Circus of values

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There was recently a, um . . . I don’t even know what to call these things anymore; it doesn’t rise to the level of like “controversy” or “scandal” or anything, but it’s a “thing that people on the internet get offended about for ten minutes.” You know. Anyway it was about how The Simpsons is totally racist, and it was notable for its display of near-complete point-missing in all available directions.

So the usual thing happened where someone was expected to “respond” to something and they did a bad job of it, and this caused “outrage” and etc., but the thing about this is that nothing else was ever going to happen. The thing that is currently being called “The Simpsons” is not a good show, by which I mean it is not a worthwhile show, by which I mean it is not worth anyone’s while to see what it “has to say.” Paying attention to it right now is equivalent to huffing the fumes that it’s running on. By extension, there’s no point in criticizing the current iteration of the show, either, because there’s nothing there to criticize.

Of course, the original criticism about Apu being a racist caricature was mainly directed at the actual show back when it was an actual show, because that’s the part that people actually watch and therefore know the character from, so that’s an entirely worthwhile endeavor (I’m judiciously avoiding adjudicating the substance of the criticism itself here). But precisely because this endeavor is worthwhile, it’s also non-trivial. It’s not enough to merely point out that the character is a racist stereotype, because the fact that the show was well-written means that it did something with the stereotype (actually, pretty much the entire show can be described as “doing something with stereotypes.” Homer is also a stereotype, obviously), which means you have to go a step further: you have to argue against the thing that the show actually did. So a lot of people have responded to this by pointing out the ways in which Apu went against stereotype or was just a well-portrayed character in general, but this is only a valid defense against the simplistic (which is not to say incorrect) argument that Stereotypes Are Bad. It can be overcome by the stronger argument that a well-written and intentionally positive portrayal can nonetheless insidiously advance racism.

And succeeding in making this argument is a real achievement: it changes people’s understanding of the situation and refines the lens of analysis that we can then use going forward. (I mean, this is the only possible purpose. You can’t go back and un-write the show and reverse the influences it’s already had on people. You can only do better in the future.) But in the same sense, succeeding with the trivial version of the claim only results in a trivial achievement. You can successfully advance the proposition that Bad Thing Is Bad, but this doesn’t actually help anyone or change anything in any significant way.

This is why it’s crucially important to not merely attempt to position yourself on the right side of an obvious bright line, but to make an argument that’s actually worth making. For example, people have pointed to the fact the Apu was in an arranged marriage and had eight kids as examples of how he’s a reductive stereotype, but the reason these things happened is specifically because the show was out of ideas and therefore resorting to hackneyed bullshit to keep people attention. Of course they’re reductive, because the show was precisely being reductive at that point. This isn’t evidence of how racism works or anything like that, it’s just evidence that hacks are hacks. This is the furthest thing from aesthetic snobbishness; it’s a strong contrast with the argument against the good version of the show. If you have an argument against the show when it was good, you have an argument about how racism perpetuates itself even when people are doing a good job with things and even trying to be actively anti-racist, which means you have an argument that matters, because it can actually be used to help people do anti-racism better in the future.

In short, two things that initially look like slightly different versions of the same thing – the argument against Real Apu and the argument against Hack Apu – are in fact complete opposites. One of them maintains everyone’s existing understanding of the situation by arguing against something everyone already knows is an Official Bad Thing, and one of them advances the existing understanding by demonstrating that something people were assuming was good actually has practical negative consequences. Thus, choosing the wrong thing to argue against here does not merely weaken your position, it inverts it, such that your efforts end up having the opposite of their intended effect.

This is such a major problem that there’s actually a significant sense in which the internet has reduced the total amount of discourse happening. There’s plenty of talking going on, but so little of it is about anything relevant to anything that the net elucidation has been reduced. People think they’re arguing about things, when what they’re actually doing is preventing those issues from being argued about. I mean, it’s too much to claim that this always happens and that internet discussions never go anywhere, but it definitely is a real and serious problem that no one’s really trying to do anything about. And at any rate you can’t un-invent the genie, there’s no actual “anti-internet” argument to be made, which is why you – meaning you, personally – have to make a serious effort to talk about things that matter and ignore things that don’t, to eschew easy targets and make the effort to reach higher ones, and to cease to avail yourself of convenient arguments and accept the constraints of making correct ones. Only you can prevent garbage fires.

So let’s work an example. We’ve got a convenient one right now, because we’re right on the tail end (Eris willing) of a vomit cyclone exuded by one the true masters of the form: Kanye West. If you haven’t heard (in which case I envy you more than words can convey), it turns out that West is a supporter of the Bad Politics Person, which by extension makes him a Bad Politics Person, which means it is the solemn duty of all Good Politics People to respond with Stern Moral Denunciations. I can assure you that my dickishness here is sincere. What I just wrote is the actual substance of the event. There isn’t any “underlying meaning” or anything to “interpret” or “analyze” or “understand.” There’s a completely clueless person being completely clueless and a bunch of thirsty social-climbers building their Twitter brands in response.

I want to make sure we all understand what’s really happening here in technical terms. Politics matters. It is a supremely practical subject that directly impacts the daily lives of everyone who’s alive. So the fact of Donald Trump being president is among the most important of our current issues – it is perhaps the defining intellectual challenge of our time, and its resolution may well determine the future course of human history (if any). So what paying attention to the wrong thing here does is prevent this challenge from being met.

If, by promoting certain types of stories and advancing a certain narrative, we understand Trump as, for example, a Russian plant, then that’s necessarily going to lead to actions that respond to that understanding – for example, starting a new Cold War. So the thing about this is that a lot of the Russia claims are probably true; just given the facts of who Trump is, he’s more likely than not in hock to Russian gangsters (and of course the claim that Russia “interfered” with the election is trivially true; every large country does this all the time). But mere fact that a fact is true isn’t actually enough of a justification for saying it, because saying something is an action, so the question necessarily has to be: what are the results of your actions going to be? (This also includes the opportunity costs of not taking different actions.) And the more prominent of a platform you have, the more salient of a question this is, and the more variables you have to consider in order to answer it correctly.

The more important an issue is, the less effective it is to throw the kitchen sink at it. The kitchen sink approach works fine for trivial issues precisely because they’re trivial: you only need the one good hit to knock them out. But hard targets require more than that: they require focused effort against their specific vulnerabilities. Any effort that isn’t correctly targeted is effort that isn’t being applied where it’s needed. Worse, hard targets are complex, which means feedback effects: something that seems like it ought to be effective can easily trigger counterproductive responses. So the more hardened the target is, the more important is is to attack from all correct angles, and from only those angles which are correct.

If there actually was anything at all going on with West’s politics (that is, if he actually had politics), then that would be worth addressing: it would be among the correct angles. But the problem with West is not that he’s getting involved in politics, it’s that he isn’t. He isn’t actually talking about Trump or the underlying political situation or history or America or race or anything. He’s talking about dragon energy. So the practical consequence that transpires from talking about Kanye West talking about dragon energy is that attention and energy that would otherwise be spent on addressing the most important issues of our time are otherwise being spent on nothing.

