There isn’t a lot of new stuff that needs to be said about police brutality, which is itself most of the point: this shit ain’t new. But seeing as we’re having riots again the least we can do is make sure we’re properly focused.
To say that riots are “the language of the unheard” is in one sense to say they’re justified, but it’s also to say they aren’t actually a plan. Rioting is the last resort that people undertake when they’re desperate and they don’t have any other options. If there were any kind of democratic institution that people could use to make policy changes, they obviously would have been doing that this whole time. But there isn’t, because there are in fact almost no democratic inputs to the United States political system that actually do anything, so there simply does not exist any “responsible” way to address this issue. There comes a point when the available options are reduced to giving up or fucking shit up.
So, first of all, by the very nature of the action, rioters aren’t really going to give a shit about whether you think their actions are “justified” or “tactically sound.” More importantly, the moral valence of any particular act of rioting has absolutely nothing to do with the question of what we’re going to do about the incident that provoked it. Even if you assume that riots are necessarily reckless and counterproductive, the solution is still to fix the actual problem that caused them. Anyone who wants you to spend any amount of time judging the rioters is someone who doesn’t want to fix the problem.
But precisely because there aren’t any levers available to pull on this issue, rioting defaults to being the most productive of very few available tactics. It’s clear that the riots are generating enough pressure on the system to require some form of resolution. The cops who murdered George Floyd very obviously would not have been charged were it not for the intensity of the protests. But then, concessions of this sort, valuable as they are in and of themselves, are made precisely because they don’t change the way the system operates. They don’t prevent anyone else from being murdered in the future. There is in fact no “justice” available for Floyd, because he doesn’t exist anymore. Real justice means changing things so that people don’t get murdered in the first place.
A situation like this, where the response to each individual incident ends up not really mattering that much because the underlying mechanisms that caused it remain operational, resulting in the same thing happening over and over again, is what we in the business refer to as a systemic problem. It’s important to understand how this works, because this is the part where it actually is really easy to fall into a counterproductive kneejerk reaction that ultimately ends up making the problem worse – particularly as the phrase “systemic racism” has devolved into a buzzword meaning “finger wagging at the naughty racists,” i.e. the exact opposite of systemic analysis.
The sense in which cops are necessarily bad is not that each of them is as an individual a maximally immoral person. It is that policing as an institution is bad, and therefore anyone operating within it can only have bad effects. It’s easy to understand why this has to be the case. If it weren’t, if each instance of police brutality were the result of a flaw or an external factor impeding the proper operation of the system, the police themselves would be the most eager to correct it and get back to business as usual. People normally have a pretty strong interest in not having racist murderers as coworkers. This is actually the simplest form of the argument: a “good cop” would in this situation quit, and therefore not be a cop anymore. Ergo, there are no good cops. And not only does this never happen, it’s always the exact opposite: the cops are always in lockstep formation allied against any potential fixes. This is obviously not because each individual officer somehow had the exact same set of opinions beamed into their head. It’s because they’re all doing their jobs, and this is in fact what those jobs entail.
Again, this has been going on for decades, so “explaining” the whole thing would be a truly heroic feat, but we can at least sketch the general outlines. All levels of government have consistently been cutting social services while pursuing “war on crime” policies that have massively expanded the scope of what policing is expected to accomplish. This basically amounts to creating a bunch of problems that social services would otherwise have dealt with by actually helping and then hiring more cops to instead deal with them by force. The police are also overequipped due to spillover from a constantly-producing imperial war economy. This makes them highly disinclined to ever deescalate since they know they can resolve any situation through overwhelming force, as well as the general hammer/nail effect of having access to all that stuff in the first place. This arrangement has also resulted in the police having outsized political influence, which they naturally use to immunize themselves from any potential consequences and lock in the policies that empowered them in the first place.
All of this results in precisely the situation we’re seeing now with the protests: a huge number of cops show up to “deal with” something that’s not even a problem in the first place, they’re ridiculously overequipped and they know that they can do basically whatever they want without worrying about facing even the slightest consequences. The situation proceeds naturally from there.
This is very clearly a situation where reforms are not only “not enough” but are in fact not anything at all. It’s not like murder isn’t already illegal. The problem isn’t that cops somehow don’t know that they’re not supposed to be killing people, it’s that they have practical immunity, which means they don’t bother with whatever regulations they’re supposed to be following and they feel perfectly comfortable responding to any situation where they feel even slightly threatened or inconvenienced by just fucking killing whoever they’re dealing with.
Worse, reformist policies tend to have the perverse effect of supporting the thing they’re trying to prevent. Like, if you’re going to give the cops more training and more regulations to follow, then you’re going to have to give them more money to do that, right? And if they have the practical capacity to just ignore all that shit anyway, well, do the mother fucking arithmetic.
So the crucial thing to understand here is that pushing for reforms is not at all a “pragmatic” or “incremental” approach; it is actively counterproductive. It will make the problem worse while alleviating pressure to act. This is not a matter of theoretical speculation, it is a conclusion mandated by the available empirical evidence. This has all happened before, and every time – particularly when Obama was in charge – we were assured that the government was taking the problem seriously and was going to do all sorts of smart policy things to deal with it. So we got body cameras and implicit bias training and bans on this or that technique, and none of it did a single fucking thing. Most of the reforms that Campaign Zero has been pushing are already in place; the chokehold that was used to kill Eric Garner had already been banned for more than a decade. The rate of police murders has been constant the entire time.
The genuinely unrealistic position at this point is to continue to imagine that anything other than defunding will have any impact on the problem, against the available evidence. It is at this point simply a fact of the matter that reforms don’t do anything, and anyone pushing them as any kind of solution – particularly professional activists and politicians who absolutely know better – is not at all “trying to help,” but is actively and intentionally impeding progress. They do not want to fix the issue, they want the protests to end and everyone to go back to sleep while the bodies keep piling up.
In just the same sense, the concept of police abolition is not at all “idealistic” or even “aspirational.” It is simply the only thing that will have any effect here. Like, if you really wanted to, you could argue that the phrasing is off in that it encourages people to imagine the police not being there when they’re needed, but the key intervention that’s required right now is to get people to understand that, in situations where the cops currently show up brandishing military-grade weaponry, they can just not. Not only was there no need for the police to show up at the protests, they shouldn’t even have been able to. They shouldn’t have the manpower to mobilize that kind of response and they shouldn’t have access to things like tear gas and “rubber” bullets that serve no purpose other than brutalization. The simple fact of the matter is that police have too much power, so regardless of where this is eventually going to end up, the necessary first step has to be reducing that power.
Thus, the demand to defund the police is the central concept of this moment. Not only is defunding the only thing that will have any effect on the immediate problem, it is also the best way to combat the original source of the problem, which is the dismantling of the welfare state. Not only can we remove cops from situations where they’re inclined to kill people, we can also resolve those situations in more productive ways. Instead of paying cops to harass homeless people, we can pay to build shelters. Instead of paying cops to arrest drug addicts, we can pay for detox programs. Instead of paying cops to go into schools and “discipline” children we can pay for more teachers and counselors. Instead of paying cops to point guns at someone having a mental health crisis, we can pay for therapists and social workers. There’s also the valid concern that defunding by itself will simply end up meaning privatizing, as it does with so many other things in this society, so specifying that defunding must also include redirecting the same money towards useful programs is key to the concept. Like, what happened in the first place was that after the Reagan Revolution the welfare state was dismantled and turned into a police state, so it’s really the least we can do to dismantle it back. To truly insist that “black lives matter,” it’s not nearly enough to simply not murder people. We have to create a functioning, supportive society in which those lives can actually be lived.
Also, defunding the police is the demand that is actually in the streets right now. When the mayor of DC tried to score PR points by painting a “Black Lives Matter” mural even as she was busy increasing police funding, protestors countered her by instead painting “Defund the Police.” When the mayor of Minneapolis tried to talk to the protestors, he was asked specifically if he would commit to defunding the police, he said no, and they ran him out on a fucking rail. This is the furthest possible thing from a high-handed academic intervention. This is an idea whose time has come.
The crucial thing that each and every one of us is morally obligated to do right now is to hold the line for defunding and against reform. Anyone who supports defunding is on the right side of this issue and anyone who supports reform is on the wrong side. Any politician who commits to support defunding can be supported and any politician who does not must not be. Like, Sanders is against defunding, so fuck him, he’s done. We don’t have time for this shit.
This is why the absolute most pathetic smooth-brained scumsuckers in this situation are the people insisting that the solution to this is to VOTE. The whole fucking problem here is that everyone in the government is in on this. Pretty much all the big cities with the worst police departments not only have Democratic mayors but are entirely Democrat-controlled, and basically all of those Democrats have responded to this moment by making excuses for police brutality while still trying to increase police budgets. Quislings like these who talk big and then do everything they can to make the problem worse are exactly why this thing blew up in the first place: because the fact that nobody in power is going to do anything about any of this has become completely unavoidable for anyone who actually cares about the substance of this issue.
While we are going to need people in office to formally execute this stuff (that is, we don’t need people to “lead,” we need people willing to stop bootlicking for five minutes and do what we fucking tell them), there simply aren’t people like that available right now – specifically because the Democratic Party has done everything it possibly can to keep any such people as far away from power as possible. There are some notable exceptions, such as the members of the Minneapolis City Council who have pledged to dismantle their police department, and this is the sort of standard we have to insist on in order to change anything. Voting in fucking Joe Biden, one of the primary people responsible for creating this situation in the first place, will constitute at most 0% progress. (There’s honestly a good argument to be made that Biden will be worse than Trump on this issue, since Trump, despite his big talk, is a useless loser who doesn’t know how to do anything, whereas a Biden administration would consist of people who are committed to expanding the police state and know how to get that done.)
I don’t generally think much of “cultural” solutions to this kind of problem – the base does in fact determine the superstructure – but in this case there probably is also a necessary cultural component. Resistance to the idea of defunding comes from the feeling economically comfortable people have that the police are “there to keep us safe,” and we’re probably not going to be able to build the kind of broad political pressure we need without getting through this assumption. When people ask “but what are we going to do about violent crime?”, it doesn’t do much good to point out that more cops don’t really have much of an effect (on the issue of rape they clearly perpetrate more than they help), because the argument is based on the feeling of security rather than any actual incidence of it.
That is, the specific way in which the base has determined the superstructure here is that decades of destroying every social institution except the police has led people to assume that the only way to deal with any problem they have is to “call 911.” Some of this paranoia is justified. Even the most blinkered bubble-dwellers know on some level that being poor in America is a near-death sentence, so without a social safety net it makes perfect sense to act as viciously as possible to defend what little you’ve managed to acquire. Cops and citizens don’t have to be Klansmen to support and benefit from this system, they just have to be normal self-interested people going about their days.
That’s another reason why reinvesting in social infrastructure is such an important part of this: we need people to stop being afraid of each other and start acting like citizens. Indeed, even the most opportunistic instances of self-interested looting actually serve a positive function here, which is to de-legitimize the concept of private property as it is currently deployed. In theory, private property is a perfectly sound moral concept if it means that people can’t be forcibly deprived of things they need, but of course in reality it’s used in the exact opposite way. Rich fucks hoarding resources that could be used to keep people alive justify doing so by recourse to property rights. But the thing about “rights” is that they’re made up and they’re only justified if they’re conceptualized in a way that actually helps people. A moral conception of property rights would be the opposite of the one we have now: starving people have a right to food, sick people have a right to health care, homeless people have a right to housing. It is in this sense that poor people looting an insured megacorporation with warehouses full of stuff it’s never even going to sell is actively moral behavior.
Another thing we can understand from this is that “the police” as the particular institution under discussion at this moment is not at all identical with the general concept of law enforcement. If anything, abolishing the police may be one of the best things we can do to start actually enforcing the law. When the government makes cuts to agencies like the IRS or the EPA, this isn’t considered “defunding the police,” despite the fact that they very much do go after criminal behavior and prevent it from happening. The crimes they target are far more consequential than muggings or drug deals, and because they employ specialists working on targeted areas of enforcement, they’re also far more effective than thugs roaming the streets with guns. The people worried that defunding the police will leave them unprotected have the situation exactly backwards: we’re all being severely exploited by vicious criminals right now, and this might be the only way we can start doing something about it.
The other aspect of the problem is of course straight-up racism. The “us” who are the good hardworking folks just trying to protect our families are implicitly white, and the “them” who are opportunistic savages out for a quick buck are implicitly black. Just as the police state was justified through imagery of “superpredators,” the welfare state was delegitimized by coding it black via “welfare queens.” The entire history of America has basically been white people murdering and pillaging everyone else and then being constantly terrified that those people are coming to take back what’s theirs, and this is basically the same psychological dynamic that underlies fears of “thugs” and “looters” and “home invasions.” And of course all of this rests on the general ideology that certain types of people don’t matter and can therefore be bulldozed over in order to make way for “progress,” which is of course the ideology on which America was founded in the first place.
Particularly with modern anti-racism having been co-opted by neoliberal identity hustlers, the boring old conventional concepts of not dividing ourselves into warring tribes and realizing that we’re all in this together still apply. As much as I’d love to blow your mind with a radical conclusion here, this is ultimately just about working together to build a society that works for everybody and that directs resources towards what people need instead of what makes stock numbers go up. Defunding the police won’t even get us there, it’ll get us about halfway back to the post-war consensus, but it is at this moment the necessary standard on which we absolutely cannot compromise. As charged with potential as this moment feels, no one really knows where it’s ultimately going to go. But it definitely won’t go anywhere unless we refuse to be snowed by useless cowards like DeBlasio, charlatans like McKesson, or, yes, smooth-talking imperial managers like Obama. Anyone taking this issue seriously knows by now what our goal has to be and who our enemies are, and by that fact necessarily adopts the minimum moral responsibility to hold the fucking line.
This whole saga with Trump’s post-Charlottesville comments is entirely bizarre, but it’s bizarre for the opposite reason that everyone’s been saying it’s bizarre. We already knew that Trump was a casual white supremacist. I know people have short memories these days, but we saw this exact scenario play out in exactly the same way during the campaign. When David Duke endorsed him, Trump initially acted like it wasn’t any kind of deal, and was eventually pressured into making a formulaic and entirely unconvincing disavowal. The clear implication is that Trump doesn’t see his being supported by white supremacists as anything particularly notable. It’s true that he had a meltdown this time, presumably because his new job is forcing him to miss naptime and he’s getting cranky, but all that did was reconfirm what we already knew (for like the twelfth time). And this is all aside from the fact that his entire political appeal in the first place was a paean to “traditional” white identity. (This includes the whole globalization/economic anxiety angle. The anxiety is over the fact that white people are no longer guaranteed comfortable middle-class existences at the expense of everyone else. This is neither an either/or nor a both/and argument; they’re the same thing.) So what’s bizarre isn’t the fact that Trump sympathized with Nazis; what’s bizarre is the fact that anyone thought there was any possibility of him doing anything else.
The difference, of course, is that Trump is technically president right now, so he’s expected to “act presidential.” This is a con. It was obviously a con that first time he gave a “normal” policy speech and hack columnists started falling all over themselves to declare that he had “become president,” and it would be just as much of a con now, if he were competent enough to execute it. So it’s bizarre for someone opposed to Trump’s agenda to want him to make the “right” kind of statement here, because the only actual function of that would be to provide that agenda with political cover. This is exactly what’s happening with the rest of the Republican establishment: they are competent enough to recognize that neo-Nazis qualify as Official Bad Guys and that there is therefore no downside to denouncing them. By doing this, they are successfully distancing themselves from Trump and the alt-right, which is a bad thing, because a) the alt-right is a natural outgrowth of standard Republican politicking and b) mainstream Republicans have the power and savvy to actually execute policy (well, sometimes. I’m not crediting anyone around here with any real talent or anything). The Republican establishment has done far, far more to advance the cause of white supremacy than Trump will ever be able to. He would never have been able to get anywhere had white resentment not already been established as one of America’s primary vectors for political sentiment. He’s not creative enough to come up with something like that on his own. The fact that Trump has clarified this, has made what previously required decoding legible in plain text, is the one and only positive function he has ever performed in his life (and of course it’s entirely unintentional and the opposite of what he thinks he’s going for. He’s a bit dim, if you hadn’t noticed). You can’t have it both ways. You can either have a shallow patina of formal dignity camouflaging calamity or you can have honesty. I prefer honesty.
There’s also a tactical aspect at work, which is that, regardless of either policy or personality, the mere fact of the person who happens to be The President of The United States sympathizing with racists promotes racism. White supremacists have been pretty clear about the fact that they see Trump as “their guy” and that they consider his presence in the White House official validation of their beliefs, and they’re not wrong. This cuts both ways, though. The fact that he’s there at all indicates that those forces were already at work. It wouldn’t have been possible for any of this to happen in a genuinely anti-racist society. So there’s still the question of why anyone really gives a shit about what Donald Trump has to say. Specifically, Trump’s opponents don’t consider him a legitimate president for a variety of reasons, and they’re nominally on guard against “normalizing” his behavior. But that’s exactly what would happen if Trump were to cease acting like a stupid asshole: he would turn into a normal president. In order to make real progress, we need to make use of what’s happening here: now that it has become nauseatingly clear that the president does not speak for the nation, we should stop pretending like such a thing was ever the case. The tactical countermeasure to the potential harm of presidential statements is to stop imbuing them with undue significance.
