A glass darkly

bffs

Oprah Winfrey and Donald Trump are the same person. If you don’t understand this, you don’t understand anything.

First of all, they’re both rich fucks. This isn’t, like, a coincidence. People don’t “just happen” to get rich. Your relationship to the material conditions of your existence is one of the primary determinants of who you are as a person. Before we even get into any other considerations, the actual act of being rich is itself immoral. When you or I imagine being “rich,” we imagine things like having a big house in a quiet neighborhood and a fancy car and an extensive record collection, but this isn’t what being actually rich is like. Being actually rich means literally having more money than it is physically possible to spend – even after resorting to ridiculous luxuries like owning three summer vacation mansions filled with rare art collections that you only visit one week a year or buying a Hawaiian island. It’s difficult to really imagine what things like this are like, which is why a lot of people resist this argument: they can’t imagine a situation where losing money results in no material deprivation whatsoever. But this is the real situation that our society has decided to create for some people, and it’s the situation that Winfrey and Trump both inhabit every waking moment. Every dollar they hoard is a dollar’s worth of food taken out of the mouth of a starving person. There is no word for this other than “evil.”

People like to talk about whether rich fucks “deserve” their money or not, but this is completely irrelevant to the argument. Remember, we’re talking about money in excess of the amount that you can actually spend on all the luxuries and projects during the amount of time you’re awake each day. Since you would lose absolutely nothing by giving it away, since your life would remain exactly the same with or without it, whereas lots of other people’s lives would improve immeasurably upon receiving even the tiniest fraction of it, there can be no possible justification for keeping it, regardless of its source. It doesn’t matter whether the money came from a big sack you found in the street or whether it was a boon bestowed upon you by god herself in recognition of your exceptional personal character. Philanthropy, which we’ll discuss further in just a moment, has no effect on this, because the issue is not how much money is being given away, but how much is being kept. A person living paycheck to paycheck does not lose virtue points for not giving to charity, because all the money they have is already being put to valuable use. A rich fuck does lose virtue points for every dollar they keep in the bank, because that money is being kept from people whom it could be helping. It is the actual holding of the money, in a situation where billions of others need money to survive, that constitutes the immorality. And considering the scale of the situation, this pretty much overrides any other possible concerns regarding what kind of person someone is. Like, if you knew someone whose construction company built concentration camps, you wouldn’t really give a shit if they seemed nice and empathetic in person. This is almost exactly the same thing.

But even if we do feel the need to interrogate the source of money as an indication of its recipient’s character, Winfrey and Trump are still in the same situation. Just as being rich is not a coincidence, getting rich is also a matter of a particular type of interfacing with present social conditions. Again, when you or I imagine getting rich, we imagine things like getting a big promotion or writing a bestselling novel or something – something that reflects our own abilities and doesn’t hurt anyone else. This isn’t how getting actually rich works. In a capitalist society, they way you make money is through exploitation. People who work for a living can only ever make enough to cover their own expenses, maybe with some extra left over for luxuries and savings if their skills happen to be in demand at the time. The way you make walking-around money is by extracting the value of other people’s labor, and the way you make a lot of money is by extracting a lot of value from the labor of a lot of people. The way you get actually rich is by building an empire. I mean, that’s exactly the term we use, we call things “media empires” or “construction empires,” and that’s exactly what they are. They’re giant exploitation engines in which the lives of millions of people are ground up into lubricant for the lifestyles of the rulers. It’s really not even a metaphor; they literally consume people’s flesh and blood. The fact that Winfrey is a self-made man and Trump is a trust fund baby doesn’t really impinge on any of this. If anything, it reflects worse on Winfrey; Trump inherited his father’s immorality, while Winfrey built her towering edifice of bullshit with her own two hands. Because we live in a society that allocates resources immorally, the people who succeed in it are the people who are the most immoral. Making money is a bad thing that makes you a bad person.

Those are the general principles, but this particular comparison is especially interesting, because Winfrey and Trump are not merely representatives of the same class, but representatives of the same belief system, with exactly the same M.O. Like, Bill Gates got rich by being a monopolist, but his company actually did produce products that people use. He added something to the world. Winfrey and Trump do not merit even this basic distinction; they are pure self-advertisers whose only product is their own image. The way Trump operated was not by actually building things, but by buying other people’s products and inflating their value through hype campaigns. Since the hype always far exceeds any actual value (especially since Trump has negative taste and can therefore be counted on to always select the worst products), there’s inevitably a collapse, at which point Trump sends out his lawyers and accountants to pocket the proceeds and leave other people holding the losses. In almost exactly the same way, Winfrey attaches herself to other people’s books and ideas and uses them to inflate her own image. Since the marketing of these things always far exceeds their actual content (especially since Winfrey is a credulous hack and can therefore be counted on to always select the most diluted variety of snake-oil on display), the fad inevitably dies out, at which point Winfrey shields herself from any fallout by simply moving on to the next trend (or occasionally issuing a Serious Apology if there’s a real scandal). People like this are worse even than rentiers, since they don’t even own the things they put their names on. They are pure value extractors; perfect parasites.

Even more than that, though, the similarities in Winfrey’s and Trump’s approaches point to something deeper than circumstantial convergence; they point to the same underlying ideology. Focusing solely on image and advertising necessarily requires complete adherence to existing values and standards. This is because symbols have to have referents; people have to know what you’re talking about, and if there’s no actual underlying product with its own value, the only way this is possible is if you’re saying something that people already believe.

When personal computers first came out, they were a new type of thing, so people didn’t already understand what they could do. This meant they couldn’t be marketed with pure bullshit, but had to actually function such that people who used them got something out of it. The same thing happened with smartphones; Apple’s insufferable advertising notwithstanding, it was only once people started using smartphones and experiencing the various things they could do (not all of it good, but still) that they became popular. A less compromised example is the Sriracha hot sauce guy. Sriracha has become a cultural buzzword in the complete absence of any marketing or promotion of it whatsoever. I had no idea where the stuff even came from until I saw that article. Because it’s a quality product, you don’t have to conjure up fantasies of fun-loving bikini girls or rugged manliness in order to sell it. It’s actually good; it has its own value, and is therefore able to speak for itself.