It is also not the case that West has “lost his way” or gotten “confused” or anything along those lines. The fact of the matter is that West said one sort of on-point thing one time and has just been a provocative jackass the entire rest of the time.1 Statistically, the only rational conclusion is that the one good thing was a fluke. And what really mandates this conclusion is the fact that the one good thing wasn’t even any good. It’s actually a shame that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” is such a classic line, because it’s entirely beside the point. What George Bush does or doesn’t care about has nothing to do with what happened in New Orleans or with anything else. I mean, Barack Obama presumably does care about black people, and his administration oversaw a massive destruction of black wealth. That’s not how any of this works. Talking about things in this manner specifically means understanding things wrong.

This is not a call for naive intellectualization. Sometimes the stupidest explanation really is the real explanation, and figuring it out requires you to look at and properly analyze the stupidest available evidence. Maybe Trump supporters have thoroughly-considered grievances against globalization and modern liberalism, or maybe they’re a bunch of racists who fell for history’s most obvious con. (The real explanation generally requires taking a little bit of everything into account. It’s a big world out there.) What being a real intellectual means is not picking the explanation that seems the “smartest,” but figuring out which one is actually real. Either way, though, West is the absolute least representative person to look to for insight on this issue. One could, in theory, figure out what West actually believes and why he believes it, but precisely because West is an “exceptional” person, this information has no bearing on anything besides West himself. This is the part where the “real Americans” cliche actually has its merit: if a person is a clueless sucker, but is also a representative example of a large number of clueless suckers, then the question of why that person is a clueless sucker matters, because answering it tells us something we can do about the situation. Paying attention to people like West takes us further away from this goal: what we learn from his situation, if anything, is incorrect when applied to almost any other situation. It’s a test graded with the wrong answer key.

This also doesn’t mean that the only valid response is stone-faced just-the-facts asceticism – in fact, that’s almost always a version of the wrong response. It’s worth shaming someone for their opinion on an issue when that opinion is actually based on a particular understanding of the issue and they’re actually capable of shame, neither of which applies to West. It’s even, on occasion, worth issuing a Stern Moral Denunciation when there’s actually a substantive issue on which moral clarity is useful, which is not the kind of thing that West has ever engaged with. And there are plenty of times when cultural or aesthetic events point the way to deeper understanding of important issues. Arguing about the portrayal of Apu during the good episodes of The Simpsons really is useful anti-racist praxis. Indeed, there are also plenty of times when stern discussions of policy and economics function precisely as means of avoiding real discussion. The entire Hillary Clinton campaign, for example, was about “qualifications” and “pragmatism” and was in precisely this way not about any actual issues. Talking much about policy can also be a means to conceal policy. The point is simply that there are useful things to talk about and there are useless things to talk about, and picking the useless thing isn’t a simple inefficiency or a matter of preference. It’s a serious error that causes real harm.

It’s also important to understand that we’re talking specifically about public discourse here – that is, we’re talking about The Media. Obviously, chatting with your friends about whatever random bullshit you happen to find enjoyable is entirely laudable behavior. The problem is the bullshitting on the internet looks like a casual conversation, but it’s actually not – it’s actually what The Media is now. When you have a platform – when a certain number of people are guaranteed to read what you’re writing simply because of where you’re writing it (this is the specific things that it means for something to be part of “the media”: it mediates) – you have a responsibility, because what you’re writing creates the context in which other people have discussions. Any media piece that claims to be “responding” to what “the media” is doing is fundamentally lying: said piece is itself doing the thing that it’s pretending to respond to.

For example, the only reason anyone thinks that there’s a “campus free speech” issue is that a bunch of prominent columnists keep writing about it – it is the columnists and not the protesters who create the issue. You also see this any time anyone claims that something is happening “on Twitter.” What actually happens is that writing about Twitter is itself the thing that draws attention to and frames a certain sector of activity and therefore creates the event that is claimed to be happening “on Twitter.”

Of course, none of this happens in a vacuum. A lot of people would argue that they have to “respond” when someone like West starts mouthing off, simply because he commands attention; that is, even though what he’s saying isn’t at all relevant, the fact of him saying it is. This isn’t totally a defeatist argument. It’s true that if the situation is such that people are already engaging in a bunch of useless gibbering about something, or if you can accurately predict that that’s going to happen, then ignoring it doesn’t accomplish anything, so you might as well try to up the average by saying something slightly more useful. But the thing about this is that it doesn’t justify just any response. It justifies exactly one response: to convince everyone else to stop paying any attention to Kanye West, and in so doing redivert attention onto the real issue. Trying to explain what he’s saying or argue against him has the opposite of the desired effect: it doesn’t elucidate anything, because there’s not actually anything being talked about, and it draws more attention to West and to what he’s saying, and therefore necessarily diverts attention away from the actual substance of the issues that are supposedly so important that they must be responded to immediately.

The real reason this is important is that the media’s power to create issues can also be used positively: it can create real issues. A strong example of this is the opioid crisis. Because this is largely a regional phenomenon, a lot of people don’t have direct experience with it. Also, the people who do have experience with it are generally not in much of a position to raise the issue themselves. It actually is the media’s job here to create this issue: to inform people that something as bad as the AIDS crisis is happening right now, and to insist that they care about it. So hyping trivial bullshit isn’t just a foible or an annoyance: it has the total opportunity cost of the difference between the negative value of the useless vector of discussed and the potential positive value that could be realized by discussing the same thing along a worthwhile vector. For example, every time you read an article about some dumbass thing Trump says about North Korea, you’re both damaging your brain in the amount of how dumb it is and missing out on learning something about what’s really going on with the Korean conflict.

You can obviously go on all day with this; to take just the most obvious examples, global warming and nuclear weapons are our two main civilization-level threats right now, and they get almost no accurate coverage. Nuclear weapons coverage is always about what might happen if those bad people over there start building nukes, and not about the people who actually possess and are potentially willing to use world-destroying amounts of them – such as, for example, any of the times the United States itself has almost blown up the world, and how our constant warmongering is making nuclear accidents more likely. And all of the stentorian prattling about “accepting the facts” of global warming doesn’t really help as long as any discussion of anything serious that could actually be done about it is preemptively removed from the table (not being a denialist doesn’t really count if you’re still in denial about any way to solve the problem). So this isn’t, y’know, “media criticism.” This is fucking serious. It’s not just that it’s within your abilities to avoid falling face-down into the mud at every opportunity, it’s that you could be saving the world, and instead you’re choosing to eat garbage.

Going after easy targets is one thing. It’s dishonorable, but we’re only human, and in a situation like that it’s at least possible to make worthwhile arguments. But going after inaccurate targets is another thing entirely – it’s actively counterproductive. The only person you’re clowning in that situation is yourself.

 


  1. Also, it’s highly likely that West’s behavior is not the result of him being “provocative” or even being an out-of-touch rich fuck, but is in fact the result of serious mental illness, which isn’t being treated because everyone thinks he’s a wacky savant or whatever. So in this case specifically there’s actually a whole other level of harm that this is causing: everyone treating West like a provocateur is preventing him from getting the help he needs, and also preventing us as a society from treating metal illness with the seriousness it deserves. 

