Those who yearn for the halcyon days of empirical statements and complete sentences in politics will find Barack Obama’s defense of the Iran deal a long-awaited balm. As well they should; Obama is an intelligent person with a genuine command of the issues and the ability to explain them clearly and concisely. Unfortunately, he’s also clever.
Read this passage carefully:
Second, the JCPOA has worked in rolling back Iran’s nuclear program. For decades, Iran had steadily advanced its nuclear program, approaching the point where they could rapidly produce enough fissile material to build a bomb. The JCPOA put a lid on that breakout capacity. Since the JCPOA was implemented, Iran has destroyed the core of a reactor that could have produced weapons-grade plutonium; removed two-thirds of its centrifuges (over 13,000) and placed them under international monitoring; and eliminated 97 percent of its stockpile of enriched uranium — the raw materials necessary for a bomb. So by any measure, the JCPOA has imposed strict limitations on Iran’s nuclear program and achieved real results.
Now answer this: before the Iran deal was established, was Iran building nuclear weapons? It sure sounds like it, right? It was “steadily advancing,” “approaching” the point where it might have achieved “breakout capacity.” Scary! Also, 13,000! That’s a big number!
The correct answer, however, is no. There’s no evidence that’s Iran’s “weapons program” was ever anything more than a bogeyman conjured up by people with political interests in facilitating an invasion of the country. One does not need “access to the intelligence” to be able to state this with relative confidence. Because the U.S. has been constantly scaremongering about this for years now, we can be sure that, if there really was hard evidence, we’d have heard all about it. You’ll note that Obama’s statement above is composed entirely of weasel words. The “raw materials” for a bomb do not constitute a weapons program, saying that something is “approaching” the point where it could be “rapidly produced” specifically means it is not being produced, and the whole thing is based on the conflation of “nuclear program” with “nuclear weapons program.” None of this is a mistake; Obama is obviously apprised of the real intelligence on the subject, and he is choosing these words deliberately.
(By the way, for anyone who’s not aware of this: the reason the U.S. government hates Iran is that they overthrew our puppet government there. It certainly doesn’t have anything to do with theocracy or human rights or terrorism sponsorship, since we’re still BFFs with Saudi Arabia, which is way worse on all possible counts. And of course it would be perfectly rational for Iran to choose to pursue nuclear weapons now, since it’s been demonstrated that the American mind only understands force.)
So this raises the critical question of what the hell Obama thinks he’s doing. Presumably, the argument in favor of the Iran deal is that Iran is not in fact part of an “axis of evil” and should simply be negotiated with normally. Indeed, one might have imagined that this was the entire point, that the deal was built on the recognition that the United States and Iran have no real reason to be in conflict with each other and should be working together towards deescalation and a normalization of relations. Should one hold such a belief, though, one would be in for some pretty strenuous disagreement from, for example, Barack Obama:
Because of these facts, I believe that the decision to put the JCPOA at risk without any Iranian violation of the deal is a serious mistake. Without the JCPOA, the United States could eventually be left with a losing choice between a nuclear-armed Iran or another war in the Middle East. We all know the dangers of Iran obtaining a nuclear weapon. It could embolden an already dangerous regime; threaten our friends with destruction; pose unacceptable dangers to America’s own security; and trigger an arms race in the world’s most dangerous region. If the constraints on Iran’s nuclear program under the JCPOA are lost, we could be hastening the day when we are faced with the choice between living with that threat, or going to war to prevent it.
While I don’t normally recommend that anyone pay any attention to politicians, I really wish all the people slobbering about how rational and thoughtful Obama is would actually read what he’s saying here. He is explicitly saying that, if Iran obtains nuclear weapons, the U.S. would be justified in launching a war of aggression. In fact, he’s saying more than that: by framing the situation as a “losing choice,” he’s saying that the U.S. would be required to do so. (It’s always pretty hilarious whenever someone uses the phrase “all options are on the table,” because there’s actually only ever one option on the table.)
This is important because it illuminates what Obama’s actual goal here is. It is not peace. If it were, he’d be responding to the present situation by arguing that there’s no reason to invade Iran. Instead, he’s doing the opposite: he’s specifically arguing against the possibility of “living with the threat.” So the question is why exactly the two choices he presents are both supposed to be “losing” ones. The reason Obama thinks war is a losing choice is that he’s smart. He knows that war is the worst thing and, moreover, that, for all the destruction it causes in the name of “necessity,” it generally doesn’t even achieve it’s own explicit immediate-term goals (the Iraq War, for example, exacerbated the spread of terrorism rather than containing it). But the reason he thinks a nuclear-armed Iran is a losing choice is that, in that case, the U.S. government’s dominance over the region would be weakened. In both cases, then, that is what he’s actually after: the successful expansion of U.S. imperialism.
And Obama genuinely does deserve credit for being smart. I actually want to emphasize this. The Iraq War was evil in terms of intention, but it was also badly executed, which made it worse. So the fact that Obama took the “smart” approach to Iran is not something to be underestimated. The Iran deal was by far the best thing Obama did as president. It was an unambiguously positive development that prevented one of the worst available outcomes from occurring – the U.S. government’s constant saber-rattling means that war really was an immediate danger, and unfortunately now still is.
But objecting only to the “stupidity” of war means you agree with its goals. The tide of official opinion has shifted against the Iraq War, but not out of morality. Almost everyone objects only to the fact that Iraq became a “quaqmire,” and Obama is one of those people. Maybe he would have been smart enough not to go into Iraq in the first place. He did speak out against the war, but he was a political unknown at the time, so he wasn’t really under any pressure not to. More to the point, we know full well what he really believes from what he actually did as president: he not only maintained but accelerated the state of perpetual warfare by expanding targeted assassination and surveillance programs and constantly engaging in unilaterally-declared undebated military actions. In this sense he was actually a far more effective imperialist than George W. Bush, because he expanded the franchise without provoking any opposition – despite the fact that all the things everyone was supposedly opposed to were still occurring. “Smart” imperialism may not get us Iraq, but it does get us Libya and Syria.
The situation with the Iran deal is frequently framed as a matter of Donald Trump trying to “undo” all of Obama’s accomplishments, but it’s actually just a matter of him being a moron. He lacks the mental capacity to assess either the merits of the deal or the consequences of withdrawal. (For example, a lot of people noticed that reneging on the Iran deal would make negotiations with North Korea untenable, meaning it was a bad idea regardless of the merits of the deal itself. It’s clear that this problem never even entered Trump’s mind.) He isn’t capable of processing the situation on any level other than labeling the deal a “bad thing” and therefore getting rid of it.
So what’s critical to understand is that, while this is a real difference – we’re worse off without the Iran deal – it’s a difference of execution rather than intention. The motives on which he’s acting here are the same as Obama’s: he’s trying to advance U.S. imperialism. During the campaign, a lot of political analysts thought Trump was an “isolationist,” basically because they’re incapable of doing political analysis. His objections to the Iraq War were entirely circumstantial: it wasted a bunch of money and caused bad things to happen (specifically, it had become unpopular and it was indirectly associated with both Hillary Clinton and Jeb Bush, so it was a convenient attack vector). They were not moral; he was quite clear that his preferred approach to foreign policy was to “bomb them and take their oil,” which is precisely imperialism expressed in its crudest terms.
(I don’t totally understand why people think Trump is “evasive” or has “no ideology.” He’s entirely transparent. On second thought, I lied, I understand it perfectly well. The reason is that Trump only has the basic underlying ideology that most of the people talking about him implicitly share, so they don’t understand it as an ideology. (For example, Trump is obviously in favor of capitalism, and since most people don’t realize that capitalism is optional, they don’t understand that this is an ideological position. Same with imperialism.))
On Iran, Trump’s interpretation (generously defined) of the deal as a “bad deal” meant that it didn’t advantage America enough, and therefore did not exert the necessary dominance over Iran. This is the same motivation that lead Obama to pursue the deal in the first place: Iran having nuclear weapons would have allowed it to exert its own influence. This is the only reason anyone in the ruling class cares about anything. It’s exactly the same thing with North Korea: it’s only now that they’re beginning to acquire nuclear capacity and can therefore threaten our dominance over Asia that there’s suddenly a “crisis.” For anyone with the goal of peace, there was never an “Iran issue” in the first place, because Iran is not a threat to anyone – it has not been the instigator of any of the regional conflicts currently transpiring, and its involvement has been entirely defensive. Note that this is not something that the United States can claim.
Indeed, nuclear proliferation really is a vitally important issue, but not for the reasons you’ll hear from anyone in the media. For most of us, the reason nuclear weapons are a serious issue is that they can be used to murder millions of people in the blink of an eye – and they can just as easily do this accidentally as intentionally. The reason this matters to me is that Los Angeles is a priority target for anyone who wants to nuke the U.S., and there are a small number of people here whom I care about, and I refuse to accept that they can be instantly annihilated by the random whims of a tiny handful of sagging fleshpiles failing to play geopolitical checkers. (Also, blinding followed by irradiation doesn’t quite make my top 10 list of ways to die.) That’s my personal reason, at least. To be clear, the overwhelmingly more likely threat is the U.S. nuking someone else. Any other country that used nukes would be committing suicide, but the U.S. could potentially justify it and/or resist a beheading by the international community, not to mention we’re the ones with enough nukes to black out the sky, as well as the ones doing such a shit job of securing them that accidental global annihilation is actually a salient possibility. While I strongly resent my life being under this stupid of a threat, anyone being honest about this has to admit that America is the monster here, and it’s therefore everyone not being “protected” by America’s nuclear umbrella who has the real moral authority.
For politicians, though, none of this has anything to do with anything. They’re already murdering people on a constant basis; they don’t care about that. They’d be perfectly happy to kill everyone in Los Angeles if it would benefit them and they thought they could get away with it. We know perfectly well from the immediately available historical evidence that they will kill whoever they want for whatever reason they want and they will use nukes to do so if they think they can justify it. The only reason they care is because of power. Countries with nuclear weapons have the ability to resist U.S. dominance. Nobody can beat the U.S. in a straight war, but we can’t stop nukes, so a country with nukes can credibly threaten us – which is to say they can make the costs of invading them outweigh the benefits. Nuclear weapons give other nations the power to assert their own desires against the will of the U.S. government, and this is never acceptable under any circumstances.
Obama doesn’t actually want war. At least that much can be said for him. He’s not John Bolton salivating for violence, nor even John McCain singing about bombing Iran. But he is Barack Obama making jokes about killing people with drone strikes. What Obama wants is American dominance. He’s smart enough to realize that it’s better to have dominance without having to resort to war, but if we do end up having to kill a few million people here or there, he’s not going to lose any sleep over it. He’s “anti-war” only tactically, as a result of being moderately intelligent. Unlike the rest of the slack-jawed crocodiles that this country calls a government, he at least realizes that “violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.” But he’s totally cool with taking that refuge. Let’s dispel with this fiction that Obama doesn’t know what he’s doing. He knows exactly what he’s doing.
The thing about Trump is that opposing him is easy. Indeed, it’s difficult not to, which is why so many objectively terrible people are now doing so. This is because Trump is the worst possible person. It’s actually kind of amazing, like something out of the Twilight Zone. Almost everybody has at least something that could be said for them. Y’know, Hitler loved his dogs or whatever. More to the point, Hitler had real goals that he felt passionately about and he was skillful and determined in pursuing them. Obviously, this made the consequences of his life much worse than they could have been, but it remains the case that these are respectable traits to have as a person. One can at least view Hitler as a formidable villain.
But the thing that’s amazing about Trump is that he has nothing like this going for him. There are a few things about him that would seem to be positives, but he manages to make them into negatives anyway. For example, he doesn’t actually “speak his mind” and thereby get through the “media filter,” because he’s only capable of thinking in media tropes in the first place, and he only talks to draw attention to himself, not to express ideas. So he actually uses his impulsiveness and irreverence to play into existing media narratives, resulting in him being an even more conventional and obfuscatory speaker than the typical talking-point parroting politician.
Similarly, while it may seem that Trump is a dynamic person who takes action and makes a difference in the world, he doesn’t direct his energy at anything that actually matters. He started a whole bunch of different businesses and ventures and so forth, but none of them actually did anything – none of the products he hawked are still around and none of the buildings he promoted do anything significant, so what his “high-energy” personality actually means is that he wastes more time and money than someone who just sits around and does nothing.
This is even clearer now that he actually has formal power and is doing absolutely nothing with it. If he actually cared about doing anything, he could have, among other things, made an immigration deal such as the DACA-for-wall proposal that had bipartisan support or pushed for the big infrastructure bill he likes to talk about sometimes. These things would have broken out of the political stalemate and precipitated actual changes in the country, but because Trump doesn’t actually know how to do real things, they never even came close to happening. His “energy” is instead spent playing golf and yelling at the TV. He was entirely energetic and committed when he was running for president, and this was a bad thing, because presidential campaigns are bullshit spectacles that eclipse real issues. So the practical result of this was not that anything “changed,” but that Trump simply made the 2016 campaign an even bigger and more bullshit-filled spectacle than ever before. He only knows how to do things that aren’t real things.
Yet all of this actually makes Trump a less bad president than a lot of others, at least so far. He’s at least going to stay ahead of Bush Jr. as long as he doesn’t start a major war. And his total lack of policy understanding might actually lead to him not fucking up the South Korean president’s efforts at a peace treaty, which, given the current context of U.S. foreign policy, would qualify as a significant passive achievement. But this obviously doesn’t reflect well on Trump – it’s just a coincidence, or what philosophers call “moral luck.” It’s actually part of why he’s the worst possible person: being ineffective in an immoral situation results in better outcomes.
By contrast, Obama has plenty of admirable character traits, but these don’t necessarily lead to good results. I mean, Obama isn’t nearly as good of a person as people make him out to be. The fact that he immediately cashed in upon exiting the presidency really does reflect quite badly on him – anyone making excuses for Obama on this front is presumably unaware that Jimmy Carter exists. I mean, he’s, like, “nice,” but he’s clearly not any kind of moral paragon, so there’s really quite a lot of wishful thinking going on here. It would be nice if the “first black president” were a deep moralist and a bold, original thinker, but things that would be nice tend to not actually be the case.
Anyway, the point is that Obama applied his admirable skills towards the execution of his goals, so the actual results of his actions depend on what those goals were. In response to the financial crisis, Obama’s goal was to preserve the stability of financial capitalism, and that’s exactly what he did. A less skilled individual might not have been able to pull it off. But Obama did, so the speculators kept speculating, the entire value of the recovery went to rich fucks, and we now have a less equal society that retains all of the same problems that caused the crash in the first place, along with a “healthy” economy where no one can afford housing.