So here’s the important part: if you don’t have something with its own value, then you do have to rely on all that other stuff; you have to piggyback off of preexisting sources of value. You obviously have to have some sort of value claim in order to make a pitch to people. If you have a valuable product, this claim can potentially be something new. The concept of “personal productivity” didn’t used to be a thing, but once various types of machines became popularly accessible, it became something that could actually exist and was therefore possible to value. New values like this may or may not end up being good things, of course, but at least they’re new, and they’re based on real things that people can do. If you don’t have a source of value, you have no basis from which to make a new claim, so you have to make an old one. You have to play to a preestablished fantasy.

The fantasy that Trump plays to is the fantasy of opulence. It’s the idea that money determines everything in the world, and therefore aligning yourself with money gets you the best possible experience. Buying Trump-branded products ensures that you’re getting the most expensive and therefore highest-quality goods, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. The fantasy that Winfrey plays to is the fantasy of self-help. This is almost exactly the same idea: that choosing the right products and thinking the right way amounts to a secret formula for living a perfect life. Buying the products and following the trends chosen by Winfrey’s magical insight ensures that you’re getting real true meaning, and therefore living the best possible life for that and only that reason. (Also, do people really not notice that Winfrey specifically plays to the Magical Negro stereotype? Her whole thing is being “spiritual” and “authentic” and using that to serve as a lifestyle guide for rich white women. I don’t understand why people who would raise hell about this sort of thing in any other context give a pass to the one person who deserves it the least.)

The only actual difference between Winfrey and Trump is aesthetic. Specifically, Trump caters to the masculine side of the consumerist fantasy, selling suits and steaks and golf club memberships to promote the ideal of being a big important businessman, while Winfrey caters to the feminine side, selling diets and empathy and mindfulness to promote the ideal of being a magical unicorn princess. The reason this makes Winfrey look better on the TV is that femininity is significantly closer to a real standard of what being a decent person is like than masculinity is. (As just a few examples, femininity includes care, attention to detail, a focus on practical reality, and a basic level of concern for other people.) But a) aesthetics, while nontrivial, do not override morality, and b) Winfrey’s aesthetics are still overwhelmingly the aesthetics of rich fucks, which is to say their similarities with Trump’s are greater than their differences. Trump’s business books actually are self-help books, just marketed to a different audience. Trump University is exactly the same thing as The Secret, sold with exactly the same language.

Thus, Winfrey, no less than Trump, is a complete prisoner of the existing social order. Under ordinary circumstances this would merely be pitiable, but because these people have actual power, they do not only suffer from but also actively advance these harmful values. Their ideological commitments go so deep that they are unable to escape them even when they’re trying to help. Trump’s idea of charity is giving way free rounds of golf, and his idea of helping people is Trump University, an actual shakedown factory so blunt mafiosi would consider it beneath their honor. Winfrey, while less of an explicit con artist and more of an actual philanthropist, still favors spectacle over substance, as most famously illustrated by her stupid car giveaway stunt. Like, first of all, this was a stunt. I fucking cannot stand people who treat stunts like they’re real things. They’re fake. That’s the whole thing that a stunt is. Anyway, the point is that this is also bad charity. Cars are a modern necessity, so people generally have the number of cars they need, and people attending Oprah tapings are not exactly those in the most dire need of financial assistance. The reason she did this was not out of any consideration of how much it would help people, but because it would reflect well on her: because the recipients are sympathetic and the narrative plays into the “American Dream” – and of course because it gives her a big televised platform to grandstand on. Indeed, this is the exact definition of “philanthropy”: even “good” philanthropy isn’t actually good, because philanthropy is bad charity that promotes the giver more than it helps anyone.

The more concise way to put all of this is that Winfrey and Trump have both killed people through active negligence. Trump hires undocumented workers on the cheap and skimps on safety, resulting in injury and death. Obeying the capitalist imperative to generate profit, he stiffs contractors for his own gain, forcing them to forgo medical care and other necessities. Winfrey promotes quack science, fad diets, and fraudulent psychology, covering up their reality with her own aura of glamour. These are things which people, trusting her, take into their bodies, physically harming them. It’s hard to trace causality here, but given her reach, it’s a statistical certainty that this has harmed people’s health and resulted in deaths. There’s no room for sentimentality here. (Also, people with sentimental feelings toward Winfrey should consider that Trump’s fans have exactly the same sentimental feelings towards him, for exactly the same reasons.) People like this have no place in any decent society. I mean, come on. Both of them sell magazines named after themselves with pictures of themselves on the cover, every month. Come on. I’m embarrassed to even be talking about this.

Maybe this line of argument strikes you as a particularly unfair variety of false equivalence, because Winfrey is clearly a much better person than Trump. Of course she is. Trump is the worst possible person; you get exactly zero virtue points for being better than him, because literally every human is a better person than Donald Trump (as are most dogs and cats and probably a fair number of moles and squirrels). Like, the fact that Winfrey is against sexual assault rather than being a confessed sexual assailant is, y’know, better, but it’s not impressive. Back in the day, we used to call things like that “meeting basic standards of human decency.” More to the point, though, it doesn’t really matter whether you’re a good person or not. It matters what you do; it matters what effect your existence has on the rest of the world. It matters whether you’re doing something useful for people or whether you’re paving the road to hell.

I genuinely cannot believe that it has come to this, but I’m actually going to throw the fucking bible at you:

13 Though I speak with the tongues of men and of angels, and have not charity, I am become as sounding brass, or a tinkling cymbal.

And though I have the gift of prophecy, and understand all mysteries, and all knowledge; and though I have all faith, so that I could remove mountains, and have not charity, I am nothing.

And though I bestow all my goods to feed the poor, and though I give my body to be burned, and have not charity, it profiteth me nothing.

Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,

Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;

Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;

Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.

Charity never faileth: but whether there be prophecies, they shall fail; whether there be tongues, they shall cease; whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.

For we know in part, and we prophesy in part.

10 But when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away.

11 When I was a child, I spake as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child: but when I became a man, I put away childish things.

