Hollow point

Today in takes that I never expected would require levying: emotional teenagers are not going to redeem American politics. Surprisingly, I’m not enough of an asshole to criticize school shooting victims, so I’ll start by pointing out that they’re not actually doing anything wrong. They experienced a traumatizing event caused by a failure of policy, so they’re raising the issue to the people who have the ability to do something about it. This is precisely the role that citizenry is supposed to play in a society that’s supposed to be a democracy. The problem is with everyone else.

First of all, the media is completely full of shit here. They’ve had the ability this entire time to emphasize gun violence as a relevant political issue, and they’ve chosen to ignore it. They try to blame politicians for not responding to the fact that large majorities of people want more gun control, but what those numbers actually mean is that the media should already have been on top of this issue, because the numbers demonstrate that people care about it. One of the problems with the gun issue specifically is that the pro-gun forces are myopic zealots about it while the anti-gun forces recognize that there are other more important problems in the world, so the people who vote based on guns are overwhelmingly the former group. One of the jobs that the media is supposed to perform is to balance out coverage such that it accurately represents the distribution of opinions in the populace. Of course, what actually happens is the opposite: the media reliably locates the most psychotic available representatives of any given position and portrays them as the norm. (And this doesn’t even get into framing; for example, any discussion of the Second Amendment here is a complete red herring, because the Second Amendment was not understood to protect an individual right to bear arms until literally 2008. If you take the “well-regulated militia” thing seriously, the Second Amendment is actually compatible with banning individual gun ownership.)

Furthermore, now that they’re being forced to notice the issue, they’re doing it in exactly the wrong way. The overwhelming majority of gun violence takes the form of suicides or accidents – school shootings are its least representative example. So not only should a properly functioning media be making this clear, but because the real causes of gun violence have been ongoing and are not based on dramatic spectacles, they should have been doing that this entire time. The fact that it falls to teenagers to shoulder this burden should be the furthest thing from a point of pride: it’s a source of deep, irredeemable shame. I mean, I’m not actually on an anti-media rant here; there have been plenty of people contextualizing the issue properly and pointing out that a lot of the proposed solutions would be deeply counterproductive. But the fact that the media is indulging in spectacle here, as well as the fact that they required a spectacle in order to get off their asses, illustrates the fundamental failure: the media doesn’t actually “investigate” or “raise issues.” They chase trends.

But the fact that we’re talking policy at all here is also its own problem. There’s nothing condescending about pointing out that most people have no fucking idea what would or wouldn’t be a good gun control policy. It will always necessarily be the case that most people don’t know about most things, because there are only so many hours in the day to spend reading up on shit. It’s natural for people, especially people who have been directly affected by an issue, to come up with objectively asinine solutions like this:

“Why don’t we have Kevlar vests in classrooms for our students? Why don’t we build our walls with Kevlar so that kids aren’t being shot through their own walls because they’re so cheaply built?”

Having people who specifically know stuff about policy and whose job it is to come up with effective solutions is not “elitism,” it’s just, like, people having different jobs. Everyone can’t be an expert on everything. So, again, the role of the general citizenry is to raise the issue, which should then lead the people whose job it is to both understand the issue in its proper context and come up with good solutions. Yet it’s pretty much a constant in political discourse to ask random assholes off the street to start opining about policy details, which is at best a complete waste of time and usually actively counterproductive. It’s not their job. Indeed, the failure in the above quote belongs not to the person who said it, but to the person who framed the issue such that the quote was produced in the first place. Shoving a camera in a grieving person’s face and asking them to elucidate policy prescriptions on the spot is exactly how you don’t do political journalism.