Of course, stabilizing the economy was better than not stabilizing it, but that’s not much of a laurel to rest on. This is clearer in the case of Obamacare. While the law had a lot of negative consequences, such as the rise of high-deductible plans, the situation was already pretty well fucked, so it’s probably better that it passed. But while we may want to defend Obamacare on a tactical basis, we should still be opposed to it on a moral one, because it still supports a system in which people live or die based on how much money they have. This isn’t about demanding perfection. It’s perfectly rational to take what you can get, but it would be entirely irrational not to then continue on to pursue something that’s actually good. Indeed, it would precisely be an insistence on ideological purity at the expense of engaging with real conditions in the world.
And the thing is, if you try to do something like this, Obama is going to be against you. He’s against war with Iran, so if you’re engaged with the specific issue of trying to prevent a war with Iran, he may be effective as a situational ally. You know what they say about politics. But if you then move on to trying to stop U.S. imperialism, he’s going to be just as opposed to you as he is to Trump. More so, in fact, because in this case he will actually disagree with your goals rather than merely your methods.
Being against the worst thing in the world doesn’t make you a good person, and being the preferable alternative to the worst thing in the world doesn’t necessarily mean anything more than that you’re the second worst thing in the world. More to the point, there’s opposition, and then there’s opposition. If you’re against someone because you think they’re doing a bad job of implementing your goals, what that means is that you’re on their side, you just have some constructive criticism for them. Barack Obama is on Donald Trump’s side, not yours.
This is a hard thing to convince people of, because the superficial differences are so great – and, as mentioned, they’re things that actually matter, so you can’t just ignore them. But acting in the real world rather than merely indulging in comfortable fantasies requires doing things which are hard, such as drawing distinctions that aren’t readily apparent, and making choices other than those that are explicitly presented to you. Sometimes you have to cut against people’s instinctive personal reactions rather than indulging them. We don’t always have the convenience of our enemies manifesting themselves as sneering grotesques, broadcasting their vileness for all to see. Sometimes the ones who smile are the villains. The lines aren’t always clear or straight, either, and the complexity of any significant issue makes it easy to get things wrong. But I can say this: if you care about progress, if you care about equality, if you care about justice – indeed, if you care about anything at all other than the continued stability of the American Empire – Barack Obama is your enemy.
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 away 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.
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.
2 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.
3 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.
4 Charity suffereth long, and is kind; charity envieth not; charity vaunteth not itself, is not puffed up,
5 Doth not behave itself unseemly, seeketh not her own, is not easily provoked, thinketh no evil;
6 Rejoiceth not in iniquity, but rejoiceth in the truth;
7 Beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things.
8 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.
9 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.
The first thing to consider is why a person would do such a thing in the first place, which is of course to cosplay as a cowboy. We’ve seen the same sort of thing with George W. Bush “clearing brush” or Donald Trump putting on a coal mining helmet. The political significance of these stunts is that they evoke a socially-understood image of rugged, individualist masculinity, the evocation of which acts as an argument for a particular value system. The thing is, though, if these people really did embody their stated values, there would be no need for stunts. In fact, if there existed anyone who embodied these types of values, that person would instead have risen to become the relevant candidate. The reason this never happens is that there exists no such person, which is because the set of values is question isn’t real. It can’t actually be instantiated, which is why it can’t be rationally argued for, which is why it can only exist through theatrification.
So it’s a form of lying, obviously, it’s presenting the candidate as someone they’re not, but it’s more than that. It’s mythologization as support for an incoherent system of values. The images of things like the “cowboy” and the “wild West” are forged copies of an original that never existed in the first place (one of those postmodern sociology nerds probably has a term for this, but I don’t care enough to look it up). Moore’s failure to actually ride his horse demonstrates this quite concisely. Horseback riding is a real skill, and horsemanship has a real history and real functions. Furthermore, cowboys were real people, and there really was a period of Western expansion and pioneering. But the image of the cowboy and the horse has no connection to any of this history. It merely appeals to people’s unexamined instincts in favor of positive-valence concepts like “independence” and “manliness” and “nature.” The thing is, you can make up a concept for anything, but reality is going to stay the same underneath it. The only way concepts are justified is through a connection to that underlying reality that helps people grasp it, like reins attached to a horse. When there is no such connection, evocation of the concept results only in noise, and attempts to act on it result in mere flailing, like an old man barely balancing on top of a presumably very annoyed horse.
Of course, since incoherent values by definition cannot exist, what actually happens when these people get elected is that they revert to their true values. Republicans’ recent attempts at legislation bear this out. The first thing they tried to do was “repeal Obamacare,” which was one of the false images they used to get elected. Since Obamacare is a regulations tweak and not actually its own distinct structure, there’s no such thing as “repealing” it (because the policy has already changed the landscape of American healthcare, changing it back to what it was before would not in fact revert things to the same situation.) All you can do is change the regulations to something else, which is what the actual bill ended up being. But no one actually wants that; free-market zealots just want to slash spending on poor people, and everyone else wants a real healthcare system. The fact that Republicans almost passed a nonsense bill anyway shows how deeply they’re trapped in their own image. When that failed, they moved on to their real priority of just giving money to rich people, which is not something that anyone voted for. Here, again, the constructed image of “resistance to big government” and “job creation” masks a real material policy of direct upward wealth transfer. And it’s not just that the image disguises the real policy, but that, without the image, the policy could never have existed in the first place. The present instantiation of the Republican Party only exists as a vector for this image of “fiscal responsibility” and “traditional values,” and the desires that constitute the source of that image are the real underlying problem.
Democrats have exactly the same problem, only their false image is one of “rational administration” and a “civic religion.” If recent history has clarified anything at all, it is that the actions of elites have nothing to do with expertise or responsibility and everything to do with their own class-driven ideology. Indeed, there’s no such thing as rationality in general; you have to make the decision as to what you actually want before rationality can help you get there. So again, this is a incoherent set of values, and what actually happens is, again, a reversion to the underlying dynamics. Privatization, imperialism, austerity, and wealth concentration all get framed as “smart solutions” when in fact they are nothing more than the blunt advancement of specific interests.
In order to prove that this is actually the most serious issue, I have to demonstrate that it’s global warming in disguise, which it is. Capitalism justifies itself on the basis of the imagery of prosperity and growth. What it actually is, specifically, is a schema for distributing material resources. The resources themselves, including the technologies used to take advantage of them, are just things, we can make different decisions and they’ll keep existing. So when a particular material circumstance comes up, such as the fact that continued use of our primary energy source will destroy the environment, we need to be able to adapt to that on a material basis. But the imagery of capitalism doesn’t allow for this sort of decision-making; quite the contrary, it insists that the operation of capital is necessarily correct under all material conditions. In fact, it doesn’t even allow for the possibility of anything other than automatic capitalist dynamics having any effect on the world; thus, anyone who believes this is incapable of penetrating through to reality (this one I actually know, it’s what Marxists call “mystification”). So the response to global warming, even among right-minded liberals, is to invoke the imagery of “responsiblity” and “sustainability” without any reference to the actual material changes necessary to make those words mean something.
But remember, just “doing the math” is itself a false image, because the math follows from whatever your starting axioms were. You have to have your ideas in order before anything you do is going to make any sense. Otherwise you’ll end up voting for a narcissistic billionaire out of concern for the working class, or voting for an elitist powermonger out of concern for social justice. So, in a rare and shocking turn of events, that pro-horse Twitter pile-on is actually the ideologically correct course of action. It’s isn’t enough to ignore the image in favor of the “real issues,” because as long as you try to do that, the image retains its mystique. (Also, you can only argue in terms of images anyway, because language is an image.) It usually seems like the easiest thing to do in an argument is to accept your opponent’s terms and simply show where they’re mistaken. For example, if the Republicans are trying to “reform taxes” in order to “fix the defect,” and their tax plan that adds a ton of money to the defect and doesn’t actually simplify anything, then you can just point that out. But the reason this is the easiest argument is because it’s the least effective. As long as you maintain a false image, the argument can end up going in any direction, because it isn’t based on anything. You can lose because one of the words you picked makes a particular 4.7-second clip of your speech sound bad, and someone else can win by insisting that ignoring sexual abuse is the best way to protect women.
People sometimes say that humans are gods trapped in the bodies of apes, but it’s actually the opposite: we’re real physical beings bound in the invisible straitjacket of imagery. Representation is the only weapon we have, so correct representation is our only means of adherence to the truth. Ignoring that fact in favor of “facts” is its own form of false imagery. Reason is not self-evident, and the only way to manifest changes in the world is to both explore the territory and chart it out using a system and a legend that makes the map usable by other people. You have to learn how to ride a horse.
The Memo of Doom has occasioned more commentary than anyone requires regarding anything, and that’s actually the main problem. Parsing individual claims in a situation like this tends to involve ignoring what the text actually does as a rhetorical action. So I think it would help to review some of the general principles at work here.
Various strains of activism in the recent past have succeeded wildly at inculcating the idea that “equality” is a good thing and “discrimination” is a bad thing. It’s actually difficult to remember that this is a very modern idea; for most of human history it was exactly the opposite: the idea was that everyone had their divinely-ordained place in the world and the right thing to do was to treat everyone according to their formal status. Of course, it’s much easier to get people to mouth positive-sounding platitudes than it is to actually change their minds (let alone their behaviors), so the practical result of this is that everyone, up to and including literal Klansmen, always says that they “don’t have a racist bone in their body” and they’re “all in favor of diversity” and they’re “just being realistic” and etc. In fact, this effect is so strong that even unrelated arguments get cast in the same language; for example, conservatives will complain of “discrimination” against their “minority viewpoints” which reduces “diversity.” The fact that such statements are always present all the time means that they do not discriminate between disparate situations. Both racists and anti-racists are equally likely to say that they oppose racism, so a statement of opposition to racism proffers no information about which kind of person you’re talking to. So, given that such statements encode no information, the only rational thing to do is to ignore them completely.
Anyone who uses the word “efficiency” is trying to sell you a bridge. Efficiency is a technical concept referring to a process’s ratio of inputs to outputs. An alternative process that costs half as much but delivers the same results is more efficient, despite being not more productive; an alternative with twice the cost and three times the output is more efficient despite being more costly. But in order to make such a determination, you must first specify which inputs and outputs you’re looking at. If you care about reducing pollution, then the question is which options give you the greatest reduction for a given cost. If you care about getting a product to market quickly, then the question is which options reduce your production time by the greatest amount. If you care about preserving a particular rare resource, then the question is which process uses the least of that resource, regardless of other costs. “Efficiency” doesn’t mean anything until you’ve made such a specification.
Due to the nature of the society that we live in, it’s common to talk about efficiency in terms of monetary expenditures and corporate profits. When people talk about whether something is “efficient” or “effective” or “a good idea” or any number of other vague references, they are often implicitly talking about corporate productivity. This is usually an unexamined assumption: people don’t consider the fact that not everything has to be discussed in terms of what’s good for rich fucks. So people often argue that diversity1 is more “efficient,” meaning it helps corporations make more money. Certain types of people will argue that engineering is actually about communication and problem-solving, and diverse opinions and traditionally feminine skillsets are more valuable in that endeavor – in other words, they’re better for the company. This may be true (though I don’t think you can really make a general determination about this sort of thing), but if you actually care about equality, it’s a bad faith argument. Anti-discrimination is the thing you care about; it’s your output. The question is not which amount of diversity results in the greatest profits, but rather which structures most effectively reduce discrimination.
And there’s even another layer on top of that, which is that corporate productivity isn’t one thing either. You could, hypothetically, design a facial recognition system that works really well on Europeans and not very well on Asians, or you could design one that works passably well on everybody. You can’t “compute” which of these is better, you have to make a values-based judgment as to which one you prefer. If Google adopts a particular set of policies and thereby becomes super productive while also being super discriminatory, that’s perfectly “efficient,” but it’s also a bad outcome for everyone except Google. Seeing as our current social system rewards monetary success2 at the expense of all other metrics, this is the kind of thing we need to be on guard against.
Everyone thinks that their opinions are “thoughtful” and “nuanced” and “fact-based,” and that anyone who disagrees with then is a shallow ideologue who hasn’t done their homework. It’s temping, then, to express this by writing something extremely long. I mean, if you write 10,000 words about something, it has to be nuanced, right? It can’t just be a simplistic expression of unexamined prejudices. Anyone who dismisses it on that basis clearly didn’t read the whole thing.
So obviously writing a ton of words isn’t the same thing as actually saying something worthwhile, but it goes even farther than that: the act of writing a big long manifesto is itself a statement about the underlying topic. It’s the statement that there exists a big long manifesto’s worth of discussion to be had, when that is not necessarily the case. I talked about this earlier with regard to rape apologetics. Trying to “cover the whole story” by including a detailed examination of the rapist’s perspective makes the implicit statement that that perspective is valid. And this can then become a defensive gesture that prevents you from reassessing your own argument, because anyone dismissing you just “doesn’t appreciate the complexity of the topic.” That might be true, but they might be right anyway.
The fact that you sometimes need a certain level of detail to make a point does not entail that anything with that level of detail is necessarily making the same kind of point. When you fail to examine your assumptions, it’s possible to make a lengthy, nuanced argument that says nothing.
Act like it
Speech is a physical phenomenon that occurs in the real world. In no case is the content of speech ever a “pure idea”; it is always an action that has a particular effect, which is partly (and often mostly) determined by the context in which the action takes place. You can’t “neutrally” argue about whether black people have lower IQs than white people in a society with a history (and present) of using intellectualism as a vector for dehumanization. Whining about how it’s “unfair” that you can’t just have a “reasonable discussion” doesn’t change that. I mean, it really is unfair that you can’t bring up certain topics without engaging with racism, but tough shit. You have to decide whether you care more about racism or more about masturbating over bell curves.
One of the major problems that this results in is the idea of “proving” things. After all, “proof” is undeniably objective, so it has to be valid in any possible context, right? But arguing within this framework in the first place necessarily imposes an extremely high standard on whatever it is that “requires” proof, while also slipping in underlying assumptions that are not only not proven, but not even argued for, because you can’t start the discussion without some kind of grounding. With regards to global warming, for example, the underlying assumption is that we have to have capitalism, and the debate is only about whether the negative consequences have been “proven” to a high enough standard to require us to do anything about it. The idea of it being the other way around – of the potential environmental impact preemptively discrediting capitalism – is not a permissible line of argument. And since the future is indeterminate, the more responsible standard is one of risk mitigation: to the extent that our current system of production has possible negative consequences, we should be working to make them less possible. Insisting on “proof” biases the potential responses heavily toward not doing anything, because you’re never going to be completely sure about what’s going to happen. It’s important to remember that the popularly-cited 2° target is not the “everything’s okay” threshold; it’s the catastrophe threshold. If the living standards of humanity in general were really what we cared about, we would have been taking major steps long before Armageddon became a visible possibility, without requiring any sort of “scientific consensus.”