12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known.

13 And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three; but the greatest of these is charity.

Our only access to reality is through perception, and perception is always partial. Sometimes what we’re seeing is obscured by the glass we’re looking through, and sometimes what we’re seeing is actually just a smudge on the glass itself rather than something on the other side. Because of this, no piece of evidence is ever a slam dunk. Anything that looks good from one angle might turn out to be hideously ugly from another. What this means is that you need to have an organizing principle with which to make sense of your observations. Without that, each individual observation can only stand briefly on its own before the changing wind sweeps it away into insignificance; “whether there be knowledge, it shall vanish away.” If you don’t have the truth, you don’t have anything.

The tricky part, of course, is to determine what kind of thing we’re really talking about here; that is, what exactly is meant by “charity.” It’s originally a translation of the Greek word agape, which means something along the lines of selfless loyalty. It’s not something that you like or that makes you feel good, but something that you choose to be for, regardless of circumstance. Thus, the fact that someone says something that sounds good or does something that appeals to you can never be taken as independent evidence. It must always be evaluated for its accordance with the truth. As Nietzsche puts it, “the knight of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies, but also to hate his friends.” (You’re reading claws of love dot com, the internet’s #1 source for Nietzschean bible study.)

The part of this that’s wrong is the part where the truth is magic. It is incorrect to say, as people often do, that perception is “flawed” or “misleading,” as this implies that there exists a source of “correct” information that reveals things “as they really are.” In fact, there is no reality outside perception, but rather only reality through perception. This does not license us to engage in knee-jerk subjectivity. It does exactly the opposite. It requires us to go beyond each individual impression and to formulate a broad understanding composed of the data from multiple lines of perception. “There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective ‘knowing’; and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our ‘concept’ of this thing, our ‘objectivity,’ be.” It’s not just that “that which is perfect” will never actually come, but that there is no such thing, which means that “that which is in part” constitutes everything that there is. We can never get out of the wicked game; no one is ever a saint or a hero, no indicator is ever universally reliable and no narrative is ever complete. We always have to do the work of figuring out how things fit together, how multiple perceptions accord, and how to create understanding out of disparate parts. You can’t do this using “just the facts,” because the facts themselves can’t tell you how to organize those facts. You need something outside of the facts. Christians call this thing “charity,” Nietzsche calls it “will,” but I just think of it as the truth. And in a society that insists on smooth, clean, one-line narratives, the truth will always cut hard against the grain. It is the responsibility of anyone who claims to be a person to make those cuts. This is the only way to make anything make sense. As Hamlet learned, there’s nothing contradictory about smiling, and smiling, and being a villain.

Pitiful human

Americans like to talk a big game about how politicians work for the people and we can “fire” them and so forth1, but we’re completely full of shit. Sideshow Bob had it right: the only things we care about are low taxes, vicarious violence, and the safe, comfortable feeling of being ruled. But the situation is actually worse than that, because there’s a particular behavior that we engage in with renewed intensity every four years, which goes beyond foolishness to become completely unconscionable: we look to politicians for leadership.

It’s correct to treat elections like morality plays – that’s the only way to extract any value from the spectacle. Elections aren’t about the issues, obviously, but they’re a time when everyone’s talking about politics, so it’s a good opportunity to, you know, talk about politics. Even people who use elections as opportunities to argue against involvement in electoral politics are taking advantage of this dynamic. So as annoying as this all often is, it’s ultimately a positive thing. The problem is that we’re bad at it. When you hear someone arguing that Hillary Clinton is “qualified” and will therefore “get things done,” you have left the realm of politics and entered the realm of fantasy football. The questions of “qualified for what?” and “which things?” are the entire substance of what we’re supposed to be talking about, but we’ve become so alienated from our values that we’ve forgotten how having values actually works. So we instead fall back on lazy shorthands, a prominent recent example being the framework in which Clinton and Sanders are politically equivalent except that one of them is “idealistic” and the other is “pragmatic.”

It’s just as easy to turn this around. Clintonian triangulation is precisely what led to the current situation; to advance it now as a solution can hardly be called “practical.” Clinton’s belief that starving people can be placated by effective management is an article of faith that has been disproven by the facts. This is even clearer in the realm of foreign policy, where Clinton is the last living hawk. If the history of the 21st century so far has taught us anything, it has surely been the folly of attempting to export stability through the American military. Even the ruling class is starting to back off from this approach, or at least clean up its image, or at least avoid the issue by focusing on domestic policy. Yet Clinton clings to her belief in American exceptionalism like a rosary, praying for the day when our bombs and bullets will finally kill chaos. She’s an idealist.

Meanwhile, the only reason Sanders ran as a Democrat is that he knew it was the only way he’d get any media attention. He never gave Jill Stein the time of day because he knew that associating with her would have been a political death sentence. Furthermore, none of his policy proposals were either outside the current limits of political discourse or particularly radical. They’re basically all either obvious things, like raising the minimum wage and taxing rich fucks, or things that have been implemented successfully in other countries, like universal health care and subsidized college education. The Sanders campaign was nothing more than the pragmatic approach to making things slightly better, given where we are right now.

This explanation is just as facile as the alternative; the point is that framing political conflicts in this way drains them of their substance. There’s not really any such thing as “idealism” or “pragmatism” – every action is based on beliefs and tends towards a goal, and every ideal represents itself practically as a set of steps taken in the real world for the purpose of moving towards it. The actual conflict in the Democratic primary was very simple: Sanders was attempting to return the party to the era of welfare-state liberalism, while Clinton was attempting to rally the ruling class around inclusive neoliberalism. Clinton won, and, thanks to improbably favorable circumstances, now has the near-unanimous support of the political establishment. That’s the story.

