s a good idea: logically, racists will be aggrieved by any anti-racist policy. A policy that “we can all agree on,” that racists feel comfortable with, can, under present conditions, only be a racist policy.
Ergo, reparations. If our goal is to end white superiority, then there’s no reason to beat around the bush. If we don’t want white people to be advantaged over black people, then we should take the advantages white people have historically accumulated via racist exploitation and give them to black people. The fact that such a policy would feel unfair and would make white people feel attacked is the point; making peace with racists necessarily means supporting racism. Racists don’t need to be negotiated with, they need to be convinced where possible and defeated where necessary.
This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at when he criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the possibility of reparations. Ever since Coates started on this angle, people have been pretty consistently missing his point (intentionally or otherwise). The issue is not that there’s a “correct” policy that everyone should support; the issue is that we have not yet reached the point where anti-racist economic policy can be articulated. And the problem with comments like Sanders’ is that they prevent us from getting there.
“Reparations” by itself is not one policy, which is another point that Coates has made and that not a lot of people have picked up on. Rather, taking the idea of reparations seriously would result in multiple different sets of demands, each of which would have to be assessed on its own merits. There could certainly be such a thing as a bad reparations policy, but we can’t start talking about policy until we’ve decided the moral question. This is not stereotypical leftist squabbling over minor points of procedure; there is a bright line dividing the idea that the past is past and we should just try to create the fairest policy based on current conditions from the idea that we occupy a historical system of injustice which must be dismantled, even when doing so requires sacrifice.
In fact, this is the same bright line as the one dividing the idea that capitalism is sometimes “corrupt” and should be made more “fair” from the idea that capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation, and that even the fairly accumulated resources of the rich should therefore be reappropriated. The difference between improving current conditions and remaking society is supposed to be what defines radicalism. The point of revolutionary thinking is that, when the problems you’re facing are interlocking parts of a self-sustaining system, the only solution is to address everything at once.
So part of what matters about a reparations program is actually calling it reparations. A program of the sort that Sanders advocates – taxing rich people, who are mostly white, and using the money to invest in impoverished communities, which are disproportionately populated by black people – would have a partial reparations-like effect, but by casting the problem as a matter of general inequality, such a program avoids confronting racism. It lets white people off the hook. And because racism is baked in to our society, leaving it alone allows it to perpetuate itself. What’s required is a reckoning, using the exact literal meaning of that word: a settling of accounts.
We like to think of racism as though it were an evil demon from a fairy tale: it used to be a vicious tyrant, but the heroes of the past defeated it, and the evil that remains today is merely its shadow, a fading darkness that only weird cultists still worship. The truth is that the demon has been severely weakened, but it is far from dead, and its power is still enough to provide real advantages, both material and metaphysical, to white people. And because this is the case, it’s inevitable that reactionary sentiment will flare up in times of uncertainty. Overt racists are not fringe wackos, they’re just the least sophisticated manifestation of the real enemy. We should do ourselves the favor of taking them seriously.
My post about level ups needs an addendum, as there’s a related issue that’s somewhat more practical. That is, it’s an actual threat.
The concept of power growth can be generalized to the concept of accumulation, the difference being that accumulation doesn’t have to refer to anything. When you’re leveling up in a game, it’s generally for a reason, e.g. you need more HP in order to survive an enemy’s attack or something. Even in traditional games, though, this is not always the case. There are many RPGs where you have like twelve different stats and it’s not clear what half of them even do, yet it’s still satisfying to watch them all go up when you level. This leads many players to pursue “stat maxing” even when there’s no practical application for those stats. Thus, we see that the progression aspect of leveling is actually not needed to engage players. It is enough to provide the opportunity for mere accumulation, a.k.a. watching numbers go up. This might sound very close to literally watching paint dry, but the terrible secret of video games is that people actually enjoy it.
The extreme expression of this problem would be a game that consists only ofleveling up, that has no actual gameplay but merely provides the player with the opportunity to watch numbers go up and rewards their “effort” with additional opportunities to watch numbers go up. This game, of course, exists; it’s called FarmVille, it’s been immensely popular and influential and has spawned a wide variety of imitators. The terror is real.