But of course we don’t actually have “elites” in this country, in the substantive sense of the term. We have a ruling class, but it very rarely includes anyone who’s any good at anything. What we actually have is elitism without eliteness. Our op-ed columnists are all anti-intellectual hacks, our philanthropists have all the philosophical sophistication of teenage Randroids, and our think tanks are all either partisan hackeries or nepotist sinecures. The role of think tanks here is especially important. The actual function they perform is to take the existing ideological biases of the ruling class and develop policies that satisfy those biases. The increasing salience of healthcare is making this particularly obvious. Everyone knows that the only real solution here is to take the profit motive out of medicine, but we’ve had to deal with decades of nonsense about “market-based solutions” or fucking whatever for no reason other than the ruling class having already decided that only solutions that preserve the ability to extract profits out of people’s illnesses were acceptable. An actual good-faith effort to develop a better healthcare system would have had single-payer implemented almost immediately, but instead it’s only just now becoming a credible option due to literally everyone in the country clamoring for it. Which is, you know, nice, but there’s no excuse for making us push that boulder all the way up the hill. It is, indeed, the exact opposite of the way that our society is supposed to be organized, and it gives the lie to the entire notion of having “qualified” people in charge. Not only do we have politicians who pick their own voters, but we also have policies that pick their own advocates.

And the thing about politicians really does bear repeating: the American political process fundamentally does not respond to what people actually want. The things that are supposed to function as democratic inputs to the system are almost all distractions. It doesn’t matter if some goober like Marco Rubio goes on TV and “gets his ass handed to him,” because after that he just goes back to Washington and keeps voting for more guns. It’s all just a day at the office for him. And the fact that it’s entertaining for us is a problem, because it focuses our attention in the wrong place, and makes us feel like something’s happening when it isn’t. It seems like a politician being humiliated on an important issue ought to matter somehow, but it just doesn’t. It’s empty catharsis. The reason people want this to be a watershed moment is, ironically, because they want to believe that they live in a functional society. They want to believe that a strong enough emotional appeal is enough to change things. Unfortunately, there’s little evidence to support this assumption. There’s no necessary connection between what people care about and the actions the ruling class chooses to take.

Worse, our general understanding of how to change things is similarly flawed. It’s beyond cliche to assert that “real change” is made by “ordinary people” going “out in the streets,” but there’s no necessary reason for this to be true. Politicians are just as capable of ignoring protests as they are of ignoring news stories and adversarial interviews. We’re still sort of razzled and dazzled by the mythology of the Civil Rights Movement, which is understandable, since that actually did result in unbelievably sweeping changes and it actually was powered by protests. So that really makes it seem like protesting is the thing to do. But even Martin Luther King, Jr. recognized that his commitment to nonviolent protest was as much a tactical choice as it was a moral one: it was the thing that happened to be effective at that time. It’s obvious that this wouldn’t have worked at earlier points in history – nobody would have given a shit if the slaves had “protested” – and it can’t simply be assumed that it’s going to continue working at this point in history.

It’s important to emphasize here that the point is not whether protesting is “good” or “bad,” but simply that it’s not magic. It has specific effects at specific times. For example, the first Women’s March last year actually turned out to have important effects, which I’ll admit I didn’t anticipate. Due to the combination of Trump’s inauguration being underattended and the immediately proceeding marches being overattended, they had the effect of creating the narrative of an embattled presidency from day one. This wasn’t necessarily going to happen. The first time Trump gave a speech off of a teleprompter and exploited a war widow, the media fell right on his dick. All those hacks are thirsty as fuck for legitimizing whoever the big man wearing the suit happens to be, so there was a real danger that Trump was going to become the new normal. Consistent and indeed obnoxious opposition made this not happen. (Worryingly, though, only half of this is actually due to the opposition – the other half is because Trump really is that much of a clueless bumblefuck. It would be the easiest thing in the world for him to just “act presidential” while doing all of the exact same things, but he’s just plain too incompetent to hack it. This has been said before, but what we’re really learning here is how deeply vulnerable America is to a competent fascist.) The second march, on the other hand, had no such contextual focus, so it didn’t do anything. It came and went. Even striking only works when you actually have your ducks in a row. The exact same tactic can just as easily be effective or useless depending on when and how it’s deployed.