So the whole “normality” angle is a huge problem, because it both implies that racism isn’t normal and states explicitly that the solution is for “abnormal” things to stop happening. Liberals don’t actually want to confront racism. The Obama years, when America was still a white supremacist country but we had a “respectable” person making “thoughtful” statements that made us feel like everything was okay when it manifestly was not, was the true liberal goal. The reason they got complacent in the middle of a crisis was because what little they had what was what they actually wanted. They wanted Daddy to give them life lessons and chase away the monsters under the bed and pat them on the head and tell them they’re good little boys and girls, and their primary objection to Trump is the fact that he doesn’t do this. He makes a scary world seem like it’s actually scary, he makes intractable problems look like they really don’t have solutions, and he makes a godless universe look like one where there really is no force of justice pushing things in the right direction and no one looking out for us. He makes us feel like we’re on our own.
This isn’t a good thing, though, because Trump is trying to have his second scoop of ice cream and eat it too. He wants to be a Big Important Man, but he doesn’t want any of the concomitant responsibilities. Concordantly, his entire life has been devoted to promoting the image of himself as a Big Important Man, without any achievements that might make such an image qualify as an accurate representation. All of his projects were empty advertising campaigns with his name plastered all over them and all of his news coverage was sleazy tabloid trash. This gambit has proven entirely successful. Not only was he treated like an important person his whole life, but the only reason he was able to present himself as a credible presidential candidate in the first place was because our conception of the presidency is precisely that of the Big Important Man. Trump’s “lack of experience” and “temperament” were always entirely beside the point: the role he actually inhabited, the fake one, was the only one that ever mattered. The image is what people actually want.
When liberals lament that Trump is degrading our national discourse, or making us look bad in front of the cool countries, or act like he’s going to end the world with a tweet, they are buying in to that image. Assuming he can do those things is what gives him the power to do them. Inflating his importance covers for him by masking the fact that he has no substance. Even his support for white supremacy does not actually rise to the level of political conviction. He lives in a country where white people are in charge, and he assumes that this is how it’s supposed to be simply on the basis of that very fact. He’s done any of the reflection or investigation necessary to form an opinion on the matter. All he has is the raw, unprocessed background ideology of his society.
The problem with attacking Trump for making a bad statement is that it implies that the Big Important Man role is in fact the role that matters, and that the correct thing for him to do is to play it according to the script. You’ll note that this doesn’t just apply to the current variety of extremely unhinged statements: whenever someone doesn’t respond to something soon enough, or when they say something that doesn’t emphasize exactly the right points, we get all outraged and demand an “apology” or whatever. (Actually, the “public apology” concept is a whole other level of bizarreness, but one thing at a time here.) We throw a tantrum because Daddy isn’t reading us our bedtime story on time.
The thing that we ought to be attacking is the script, not the actor. There are actually two completely different things that we refer to as the “president.” There is the managerial role of running the executive branch of the United States government, and there is the person on the TV who makes speeches and gets his (it’s still “his”) name attached to official actions and policy statements (recall how much Trump loves making a big show of signing things, regardless of whether they have any real effect). Assuming for now that the former role is necessary, it doesn’t necessitate the latter. That role is an artifact of the fact that the human brain is only really good at understanding the world through individual figures and personalities, and we’re ready to evolve beyond it. People complain about elections being reality TV shows, but as long as we continue to understand the world in this way, that’s the only possibility. If you’re electing a figurehead, then the election is going to be a contest over who’s the better figurehead. Again, this is the only reason why Trump, whose only ability is being a figurehead, was able to get anywhere near the process. It isn’t the president that’s the problem; it’s the presidency.
Regarding the initial instigatory issue of removing statues of Confederates, then, the implied approach is pretty straightforward: don’t fucking make statues of people. Trump had one of his rare moments of accidentally stumbling into the right angle from the wrong direction when he said that, by the same logic that says that statues of slaveholders should be taken down, statues of George Washington and Thomas Jefferson would also have to go. Obviously this is a shallow equivalency – there’s a pretty clear moral line between people who held slaves while doing other worthwhile stuff and people who are only historically notable because they fought directly for the cause of slavery – but the fact that people like Washington and Jefferson did a bunch of evil shit actually does mean that they should not be idolized. Moreover, the fact that pretty much nobody lives a blameless life logically implies that nobody should be idolized, so the concept of idolization is simply a bad concept. Specific achievements can be honored and specific evils denounced without crossing the line into judging historical figures as “good” or “bad” people. (Judging living people is a different matter, as there exists the possibility of changing their behavior.) Seeing as they’re dead, there’s no sense in which their moral status as individuals matters (or exists at all), but the things they actually accomplished, both positive and negative, still live on and affect the world we currently live in. And we really do have to remember the history of American slavery (not just the Confederacy; again, almost all of the “good guys” were also active supporters of the institution): we have to remember that it was one of the worst things that has ever happened, that it ranks among the greatest crimes in all of human history, and that we have not come even close to redeeming ourselves for it.
So, practically speaking, the thing to do is to have monuments to notable historical events rather than statues of notable people. Even for morally unimpeachable figures (if any; even Martin Luther King, Jr. was a womanizer), having a statue of them puts the focus on who they were, which no longer matters, rather than on what they did, which is the part that’s still important. And focusing on events allows you to address morally ambiguous and even incomprehensibly horrible history without collapsing into shallow judgementalism. Berlin’s Holocaust Memorial shows the promise of such an approach. Recognizing the inadequacy of mere information to convey the necessary enormity, the memorial instead creates an abstract experience that living people can walk into and feel. (I’ve never been, but my sister reports it to be deeply unsettling.) Names and dates are for textbooks; the value of memorials is that they collect the intangible mist of the past and turn it into something solid, something real that exists in the present and affects people. This is how you actually preserve history.
[Addendum: For more examples, here’s a pretty great collection of slavery memorials. Note that the ones representing individual personages are boring, while the ones with metaphorical content are actually affective. There’s even some in the U.S., so it’s not like this is beyond our abilities.]
And this isn’t just an aesthetic issue; turning all issues into referenda on individuals carries heavy practical consequences. A concrete and also terrifying example is the nuclear situation. There’s been a lot of talk about the dangers of having a madman with his finger on the big red button, but disturbingly little about why that button is there at all. From what I understand, it’s basically a Cold War relic; the worry was that a Soviet first strike could take out our chain of command and remove our ability to retaliate, so the “solution” was that a formal order to launch basically gets carried out immediately with no oversight. In other words, our priority as a society is to preserve above all our ability to destroy the world at a moment’s notice. Recall, for example, the furor raised when Jeremy Corbyn said there was no situation in which he’d push the button. How dare he refuse to commit genocide in order to make white people feel safe. Clearly we can’t have someone like that in charge. It would just be irresponsible. The fact that we’ve made and continue to make this choice about our priorities as a society is far scarier than any bogeyman Trump can conjure up. Having a “rational” finger on the trigger should not comfort us – the truly disturbing part is the existence of the trigger. Insisting on electing someone “responsible” to administer this vile function is suicidally short-sighted. The correct thing to do here is to make it so decisions of such overwhelming consequence are not made by one person. I mean, the correct thing to do here is to not have this decision be available at all, because jesus christ, but in general, the point of designing a system is so that it’s not subject to these sorts of arbitrary whims. Nothing should ever come down to one person being in the wrong place at the wrong time.
Unfortunately, people like it that way. They don’t want to make decisions and hold responsibilities, they just want to have the Right Person in charge taking care of that for them. Conservatives think a tough-minded businessman is going to lay down the law and single-handedly reverse worldwide economic trends, and liberals pine for Obama’s ability to lull them to sleep with friendly smiles and full sentences.
The good news is that this half of the dynamic is under our control. We have very little influence over the specific machinations of the government, but the culture we live in is something we all create together, continuously. It’s a precept of American mythology that the country was based on the idea of not having a “king” and instead having a government “of the people,” but this is total horseshit. We act like we’re all enlightened becasue we have a “president” instead of a “king,” but then we go ahead and treat the president exactly like a king anyway. Furthermore, Americans use “king” is a general-purpose positive metaphor (the semantics of “queen” is a whole other story): we look to suit-wearing leaders and official statements to understand anything, we consistently privilege the perspectives of the charismatic, wealthy, and well-connected over everything else, and we’re thirsty as fuck for celebrity gossip. Americans fucking love worshipping people who they perceive as superior. In fact, as the rise of microcelebrity demonstrates, we actually create the perception of superiority just so we can have something to worship. Lacking a god to fill the role, we just start worshipping every stupid thing we run into. And, more relevant to our present purposes, demonization works the same way: we inflate an enemy into a larger-than-life figure so that we can safely rail at it in the abstract and feel like we’re doing the right thing, even as we avoid engaging with the material conditions that that have real causative power.
We can solve the problem by ceasing to do these things. We can stop making up fake form and start understanding real function. And it’s the nature of the issue that we – meaning you – are going to have to do this while the rest of the culture goes on babbling about mission statements and Twitter beefs and thought leaders and red carpet dresses and, yes, presidential speeches. That stuff is going to keep happening as long as you keep validating it. This is your fault, and you have the power to make it stop.
Certainly, the importance of someone like Trump is not illusory, but it’s not illusory in either direction: it’s not phantasmic, but it’s also not fantastic. There are certain things that he’s capable of doing and certain things that he’s not. He’s not capable of dominating the discourse without our consent. And regarding the things he is capable of doing, we need to seriously consider whether anyone ought to be capable of them. If we’re really that scared of what he might do, the only real solution is to design a society where nobody can do those types of things. I know it’s hard to get past just being disgusted by all of this, I’ll be as glad to have it off my mind as anybody, but that doesn’t change the fact that we have a job to do. Cleaning up the pus and bile after this is over won’t resolve anything. We have to carve into ourselves and excise the beliefs that make things like this possible. Let the head that wears the crown mouth off as it pleases; our mission is to destroy the throne.
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.
Master of None isn’t so much a show about Millennials as it is HEY EVERYBODY THIS IS A SHOW ABOUT MILLENNIALS. The opening is basically a New York Times columnist’s fever dream: two attractive young people who just met are having casual sex; when their contraception fails, they both simultaneously use their phones to look up whether it’s possible to get pregnant from the state they were in; they find conflicting information, argue about it, and ultimately decide to play it safe by using a ride-sharing app to go to the pharmacy and buy emergency contraception. There’s nothing wrong with doing something like this, necessarily, it’s just that there happen to be a bunch of things wrong with it.
The show takes a modern, realist approach to the typical young-people-in-New-York setup, which is to say it’s the bizarro-world Friends, which is to say it’s the real-world Friends, since Friends already takes place in the bizarro world. The characters hang out in crowded bars and on the street instead of in brightly-lit coffee shops and on inexplicably large couches. The scripting is low on zaniness and high on mundanity; the number of big laughs in one season can be counted on one hand, but incidental conversations are suffused with constant, low-level humor. Which, indeed, is much closer to the sort of experience that most of us have of real life, which tends to be lacking in elaborate setpieces and explicit punchlines. This isn’t to say that the show is always finesseful; its good intentions occasionally manifest themselves as cringe-inducing bluntness. At one point, Dev tracks down the “best” taco truck in town by spending half an hour on Google and Yelp (which itself is already overwrought NYT op-ed fodder, literally), only to find it closed, at which point he exclaims, “what am I supposed to do, go find the second best taco truck?” This is both verisimilitude-destroyingly blatant and embarrassingly zeitgeist-baiting. (It’s actually even worse than that. When Dev gets to the truck, he asks the guy about what he should get and what kind of meat is popular – as though he’d never eaten a taco before, despite his zeal in trying to find the “best” taco place. The writing here is so tryhard that it’s not even internally consistent.) In general, though, Master of None is calmly relatable where Friends is nakedly escapist.
It isn’t just a matter of style, though. Master of None takes an explicit anti-Friends stance in order to make a political point. Escapism is in fact sinister; the glib whiteness and soap-opera-lite saccharinity of Friends make it an inherently reactionary show, regardless of intentions (if any). In Master of None, by contrast, people have problems that aren’t cute, the world is grinding and unforgiving rather than enjoyably dramatic, and things generally don’t work out. This point is not unrelated to racism. Part of what racism does is shift the burdens of reality onto oppressed groups, such that white people get to live in a comfortable bubble of cluelessness. This is sickeningly blatant in the case of things like slavery and sweatshops, but even within modern America it is mostly not white people doing care work, maintenance work, and farm work, and it is mostly white people writing opinion columns1 and getting media awards2. Unfortunately, this specific intersection forms one of Master of None‘s more significant stumbles. Money basically doesn’t exist in the show, which means that, even though issues of oppression are directly addressed at times, they always come across as matters of convenience rather than matters of life and death. I believe this is what the kids these days like to refer to as “privilege.” In this sense, while Master of None‘s efforts are admirable, it ultimately fails to escape the Friends-zone.
Still, one does not wish to be overly demanding, and Master of None does have its points to make. Dev’s core friend group is meticulously constructed to defy stereotypes: the normal/boring one is Indian, the cheerful, attractive one is an Asian man, the calm, level-headed one is a black lesbian, and the weirdo is the token white guy. Dev’s centrality to the show is particularly important. Presenting an Indian man as an everyman is an explicit political statement – it frames Dev’s experiences as the experiences of normal people. For example, when Dev learns about the experiences his immigrant parents had in India and the racism they faced upon moving to America, this is framed as a typical getting-to-know-your-parents story – the episode is called “Parents,” not “Immigrants.” Because this sort of thing is a typical story; lots and lots of families have experiences like this. In short, Dev is presented as an ordinary guy without the practical reality of his ethnicity being elided. The show not only makes the point but performs the work of constructing people like this as “normal.”
That thing about money is still a problem, though. Dev’s parents are conventionally successful, so their experiences don’t seem to have really disadvantaged them in any way, and they’ve apparently passed quite a lot of privilege along to Dev, who lives pretty blithely, especially for a working actor in NYC. Dev’s reaction to his parents’ story is not the occasion for any kind of revelation, but rather a general “wow, how about that.” This isn’t wrong by itself. It’s still a real story that really has happened to people. It would be equally wrong to portray all immigrants as hopelessly beaten down and never successful, because that isn’t true either. You can’t portray everything at once. How do you get around this? You don’t; you go through it. You portray one specific thing, making it relatable though specificity rather than overgeneralization. Master of None is a perfect test case for understanding this distinction, because it gets this exactly right as often as it gets it exactly wrong.
The show does well when it sticks to what it knows. “Indians on TV” is about exactly what it says: one specific aspect of racism. Indians specifically are still way behind in terms of cultural representation, despite being one of the largest ethnic groups on the planet, as well as one that is becoming increasingly central to everyday American life (random example: a number of “Indianisms” have arisen out of Indian English thanks to everyone’s favorite ongoing world-historical crisis, globalization). Another instance of this same story just came up recently: the actor Kal Penn posted a bunch of racist casting calls that tasked him with playing the same goofy Indian stereotype over and over again. What’s really interesting about this is one particular comment: when Penn was asked to do “the accent,” he was was specifically instructed to make it more “authentic.” Naturally, this is as absurd as it gets; an actual Indian man was told to act like a cartoon character for the sake of “authenticity.” But that’s the thing: because this one aspect of media representation is so unbelievably shitty, this is what Americans actually think Indians are like. That’s why this is a real issue and not just a matter of demographic parochialism, and it’s why the episode’s opening montage of popular TV stereotypes, seen through a child’s eyes, hits unexpectedly hard.
The episode develops this critique in a number of ways. A sympathetic studio head tries to explain to Dev that a show with multiple distinct Indian characters wouldn’t be marketable; it would be understood as an “Indian show” (unfortunately, this same criticism applies to Master of None itself: the only episode where Dev hangs out with his Indian friends is the “Indian episode”). Which is in fact the situation we are currently in; Black-ish is “the black sitcom” and Fresh off the Boat is “the Asian sitcom.” So while this is an excuse, it’s a real excuse. Dev counters that this is an obvious double standard; no show is considered a “white show,” even those that actually are “white shows” in every possible way. So what we can understand here is that the current situation is wrong in a way that makes rational sense; understanding how the parts fit together makes claims of racism plausible. Indeed, the specific reason why such claims are so often blown off is that white people lack this understanding; they don’t understand how racism works. The specific incident that triggers the discussion of racism in the episode is unbelievably minor – it’s literally nothing more than a dumb joke in an email thread. But because the episode takes the situation seriously and follows through with it, it helps us understand how the little things are connected to the big things. It not only addresses a specific, underserved grievance, but also points to a broader understanding of the relevant social dynamics, and it does this simply by addressing its grievance well.
Interestingly, this episode also contains a subtle misstep that illustrates the gap between doing this right and doing it wrong. When Dev and Denise are discussing the situation, Dev tries to claim that black people at least have the advantage of visibility and advocacy via major celebrities, whereas Indian people have nothing. Denise naturally pushes back, but in doing so she refers to Oprah and Beyoncé, and she immediately recognizes this as an own goal: black people really do have top-tier media representation. As a casual conversation, this is all perfectly realistic and entertaining, but the way it’s situated in the episode, it comes across as an actual argument. I don’t think this is intentional, simply because nobody could possibly be clueless enough to argue that the existence of Beyoncé somehow mitigates the effects of racism on black people. In fact, this dynamic is what defines the present situation: black people are very well-represented in popular culture, and they are simultaneously being casually murdered and jailed in unconscionable numbers. The problem here is that the episode has to this point been trying to deal with one aspect of racism – media representation – but is now trying to make a claim about racism in general, and this does not work. While media representation is connected to other issues, that doesn’t mean you can understand everything in those terms. Most of life does not happen on the TV. This is the important difference between generalization and overgeneralization. The concept of the episode being about media representation of Indians is unavoidably a generalization – not every Indian person will have had these same experiences or understand them in the same way – it’s just that, if done well, it’s a valid generalization.