Of course, as its very popularity indicates, FarmVille itself is not the problem. In fact, while FarmVille is often taken to be the dark harbinger of the era of smartphone games, its design can be traced directly back to the traditional games that it supposedly supplanted (the worst trait of “hardcore” gamebros is that they refuse to ever look in the damn mirror). Even in action-focused games such as Diablo II or Resident Evil 4, much of the playtime involves running around and clicking on everything in order to accumulate small amounts of currency and items. While this has a purpose, allowing you to purchase new weapons and other items that help you out during the action segments, it doesn’t have to be implemented this way. You could just get the money automatically whenever you defeat an enemy, as you do in most RPGs. But even in RPGs where this happens, there are still treasures and other collectibles littering the environment. This is a ubiquitous design pattern, and it exists for a reason: because running around and picking up vaguely useful junk is fun.
This pattern goes all the way back to the beginning. Super Mario Bros., for example, had coins; they’re one of the defining aspects of what is basically the ur-text of video games. Again, these coins actually did something (they gave you extra lives, eventually. Getting up to 100 coins in the original Super Mario Bros. is actually surprisingly hard), but again again, this isn’t the actual reason they were there. They were added for a specific design reason: to provide players with guidance. Super Mario Bros. was a brand-new type of game when it came out; the designers knew that they had to make things clear in order to prevent players from getting lost. So one of the things they did was add coins at strategic locations to encourage the player to take certain actions and try to get to certain places. And the reason this works is because collecting coins is fun on its own, even before the player figures out that they’re going to need as many extra lives as they can get.
And there’s something even more fundamental than collectibles, something that was once synonymous with the concept of video games: score. Back in the days of arcade games, getting a high score was presented as the goal of most games. When you were finished playing, the game would ask you to enter your initials, and then show you your place on the scoreboard, hammering in the idea that this was the point of playing. Naturally, since arcade games were designed to not be “completable,” this was a way of adding motivation to the gameplay. But there’s more to it than that. By assigning different point values to different actions, the designers are implicitly telling the player what they’re supposed to be doing. Scoring is inherently an act of valuation.
In Pac-Man, for example, there are two ways you can use the power pellets: you can get the ghosts off your ass for a minute while you try to clear the maze, or you can hunt the ghosts down while they’re vulnerable. Since the latter is worth more points than anything else, the game is telling you that this is the way you’re supposed to be playing. The reason for this, in this case, is that it’s more fun: chasing the ghosts creates an interesting back-and-forth dynamic, while simply traversing the maze is relatively boring. Inversely, old light-gun games like Area 51 or Time Crisis often had hostages that you were penalized for shooting. In a case like this, the game is telling you what not to do; rather than shooting everything indiscriminately, you were meant to be careful and distinguish between potential targets.
So, in summary, the point of “points” or any other “numbers that go up” is to provide an in-game value system. What, then, does this mean for a game like FarmVille, which consists only of points? It means that such a game has no values. It’s nihilistic. It’s essentially the unironic version of Duchamp’s Fountain. The point of Fountain was that the work itself had no traditional artistic merit; it “counted” as art only because it was presented that way. Similarly, FarmVille is not what you’d normally call a “game,” but it’s presented as one, so it is one. The difference, of course, is that Duchamp was making a rather direct negative point. People weren’t supposed to admire Fountain, they were supposed to go fuck themselves. FarmVille, on the other hand, expects people to genuinely enjoy it. Which they do.
And again, the point is that FarmVilleis not an aberration; its nihilism is only the most naked expression of the nihilism inherent in the way modern video games are understood. One game that made this point was Progress Quest, a ruthless satire of the type of gameplay epitomized by FarmVille. In Progress Quest, there is literally no gameplay: you run the application and it just automatically starts making numbers go up. It’s a watching paint dry simulator. The catch is that Progress Quest predates FarmVille by several years (art imitates life, first as satire, then as farce); it was not parodying “degraded” smartphone games, but the popular and successful games of its own time, such as EverQuest, which would become a major influence on almost everything within the mainstream gaming sphere. The call is coming from inside the house.
Because the fact that accumulation is “for” something in a game like Diablo II ultimately amounts to no more than it does for FarmVille. You kill monsters so that you can get slightly better equipment and stats, which you then use to kill slightly stronger monsters and get slightly better equipment again, ad nauseum. It’s the same loop, only more spread out and convoluted; it fakes meaning by disguising itself. In this sense, FarmVille, like Fountain, is to be praised for revealing a simple truth that had become clouded by incestuous self-regard.