And there’s still a very real danger that this is going to backfire. I mean, if you’re demanding “action” from the current administration, that’s exactly what you’re going to get. Naomi Klein’s “shock doctrine” theory still holds up pretty well here: whenever there’s cause for change, the ruling class uses the opportunity to make the changes they want. The NRA responds to literally every situation by calling for more guns, because that’s what they want, and they’re the people who are capable of getting what they want. It’s not at all surprising that we’re now seeing calls for constant police presence in schools: this is exactly the thing that we should expect to happen, given the current parameters of the society that we live in. This is the real threat that requires our opposition.

So there actually is a problem with what the teens are doing here: they’re making this about “safety.”1 It’s not. You can’t ever fully prevent things like mass shootings. Like, it’s appropriate to say “never again” to something like the Holocaust that has a lot of moving parts. Everything had to go wrong in order for it to happen, so as long as we remember to stay on guard against it, we should always be able to stop things before they get to that level (though that’s obviously a heavy “should”). A mass shooting is the opposite type of event: only one thing has to go wrong in order for it to happen, which means something like that is always going to be a possibility (even if you actually ban guns, there are still cars and homemade explosives and what have you). Obviously, things can be made safer; reducing the raw number of guns present will naturally reduce the number of gun-related accidents, and reduce the probability that the wrong person will have access to a gun at the wrong time. But there’s always going to be a chance that a gun is going to get through somewhere, which means, if you’re fully insistent on safety, that you have to institute a safeguard against that . . . and it has to be more of a threat than the gunner is capable of providing, or else it won’t be a deterrent . . . and it has to be everywhere, since you never know where the breach is going to occur. There’s only one conclusion: the logic of safety leads inexorably to a police state.

Thus, the quietist argument is in fact the best argument to be made against gun control. The rate of school shooting deaths is extremely low, and the rate of other deaths is comparable to other everyday threats, so the problem simply does not merit bothering with. If preventing deaths is what you’re after, you’re better off looking just about anywhere else. But there’s a better argument to be made on the other side: because guns don’t do anything useful, we might as well just go ahead and ban them. More than that, guns themselves already have negative utility, even before anyone gets shot. The whole “guns don’t kill people” thing is really the worst argument ever made, because of course guns kill people. Killing people is the only thing that guns do; it’s the entire reason they exist. Guns are objects, but nothing is “just” an object, because objects aren’t neutral. Without a gun it’s pretty fucking difficult to kill a person on accident, or even on purpose, but with a gun it’s trivially easy. This is a direct result of what type of object a gun is: it’s an object that kills people as effectively as possible.

The police state response at least honestly accounts for this: it acknowledges the fact that guns are extremely dangerous, and therefore advances an equally dangerous countermeasure as the only way to stop them. And this is a pro-safety argument: it is precisely not based on the idea that gun violence is “the price of freedom,” but rather the idea that safety must be preserved at any cost. It’s exactly the logical conclusion you get from following through on statements like “we cannot allow one more child to be shot at school.” The problem with this conclusion isn’t that it’s unsafe, it’s that it sucks. The threat of school shootings is better than a police state – and it’s also better than owning guns in the first place. That is, if it really were that case that “the only way to stop a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun,” we should still be opposed to guns, because guns are bad. We should accept the threat of gun violence for the sake of getting rid of guns.

That is: let’s grant the NRA their empirical argument. It may in fact be that case that, in a gun-saturated society, a lot of people who would otherwise do bad things won’t do them, but the reason for this is that they’re afraid of getting shot. And the only way this works is if everyone lives in that state of fear, all the time. A society where everyone constantly carries guns with the intent of using them to stop crimes is just a distributed and untrained police state. So the empirical issue of whether this type of society is “safer” or not is ultimately beside the point, because it’s an undesirable way to live regardless of the specific consequences that ensue from it. The cure is worse than the disease. The other alternative is that we remove as much violence as possible from everyday living, which will necessarily make us more vulnerable on those occasions when violence does end up occurring. Obviously, we’re not going to make ourselves naively vulnerable, reasonable safeguards are still reasonable, but it is within our abilities to focus on living well rather than jumping at every shadow and cowering around every corner. This is the argument that actually disarms the NRA, because it takes away the only real motivation they have, which is fear. What the NRA truly stands for is cowardice, so it’s important for those of us who oppose them to ensure that we do not make the same mistake.