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! 

Bubble babble

I’m entirely certain you’re well-acquainted with the idea that “media bubbles” are a big problem right now, effecting disinformation and perverting ideology and generally destroying society in an orgy of postmodern technological mediation. Certainly, there is cause for concern; unlike in the past, when everyone had complete correct information that they used to make fully rational decisions, nowadays humans have somehow become closed-minded and parochial. The figure of the barely-informed loudmouth shouting his kneejerk opinions into the public square represents a truly new development in history. And now that bad things are happening in politics, which has never been the case before, it’s clear that something must have gone horribly wrong.

No, okay, so I’m super annoyed about all the hyperventilation, there’s nothing more obnoxious than small-minded arguments against small-mindedness, but there’s also a real issue here. The internet certainly is generating a world-historical amount of garbage data, and political polarization really has increased to an extreme degree. The fundamental dynamic at issue here is what pretentious people like to call “epistemic closure.” When one’s sources of information or methods for evaluating it are limited in some fundamental way, certain areas of knowledge become inaccessible – or, worse, only accessible in the wrong way, such that the formation of inaccurate ideas comes to be considered true knowledge. Fox News will never give a sympathetic hearing to an idea like universal single-payer health care, so if that’s where all your information comes from, you can never develop an informed opinion on this topic. It’s important to realize that this is an absolute constraint; it’s not that it becomes harder to get to the truth, it’s that it becomes impossible. This is the double-edge of the Enlightenment ideal: since there’s no such thing as divine wisdom or whatever, you cannot form correct ideas without accurate and comprehensive information, regardless of how smart or conscientious or committed you are.

Now, one of the few positive results of the 2016 election is that no one is any longer laboring under the delusion that there’s any kind of “unbiased” source that can be relied on for complete information. “Traditional” news sources simply represent one particular set of biases. There’s plenty of issues on which they’re incapable of informing you. Most obviously, an enforced centrist perspective will fail to understand a situation where the “center” is falling apart and all new growth is happening on the “extremes” (that is, it will understand the situation incorrectly, as a “breakdown of communication” or a “legitimacy crisis” or whatever). So the popular response to this is the idea of a “balanced media diet.” The worry is that the internet allows and/or forces people to self-sort into ever more polarized communities, so you have to make the effort to seek out sources that oppose your existing beliefs. The villains then become “algorithms” that deliver pre-polarized information, or “cult-like” communities that suppress dissent.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. The most important source of epistemic closure is our finitude as physical beings. Simply put, there are only so many hours each day you can spend reading shit, so it’s more than a little odd to argue that people should be spending more of said hours reading things they believe to be more wrong. If you could really read everything, and also spend the requisite time to analyze and distill it all, then sure, that would solve the problem. In reality, though, you have to choose what you’re going to care about, and any choice you make is going to define a particular horizon. If you’re a feminist, for example, you could spend half of your time reading feminist sources and the other half reading anti-feminist sources, and this would give you a “balanced” perspective, in the sense that you’d understand what’s going on on both sides. But this understanding will necessarily be shallower than the one you’d get by focusing your time on one side; you’ll miss deeper arguments and distinctions and internal diversity. For one thing, you might come to believe that there are only “two sides,” which is not the case. Anyone who knows a second thing about feminism knows that its herstory is coated with blood spilled by many thousands of vicious internal disagreements. One way to get over feminist dogmatism is to read more anti-feminism, but an equally effective option is to read more feminism. There isn’t one choice that “works” and one choice that doesn’t. There are different choices that have different effects. Some bubbles are bigger than others, but you can’t not be in a bubble.

This is why blaming the internet or “algorithms” or whatever misses the mark. Like, I don’t enjoy defending tech assholes, but they really just aren’t relevant to this situation. There is a sort of consumer rights issue here; people should be able to find out how their feeds and things are being customized and change them if they want to. But arguing that search results should be more “responsible” is arguing the opposite: it’s arguing for non-transparent corporations to have more control over what people read. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that most people talking about this are only thinking things through from their side. They see lots of “bad” articles floating around, and they feel like “someone should do something,” so they imagine that Google can somehow code social responsibility for them. Practically speaking, though, you can’t make that kind of a distinction in general.1 “Misinformation” is a value judgment made by the end user. If you write an algorithm that adds more articles about global warming to the feeds of denialists, that same algorithm will necessarily also add more denialist articles to the feeds of people who believe in global warming. You can’t have it both ways. Rather, trying to have it both ways is exactly how things get fucked up. Someone at the New York Times gets it into their head that they have a “liberal bias” that needs to be corrected, so they hire an Islamophobic global warming denialist to write opinion columns. Problem solved.

People want to read things that accord with their beliefs, and – this is the important part – they have good reasons for doing so. The reason feminists, for example, disprefer reading misogynist diatribes isn’t because they’re offended or whatever, it’s because they believe feminism to be true, and they’re obviously more interested in reading things that are probably true than things that are probably false.

You don’t just automatically start understanding things once you’ve read broadly enough. You have to process the information, and how you do that – and why you’re doing it – is going to affect what conclusions you end up with. Like, there is a problem with certain types of feminists spending all of their time yelling at Bad Things and not actually developing their ideas. But if you’re one of these people, and you decide to “broaden your media diet,” all that’s going to happen is that you’re going to find more things to yell at. It’s going to strengthen your existing biases, and that’s going to happen regardless of what it is that you’re reading, and the reason for this is because it’s what you want. This isn’t even a bad thing, because the only way this is not the case is if you lack the ability to critically analyze information, which is, um, a somewhat worse situation to be in. If your goal is just to avoid being wrong, then you might as well not read anything. But if your reason for reading things and drawing conclusions is to do something with the information, then you can’t just wait around until you’re “sure,” because that’s never. In order to actually get somewhere, you have to take a stand somewhere and start moving, which will necessitate rejecting opposing ideas. Breathing underwater requires a bubble.

I’m not just applying this to my own side, either. The fact that people believe all kinds of weird conspiracy theories about the Clintons makes perfect sense, because the Clintons really are classic amoral political schemers, so if you’re opposed to them, it’s more accurate than not to assume that they’re up to some shady shit. Besides, liberals believe whatever nonsense people come up with about Trump, too. It’s the same thing. This is the normal way human communication works.

It does remain the case that the normal way human communication works is badly, and that real lies have real consequences. If you believe that Planned Parenthood is literally dismembering infants and selling their body parts to, uh, somebody (I’m not deep enough into this to know whence the nationwide demand for baby torsos supposedly originates), your advocacy on the subject is going to be somewhat more zealous. But learning the actual fact that only X% of Planned Parenthood’s expenditures go towards abortion-related services doesn’t change the moral calculus of the situation. If abortion is evil, then a little bit of it is still evil. It’s certainly worthwhile to correct lies, but you can’t fact-check your way around morality. If abortion is actually moral, then Planned Parenthood’s particular operating details don’t matter. An organization that spent 100% of its funds on abortion and sold the remains for ice cream money would be a moral organization. Focusing on the nuts and bolts here means dodging the real issue, and this is generally the case in political discussions. Even if Clinton really did use her secret email server to help the Illuminati plan Benghazi, the actual question at hand remains which policies we prefer to advance as a society. In general, misinformation does not add a unique problem to our existing difficulties in figuring out how to talk to each other. It makes things worse, but it’s not itself a crisis.