This is something you really have to be conscious of when you’re trying to do things like this. If you’re just doing a story about a particular character, you don’t have this problem so much, since you’re necessarily confined to that perspective. But when you start making episodes that are explicitly about Serious Issues and you start trying to Make Statements about them, you have to mind this gap, or you will fall into it. And, as it happens, the episode that deals with sexism locates this exact gap and proceeds to use it for skydiving practice. The bluntness of the episode titles makes them useful evidence as to intentions – the sexism episode is called “Ladies and Gentlemen,” an empty reference that signifies nothing. This provides a lamentably clear indication that the episode is going to try to address sexism despite not really having anything to say about it other than “it exists” and “it’s bad”.
The episode opens with a contrast between Dev’s night out at a bar, where he fusses constantly over trivial annoyances, and the same night as experienced by a woman, who gets creeped on the whole time and eventually followed home. This is somewhat heavy-handed, with overwrought musical cues that make it difficult to really take seriously, but in terms of content it’s all well and good. It makes the important point that, even though men and women exist in all the same social situations, women nevertheless experience the world as a phantom zone, haunted by ghosts that men can’t see.
The problem is that it doesn’t do the thing that the racism episode does to make its point felt. That is, the woman gets followed home, and . . . that’s it. Nothing really happens, and the situation is not connected to anything broader. There’s no attempt to argue that this amounts to anything more than a bad night out. In fact, when Dev discusses the issue with Rachel and Denise, they simply reiterate additional versions of the same story, which makes it seem even more like a random annoyance and less like a real issue. So the contrast that the episode tries to establish falls flat: a man had a bad night at a bar, and a woman had a worse night at a bar. You and I might understand the issue more broadly, but anyone who doesn’t is just going to see an overreaction to an everyday, if unfortunate, occurrence. In that situation, the conservative advice to just suck it up and defend yourself would actually be valid, because that would actually resolve things. The reason sexism is a real problem is that it goes beyond the individual case, which is to say that it goes beyond you. In the racism episode, we see Dev getting frustrated with the limitations of the roles he’s offered and pushing back; we see him discussing the situation with a friend who’s had similar experiences; we see him fail to make headway when explaining his case to the executives. Through this, we understand that this is a pervasive issue with substantive effects on real people. By contrast, all the sexism episode gives us is “creeps exist,” which everyone outside of Reddit already understands. Because the episode lacks a perspective through which we could come to understand the situation, it is reduced to simply mouthing truisms without connecting them to reality.
In fact, the perspective that the episode offers us is Dev’s – the man’s perspective on sexism. This . . . isn’t the worst possible thing. There are stories to be told about men coming to terms with the effects of sexism and their own unintentional (or otherwise) complicity and soforth. It’s just that this isn’t what happens. As mentioned, Dev’s big revelation in the episode is “creeps exist.” After that he just starts rattling off feminist talking points. This is deeply cringeworthy on its own; as someone who has spent rather a lot of time reading about this type of stuff, I find it personally embarrassing. But in fact it’s significantly worse than that, because what actually happens is that Dev makes these speeches in a bar, surrounded by a crowd of women who cheer him on as he does so. In fact, it’s significantly worse than that, because later on Dev’s female coworkers buy him a cake out of appreciation for him being the most basic feminist imaginable. I guess the bakery was all out of Meets Basic Standards of Human Decency cookies. Y’know, I’m conscious of the limitations of my position here. I try not to pretend like I’m any kind of expert or anything. But I’m pretty sure that a crowd of women cheering on a man while he impresses himself by spouting off a bunch of obvious shit is the exact opposite of what feminism is.
Comparing the resolutions of the racism and sexism episodes is instructive. In the racism episode, Dev ends up working with a new, younger producer who claims to be more “enlightened” than the old one, but who, in her ignorance (slash whiteness), ends up proposing a show with an even more racist premise – and once again requiring Dev to play an Indian stereotype. As mentioned, this elucidates the general dynamics of the situation. It illustrates the fact that racism is a non-trivial problem that can persist despite good intentions. Because few people hew to any kind of principled anti-racist theory, and because everyone’s job compels them to move product, racist stuff keeps happening, and ideology replicates itself despite surface-level opposition. This has been said countless times before, but the fact that the internet has everyone all super up to date on proper anti-racist practice and yet nothing’s actually changing is how you can tell that racism is a structural problem that does not depend on people’s individual attitudes to operate.
In the sexism episode, the exact same situation comes up, and what happens is exactly the opposite. Dev raises the issue of gender imbalance on the commercial he’s working on: all the women are in the background and all the speaking roles go to men. As soon as this is brought up, the director and the company all immediately agree to completely reverse the situation, such that women now get all the prominent roles. This time around, there is somehow nobody making the argument that this would be confusing and alienating, despite the fact that it’s a commercial, and therefore has much less leeway to be unfamiliar than a new TV show. There’s no structural pressure preventing a sexist premise from immediately being swept away at a whim. In other words, what the show portrays is exactly how sexism doesn’t work. Worse, it reifies the conservative argument that it is traditionally-oppressed groups who now have the real advantages, since they can win automatically by merely raising the issue of their identity. Of course, this is not at all the case. If simply raising the issue were enough, there would be no problem. In the racism episode, the issue is raised and addressed sympathetically, but the problem remains intractable. In the sexism episode, as soon as the problem is named, it vanishes into the air like a conjurer’s trick, like it never really existed in the first place. The whole significance of racism and sexism as cultural institutions is that they have their own internal logics and practices, such that, when you push against them, they push back.
Now, there’s still somewhere for the episode to go after all of this happens. Dev’s all proud of himself for getting a B+ in Remedial Women’s Studies 101, so the correct feminist action to take here is to kick him in the dick. That is, he needs to come to the realization that he has only scratched the surface, and that there remain real foundational problems that he has not yet begun to understand. He also needs to realize his own complicity in the situation, that sexism is not perpetuated solely by “creeps” but also by well-intentioned nice guys of the type that he himself is. More specifically, he needs to come to understand that he can’t fully understand the situation, that without the lived experience of sexism, he requires women’s perspectives (that’s plural) to make real sense of things. It is very annoying how close this comes to happening.
At the end of the episode, Rachel and Denise receive a minor social slight from some douchebag – the kind of thing the kids these days like to refer to as a “microaggression.” They complain, Dev blows them off, and they get pissed, which sparks a fight between Dev and Rachel. What needs to happen here is for Dev to come to understand that not all issues are as obvious as creepers or the pay gap – that even when something seems to him to be stupid and trivial, he still needs to respect women’s subjectivity instead of trying to argue over them. The episode gets right up next to the place where it needs to go, and then immediately falls over backwards. The instant the fight begins, the substance of the issues the episode has been trying to raise disappears completely, and we’re left with a completely generic Sitcom Couple Fight, which is resolved by Dev issuing a completely generic Sitcom Boyfriend Apology. This setup is the perfect opportunity for the show to get out of the standard relationship-drama mold and make the point that fights like this are often the result of real conflicts, that the “war of the sexes” is actually oppression, and it totally whiffs it. The only point that the episode needed to make goes unmade. Explicating the problems with reducing feminism to its effects on heterosexual romantic relationships is left as an exercise to the reader.
This is actually why “writing what you know” is not the right way out of this: it prevents you from ever getting out of your own perspective. The basic intent of this episode is correct: men really do need to be able to understand what the world looks like from a woman’s perspective, even if they can never really see it for themselves. But this isn’t a matter of disinterested anthropological investigation; it’s a matter of blood. Reciting the appropriate talking points does not do the thing that needs to be done. In order to do this right, the show would have had to make somebody bleed.
Indeed, the mere fact that there is a “racism episode” and a “sexism episode” is itself what the kids these days like to call “problematic.”3 Racism and sexism precisely do not resolve themselves into isolated, easy-to-understand occurrences; they are always present, baked into ordinary, everyday events, slithering through normality like snakes in the grass, striking when you least suspect. Bungling the sexism episode so badly only exacerbates this effect; again, it reifies the conservative argument that these things are lifestyle choices and not real political problems. And given the show’s blatant thirst for Millennial trends, it further implies that these concerns are only trends, that they’re the kind of things that overzealous young people will eventually grow out of. It presents these issues – the foundational issues of all human societies that have ever existed – as buffet items, from which one can pick and choose what one wishes to sample. The truth, of course, is the opposite: in reality, these things are forced down people’s throats, and the taste lingers.
Far worse, then, than the fact that the show handles its sexism episode poorly is the fact that there is a “sexism episode” at all, that this concern is raised and addressed once in complete isolation (like, I think there’s a term for this). To wit, Master of None does an absolutely atrocious job of handling its female characters. The only well-portrayed one is Denise, who is in fact the most interesting character on the show by a fair margin, but she gets no plot focus and relatively little screen time, and most of it is just her talking to Dev about Dev’s problems (again, I’m pretty sure there’s a term for the notion that women are only there to act as sounding boards for men). Similarly, while Dev’s father is the dark-horse star of the show, his mother barely exists. The real problem, though, is Rachel, a.k.a. “Dev’s girlfriend,” who is the focus of about half the season and whose characterization never advances beyond “Dev’s girlfriend” (this is especially disorienting due to the fact that she’s the best-acted character).
There’s a particularly jarring example of the show dropping the ball on this, hard, like bowling-ball-on-toe hard. There’s a scene where Dev takes Rachel to a barbecue restaurant, only for her to reveal upon ordering that she’s a vegetarian. Rachel is so accustomed to suppressing her own desires that she doesn’t even mention the issue until she’s forced to, and Dev is so self-involved that he doesn’t even notice there’s a problem until it flies in his face (in case it’s not obvious, this is exactly the kind of thing that demonstrates why confining the feminism-related content to its own single episode is hugely damaging to not only the show’s moral standing, but also to its thematic integrity). She gives him the “It’s Fine” deflection, and Dev has a delicious meal while Rachel basically subsists on cornbread. This is actually a really great treatment of a common, emotionally fraught situation – exactly the kind of thing that a show like Friends would either ignore or inflate into zany antics. It subtly raises a number of pertinent issues: Rachel is accustomed to having her desires casually ignored, such that she barely even registers them as desires anymore (she very unconvincingly avers that she “loves sides”), Dev tries to act nice but ultimately doesn’t care and is basically just focused on his own enjoyment, and of course society in general does not do a particularly good job of accounting for the fact that people are different and have truly divergent desires and convictions. But none of this is ever followed up on. The vegetarian thing is referenced like once, and the obvious problem this creates for Rachel and Dev’s relationship dynamic is never addressed even as their relationship is portrayed as being in serious trouble. Hence, this extremely provocative scene exists in total isolation from the rest of the show and absolutely nothing comes of it.
Indeed, Rachel barely does anything at all other than interact romantically with Dev. She complains about her job sometimes and there’s a subplot where she buys a couch. That’s about it. Even in the episode where she visits her grandmother, she bails almost immediately so that the rest of the episode can continue to be The Dev Show. And, I mean, this show actually is The Dev Show, but that’s exactly the thing: people don’t exist in isolation. When you don’t portray others as real subjects, what you have is not just exclusion, but shallowness. You don’t even need to go as far as arguing that Rachel should have had her own story – the weaknesses in Rachel’s characterization weaken Dev’s story. Patriarchy hurts men too.
In fact, the problems in Rachel and Dev’s relationship end up being the show’s primary focus, which means that this dynamic not only weakens the show overall, but cripples its conclusion. As they start getting serious, the stars in their eyes start to fade, and Dev begins to feel that he doesn’t have enough confidence in their relationship to commit to it. So the first problem is that we have no real understanding of why this is; the two of them only ever have generic Couple Fights about things like Rachel being too attached to her job or Dev being a neat freak.4 Indeed, this is the same problem the sexism episode has: by trying to address sexism as a general concept, without a perspective to hook into, it can’t actually get a grip on anything.
The racism episode isn’t about racism per se. It’s about one specific type of interaction in one specific circumstance. And it is because of this that it is valuable: racism against Indians is not a particularly visible subject, so the episode helps highlight something that most people don’t think about. It’s for this same reason that the sexism episode falls flat. Without a specific viewpoint, all it can do is fall back on vague handwaving in the direction of “creepy guys.” Nothing in the episode is capable of helping anybody, because all of it is just the same general noise that everyone hears constantly. In the same way, then, by trying to talk about “Millennials” in general, by assuming that there is such a thing to be talked about, the show fails to be about the thing that it thinks it is about.
So I suppose we can stop beating around the bush now. The only reason I have been using the term “Millennial” in this post has been to fool you. There is no such thing as a Millennial. I mean, this is pretty straightforward, right? There’s obviously nothing that every person born during an arbitrarily-selected twenty-year period has in common. But there’s a reason this type of analysis has currency, and it’s because it’s close to something that is actually valid. As the link explains, there is no such thing as a “generation,” but there is such a thing as a cohort: a group of people with a specific shared experience. And there have indeed been a number of significant social and technological changes recently around which have coalesced cohorts. For example, there are people who have grown up with texting, such that they see it as a normal means of communication. But there are also people who grew up before texting blew up, and only came to it as adults, meaning they see it as something different from normal communication. Similarly, there are people for whom Facebook was a major part of their high school socialization, people who have always been precariously employed and have never known what having a stable office job is like, and people who use ridesharing services every time they go out anywhere. But in no case does any of these groups comprise “everyone” within a particular “generation.” Estimates for the size of the “gig economy” are somewhat divergent, but they seem to max out at around 30% or so – in short, not a majority. These workers are a cohort and not a generation. Each of the individual things that we talk about when we talk about “generations” is actually a cohort; they can of course potentially overlap in meaningful ways, but in no sense are they simply various aspects of the same group. And they’re not even just different groups of “young people” either. Some young people get married right out of high school or college; some middle-aged people get divorced and then have to relearn to navigate the dating world using apps and texting. Some young people actually do get office jobs; some older people have to take ridesharing work to stay afloat.
So whenever you say anything about “Millennials,” you are ignoring these issues. To reiterate: these are real issues, but they can only be understood by addressing them as themselves and not as interchangeable pieces of a general trend. For example, another cohort is people who regularly read social-justice-oriented stuff on the internet, and therefore have a tacit understanding of the norms and terminology used thereby. Meaning all those times when I talked about terminology being used by “kids these days” were also lies, because it is in fact relatively few modern young people who understand or even recognize terms like “microaggression” or “privilege,” and of course older people are just as capable of reading the same sources and acquiring the same habitus. If you assume that these things are simply a property of “young people,” you are failing to understand what is actually going on. Significant example: one of the big thinkpiece panics recently is about something called “trigger warnings” and the fact that they’re coddling young people and failing to equip them for facing the real world and whatever. Except only 15% of college professors have actually encountered such a demand, so it is in fact the case that the vast majority of current college students are not facing this issue in any way (and that’s even if you assume that it is a real issue). It is only those of us embedded in the relevant social-justice-friendly media circles who understand these things; this is not a property of our generation, but of our cohort.
So it’s pretty easy to work out the rest of this. People will pick a couple of these effects and then try to explain that young people are “narcissistic” or “idealistic” or whatever, and we can see now why this is necessarily wrong. It is an overgeneralization: it takes things that don’t actually have the same causes or effects and don’t actually concern the same groups of people and assumes that they do, and is therefore bad analysis. Of course, not all generalizations are overgeneralizations. The condition for a valid generalization is the same as the condition for a valid cohort: when you have a distinct group of people who share a particular experience. Indians living in America and watching television during the same era form a valid cohort in that they all grew up seeing the same stereotypes represented; ergo, one can convincingly generalize on this basis. Women dealing with “creeps” do not form a valid cohort, because different women in different positions in society experience harassment and assault differently. But there exist plenty of valid cohorts through which these experiences can be analyzed: if you look at the specific experience of women in major urban areas being followed home from bars, then you might have something. Or you might look at female professionals being spoken over in meetings, or women who try to report acquaintance rapes to the police. It would be defeatist to insist that all experiences are unique and can’t be aggregated in any way, and understanding where the lines are is what allows us to do real analysis. When you don’t do this, when you simply throw a blanket over what you assume to be a homogeneous area of experience, what you are actually covering is nothing, and what you can justifiably conclude is therefore also nothing.
(This is actually sort of a major thing in feminist history. Second-wave feminism was largely based on the assumption that all women had a shared experience of “womanhood,” and this assumption was challenged in various ways, most notably by black women. The main historical precedent for this argument is Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech, where she points out that her experience of womanhood is completely different from that of upper-class white women, and therefore from what upper-class white people in general assume it meant to be a “woman.” So it’s extra ironic that a race-conscious show like Master of None completely misses this point.)
Consider, as a simpler example, this article, which claims that the recent rap beef between Remy Ma and Nicki Minaj constitutes evidence that “hip-hop is dead.” This angle proceeds from the assumption that, because Minaj is a extremely famous hip-hop artist, her values and behavior are representative of the genre in general.5 In fact, the opposite is true: it is precisely because Minaj is super famous that she does not form a cohort with hip-hop artists in general. Rather, her cohort is just that: super famous artists, i.e. cultural capitalists. So of course her beef ends up being based on who’s the most famous and who sells the most records; that’s exactly where the valid generalization is for someone like her.