An excessive focus on safety will always eventually resolve itself into illusion. There isn’t really anything that’s perfectly safe, but there are things that look that way, so doing something that looks safe is your actual practical option. If you’re scared of violent immigrants, there isn’t any real approach you can take to ensure that you’re never victimized. But you could, hypothetically, build some kind of big symbol that represents safety, such that looking at it and knowing that it’s there makes you feel safe, even though it doesn’t really do anything. I mean, living in denial really is a real choice you can make, and it’s the choice that most Americans make most of the time. So this isn’t a trivial dilemma. We really do have to decide what our values are. A magical Care Bear society where nothing bad ever happens is not one of the options, because there’s no such thing. The actual options are a society of constant violence where all problems are solved through further repression, or a society of civility where we accept the threat of tragedy for the sake of preserving human dignity. This is a real choice that has honest advocates on both sides. It’s clear to me what the right choice is, and if it’s clear to you, too, you shouldn’t hide behind facile invocations of “safety” and “responsibility.” You should say what you really believe.

And the extent to which the teens aren’t doing this is simply the extent to which they’re acting the way they’ve been taught to. They watch the news and they know that you’re supposed to say things like “this is not a political issue” and ask “tough questions” and make histrionic statements about “living in terror,” so that’s what they’ve been doing. But their initial emotional response was the right one. If the same number of kids had died as the result of a bus crash or something, it wouldn’t have had the same galvanizing effect, because there wouldn’t have been anything obviously “wrong” with it. But a society swimming in guns is, to these kids, obviously wrong, which is why they’re not standing for it. They actually do have a strong grasp on the relevant value claim here. The only problem is that the rest of us are doing our damnedest to pry it away from them. The potential negative consequences of their actions are simply a result of their being filtered through a society that gets literally everything wrong.

Violence is always a political issue, and there are more than two sides to every story. Getting your own story straight – making the right argument instead of the easy one – is the only thing that gives an ordinary person any real power. Doing the opposite, saying the easiest thing, or the thing that attracts the most attention, is how you ensure that society will be able to resolve your passion into support for the status quo. Most importantly, any issue of substance is not merely a “mistake” or an “inefficiency,” but a real value contest, with someone on the other side who is genuinely opposed to what you believe in and is pushing against you as hard as they can. They’ll act like they aren’t, like they “want what’s best for everyone” and are “just trying to find a reasonable solution,” but the fact that there was a problem in the first place – that you felt that scream in your heart insisting that this is wrong – is what proves them to be liars. The task of creating a real society is precisely the task of identifying your enemies and figuring out how to kill them. None of the easy targets here matter. Indeed, the reason they’re easy targets is because they don’t matter – they’re decoys. The thing we need to call BS on here is America.

We’re never going to be able to return to innocence, because innocence was an illusion in the first place. There never was a Garden of Eden, there’s just the regular kind of garden, where sometimes things grow and sometimes they don’t – which, of course, makes it all the more important to apply our full efforts to the task. But the real threat we have to watch out for isn’t that young lives might be cut short. It’s that they’re going to grow up shaped by the confines of the same system that killed their peers, and, in so doing, become just like the rest of us.

 


  1. Yeah, I know, I’m an asshole. Surprise! 

Against facts

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 


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

Long con

Deadspin brings us the story of a ridiculous “longform” piece from something called SB Nation defending that one rapist cop (you know, that one cop who saw his job as an opportunity to fulfill his pathetic male power fantasies) on the grounds that, uh, he used to play football, I guess. The point is that this is identified not as an individual failure, but as a fundamental problem with the concept of longform writing:

“There had never been a complete failure of concept and execution quite like this one, but it was nearly inevitable. If a company has a gorgeous CMS designed for longform, and a mandate to produce longform, and staff in place to present longform, it’s going to publish longform—whether the stories are there or not.”