What is a crisis is when these sorts of discussions become impossible, when an enforced “healthy diet” drains the flavor from the world. When you’re stuck reading nothing but “respectable” media sources, that’s when you have a real problem, and extremism is the solution to that problem. It’s what makes new things possible. Which means that, yes, even the recent explosive growth of rightist extremism has to be understood as a positive development. InfoWars may be maximally false, but if you don’t have InfoWars, you also don’t have the truth. The fact that people have these beliefs is a bad thing, of course, but given that they do, it’s better for them to be out in the open. I mean, their agenda hasn’t actually changed, right? Reagan talked pretty on the TV, but his whole cut-services-and-fellate-corporations deal was exactly the same thing as what the current government’s up to right now. People lately have been praising Bush Jr. for talking nice about Islam, but he was doing this at the same time that his administration was turning Muslims into America’s new Great Civilizational Enemy; Trump is just picking up where he left off. Those situations were worse than the one we’re in now – rather, those situations are why we’re now in our current situation – because there was more obfuscatory rhetoric that had to be disentangled before you could get at what was really going on. This is now less of a problem; we’re getting closer to the point where people actually know what the stakes are.

It’s comforting to imagine that there’s a “middle ground” where we can all get along peaceably, but there’s not. Extremism doesn’t create disagreements, it reveals the disagreements that were already there, because people have real disagreements. Pretending this is not the case prevents anything worthwhile from ever happening. We don’t want a society where there’s “reasonable debate” about sexism, where half the time the Hyde Amendment is in place and half the time it isn’t. We want a society where sexism doesn’t exist. We want everyone trapped inside the feminism bubble, permanently.

This is the truth that must be acknowledged. All the things that people are so concerned about these days – political polarization, ideological extremism, the speed and diversity of information, the dethronement of traditionally respected sources of various kinds of authority – are the things that are, in spite of everything, going well. There’s no way to “fix” this, because it’s not broken. What was broken was the “end of history” bullshit that convinced people there were no fights left to be had, and that situation is now better. We are more confused now because we are closer to the truth – we have, in at least some sense, stopped lying. This is what has to happen. Getting the ocean without the roar of its many waters is not a real option. The real options are: retreat or advance.

 


  1. From a technical perspective, the reason this can’t work is that you have to write the code before you know what data it’s going to be run against, so you would have to be able to predict what information is going to be true or false before that information has actually been generated, meaning you can’t rely on the details of the information itself, meaning you can’t actually be making a real judgment as to whether it’s “disinformation” or not; you can only be relying on contextual coincidence. And if you try to get around this by using human intervention, all you’ve done is appointed an arbitrary, unaccountable person to act as an arbiter of truth, which is obviously several steps backwards. 

This story must be told

Okay, one more obnoxious post-election lecture and then I’m going to get back to what I was supposed to be working on before the bottom fell out of the world. That’s not a retreat, by the way, it’s actually my first point: the way we get through this is by recognizing that we have better things to do than to pay attention to fucking politicians all day. The way we defeat Trump is by resisting where we can but otherwise continuing on as though he has no power over us, because he doesn’t. Living well is the best revenge.

The problem right now is that people are making various points about everything but nobody’s really connecting the dots. The question isn’t why the media guessed wrong about the outcome, that obviously doesn’t fucking matter, the question is why the media was unable to convey to Trump supporters the fact that he was not actually going to help them. Especially seeing as that’s the exact thing that the media is supposed to be for. Like, of course the Democrats aren’t doing anything to help people who are economically struggling, of course Clinton didn’t offer people anything in this regard, and of course we are required to address this issue if we are to have any hope of constructing a society that works for people. It would be one thing if Trump were a racist/sexist/authoritarian/etc. who was actually going to try to help people who are getting screwed over by technocratic globalization. In that case we would have to have a conversation about tradeoffs and symbolism and soforth. But everyone who’s been paying attention agrees that he’s bad for all those other reasons and he’s also going to be terrible for poor people. So this is not about signing on to Clinton’s agenda, it’s just that anyone concerned about any issue should have recognized that, on whatever issue that was, Clinton would have been less bad than Trump. Asking “whether” Trump won because of racism or economic anxiety is a stupid question, both because the answer is obviously both and because either issue should have disqualified him: his administration is going to be super racist and it’s also not going to help poor people in any way. We do still have to go through all of the usual political nitpicking and maneuvering and everything, but the fact that the worst possible candidate won is a critical issue all by itself.

When Trump started getting popular based on racism, the various branches of the political establishment noticed it, and their reaction was to support other candidates. So there was the “never Trump” movement during the primaries, and then there were all the newspaper endorsements of Clinton during the general. The logic was: “Trump’s campaign is racist, and that’s unacceptable; therefore, you should vote for someone else.” But this is backwards right off the bat: what Trump’s support indicated was precisely that racism is acceptable. Hence, the syllogism fails to hold: people who never thought that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale in the first place were given no reason to change their minds. Rather, the response to realizing that people are more racist than you thought must be to start doing better at fighting racism. There’s been some complaining that the media just wrote Trump supporters off as racists without trying to understand their concerns, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we’re doing something about it. If a better candidate than Clinton had adequately addressed the concerns of working-class voters and thereby won them over, that would not have addressed this issue. It would not have reduced the acceptability of racism. We want it to be the case that racist demagogues are rejected by the general population.

The argument against calling Trump supporters racists is that, sure, people noticed that Trump was running a racist campaign, they just didn’t think that was a big deal; they voted for him for other reasons. Any given voter may have done something to indirectly promote racism, but that doesn’t make them A Racist. But this is an absurd distinction: what can possibly define a racist person other than engaging in racist behavior? If I, during a friendly visit to your home, steal a $20 bill that you left on your dresser, I am a thief, regardless of whether I have ever stolen before or ever will again, and regardless of my opinions on the merits of private property or the conditions under which coercive economic redistribution is justified. And of course all the times I respected your property do nothing to absolve me. I am a thief because I am a person who has “engaged in stealing behavior.” When you find out about this and respond by calling me a thief to my face, you are correctly assessing the situation. In precisely this sense, everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. They engaged in racist behavior.

I really hope this doesn’t come across as a brag, but if you call me a racist, that’s going to be the start of a conversation. If I have some sort of racist tendencies, or I’m making an argument which is racist in some way (both of which are probably true some of the time), I’d like to know about that, and I’m more interested in this than I am in defending myself against charges of being a big bad racist. For most people, being called a racist is the end of any possible conversation. “Racist” is a pure insult, like being called a shithead or human garbage, so once that word comes out, there’s nothing more to talk about. You have no option other than to get offended and angry. The reason for this is that most people have no concept of racism as a structure, which means they have no means with which to analyze claims of racism. So yes, calling people racists doesn’t help, but the solution is not to avoid the issue, it is to start talking about that structure, such that the relevant types of conversations become possible to have.