There is, of course, a real alternative, which is for games to actually have some kind of aesthetic value, and for that to be the motivation for gameplay. This isn’t hard to understand. Nobody reads a book because they get points for each page they turn; indeed, the person who reads a famous book simply “to have read it” is a figure of mockery. We read books because they offer us experiences that matter. There is nothing stopping video games from providing the same thing.
The catch is that doing this requires a realization that the primary audience for games is currently unwilling to make: that completing a goal in a video game is not a real accomplishment. As games have invested heavily in the establishment of arbitrary goals, they have taken their audience down the rabbit hole with them. Today, we are in position where certain people actually think that being good at video games matters, that the conceptualization of games as skill-based challenges is metaphysicallysignificant (just trust me on this one, there’s evidence for it but you really don’t want to see it). As a result, games have done an end-run around the concept of meaning. Rather than condemning Sisyphus to forever pushing his rock based on the idea the meaningless labor is the worst possible fate, we have instead convinced Sisyphus that pushing the rock is meaningful in the traditional sense; he now toils of his own volition, blissfully (I wish I could take credit for this metaphor, but this guy beat me to it).
This is an understandable mistake. As humans, limited beings seeking meaning in the raw physicality of the universe, we’ve become accustomed to looking for signs that distinguish meaningful labor from mere toil. It is far from an unusual mistake to confuse the sign for the destination. But the truth is that any possible goal (money, popularity, plaudits, power) is also something that we’ve made up. The universe itself provides us with nothing. But this realization does not have to stop us: we can insist on meaning without signs, abandon the word without losing the sense. This is the radical statement that Camus was making when he wrote that “we must imagine Sisyphus happy.” He was advising us to reject this fundamental aspect of our orientation towards reality.
We have not followed his advice. On the contrary, games have embraced their own meaninglessness. The most obvious symptom of this is achievements, which have become ubiquitous in all types of games (the fact that they’re actually built-in to Steam is evidence enough). Achievements are anti-goals, empty tokens that encourage players to perform tasks for no reason other than to have performed them. Many are quite explicit about this; they’re things like “ 1000 more times than you would have to do it to complete the game.” Some achievements are better than this, some even point towards interesting things that add to the gameplay experience, but the point is the principle: that players are expected to perform fully arbitrary tasks and to expect nothing else from games. In light of this, it does not matter whether a game is fun or creative or original or visually appealing. No amount of window dressing can counteract the fact that games are fundamentally meaningless.
If you want a picture of the future of games, imagine a human finger clicking a button and a human eye watching a number go up. Forever.
While renouncing games is a justifiable tactical response to the current situation, it’s not a solution. Games are just a symptom. Game designers aren’t villains, they’re just hacks. They’re doing this stuff because it works; the problem is in people.
Accumulation essentially exploits a glitch in human psychology, similar to gambling (many of these games have an explicit gambling component). It compels people to act against their reason. It’s not at all uncommon these days to hear people talk about how they kept playing a game “past the point where it stopped being fun.” I’m not exactly sure what the source of the problem is. Evolution seems unlikely, as pre-civilized humans wouldn’t have had much opportunity for hoarding-type behavior. Also, the use of numbers themselves seems to be significant, which suggests a post-literate affliction. I suppose the best guess for the culprit would probably be capitalism. Certainly, the concept of currency motivates many people to accumulate it for no practical reason.
“They are told to forget the ‘poor habits’ they learned at previous jobs, one employee recalled. When they ‘hit the wall’ from the unrelenting pace, there is only one solution: ‘Climb the wall,’ others reported. To be the best Amazonians they can be, they should be guided by the leadership principles, 14 rules inscribed on handy laminated cards. When quizzed days later, those with perfect scores earn a virtual award proclaiming, ‘I’m Peculiar’ — the company’s proud phrase for overturning workplace conventions.”
(Okay real talk I actually didn’t remember the bit about the “virtual award.” I started rereading the article for evidence and it was right there in the second paragraph. I’m starting to get suspicious about how easy these assholes are making this for me.)
What’s notable about this is not that Amazon turned out to be the bad guy. We already knew that, both because of the much worse situation of their warehouse workers and because, you know, it’s a corporation in a capitalist society. What’s important is this:
“[Jeff Bezos] created a technological and retail giant by relying on some of the same impulses: eagerness to tell others how to behave; an instinct for bluntness bordering on confrontation; and an overarching confidence in the power of metrics . . .