Yet this misunderstanding is not entirely the fault of gutless, drama-craving media types; Sanders’ support was largely grassroots, and it is his hardest-core supports who understand this the least. They’ve created all on their own the narrative that Saint Bernard is our last hope to save the American Dream from the clutches of the Email Demon. Everything from dumb memes about how Sanders is a cool hippie while Clinton is an “out-of-touch politician” to exhausting focus on Clinton’s “scandals” and “corruption” has the effect of turning political discourse into pageantry. Those stupid shirts with Sanders’ hair on them are tombstones, marking a spot that was once political and is now merely fashionable. This is the actual reason that “Bernie or Bust” is a stupid idea: if you’re relying on one specific person to save you, you’ve already lost. The issue is not that, god forbid, some people might not vote for Clinton, it’s that we’re all being insufficiently idealistic. I mean, come on. This whole thing is based on the idea that one brave honest man is going to march into the White House, roll up his sleeves and start getting down to brass tacks. You call that an ideal? I’ll tell you what my ideal is: I want us to stop dropping everything every four years so that we can elect a Boss of America to tell us all what to do and what we should believe and then immediately go back to sleep as soon as the party’s over.

The whole “corruption” thing is actually really important here, because it’s the kind of thing that sounds like a political issue while actually being entirely irrelevant to almost everything. Case in point, there’s a recent bit of scandal about favorable arms deals being made to countries that donated to the Clinton Foundation. That’s, y’know, a bad thing, it’d be better if that wasn’t happening, but fixing that problem won’t even slightly impede the imperialist death machine that’s slowly grinding the Middle East into a big pile of exploitable resources. Again, Clinton’s agenda here is not subtle: she’s entirely open about being an interventionist; we don’t have to uncover any secret emails to figure that out. Focusing on corruption here implies that an “uncorrupted” version of Clinton would be the ideal candidate – that Clinton has the correct agenda. This is why arguing based on corruption is always a garbage strategy: it cedes the entire debate as its first move. Political corruption is like an inverted iceberg: the part below the surface is minuscule compared to the massive problems that loom in plain view. The scandal is always what’s legal.

Indeed, if Clinton really were the amoral weathervane she’s so often portrayed as, wouldn’t that actually be the best possible situation? Wouldn’t that mean that she would adopt any position that her supporters pressured her towards? Isn’t that exactly what we want out of democracy: a candidate who is perfectly responsive to the people’s will? Clinton initially resisted the call for a $15/hr minimum wage, but, due to popular pressure, she’s since adopted it to the extent that it’s now one of her official bullet points. This is the kind of thing that gets her called “conniving,” but isn’t that exactly how the political process is actually supposed to work?

What Sanders holdouts have largely failed to realize is that Sanders didn’t actually do anything. He didn’t run a particularly effective campaign or offer any kind of insightful take on the issues. His remarkable success was due to the fact that he simply hammered on the issues that people already cared about. What his success actually demonstrates is that there is a broad base of support waiting for anyone willing to advance a politics that actually tries to help people, so the proper response is to get on with it.

Many people have complained that Clinton was essentially appointed as the nominee by the DNC, that the primary amounted to little more than a “coronation,” but like, no shit. Why would the Democratic Party ever have done anything else? What possible incentive would they have had to produce and support candidates who would have been genuine threats to the existing political establishment? Indeed, the only reason we saw such candidates this time around is that the necessary work had already been done. The reason Sanders was able to get anywhere was that he was responding to existing demands; he did not convince anyone that he was right, he gave people what they were waiting for. And it’s the same situation on the other side: Honky Kong’s climb up the Empire State Building has nothing to do with how big of a monkey he is and everything to do with the road that has already been paved for him by the past eight years of escalating reactionary psychosis.

Closely related to all of this is the criticism that Clinton doesn’t seem “authentic” or “human,” and that’s what really gets to the heart of the issue. What people actually want out of politics is a “leader,” someone who is “strong” and doesn’t “flip-flop,” and who is “convincing” by virtue of being authentically human. What people really want is not to see their values instantiated; it is to be told what to think. Consider the fact that Obama never had to deal with any of the shit that Clinton is currently navigating; he was hailed as a literal messiah for advancing exactly the same agenda. The only difference is that he looked good doing it. The problem is perhaps best illustrated by the fact that, when Obama finally got around to leading from behind on gay marriage, many Obama supporters shifted their opinions along with him (and vice versa) – as though one’s opinion on the actual issue were a mere coincidence. And the vehemence of Obama’s opposition demonstrates the very same thing. It is entirely unrelated to his anodyne policies; the motivation is also that Obama is seen as a powerful leader (let’s dispel with this fiction that he doesn’t know what he’s doing), but one of the wrong type; hence, the Antichrist. Most famously, Mitt Romney’s health care plan suddenly became the end of the American Dream when it was a black guy what done it. People who can be influenced in this way are people who don’t actually care about the substance of the issues. They can be led into any position by someone who talks good on the TV.

David Foster Wallace, as usual, expressed this tendency very well while completely failing to realize that he should have been interrogating it (italics original):

“[T]he electorate . . . seems so paroxysmically thankful for a presidential candidate somewhat in the ballpark of a real human being that it has to make you stop and think about how starved voters are for just some minimal level of genuineness in the men [sic] who want to ‘lead’ and ‘inspire’ them.”

This is precisely how most people feel about politics, and it is an unproductive and bad sentiment to hold. You may recall that the politician Wallace is referring to here is John McCain, which, come on. Any theory that leads you to support friggin’ McCain is not well-calibrated. And of course this problem is all over the place: liberals will, in the same breath, mock conservatives who voted for Bush because he seemed like a guy you’d like to have a beer with and gush about how much better Obama is because he’s so hip and attractive. So while the fact that Clinton is a bad campaigner is convenient at the moment for people who oppose her policies, reliance on this dynamic represents an extreme danger. Remember, ol’ Honky Kong is getting quite a lot of support based on the fact that he’s “not a politician” and he “tells it like it is.” The road to hell is paved with sincerity.

(Actually, this is something that leftists need to be particularly worried about. It’s easy to assume that fascism/totalitarianism and socialism/anarchism are “opposites,” that anything that leads a society towards one pole necessarily leads it away from the other, but there’s no real reason to believe that this is the case. Fascism and anarchism share at least one very important trait in common: they both want power dynamics to be raw and transparent, bureaucracy to be a tool rather than an ideology. If you’re sick of “stalemate” and “gridlock” in the government and you want to bring in someone who will “shake things up” and “change the system” – someone who will make the trains run on time – you are in fact advocating a dictatorial coup. Fascism is capitalism with a human face.)