Regarding Trump specifically, he always does the normal thing were he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” and is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” and etc., and for most people this resolves the issue. Sure, he may “go a little too far” sometimes, but the fact that he says he cares about helping black people means he must necessarily not be a racist. In the same sense, the fact that he hires women for executive positions sometimes must mean that he’s not a sexist.

Let’s follow up on that notion, seeing as it’s become kind of a thing recently to assume that a woman climbing up the corporate ladder is “empowering” and therefore feminist. There’s a specific reason why money is a feminist issue, which is that women being able to support themselves means they are not dependent on men for survival. It does not follow that a woman earning a lot of money is necessarily freeing herself from oppression. If, for example, two paychecks are needed to support her family and she’s still tacitly required to do all of the housework and childcare, then her earning money is in fact not liberatory, but merely another, shinier-looking chain. Understanding things in this sense makes it very easy to understand why “leaning in” is bullshit: it encourages women to embrace rather than resist oppression. (I mean, it’s right there in the name. I was initially very confused as to how anyone calling themself a feminist could view “leaning in” as anything other than a con. I hate hippies, but it’s pretty depressing that we’ve fallen behind the point of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”)

Which brings us back to our point: the fact that these things are structural problems and not ice cream flavors is why, properly understood, they are not competing interests but rather the same issue; they go together. To address them, then, requires a unified approach, which itself requires a cohesive accounting of where we are and where we need to go from here. This sort of thing is commonly referred to as a “story.” A story is more than a plot; it’s not just an A-then-B explanation. It’s also the context in which that explanation makes sense. A story implies a world, and we have not yet established a narrative for a better future. Hence the power of the notion that America can be made great again: the slouching inevitability of neoliberalism, dragging us all into the dullest future, makes such a thing appear to be the only alternative.

Clinton’s story was: everything is fine, we just need to keep gradually doing better. Trump’s story was: everything is not fine, so we have to resort to whatever grotesque measures are required to get back to the imaginary perfect society of the past. As you know, neither of these is the real story: everything is not fine, and the reason for this is because of all the stuff that we fucked up in the past; therefore, what we require is a different future. What was missing from this election was the idea that the world can be made other than as it is. Of course, that’s missing from every election, and that is the central point: politicians will never be able to make this case for us. They’re not the sort of people who are capable of it, and it’s not their job anyway. They’re bureaucrats: their job is to collate the series of forms and signatures required to put things into practice. Our job is to create the world as it must be, and then force them to do the paperwork that makes it so.

Let’s try one of the less charged examples to understand how this can work. The media was very, very concerned about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during the election. This was supposedly “disqualifying” behavior, because we need that information in order to judge whether a candidate is fit to hold office. But as Tom Scocca pointed out, if the media really believed that, they sure weren’t acting like it:

“There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.

Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.”

In short, a political crime is not disqualifying unless you actually disqualify someone who commits it. If it’s just one bullet point among many, then it’s merely what business assholes call a “nice-to-have” rather than a requirement. Ergo, nobody cares (I seriously doubt that anyone voting against Trump did it because of the tax returns either).

The same analysis applies with even greater force to the campaign’s more dramatic issues. The Access Hollywood tape and the ensuing accusations raised what should have been the only issue of the campaign: whether Donald Trump is in fact a serial sexual assailant. Surely if anything is to disqualify someone from the presidency, behavior that is both illegal and misogynist is it. Yet the whole thing was treated as just another “scandal,” and the reason for this is that the media – including the Clinton campaign – did not push any better narrative. During the second debate, immediately after The Tape came out, the issue was raised, but it was raised as a Debate Question. Clinton and Trump yelled at each other about it for a while, and then the moderator moved on to the next question. The next day, the “spectacle” was described as follows:

“Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton collided in an almost unremittingly hostile debate on Sunday night, a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.'”

In other words, the New York Times does not give two shits about whether or not Trump has actually committed sexual assault. Framing the problem in terms of “hostility” and “startling accusations” is a complete evasion of what those accusations are actually of and what reasons people might have for being justifiably hostile. Calling Trump a “divisive” candidate implies that there’s no real problem, that different people simply have different, equally valid opinions. To the media, it’s all just “character attacks.”

So one practical takeaway here is that the way we conduct debates, and indeed the election in general, basically guarantees that issues of substance cannot be raised. Trump’s one-man vaudeville show didn’t change anything; the media had already smoothed out the path so that someone like him could stroll carelessly down it whensoever they chose. We were lucky that this hadn’t happened until just now, so what we ought to do is stop relying on luck. The reason we have these constant back-and-forth shifts based on confused signifiers like “jobs” and “taxes” and “regulations” is precisely because we are not addressing the real substance of the issues. To avoid calling things as they are is to go further down this road, to retreat from the truth. Rather than news personalities carving out space for soundbites, the electoral process ought to be a matter of experts making real assessments of the candidates’ various attributes and relaying these assessments to regular people by means of understandable narratives. Of course, Americans don’t like this sort of thing. They don’t like “being told what to do” by “elitists.” We report; you decide. But the thing about experts is that they actually possess expertise. They have knowledge that most people lack, and disseminating this knowledge into the broader population is supposed to be a major part of what the media is for. Lumping real knowledge into the general concept of “elitism” is perhaps the one true failing of the American media. If we believe that the current lowest common denominator is not good enough – and this belief is strictly required in order to avoid basic nihilism – then we are morally obligated to reject the tactics of dumbing-down and pandering to know-nothings and to instead raise the level of discourse.

You may be thinking that this is too much to deal with all at once. Certainly, that exact point was made during the election: so much was so wrong with Trump that none of it stood out; it all just faded into particularly annoying background noise. But dealing with situations like this is exactly what stories do. They organize a huge amount of information into something that is understandable as a whole. In this case, the story is a simple matter of what all of Trump’s sins have in common: they’re all symptoms of privilege. Trump can get away with things that others cannot because he is a rich white male. This is why pointing out the individual issues didn’t matter to his supporters. Because they believed in privilege, they were already making that excuse for Trump. What must be targeted, then, is those beliefs, and the way this is done is by changing the parameters of the conversation in which we discuss them. Calling Trump “abnormal” gets you nowhere if you continue to treat him normally, and labeling his behavior “disqualifying” is meaningless if you continue to act as through he is qualified. Trump was allowed to plausibly proclaim “I am your voice,” when his supporters should have been made to realize that he is exactly the person who has been picking their pockets all this time. Norms are only functional if you do them rather than merely saying them; you have to actively denormalize behavior that you consider to be unacceptable. Otherwise, what you are actually doing is accepting it.