Furthermore, the fact that there is a famous rap beef happening right now is actually indirect evidence that hip-hop as the writer of the article understands it is alive and well. That is, the fact that there exist super famous hip-hop artists means that hip-hop is a popular genre, which means that there must necessarily be lots and lots of non-famous people doing interesting and original work in it – which would include preserving and expanding the traditions of the past as well as creating new ones. The writer, who presumably knows something about modern hip-hop, knows this, and I know that he knows this, because I know the same thing despite not knowing anything about hip-hop. Rock music, you see, actually is dead in the popular sense. There are literally no non-legacy rock bands that are famous right now. There is, however, plenty of new work being done in the genre by people who are not famous. This includes those who are bringing back cool stuff from the past, those who are synthesizing old influences with new sounds, those who are presently ahead of their time, and those who are fully idiosyncratic weirdos. So if hip-hop is currently more popular than rock, this must necessarily be even more the case for the genre that more people are into.
The problem is that the writer has gotten his cohorts mixed up. He assumes famous hip-hop artists and non-famous hip-hop artists are all the same type of people working in the same situation. They’re not; they might be making similar types of music, but they occupy different territories. But working hip-hop artists do occupy the same situation as working musicians of other types. For example, the explosion of music sharing caused by the internet has meant that artists without major corporate/advertising support can draw from a wider variety of traditions, make more diverse and less immediately appealing music, and still find an audience and income (potentially). This applies to all artists in this situation; thus, they form a valid cohort. Surely, there are plenty of further distinctions that can be made (and I could also be wrong about this; there could be other factors at work which cause this cohort to not cohere), but understanding this dynamic and applying it with the correct level of specificity allows us to make a valid generalization. It is by knowing something (barely anything, honestly) about working rock musicians that I know that working hip-hop musicians must be in the same type of situation. As Nietzsche puts it, “In the mountains the shortest way is from peak to peak: but for that one must have long legs.” He leaves unspoken the obvious prerequisite: in order to get anywhere, you must first climb one mountain. This is why Friends, which attempts to be a fully general show about people living in society, is actually about nothing (Seinfeld is of course the nihilistic embrace of this dynamic). This is what the concept of “escapist entertainment” properly refers to: the situation in which the thing you are experiencing has fundamentally no connection to the rest of the world.
So back to that TV show we were talking about, there’s a scene where Dev causes Rachel to miss an important flight because he wants to take a side trip and Waze assures him that he’ll be able to make it in time. The intrusive name-dropping here implies strongly that this sort of behavior is a “Millennial” thing; kids these days are impatient and reckless and they just rely on their phones to tell them what to do, blah blah blah. But none of that has anything to do with what actually happens here. Anyone could have made that same decision with or without Waze (P.S. Waze sucks). Furthermore, Dev knows that making that flight is important to Rachel, she explained it to him and they planned their itinerary around it, so even before he takes out his phone, he’s already being an asshole. Glossing this scene over with a kids-these-days veneer obscures the fact that the one and only issue here is that Dev is a notably selfish and thoughtless person. As a result, this issue is never addressed, despite it being a constant theme throughout the season. Everything that happens is treated as just “how things are these days,” when in fact much of it derives from Dev’s specific personality and is specifically his fault.
A contrasting example makes this even clearer. One of the events leading up to the climax is Dev getting fucked out of a movie role that he invested a lot of time and emotional energy into. This is a genuine fucking-over, his own actions had nothing to do with it, and it is correctly portrayed as a consequence of a garbage-producing society that doesn’t care about people and a necessary hazard of precarious employment. In other words, it is a completely different type of thing than Dev’s other problems, but they’re all lumped together in a general “life sucks” fashion. And this is why that generalization is an overgeneralization: because these are different problems, different things can be done about each of them. Some things really are your fault specifically, such that the solution really is for you to quit being such an asshole. Some things are interpersonal problems that aren’t necessarily anyone’s fault, but have to be worked out anyway through compassion and sacrifice. Some things are social problems that can only be addressed through political action. And then there’s the pitiless march of time itself, which is genuinely implacable and can only be accepted.
So the specific failure of Master of None is that it doesn’t climb a mountain. It gazes thoughtfully at various outcroppings, but it never puts its hands on any of them. And it is precisely this that becomes the show’s final conclusion. When Dev’s life appears to be going nowhere, his father advises him that potential by itself is worthless: it doesn’t matter what you can do unless you actually do something. It’s comforting to keep all of your options open, to imagine that they’re all real possibilities, to stay in the pleasingly abstract realm of generalization, but there are in the final analysis two options only: you either put pen to paper and commit a permanent, indelible mark, or you continue to stare at a blank page.
It should be noted that the idea of “committing” here is to be understood broadly; deciding to commit to one or more half-measures is (or at least can be) entirely reasonable. You can decide to use a particular talent of yours to pay the bills while you focus on other things, or you can choose to let’s say learn an instrument just for the experience, without imagining that you’re ever going to get good at it. Assuming that you have to go “all the way” with something or it doesn’t “count” is its own form of constriction – it privileges the idea of achieving something over the actual experience of doing it. And this is exactly the problem that Dev ends up having: he can’t be satisfied with anything unless it’s “at 100%”. What finally precipitates Rachel and Dev’s relationship crisis is Dev’s insistence that they each estimate the “probability” that their relationship will work out. The joke is supposed to be that this is the worst possible idea, but the numbers they come up with are 80% and 70%, which are extremely high. Having a minimum 70% assurance that something is going to work out should in no way be disappointing; it’s actually unrealistically optimistic. So what we understand here is that Dev is not actually after the goal of having a good relationship; what he is after is the 100% assurance itself. And this makes no sense, because a 100% assurance means nothing except in terms of what it is an assurance of. He thinks that being completely certain about his relationship would make it meaningful, but it’s the other way around: finding meaning in his relationship would make him certain that it was worthwhile.
This is, of course, meant to be a critique of “Millennials” and how they “want everything” and they can’t just “settle down” and be “responsible.” But, as we’ve discussed, this framing is not justified, because, to the extent that this sort of behavior exists at all, what it is is not a generational trend, but a cohort effect. And the specific cohort in question is one whose cohortness is based on privilege. It is not “Millennials” who are capable of and desire such things; it is specifically young people who a) can afford to, b) have no other responsibilities, and c) have no principles or convictions guiding their choices of action. In fact, there’s even a cohort that exists in direct opposition to this framework. One of the big trends in “new media” companies right now is unionization. This means that there is a cohort of modern young people who: want stable jobs, are politically engaged (in practical rather than symbolic terms), learn from history, and have chosen ground on which to stand and fight. This is the exact opposite of everything that thinkpiece writers imagine that “Millennials” are about. And these people also do not represent their “generation.” They are another, separate cohort.
I mean, you get that I’m annoyed as hell about all of this, right? Motherfuckers are constantly writing dumbass articles about “Millennials,” thinking they’re being all insightful, when what they’re actually producing is actual garbage on the level of third-rate fanfiction. And the people who try to argue against this are just as bad, because they make the same assumption, that there is such a creature as a “Millennial” and it has the same traits X, Y, and Z, they just argue that these are actually good things. The very basic and very obvious fact of the matter is that this whole framework is empty charlatanry and the only remotely reasonable thing to do is to fucking stop it.
So, uh, anyway, the show contrasts Dev’s situation with that of an older married coworker, Benjamin,6 who admits that there are plenty of days when his own relationship is barely at 20%. The reason this works for him is that he has chosen his relationship, so, as long as it’s still something, he has something. Dev, by contrast, has never made any such choice, so regardless of whether or not each specific thing in his life works out for him, he ultimately has nothing.
So what finally happens is that Dev makes a choice. The show misdirects us into thinking that Dev’s final decision is to pursue Rachel, priming us to expect the standard love-conquers-all ending. By subverting this possibility, the show frames Dev’s flight of fancy as the new thing that kids these days are now doing in lieu of pursing “traditional” goals. Rachel makes the same decision, but we have no idea why, because, again, Rachel has no personality. So rather than this action emerging from who these people are, it is imposed on them by the demands of the show’s intended messaging. Rather than Dev figuring out something he wants to commit to, he picks something to want on the basis of his ability to commit to it. In other words, the reason Dev chooses to fuck off to another country is that it is the easiest thing he can possibly do. It doesn’t require him to address any of his real problems; on the contrary, it is the one thing that allows him to avoid them completely. (It’s also a particularly American form of egoism to assume that the world is basically just a shopping mall of cultures for you to choose from.)
But while the season ends in the air, the show is grounded enough to allow us to put the pieces together. There’s one relatively subtle clue that provides unexpected illumination: Dev is a terrible actor. Like, totally atrocious. This makes sense, because he’s just a moderately attractive guy who got into acting entirely on accident, but this is never brought up in the show. In fact, Dev is fairly successful, as far as being a working actor in New York goes: he’s praised by casting directors and coworkers, and he almost lands a leading role in a new sitcom. I don’t think this is a mistake; on the contrary, Ansari seems to be intentionally bad-acting, and he does a pretty good job of portraying Dev’s acting as coming from someone making an earnest attempt at it while fundamentally not understanding the concept (a D-list Tom Cruise, basically). The situation, then, is that Dev is completely adrift and clueless, and so is everyone else, including the people who are actually presenting themselves as experts and professionals. Deskilling is more than just an economic problem. It makes people feel helpless, like there’s nothing they can actually do other than slot in to a socially-defined role. It naturally results in a desperate yearning for things like “adventure” or “true love” or, indeed, “meaning” itself – things that really do exist, but not as generalities: as particular experiences. Meaning is not something that is given to you by your surroundings, it’s something within you that you give to the world. But this isn’t just a matter of being “sincere” or “passionate” or “chasing your dreams” or whatever, it’s a matter of engaging with reality, going through facticity to get to a new place – a different physical situation. A society that doesn’t allow for this possibility robs people of their specificity, which, given that specificity is the only thing that makes a person exist as a person rather than an empty abstraction, is the one true crime.
Dev is just some guy; he isn’t fighting any kind of moral crusade, and he shouldn’t have to be. The world ought to work for people like him, people who are just doing what they can and aren’t after anything extraordinary. But it doesn’t. So, actually, Master of None‘s general glibness conceals a profound criticism: the world is fundamentally wrong. And this isn’t like Kafka or anything; remember, what’s characteristic about this show is that it portrays everything about young people these days in the most conventional New York Times-friendly manner possible. So if even that portrayal, the least incisive way of understanding the situation, is still fundamentally broken and riddled with contradictions, then the truth can only be far, far worse. The issue isn’t that we’ve got problems, it’s that we’ve got nothing.
So when Dev finally does make a decision about what he wants to do with his life, he doesn’t have anything to hold on to. He considers all the things he’s been doing so far, and concludes that none of them are any good, so his only option is to just completely fuck off and start over in another country. If we take this seriously as criticism, it’s rather unsettling: it suggests that our society is so fucked up that, when one seriously considers how to deal with it, the only possible answer is abdication. The only intellectually and morally honest course of action is to wash one’s hands of everything.
But you’ll note that this is only the case if we ignore Benjamin’s advice. That is, if the fundamentally broken nature of our world causes us to despair, this can only be because we are expecting perfection, and we come to realize that it is impossible. But if we look at things from that other side, we can ask a much more pertinent question: so what? Why should a lack of magic be considered a defect in reality? Why should the fact that things generally don’t work out prevent us from taking them as far as they’ll go? There are plenty of things that are going to slow us down, but until one of them stops us, we’re still moving. Since we can’t get to “100%” anyway, since the concept doesn’t even make sense, a lack of certainty should appropriately have no effect on us whatsoever. There’s no use mourning the death of a god that never existed in the first place. The antidote to meaninglessness is not requiring yourself to be at 100%, it’s accepting yourself at 1%. Rather than everything, anything.
It is of course precisely this criterion that Master of None actually does meet. It’s above 20% when it’s good and below 20% when it’s bad, but either way, it eclipses the Friendses of the world in the one way that matters: it’s not nothing.
I’m clear of this danger for the foreseeable future. ↩
I’d like to clarify that I don’t endorse this use of this word. Problematizing is a good thing. ↩
The couples stuff is in fact completely insufferable. There’s one bit where Dev and Rachel are quirkily bantering in public and some guy gets really mad at how cute they’re being; it’s pretty funny, except that I don’t think that guy was intended to function as a audience stand-in. ↩
So hey did you notice that the concept of a “genre” is also an overgeneralization, in that it lumps together a bunch of things that don’t necessarily have anything to do with each other, and that anyone making blanket statements about what a genre “means” or whether it’s “dead” or not is therefore necessarily full of shit? Just checking. ↩
H. Jon Benjamin, in fact – as a Home Movies fan, I find his role here as the voice of reason deeply unsettling. ↩
Okay, one more obnoxious post-election lecture and then I’m going to get back to what I was supposed to be working on before the bottom fell out of the world. That’s not a retreat, by the way, it’s actually my first point: the way we get through this is by recognizing that we have better things to do than to pay attention to fucking politicians all day. The way we defeat Trump is by resisting where we can but otherwise continuing on as though he has no power over us, because he doesn’t. Living well is the best revenge.
The problem right now is that people are making various points about everything but nobody’s really connecting the dots. The question isn’t why the media guessed wrong about the outcome, that obviously doesn’t fucking matter, the question is why the media was unable to convey to Trump supporters the fact that he was not actually going to help them. Especially seeing as that’s the exact thing that the media is supposed to be for. Like, of course the Democrats aren’t doing anything to help people who are economically struggling, of course Clinton didn’t offer people anything in this regard, and of course we are required to address this issue if we are to have any hope of constructing a society that works for people. It would be one thing if Trump were a racist/sexist/authoritarian/etc. who was actually going to try to help people who are getting screwed over by technocratic globalization. In that case we would have to have a conversation about tradeoffs and symbolism and soforth. But everyone who’s been paying attention agrees that he’s bad for all those other reasons and he’s also going to be terrible for poor people. So this is not about signing on to Clinton’s agenda, it’s just that anyone concerned about any issue should have recognized that, on whatever issue that was, Clinton would have been less bad than Trump. Asking “whether” Trump won because of racism or economic anxiety is a stupid question, both because the answer is obviously both and because either issue should have disqualified him: his administration is going to be super racist and it’s also not going to help poor people in any way. We do still have to go through all of the usual political nitpicking and maneuvering and everything, but the fact that the worst possible candidate won is a critical issue all by itself.
When Trump started getting popular based on racism, the various branches of the political establishment noticed it, and their reaction was to support other candidates. So there was the “never Trump” movement during the primaries, and then there were all the newspaper endorsements of Clinton during the general. The logic was: “Trump’s campaign is racist, and that’s unacceptable; therefore, you should vote for someone else.” But this is backwards right off the bat: what Trump’s support indicated was precisely that racism is acceptable. Hence, the syllogism fails to hold: people who never thought that Trump’s behavior was beyond the pale in the first place were given no reason to change their minds. Rather, the response to realizing that people are more racist than you thought must be to start doing better at fighting racism. There’s been some complaining that the media just wrote Trump supporters off as racists without trying to understand their concerns, which is true as far as it goes, but it doesn’t actually get us to the place where we’re doing something about it. If a better candidate than Clinton had adequately addressed the concerns of working-class voters and thereby won them over, that would not have addressed this issue. It would not have reduced the acceptability of racism. We want it to be the case that racist demagogues are rejected by the general population.
The argument against calling Trump supporters racists is that, sure, people noticed that Trump was running a racist campaign, they just didn’t think that was a big deal; they voted for him for other reasons. Any given voter may have done something to indirectly promote racism, but that doesn’t make them A Racist. But this is an absurd distinction: what can possibly define a racist person other than engaging in racist behavior? If I, during a friendly visit to your home, steal a $20 bill that you left on your dresser, I am a thief, regardless of whether I have ever stolen before or ever will again, and regardless of my opinions on the merits of private property or the conditions under which coercive economic redistribution is justified. And of course all the times I respected your property do nothing to absolve me. I am a thief because I am a person who has “engaged in stealing behavior.” When you find out about this and respond by calling me a thief to my face, you are correctly assessing the situation. In precisely this sense, everyone who voted for Donald Trump is a racist. They engaged in racist behavior.
I really hope this doesn’t come across as a brag, but if you call me a racist, that’s going to be the start of a conversation. If I have some sort of racist tendencies, or I’m making an argument which is racist in some way (both of which are probably true some of the time), I’d like to know about that, and I’m more interested in this than I am in defending myself against charges of being a big bad racist. For most people, being called a racist is the end of any possible conversation. “Racist” is a pure insult, like being called a shithead or human garbage, so once that word comes out, there’s nothing more to talk about. You have no option other than to get offended and angry. The reason for this is that most people have no concept of racism as a structure, which means they have no means with which to analyze claims of racism. So yes, calling people racists doesn’t help, but the solution is not to avoid the issue, it is to start talking about that structure, such that the relevant types of conversations become possible to have.
Regarding Trump specifically, he always does the normal thing were he “doesn’t have a racist bone in his body” and is “the least racist person you’ll ever meet” and etc., and for most people this resolves the issue. Sure, he may “go a little too far” sometimes, but the fact that he says he cares about helping black people means he must necessarily not be a racist. In the same sense, the fact that he hires women for executive positions sometimes must mean that he’s not a sexist.