Despite our big talk, we’ve managed to get all of this completely backwards. We give politicians the right to be human, while we sink ourselves into the muck of politicking: yelling at people about how to vote, preemptively triangulating positions based on “feasibility,” endlessly compromising our own values into oblivion. The simple fact of the matter is, when you perceive a politician as being ahead of you, when you find yourself looking to them for guidance, you have failed in the task of politics. We must demand the opposite: fewer inspiring speeches, smaller ideas, less leadership. To look to a politician for leadership is among the most vile inversions a human being can make, worse even than looking to a lawyer for morality or to a businessman for expertise.

Evidence of this inversion is everywhere. We talk about government spending as though it were a family budget – we humanize the government. Spending is “irresponsible”; taxes are “punitive.” And this is more than just politics, of course (which is to say that politics is more than just politics). We read self-help books and “lean in” to turn ourselves into more effective workers; we program ourselves with the correct political opinions to smooth out our social interactions; we perform “life hacks” to “maximize” our “productivity.” We humanize the machine while automating our own lives. The obligation to support evil in order to avoid catastrophe is precisely the psychic violence that our political system inflicts on us. There may be more or less that each of us can do on a material basis, and we may disagree on tactics in any event, but we can all – we’re all morally obligated to – resist psychic death.

Politicians ought to be seen like lawyers: despicable people upon whom we foist a sordid but necessary job so that the rest of us don’t have to do it. Our role is not to do their job for them; our role is to hold the line, to cleave as strongly as we can to what is actually right, regardless of what kind of short-term compromises we have to make for the purpose of self-defense. I appreciate how Eric Foner described this:

“Here’s the point. I am a believer in the abolitionist concept – that the role of radicals is to stand outside of the political system. The abolitionists said, ‘I am not putting forward a plan for abolition, because if I put forward a plan, people are just going to be debating my plan. ‘Oh, it’s going to be two years, five years, seven years.’ No: I’m putting forward the moral imperative of dealing with slavery.’ And if people are convinced of that, then politicians will come up with a plan to do it. That means politicians are eventually going to pick up those ideas and use them in other ways and turn them into political strategies.

. . .

Our job is to put out new ideas, different ideas, pressure people, and I don’t care fundamentally if Obama or Hillary gets the nomination in 2008. Sure I have an opinion about it but I don’t think that’s our job to worry about it. All of this maneuvering, ‘Oh, what do we do in this or that election.’ We are not politicians. Politicians do it better.”

So yeah, by all means vote. You might as well lean away from the volcano’s edge rather than towards it. Just remember that, in allowing our politics to come down to a choice of ruler at all, we have failed in a far more significant sense than we ever could by simply electing the wrong person. So don’t pretend like voting for “the right person” is at all morally laudable, or like it counts as “progress.” Don’t let the fact that voting is “something you can do” confuse you into thinking that that’s where the action is. Don’t forget whose side you’re really on, and don’t forget who your hands were made for. Most of all, don’t forget that the real issue is and always will be the fact that people are being slaughtered, poisoned, enslaved, and mutilated, every second of every day, and that all of this is happening for no reason. Or, to put it in classical terms: ask not what you can do for your country; ask what your country has been doing to you.


  1. There was an Aaron Sorkin clip I vaguely remembered that I was going to link here to illustrate this point, but I watched it again and lol no. Just use your imagination. 

F+

Here’s a modern horror story:

“The teacher takes the girl’s paper and rips it in half. ‘Go to the calm-down chair and sit,’ she orders the girl, her voice rising sharply.

‘There’s nothing that infuriates me more than when you don’t do what’s on your paper,’ she says, as the girl retreats.

. . .

After sending the girl out of the circle and having another child demonstrate how to solve the problem, Ms. Dial again chastises her, saying, ‘You’re confusing everybody.’ She then proclaims herself ‘very upset and very disappointed.'”

Let’s briefly set aside the hilarious irony of an irate adult sending a child to the “calm-down chair,” because this is actually important. It’s not about being “mean,” or the teacher “losing control,” or whether the kids are being “terrorized” or need to “toughen up.” It’s about ideology.

That’s why this person is an idiot:

“Some parents had another view. Clayton Harding, whose son, currently in fourth grade, had Ms. Dial as a soccer coach, said: ‘Was that one teacher over the line for 60 seconds? Yeah. Do I want that teacher removed? Not at all. Not because of that. Now if you tell me that happens every single day, that’s a different thing. But no one is telling me that, and everyone is telling me about all the amazing things that she does all the other days.'”

One of the more dangerous things about the internet is that it creates the illusion that “data” just pops up out of nowhere instead of having specific contingent physical sources (also “data” is a conceptual category and not actually a type of physical thing, but that’s another story). In this case, obviously, the assistant teacher would not have been recording this incident unless they already knew that something was up, i.e. this type of thing had in fact been happening on a regular basis.

More than that, though, the fact that this is how the teacher behaves when she has a “lapse in judgment” means that the rest of the time she’s biting her tongue. What we’re seeing here is what she actually believes: that “underperforming” children deserve to be ostracized and humiliated. And the fact that the school supports her means that’s also what the school believes.

Per standard procedure, the New York Times spends the entire article wringing its hands over a bunch of nonsense, then buries the lede right at the end:

Dr. McDonald, the N.Y.U. professor, who also sits on the board of the Great Oaks Charter School on the Lower East Side, said that the behavior in the video violated an important principle of schooling.

“Because the child’s learning was still a little fragile — as learning always is initially — she made an error,” he said in his email. “Good classrooms (and schools) are places where error is regarded as a necessary byproduct of learning, and an opportunity for growth. But not here. Making an error here is a social offense. It confuses others — as if deliberately.”

Whether this is in fact a “principle of schooling” is precisely the issue. As I’m sure you’re aware, what is euphemistically referred to as “education reform” is in fact a major ideological conflict over this exact point. But even this guy doesn’t have it quite right – he’s still framing things as though a child giving an unexpected response is an “error” that needs to be “corrected,” as though “errors” are “byproducts” of growth rather than the substance of growth themselves.