The big catch is that responding to these sorts of shenanigans carries the same caveats. A point-by-point refutation might seem like the most “thorough” way of debunking a claim, but as an action, it implicitly concedes the very point under discussion: that it’s all very complicated and we ultimately just don’t know whether women are good enough to deserve equality. If you’re writing a scientific rebuttal to something, you’re validating the point that scientific debate is the right way to handle it – doing that constitutes having that debate. And while science is all well and good, its modern prominence tends to function as a dodge away from moral issues. You can’t ever “conclude” scientifically that women are definitely being discriminated against, but you can make the moral case that certain behaviors are harmful to human development and ought to be combated. When you don’t do that, you leave people’s existing ideological assumptions in place, which generally means that people reading the discussion will see a bunch of charts on one side and a bunch of charts on the other and go on believing what they already believed anyway.
In order to deal with the amount of noise we all have to deal with these days, you have to remember the basics. You have to figure out what your actual priorities are rather than just accepting the parameters of whatever discussion you happen to be having at the time, and you have to take the specific actions that will advance those priorities rather than just saying the thing that seems like the right answer. Failure to do this is one of the reasons why, despite the wild open-endedness of the internet, everything feels stuck. And it’s why, despite the outcry and the rebuttals and the firing, the true goal of the Google memo has already been accomplished: we’re still having this discussion.
For the sake of conciseness here I’m conceding to the use of “diversity” as an imprecise blanket term for various forms of social equality; I trust we’re all capable of keeping the problems with this in mind while focusing on the main argument. ↩
And it’s actually even worse than that, because financial capitalism has decoupled economic productivity from monetary reward, so current “successful” companies are the ones that are the best at extracting money from investors rather than the ones that actually make things that help people. We are all Juicero now. ↩
This article makes the claim that a certain type of combat-free environment-based platformer constitutes a “new subgenre” of games. This is wrong for every possible reason, and we’re going to go through all of them.
First, the claim to novelty is straightforwardly false. There are lots of games that are focused on navigating an environment and avoiding dangers rather than fighting (even Mario games are mostly like this), and indirect storytelling is actually an overused and obnoxious fad right now. Bizarrely, the author lists a bunch of counterexamples only to dismiss them for basically no reason, despite the fact that they really are counterexamples. Abe’s Oddysee is precisely a game in which you have no combat abilities and have to negotiate threats through guile and evasion, and in which the story is told through environmental setpieces. Furthermore, the presence of combat or text or narration doesn’t change the general type of thing that a game is. Combat in games is just a metaphor, after all. Pressing A at the right time might represent either attacking an enemy or jumping away from a threat, but it’s still the same action. The point of analysis is not to pick as many nits as you possibly can; it’s to figure out what’s going on underneath the individual points of interest.
Second, it’s a category error. These things aren’t genre boundaries; they’re aesthetic effects. You can use them in any type of game. RPGs, for example, are most often overwrought power fantasies glued together with piles of text, but even here there’s nothing really complicated about inserting these types of effects. Final Fantasy II opens with you getting your ass kicked by a bunch of imperial soldiers who are a billion times stronger than you. After that, your first mission is to infiltrate an occupied town in order to make contact with an informant. The same imperial soldiers are patrolling the town, and encountering any of them is basically instant death. This both portrays the nature of the situation you’re in through properties of the environment and establishes your characters as being radically underpowered compared to their adversaries. Mother 3 has a chapter where you play as an enslaved monkey (literally; that’s not a joke or anything), who is similarly extremely weak compared to the enemies in the area. When you get into a battle, you have to rely on your slaver to do most of the work for you, which deepens the relationship dynamic that defines this part of the game. Also, the first town in the game starts out as an anarchist utopia. The thing that would normally be an item shop is actually just a communal storehouse where you can take whatever you need. Later, the town becomes commercialized, and the same building becomes an actual store where you have to pay for things with currency. This portrays the development of the town’s social situation through the state of the game environment. Of course, none of these are exactly the same thing as what’s being talked about in the article, but, like, no shit. Nothing’s exactly the same thing as anything. Again, the whole point of analysis is to draw connections between things which aren’t identical but which have similarities that can provide aid in understanding them. Categorizing everything into a precise set of neat little boxes might make you feel smart, but it doesn’t actually do anything for anyone.
Third, it’s irrelevant. What actually changes depending on whether the answer to the question “is this a new genre” is “yes” or “no”? Nothing. The games themselves stay the same regardless of how you categorize them. Identifying what the game is doing is useful for understanding it, but what you’ve done that, slapping a label onto an arbitrary collection of “similar” games doesn’t get you anything new. You’ve already explained the part that matters.
Fourth, it’s a misunderstanding of what the concept of “genre” actually is. Genre is not a property of a work; it’s an organizational category, and you can organize things however you want. Super Metroid, for example, is a shooter, and it’s also a platformer, and it’s an open-world exploration game, and it has an upgrade system, and it uses non-explicit storytelling (except for the intro text). All of these things are properties of the game, but none of them, individually or in combination, require you to affix any particular label to it. Depending on what you’re talking about, you can refer to any or all of these effects. In fact, what actually happened, historically, is that a rough approximation of this particular combination of traits ended up acquiring the label “Metroidvania,” which, in addition to being the absolute stupidest name anyone has ever come up with for anything, just goes to show that genre categorization is completely arbitrary and you can make up a new one basically whenever you want. So, actually, the article isn’t “wrong” in the usual sense, but rather simply useless. You’re always free to pick any three similar-ish games and call them a genre, which is exactly why doing that doesn’t do anything. But the fact that genre don’t real doesn’t mean that it has no utility as a critical concept. There’s no point in using individual effects to establish a genre, but you can use genre to understand what a game is doing through it’s individual effects. People understand the type of thing that a platformer or a fighting game or a rhythm game is, they know what you’re talking about as soon as you bring up the term, so these understandings can provide starting points that ground further analysis. This is why trying to establish a “new genre” is pointless: genre is only useful to the extent that people already understand it. Of course, new genre concepts do have to be established and named at some point, but this happens as a reflection of widespread understanding. “Metroidvania” become a known term once people started to gain an intuitive understanding of what type of game that was; indeed, the term itself reflects the fact that two seemingly dissimilar games “felt” the same to a lot of people. But for games that are obviously the same type of thing in the first place, there’s no point in pointing that out. You’re not telling anyone anything they don’t already know.
Fifth, the assumption that these traits are necessarily good things is unjustified. The author equivocates between the argument that this particular set of effects constitutes a genre and the argument that they’re a good thing, and in doing so avoids actually making the second argument, which is the one that matters. While video games do have a violence problem, it doesn’t follow that any game where you don’t kill things is solving that problem. The violence problem is deeper than just “killing things is bad”; it’s a problem because, to the extent that games are about interacting with an environment, violence-based interaction is a) necessarily adversarial: the environment can only hurt you, and you can’t interact with it productively, and b) reductively physical: the environment consists only of objects to be manipulated or destroyed, and contains no subjects to engage. A game where you can’t fight but you have to run through an area avoiding obstacles maintains both of these problems. The world is still just an enemy and not a place that you can actually exist in. Furthermore, setpiece-based storytelling also has the same problem: it portrays the world as just an object. Of course, this doesn’t mean these techniques are necessarily bad, either. Physical and adversarial actions are parts of the real world, and they’re worth portraying. Even explicit violence isn’t necessarily bad; you can make a game with violent acts that are actually meaningful. The real problem, rather, is the assumption that games have to do one type of thing: that you have to have combat, because otherwise it’s “not a game” – or that you have to have explicit non-violence, because otherwise it’s “not art.” The truth is that getting good requires being able to do different things as appropriate. In the previously mentioned Mother 3 example, you see the town transform as it becomes commercialized, but you can also talk to the residents in order to hear how they’re dealing with it and how they feel about it. Using both types of effects allows the game to communicate the situation more effectively. Picking out any individual effect, even something like non-violence that seems inherently laudable, and labeling it as a “good thing” is a reductive method of analysis that retards artistic development.
Sixth, the whole thing is a transparent ploy to smuggle in an unexamined assumption about what games are “supposed” to be like. Genre categorization is not an evaluation of quality, but the author is using genre as a means to argue that the games in question are good. Something being a platformer doesn’t make it a good or bad thing. Even if you really like platformers, there exist both good and bad games that meet the genre criteria. So you can establish a new genre, if you really want to, but you can’t establish a “good genre,” because there’s no such thing. Historically, though, there’s been a rather strong tendency in game criticism to assume that the “correct” way to do games is to put everything “in the gameplay.” (Anytime you see a derivative of the word “ludic” you’re almost certainly walking into this minefield.) This viewpoint is no more justified than the idea that movies should be strictly focused on cinematography or that lyrics aren’t a valid component of songwriting. In terms of storytelling, there are a lot of people operating under that assumption that the goal is to make storytelling in games as “interactive” as possible. There’s nothing wrong with doing work in this area, but when you assume that this is the only thing that can be done, you basically box yourself into a corner. The usual way the complaint is phrased is that a cutscene or anything else that the player doesn’t “choose” is “non-interactive” and therefore “takes you out of the action” because it’s not “gameplay.” This is an unquestioned assumption that being “in the action” is always a good thing. Actually, it’s not even an accurate description; walking through a setpiece is not being “in the action,” it’s just an unclear cutscene where you have to hold right while you’re watching it. Selecting an option from a menu in order to trigger one of two endings is also not meaningfully interactive; it’s just lazy writing. And that’s exactly how you can tell that there’s no real line here: you can have empty interaction, where the player is pressing a button but is not actually engaged in what they’re doing in a meaningful way, or you can have something nominally non-interactive like a cutscene where the player is actually paying attention and thinking about what’s going on. What makes one choice better than another isn’t how it’s coded or how you can categorize it or what it “counts as,” but what it does. So if you insist that games are only one narrow type of thing, you will end up with games that barely do anything. One of the examples in the article is a game that portrays a Soviet-style dystopia using things like staged propaganda shots. The author is really impressed by this for some reason, even though it’s basically the least impressive thing possible. The Decaying Soviet Dystopia is a cliche; as soon as I say that you already know exactly what I’m talking about. The thing about portraying cliches is that it’s easy; you barely have to do anything other than invoking the name (that’s pretty much the definition of a cliche). So the fact that a game uses a certain technique to do literally the easiest possible thing is actually an indication that that technique is nearly useless, and the fact that this appears impressive to someone is an indication that what’s actually going on here is fetishization.
Seventh, this is all really beside the point, because this is ultimately just another by-the-numbers entry is the musty old “art” debate that yet clings to game criticism like a damp fog. The post is tagged “games as art,” which doesn’t seem to make any sense. How is categorization at all relevant to artistic merit? There are a billion different types of nails, but categorizing a new “subgenre” of nail doesn’t make nails art. Recall, though, what’s actually going on here: we’re talking about a particular set of effects that are assumed to be good things and are furthermore considered the things that games are supposed to be like, and this is what’s being called “art.” So the implicit claim here is that if you do games “right,” so that they’re “interactive” enough, then they’ll be “good enough” to “count” as art. The concept of art is being used as a standard of quality. Hence, the focus is on taking the unique aspect of games – interactivity (although not really, we’ll talk about this later) – and making it as “good” as possible, so that it reaches the level of qualifying as art. But this whole conceptualization is completely erroneous, as evidenced simply by the fact that there exists bad art. Indeed, that is exactly the situation that games are really in right now: the fact that most games are thoughtless kill-em-ups or obtuse number-crunchers or, yes, pretentious pseudo-interactive badly-written short stories doesn’t mean that they aren’t expressing things. It means they’re expressing things badly. Games are bad art, and arguing the “art” part only serves to emphasize the “bad” part. And of course there’s no point in arguing it in the first place, because you can’t convince people that games are giving them significant experiences. They’re either feeling it or they’re not. In fact, that’s the silver lining here: the reason people are talking about these things is that they feel intuitively that games are capable of real expression. The insistence that “games are art” is how people convince themselves that what’s they’re feeling is real and valid. But the need to use that label is born out of defensiveness, and it doesn’t actually help to make anything any better. That’s why the only way to do this is the other way around: to make games that are good enough that nobody feels the need to discuss them “as though” they were art. That is: assume games are art. So what? There’s no point in answering the first question if you can’t answer the second one. There probably was a time when it needed to be pointed out that, yes, games are a form of art, but just pointing that out is all that really needs to be done, because if you can’t move forward from there in order to start making claims that actually matter, there was no point in making that point in the first place. What we need right now is more matter with less art.
Eighth, give me a fucking break. This is what passes for criticism these days?
This whole healthcare debacle is starting to get under my skin. I’m used to everything being terrible, I don’t have any expectation of living in a just or rational society or anything like that, but this is different. It’s not just that the situation is empirically untenable (every country with universal healthcare is healthier than the U.S.), or even that it’s morally scandalous (if you can spend money to save someone’s life, you should obviously do that, even if it has other negative consequences). It’s that the argument against universal healthcare is actually, in the strict sense of the term, illogical. It contradicts itself.
While Obama was in power, Republicans went on at some length regarding the need to “repeal” Obamacare. This is a least a coherent statement. If you think a law does the wrong thing, your goal should be to repeal it. But as soon as they gained the ability to sign legislation (specifically, as soon as it became the case that throwing millions of people off of health insurance would be their fault), the phrase suddenly morphed into “repeal and replace.” This no longer makes sense. The objection to Obamacare was supposedly that the government shouldn’t be meddling in the health insurance market, in which case there obviously shouldn’t be any “replacement” for it, since that would also involve the government meddling in the healthcare market. And if the problem was just that Obamacare was a poor implementation of a good idea, then there was never any reason to cry “repeal” in the first place. The specific problems should have just been fixed.
Now, the actual motivation here is pretty transparent: Republicans are lying about wanting to improve healthcare in any way other than reducing the amount that rich fucks have to pay for it. But the same logic applies to Obamacare itself. While, politically speaking, it’s sensible to defend Obamacare against an alternative that’s going to be worse, what we’ve been seeing recently is a bunch of people arguing for Obamacare and against universal healthcare. This is incoherent. If you believe that the government should intervene in order to improve healthcare outcomes, then there’s no reason that needs to be tacked on to a system of private profit. Healthcare is basically just risk pooling: everyone pays a little bit in and less fortunate people take more out. Certainly, there are all manner of details to be worked out (I heard recently that healthcare is actually really complicated), but that’s the basic structure of the endeavor, and it works that way regardless of whether you have private insurance or a government-run system. Private insurance has the disadvantages of a) siphoning away some money as profit, making it more expensive and b) denying care based on cost, making it less effective. There are no “innovation” or “quality” advantages, because the insurance companies are not themselves the ones doing medical research or providing care. In short, Obamacare is only comprehensible as either a band-aid or a half-measure in the direction of the real solution (or both). It’s not the kind of hill that you die on.