Let’s follow up on that notion, seeing as it’s become kind of a thing recently to assume that a woman climbing up the corporate ladder is “empowering” and therefore feminist. There’s a specific reason why money is a feminist issue, which is that women being able to support themselves means they are not dependent on men for survival. It does not follow that a woman earning a lot of money is necessarily freeing herself from oppression. If, for example, two paychecks are needed to support her family and she’s still tacitly required to do all of the housework and childcare, then her earning money is in fact not liberatory, but merely another, shinier-looking chain. Understanding things in this sense makes it very easy to understand why “leaning in” is bullshit: it encourages women to embrace rather than resist oppression. (I mean, it’s right there in the name. I was initially very confused as to how anyone calling themself a feminist could view “leaning in” as anything other than a con. I hate hippies, but it’s pretty depressing that we’ve fallen behind the point of “turn on, tune in, drop out.”)
Which brings us back to our point: the fact that these things are structural problems and not ice cream flavors is why, properly understood, they are not competing interests but rather thesame issue; they go together. To address them, then, requires a unified approach, which itself requires a cohesive accounting of where we are and where we need to go from here. This sort of thing is commonly referred to as a “story.” A story is more than a plot; it’s not just an A-then-B explanation. It’s also the context in which that explanation makes sense. A story implies a world, and we have not yet established a narrative for a better future. Hence the power of the notion that America can be made great again: the slouching inevitability of neoliberalism, dragging us all into the dullest future, makes such a thing appear to be the only alternative.
Clinton’s story was: everything is fine, we just need to keep gradually doing better. Trump’s story was: everything is not fine, so we have to resort to whatever grotesque measures are required to get back to the imaginary perfect society of the past. As you know, neither of these is the real story: everything is not fine, and the reason for this is because of all the stuff that we fucked up in the past; therefore, what we require is a different future. What was missing from this election was the idea that the world can be made other than as it is. Of course, that’s missing from every election, and that is the central point: politicians will never be able to make this case for us. They’re not the sort of people who are capable of it, and it’s not their job anyway. They’re bureaucrats: their job is to collate the series of forms and signatures required to put things into practice. Our job is to create the world as it must be, and then force them to do the paperwork that makes it so.
Let’s try one of the less charged examples to understand how this can work. The media was very, very concerned about Trump’s failure to release his tax returns during the election. This was supposedly “disqualifying” behavior, because we need that information in order to judge whether a candidate is fit to hold office. But as Tom Scocca pointed out, if the media really believed that, they sure weren’t acting like it:
“There is supposedly a consensus across the entire mainstream press on what the terms here are. It is unacceptable for any candidate to conceal their financial situation. To be a candidate, a person must disclose their tax returns.
Yet reporters continue to ask Donald Trump questions about subjects other than his missing tax returns. When they do this, they are conceding that Trump can be a presidential candidate, after all, despite refusing to release his returns. It is a losing strategy.”
In short, a political crime is not disqualifying unless you actually disqualify someone who commits it. If it’s just one bullet point among many, then it’s merely what business assholes call a “nice-to-have” rather than a requirement. Ergo, nobody cares (I seriously doubt that anyone voting against Trump did it because of the tax returns either).
The same analysis applies with even greater force to the campaign’s more dramatic issues. The Access Hollywood tape and the ensuing accusations raised what should have been the only issue of the campaign: whether Donald Trump is in fact a serial sexual assailant. Surely if anything is to disqualify someone from the presidency, behavior that is both illegal and misogynist is it. Yet the whole thing was treated as just another “scandal,” and the reason for this is that the media – including the Clinton campaign – did not push any better narrative. During the second debate, immediately after The Tape came out, the issue was raised, but it was raised as a Debate Question. Clinton and Trump yelled at each other about it for a while, and then the moderator moved on to the next question. The next day, the “spectacle” was described as follows:
“Donald J. Trump and Hillary Clinton collided in an almost unremittingly hostile debate on Sunday night, a 90-minute spectacle of character attacks, tawdry allegations, and Mr. Trump’s startling accusation that Mrs. Clinton had ‘tremendous hate in her heart.'”
In other words, the New York Times does not give two shits about whether or not Trump has actually committed sexual assault. Framing the problem in terms of “hostility” and “startling accusations” is a complete evasion of what those accusations are actually of and what reasons people might have for being justifiably hostile. Calling Trump a “divisive” candidate implies that there’s no real problem, that different people simply have different, equally valid opinions. To the media, it’s all just “character attacks.”
So one practical takeaway here is that the way we conduct debates, and indeed the election in general, basically guarantees that issues of substance cannot be raised. Trump’s one-man vaudeville show didn’t change anything; the media had already smoothed out the path so that someone like him could stroll carelessly down it whensoever they chose. We were lucky that this hadn’t happened until just now, so what we ought to do is stop relying on luck. The reason we have these constant back-and-forth shifts based on confused signifiers like “jobs” and “taxes” and “regulations” is precisely because we are not addressing the real substance of the issues. To avoid calling things as they are is to go further down this road, to retreat from the truth. Rather than news personalities carving out space for soundbites, the electoral process ought to be a matter of experts making real assessments of the candidates’ various attributes and relaying these assessments to regular people by means of understandable narratives. Of course, Americans don’t like this sort of thing. They don’t like “being told what to do” by “elitists.” We report; you decide. But the thing about experts is that they actually possess expertise. They have knowledge that most people lack, and disseminating this knowledge into the broader population is supposed to be a major part of what the media is for. Lumping real knowledge into the general concept of “elitism” is perhaps the one true failing of the American media. If we believe that the current lowest common denominator is not good enough – and this belief is strictly required in order to avoid basic nihilism – then we are morally obligated to reject the tactics of dumbing-down and pandering to know-nothings and to instead raise the level of discourse.
You may be thinking that this is too much to deal with all at once. Certainly, that exact point was made during the election: so much was so wrong with Trump that none of it stood out; it all just faded into particularly annoying background noise. But dealing with situations like this is exactly what stories do. They organize a huge amount of information into something that is understandable as a whole. In this case, the story is a simple matter of what all of Trump’s sins have in common: they’re all symptoms of privilege. Trump can get away with things that others cannot because he is a rich white male. This is why pointing out the individual issues didn’t matter to his supporters. Because they believed in privilege, they were already making that excuse for Trump. What must be targeted, then, is those beliefs, and the way this is done is by changing the parameters of the conversation in which we discuss them. Calling Trump “abnormal” gets you nowhere if you continue to treat him normally, and labeling his behavior “disqualifying” is meaningless if you continue to act as through he is qualified. Trump was allowed to plausibly proclaim “I am your voice,” when his supporters should have been made to realize that he is exactly the person who has been picking their pockets all this time. Norms are only functional if you do them rather than merely saying them; you have to actively denormalize behavior that you consider to be unacceptable. Otherwise, what you are actually doing is accepting it.
And the specific issue of sexual assault is really the perfect example, because we actually have seen a major shift in the way the mainstream narrative about sexual assault works, and it has happened very recently. Feminists have refocused the conversation around sexual assault such that it proceeds from the perspective of the victims rather than the perpetrators, and this has had practical consequences. Bill Cosby was about to die beloved as America’s Goofy Dad, but now, thanks entirely to this refocusing, he and his reputation are on a one-way, nonstop flight to secular hell. Now, this was an extreme case: Cosby’s behavior was maxed-out sociopathic, he was already a washed-up relic lacking anyone with a real interest in defending him, and the fact that he’s a black man shouldn’t be discounted, either. But of course our first victories are going to come in the easiest cases. This should still be encouraging: it proves that this strategy works, and that we really can change things by pursuing it. Unfortunately, we still have quite a ways to go. With Trump, we saw a reversion to the usual pattern. A bunch of accusations popped up, it was considered a “scandal” for a little while, and then it all went away and Trump went right back to doing whatever he wanted, which in this case just so happened to include winning the presidency.
But in this same sense, Trump’s victory actually demonstrates that the type of thing that we want to achieve really is achievable. He changed the narrative. Ever since the Republicans decided that he wasn’t worth the fight and instead sent Pence in to manage things, Trump has been an agent of the establishment, but in the beginning he was just some asshole on an escalator. He won in the face of unified mainstream opposition, and since then, the political establishment has had to rearrange itself to accommodate him. It hasn’t had to move very far, because his campaign was never based on any real convictions, but the general shape of these events is what needs to be possible in order for anything to get better. Trump is the bizarro-world version of what we ought to be aiming for. So it’s crucial to remember that he didn’t win by being a great marketer or whatever. He really did bungle things about as badly as possible. He won by coincidentally tapping into a huge, throbbing vein of resentment. The disadvantage we have is that, for us, no such vein is flowing just yet. People know what holding on to their own privileges is like, whereas nobody knows what living as a responsible citizen of a just, caring society is like, because no such thing has ever existed. But there is enough blood for us to work with; we just have to get it pumping. The fact that people can feel that things are wrong and that “something ought to be done” is also to our advantage. Yes, it makes fascism possible, but that’s simply because it makes change in general possible. Maintaining what we have now for fear of something worse also means maintaining what we have now for fear of something better. And since what we have now is really just anesthetized decay, it’s long past time to let go.
So the long and short of this is that there’s no point in arguing for or against the individual candidates themselves. We know this for a fact now: Trump as an individual was argued against as hard as possible, and it didn’t matter. Vox.com, where ideology goes to die, infamously insisted that the only issue in this election was that Trump was an “abnormal” candidate and Clinton was a “normal” candidate, and I hope we can all understand at this point why this is the wrongest possible perspective. Trump’s victory indicates precisely that he is normal to enough people to matter. You can find a handful of weirdos who believe pretty much anything (hi), but it is just flatly implausible that anything approaching 50% of the country voted for chaos. The overwhelming majority of people do not want to remake society. They want jobs, they want low taxes, and they want to feel safe, and it is for these conventional reasons that people voted for Trump. The slogan “make America great again,” a slogan which Trump supporters took much, much more seriously than people normally take slogans, is the exact opposite sentiment to “burn it all down.” It’s been much noted that Clinton’s rejoinder, “America is already great,” was a massive strategic blunder. This is exactly correct, and this is why: what we consider “great” is the entire substance of the issue. Our task, as people insisting on a better tomorrow, is to redefine greatness.
That is, the information needs to be out there; it needs to be known that, for example, The Wall wouldn’t actually have any effect on either immigration or unemployment, and you don’t know that until you run the numbers. But if someone supports The Wall for other reasons, this information doesn’t do anything. That’s what we have to get at: people’s reasons. The problem is that lots of people tried to demonstrate Trump’s racism, but because the situation was so obvious to everyone who cared, nobody bothered trying to explain why Trump’s campaign was actually racist. I know that sounds weird to you, but that’s exactly the point: other people have different ideas about racism than you do. The fact that you think they’re wrong is exactly why you have the responsibility to prove it.
Specifically, the common working notion of racism is that some people just suddenly manifest a snarling fury whenever they see someone with a certain skin color, and anyone who doesn’t do this is perfectly fine. This is why the Black Friend Defense is something that makes sense to people, even though to you and me it’s a transparent joke. A few particularly dense people have taken the fact that a lot of Obama supporters voted for Trump to mean that those people must not have been motivated by racism, which is another version of this attitude. Obama voters had one positive attitude towards one black person one time; therefore, they must not be racists. This is the story that we need to rewrite. The correct lesson to draw from this fact is not that racism is less of an issue than we thought it was, but that racism operates differently than the explainer class has been assuming it does. We need to make racism understandable in terms of its effects as part of a social system, which means synthesizing it with everything else, including our own behaviors. It’s certainly easier to treat racism as an individual pathology, because then those of us who don’t manifest the symptoms can be assured of our purity. Don’t blame me; I voted for Obama. But this is exactly the formulation by which Trump supporters absolve themselves. If we’re going to be better than them, then we need to do better than them.
And again, we have to do this ourselves; the establishment will not help us, because engaging the issues in this way implicates them. It prevents Clinton from glossing over the fact that she helped create the mass incarceration system that is one of the primary vectors of today’s racism. So I guess this is kind of a silver lining: Trump won on racism, sure, but there wasn’t actually an anti-racist candidate opposing him. Same deal for feminism and capitalism and imperialism and everything else: none of these issues are really being addressed in the mainstream conversation yet. To be honest, I’m not optimistic about what the results of a real fight would be. The great mass of humanity has not historically demonstrated any particular capacity for wisdom or discernment, or even basic kindness. But we haven’t lost yet.
Alright shitheads, bereavement period’s over. Time to get serious. Here’s what we’ve learned – by which I mean here’s what we already knew and have been lying to ourselves about:
The media is completely useless
There has been quite a lot of introspection about whether the media was doing “enough” to “stop” Trump, or whether it was “enabling” him. This is not the point. The issue is not how often the media got it “right” or “wrong”; the issue is that none of it mattered either way. I mean, they did get things right, for the most part. The media is made up of educated people. They knew what was going on and there were all kinds of investigations and things. They got the facts right and most of their arguments were correct. No one cared. Every newspaper in the country endorsed Clinton in the strongest possible terms, and none of that ink moved one single vote. Clinton was declared the definitive winner of all three debates. Didn’t fucking matter. Everyone was all anxious about whether Trump would try to skip the debates, but he might as well have, because they had absolutely no effect on anything.
All that shit about Clinton’s “ground game” and the “Obama Coalition” was also meaningless. There is no “vetting,” there are no “qualifications,” the debates are not “job interviews.” All just made-up terms inflated by professional hacks to justify their paychecks. The election spectacle has no actual function. This past year has been a complete waste of everyone’s time and money. This is the thing that Trump was the most right about. It is now a proven fact that there was no reason for him to play the game as dictated by the David Brooks contingent, because those people are irrelevant idiots and their game is bullshit.
(This is also the thing that Clinton was the most wrong about. Her entire political life has been hobbled by the mistaken impression that she was required to play pattycake with the gatekeepers of Seriousness and hire a bunch of dull campaign hacks to make sure that everything was being done The Right Way. Even as someone without natural charisma, she would have been better off without them. And it should be pretty clear by now that none of it protected her from sexism in any way.)
Also, what the fuck was all that polling shit for? The amount of yammering about polls was completely insane. Every fucking day it was some new set of arbitrary percentages that supposedly meant something. There was a whole fucking Game of Thrones-level dramatic arc about whether FiveThirtyEight‘s methodology was still valid. All meaningless. Like, what was even supposed to be the point of it? Was there supposed to be some perfect, magical poll that would somehow have locked the election for Clinton? What is the purpose of telling people what the results are supposedly going to be when those people are the ones who are actually going to be making the decision? All the time spent preparing and running and rerunning and analyzing and analyzing and analyzing those polls was time that could have been spent fighting.
Relatedly, the media is a tiny niche population. There are 325 million people in this country. The media speaks for about twelve of them. Which is a real problem when you combine it with the fact that media types fucking love to hear themselves talk. All day, every day, the media is constantly chattering to itself, about itself, and the only people listening, aside from other members of the media, are idiots like me who have nothing better to do with their time. Immediately before the election, everyone in the media was writing pieces under the assumption that Clinton was going to win handily. There were actually debates about whether it was going to be a blowout or just a landslide. How many voters did the people writing these pieces represent? Not fucking enough. We like to make fun of the “right-wing echo chamber” in which hardcore conservatives live, but it is actually us “informed” media-consumers who occupy the smallest and most distorting bubble. The people applauding each new “takedown” of Trump were suffering from just as severe a case of epistemic closure as anyone reading Breitbart or InfoWars. It’s a hell of a drug.
(If we can get slightly technical for a moment, one of the big problems with the internet is the way it facilitates the “small world” illusion. Even as it seems like there’s an incomprehensibly huge amount of stuff going on, you’re really only communicating to your tiny group of friends, while the rest of the world has no idea what the fuck you’re on about. The way you feel about flat-earth theory is exactly the way most people feel about your opinions on most topics. You might know what I mean if I ask you which set of pronouns you prefer, but upwards of 99% of the world would literally not understand the question even after having it explained to them slowly and repeatedly. It is not interpretable within their worldview. You can scroll through page after page of tweets supporting a sexual assault survivor without realizing that they represent about 0.01% of the real-world population. The world is a big place.)
(Also, the fact that Clinton won the popular vote is nice (as well as being genuinely important to remember for the purposes of analysis, especially regarding people who think the problem is that Clinton was a terrible candidate and everyone hated her), but it has no bearing on any of this. Even if she had won the election, the fact that anything approaching 50% of the population looked at Trump and said “yes” or even “sure, why not” contains the entirety of the problem. The fact that Trump is actually going to be president is certainly its own category of disaster, but we lost the battle as soon as he was accepted as a general election candidate. That alone proved that no one who mattered was willing to fight when it counted. Y’know, as painful as this all already is, we have to remember that Trump is not the worst-case scenario. There will come a night on which the glass finally breaks, and when that happens the Responsible Adults will all be down on their knees, poking thoughtfully at the shards. The story of 2016 is this: America allowed Trump to happen.)
Perhaps the most pitiable aspect of all this is the fact that the media was very, very serious about the whole thing, and that seriousness specifically was nothing but empty posturing. People don’t take things seriously just because the media says they should. This whole thing was and is a joke to most people. They’re wrong, but the punchline was delivered anyway.
The American political system is completely useless
A Trump presidency is exactly the situation that the entire American political machine is designed to prevent. A large mass of uninformed people made a rash decision based on limited and confused information. The electoral college, the primary system, the Congress, the courts, the media, and the party apparatuses are all designed to safeguard against this, to restrict the ability of the people to make sweeping changes based on momentary whims. Instead, they all indirectly conspired to achieve the exact opposite.