Obviously, the problem with the “longform” concept is right there in the name: “long” is not a format. It’s a one-dimensional quantity that imparts no further information. Length does not imply complexity, incisiveness, or insight; nor does it necessitate ponderous meandering. But the fact that the concept exists at all means it has to refer to something. In particular, there are websites that aggregate longform articles regardless of subject matter. Someone who sits down to browse one of these sites is not thinking “I feel like reading something long today.” So what are they actually looking for?

It’s clear what role the longform concept fills in the ecosystem of the internet. It’s a countertrend against the bite-sized “content” delivery of tweets, listicles, and slideshows. In other words, longform pieces are supposed to be substantive. But substance comes in many forms; again, length is not antonymous with vapidity. So what longform pieces actually are is a fantasy: the fantasy that you can avoid being mislead by prejudice and trendiness if you put in the effort to read allllll about something and get the “complete” picture. They’re nuanced, where “nuance” is an internet buzzword for “look at how objective and reasonable I’m being.” The temptation of the internet’s infinite information illusion is that it makes it seem like you can get all the facts, that one perfect story can explain everything. The longform concept insists that there is such a story to be told for every subject. This is not the case.

Hilariously, Deadspin itself falls into this exact trap with their longform piece explaining why longform pieces are fundamentally flawed. The essay aggregates plenty of data about the SB Nation piece, but despite aspiring to figure out “how it happened,” none of it is actually explanatory. For example, word count enforcement is cited as a mechanism for padding non-stories into vectors for insight:

“When Stout launched SB Nation Longform in the fall of 2012, the idea was very much that Stout could bring prestige to the site by regularly running long stories—not stories aspiring to a certain complexity, note, but long ones. One freelancer said that per the terms of his contract, the story had to be at least 4,000 words long.”

Obviously having a strict word count like this is a dumb idea, but it doesn’t actually apply to the piece in question, which was 12,000 words – three times the “required” length. So the issue was not that the author was inflating irrelevant details to make word count; rather, they clearly felt that they had a hell of a lot to say. Similarly, Deadspin claims that “this story serves as an example of why diversity in the newsroom is so important,” as anyone familiar with the dynamics of rape culture would surely have put the brakes on it. But in fact, that exact thing actually happened. The one black woman involved in the process raised hell about it, and was casually overruled. So the story is actually an example of why “diversity” doesn’t fucking matter as long as the same old power dynamics are still in play.

The actual issue here has nothing to do with the mechanics of longform – at least not the explicit ones. The issue isn’t the particular format in which the story was told, it’s the fact that it was told at all. As Jezebel points out, there was fundamentally no story here:

“The question, of course, is why Arnold felt Holtzclaw deserved a more rounded portrait in the first place. By most accounts, Holtzclaw is an unexceptional man who has been found guilty of serial rape. The difference between Holtzclaw and other men who sexually assault women is that his position as a police officer allowed him a unique opportunity to brutalize his victims while keeping them silent. The other difference, of course, is that Holtzclaw actually got caught and will pay for his crimes.”

In other words, any story proceeding from this angle – regardless of length or process or who was writing it – was going to be worthless. The actual direct fist-to-the-face cause of this debacle was that everyone involved in it, excluding the lone ignored objector, thought it would be a good idea to write a sympathetic story about a serial rapist. And this – the idea that there must be a story to be told from the rapist’s perspective, that there must be some mitigating factor to “explain” the situation in the moral sense – is in fact one of the pillars of rape culture.

It’s commonly understood, I hope, that any kind of real understanding of basically anything requires multiple stories from multiple perspectives. But the one thing that stories need to be is true, not merely factually but in the fullest sense: they need to be the right stories. The seemingly-free publishing space of the internet makes it too easy to respond to everything with more words, with an explanation of why someone else’s explanation of an explanation is wrong (which is obviously what I’m doing right now). What’s needed to cut through the fog of confusion is not the ponderous weight of nuance, but the thin, bright blade of discernment. Truth does not result from the aggregate of all lies; it must be carved out. Lines must be drawn. That’s why sometimes, even often, the right story is no story.