Naturally, since we’re talking ideology here, this confusion is not limited to schooling. Labelling something as an “error” is a pretty obvious value judgment. What we’re actually talking about is what it means for something to be “correct” in general; what, in a practical sense, is the right thing. In the past, we had the idea that “might makes right,” that those who happened to be victorious were by that fact necessarily of superior ability or favored by god or whatever. Despite the phrase now being shorthand for barbarism, this philosophy has one major advantage: the winning party has to actually win. They have to do something to deserve it. Today, we’re enlightened enough that we don’t have to worry about reality anymore. We now live in world where “right makes right,” where what’s right is right by virtue of it being accepted as such and for no other reason, where filling in the bubble labelled “B” on a standardized test is correct if and only if the grading rubric specifies “B” as the correct answer.

Wikipedia, for example. How do you know that the information on Wikipedia is accurate? Well, if it weren’t, someone would have corrected it.

There’s a broad misconception that people only know things that they have been explicitly taught. This is most dramatically demonstrated in the area of language. Children learn their first language (or two) without ever being explicitly taught anything about it. It’s actually not at all clear how it would even be possible to “teach” language to someone who can’t talk; it would be very much like teaching the proverbial blind person to see colors. Yet, as children age, we cling to the idea that they must be educated out of their “errors,” that a language is a big stone tablet of rules against which one checks each utterance for “correctness.” In the saddest case, one reaches adulthood with a disorganized basket stuffed full of “rules” that they then go about waving in the face of anyone who says anything “incorrectly.”

The truth is not that verification implies correctness, but that learning implies error. Language correction is self-contradictory: the fact that you have to tell someone that they said something wrong means that there wasn’t actually anything wrong with it. If there had been, the error would have occurred organically: they would have been misunderstood. It’s clear that this is how we actually learn things about language: we fail to express ourselves, and then we try again.

(Of course, this only applies to people who are paying attention. We’re all familiar with the type of person who talks so much and so inattentively that they end up creating their own unique mishmash of noises and gesticulations, such that they are able to utter on endlessly without ever intersecting reality.)

The point is that things we are explicitly taught account for probably about 1% of our actual knowledge base. What actually happens is that we have experiences and then we try to create a framework under which those experiences make sense. As such, it’s theoretically possible to accelerate the process, to create a sort of hyper-pedagogy in which the student is constantly barraged with miniaturized interactions designed to create a specific understanding. And by “theoretically” I mean video games.

The basic framework for modern video games is the challenge/failure/retry loop. The historical-material basis for this was arcade games. Arcade games were required to eat quarters, which meant each play session had to 1) provide a dopamine jolt, 2) terminate itself (eat the quarter), and 3) provide an incentive for initiating another session (inserting another quarter). The most popular solution to this equation was something called “extra lives.” Your quarter bought you a certain number of lives (usually 3, a psychologically significant number), and then the game started trying to kill you.

The critical moment comes when you fail a challenge and then have the opportunity to try it again. If the game is at all decently designed, you’ll have some idea of what happened and what you want to try to do next time. So in your typical action game like Metal Slug or whatever, the right thing to do is to hit the enemies with your attacks and the wrong thing to do is to get hit by the enemies’ attacks. So you’ll be thinking about how to position yourself and when to attack and so forth, and you’ll want to try again in order to test these ideas out. By hitting you with this sort of scenario over and over again, the game locks you into whatever its idea of a good time is. Materially speaking, in order for the game to be as short and dopamine-intense as possible, the failure loop happens as often as possible. In other words, games are very educational.

And what’s being taught is the thing that every one of these interactions has in common. You’re presented with a given situation with given rules, and there’s a “correct” set of actions to take that will result in the outcome that has been defined by the game as “success.” Executing this set of actions is the right thing to do. Anything else is the wrong thing to do. In certain extreme cases, progressing in a game will require you to do something that is obviously wrong in terms of narrative, such as aiding an enemy or falling into a trap. In such cases, the game implicitly frames doing the wrong thing as the right thing to do.

So the original problem is obviously that games have mostly been about dumb things like avoiding projectiles and jumping on turtles. And this is still largely the case; increased substance in games has been well outstripped by increased flash and pretentiousness. More fundamentally, though, the material situation has changed. Since games have stopped needing to eat quarters, the “failure” part of the loop has atrophied. Now that we pay for games once and play them until “finished,” failure becomes a mere impediment that may as well be done away with. Instead, games now give the player some actions to perform, reward them for doing so, and that’s it.

But “bringing back” failure isn’t a solution. “Failure” on its own isn’t any more significant than “success.” In fact, there’s currently a countertrend in the form of “ultra-hard” games which jam the failure loop into overdrive, and this isn’t any better. Failing the same meaningless challenge 100 times is exactly as pointless as successfully executing the same meaningless task 100 times, in exactly the same way.

What we ought to be looking for are forms of success and failure that are interesting, that cause you to reassess your situation in some way, to question your assumptions, and to gain new insights. Which is what art is supposed to do. It’s deeply sad that people are so zealous in insisting that games “count” as art, yet so blasé about actually getting them to do the things that art is good for.

Of course, not all games are derived from the arcade model. Sim games, for example, tend to lack explicit goals and thereby make room for interesting failures. SimCity allows you to explicitly sic disasters on yourself just to see what happens. Dwarf Fortress is mostly known for players’ stories of the hilarious catastrophes they’ve suffered. And of course there are pure story games, as well as games that are entirely focused on providing aesthetic experiences. But the failure loop is still at the core of how video games are generally conceived, and these exceptions are often ones that prove the rule. For example, story games often have “correct” choices that you need to make in order to get the “true” ending.

On the other hand, I’d be remiss not not mention that, throughout the history of games, players have often ignored what games are supposed to be about and created their own goals and rules of interaction. The most popular example is speedrunning, which usually involves subverting the normal progression of a game and playing it in a way it wasn’t designed for. This provides heartening evidence that structure isn’t everything, that people can find their own truths even in the midst of the labyrinth. Still, the motivation for finding these alternate paths in the first place is often the poverty of the intended experience. The fact that people can make do with garbage is hardly a justification to keep producing more. On the contrary, this sort of player creativity provides us with new vistas to set out for.