It is easy to understand the basic reason this happened: specific procedural details do not have general effects on outcomes. Sometimes they work one way, and sometimes they work the other. It was initially thought that the Democrats had the electoral college advantage this time around, with Clinton only needing one or two big states to clinch it. And that could very well have been the case; votes could have been distributed slightly differently to achieve the inverse outcome. But in neither case does the process confer any sort of legitimacy on the results. There is no connection between moral or even factual correctness and political victory. The actual outcome of this election was a draw; Trump essentially won on a coin flip. (The fact that this is the second time in living memory that this has happened and the final results favored the Republicans both times is potentially suspicious.)
So not only is there no point in defending the specifics of one particular process, the opposite is true: what we must fight for is dynamism, the ability to change the process as needed. All those people talking about how important it is to respect the process in tumultuous times are worse than wrong; they aren’t even part of the relevant conversation. They’re completely out to lunch, filling out checklists as the world burns.
(Oh, by the way, a Trump presidency guarantees that the U.S. will not respond to global warming in anything approaching an adequate manner. That probably wasn’t going to happen anyway, but now we can all rest assured that we’re definitely going to burn to death. We are past the critical point of action, so the destruction of the planet is now a certainty.)
America is not one country
Both sides were completely convinced that they were going to win, and both of them were correct. Within each subculture, there was no debate. The only issue, this whole time, was how many voters were going to turn out for each side. No one was ever going to be “persuaded.” There are, of course, the famous “undecided voters,” but they’re the exception that proves the rule: only a tiny percentage of people are not already in one camp or the other. The celebration of the increased diversity in Congress is all well and good, that’s certainly an improvement, but it’s not a consolation. It’s more evidence that America consists of two trains running on completely separate tracks.
Frankly, it’s starting to look like the Confederacy was on the right side of history. I mean, the Civil War was never really resolved; it ended in the temporal sense, but Reconstruction was thwarted, and we’ve been fighting that battle ever since. There is increasingly little point in pretending that we actually have any kind of “union” going on here. The obvious problem is that, if we accept a division, we are abandoning half the population to a situation that we believe to be immoral. But while force may be justified where something like slavery is the case, there’s little point in trying to save people from a hell they’ve chosen for themselves.
The Republican Party is alive and thriving
The speculations about whether Trump was going to destroy the Republican Party were bad enough when he was losing – even without being able to win national elections, the party would still wield massive, agenda-setting power on the state level and in the Congress. But now that whole angle is just downright comical. The Republicans are not “relics” who are being “left behind” because they’re “on the wrong side of history.” This sort of teleological complacency is exactly why the Democrats are such a bunch of losers (see also the use of “this is 2016, why are we still debating this” as though it were an argument rather than an admission of defeat). There is no “march of progress,” no moral arc inscribed onto the universe. “Progress” is a story we tell ourselves after the fact; it has no claim on the future. The first black president, married to a descendent of slaves, has been succeeded by someone who would probably be a literal Klansman if that weren’t bad branding. History does not move in a straight line; it is a tangled mess. Good things happen, but things do not gradually “get better” of their own accord. The corpses keep piling up. This is a war, and we are not fighting it hard enough. While we’ve just been trying to run out the clock, the other team has been constantly scoring behind our backs. If we don’t start getting our shit together with extreme severity, “history” is going to start looking a lot worse than even the pessimists among us have fantasized.
America is fucking racist
No one who genuinely opposes racism could possibly have considered supporting Trump. Even if you assume (pretend) that his campaign was not primarily about racism, the raw volume of it should have been a dealbreaker. Unless of course that was the deal you were looking to make in the first place.
Also, religion doesn’t matter, at all. There was never any such thing as the “Religious Right.” They were always just bigots. There are no “values voters,” in the sense where “values” means things like humility and integrity and all of that fluffball shit. In exactly the same way, “conservative principles” were never anything more than the self-important preening of a tiny handful of pompous pseudo-intellectuals. People do, of course, vote based on real values, and the realest of those values are, more often than not, racism and sexism.
America is not ready for a female president
I normally wouldn’t discuss things in these terms, but the conclusion seems to be unavoidable. There’s a book (or at least a pretentious blog post) to be written about the exact mechanics by which Clinton’s gender destroyed her, but it’s hard to doubt that it did. She’s basically a human checklist for the ideal presidential candidate, and, if the common media understanding of the situation is correct, her gender should have been an added bonus, a chance to make history. That understanding is not correct. We still live under patriarchy, and a woman still takes a step too far when she attempts to claim the mantle of rulership – even when she is someone who has devoted her life to preserving the existing social order, even when she is specifically expert at walking the finest line through the minefield of gendered expectations, and even when her opponent is as though chosen specifically to let’s say “heighten the contradictions.” Nothing is enough to overcome the fear of a female planet. It remains the overriding concern of a great many people – including women – that the center of the universe be a dick.
One specific fun fact that we are all now inescapably subject to is that sexual assault is not disqualifying behavior for the most important job in the world. Most people are, in fact, totally fine with it, and this group, again, includes a lot of women. This is another example of something the media class agrees on and most other people don’t. While the media whipped itself into a frenzy over the deeply troubling implications of The Tape, parsing and reparsing it endlessly to determine What It Means For America, everyone else was simply hearing normal masculinity, and it was their interpretation of the situation that was correct.
It’s been much noted in much despondency that white women went for Trump, but there’s nothing unexpected about this. Feminists have their own brand of epistemic closure: they believe that all women are naturally sympathetic to feminism. Not true. The real feminist insight here is that men and women are not so different in this regard. Most women are sexists (meaning sexist in the normal sense, against women – yet another thing that’s become clear is that people cannot be relied upon to correctly interpret basic factual statements). White women went for Romney and McCain as well; white women have always gone Republican, because race is what politics in America is about. Gender is not. The recent popular upsurge in feminism has achieved cultural acceptability by abandoning its political content, and these are the wages of that sin.
Actually, America isn’t ready for a black president either (which would be the other half of the reason this happened). Obama was obviously exceptional – his legendary charisma (and ideological chameleonicity) superseded the normal dynamics of the situation. While we’re reminiscing, let us recall that Obama’s 2008 campaign was run on 0% issues and 100% rhetorical razzmatazz. Trump actually did stumble into real issues on occasion; he had more substance than Obama. Which is not surprising, because . . .
Elections have always been reality shows
I read something somewhere calling Obama “the first celebrity president.” Come on. Reagan? Kennedy? Roosevelt? Hell, Washington himself was nominated solely on the basis that he was a war hero and people liked him (which itself was mostly because he was tall). The notion that this election had a notable absence of policy discussion, or that Trump introduced reality-show style feuding into politics, or that our discourse has degraded to the level of insults and implications, is entirely mistaken. All of these things have always been the case. Which is to say that . . .
Trump is not an anomaly
All the talk about Trump destroying “democratic norms” is completely backwards. What has happened is that Trump has demonstrated (entirely on accident) that those norms don’t actually exist. But of course this is how norms work in any case: they only exist to the extent that people convince themselves that they exist. Other than that, they don’t actually do anything.
Remember how het up the media was about Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns? Probably not, because literally no one in the country cared. I’m dead serious about this: does anyone really think there is even a single person who voted against Trump because he didn’t release his tax returns? Given this, what’s the point? Why should any candidate bother releasing their tax returns, ever? How is the process anything other than an establishment-class circle jerk?
Understanding this compels some unfortunate conclusions. If Trump’s unusualness was entirely aesthetic, then there’s no “excuse” for why he won. His “abnormality” didn’t cost him the election, but it’s not why he won, either. He won on the merits. The people comparing Trump to Brexit were entirely correct: Brexit did not succeed because of lies, and Trump did not succeed because he’s a con artist. They both won because more people wanted them to, and the fact that this impulse has triumphed twice so far (and is generally growing in strength everywhere) forces us to reject the comforting notion that these things were flukes. This is the new wave of horror poised to sweep over the 21st century. Face it.
Democracy is a real thing and a real danger
All the people hyperventilating about the unprecedented threat posed by Trump to democracy seem to be forgetting that Trump was supported by ordinary morons and opposed by a shadowy cabal of hyper-educated, unaccountable elites. The Founding Fathers may have been a bunch of slavefucking lawyers, but at least they understood that democracy was a threat that needed to be contained and not a magical wish-granting unicorn princess. Every idiot who’s ever rhapsodized about the power of “the people” has now received what they were asking for.
(This is also why we’re double-fucked on global warming. People will never vote to lower their own standards of living in order to save the planet.)
There was an article somewhere by some political scientist talking about how structural factors such as which party holds the White House and how the economy is doing correctly predict the outcome of every modern presidential election, and how the factors for the current election predicted a Republican victory. I’m sure most such theories are just as wrong as everything else, but something along these lines is certainly the case. For example, it has almost always happened that a two-term president has been succeeded by someone from the other party, likely as a result of the fickle mushhead contingent wanting “change” or something (this is part of why the two-party system is a greater evil than either party). Trump is an agent of historical and material forces exactly as much as Clinton is a victim of them. They’re both puppets. Which, again, means that everything the media does every election is a complete waste of time. None of this shit about temperament or experience or gaffes or any of it matters at all.
This suggests a somewhat more optimistic interpretation of the results. During the primaries, Clinton was never polling well against any of the potential Republican candidates. We all know how much polls are worth now, but it’s conceivable that she would have lost to any Republican. Someone reasonable-seeming and non-alienating like Kasich could very well have flattened her. So the fact that the election was a virtual tie indicates that Trump actually underperformed expectations. He was such a bad candidate that he almost blew a gimme election. The only reason he won was that he was ultimately a typical Republican – or at least close enough for government work. (Not that there’s anything okay about a typical Republican being president).
This is also why the whole exhorting-people-to-vote ritual is a particularly obnoxious waste of everyone’s time. You will never move significant numbers through individual hectoring. If you want to move numbers that matter, you have to move the structure. For one thing, indirect voter suppression is a critical issue that has not been given its full due. Which leads us to the most depressing interpretation of the results: Trump won because of Shelby County v. Holder; in other words, he won because Jim Crow isn’t actually dead yet.
This dynamic also implies a strategy: given that “electability” has been revealed as an empty shibboleth, the Democratic Party would do better to run candidates who are as far to the left as possible. An extreme leftist, even one as insane and incompetent as Trump, could have won in 2008. Of course, no one who is in a position to implement this strategy cares; quite the contrary, the Democrats are always highly concerned to make sure that no one with scary ideas gets any significant amount of party support. This is among the many reasons why supporting Democrats does not help.
Hot take alert: Donald Trump is the most politically correct candidate ever to compete in American politics. That was a joke, about it being a hot take. I’m completely serious.
Listen, I’m as interested in writing an internet blog post about political correctness as I am in discussing slash even being aware of Trump in the first place, but this is what the situation is. We should be better than this, but we’re not. The temptation, certainly, is to throw up one’s hands and declare that none of it makes any sense. But what a contradiction actually means is that your assumptions are wrong – the facts cohere based on a different standard than the one you’re applying.
And this is precisely what’s being lost in the chatter: that there are actual facts on the ground that have very little to do with Trump or with the media or with the electoral process or anything other than the actual politics of the situation. Someone like John Oliver can, for instance, do an entire segment on Trump that’s all about who he is as a person and says absolutely nothing about the politics behind why anyone supports him.1 I mean, the man’s definitely a head case, there’s a psychology dissertation or two in there for whoever’s got the stomach, but when it comes to the actual politics of the situation that ain’t really matter. He’s been bloviating for years without ever rising above D-list tabloid fodder – it’s only now that the planets have aligned and the first seal has opened (the first horseman is a false prophet bent on conquest, just FYI) that his politics (such as they are) have coincidentally attained national significance. Trump is not the test, he is the failing grade you get a week later after not studying. There’s a real reason this is happening.
And remember, Trump is our mistake – the people’s choice. The elites wanted to stop him, but they either couldn’t get their act together or they decided that it ultimately wasn’t going to be worth it. At this point, the actual direct cause of Trump showing up on the TV and being taken seriously is that many millions of people voted for him. And now it’s the general, and he’s been consistently polling in the 40% range. This is not a statistical anomaly; that number represents real human people who want him to be President. Trump supporters do not view him as merely a conveniently-placed fool; they view him, frankly, as a hero. They are voting for something that they feel Trump embodies. Our task, then, is not to “stop Trump.” This would merely be to chase away the vampire’s shadow, leaving the real monster free to feed. Our task is to determine the nature of the thing that Trump supporters are supporting, and kill it.
So yeah, I’m going to do this once and then I’m going to stop and also get off my cross. The last thing I want to say before we get started is that I’m definitely right about this. This is the one true Trump take,2 so after this you will be fully and correctly informed and you won’t have to read any more thinkpieces or anything. You’re welcome.
The Trump campaign begins and ends with racism. Anyone who tries to dodge this fact is not a credible source of political analysis. There are exactly two statements of Trump’s that have actually mattered in terms of gaining him support: The Wall, and Ban All Muslims. Nothing about how he acts or the media coverage or anything else matters unless people have a reason to support him in the first place, and racism is the reason.
Neither is Trump properly understood as a protest candidate. Certainly, part of Trump’s appeal is the way he ruthlessly attacks traditional politicians in impolitic terms, especially because most of these attacks are entirely justified. But taking this as an explanation belies the fact that Trump’s supporters are the most zealous that we’ve seen in recent history – they take him seriously. They do not view their candidate as a destructive buffoon who happens to be useful at the present time; they actually like him. Hard to believe, I know, but you can’t get anywhere with your analysis until you learn to cool your projectors. Trump supporters also do not think that he’s going to “tear down the system” or any such thing; part of his appeal is the idea (fiction) that he’s a “successful businessman,” meaning his supporters view him as competent (again, deep breaths).
Trump is, however, seen as an alternative to the existing Republican establishment, and this does not make sense. The Republicans have always (that is, since the party realignment in response to the Civil Rights Movement) been the party of racism, so supporting a conventional Republican candidate is a perfectly effective way of expressing your support for racism. And this isn’t just a misperception, because the Republican establishment also sees Trump as a dangerous outsider rather than as a useful idiot. So something about him really is different; racism as racism is not a complete explanation.
One proposed difference is that Trump is “explicit” about his racism, as opposed to the “political correctness” of typical Republicans, and this is what his supporters are supporting. They don’t want someone who merely advances racist policies, they want someone who gives full-throated voice to their grievances, who stands up and says “yes” to racism. But there’s a rather overwhelming flaw with this interpretation, which is that Trump never does this. I’m a little weirded out that no one seems to have noticed this. Trump expresses his racism in exactly the sameterms that all Republicans do. Trump takes precisely the standard Republican line of claiming that the Democrats are cynically exploiting anti-racism as a political shibboleth (a useful line because it happens to be true), whereas he’d be “so good for the blacks.” Trump always makes the standard move of couching his opinions in plausible deniability by saying things like “some of them, I assume, are good people”; he follows to the letter the typical discourse pattern of saying something racist, denying that it’s racist, then calling his critics the real racists. He’s walked back basically all of his “controversial” statements in response to media pressure. These are the exact behaviors that Trump supporters are supposedly rebelling against! And yet, when white supremacist Andrew Anglin said that Trump was “giving us the old wink-wink,” he somehow saw this as a new, positive thing, even though it’s what every Republican politician has been doing this entire time.
In exactly the same way, all of Trump’s “dangerous” policy proposals are merely gaudier versions of Republican boilerplate. His global warming denialism, gun humping, torture fetishism, myopic focus on the national debt, glib slashes to taxes and spending, and dick-swinging foreign policy have all been standard-issue for decades. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigration, but Cruz wanted to sic COINTELPRO on every mosque in the country. Indeed, The Wall itself is just a bigger and dumber version of something Baby Bush came up with: the whimsically-named Secure Fence Act of 2006.
Even Trump’s rhetoric is unusual only on the most basic level of tone. In terms of content, he’s saying exactly what every Republican always says. He attacks Clinton by saying she’s a “corrupt” political operative who panders to disadvantaged people solely for their votes, which is how every Republican attacks every Democrat. His claim that Obama “founded” ISIS is exactly the claim that Republicans always make about Democrats on foreign policy: that they’re “weak” and possibly secret anti-American traitors, meaning they don’t murder people indiscriminately enough and therefore allow “the terrorists” to do whatever they want. His insinuation that “Second Amendment people” could “do something” about Clinton follows directly from Sarah Palin’s “target map” and Sharron Angle’s reference to “Second Amendment remedies,” and uses exactly the same thin layer of plausible deniability. His histrionic paranoia about the election being “rigged” is exactly how Republicans justify voter ID laws. Indeed, his only transgression is that he cleaves to the Republican party line too strongly for his plausible deniability to remain plausible – his deviance is actually excessive conformity. Trump is nothing but an amalgamation of the various body parts the ruling class has collected over the years – the Frankenstein’s monster of American politics, a Republican in Republican’s clothing.