And the specific issue of sexual assault is really the perfect example, because we actually have seen a major shift in the way the mainstream narrative about sexual assault works, and it has happened very recently. Feminists have refocused the conversation around sexual assault such that it proceeds from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, and this has had practical consequences. Bill Cosby was about to die beloved as America’s Goofy Dad, but now, thanks entirely to this refocusing, he and his reputation are on a one-way, nonstop flight to secular hell. Now, this was an extreme case: Cosby’s behavior was maxed-out sociopathic, he was already a washed-up relic lacking anyone with a real interest in defending him, and the fact that he’s a black man shouldn’t be discounted, either. But of course our first victories are going to come in the easiest cases. This should still be encouraging: it proves that this strategy works, and that we really can change things by pursuing it. Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go. With Trump, we saw a reversion to the usual pattern. A bunch of accusations popped up, it was considered a “scandal” for a little while, and then it all went away and Trump went right back to doing whatever he wanted, which in this case just so happened to include winning the presidency.

But in this same sense, Trump’s victory actually demonstrates that the type of thing that we want to achieve really is achievable. He changed the narrative. Ever since the Republicans decided that he wasn’t worth the fight and instead sent Pence in to manage things, Trump has been an agent of the establishment, but in the beginning he was just some asshole on an escalator. He won in the face of unified mainstream opposition, and since then, the political establishment has had to rearrange itself to accommodate him. It hasn’t had to move very far, because his campaign was never based on any real convictions, but the general shape of these events is what needs to be possible in order for anything to get better. Trump is the bizarro-world version of what we ought to be aiming for. So it’s crucial to remember that he didn’t win by being a great marketer or whatever. He really did bungle things about as badly as possible. He won by coincidentally tapping into a huge, throbbing vein of resentment. The disadvantage we have is that, for us, no such vein is flowing just yet. People know what holding on to their own privileges is like, whereas nobody knows what living as a responsible citizen of a just, caring society is like, because no such thing has ever existed. But there is enough blood for us to work with; we just have to get it pumping. The fact that people can feel that things are wrong and that “something ought to be done” is also to our advantage. Yes, it makes fascism possible, but that’s simply because it makes change in general possible. Maintaining what we have now for fear of something worse also means maintaining what we have now for fear of something better. And since what we have now is really just anesthetized decay, it’s long past time to let go.

So the long and short of this is that there’s no point in arguing for or against the individual candidates themselves. We know this for a fact now: Trump as an individual was argued against as hard as possible, and it didn’t matter. Vox.com, where ideology goes to die, infamously insisted that the only issue in this election was that Trump was an “abnormal” candidate and Clinton was a “normal” candidate, and I hope we can all understand at this point why this is the wrongest possible perspective. Trump’s victory indicates precisely that he is normal to enough people to matter. You can find a handful of weirdos who believe pretty much anything (hi), but it is just flatly implausible that anything approaching 50% of the country voted for chaos. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to remake society. They want jobs, they want low taxes, and they want to feel safe, and it is for these conventional reasons that people voted for Trump. The slogan “make America great again,” a slogan which Trump supporters took much, much more seriously than people normally take slogans, is the exact opposite sentiment to “burn it all down.” It’s been much noted that Clinton’s rejoinder, “America is already great,” was a massive strategic blunder. This is exactly correct, and this is why: what we consider “great” is the entire substance of the issue. Our task, as people insisting on a better tomorrow, is to redefine greatness.

That is, the information needs to be out there; it needs to be known that, for example, The Wall wouldn’t actually have any effect on either immigration or unemployment, and you don’t know that until you run the numbers. But if someone supports The Wall for other reasons, this information doesn’t do anything. That’s what we have to get at: people’s reasons. The problem is that lots of people tried to demonstrate Trump’s racism, but because the situation was so obvious to everyone who cared, nobody bothered trying to explain why Trump’s campaign was actually racist. I know that sounds weird to you, but that’s exactly the point: other people have different ideas about racism than you do. The fact that you think they’re wrong is exactly why you have the responsibility to prove it.

Specifically, the common working notion of racism is that some people just suddenly manifest a snarling fury whenever they see someone with a certain skin color, and anyone who doesn’t do this is perfectly fine. This is why the Black Friend Defense is something that makes sense to people, even though to you and me it’s a transparent joke. A few particularly dense people have taken the fact that a lot of Obama supporters voted for Trump to mean that those people must not have been motivated by racism, which is another version of this attitude. Obama voters had one positive attitude towards one black person one time; therefore, they must not be racists. This is the story that we need to rewrite. The correct lesson to draw from this fact is not that racism is less of an issue than we thought it was, but that racism operates differently than the explainer class has been assuming it does. We need to make racism understandable in terms of its effects as part of a social system, which means synthesizing it with everything else, including our own behaviors. It’s certainly easier to treat racism as an individual pathology, because then those of us who don’t manifest the symptoms can be assured of our purity. Don’t blame me; I voted for Obama. But this is exactly the formulation by which Trump supporters absolve themselves. If we’re going to be better than them, then we need to do better than them.

And again, we have to do this ourselves; the establishment will not help us, because engaging the issues in this way implicates them. It prevents Clinton from glossing over the fact that she helped create the mass incarceration system that is one of the primary vectors of today’s racism. So I guess this is kind of a silver lining: Trump won on racism, sure, but there wasn’t actually an anti-racist candidate opposing him. Same deal for feminism and capitalism and imperialism and everything else: none of these issues are really being addressed in the mainstream conversation yet. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about what the results of a real fight would be. The great mass of humanity has not historically demonstrated any particular capacity for wisdom or discernment, or even basic kindness. But we haven’t lost yet.

Postmortem

Alright shitheads, bereavement period’s over. Time to get serious. Here’s what we’ve learned – by which I mean here’s what we already knew and have been lying to ourselves about:

  • The media is completely useless

There has been quite a lot of introspection about whether the media was doing “enough” to “stop” Trump, or whether it was “enabling” him. This is not the point. The issue is not how often the media got it “right” or “wrong”; the issue is that none of it mattered either way. I mean, they did get things right, for the most part. The media is made up of educated people. They knew what was going on and there were all kinds of investigations and things. They got the facts right and most of their arguments were correct. No one cared. Every newspaper in the country endorsed Clinton in the strongest possible terms, and none of that ink moved one single vote. Clinton was declared the definitive winner of all three debates. Didn’t fucking matter. Everyone was all anxious about whether Trump would try to skip the debates, but he might as well have, because they had absolutely no effect on anything.

All that shit about Clinton’s “ground game” and the “Obama Coalition” was also meaningless. There is no “vetting,” there are no “qualifications,” the debates are not “job interviews.” All just made-up terms inflated by professional hacks to justify their paychecks. The election spectacle has no actual function. This past year has been a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. This is the thing that Trump was the most right about. It is now a proven fact that there was no reason for him to play the game as dictated by the David Brooks contingent, because those people are irrelevant idiots and their game is bullshit.

(This is also the thing that Clinton was the most wrong about. Her entire political life has been hobbled by the mistaken impression that she was required to play pattycake with the gatekeepers of Seriousness and hire a bunch of dull campaign hacks to make sure that everything was being done The Right Way. Even as someone without natural charisma, she would have been better off without them. And it should be pretty clear by now that none of it protected her from sexism in any way.)