Amazon is in the vanguard of where technology wants to take the modern office: more nimble and more productive, but harsher and less forgiving.”
What’s happening in avant-garde workplaces like Amazon is the same thing that’s happened in games. The problem with games was that they weren’t providing any real value, and the problem with work in a capitalist society is that most of it is similarly pointless. The solution in games was to fake meaning, and the solution in work is going to be the same thing.
And, just as it did in games, this tactic is going to succeed:
“[M]ore than a few who fled said they later realized they had become addicted to Amazon’s way of working.
‘A lot of people who work there feel this tension: It’s the greatest place I hate to work,’ said John Rossman, a former executive there who published a book, ‘The Amazon Way.’
. . .
Amazon has rules that are part of its daily language and rituals, used in hiring, cited at meetings and quoted in food-truck lines at lunchtime. Some Amazonians say they teach them to their children.
. . .
‘If you’re a good Amazonian, you become an Amabot,’ said one employee, using a term that means you have become at one with the system.
. . .
[I]n its offices, Amazon uses a self-reinforcing set of management, data and psychological tools to spur its tens of thousands of white-collar employees to do more and more.
. . .
‘I was so addicted to wanting to be successful there. For those of us who went to work there, it was like a drug that we could get self-worth from.’”
It’s only once these people burn out and leave that they’re able to look back and realize they were working for nothing. This is exactly the same phenomenon as staying up all night playing some hack RPG because you got sucked in to the leveling mechanism. It’s mechanical addiction to a fake goal.
The fundamental problem here, of course, is that Amazon isn’t actually trying to make anything other than money. A common apologist argument for capitalism is that economic coercion is required to motivate people to produce things, but this is pretty obviously untrue. First, people have been building shit since long before currency came into the picture; more importantly, it’s obvious just from simple everyday observation that people are motivated to try to do a good job when they feel like they’re working on something that matters, and people slack off and cut corners when they know that what they’re doing is actually bullshit. The problem with work in a capitalist society is that people aren’t fools; the reason employees have to be actively “motivated” is because they know that what they’re doing doesn’t merit motivation.
The focus with Amazon has mostly been on that fact that they’re “mean”; the Times contrasts them with companies like Google that entice employees with lavish benefits rather than psychological bullying. But this difference is largely aesthetic; the reason Google offers benefits such as meals and daycare is because it expects its employees to live at their jobs, just as Amazon does.
As always, it’s important to view the system’s cruelest symptoms not as abnormal but as extra-normative behavior. The reason Amazon does what it does is because it can: it has the kind of monitoring technology required to pull this off and its clout commands the kind of devotion from its employees required to get away with it. Amazon is currently on the cutting edge; as information technology becomes more and more anodyne, this will become less and less the case. Consider that Google’s double-edged beneficence is only possible because Google is richer than fuck, consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company pulls, and then consider the kind of cost-cutting horseshit your company would pull if it had Amazon-like levels of resourcefulness and devotion.
So, while publications like the New York Times are useful for getting the sort of “average” ruling-class perspective on the issues of the day, you have to keep the ideological assumptions of this perspective in mind, which in this case is super easy: the Times assumes that Amazon’s goal of maximizing its “productivity” is a valid and even virtuous one (also, did you notice how they claimed that this is happening because “technology wants” it to happen? Classic pure ideology). All of the article’s hand-wringing is merely about whether Amazon’s particular methods are “too harsh” or “unsustainable.” The truth, obviously, is that corporate growth itself is a bad thing because corporate growth means profit growth and profits are by definition the part of the economy getting sucked out by rich fucks instead of actually being used to produce things for people. This goes double for Amazon specifically, which doesn’t contribute any original functionality of its own, but merely supersedes functionalities already being provided by existing companies in a more profitable fashion.
And this is where things get scary. With video games, the only real threat is that, by locking themselves into their Sisyphean feedback loop, games will become hyper-effective at wasting the time of the kind of people who have that kind of time to waste. Tragic, in a sense, but in another sense we’re talking about people who are making a choice and who are consequently reaping what they’ve sown. But the problem with the economy is that when rich fucks play games, the outcome affects everybody. And when those games are designed against meaning, and all of us are obligated to play in order to survive, what we’re growing is a value system, and what we’re harvesting is nihilism. Bad design is a fate worse than death.