So this is the dilemma: if Trump support is about racism, then why is literally any other member of the Republican party not good enough? The Republican Party is already the party of racism; an insurgency is not required on this issue. Anyone who values white supremacy should be comfortable supporting basically any Republican candidate. This applies just as well to every other issue, as none of Trump’s policy stances are at all unusual. How does Trump represent an alternative to mainstream conservativism when all of his policies are entirely in line with conservative orthodoxy (the only real differences are the incidental hip-shooting claims that he later walks back or ignores, such as his praise for Planned Parenthood)? And if it’s about image, if it’s a rejection of the self-aggrandizers and empty suits that constitute the existing political class, then how in Loki’s name is daughterfucking Donald Trump the person who represents an alternative to that? The only reason he’s not twice as empty as the usual politician is that he’s three times as full of shit. He panders, hedges, vacillates and dodges, he uses extreme vagueness to cover up the fact that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about, he harps on low-content talking points, he substitutes insults for discussion. He has backpedaled and then repedaled and then rebackpedaled on every issue he has actually addressed, including The Wall. He is not an “unconventional” candidate at all; as someone with no beliefs, he has nothing going for him other than typical campaigning behavior, so all he actually does is double down on it. He is the most conventional candidate, ever.
So what’s odd about all of this is that it seems like a bunch of sound and fury and more sound signifying no substantive policy distinctions. And of course Trump himself is a high-concept parody of a human being, so there’s significant difficulty in understanding how anyone can even tolerate being aware of him for extended periods of time, let alone want him to be the person with his finger on the button. And this is where the confusion comes in, because after running down all the possibilities, there doesn’t seem to be anything left. It’s not like anyone can possibly be unaware of any of this; the one thing you can certainly say about the media’s coverage of Trump is that there’s been enough of it. It seems, then, that Trump supporters have deliberately chosen the worst possible candidate.
One thing that actually does distinguish Trump supporters is a particular strain of desperation. They are not just middle-aged whites, but middle-aged whites undergoing a suicide epidemic. In other words, Trump supporters are desperate in the philosophical sense: they are people in the throes of an existential crisis. And when you’re having an existential crisis, what you want isn’t money or stability or progress. What you want is to feel important. You want to feel great again.
If we’re going to get this right, we have to pay attention to what Trump supporters are actually saying. Primary sources are a critical safeguard against confirmation and status quo biases. Still, you can’t just trust what people say, and people’s statements about their own motivations are perhaps the least trustworthy category of things. You have to get the story from the horse’s mouth, but you also have to translate it out of horse-language, if you follow me.
So step one is to listen to what Trump supporters have to say for themselves. Seeing as this task does not require insight, The Atlantichas done a fairly good job of it. Okay, I shouldn’t be making fun; The Atlantic is awful, but Conor Friedersdorf has asked Trump supports the exact question at issue here, which is: how is Trump anything other than a less-competent version of a standard politician? So I guess I’m grateful. I guess. I mean, a lot of this is just flatly hilarious:
“We have to stop talking about complete nonsense, and start talking about Making America Great Again.”
But no, we’re being serious here. This is serious. Serious disease.
Distilling, there are essentially three ideological vectors for Trump support. The first is what we already know: these people are fucking racists:
“The world is rising while America falls.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“I think my interest stopped right around 2008 because everything started to get really nasty.”
Hmm I wonder what that could refer to.
“He could take the “black lives matter” group and show them how to make black lives matter.”
“A stage on which extremists are permitted to gesticulate and spew their venom via freedoms initially formulated by the much-maligned ‘angry and wimpering’ white male”
Sorry, let’s keep moving. One thing to note here is that this stuff is completely baked in to our political discourse, such that, for example, “the middle class” is basically just code for “white people.” Check this out:
“Politicians pay lip service to the middle class but spend no time helping them. Black lives matter more and illegal immigrants who break the law get a free pass.”
See how “black people” and “illegal immigrants” are the groups that contrast “the middle class”? But again, this type of expression is typical in American politics, so it’s unusual that it would drive support for Trump. The fact that this whole spectacle is based on racism should always be kept in mind, but there has to be more to it than that. We have to be talking about a particular aspect of racism.
The second angle is that Trump is going to “fix things” because he’s a “successful businessman.”
“He’s spent his whole life and career making deals and negotiating deals. In his own words, he negotiates to win.”
As opposed to people who negotiate to lose?
“Trump is not the caricature that pundits would have you believe. Trump did not build his economic empire just with luck.”
“I am thankful for his support and I am ‘Trusting’ that he will treat AMERICA as a business & focus on her sucess.”
“Like him or hate him, he is a businessman”
So yeah, this is all dumb for all of the obvious reasons, but it’s going to become important later, so just keep it in mind. Specifically, the idea that a politician is going to “fix things” actually reflects support for the status quo – it assumes the system as constituted is correct, that it simply has flaws that need to be removed, rather than the whole thing needing to be reimagined/destabilized. So this is another point against the idea that Trump is a protest candidate.
That is, it’s true that Trump voters are mad at the establishment, but who isn’t? While there is an aspect of anti-elitism here, it’s anti-elitism of a very particular type:
“Guess what? They just called me dumb. Now here is the problem. The arrogance and ignorance––together, the dumbness––of these ‘elites’ at the NYT, economics departments, etc. is the true source of misinterpretation of the Trump movement. We are not dumb. We are investment bankers, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs, rocket scientists. And yes, we might also be farmers, but farmers can actually also be quite smart.
But guess what. We believe YOU (not you, Conor), are very, very dumb. If you are an established economist, you understand NOTHING about economics, and now everyone knows it. If you are the NYT, you printed fake evidence that led to a corrupt and bankrupting war. We believe you are very, very dumb, and shouldn’t say anything, whatsoever. You lost ALL authority over the last 15 years. Most people around me could take on any NYT journalist or professor from whatever fancy school and destroy them––intellectually––on any stage, anytime. We laugh at these people, and we laugh when they are called ‘elites’. They are not elites, they are complete failures.”
This isn’t anti-elitism in general, it’s actually pro-elitism in opposition to the current set of elites. The claim is that they aren’t “real” elites. Which is why it doesn’t contradict Trump being a rich fuck. It isn’t that he represents “ordinary” people, it’s that he represents the good kind of elites. So another way to think about the issue here is to ask: what kind of elite is Trump?
Relatedly, “make America great again” is more than just a slogan. Many of these people are quite preoccupied with the idea of “greatness”:
“He will expect greatness from us, he will tell us how to get to great, he will inspire people to be better than they are and have hope that their efforts will not be thwarted by bigger government.”
“Do we see greatness in America still on a daily basis or even in the movies? The Trump Family is the picture of the American Dream, and I believe Donald Trump is an honest man. When Donald Trump says that he wants to make America great again, I believe him. He has written books for all to read but that is not enough. He wants to lead.
Granted, Donald Trump cannot promise greatness among us as a society or a country. However, he can promise to be a leader for greatness, and he is fitted to do so.”
“He truly wants to make America Great Again, the same way he wanted to make his company great.”
So, again, the question is: what kind of greatness are we talking about here?
The third argument is that Trump is “politically incorrect,” and that this is a good thing.
“I do not believe that I am a racist, sexist, homophobic, or any other negative label that has been affixed to Trump supports. Rather, I feel that political correctness has run amok in this country”
you don’t say
“Beyond speech codes, ‘trigger warnings,’ or Twitter outrage mobs, the preeminence of political correctness among the culture class indicates a momentous shift away from formerly prominent middle-class cultural values and towards something entirely different.”
“Political correctness is a main reason why America is in trouble because it is a grind and so draining to be so politically correct everyday in our personal and professional lives.”
You’ve heard all this before, but look at what’s actually happening here. These people aren’t just saying that they like Trump because he’s politically incorrect. They are saying that, for them, political correctness is a substantive policy issue – one that they prioritize highly enough for it to be a determining factor in deciding who they support, as well as something that they actually expect the President of the United States to do something about. Friedersdorf, understandably confused by this line of thinking, followed up on it in a more in-depth interview, and received the following response:
“This is a war over how dialogue in America will be shaped. If Hillary wins, we’re going to see a further tightening of PC culture. But if Trump wins? If Trump wins, we will have a president that overwhelmingly rejects PC rhetoric. Even better, we will show that more than half the country rejects this insane PC regime. If Trump wins, I will personally feel a major burden relieved, and I will feel much more comfortable stating my more right-wing views without fearing total ostracism and shame. Because of this, no matter what Trump says or does, I will keep supporting him.”
“Having Trump in the White House would both give me more confidence to speak my own opinion and more of a shield from instantly being dismissed as a racist/xenophobe/Nazi (all three things I have been called personally) [ed: waaaaaaaaaah].
Under President Obama, our national dialogue has steadily moved towards political correctness (despite his denunciations), but with President Trump, I think our national dialogue will likely move away from being blanketly PC. Even though, as you pointed out, Obama has criticized PC speech, he doesn’t exactly engage in un-PC speech like Trump does. I don’t expect a President Trump to instantly convert people, but when you have someone in the Oval Office giving decidedly un-PC speeches and announcements, I think that would change the discourse, don’t you?”
It’s at this point that the Atlantic Effect kicks in, as Friedersdorf is unable to come up with an explanation for this beyond “liberals have gone too far.” So this is our starting point.
The obvious interpretation is that “politically incorrect” is just a more palatable way of saying “racist.” This is why the speech at issue is always racial slurs. The fact that people will deny this is not informative; everyone in America denies that anything is about racism at all times (which they have to do, because everything in America actually is about racism, at all times). Whereas the overwhelming majority of anti-PC complaints originate from white people upset that they can’t use slurs, the clear conclusion is that white people want to be racist, but don’t want to actually make the argument “I should be allowed to be racist.” Thus, the going interpretation is that people are tired of politicians pretending like everything is proper anti-racist policy, and they like Trump because he comes right out and “says what they’re thinking” re: race.
But again, this is not enough of an interpretation, because Trump does not actually do this. He also pretends like he’s the one offering the best anti-racist policy. Despite the baffled protestations of the explainer class, Trump is not operating sui generis; he is navigating the same constraints that all politicians face. He actually does have to disavow white supremacists and make up a fake women’s healthcare plan and pretend like he cares about black people. The only difference is that he’s bad at it.
Furthermore, you’ll note above that none of his supporters themselves avow their racism in explicit terms. They express their opposition to political correctness in politically correct fashion. Thus, the thing that they’re supporting as an attack on “political correctness” must be something other than bluntly stated racism, because they’re not getting that, and they don’t even seem to really want it. So what do they want?
And remember, this is not a matter of mere aesthetics. People think that this is a real, substantive political issue, and that Trump is going to do something about it. Moreover, it is not just that people like hearing their own values stated bluntly, it is that these people consider “politically incorrect” expression itself to be an important value. So this is it: we need to figure out what we’re actually talking about when we talk about political correctness.
(Look, I told you I don’t want to do this, alright? Just give it up. You weren’t doing anything useful today anyway.)
Given that Trump is seen as an alternative to the current crop of Republican elites, we can start by asking what it is that distinguishes Trump’s brand of racism from the rest of the Republicans’. As mentioned, there doesn’t seem to be much of a distinction at all. Trump always claims that he’ll be the best for “the blacks” and that Democrats are the real racists and blah blah blah. This is the same nonsense we’re always subjected to.
Actually, the first question we should ask is why Trump’s signature issue, illegal immigration, is an issue at all. It’s not a real problem, because Mexican immigration has been falling and immigration is not exactly an economy-killer. It’s also not a culture war thing; liberals don’t care about it (nor do they care about all the people Obama has deported). It’s an internal issue amongst conservatives, and if we think about why the Republican Party itself would care about it, the answer becomes clear. The Republican Party is the White Man’s Party, and it’s getting to be the case that there aren’t enough white men left for them to be able to win national elections. The largest and most quickly rising minority population is Latinxs,3 so that’s where the numbers have to come from. And this actually shouldn’t be that hard; we’re talking about people who are mostly religious and family-focused, and there isn’t really any overwhelming historical issue preventing Latinxs from voting Republican the way there is for black people. So that’s the angle: an immigration policy that appeals to Latinxs while placating the usual racists could help the Republicans overcome their demographic disadvantage.
But of course the voters themselves don’t care about party strategy, so if that’s all it is, then why do so many Republican voters list illegal immigration as one of their highest-priority issues? Well, because they’re looking at the same situation, but their motivations are reversed: they don’t want to compromise; they want immigration policy to work in white people’s favor. They don’t want to take advantage of the demographic shift; they want to stop it. What “political correctness” means in this context is taking Latinxs’ concerns into account. Trump voters want someone who won’t do that.
And precisely this was Trump’s original claim to political fame. By referring to immigrants as a bunch of criminals and rapists, he unambiguously signaled that his immigration policy was intended for the benefit of white people and only white people. And this is why it doesn’t matter that his policy is completely impractical and makes no sense: because this isn’t a real issue, it doesn’t have to. The establishment’s half-hearted opposition to Trump is half-hearted precisely because it is purely tactical: Trump represents a bad strategy for achieving the same goals the ruling class wants to achieve. But for the voters, because this is a symbolic concern, the desired solution is also a symbolic one. And the unavoidable symbolism of The Wall is: Whites Only.
We’re not quite there yet, because, again, this isn’t actually how Trump’s rhetoric works. Continuing with the symbolism of The Wall, Trump has also said that it will include a “big, beautiful door” for those who want to come here “legally.” This echoes the concerns of the voters: they often say they don’t object to immigration itself, but to people who don’t “play by the rules.” So the “door” symbolizes something slightly more complex than simple segregation. We can be more specific here. Consider this:
“I don’t have a problem necessarily with Mexicans who come here legally, obey our laws, and eventually learn to speak English. I do have a problem with those who look at our immigration laws and say, ‘Nah, I’d rather not obey those.’ This is one of my biggest issues with Hillary Clinton and her policy of amnesty.”
What is “learn to speak English” doing in that list? Why does that matter here? It’s not a law. Mexican immigrants are perfectly capable of coming here legally and contributing to the economy while still speaking their own language in their own communities. Why is that a problem? Yes, I know, racism, but why specifically? I mean, these people don’t get mad when they hear white people speaking any other foreign language, right?
Again, the significance is symbolic: immigrants who don’t learn English are maintaining their own culture. It isn’t just that immigrants are people of a different race, it’s that they’re not from here, they have their own beliefs and ideals, and that’s not okay. The “good” kind of immigrants, the ones who “follow the law,” who properly assimilate themselves into Whitopia, are acceptable; the “bad” kind, who stubbornly insist on retaining their own inferior cultures, must not be permitted. Hence the seemingly irrational anger with which some people react to hearing Spanish spoken in public: such an experience smacks you in the face with the fact that there are other worlds out there. To a certain type of person, this feels like a personal attack.
In fact, our misguided friend is quite explicit about this:
“[Referring to himself]: In favor of “melting pot” culture instead of multiculturalism.”
“I think most of my opposition comes from what I feel is a loss of the patriotic American identity and the advancement of multiculturalism and political correctness.”
So “political correctness” is the same thing as “multiculturalism,” and this is different from the “melting pot culture” which represents the traditional “American identity.” Thus, the connection between anti-PC and anti-immigrant ideologies is not mysterious. Both targets are faces of the same demonhead.
The idea that non-white people are actually inferior used to be the primary justification for racism, but today it’s a fringe belief (though it does very much still exist). What we now like to talk about instead is “culture.” It isn’t that black people are less capable than white people, it’s that “black culture” is holding them back. It isn’t that people from the Middle East are genetically prone to violence and intolerance, it’s “Islamic culture” that drives them to it. This is also the connection between “political correctness” and “moral relativism”:
“I think it comes down to a perception that America has already drowned in a post-modernist nightmare of moral relativism, from which extreme political correctness and protest culture stem. Trump, on the other hand, is all absolutes. Everything he says, accurate or not, is stated in absolute, definitive terms. His personal morality is clear: He respects people who work hard, are loyal, innovate, and ‘win,’ and he shuns those who don’t meet the criteria. Cruel as it may sound, I think America needs to reenergize these fundamental cultural values before we can ever hope to create a better society.”
Obviously, this person has no idea what the words they’re using actually mean – how could “protest culture” possibly stem from a lack of strong morals?4 What they’re talking about is accepting other culture’s values and practices as potentially valid ones. That’s why the preferable alternative is “absolute” support of America’s own “cultural values.” And that’s why it’s okay for people of any race to live and work in America – as long as they adhere to the right standards. The correct ones, in terms of politics.
It isn’t just that these people don’t want to explicitly argue that white men should be the center of everything, it’s that they can’t. When the implicit centering of white male opinions is the foundation of your worldview, requests that you incorporate other people’s opinions into your understanding become literally incomprehensible. Because the demand doesn’t make sense, it gets understood as something else. Ergo, the request that you let other people talk becomes an attack on “free speech,” and the insistence that other people’s opinions are more valid than yours on certain issues becomes “censorship.”
To understand this technically, the old regime of pure segregation is dead, for a number of reasons, and there are two possible alternatives we can pursue in its wake.5 The issue is not whether we’re going to have an all-white society or a diverse society. That ship has sailed. Globalization is the fact of the matter. The question is how we’re going to respond to it, and this is what Trump supporters are supporting: one answer to that question. They oppose “multiculturalism,” under which there are multiple valid cultural standards, and support “inclusiveness,” under which there is one standard that everyone is allowed (meaning required) to follow. “Inclusiveness” means including many different types of people in one culture. “Multiculturalism” means multiple different cultures all overlapping and interacting with each other.