Also, what the fuck was all that polling shit for? The amount of yammering about polls was completely insane. Every fucking day it was some new set of arbitrary percentages that supposedly meant something. There was a whole fucking Game of Thrones-level dramatic arc about whether FiveThirtyEight‘s methodology was still valid. All meaningless. Like, what was even supposed to be the point of it? Was there supposed to be some perfect, magical poll that would somehow have locked the election for Clinton? What is the purpose of telling people what the results are supposedly going to be when those people are the ones who are actually going to be making the decision? All the time spent preparing and running and rerunning and analyzing and analyzing and analyzing those polls was time that could have been spent fighting.

Relatedly, the media is a tiny niche population. There are 325 million people in this country. The media speaks for about twelve of them. Which is a real problem when you combine it with the fact that media types fucking love to hear themselves talk. All day, every day, the media is constantly chattering to itself, about itself, and the only people listening, aside from other members of the media, are idiots like me who have nothing better to do with their time. Immediately before the election, everyone in the media was writing pieces under the assumption that Clinton was going to win handily. There were actually debates about whether it was going to be a blowout or just a landslide. How many voters did the people writing these pieces represent? Not fucking enough. We like to make fun of the “right-wing echo chamber” in which hardcore conservatives live, but it is actually us “informed” media-consumers who occupy the smallest and most distorting bubble. The people applauding each new “takedown” of Trump were suffering from just as severe a case of epistemic closure as anyone reading Breitbart or InfoWars. It’s a hell of a drug.

(If we can get slightly technical for a moment, one of the big problems with the internet is the way it facilitates the “small world” illusion. Even as it seems like there’s an incomprehensibly huge amount of stuff going on, you’re really only communicating to your tiny group of friends, while the rest of the world has no idea what the fuck you’re on about. The way you feel about flat-earth theory is exactly the way most people feel about your opinions on most topics. You might know what I mean if I ask you which set of pronouns you prefer, but upwards of 99% of the world would literally not understand the question even after having it explained to them slowly and repeatedly. It is not interpretable within their worldview. You can scroll through page after page of tweets supporting a sexual assault survivor without realizing that they represent about 0.01% of the real-world population. The world is a big place.)

(Also, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote is nice (as well as being genuinely important to remember for the purposes of analysis, especially regarding people who think the problem is that Clinton was a terrible candidate and everyone hated her), but it has no bearing on any of this. Even if she had won the election, the fact that anything approaching 50% of the population looked at Trump and said “yes” or even “sure, why not” contains the entirety of the problem. The fact that Trump is actually going to be president is certainly its own category of disaster, but we lost the battle as soon as he was accepted as a general election candidate. That alone proved that no one who mattered was willing to fight when it counted. Y’know, as painful as this all already is, we have to remember that Trump is not the worst-case scenario. There will come a night on which the glass finally breaks, and when that happens the Responsible Adults will all be down on their knees, poking thoughtfully at the shards. The story of 2016 is this: America allowed Trump to happen.)

Perhaps the most pitiable aspect of all this is the fact that the media was very, very serious about the whole thing, and that seriousness specifically was nothing but empty posturing. People don’t take things seriously just because the media says they should. This whole thing was and is a joke to most people. They’re wrong, but the punchline was delivered anyway.

  • The American political system is completely useless

A Trump presidency is exactly the situation that the entire American political machine is designed to prevent. A large mass of uninformed people made a rash decision based on limited and confused information. The electoral college, the primary system, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the party apparatuses are all designed to safeguard against this, to restrict the ability of the people to make sweeping changes based on momentary whims. Instead, they all indirectly conspired to achieve the exact opposite.

It is easy to understand the basic reason this happened: specific procedural details do not have general effects on outcomes. Sometimes they work one way, and sometimes they work the other. It was initially thought that the Democrats had the electoral college advantage this time around, with Clinton only needing one or two big states to clinch it. And that could very well have been the case; votes could have been distributed slightly differently to achieve the inverse outcome. But in neither case does the process confer any sort of legitimacy on the results. There is no connection between moral or even factual correctness and political victory. The actual outcome of this election was a draw; Trump essentially won on a coin flip. (The fact that this is the second time in living memory that this has happened and the final results favored the Republicans both times is potentially suspicious.)

So not only is there no point in defending the specifics of one particular process, the opposite is true: what we must fight for is dynamism, the ability to change the process as needed. All those people talking about how important it is to respect the process in tumultuous times are worse than wrong; they aren’t even part of the relevant conversation. They’re completely out to lunch, filling out checklists as the world burns.

(Oh, by the way, a Trump presidency guarantees that the U.S. will not respond to global warming in anything approaching an adequate manner. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, but now we can all rest assured that we’re definitely going to burn to death. We are past the critical point of action, so the destruction of the planet is now a certainty.)

  • America is not one country

Both sides were completely convinced that they were going to win, and both of them were correct. Within each subculture, there was no debate. The only issue, this whole time, was how many voters were going to turn out for each side. No one was ever going to be “persuaded.” There are, of course, the famous “undecided voters,” but they’re the exception that proves the rule: only a tiny percentage of people are not already in one camp or the other. The celebration of the increased diversity in Congress is all well and good, that’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not a consolation. It’s more evidence that America consists of two trains running on completely separate tracks.

Frankly, it’s starting to look like the Confederacy was on the right side of history. I mean, the Civil War was never really resolved; it ended in the temporal sense, but Reconstruction was thwarted, and we’ve been fighting that battle ever since. There is increasingly little point in pretending that we actually have any kind of “union” going on here. The obvious problem is that, if we accept a division, we are abandoning half the population to a situation that we believe to be immoral. But while force may be justified where something like slavery is the case, there’s little point in trying to save people from a hell they’ve chosen for themselves.

  • The Republican Party is alive and thriving

The speculations about whether Trump was going to destroy the Republican Party were bad enough when he was losing – even without being able to win national elections, the party would still wield massive, agenda-setting power on the state level and in the Congress. But now that whole angle is just downright comical. The Republicans are not “relics” who are being “left behind” because they’re “on the wrong side of history.” This sort of teleological complacency is exactly why the Democrats are such a bunch of losers (see also the use of “this is 2016, why are we still debating this” as though it were an argument rather than an admission of defeat). There is no “march of progress,” no moral arc inscribed onto the universe. “Progress” is a story we tell ourselves after the fact; it has no claim on the future. The first black president, married to a descendent of slaves, has been succeeded by someone who would probably be a literal Klansman if that weren’t bad branding. History does not move in a straight line; it is a tangled mess. Good things happen, but things do not gradually “get better” of their own accord. The corpses keep piling up. This is a war, and we are not fighting it hard enough. While we’ve just been trying to run out the clock, the other team has been constantly scoring behind our backs. If we don’t start getting our shit together with extreme severity, “history” is going to start looking a lot worse than even the pessimists among us have fantasized.

  • America is fucking racist

No one who genuinely opposes racism could possibly have considered supporting Trump. Even if you assume (pretend) that his campaign was not primarily about racism, the raw volume of it should have been a dealbreaker. Unless of course that was the deal you were looking to make in the first place.