So, the thing about this is, even before Obamacare, we already had socialized medicine. Private insurance companies are part of society, and they redistribute wealth based on need. Also, they’re already choosing who lives and who dies based on cost-effectiveness; we already have death panels. The only thing that would actually qualify as a “free-market” solution would be to ban insurance and force everyone to pay their own way on everything – which would include all other forms of insurance, which are redistributive in exactly the same way. The fact that people voluntarily choose to enter into insurance contracts is irrelevant because a) they don’t, insurance is almost always mandatory, and b) that doesn’t change the functional nature of the endeavor. If people are going to be doing this anyway, you might as well manage it such that moral standards can be applied and profiteering can be reduced.
In other words, civilization in general is a collective endeavor that exists for the purpose of redistributing wealth and reducing risk. I mean, obviously, right? Even on a straight Hobbesian view where you’re forming literally any type of society just so you can survive, that’s still what’s going on. The only way to coherently argue against universal health care is to argue against society.
Which means there has to be something else going on. People have problems with this sometimes; they think that once they’ve shown that something is “illogical,” they’re done, but that’s actually where you have to start. People don’t just have opinions beamed into their heads by cosmic rays. If something doesn’t hold up along one line of reasoning, there must be a different line of reasoning along which it does; otherwise it could never have come from anywhere in the first place. That is, the current healthcare system didn’t just randomly contort itself into the worst possible shape – it has to be serving an actual positive function.
Let’s start by considering the function of the term “Obamacare.” This name was made up by Republicans to make the law sound bad. Their strategic purpose was, of course, the same strategic purpose that Republicans always have: to associate the things they’re opposed to with black people. This has been successful to the point that we now have people who oppose the heavy-handed and disastrous Obamacare in favor of the reasonable and effective Affordable Care Act (non-comedy version). You’ll note that this is essentially the same opinion as “keep your government hands off my Medicare”: it draws a distinction between the good kind of benefits for good people and the bad kind of benefits for bad people. And in America, the bad kind of benefits, the kind we call “welfare,” are coded black. It is generally the case that the bad kind of government meddling (“your government hands”) is the kind the benefits black people, and the good kind of government meddling (“my Medicare”) is the kind that benefits white people. So what we’re talking about here is segregation.
The thesis that mass incarceration constitutes a “new Jim Crow” is in fact not hyperbolic enough. Segregation is one of the primary purposes of society in general. As mentioned, society is inherently a collective endeavor, which is a problem for rich fucks. They’re only capable of getting rich in the first place through collectivity (think through the logistics of owning and operating a corporation), but they wouldn’t be able to get rich if they actually had to pay what they owe. The way they square the circle is through segregation. Segregation is how you get around the fact that society requires you to care about other people. You establish a class of people who “don’t count,” and therefore contribute labor without receiving its full benefits – or without receiving any, in cases such as prison labor. In fact, prison labor is an extremely clarificatory example, because it shows us how things work now. Rather than branding certain types of people at birth with the mark of Cain, condemning them to wander through society as permanent exiles, we now have the proper procedures for this sort of thing. We fill out all the paperwork and consult with panels of experts and make the rational decision that some people aren’t really people. The old “Whites Only” signs strike us today as hopelessly backward, but the truth is we never really rejected them. We just evolved beyond the need for them. We no longer require explicit signage, because we now have a society that segregates itself automatically, as though it were the natural order of things.
So this problem is all over the place, and liberals are totally in on it. Charter schools are all about resisting integration by picking out “deserving” children and giving them real educations, while the rest languish in underfunded hellholes. Abortions are easily obtainable if you live in a major urban area and fuck you if you live anywhere else. Highly skilled workers don’t need unions, so there’s no reason to protect them; they don’t help anyone who matters. And the police are always there to protect and serve you – for certain values of “you.”
This is why running the numbers and arguing about what’s going to cost what and who’s going to get taxed this much to pay for that is all entirely beside the point. The point is that we’re having a debate about segregation. After all, health is pretty much the best possible thing to spend money on. Arguing about cost-effectiveness blunts the issue’s moral edge. And because that edge is extremely sharp, it’s very important for us to keep it honed. We need it to cut things. This is the real importance of this decision. We’re deciding whether the benefits of civilization are for everybody, or only for the “deserving.” And because segregation is no longer explicit, this is no longer an explicit decision. Simply trying to do the right thing for yourself (finding the “best deal” on healthcare, or sending your child to the “best school”) maintains the existing situation. Even if you don’t actively want the underprivileged to suffer (which, frankly, most people do), their suffering is required in order to maintain your lifestyle. It’s the cost of doing business.
Universal health care does have majority support, but that’s only because it’s the most obvious thing in the world. Ideology is a hell of a drug, but it’s not all-powerful. Still, even if we eventually get this one very basic issue under control, the general dynamics aren’t going away. You have to decide what you really want and do what it requires. Otherwise you’re just managing symptoms.
Today in bizarre internet documents: this Final Fantasy VIII guide. I . . . okay, look, I could give you the whole backstory here, but we’ve both got things to do today, right? How about you just trust me on this one?
I’ll try to keep this concise. In FFVIII, one of your party members has a dog, named Angelo, and the dog can learn an ability called Angelo Search, which allows it to sniff around and root up items while you’re busy fighting alien turtle monsters or whatever. The ability is entirely passive – you can’t trigger it yourself, it just occurs at random times while you’re in battle – and the items you’ll receive therefrom are almost uniformly generic garbage. So for well over 99% of playthroughs, it’s entirely worthless. The game would be substantively identical if it didn’t exist. The plot twist is the word “almost” a couple of sentences back. It turns out the ability has a very, very small chance of giving you some of the game’s rarest items, including some that cannot be acquired in any other way.
This doesn’t make it matter, yet. The chances of it actually happening are so low as to be beneath notice. But it makes it so it can be made to matter. Because the ability triggers on its own, the one thing that one can do about it is wait. You can set up a battle so that the enemies aren’t doing anything that’s going to kill you (the battles transpire in real time, so enemies will constantly attack you while you’re just sitting there), and then you just leave it. You leave the game running, on its own, for hours and hours on end, such that by the time you get back, the probability of your having obtained one or more super-rare items has been upgraded from “lol” to “noticeable.” Indeed, thanks to the magic of probability1, if you just keep doing this, the likelihood that you will eventually obtain the maximum possible number of every item available in this manner ascends to a near guarantee. So what presents itself at this point, with terrible clarity, is a goal: you can use this approach to get not merely something, but everything. The guide in question is a series of instructions as to how to accomplish this.
Meaning it’s a series of instructions as to how to avoid playing the game. Perhaps this strikes you as unproblematic. I mean, it’s at least kind of interesting. Actually going through with this would require commitment, in a sense. And it’s not really any different than anything else you can do in a video game, right? Well, yes and no. It certainly is the case that all actions in a game are fundamentally arbitrary, but that doesn’t make them all equivalent. That is, we can imagine Sisyphus happy, but that doesn’t mean we should just go ahead and assume it a priori. If we care about this type of thing for . . . whatever reason . . . then we should take a closer look at what’s actually going on.
What’s actually going on is nothing. You could achieve exactly the same result by hacking the memory file and inserting the right bit values wherever the item count is stored. You wouldn’t be missing out on the “experience” because there is no experience. The end state, including your own end state as a person, would be physically indistinguishable from if you had done it “for real,” which of course logically implies that there is no “for real.” And yet, the whole thing nonetheless involves expenditure of real time and consumption of real resources. The guide in fact indicates that someone damaged their PlayStation – an actual physically-existing object that costs hundreds of dollars and represents years of engineering labor and performs functions in the real world – in the service of running a continuous Angelo Search session – which, recall, means doing nothing – for as long as possible.
So we’re already in “what’s the point?” territory, but the rabbit hole goes deeper. What you get from doing this is also nothing. It is important to understand this claim substantively. That is, if you could use this method to get items that helped you out later in the game, then, well, it would still be really stupid, but it would also be justifiable. After all, having to do stupid things for a while so that you can do non-stupid things later is an important part of real life. But that’s not what’s going on here. One of the items you can get via this method is the Hungry Cookpot, an item so rare that only one of it can be obtained otherwise. This item allows your characters to learn an ability called Devour, which they can be use to permanently enhance their attributes by eating monsters.2 The thing about this is, you get one instance of the ability anyway, without even getting the one Hungry Cookpot you can get, and that instance is all you’ll ever need (you can swap it between characters at any time). The ability has no combat merit, and, um, only one character can eat a given monster at a time3, so even if you’re going to the extreme of maxing out all of everyone’s attributes, additional copies of the ability are entirely unhelpful. They literally do nothing, in an absolute sense. So why does anyone ever bother with this sort of thing? I believe, if you search deep within yourself, you will find that you already know the answer. It is not in pursuit of a goal, it is the goal. The point of collecting as many Hungry Cookpots as possible is to collect as many Hungry Cookpots as possible. You’ll note that the language used in the guide excitedly hypes the possibility of obtaining a bunch of stuff without any explanation as to what it is you would supposedly need these things for. What really clicks the gears into place is the fact that there is such a thing as “as many Hungry Cookpots as possible.” There’s a maximum number of each item that the game allows you to hold, which makes it possible to attain that maximum. When you open your inventory menu and see the number “100” displayed, you will at last know true inner peace.
This situation is not unique to this one game – FFVIII just provides an unusually direct example, on account of it’s weird as shit. What we are discussing here is, in fact, A Thing. The idea of a “perfect game” is something that many players explicitly pursue, in explicit terms. I could go on at some length about this, but I can much more easily illustrate the situation using a real example that someone actually wrote out and committed to the internet. The following block of text originates from a “perfect game” guide for Final Fantasy VII, and is among the most remarkable objects ever brought into existence through descent with modification. Don’t worry about trying to figure out what the hell any of this means, because it doesn’t. Just experience it as a raw mass of terrible aesthetic purity:
3.0 – PERFECT GAME DEFINITIONS
I’ve made up ten levels of perfect game saves, summarized below. As I said in the intro these are open for debate. These refer to Disc 3 saves.
SPECIAL NOTE: In general you can’t go through the whole game with a certain perfect game level in mind, and then switch to a higher level. There are many points in the game which you can’t visit again, so you must have completed the requirements for that place before you leave. See section 7 for details.
Level 0 – beat the game
Level 1 – Level 0 requirements
– purchase the Costa del Sol villa
– earn all limit breaks
– get Yuffie and Vincent
Level 3 – Level 4 requirements
– Full set of chocobos (see notes)
– Chocobo Sage tells you everything
– Everyone’s Grudge does 9999 damage to each character
Level 4 – Level 2 requirements
– at least one of each materia mastered
– all characters at level 99
Level 5 – Level 3 requirements
– at least one of each item/weapon/armor/accessory
– complete all sidequests
Level 6 – Level 5 requirements
– at least eight of each armor/accessory, unless the max is less
than eight (thanks to nephalim for this suggestion)
– max stats for each character
Level 7 – Level 6 requirements
– maximum amount of items/weapons/armor/accessories
Level 8 – Level 7 requirements
– max gil
– max experience for each character
Level 9 – Level 8 requirements
– complete set of materia
Sidequests: This includes getting all four Huge Materia, Yuffie’s
sidequest, the Ancient Forest, and fight all Fort Condor battles. Will is
testing the F.C. battles I’m missing. As soon as he’s finished, I’ll flesh
out this requirement further, and probably move it to a higher level.
Items: See section 4 for details.
Materia: See section 5 for a list of materia and the AP amounts needed for
Max stats: Use power/guard/mind/magic/speed/luck sources to get these stats up to 255.
Chocobos: Mate the gold chocobo you get from breeding and the one you get for defeating Ruby Weapon to get more gold chocobos (I haven’t verified this myself yet). It should be possible to get 7. Alternatively, get one black, blue, green, wonderful, and three golds.
Everyone’s Grudge: This refers to the Master Tonberry attack which inflicts
10 HP of damage for each enemy the character has killed. This means each character has to kill 1000 enemies.
Max Gil: I don’t know what the max gil is, but it’s at least 400 million.
I’m guessing 999,999,999 because that’s all there’s room to display on
the menu screen.
Max Exp: 999,999,999 exp is the max. Thanks to Drake for reporting this
one. Note I haven’t tested this myself.
Complete Materia Set: See section 6 for details.
Once I have a better idea of whether level 8 or 9 is more difficult, I may
interchange them. If anyone accomplishes this before me, let me know which one you were able to do first.
Terence suggested this be made an optional goal because it’s got more than one use, and is largely based on opinion. Possible goals include 0 escapes, 9999 escapes, and 2222 escapes. I’d suggest 2222 escapes because it’s the easiest way to get Lucky 7’s. Thanks to Arctic for pointing this out to me.
I mean, like, my god, it’s full of stars, right? If the aliens ever find this one it’s gonna blow their fuckin minds. I’ve got your monolith right here, assholes.
Uh, right, no, so I was talking about something. Okay, what we have here is a description of multiple different “levels” of perfection, with internal debate as to which metrics belong in which level. This is the actual definition of insanity. The entire thing about perfection is that it is an objective, binary condition. Something is either perfect or it is imperfect, and if perfection is your goal, then anything imperfect doesn’t count. If perfection isn’t self-evident, it isn’t perfection. So that entire block of text is fully disconnected from the thing that it thinks it’s talking about. It is pure howling gibberish, dressed up Vincent Adultman style in an ill-fitting trenchcoat of ersatz logic.
Okay, fine, so “perfection” is just the wrong word to use here. These are actually just different “achievements,” right? As if. These exactly are not achievements; they are fully arbitrary tasks that produce nothing and signify nothing. They aren’t interesting to do and there’s no reason to do them. There’s nothing behind them; they’re just numbers being displayed on a screen by a computer. Except of course there is a reason: the reason you would do them is to attain perfection. You can’t not use the concept of perfection here, because that concept is the only thing that makes any of this make sense. But it still doesn’t make sense! Having to argue about what “counts” as perfection completely defeats the purpose.
Okay, enough screwing around. What’s going on here is that these games are nothing but serieses of arbitrary tasks that don’t mean anything, and the appeal to perfection is the attempt to make them meaningful. The point of accumulating items is supposed to be that you need them for something. You might need to plan out how many healing potions you’re going to need in a particular fight, or something like that. But when that isn’t the case, when a game just has a bunch of random stuff crammed into it for no reason, these types of structural relationships evaporate. If you never need to use a healing potion, then it doesn’t matter when or how or in what capacity you can obtain one, and the number displayed next to it in your inventory means nothing. It could be 12 or it could be 10,000, and nothing would change either way. But if that number has a maximum value, then it suddenly gains a reason to exist: it exists for the purpose of reaching that maximum value.
Here’s the throughline. The games under discussion so far don’t have a workable definition of perfection because they’re too messily designed. Nowadays things are different; for the sake of filing off exactly these rough edges, games tend to be tightly constrained and heavily polished. You might think that this would fix the problem by making things non-pointless, by giving you an actual reason to do whatever it is you can do in the game, but that only works if you actually come up with a point for things to have. If not, then streamlining simply crystallizes the problem, because it makes the goal of perfection achievable. And this is exactly where we are right now: the idea of “100% completion” is no longer something that individual players have to make up, but is now most often built in to the structure of games themselves. The advent of achievementification has made the goal of perfection explicit. The game straight tells you what you need to do to reach “100% completion” and how close you are to getting there. But . . . wait for it . . . this still doesn’t make sense, because perfection is not a matter of design precision; it is logically impossible.