(Games that explicitly support speedrunning have entirely missed the mark in this regard: the point is not to incorporate speedrunning as a new task in the same type of game, the point is that there are different types of games to be designed.)

If connecting all of this to the current state of society seems hyperbolic, that’s probably because it is. Video games are barely doing anything right now. We’re lucky that they’re still in their infancy; the problem is that they’re enfants terribles, and they’re going to grow up. And this may in fact happen sooner rather than later.

Going back to our unfortunate charter school students: what are they actually learning? For a few minutes each day, they are presented with some facts or rules or something that they are instructed to internalize. But every second they’re at school, they are being taught a deeper lesson: that the goal of life is to respond to challenges by producing the right answers. What we’re looking at here is the mentality for which “failure is not an option.” This phrase is, first of all, a category error, because failure isn’t something you choose, but more importantly, it represents an extremely dangerous way to think. It assumes that everything’s been figured out, that our society’s assumed goals are not only correct, but worth any sacrifice.

In education, it’s unavoidable that students will say or do things that a lesson planner could never have anticipated. This is a good thing. They’re children, and they’re human. When it comes to games, inconveniences like these can be abstracted away. The player can be given no actions to perform but the “correct” one, and no tools except those needed to do so. One can then be assured that they will do the right thing. Imagining such a system applied to actual humans is obviously horrendous. And yet, those who think that the purpose of education is to train children to answer correctly are advancing precisely this dystopia – the same dystopia enjoyed by millions as their primary form of entertainment. And so it is that, by an astonishing coincidence, the rise of video games has coincided exactly with the rise of neoliberalism.

When Shakespeare said that “all the world’s a stage,” what he was actually saying was obviously “I’ve got plays on the brain 24/7.” All the world’s an anything if you’re obsessed enough with whatever that thing is. We can just as easily conceive of the world as a game: one in which we are constantly presented with tiny tasks governed by rules of interaction. Every time we act, the world reacts; we get feedback; we learn something. But our actions also create the context in which further interactions happen: we’re designers as well as players. Every second of every day, we are creating ideology, and knowing this gives us a small amount of control over the process. If all the world’s a game, it’s badly designed. But we, as the players, still have a choice. We can choose to go for the high score and unlock all the achievements, or we can choose to play a different game of our own design.

A hole in the head

Obama did a thing about guns. It was very serious and emotional, because Obama is very serious about this issue and he’s seriously going to take serious actions about it, while also having emotions about it.

(Quick hit about the crying thing: Gawker’s headline for this was “Barack Obama Just Cried on National Television“, which falls squarely into the category of Not Helping. Gawkeristas are presumably the type of people who believe that crying is normal human behavior and that we should allow public figures to be honest with their emotions, but by making this the lede, let alone hamming it up for the headline, they’re implicitly portraying it as aberrant behavior. The way you help normalize something is, by definition, by not making a big deal about it.)

Obama is better than most politicians at saying the right thing, and the right thing he’s said about gun violence is that this is a problem that exists in America and in no other comparable nation.

Here’s Obama in the New York Times saying this, and another right thing:

“Every year, more than 30,000 Americans have their lives cut short by guns. Suicides. Domestic violence. Gang shootouts. Accidents.”

These things are how gun deaths actually happen in the numbers that they do. Roughly 60% of gun deaths are suicides. This makes suicide alone the primary issue with gun violence – more important than all types of homicides and accidents combined. Mass shootings specifically are not actually a big deal, policy-wise. As with terrorism in general, the threat from mass shootings is subjectively dramatic but statistically negligible.

And this is why all of Obama’s proposals are useless at addressing this issue on the level of the epidemic that it actually is. Specifically, the four proposed actions are: the usual shibboleths of “background checks” and “mental health,” “making our communites safer,” which apparently consists of, um, a phone call from the Attorney General, and “safety technology,” which is a particularly bizarre thing to focus on, for reasons we’ll get to later.

The great volume of talk about “background checks” and “reasonable restrictions” to keep guns out of “the wrong hands” is all a massive dodge. Let’s be serious. When politicians yammer on about “mental health,” they aren’t talking about depression. They’re scapegoating people with mental health issues as crazy killers, as though the only possible explanation for arbitrary murder is “craziness,” as though a proper patriotic American could never dream of doing something as unseemly as taking a life. They don’t want to admit that killers are in fact acting in accordance with American values.

It bears repeating that people with mental health issues are not more likely to commit violence; there’s no entry in the DSM for “psycho killer.” Mental health as politicians talk about it has fuckall to do with gun violence. As for depression and suicide, they’re never seen as real issues, since the only harm they do is to remove unpleasant people who we’d rather ignore anyway.

Now, regarding this, one of the actions is:

The Administration is proposing a new $500 million investment to increase access to mental health care.

Which is great. Money well spent (and it should of course be done regardless of gun violence). Except for the word “proposing,” and the fact that $500 mil on the federal level is chump change (it’s about 0.013% of the total budget, and 0.05% of expenditures on health care. Can you name 2,000 issues that are more important than mental health care? Probably not, seeing as suicide is the 10th leading cause of death in America). The issue isn’t that any of these proposals are bad things. Assuming they actually result in some sort of action, they will save a nonzero number of lives. But Obama is pushing these tepid policies while simultaneously playing up the dramatic horror of the issue. You don’t treat an epidemic with aspirin.

There are two real things that could be done. One is to treat guns like cars, dangerous objects that we allow people to own under the condition that they are licensed, trained, and insured. This is a perfectly reasonable course of action that is well within the confines of neoliberal political discourse. The fact that it is 100% impossible for this to happen in America illustrates the way in which American society is actually deranged.