Also, religion doesn’t matter, at all. There was never any such thing as the “Religious Right.” They were always just bigots. There are no “values voters,” in the sense where “values” means things like humility and integrity and all of that fluffball shit. In exactly the same way, “conservative principles” were never anything more than the self-important preening of a tiny handful of pompous pseudo-intellectuals. People do, of course, vote based on real values, and the realest of those values are, more often than not, racism and sexism.

  • America is not ready for a female president

I normally wouldn’t discuss things in these terms, but the conclusion seems to be unavoidable. There’s a book (or at least a pretentious blog post) to be written about the exact mechanics by which Clinton’s gender destroyed her, but it’s hard to doubt that it did. She’s basically a human checklist for the ideal presidential candidate, and, if the common media understanding of the situation is correct, her gender should have been an added bonus, a chance to make history. That understanding is not correct. We still live under patriarchy, and a woman still takes a step too far when she attempts to claim the mantle of rulership – even when she is someone who has devoted her life to preserving the existing social order, even when she is specifically expert at walking the finest line through the minefield of gendered expectations, and even when her opponent is as though chosen specifically to let’s say “heighten the contradictions.” Nothing is enough to overcome the fear of a female planet. It remains the overriding concern of a great many people – including women – that the center of the universe be a dick.

One specific fun fact that we are all now inescapably subject to is that sexual assault is not disqualifying behavior for the most important job in the world. Most people are, in fact, totally fine with it, and this group, again, includes a lot of women. This is another example of something the media class agrees on and most other people don’t. While the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the deeply troubling implications of The Tape, parsing and reparsing it endlessly to determine What It Means For America, everyone else was simply hearing normal masculinity, and it was their interpretation of the situation that was correct.

It’s been much noted in much despondency that white women went for Trump, but there’s nothing unexpected about this. Feminists have their own brand of epistemic closure: they believe that all women are naturally sympathetic to feminism. Not true. The real feminist insight here is that men and women are not so different in this regard. Most women are sexists (meaning sexist in the normal sense, against women – yet another thing that’s become clear is that people cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret basic factual statements). White women went for Romney and McCain as well; white women have always gone Republican, because race is what politics in America is about. Gender is not. The recent popular upsurge in feminism has achieved cultural acceptability by abandoning its political content, and these are the wages of that sin.

Actually, America isn’t ready for a black president either (which would be the other half of the reason this happened). Obama was obviously exceptional – his legendary charisma (and ideological chameleonicity) superseded the normal dynamics of the situation. While we’re reminiscing, let us recall that Obama’s 2008 campaign was run on 0% issues and 100% rhetorical razzmatazz. Trump actually did stumble into real issues on occasion; he had more substance than Obama. Which is not surprising, because . . .

  • Elections have always been reality shows

I read something somewhere calling Obama “the first celebrity president.” Come on. Reagan? Kennedy? Roosevelt? Hell, Washington himself was nominated solely on the basis that he was a war hero and people liked him (which itself was mostly because he was tall). The notion that this election had a notable absence of policy discussion, or that Trump introduced reality-show style feuding into politics, or that our discourse has degraded to the level of insults and implications, is entirely mistaken. All of these things have always been the case. Which is to say that . . .

  • Trump is not an anomaly

All the talk about Trump destroying “democratic norms” is completely backwards. What has happened is that Trump has demonstrated (entirely on accident) that those norms don’t actually exist. But of course this is how norms work in any case: they only exist to the extent that people convince themselves that they exist. Other than that, they don’t actually do anything.

Remember how het up the media was about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns? Probably not, because literally no one in the country cared. I’m dead serious about this: does anyone really think there is even a single person who voted against Trump because he didn’t release his tax returns? Given this, what’s the point? Why should any candidate bother releasing their tax returns, ever? How is the process anything other than an establishment-class circle jerk?

Understanding this compels some unfortunate conclusions. If Trump’s unusualness was entirely aesthetic, then there’s no “excuse” for why he won. His “abnormality” didn’t cost him the election, but it’s not why he won, either. He won on the merits. The people comparing Trump to Brexit were entirely correct: Brexit did not succeed because of lies, and Trump did not succeed because he’s a con artist. They both won because more people wanted them to, and the fact that this impulse has triumphed twice so far (and is generally growing in strength everywhere) forces us to reject the comforting notion that these things were flukes. This is the new wave of horror poised to sweep over the 21st century. Face it.

  • Democracy is a real thing and a real danger

All the people hyperventilating about the unprecedented threat posed by Trump to democracy seem to be forgetting that Trump was supported by ordinary morons and opposed by a shadowy cabal of hyper-educated, unaccountable elites. The Founding Fathers may have been a bunch of slavefucking lawyers, but at least they understood that democracy was a threat that needed to be contained and not a magical wish-granting unicorn princess. Every idiot who’s ever rhapsodized about the power of “the people” has now received what they were asking for.

(This is also why we’re double-fucked on global warming. People will never vote to lower their own standards of living in order to save the planet.)

  • Structure decides

There was an article somewhere by some political scientist talking about how structural factors such as which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing correctly predict the outcome of every modern presidential election, and how the factors for the current election predicted a Republican victory. I’m sure most such theories are just as wrong as everything else, but something along these lines is certainly the case. For example, it has almost always happened that a two-term president has been succeeded by someone from the other party, likely as a result of the fickle mushhead contingent wanting “change” or something (this is part of why the two-party system is a greater evil than either party). Trump is an agent of historical and material forces exactly as much as Clinton is a victim of them. They’re both puppets. Which, again, means that everything the media does every election is a complete waste of time. None of this shit about temperament or experience or gaffes or any of it matters at all.

This suggests a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the results. During the primaries, Clinton was never polling well against any of the potential Republican candidates. We all know how much polls are worth now, but it’s conceivable that she would have lost to any Republican. Someone reasonable-seeming and non-alienating like Kasich could very well have flattened her. So the fact that the election was a virtual tie indicates that Trump actually underperformed expectations. He was such a bad candidate that he almost blew a gimme election. The only reason he won was that he was ultimately a typical Republican – or at least close enough for government work. (Not that there’s anything okay about a typical Republican being president).

This is also why the whole exhorting-people-to-vote ritual is a particularly obnoxious waste of everyone’s time. You will never move significant numbers through individual hectoring. If you want to move numbers that matter, you have to move the structure. For one thing, indirect voter suppression is a critical issue that has not been given its full due. Which leads us to the most depressing interpretation of the results: Trump won because of Shelby County v. Holder; in other words, he won because Jim Crow isn’t actually dead yet.

This dynamic also implies a strategy: given that “electability” has been revealed as an empty shibboleth, the Democratic Party would do better to run candidates who are as far to the left as possible. An extreme leftist, even one as insane and incompetent as Trump, could have won in 2008. Of course, no one who is in a position to implement this strategy cares; quite the contrary, the Democrats are always highly concerned to make sure that no one with scary ideas gets any significant amount of party support. This is among the many reasons why supporting Democrats does not help.

There, that’s it. That’s the situation. Decide what you’re going to do about it. Now.