In a game where different decisions exclude each other, perfection is impossible in practice. Even if you can decide on a “best” set of decisions, it still doesn’t qualify as perfect4 as long as the other decisions have any merit whatsoever. But of course they always have merit: they provide the player with a different experience, which is the only thing that playing a game actually is. And in a game that is explicitly designed to be 100% completable, this remains the case – there are still multiple distinct mutually exclusive experiences that you can have with it. Quitting the game without ever reaching 100% completion is a different experience, and it has value for that reason, and that value is value that you don’t get if you go on to reach 100% completion, which means that 100% completion is by definition not 100% completion.
Sorry if I’m hamming this up. It’s actually just a basic means-for-ends confusion. As we saw in our Angelo Search example, doing nothing and getting nothing as a result is taken to be significant due to the existence of a counter which can be pointed to as an indication of significance. This is backwards. The only justifiable point of having a completion counter or achievements or any kind of explicit goal statements at all is to indicate good experiences. But the existence of the counter does not change the nature of the experience; it would still be a good experience without the counter. If you have the counter and not the experience, you have nothing.
There exist games that get this right. The Donkey Kong Country games were among the first to introduce the concept of 100% completion into the platformer genre. In Super Mario Bros. 3, there’s a bunch of different stuff you can get and different routes you can take, but none of it is “recorded,” so there is no sense in which you can try to do “all” of it. Donkey Kong Country, by contrast, introduces the Big Counter. Yoursave file has a completion percentage on it based on the number of bonus rooms you’ve found; you see it every time you start up the game. Some of these secrets are interesting to try to find and some of them are stupid, but at least they’re all something. Going for 100%5 of them necessitates actually doing stuff. But the truly notable game in this regard is the sequel. Each level in Donkey Kong Country 2 contains a single “DK Coin,” and each one is hidden in a different interesting way. Getting all of them requires exploring around offscreen and making difficult jumps and other such behaviors that are actually engaging. And on the navigation map, each level shows whether you’ve found the coin or not, so a missing coin indicator sends not merely the message that there’s a button to be pushed for the sake of receiving a gold star, but that there is interesting gameplay in the level that you haven’t seen yet. So in a case like this, the completion counter points you to where the good experiences are. It has a substantive function that is justified in terms of its practical effect on the player.
There are probably some motherfuckers out there who’ll still want to go for the the imagining-Sisyphus-happy counterargument here. That is, so what if some achievements are “empty”? Nothing means anything anyway, right? People who do things like this are making their own goals and defining their own values, aren’t they? Well, sort of, but this line of argument applies the other way around. The fact that nothing means anything is why goals don’t real. So the only sensible thing to do is to completely ignore the concept of achievement and just look at the actual behavior that the humans in question are performing, and the experiences they are having as a result. In one case people are engaging in interesting gameplay and having things happen in their brains, and in the other people are turning on a computer and then doing nothing, and then looking at the results and experiencing nothing. This is not imagining Sisyphus happy. This is Sisyphus pretending to roll a boulder up a hill and then pretending that he actually accomplished something by pretending and then congratulating himself on a “perfect” boulder roll. I mean, really. Camus would be disgusted enough to lose his taste for fucking French actresses for maybe like five minutes.
Still, that’s just an assertion on my part. There actually is one more step that I have to take here. I have to argue that what I’m calling “interesting gameplay” is in fact, in some substantial way, better than simply leaving a game console powered on and watching numbers go up. Except . . . do I? Do I really? We already know that the only reason people engage in certain behaviors is because of the existence of a counter that gives them the appearance of significance. In other words, they’re doing them because the designers of the game, implicitly, told them to, and for no other reason. In other other words, if it were really up to the players themselves, they would choose not to engage in these behaviors. Actually, the vast majority of the time they really are choosing not to engage in these behaviors. People like to write up these guides to make themselves feel important, but the vast majority of hardcore gamers don’t even bother with this shit, and the vast majority of people who play games aren’t hardcore gamers for exactly this reason: because this shit is fucking boring.
The trick is not to get complacent. Remember, the developmental progress of games has been towards this problem, not away from it, such that “100% completion” is now the normal thing that games are assumed to be about, to the extent that it’s actually built in to their distribution platforms. So the fact that most people hate this shit does not tell us that things are fine; it tells us that we have a real problem. We have a highly-developed and ubiquitous form of “entertainment” that coerces people into doing things that aren’t interesting and that they don’t like doing (while in many cases extorting money out of them in the process). And games, while often notably blatant about these types of things, are in no way sui generis. We live in a society that, in general, is built around people doing things that they don’t want to do, that aren’t interesting, and that don’t produce anything worthwhile. This is how things really look at 100%. We are all Angelo Search now.
So that’s it. The people behind these things, consciously or otherwise, are: wasting human potential, stunting intellectual growth, promoting excessive consumption of resources, degrading aesthetics, and creating bad ideology. This is evil.
Actually you kind of have to hack it, apparently, since the random number generator that the game uses is fake. I really hope you appreciate the effort I’m going to to streamline this argument for you. It’s quite taxing. ↩
Look, I’m really sorry about the amount of exposition this requires. The game in question originates from a period during which design was generally clusterfuckish, and games were often intentionally obfuscated for the purpose of selling strategy guides. Also I guess I should clarify that I’m not making any of this up? ↩
Now that our long national nightmare is formally underway, it behooves us to review the specific parameters of the current situation. This is a war, you know.
Back when this was all just a particularly unpleasant hypothetical, two potential silver linings were foreseeable. One was that Trump’s signature blend of cluelessness and incompetence would prevent him from getting anything significant done. He has no idea how to run a government, no ability to learn, and no convictions that he would ever feel the need to press forward on. If he actually did “drain the swamp” in any significant sense, he’d just wind up with an administration full of equally ineffectual toadies. In short, his term would merely be a period of stagnation. The other possibility was that his fundamental emptiness would relegate him to the role of figurehead, with the Republican establishment doing all of the actual governing and thereby advancing their standard-issue conservative agenda. This would be very bad, but it would be the type of badness that is within the usual operating sphere of American politics. It’d be the same as if any of the other Republican contenders had won.
What we’re looking at now is the worst of both worlds. Republicans have officially commenced with the ramming through of as much of their reactionary wishlist as is ram-through-able in however many years this is going to last, and Trump has also been shoving into his nascent administration the maximum attainable number of goons and cronies, as well as charging on with his own irrepressible instincts towards petty grasping and childish blundering. So what we’re looking at is basically the existing Republican dystopia smothered in low-quality Trump-brand steak sauce. And it’s not like we were doing fine before any of this happened. We were and are facing a large number of vitally important challenges that require drastic remediation yesterday. So we’re now in the worst possible situation at the worst possible time.
The Muslim ban is a great example of how this works in practice. It’s the type of thing that Republicans wanted to do anyway (recall that Cruz wanted to put every mosque in the country under surveillance, which kind of sounds like a big government program to enforce political correctness, but never mind that), but Trump managed to do it in the stupidest possible way. Anyone else would have gone through the necessary layers of lawyers to make sure that the order was basically defensible, but Trump’s Brute Squad just slapped something on his desk for him to sign. And the thing is, doing it this way caused more harm. It fucked up green card holders and other legal residents, who would not have been included in any competently drafted order, and the general uncertainty meant that a lot of people were just randomly detained for excessive periods of time, and even now many people are afraid to travel simply because no one can tell how this is going to shake out. And even with the laudable amount of opposition, the whole thing still has the effect of normalizing animus against immigrants.
More specifically, though, what we are in is the worst possible version of the same previously-existing situation. We were already ramping up inequality and failing to respond to global warming and arbitrarily murdering people at home and abroad. Indeed, even on the specific issues of deporting immigrants and admitting refugees, the United States under Obama was notably zealous and deficient, respectively. The rallying cry du jour is that we need to resist “normalizing” Trump, but you’ll note that this tactic has a rather vicious double-edge: if it is Trump specifically that is not normal, then everything else, the actual agenda that his administration is advancing, is business as usual. Oddly enough, the current sticking point is the opposite of “it can’t happen here.” It’s that people are unable to process the situation through any lens other than “it’s the Nazis again.” So, y’know, we’re all concerned about the rough beast slouching towards Washington to be born, but the fact of the matter is that the center has held, and that’s not really all that encouraging. It is not that our political system’s accommodation to Trump demonstrates that it is capable of holding up even against extreme destabilization. Rather, the fact that a neo-fascist uprising is able to resolve itself into business as usual proves that the potential was there all along. The violence was always inherent in the system.
I have no objection to labelling Trump a fascist. We came up with that concept for a reason; it’s useless unless we use it. But there’s a difference between throwing the F-word around and actually figuring shit out. Specifically, if we’re going to compare Trump to Hitler, we ought to note the obvious difference: Hitler had a plan. He had something that he wanted to achieve. Y’know, unlike Trump, Hitler actually wrote his own book, and it was about ideas instead of just being a self-promotional pile of dubious business bromides. Trump is the exact opposite of a mastermind. He’s a shark – all he can do is move in one direction, on mere instinct. Like, the reason Trump goes after the press is not that he knows an adversarial press is a cornerstone of a free society and he needs them out of the way in order to autocratize in peace. It’s because media criticism undermines his ability to act like a big man on the TV. That’s it. That is the sum total of his political orientation on the subject.
So because nothing about Trump is novel (in the substantive, non-spectacular sense of the term; that is, he’s a “novelty,” but he’s not novel), getting rid of him accomplishes nothing. Indeed, Trump is already impeachable on account of the emoluments thing, and the Republicans probably will want to wash their hands of him at some point. Even as president, his brand is becoming increasingly toxic, and turning against him will be an easy way for mainstream Republicans to reestablish their “Reasonable Adult” credibility. The potential future here is not exactly shrouded in mists: Trump crashes and burns, the Democrats prop up some gutless party hack like Cory Booker, who spends his terms tweaking and formalizing all the hideous policies Trump put into place, the discourse shifts ever rightward, and eight years later the Republicans get one more chance to finally destroy the world for good. This is the real danger that must be avoided. We cannot afford to get distracted by the particular grotesqueries of Trump himself. (He’s only going to be around for so long in any case. Trump’s health is getting surprisingly little attention: he’s the oldest person ever elected to the presidency, and he obviously doesn’t exercise or eat well. A random heart attack or stroke is entirely likely.) Caring about politics means fighting for a real future.
This is not to say that Trump is a fluke, or that he doesn’t matter. Quite the contrary, the point is that he is the logical conclusion of the line of reasoning presently embodied by the Republican Party. For example, if you’re concerned about Trump’s administration ignoring the normal processes of the government and overriding checks and balances and soforth, you’ll want to recall that it was the boring old pre-Trump Republican Senate that categorically refused to confirm any Supreme Court nominee put forth by Obama, and it is for that reason alone that Trump now gets to fill that seat. Let’s also recall that the Republican Party’s descent from bad faith into outright idiocy was pioneered by Sarah Palin, who was introduced into national politics by Captain Straight Talk himself, John McCain – the same John McCain who is currently trying to front like he’s got some kind of principled opposition to Trump, despite the fact that he’s not actually doing shit about anything. Let’s try to avoid falling for this obvious of a con.
Still, Trump clearly isn’t a “normal” Republican, so there’s a bit of a paradox to resolve here. One of the reasons people initially thought that Trump would be largely ineffectual was that he wouldn’t be able to work with the rest of his party, on account of heterodoxy. He was constantly clashing with the Republican establishment during the campaign, as well as making inconvenient promises like not cutting Social Security that people are now expecting him to follow through on. Indeed, if Trump really were serious about trying to become a popular and successful president, he would want to follow through on those promises, even if he had to fight the rest of his party in order to do so. He wouldn’t be able to pull it off, but it’s not like he’s ever shied away from wasting his time on a big dumb pointless fight. So it really does seem like it should be one or the other: either Trump is a dangerous eccentric, or he’s an empty ideologue. How, then, can it be both? Why isn’t there any real conflict between these things?
Abortion is one of the more visible issues in American politics, so that example should help us clarify things. As you know, one of Trump’s first actions upon entering office was to reinstate the Global Gag Rule, a longtime mainstay of the anti-abortion project. This marks him as a typical Republican: the same thing has been done by every Republican president since abortion became a big national issue. So we can refocus the question by asking: why does Trump give any number of shits about abortion? He infamously defended Planned Parenthood during the primary, he sure as hell doesn’t have any religious motivation, and the idea that he has any kind of opinion on the science of the matter is as laughable as the idea that he doesn’t want to fuck his daughter. When liberals rattle off their obligatory list of Trump’s transgressions, they usually include the time he said women who get abortions should be punished. But this isn’t really justified, because he obviously didn’t mean it. It’s an easy shot to take, but people who want to be able to credibly complain about “fake news” and “post-truth politics” need to hold themselves to a slightly higher standard of intellectual honesty. He never raised the issue himself; it only came up under repeated direct questioning, and his answer was obviously a guess. He figured that it was what he was supposed to say, and he walked it back as soon as someone informed him that it wasn’t. Certainly, this doesn’t mean he secretly supports abortion rights. It means he doesn’t care; he had literally never thought about the issue before the question came up, which is why he was completely unprepared to answer and had to resort to a “tough”-sounding guess.
It’s been justifiably speculated that Trump has probably paid for an abortion or two in his day, and if we go ahead and assume this is true for argument’s sake, you’ll note what it actually illustrates: Trump believes abortion is a man’s prerogative, not a woman’s. Trump is “pro-abortion” in the sense that he thinks women should be able to have abortions whenever their men tell them to. (The fact that poor men can’t afford to force their women to get abortions is irrelevant; I don’t think Trump is actually aware that there is such a thing as a poor person. The entire premise of Trump University was that anyone can just start conducting real estate deals whenever they want to. That’s how it was for Trump, after all.) This is closer to the pro-life position than it is to the pro-choice position; ergo, Trump is a Republican.
In fact, it’s exactly the same as the pro-life position. See, the pro-life position actually is about controlling women; the idea that abortion specifically is among the most important elements of the Christian faith is baldy implausible outside of the American political context. So the reason Trump and the Republicans are in sync here is quite simple: despite surface-level differences, they believe the same thing. We saw this quite clearly when Trump bungled his “Two Corinthians” reference at Liberty University. Why would people for whom Christianity is the most important part of their lives forgive such a blatant transgression? Because their Christianity as Christianity is merely window-dressing for their real beliefs, and they can tell that Trump’s underlying real beliefs mirror theirs perfectly well. Really, the fact that anyone thought that Trump wouldn’t be able to gain evangelical support just goes to show how shallow our political discourse really is. It doesn’t even account for the fact that people have beliefs that go deeper than basic demographic identification.