But this still wouldn’t solve the problem. It would reduce gun deaths somewhat, just by making it slightly more onerous to actually get a gun. Actually, the most effective thing would probably be the insurance part, since it would actually create a corporate disincentive to spread guns around, and corporate incentivization is the only thing that actually makes things happen in America. But all you need to kill yourself is whatever the weakest type of handgun is and one bullet for it (and this applies at basically the same strength to killing other people; the “assault weapons” angle ignores how fantastic even basic handguns are at killing people), so any proposal that still allows people to get any kind of gun under basically any reasonable conditions will not solve the main issue.

This is why the second thing that could theoretically be done is the only way to actually improve the general situation. That thing is to ban guns.

The most charitable version of the argument against this is: you can’t uninvent guns, and a person without a gun is helpless against a person with a gun, so allowing gun ownership is the only thing that provides the possibility of self-defense. This isn’t wrong, argumentatively speaking, but it’s practically irrelevant. It’s not just that perfect safety is a fantasy, it’s that you really can’t protect yourself at all from the overwhelming majority of lethal threats that you face every day. You’re in far more danger driving a car onto the freeway than you ever will be from gun violence.

Also, there’s no need to argue hypothetically; we already know that this isn’t a real problem. As Obama didn’t quite get all the way to pointing out, other countries have banned guns and they’re doing just fine. We know for a fact that it is not the case that British cities are controlled by roving gangs of gunhavers while ordinary law-abiding citizens desperately try to defend themselves with kitchen knives.

The other accidental point that gun advocates make is that gun violence is the cost of a free society. This is true, assuming you count “freedom to own guns” as part of what “free society” means. You don’t have to do that, though. There’s no comprehensive definition of “freedom” such that a society that meets it is “maximally free.” Every freedom entails a corresponding restriction. Free speech entails people being harmful assholes. Free trade entails economic exploitation. And free ownership of lethal weapons entails death.

There’s a popular liberal saying, “my rights end where yours begin,” but this doesn’t actually mean anything, because defining where that line is is the entire question. A society where face-punching is illegal is a society where you are free to walk down the street without the threat of being punched in the face, but you are not free to punch somebody in the face if they’re annoying you. A society where face-punching is legal is a society where you are free to punch people in the face for arbitrary reasons, but you are not free to avoid the possibility of being punched in the face yourself. The question of which of these freedoms we value more is a real question that we really have to answer. In this case it’s not particularly controversial, but the issue with guns has exactly the same dynamic.

This is the real point that is missing from the mainstream debate about guns: we are choosing what kind of society we want to have. Everyone pretends like the issue has a “solution,” like if we find just the right combination of regulations we can have a society where everyone owns a gun but there’s no gun violence, or at least not so much that we have to read about it in the paper sometimes and get sad. But the truth is that it is a choice; the truth is that we’ve already made this choice, and we’ve chosen guns.

But it’s not just guns, this same point is missing from literally every mainstream debate about everything. The idea of choosing values does not enter into the neoliberal conception of politics as a process of optimization. This is why neoliberalism is the invisible ideology: it only talks about means, pretending that it doesn’t have ends.

This is where the technology bit comes in. The proposal here is that we can develop “smart guns” that have fingerprint locks or whatever, and this will prevent thefts and accidents and soforth. Let’s assume that this is true, that we can develop guns that are 100%, uh, “safe” (see, just talking about this is bizarre). The actual effect of this will be basically dick. First, there are already an unbelievable shitton of non-magic-robot guns floating around, and they aren’t going anywhere unless we, you know, ban them. Furthermore, there will obviously continue to be a demand for non-magic-robot guns, since being dangerous is the point of guns and because guns are overwhelmingly bought as fetish objects (since they do so little for actual security); buying a safe gun is almost exactly like buying censored porn.

This is why technology cannot solve political problems. Political problems are problems of competing interests. All technology can do is give people more capacity to fulfill their desires (the fact of your desires becoming fulfillable can also change them, which is an actual problem with technology, but let’s keep this simple); it does not resolve conflicts, because nothing can fulfill competing desires simultaneously. It is to obscure this point that neoliberalism so zealously imports the language of technology into political discourse. As another example, some politicians have called for the development of new encryption technology that is more secure but also allows the government’s intelligence agencies to do whatever they want with it. This is not possible; encryption is either secure or it isn’t. The point of such a proposal, of pretending that there’s a technological “solution” that addresses all concerns, is precisely to elide the fact that the government wants to be able to spy on people, because politicians would rather not have to actually make that argument.

In the same way, this is the actual function of the Constitution in American political discourse. It provides us with a readymade set of values, such that we never have to think about issues on that level. You see this all the time in gun control debates: the Second Amendment is always the stopping point, and we poke and prod at the exact meaning of its comma placement as though that matters, as though the question were not precisely whether we agree that gun ownership ought to be constitutionally protected. There is only one serious gun control position: repeal the Second Amendment.

Of course, this applies just as well to the entire Constitution (notwithstanding the fact that the Ninth Amendment exists; you’ll never hear that one brought up in a political debate). By setting unassailable limits on political discourse, the Constitution acts as a bulwark against radicalism. It allows us to pretend that we’ve got it all figured out already, that a bunch of rich slave-owning rapists solved the problem of values for us, that all we have to do is flesh out the implementation details. This is why Constitution fetishism is another of neoliberalism’s weapons of choice.

And this is why Obama, who is in many ways the apotheosis of American politics, raises big issues but only ever talks about them in terms of reform. It allows him to avoid the responsibility of actually advocating for a system of values – which would, of course, entail attacking those with opposing values instead of fantasizing that every issue can be solved through compromise. I recently read Jimmy Carter’s so-called “malaise” speech for the first time, and I realized why everyone got so pissed about it: he actually had the audacity to suggest that Americans examine their values and modify their behavior accordingly. (Of course, he got the direction wrong: he thought the problem was that Americans needed to commit more strongly to their traditional values.)

As convenient as it is to pretend otherwise, there’s actually no such thing as not having ends. If you’re not consciously aiming your actions at chosen ends, your ends will by default become whatever the actual results of your actions are. So if neoliberalism actually succeeds and we end up locked into an optimization process without an awareness of what it is we’re optimizing, the end result really will be a perfect society – one that is perfectly in accord with a value system that no human would ever have chosen.