“’In the office of the future,’ said Kris Duggan, chief executive of BetterWorks, a Silicon Valley start-up founded in 2013, ‘you will always know what you are doing and how fast you are doing it. I couldn’t imagine living in a world where I’m supposed to guess what’s important, a world filled with meetings, messages, conference rooms, and at the end of the day I don’t know if I delivered anything meaningful.’”
Can you imagine living in a world where values are determined by humans? It’s getting kind of difficult!
When the situation is this fucked, even the New York Times has its moments:
“Mr. Bohra declined to let any of his employees be interviewed. But he said the work was more focused now, which meant smaller teams taking on bigger workloads.”
You know you’re an asshole when the shit you’re pulling is so blatantly horrific that even the “paper of record” is scoring sick burns on you from behind its veil of ersatz objectivity.
The thing is, when it comes to values, “money” in society has the same function as “score” in video games: it’s a heuristic that maps only loosely onto the thing that it’s actually supposed to represent. Ideally, economic growth would represent the actual human-life-improving aspects of a society, and to an extent, it does. Despite everything, most people really are trying to make the world a decent place to live. But a capitalist society is one where “growth” is pursued for its own sake, where spending a million dollars to feed starving children is just as good as spending that money on car decals, or on incrementally faster smartphones, or on weapons.
This is why you need to watch the fuck out any time someone starts talking about “meritocracy.” The problem with “meritocracy” is the same as the problem with “utilitarianism”: you have to actually define “merit” or “utility,” and that’s the entire question in the first place. With utilitarianism this is less of a problem, since it’s more of a philosophical question and this understanding is usually part of the discussion (also, when utilitarianism was first introduced it was a revolutionary new idea in moral philosophy, it’s just that today it tends to be invoked by people who want to pretend like they’ve solved morality when they actually haven’t even started thinking about it). But the meritocracy people are actually trying to get their system implemented; indeed, they often claim that their “meritocracy” already exists.
To be explicit, the word “meritocracy” is internally inconsistent. Claiming that a society should be a “democracy,” for example, establishes a goal: a society’s rulership should be as representative of the popular will as possible (that is, assuming the word “democracy” is being used in good faith, which is rarely the case). But the concept of “merit” requires a goal in order to be meaningful. It’s trivial to say that society should favor the “best,” because the question is precisely: the best at what? The most creative, or the most efficient? The most compassionate, or the most ruthless? Certainly, our current society, including our corporations, is controlled by people who are the best at something, it’s just that that “something” isn’t what most of us want to promote.
The problem isn’t that these people are hiding their motives; they talk big but they aren’t actually that sophisticated, especially when it comes to philosophy. It’s worse: the problem is that they have no goals in the first place. For all their talk of “disruption,” they are in truth blindly following the value system implicitly established by the set of historical conditions they happen to be operating in (see also: Rand, Ayn). This is necessarily the case for anyone who focuses their life on making money, since money doesn’t actually do anything by itself; it means whatever society says it means. This is why rich fucks tend to turn towards philanthropy, or at least politics: as an attempt to salvage meaning from what they’ve done with their lives. But even then, the only thing they know how to do is to focus on reproducing the conditions of their own success. When gazing into the abyss, all they can see is themselves.
Thus far, the great hope of humanity has lain in the fact that our rulers are perpetually incapable of getting their shit together. The problem is that they no longer have to. If nuclear weapons gave them the ability to destroy the world on accident, information technology has given them the ability to destroy values just as accidentally. A blind, retarded beast is still capable of crushing through sheer weight. The reason achievements in games took off isn’t because anyone designed things that way, it’s because fake-goal-focused games appeal to people, they sell. The reason Amazon seems to be trying to design a dystopian workplace isn’t because of evil mastermindery, it’s simply because they have the resources to pursue their antigoal of corporate growth with full abandon. Indeed, what we mean by “dystopia” is not an ineffective society, it’s a society that is maximally effective towards bad ends. And if capitalists are allowed to define our values by omission, if the empty ideal of “meritocracy” is taken as common sense rather than an abdication of responsibility, if arbitrary achievement has replaced actual experience, then the rough beast’s hour has come round at last; it is slouching toward Silicon Valley to be born.