This same dynamic applies equally well to everything else. Trump does not actually dissent from Republican talking points, he just expresses them badly. The particulars of Trump’s positions differ from Republican orthodoxy only because Trump is an unsophisticated political actor. The Republicans have spent decades figuring out how to advance a reactionary agenda under the cover of “common sense” and “principles”; Trump has had no such advantage, which accounts for the difference in his messaging. But his underlying ideology is exactly the same. It may briefly disorient you to realize that Donald Trump is not a creative thinker. Everything that he has proposed is something that is already happening. We already have a border fence. We’re already surveilling Muslims. We’re already deporting massive numbers of people. We’re already killing suspected terrorists’ families.
People like to talk about how Trump is “manipulating” the media or “gaming” the system, but that’s not what’s happening at all. Trump’s messaging is completely naive; he lacks the protective layer of cynicism that someone like Obama uses to communicate to multiple distinct constituencies at once. Y’know, the fact that Obama was able to present himself as an anti-racist savior while also placating scared white people is exactly what manipulating the media looks like (and you’ll recall that the media actually does suck (for the opposite reasons from why Trump thinks it does), so there’s some ambiguity as to whether this is a good thing or a bad thing). Trump is an inveterate liar in terms of actual information, but the reason for this is that everything he says is driven by ideology. He says whatever has to be the case in order for his beliefs to be true. It is because of this that he is the exact opposite of the family-friendly and mass-appealing Obama: Trump is an unambiguous, crystal-clear image of one particular ideology, so you are guaranteed to either love or hate him. He tells it like it is.
In other words, what’s happening right now is not that an alien presence has descend upon our previously-innocent political system, corroding it from without. It is that Trump is giving us a glimpse behind the veil; ordinary, unsophisticated observers are finally able to see clearly the invasion from within. So you can see why, for anyone who actually wants to do anything about any of this, the whole “this is not normal” thing is kind of unbelievably fucking annoying. Liberals now have the perfect foil, someone who single-handedly justifies their entire ideology as well as a man for whom “foot” and “mouth” aren’t even separate concepts, and they’ve taken the opportunity to stab themselves in the chest.
The critical point is not that Trump is not a threat, or that we don’t need to resist him. It is that we can’t miss this chance. If we merely remove Trump himself and leave everything else the same, we will be doing nothing but drawing the curtain back again, reconcealing the truth. Given the stakes, we cannot allow this to happen. We must accept the deeper truth behind these events; we must walk through the threshold and into the lair of the beast. If this really is a “never again” type of situation, then the only way to make that so is to avoid jumping at every possible shadow, and to instead hunt down the thing that caused this and make it die.
Specifically, what the fuck is all this shit about Russia? I’m really not interested in litigating the details here, so let’s just assume that the allegations we’ve heard are uncontroversially true. Russia hacked both the DNC and the RNC, released the DNC information to damage Clinton, and held onto the RNC information to blackmail Trump after he won. If this is the case, what it means is that the Russians provided true, relevant information to the American voting public, who then used it to make an informed decision. (While drawing moral equivalencies is always tiresome, it bears repeating that the U.S. does way worse shit than this every day before breakfast. We’ve overthrown democratically elected governments, for god’s sake.) The idea that this constitutes “interference” that “tainted” the election is deeply disturbing – again, people who think “fake news” is a problem really need to get their heads in the game here.1 You either care about the truth or you don’t. In fact, the theft and release of this information was more than simply justifiable, it was actively moral. That information is ours by rights. What possible argument can there be against letting people know how the political parties that claim to represent them actually operate? If the Democrats lost due to the truth about them being revealed, there is very obviously only one way to interpret that situation: the Democrats are doing a bad job. There’s no point in helping them win elections absent a justification that makes them deserve to win.
Furthermore, if Trump is being blackmailed, what that means is that Americanselected a blackmailable candidate. It’s still our fault. I mean, the question at issue here is not particularly rhetorical. The reason for these histrionics is that liberals are embarrassed as hell that they lost to a personified temper tantrum, and they’re looking for someone, anyone else to blame. They’re trying to recast the threat of Trump as something foreign, something from out there rather than in here. The truth, of course, is exactly the opposite. Even assuming that the worst is true regarding Russia’s intentions and actions, they didn’t make Trump rich. They didn’t make him a celebrity. They didn’t establish a pattern of scapegoating immigrants, promote a culture of anti-intellectualism, or create a discursive structure in which sexual assault can be dismissed as a minor personal foible. I mean, I’m sure they’ve done all of that for themselves, but we didn’t need their help to do it here. That was all us, baby. America, home of the brave.
There’s no getting around the facts here. Lewis Black once joked that even Michael Moore’s harshest critics couldn’t possibly consider him un-American, simply because, as a fat white loudmouth in a baseball cap, no other country could have produced him. The same observation goes triple for Trump. He’s a doughy, ignorant, gauche, small-minded trust-funded bad investor with fake hair, an oversized tie, and a suit that doesn’t fit. Come on. You couldn’t get more American than that if you baked a baseball into an apple pie and shoved it up a bald eagle’s ass. Say literally anything else you want to about him, but “un-American” is just not in the cards. This is the real reason people can’t stop paying attention to him. He’s us. He’s the part of ourselves that we hate. He’s a puppet, but he’s not Russia’s puppet. He’s our puppet. He is doing the things that our society implicitly tells people to do, and he is being rewarded for it in the way that our society implicitly tells people they will be rewarded if they do those things. He’s the monster, but we’re Dr. Frankenstein.
It’s not just the tacky surface-level stuff, though. This is the part that’s really important. The reason Trump won a national election in America is that Trump is the exact embodiment of American ideology. People are having real trouble with this, so it merits a substantive explanation. Trump’s primary character trait is his absolute unreflectiveness on all subjects. This explains the way he talks, for example: he never thinks about what he wants to say before he says it or considers the right way to convey a point to a particular audience, he just immediately barfs something out. And it explains his famous difficulties with basic facts: as soon as he feels like something is true, it becomes one of his basic assumptions, and he never reexamines it. This same dynamic operates on the level of ideology. Each of Trump’s beliefs is simply the unrefined version of something that American society tells people to believe. Capitalism allocates money meritocratically, so the richest people are therefore necessarily the best. Women should be defined by their utility to men, so sexual assault isn’t a real issue as long as you keep it quiet. Society should be organized to implicitly favor white people; any other arrangement would be “playing identity politics.” America is more important than other countries, so what “foreign policy” is actually about is using the rest of the world to benefit America as much as possible. As unhinged as he is, Trump has never once introduced a new concept into American political discourse. Everything he’s ever said has simply been particularly bilious regurgitation of established reactionary phobias and fetishes. It is beyond critical to understand that everything Trump says and does is merely the channeling of our existing social prejudices and the amplification of them up to 11. (Incidentally, the explanation of why 11 is louder than 10 is basically the distilled form of all of Trump’s arguments.)
“When Schwartz began writing ‘The Art of the Deal,’ he realized that he needed to put an acceptable face on Trump’s loose relationship with the truth. So he concocted an artful euphemism. Writing in Trump’s voice, he explained to the reader, ‘I play to people’s fantasies. . . . People want to believe that something is the biggest and the greatest and the most spectacular. I call it truthful hyperbole. It’s an innocent form of exaggeration—and it’s a very effective form of promotion.’ Schwartz now disavows the passage. ‘Deceit,’ he told me, is never ‘innocent.’ He added, ”Truthful hyperbole’ is a contradiction in terms. It’s a way of saying, ‘It’s a lie, but who cares?” Trump, he said, loved the phrase.”
No offense to the guy, I’m sure he’s lost a fair amount of sleep over all of this, but his interpretation here is completely backwards. Hyperbole is always truthful; the definition is literally that it’s an overstatement of the truth. And that’s exactly what Donald Trump is. He’s capitalist hyperbole. He’s a ridiculously overdone version of something that is nevertheless true.
The fantasy of capitalism is that what’s good for business is good for the individual, and Trump is a complete prisoner of this fantasy. That is, the idea behind capitalism is that money is a heuristic: it isn’t itself valuable, but it represents value. Being rich isn’t good for its own sake, but because the way you get rich is by doing things that are genuinely worthwhile, by making the world a better place (this isn’t actually true, of course; the real situation is closer to the opposite, but that’s the idea). Most people, even capitalist diehards, understand this implicitly. Like, Steve Jobs didn’t take a salary, and Bill Gates has his charity foundation; these things aren’t redemptive, but they’re evidence against naivete. Rich fucks of this ilk understand that they have more money than they deserve and they’re trying to do at least a little something about it, which means they understand that capitalism is not a source of moral values. Donald Trump does not understand this; he is incapable of understanding anything in any other terms. This is why, when Trump was asked what he had sacrificed for the country, he answered that he had created jobs. He didn’t understand the question because he couldn’t, because in capitalist ideology there is no such thing as sacrifice. Everyone does best by doing what is best for themselves. That’s exactly what the “Trump brand” represents: the raw, dumb force of the empty heuristic of money. Similarly, the reason he’s fixated on his vote margins and crowd sizes is that he can’t get behind them to the thing that they are supposed to represent. If he actually wanted to do something as president, he wouldn’t have a problem, because he’s already there; he could just do it. But what he actually wants is the accolades without the substance; rather, he doesn’t understand that there is such a thing as substance behind surface indications of success and popularity. And the reason he gains support for acting this way is that his supporters believe the same thing, and this is not surprising, because this thing they believe is exactly the thing that everyone in America gets taught in middle school: that money is your score in life, that the “invisible hand” magically makes everything work out so long as everyone makes sure to act as selfishly as possible – and, furthermore, that history is defined by which white men are the toughest and have the biggest ideas. They think that Trump is going to “get things done” because they have been told their whole lives that people who look and act like Trump are the kind of people who get things done.
But America isn’t that bad, right? Doesn’t our current American society also tell people to be charitable and racially sensitive and respectful to women and soforth? Yes, exactly, which is why Trump thinks that he does those things. Our society does not tell people to, for example, understand racism as a structure and think about how their actions might unwittingly perpetuate it despite good intentions. It does not tell men that horniness and privilege are not justifications for overriding women’s humanity. You have to figure things like that out for yourself, and Trump does not figure anything out for himself.
Ergo, support for Trump is the same thing as support for these underlying social ideals, the kind that people are normally not gauche enough to state out loud. Hence the claim that Trump “tells it like it is”: he doesn’t state these ideas literally, because he thinks he believes in things like equality and freedom, but he conveys them without applying the usual layer of politeness to smooth them out. He cannot appear other than as he is.2 And in the same sense, opposition to Trump is the same thing as opposition to these ideals – or rather, it should be, except that liberals are doing their best to fuck the situation up.
Okay, that’s an overstatement. People get that Trump represents resurgent bigotry and soforth. In fact, there have been a number of encouraging signs in this regard. Opposition to the Muslim ban was both immediate and correctly focused: everyone knew it was about attacking Muslim immigrants, so they responded not by litigating the particular details of the order itself, but by expressing their support for Muslim immigrants. Things don’t usually go this well. During the run-up to the Iraq War, for example, the principled opposition to it (which very much existed) didn’t get much of an airing in the mainstream. There was a big dumb debate about the whole “weapons of mass destruction” thing, which was always just a smokescreen. People didn’t get, at first, that the Iraq War was about imperialism. But everyone got immediately that the immigration order was about racism. This represents progress. Americans in general are now less deluded about what politics is really about than they were ten years ago.
But we’re still not quite where we need to be yet. As mentioned, people keep trying to construct Trump as a foreign threat or a chance anomaly, rather than trying to figure out what it is about our society and our politics that caused this. And people keep talking about how Trump is doing things that are “unconstitutional” and harping on his administration’s “incompetence” and “disorganization” – as though the situation would be better if Trump were playing by the rules and implementing his policies effectively. None of this is to downplay the threat posed by Trump’s administration. Far from it; our moral responsibility at this point is to play up the threat that has been with us all along.
The ongoing drama over Trump’s cabinet appointments provides a good example of the distinction. What we’ve been hearing over and over again is that these nominees are “unqualified” for their respective positions. In fact, while each of them is unqualified for what liberals imagine their job is supposed to be, they are all supremely qualified for the jobs that they are actually going to be doing. I wasn’t totally clear on this at first; I was particularly confused by Tillerson. Certainly, a horrible choice; putting an oil executive in charge of foreign policy is like putting a meteor in charge of dinosaur outreach. But it seemed weirdly random, like Trump had just picked the name of a rich executive out of his rolodex. However, if we make the simple assumption that these choices were all intentional and not mistakes, things become less mysterious. Trump hasn’t stocked his cabinet with random nobodies; he’s taken the termites that were already crawling around in the woodwork and given then more to gorge on. Regarding Tillerson, as this article explains, he was, as an oil CEO, essentially acting as a de facto Secretary of State already:
“In Kurdistan, during the Obama Administration, Tillerson defied State Department policy and cut an independent oil deal with the Kurdish Regional Government, undermining the national Iraqi government in Baghdad. ExxonMobil did not ask permission. After the fact, Tillerson arranged a conference call with State Department officials and explained his actions, according to my sources, by saying, ‘I had to do what was best for my shareholders.'”
Tillerson’s previous job was to open up foreign markets to the American oil industry, and as the official Secretary of State, he’s going to be doing exactly the same job. DeVos’s life’s mission has been to destroy public education, and that’s exactly what she’s going to continue doing in a more formal capacity. Pruitt made a career for himself out of suing the EPA to block environmental regulations; he is now being given an opportunity to cut out the middleman. Carson is going to be a do-nothing black figurehead in charge of urban development because the only interest Republicans have in urban development is in using it to ward off charges of racism.
Not only does lining all this up correctly help us to understand what’s going on here, but we’ve also just seen what the consequences of getting this wrong are. Puzder’s nomination was withdrawn not because he was going to be a Labor secretary intent on crushing labor, but because of “controversy.” So now Trump is going to find some other goon to do exactly the same job. This is not a “win” in any sense; no progress has been made, and no danger has been forestalled. So yes, unqualified blanket resistance to Trump’s agenda is the correct approach, but if we simply oppose these things because the ethics paperwork hasn’t been properly filed, we’re merely delaying the inevitable. We have to cut along the veins in order to draw blood.
You may be anticipating that my point here is that we need to focus on the “real issues” and not get distracted by petty cultural trivia. In fact, this is a perfect example of a wrong line to cut across, and the reason for this is that culture is a real issue. It’s the realest issue. As explained, that’s where all of Trump’s horrifying beliefs come from: he absorbed them from the culture. And that’s the real danger of Trumpism: that it’s going to change the culture for the worse, that it’s going to make our society a worse place to live. The arithmetic here is pretty simple. If the threat posed by Trump originates from the fact that he’s nothing but a writhing blob of unexamined ideology, and if that ideology is in fact the general ideology of American society, then the idea that we need to “defend American values” against this threat is exactly wrongheaded. We need to erase and rewrite the parts of the story that led to this particularly nauseating plot development.
This is why Clintonism leads naturally to Trumpism. It’s not a matter of “failing” to win an election; it’s a matter of logical implication. If your entire philosophy of government is to just give constant handjobs to corporations, that opens the door for someone like Trump to come in and say: why bother with “rational” administration at all? Why convolute things unnecessarily? Why not just let businessmen do whatever they want directly? Indeed, why not? If we don’t have a substantive answer to that question, we don’t have a real argument against Trump. We just have our cute little insults and nicknames.
Again, the common framing wherein we must avoid “normalizing” Trump is severely deficient. First, as explained, Trump is already normal. Like, he was already a celebrity and a media draw. That’s why he won despite being completely incompetent (and despite not even wanting to win in the first place). It was Clinton, the one insisting that we respect women and care about structural racism, who was the freak.3 Liberal fantasies notwithstanding, anti-racism hasn’t yet been normalized for real. What we might call the John Oliver Strategy, simply insisting to yourself that “this is not normal,” accomplishes nothing. It doesn’t matter what you think. What matters is whether Donald Trump is actually considered a normal American. Norms are not personal fetishes. They are social conventions, and the convention right now is to treat Trump as though he really is a valid occupant of the office. Because of course he is; he’s actually sitting in the chair right now. If that strikes you as wrong, even sickening, you have to make it wrong. This is work yet to be done. Liberals assumed that an overt predator and blithe racist could not possibly gain enough support to win the presidency; they assumed that racism and sexism had already been denormalized. This is not the case. And now, in their confusion, they cling to the notion that what’s happening now is “not normal,” that if we can just make it go away (or worse, wait it out), everything will eventually go back to how it’s “supposed to” be. There is, of course, no “supposed to.” History will be what we make of it – or what we fail to make of it.
Some obvious objections present themselves: Clinton won the popular vote, American culture cannot be reduced to one simple ideology, opposition to Trump is widespread and popular. All true; the problem is that these aren’t actually objections. All of this is the case, and Trumpism is happening anyway. There must, then, be a missing link: something that we think we’re doing right, but we’re actually dropping the ball on.
This is where is gets a bit subtle. The uncharitable interpretation is that most people’s opposition to Trump is merely aesthetic. They don’t like Trump because he’s an uggo and he talks dumb, whereas they liked Obama because he was pretty and he talked fancy, and neither opinion was based on any real convictions. This is exactly half right – the aesthetic angle is half bullshit and half serious fucking business (it seems like this is always the case with aesthetics). So it’s important to clarify which half is which. We’re all aware that Obama was and is subject to a ridiculous amount of celebrity worship regarding such qualities as his handsomeness or his cute family or his good taste in music or his “inspirationalness” or whatever, and this is all bullshit, and to the extent that opposition to Trump is simply the flip side of this, opposition to the fact that he has bad hair and lacks culture, it is equally bullshit. People aren’t robots, though. It’s not just a matter of checking off the correct policy boxes. There is, underneath all the tabloid fluff, a real distinction here.
To make this clear, let’s look at one of the more trivial recent comparisons: Trump’s and Obama’s behavior at the inauguration. Barack and Michelle waited for each other and walked together, while Donald ignored Melania, who was later helped along by the Obamas. If we interpret this incident as the Obamas being “nice” people and Trump being a “mean” person, it is completely meaningless. We’re talking about the Presidency of the United States here, not the Miss Congeniality award. But if we think about what type of behavior we’re looking at, and what it represents, we get to the part that actually matters. What we’re talking about is the way husbands treat their wives, which means we’re talking about one of the basic distinctions upon which we construct our gender ideologies. The Trumps’ marriage models the ideal of the rich man who buys a hot trophy wife as decoration and isn’t really aware she exists outside of that role, while the Obamas’ models a partnership between two different but morally equal humans (I’m not trying to give them any special credit here, but people do perceive them that way). This is a real, substantive distinction. The latter conception of romantic relationships is the type of thing we want our society to move towards. I’m not really willing to call it feminist, since the entire concept of the “first lady” is already irredeemably sexist (and I’d actually prefer de-normalizing romance, but that’s another story), but it’s at least less bad. It’s gesturing in something like the right direction.
In addition to the fact that seemingly trivial things can point to real issues, “official” political problems are frequently bullshit. One of the big things people are still tripping over their own feet on is the issue of Trump’s tax returns. Releasing your tax returns is an important part of the Official Democratic Process, so it’s a Real Issue that Serious People care about. It doesn’t actually matter, though. Trump’s conflicts of interest are way down the priority list of things we need to care about right now. Furthermore, there’s no point in litigating this issue any further, because we’ve already lost. Pushing the issue during the election would have been a decent tactical move to prevent Trump from being elected in the first place, but nobody bothered, and now it’s too late. Trump has absolutely no incentive to release his tax returns, and he already knows he can get away with not doing it, so he’s not going to. That’s it. Further furthermore, even if you get the information and get Trump impeached or whatever, all you’ve done is gotten rid of one guy. You have had absolutely no effect on the underlying issues, and you have done nothing to prevent a version of Trump with clean tax returns from gaining power in exactly the same way.
Again, though, there is a non-bullshit version of this issue, which is the version that applies to our social dynamics in general rather than solely to one person. That version is this: Trump gets extreme benefit of the doubt based on the fact that he’s rich (and white and male and etc.; you can apply this line of reasoning the same way in other cases, but one thing a time here). The assumption behind this is that our society allocates resources justly – that people without money are not worth listening to, whereas people with money are necessarily better than everyone else. This is, of course, the exact argument made in Trump’s favor: sure, he’s a ridiculous jackass, but he’s rich, so he must be doing something right. And when liberals argue that Trump is a “failed” businessman or a “fake” billionaire, they are actually making this same argument: that’s it’s only because Trump is not a real rich person that he is not worth listening to. A “good” businessman who wasn’t “corrupt” and who really “earned” their wealth by building “successful” casinos would be the kind of person we should have as president. Now, more than ever, we are obligated to advance the exact opposite ideal: anyone who gets rich in this society must be doing something wrong. So the focus on tax returns specifically masks a deeper and more important issue: rich fucks should not be president. The correct situation would be almost the opposite of what we have now: anyone whose tax returns are so complicated that reading them would actually reveal anything should be automatically disqualified from participating in the government.
In short, we need to split aesthetics down the middle in order to separate the wheat from the chaff. Ignoring aesthetics is both undesirable and impossible. Aesthetics are how people see the world. Understanding this gives us a clear opening: we can show people a better view.
One important consequence of this is that we should not forsake insults, but rather start getting our insults right. Certain types of people like to claim that insults are always wrong, that you should always address the issues and not the people, but there’s no real justification for this (plus there’s an obvious ulterior motivation to this argument). Ideas are made of people, which is why insults are the exact tool required to drag self-important blowhards down into the muck that the rest of us have to live in. The catch is simply that, like everything else, insults can be executed well or poorly; good insults are truth-apt. Insulting Donald Trump for being fat and ugly is not truth-apt, because plenty of fat and ugly people are decent human beings, and plenty of slim and attractive people are fascists. However, pointing out that Trump is a rich person who eats garbage food and can’t seem to find a suit that fits is truth-apt, for a particular reason. That is, it’s not that there’s something wrong with you if you dress poorly or like KFC. Everyone sucks at something, and that doesn’t make you a bad person. But the justification for wealth is that being wealthy is better than not being wealthy in an absolute, substantive way; this distinction is pretty much Trump’s entire argument for himself. So, if that’s not true, if wealth isn’t really enough to buy you a better life, if care and discernment earn you more of a return than throwing money around, then that justification falters, and that argument fails. The fact that Trump is a rich person who nevertheless has no culture or discernment demonstrates that wealth by itself is not necessarily any good. And of course this goes further: the fact that we have a society organized around accumulating wealth and not around cultivating traits that are actually worthwhile is why people who are conventionally successful within current social parameters are bad people.
In other words, good insults, like good aesthetics, go somewhere. Trump’s obvious boner for his daughter, for example, is entirely within bounds, because it illustrates the fact that patriarchy is disgusting. Such behavior follows naturally from the assumption that women are required to present themselves in a manner that is sexually gratifying to men. It is the same assumption as that behind diet crazes and ass implants and pornographic pop music videos. If, then, you feel that Trump’s behavior toward women is disgusting, that means you have your head on straight. Being disgusted by disgusting things is the aesthetically correct reaction. But you have to realize what it is you’re actually disgusted by. You’re disgusted by Trump’s deviance from norms of politeness, but also by his adherence to norms of gender relations. Your resolution, then, should be to follow your disgust through to its necessary conclusion. When you’re doing it right, hate is a productive force. If you really hate someone, surface-level pokes and jabs don’t cut it. You don’t pick fights that you aren’t willing to see through. The only thing that suffices is to get inside the thing that they really are, deep down, and destroy it for real.
The most common narrative that has arisen from the election results is that Clinton lost by playing up “culture war” issues and ignoring “economic fundamentals.” Now, obviously, the Democrats have abandoned labor and this has been both electoral suicide and a moral catastrophe. I don’t think anyone’s confused about that. But this is not a dynamic with any specificity to this election; it has always been the case. I have never known a world where labor had real political influence. Furthermore, Trump obviously didn’t win on economic policy, because he did not have an economic policy. All he did was jump up on a platform and hoot “bring back jobs!” over and over again like a badly-trained baboon. In short, the people claiming that Clinton lost by relying on non-white and female identity politics are missing the rather glaring point that Trump won by relying on white male identity politics. This is evidence in favor of identity politics: it proves that this is something that people really care about, that white men still have this advantage, and that there remains work to be done here.
There have been a lot of people pointing to “culture war” issues like nonbinary pronouns or whatever and saying “this is why the Democrats lost.” These people are either cowards or traitors. If they’re only willing to take a stand on an issue when it’s popular, they’re cowards. If they are pretending to care about things like gender equality when they actually don’t in order to gain credibility, they’re traitors. Either way, these people are the real threat. They are the ones who are trying to stop us from fighting the battle that actually matters. This is why god invented the guillotine.
Exactly this was Clinton’s true fatal flaw: she failed to make this a real fight. For instance, during the first debate, Clinton baited Trump by bringing up Alicia Machado, a pageant contestant whom Trump had publicly degraded. This was clearly an intentional gambit, as Clinton had the name at the ready and brought it up pretty much out of nowhere. And it worked: it led to the man who is currently President of the United States advising the nation to “check out sex tape” at three in the morning. So why didn’t it matter? Well, because it was just one more dumb controversy in an already insufferable election full of them. Why do we care about Trump being mean to some random lady? It’s not because we care about her personally, but because no one should be treated that way. Specifically, we care because this sort of behavior is part of a general pattern of sexist degradation, which affects all women. Ergo, the fact that Trump engages in this type of behavior demonstrates that bullying and misogyny are among his basic values, and that his administration would be harmful to women.
Indeed, shortly after this happened, the Access Hollywood tape came out, providing clear evidence that Trump was not merely a brash and unrestrained type of guy, but in fact a serial sexual predator. Again, Clinton brought this up in the next debate to score a point, and then dropped it completely. She never actually advanced the argument that Trump should have been disqualified from the presidency on feminist grounds rather than just because of all the “qualifications” bullshit that no one cares about. For example, those ads where women repeated all the mean stuff Trump said about women do not actually rise to the level of being feminist. They’re just claiming that Trump is a bad person who says bad things. It’s actually impossible for an argument of this type to be convincing, because only people who were already opposed to that stuff will find it to be affecting (indeed, people who agreed with that stuff in the first place may come out with their convictions strengthened). If you want to make an issue of something, you have to raise the issue.
It isn’t that Clinton overplayed her hand here, what with the glass ceilings and the empowerful messages to little girls and soforth. It’s that she played the right card on the wrong trick.4 She didn’t have the temerity to actually make the argument that voting for a woman to beat Donald Trump was the morally correct course of action. But she should have, because that was always her best argument. Contrary to tired denigrations of “vagina voters,” the vagina opening should have been made bigger. Consider: if we actually took sexual assault seriously as a society, this whole thing – everything that is going to happen because of this – would have been prevented.
So this is not a limited point about how one person could have won one election, nor is it my own personal advocacy for the kind of politics I would like to see. It is the only way to save the world. People have been going on a lot about our “democratic institutions,” and whether they’re “strong enough” to resist Trump’s attempts at autocracy. This question is entirely irrelevant. State institutions can’t stop fascism, because fascism is a state phenomenon. It’s what happens when the state stops fucking around. Like, the fact that Hitler is a dictator doesn’t mean that he goes around personally telling each Nazi solder which Jews to kill. He uses state institutions to do that.
Since Hannah Arendt is currently popular among people who buy famous books so that they can pretend like they’re intellectuals, let’s try engaging with something she actually wrote. In Eichmann in Jerusalem, she discusses a period towards the end of World War II, in which Heinrich Himmler attempts to halt the Final Solution, imagining that this will put him in a better bargaining position with the Allies. Himmler, Eichmann’s superior, orders him to stop transporting Jews, and Eichmann ignores the order, believing it to be against the will of the Fuhrer and therefore “criminal.” As Arendt explains, this situation inverts our normal conception of “legal orders”:
“The extensive literature on the subject usually supports its case with the common equivocal meaning of the word ‘law,’ which in this context means sometimes the law of the land – that is, posited, positive law – and sometimes the law that supposedly speaks in all men’s hearts with an identical voice. Practically speaking, however, orders to be disobeyed must be ‘manifestly unlawful’ and unlawfulness must ‘fly like a black flag above [them] as a warning reading: ‘Prohibited!” – as the judgment pointed out. And in a criminal regime this ‘black flag’ with its ‘warning sign’ flies as ‘manifestly’ above what normally is a lawful order – for instance, not to kill innocent people just because they happen to be Jews – as it flies above a criminal order under normal circumstances. To fall back on an unequivocal voice of conscience – or, in the even vaguer language of the jurists, on a ‘general sentiment of humanity’ (Oppenheim-Lauterpacht in International Law, 1952) – not only begs the question, it signifies a deliberate refusal to take notice of the central moral, legal, and political phenomena of our century.”
Opposing something like the Muslim ban on the grounds that it is an “illegal order” begs the same question. Immigration policy and national security are explicitly the President’s job. If you’re just trying to be a good American and uphold cultural values, you’re going to follow those orders. The people who opposed the Muslim ban did not simply look up the correct thing to do in their book of official regulations. They came to their own interpretation of the situation and made their own choice. The fact that the order was issued in so rushed and haphazard a manner clarifies this point: because there was not a big legal infrastructure built up around it, the only reason it was ever enforced at all was that some people made the individual choice to do so. And some people didn’t.
“We’re turning a blind eye—we’re pretending we haven’t seen the Syrian passport.”
And in that very same link you can see the problem:
“’Policies don’t execute themselves by magic. They actually have to be carried out by people,’ he said. ‘This travel ban…is not just horrific and unwise, but it’s illegal. It’s requiring the people who execute it to break the law.’ If you’re a government official—CBP, ICE or otherwise—and you’re being asked to do something that violates the law, he said, just don’t.”
Okay, so, if the order didn’t “violate the law,” if it was issued “wisely,” then that would be just fine, right? Like, the reason Rosa Parks is a hero is because forcing black people to move to the back of the bus was an “illegal order,” so she was just standing up for traditional American values when she disobeyed it, right? The fact that the people who stood up to the ban were praised by its opponents for “upholding the law” at the same time as they were attacked by its supporters for “failing to uphold the law” proves exactly that there is no “unequivocal voice of conscience” in this matter.
This applies on a much more basic level. Trump is the president right now. That’s just the fact of the matter. So it’s also a fact that anyone who wants to play ball has to deal with him. And yet people like Elon Musk get criticized for serving on official advisory committees – for following the rules and doing their job. If you’re opposed to that, if you think the fact that some jackass has a fancy title imparts no obligation on your part to respect or accommodate them, then what you are actually opposed to is the concept of formal authority, and hence the idea of the presidency itself.
To put it simply, you can’t praise “American values” and the “rule of law” and “process” and soforth as the source of everything just and righteous while also advocating resistance to “illegal orders.” It is incoherent for the United States to say “you must follow our orders at all times, unless they are illegal, in which case you must not follow them,” because the United States itself is what determines what’s illegal or not in the first place. (Retreating from legality to morality does nothing to resolve this problem; replace “the United States government” with “United States cultural norms” and you get the same contradiction.) This is, after all, what totalitarianism means: the state determines everything. Obviously, then, the only way to oppose it is to have standards and values that are independent of the state, and that are therefore capable of contradicting it. It is not our institutions that have to stop Trump; it is us. It is you and me, personally.
And it is you and me who have not been doing a very good job of this. People keep pointing to shit that has been happening this entire time and being like “welcome to Trump’s America,” like that means anything. Like, can you believe that America is racist now? And that we have an incoherently aggressive foreign policy? And that we’re stockpiling nukes and inflating the military for no reason? And that the government spends all its time making sweetheart deals with corporations and ignoring real problems? As a particularly dramatic example, Trump’s first approved military action killed an eight-year-old girl, so of course this is evidence that the American military has just now become a horrible child-killing monstrosity. Yet, in a disgustingly poignant twist of fate, that eight-year-old girl was Nawar al-Awlaki, whose equally innocent brother, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, was killed by Obama in pretty much the same manner. If you care about one of these killings and not the other, you are not engaged in politics. You are acting in a reality show. You’re the puppet.
Rhetoric also matters here. Both Trump’s RNC address and his inauguration speech were criticized for being “dark” and portraying America as a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. News flash, assholes: America is a bad place where lots of bad stuff is constantly happening. That’s exactly what liberals are supposed to care about. Like, when liberals need to signal their support for Black Lives Matter, we’re in an emergency situation and the police are fascists and there’s death in the streets and racism is intractable, but when they need to signal their opposition to Trump, then America is a wonderful land of magic and opportunity, and anyone who thinks it needs some kind of fundamental change must be some kind of crazy person, probably a demented narcissist. The reason this dynamic is really pernicious is that liberals have ended up arguing against things that are actually good, simply because Trump happens to be standing in the general area near them. For one thing, the fact that a political outsider won a national election by appealing to common sentiments and attacking received wisdom is unambiguously a good thing. It removes barriers to entry, allows new ideas into the conversation, and creates the possibility for change. More importantly, we really are in an era of “American carnage,” but it’s not because of terrorist immigrants or gang violence or political correctness or lack of competition. It’s because of America’s murder-driven neocolonial foreign policy, because of police brutality, because real political values are subordinated to media-friendly horse-race vapidity, and because capitalism has developed to the point where it’s now devouring itself. We must have the courage to articulate the true response to “make America great again”: the past was bad. Coal mining was bad. Child labor was bad. Jim Crow was bad. Marital rape was bad. And, to the extent that these things from the past still exist in the present, the present is also bad. The only thing that holds the possibility of being good is the future, but that can happen only if the future is something different from both the present and the past – something new.
Fucking this up is how you get shit like this (the first paragraph is from Trump’s inaugural, the second is some liberal trying to criticize it):
“At the center of this movement is a crucial conviction, that a nation exists to serve its citizens. Americans want great schools for their children, safe neighborhoods for their families, and good jobs for themselves. These are just and reasonable demands of righteous people and a righteous public.
In 1960, John F. Kennedy famously said, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.’ In the first three minutes of his presidency, Donald Trump has already eviscerated that notion.”
Breaking news update, assholes: Trump is right and JFK was wrong. Liberals have gotten so deranged over this whole thing that they are now arguing against the idea that the purpose of a nation is to serve its people. When you don’t have principles, when you think the problem is that there’s a “bad guy” and you have to “stop” him, your arguments end up incoherent. People object to Trump’s insistence on the centrality of a single strong leader, but they do this by wistfully reminiscing about how great Obama was. People object to Trump’s cheap appeals to patriotism, but they do this by claiming that he’s going against American values. In short, the liberal argument against heavy fascism is simply to advance light fascism as the preferable alternative – as the only alternative. But being able to hold more than one idea in our heads at a time is the advantage we have over people like Trump. It’s tempting to retreat to the basics in the face of scary situations, but it is precisely times like these when we require the power of our best tactics.
Furthermore, trying to pin everything on Trump himself is itself the thing that we’re supposed to be arguing against: the idea that rich white men should always be the center of attention. Obviously, Trump has a huge amount of formal power right now, and we can’t just ignore him. But we also don’t have to hang on his every tweet and obsess over every quirk of his phrasing. We have better things to do with our time – not just things that are far more enjoyable, but things that matter more. Trump fronts like he’s the big dynamic decider man who does whatever he wants, and the media abets him in this by portraying him as a black swan. We have to stop doing this. We have to stop pretending like he matters as a person, because he doesn’t. He’s not a black swan, he’s a white swan. He’s the whitest possible swan. He’s a white swanpremacist.
This is what it actually means to take the high road. It does not mean staying positive or playing nice or following the rules. Playing nice in a situation like this is more accurately referred to as cowardice. What taking the high road means is doing the thing that is right rather than the thing that is easy. It means adhering to the truth absolutely, no matter how inconvenient it is, no matter what advantages it requires you to forsake, and no matter what it forces you to do. Mocking Trump for being dumb and incompetent is easy. Attacking the underlying causes of his support and developing a substantive alternative is right. The reason fascism extends naturally from capitalism is that capitalism is an empty ideology, and fascism, say what you will about its tenets, is at least an ethos. It’s not so much something to believe in as it is anything to believe in. There’s no point in “stopping Trump” is you don’t have something that you’re stopping him for. Ergo, our very straightforward task is to create something better to believe in – and, given the causes of this situation, this has to be something better than “progress,” better than “success,” and better than America.
Of course, we can’t simply do this ourselves. We have to construct a common framework that goes beyond easy digs and makes all of this make sense. Assuming that our reasons for opposing Trump were the same as everyone else’s is what made the election results “surprising.” Remember, being surprised doesn’t mean that something “weird” happened; events themselves are not “weird” or “normal,” those characteristics come from our interpretations of them, so what being surprised means is that your understanding of the situation is lacking. The fact that everything’s going so wrong now does not mean that we’ve gone astray and we need to get back to where we were before. Understanding Trump as hyper-normative rather than merely grotesque reveals that events are unfolding according to their own internal logic, and it also reveals the necessary character of any possible resolution. Avoiding this conflict is indistinguishable from surrender. “Winning” will not mean anything unless and until this becomes a real war.
And yet you still get motherfuckers claiming that Russia “hacked” the election, when there has been not even the suggestion of any such thing. And of course these are the same people who rend their garments every time Trump talks about illegal voters, lamenting how, oh how could our glorious political process ever have descended to the depths of such tawdry accusations. ↩
This is what the term “authenticity” refers to, and I encourage you to take this opportunity to consider whether authenticity is actually a good thing. ↩
Yes, Clinton is a grasper and was never really going to follow through on any of these things. That strengthens the point: even insincere, token acknowledgment of these points is too much for “normal” Americans to handle. ↩
Language Log brings us the story of, uh, a Twitter argument, I guess, since that’s the kind of thing that counts as news these days. Still, there is some actual stuff going on here, and my impression is that the issues involved are not entirely transparent to all observers. So I figured I’d field this one, seeing as I preemptively explained it a year ago.
The basic story is: Mirriam-Webster’s twitter account churns out some anodyne usage advice; a wad of stubble calling itself Gabriel Roth sort-of-objects to it with an unfocused series of douchey insinuations; MW hands him his ass; there is much rejoicing; Roth defends himself on Slate, where he is an editor (because of course a Slate editor is fundamentally clueless about writing).
The first-glance interpretation here is that MW’s original tweet is “descriptivist” and Roth’s objection is “prescriptivist,” but that doesn’t hold up. As Roth clarifies in his response, his objection was to neither the advice itself nor the act of giving that advice. But this seems to be all that’s available for him to respond to. So his objection has to be ideological; what he’s against is the underlying assumptions of the original tweet. Which is already pretty bad: criticizing the implications of something a brand posted on Twitter when you yourself don’t even understand what they are really ought to trigger a moderate-intensity Find Something Better To Do With Your Time Alarm.
I’m not sure where my line was crossed here, but I’m actually not going to be nice about this. Roth tries to align himself with “descriptivism” by approving of MW’s approach in this area, except look at how much of a snide piece of shit he’s being about it:
Its editors characterize their approach as “descriptivist,” which means they aim to reflect language as it exists, rather than to lay down the law, usage-wise. That orientation leads them to take a variety of admirable, progressive stances on lexicographic issues.
Implying without an argument and also without having the nerve to actually say it that a commitment to “descriptivism” is something at all unusual rather than the basic condition of being a dictionary in the first place. His condescension crescendos to the point where it’s difficult to imagine that he’s not jerking it to his own argument: “How fearless, how forward-looking of the editors at Merriam-Webster to include it!” Give me a fucking break. The entire intro of his piece is a super-weak attempted gotcha demonstrating that MW doesn’t actually put every common usage into the dictionary, as though that proves some kind of hypocrisy. This wouldn’t even be a good argument in the ideal case, but the actual example he uses is fucking pathetic. He points out that a common misspelling isn’t in the dictionary, as though that proves anything at all other than the fact that the dictionary people are basically competent at their jobs.1
And heaven forfend anyone thinking that this line of argument makes Roth some kind of conservative. He approvingly cites a tweet defending the word “genderqueer” in order to establish his Good Liberal Cred – and then has the gall to accuse someone else of trying too hard to look cool and with-it. The amount of projection here is really off the charts: Roth suspects that MW’s behavior (the behavior of, recall, a brand Twitter account) is “narcissistically gratifying,” when of course his entire response has no content other than narcissistic gratification. Not to mention the fact that feeling the need to pen a desperate, passive-aggressive defense against a completely standard-issue Twitter burn resulting from a fight that he started is stranger-than-fiction-level cowardly.
Anyway, douchebaggery aside, the point is that Roth’s argument here is familiar; it is a severely dumbed-down version of the argument that David Foster Wallace made in “Authority and American Usage.” As detailed back in babby’s second blog post, what Wallace is doing in that essay is actually not making a linguistic argument at all, but rather making a political argument in favor of authority via linguistics. Roth’s argument (such as it is) proceeds along the same lines as Wallace’s: he first set up a strawman version of “descripitivism” where “there are no rules,” then aligns himself with a more “reasonable” version of it in order to look sophisticated, but ultimately argues that, even in this case, arbitrary rules are required to prevent a descent into Hobbesian linguistic chaos. This is how Roth summarizes it:
There’s a lesson there about authority: Even when it’s doing its best to come off as chill, sometimes it has to put its foot down.
Everything about this is wrong. The dictionary is not an authority; it is a resource. It doesn’t have any kind of enforcement mechanism; it is something that you can consult as needed. It is not “trying to come off as chill,” it is simply stating the facts (remember, Roth agrees that the thing he was originally responding to was factually correct). And it is also not “putting its foot down” by not including misspellings, because the fact that a misspelling is not the same thing as an alternate usage is also just a fact.
So the part of the original tweet that bothered Roth was actually not the content at all: it was the word “fine.” The implication was that, instead of one thing or the other being right, multiple things were permissible. The thought of that scared him, and he instinctively cried out for mommy. Which, y’know, should have been your first fucking clue there, buddy: the dictionary is not your parent. The fact that Roth immediately and unquestioningly jumped to that analogy gives away the whole game; it’s the authoritarian tendency in miniature.2
Because that’s what we’re talking about here. The point of Wallace’s essay was to defend authoritarianism, and the point of Roth’s Twitter argument was the same thing. But Wallace was at least concerned with his authority having some kind of justification; Roth, amazingly, admits that “mad = angry” is completely uncontroversial, and yet it still makes him uncomfortable for an “authority” to okay it rather than sternly furrowing its brows at him. He prefers a dictionary that is wrong and authoritarian to one that is right and unauthoritarian. This is horrifying.
And this is why MW’s smackdown tweet was more insightful than the intern who queued it up probably realized. Because literally the only thing Roth has to go on in his entire argument is his own vague, undefined feelings. When Roth says that “we” are “ambivalent” about a lack of authority, what he actually means is “I,” and that’s all he means. That is literally his only justification for authoritarian dictionaryism: it makes him feel more comfortable. But guess what: it is in fact the case that no one cares how you feel. We have to get this right, and if what we’re going to have to do makes you uncomfortable, then you just get to sit there and be fucking uncomfortable.
Authority has always been a bullshit contrivance. The issue is not that it’s diminished because people have attacked it, it’s that it persists because people desire it. Honesty, if we can’t even use our own words without cringing in anticipation of Stern Parent’s disapproval, we’re in deep shit. What’s really annoying is that this shouldn’t even be a problem. Dispensing with authority is vastly less scary than its alternative, and when it comes to language it’s like the easiest thing ever. Just stop freaking out and doubting yourself. Don’t bother trying to write “correctly”; just write good.
Anyway the important part is that reading claws of love dot com on a regular basis will provide you with a strong analytical foundation that will enable you to make sense of all the day’s issues, down to and including Twitter beefs. Have a good weekend.
Did I mention that this guy is an editor at Slate? Because that’s never going to stop being funny. ↩
A particularly insightful Langauge Log commenter hypothesizes that Roth is not looking for a dictionary so much as a dominatrix. ↩
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.
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. ↩