If this seems overly theoretical, some practical examples should clarify that this is both a wide-ranging issue that is currently in high contention, and a basic practical distinction that you probably understand implicitly. Once upon a time, there was a thing called the “Western literary canon,” which included all of the most important stuff that white men ever did. This was a single standard for intellectualism: if you were familiar with it, then you were “educated”; if not, then not. Eventually, it was subjected to the obvious criticism that people other than white men have also done important stuff, and there are two possible responses to this criticism. One is to include non-white-male works in the canon, so that it’s still a single standard, but now it’s fair and representative and accessible to everybody. The other is to kill it, based on the argument that you can’t come up with any kind of objective standard as to which works are the “most important.” Were this situation to obtain, there would not be a single standard, but rather multiple different overlapping sets of works that different groups of people considered important for different reasons.
Another good example is music, which, for reasons that are beyond the scope of this already-bloated post, is ground zero for multiculturalism. The most prominent instance here is gangsta rap. The reason white people flipped their shit when gangsta rap got popular was that it operates under a different standard of values than conventional pop music; it does a different type of thing. It presents black criminals as subjects to be understood as subjects rather than as cautionary objects to be pointed at from a safe distance. Hence the claim that it “glorifies bad behavior”: white people were trying to understand it using their own set of values, whereby pop music is supposed to be abstracted and aspirational. Naturally, then, the hip-hop artists that white people single out for praise are those who are “socially conscious” and “professional” – the ones who follow the correct set of values.
Arbitrarily many examples of this pattern may be accumulated. We have TV shows like Master of None, where an Indian-American is portrayed as an everyman and immigrant experiences are normalized, plays like Hamilton, which reverse-whitewashes American history, and pop stars like Rhianna, whose persona is based on the idea that she’s the “bad” kind of black woman. Regardless of how good any of these things are, the point is that they represent a fundamental shift in perspective. The ideal of inclusion is that non-white people are accepted as long as they acclimate themselves to white people’s standards and practices. Everybody can, in theory, have equal rights, as long as what they’re equal to is white people’s standards. We are currently on the border between this ideal and the ideal of multiculturalism: the idea that there are multiple, simultaneous, equally valid (at least potentially) sets of standards.6
So the reason this distinction is flaring up right now is that we’re on a tipping point: multiculturalism exists, but it isn’t fully accepted, and the wave is eventually going to break one way or the other. And the reason the issue has specific political significance is, of course, Black Jesus. It is the least coincidental thing ever that this is happening at the end of the first black president’s term and in opposition to the possibility of the first female president – and in response to both of them being heralded as “progress,” as the wave of the future. Trump supporters see that the tide is turning against them, and they are desperately trying to hold the line.
Now, you might find this is a little odd. Surely Obama, though a black man, represents the interests of the white supremacist ruling class, and is therefore a perfect example of inclusiveness and not multiculturalism, right? And Clinton re: feminism7 and both of them re: capitalism and everything else are all pretty much the same deal. So why the animus? Well, one way to look at it is that Obama has a bad habit of saying things like “if I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.” Policy aside, when Mr. America says things like that, it conveys the idea that black people count as equal participants in society. That, y’know, they matter.
Liberals like to imagine that this whole problem is just a misunderstanding. If only conservatives knew “the facts,” and gave up their “conspiracy theories,” they’d stop “voting against their own interests.” Conservatives, whether they realize it or not, have a better understanding of the situation – they understand that symbols are real things. You can’t just put a black man in charge of a fundamentally racist country and expect everything to keep humming along. Something has to give, and what conservatives are doing is trying to make sure that the future breaks one way and not the other. They know that if they allow the door to be left ajar, it’s eventually going to get kicked open.
This might not seem like that big of a deal in the grand scheme of things, but it is. I said earlier that this was not a matter of mere aesthetics, and it’s not: it’s a matter of deep aesthetics. Going from being the center of the universe to not being the center of the universe is actually the largest possible transition. It’s the death of god. Remember when everyone got all freaked out at the possibility that the Earth might revolve around the Sun, and not t’other way ’round? Why would that matter? What possible implications for daily human life follow from the particular implementation details of how planets move around? The answer is that it implies that humans are not the center of the universe, that we happen to exist in the universe rather than the universe existing for us, and this is an unacceptable conclusion. Consider similarly the broad popularity of Lovecraft-style “cosmic horror,” where the entire thing that’s scary about it is that humans are not accorded a privileged position in the universe.
Again, symbols are real things, which means that these sorts of shifts have real, practical consequences. The recent sea change regarding rape culture is entirely due to the fact that women have centered the conversation on themselves. This change would not have been possible as long as men controlled the discourse – no amount of “argument” or “reason” would have done the job. Like all political questions, it’s a question of who counts. There remains the work of translating symbolic gains into both policy changes and broader cultural changes, but what makes these next steps possible is the initial symbolic action of changing perspectives.
Understanding this, Trump supporters are trying to shut the door – to recenter white men’s opinions as the universal standard of judgment. This is why it is coherent for Trump to propose an ideological test for immigrants. Everyone is welcome, as long as they properly assimilate themselves to our standards. The reason conservatives constantly harp on symbolic culture-war issues is because they know that there’s a fight to be had. It’s not misdirection or confusion; it’s good tactics. Which is not to say I’m accusing anyone involved of an excess of imagination. Going “back” to the days of unquestioned white normality is just as impossible as “staying the course.” But this raises a contradiction, because we never actually stopped clinging to “traditional American values.” What happened in response to the post-war equality movements was that we reinterpreted them as being about traditional values all along – as though the founders actually had desegregation (or even abolition) in mind when they wrote that “all men are created equal.” And, as mentioned, the ruling class has fully assimilated these movements in the name of inclusiveness, staving off (for now) their radical potential. But if no one who matters is actually advocating multiculturalism, then why have conservatives devolved into aggrieved reactionaries?
You’ve probably been waiting for me to point out the most obvious flaw in the anti-PC argument, which is that it gets the situation exactly backwards. It is black people who are forced to tiptoe around the issue of racism; white people are more than welcome to express their grievances as bluntly and stupidly as possible. Most of all, what characterizes anti-PC arguments is manliness: we need to “toughen up” and stop being so “sensitive.” This is the same thing that characterizes most of Trump’s rhetoric, and it gives the lie to the idea that anything he’s doing is actually unacceptable, because there is nothing more socially acceptable then masculinity. The sad truth is that the situation that reactionaries long for is already the case: white male opinions were never decentered. This explains the fundamental paradox of political correctness. Anti-PC people attack the idea that one’s means of expression should be restricted, and they do this by insisting that others adopt the correct means of expression. “Merry Christmas.” “Islamic terrorism.” “All lives matter.” We must use these exact words, the politically correct terminology.8 What political correctness actually is, then, is the maintenance of white male normativity.
We got a very clear example of how this works recently, when Clinton made her “basket of deplorables” comment. This should have been a slam dunk: it’s an entirely accurate and damning description of the situation, and it’s also an appealingly honest assessment of the type that a normal uncoached human would make. Clinton was both making a strong argument for herself and overcoming her primary flaw. She was telling it like it is. As it turns out, though, what she said was politically incorrect: she was immediately and roundly criticized not for being wrong (she wasn’t), but for saying something she shouldn’t have said. There was no praise for her “authenticity,” no celebration that a politician was finally speaking the unvarnished truth, no defense that she was just making a point and didn’t really mean it. She had committed the unforgivable sin of violating white people’s safe space, and she did it without even issuing a trigger warning.
And it is because political correctness is the maintenance of normativity that Donald Trump is its avatar. This is why someone as incompetent as Trump has been so successful: because he’s on the winning team. Trump is not the less conventional version of the typical Republican candidate; he is the more conventional version. He is the most conventional person possible. This is the truly fatal flaw in the argument against political correctness: the people who rail against it are the most conventional, unoriginal, safe thinkers of all. Their transgressions are barely even performative. Speaking out against political correctness is easy. It’s expected. It’s politically correct.
Think about the content of Trump’s insults toward his opponents: they’re corrupt, they’re liars, they’re not tough enough. These are all completely conventional arguments! They’re the exact things we hear over and over again in every election, and yet somehow when Trump says them they become some sort of horrifying breach of civilized norms, or something. The position that all politicians are clowns and we need a rough tough action ranger to come in and shake things up is the most conventional political opinion that it is possible to hold. Do I really need to point out that Trump, is, like, famous? That he’s conventionally successful within current social parameters? That he gets constant media coverage? That none of this would be possible if anything he said or did were actually beyond the pale? That, in certain circumstances, criticism actually functions as validation? That this can only mean that all of his statements and actions are socially acceptable?
For example, Trump doesn’t explicitly support fringe conspiracy theories; rather, his characteristic move is to fail to deny them. “Some people are saying that, I don’t know, you tell me.” Again, it’s odd that people view this sort of thing as “telling it like it is.” So what is it, actually? What it is is a matter of perspective. If you want to know what Obama’s religion is, the obvious thing to do is to ask him, because, like, he’d know. But this requires you to do something unusual: it requires you to accept a black person’s perspective as a valid source of truth. Thus, the basic act of raising the question, of refusing to consider the matter settled, performs an important political function: it recenters the issue on white people. It isn’t a fact until white people accept it. And the media is, for the most part, completely fine with treating things this way. As long as white people have opinions on something, no matter how dumb they are, it’s a “controversy,” and we need to “hear both sides.”
Trump’s strength is not that he is an “unconventional” candidate who’s willing to “say anything” because he’s not bound by the “normal” constraints of politics. It is exactly the opposite. Trump is a hyper-normative candidate: what is unusual about him is that he takes the conventional wisdom too seriously, without a protective layer of cynicism. It is this that comes across as “sincere” to his supporters, who are also true believers in the lies. It’s not just the deep unoriginality of all of Trump’s (attempts at) policy proposals; it’s that his entire angle rests on appealing to cheap cliches and uninterrogated conventional wisdom. This lack of nuance is not an intellectual failing; it is itself a value. It is the point.
The truth behind Trump’s blatant lack of substance is not that he has “fooled” people and “fallen through the cracks” of the vetting process, but that he has passed the actual test. He may have dented the empty shibboleths of respectability (which exist primarily so that pundits can congratulate themselves on upholding them), but he has obeyed to the letter the real rules of the game – he has succeeded according to the parameters of the system. This is what’s really scary about his campaign: not that it is “abnormal,” but that it is the most normal thing that has ever happened.
But now we’ve actually worsened our contradiction; it seems like political correctness isn’t even a matter of optics anymore. What is haunting Trump supporters is only the specter of multiculturalism. But if the ruling class supports a standard of inclusiveness to ward off the threat of multiculturalism, and if Trump supporters are fighting for the same thing, for the same reason, then why the conflict? And if Trump supporters are merely drawing at shadows, then whence their zealotry? Why are they acting like this is some sort of civilization-defining struggle? What could they possibly want that they don’t already have? Are they actually fighting for nothing?
Yes. That’s exactly it. They are fighting for nothing.
(Christ, this is ponderous even by my standards. Music break.)
We still haven’t quite answered the question of “why Trump?” Again, his angle isn’t actually different from the Republican party line, so it seems like any other candidate should have been able to ride the same wave. I mean, all of them made a big show about being the most opposed to Obama and hating Muslims the most and all the usual garbage. Why the preference for the least competent and most clownish version of the same old thing? At this point, to simply ask the question is to be confronted with the truth, in all its terrible clarity. It is precisely because Trump is a pudgy, bumbling, fraudulent, crude, petty, egotistical know-nothing that he is the only candidate who can carry this torch. Donald Trump is the human personification of mediocrity, and this is the true source of his power.
Recall that Trump supporters like the idea that he’s Big Bobby Businesspants and he’s going to “make deals” and hire “the best people” and so forth. The question, again, is: why is this a difference between Trump and the rest of the Republican clown car? The idea that “government should be run like a business” is among the party’s most tired cliches. Specifically, they just had a candidate who was precisely an empty business suit with magic underwear beneath it: Mitt Romney. And yet Romney is now somehow part of the craven political establishment that Trump voters are telling to take a hike. So: what is the substantive distinction between Business Douche Mitt Romney and Business Turd Donald Trump?9
The difference is just that: one of them is a douche and one of them is a turd.10 Romney presents himself like a professional. He doesn’t look like a hamster wearing a chinchilla suit or talk like an abortive Turing Test attempt. He seems like he might actually know some stuff about business, as opposed to being an expert in bankruptcy, he’s genuinely religious, as opposed to quoting from “Two Corinthians,” and he’s an actual family man, as opposed to . . . well, you know. Romney acts like an actual elite, whereas Trump acts like a hobo’s idea of a rich person.
Pay attention, because this is where it gets important. Certain types of people will look at a dynamic like this and conclude that Trump supporters must be stupid: why else would they support the wrong kind of rich person? Thinking of people you don’t understand as stupid is how you prevent yourself from learning anything. We’re all familiar with Donald Trump the television character, but that’s just it: we’re all familiar with him. No one is confused about who Donald Trump is. Trump supporters are looking at the same person the rest of us are, but they’re judging him by a different standard. So, given that Trump supporters actually like their candidate, what is their standard of judgment? What are the criteria, the values, by which Trump as opposed to Romney is judged to be the right kind of rich person? Trump supporters want him to hold the highest office in the land; they are trying to create a world where Trump is the true definition of an elite. (Continue to take deep breaths.)
Some intriguing evidence here comes from one of Friedersdorf’s correspondents, via an analogy to The Great Gatsby:
“Perhaps Nick Carraway is representative of the disillusioned ‘Silent Majority’ wishing to ‘Make America Great Again.’ Donald Trump personifies a modern-day, extremely brash Jay Gatsby, clawing feverishly for that elusive ‘green light’ at the end of Daisy Buchanan’s beckoning dock. Is it not better to place your chips on hopes and dreams rather than certain nightmares? Those of us who buy into Trump’s vision, nearly to the point of blind trust, are loudly professing our disgust with the current immoral situations that taint and threaten our blueprint of the American dream.”
I trust that you have some initial difficulty understanding how anyone can look to Jay Gatsby as a positive archetype. It is true that, unlike everyone around him, Gatsby actually wants something, but he goes about it in the worst possible way. In blind pursuit of an uninterrogated goal, he embraces everything base and grotesque about his society, squandering his talents and charisma, such that his downfall becomes inevitable. There’s ultimately no possibility that Daisy will accept him, because he has nothing different to offer her. He is merely a less stable instance of the same pile of trash. The whole point of the book is that the standards to which Gatsby acclimates himself are horrible; if he’s the best kind of elite we’ve got, we’re screwed. All of which is to say that the word “great” in the title of The Great Gatsby has a very peculiar meaning – the same meaning that it has in the slogan “make America great again.” It indicates inspired adherence to hidebound goals, the subordination of the flame of life to the dead weight of the past. It is, in other words, not greatness at all. It is mediocrity.
Take special note of the phrase “threaten our blueprint of the American dream” (also go ahead and laugh at “taint” if you need to cheer yourself up). In 2005, in response to a reported design flaw in the original PlayStation Portable hardware, Sony President Ken Kutaragi argued that “nobody would criticize a renowned architect’s blueprint that the position of a gate is wrong.” Obviously, this is absurd; the whole point of being a “renowned architect” is that you don’t get things like this wrong. More significantly, an expert, properly understood, is not someone who simply knows how to do one thing well and doesn’t accept criticism. It is someone with a deep and broad understanding of their discipline, such that they can draw from different traditions and techniques as applicable, in order to meet a variety of standards at once. A true expert must be multicultural.
So if we want to be better at creating a society than Sony is at creating hardware, “threatening the blueprint of the American dream” is exactly what we ought to be doing. Like, this isn’t super hard to understand. America was founded on slavery and genocide. It is not a legacy to uphold; it is a challenge to overcome. America is just a blip on the historical timeline, and even within that blip, what we consider “American values” today would be unrecognizable to the people who founded the country. To embrace the “American dream” as being “good enough” is to embrace mediocrity. To pursue greatness is, instead, to challenge our received values: to strike at the old idols, to destroy the standards that constrain rather than elevate, and to create new, better values.
And this is the exact thing that Trump supporters are afraid of. Remember how the only demographic correlate that explains them is that they’re suicidally desperate white people? What causes desperation? It’s not setbacks or difficulty, it’s when standards change, such that you realize that you have no hope of succeeding, no matter how well you do. These people were born into a world where they were inherently important just because of who they were, and that world is passing them by. The new world will, in fact, be just as bad: the crumbs will simply be portioned out based on utility to capital rather than identity. But when it’s your identity that’s on the chopping block, it’s a little hard to care about getting things right. Much easier, and much more comforting, to simply reassert your initial claim: to reappropriate the concept of greatness for yourself, based on nothing. Who better, then, to represent this ideology than a mediocre white man who thinks he’s better than everyone else? What better enemy than a historically accomplished black person?
Now, obviously, all politicians are mediocrities, it’s the nature of the enterprise, but the thing about Trump’s primary opponents is that they all had something going for them. Bush was the well-bred, establishment-backed dynast, Rubio was the bright young star, and Cruz was the sharp, passionate intellectual (I guess). Rubio in particular is an important point of comparison, because he was the Chosen One, the person who was going to bring balance to the Force save the GOP from itself. He was supposed to have crafted the Great Compromise on immigration, enabling him to ride the wave of accomplishment and Latinx support into higher office. He blew it about as hard as possible, but the point is that he represented a new direction for the party, and this was scary. Not to mention the fact that, you know, he was a Cuban named “Marco Rubio.” What Trump represented that no other candidate did was a steadfast refusal to accommodate to a new future. It is appropriate, then, for the man who represents this to be a gigantic baby, because he actually functions as a security blanket.
While Trump also “has something going for him” – his alleged business acumen – it’s a very particular type of “something.” It doesn’t require him to know anything or have actual skills, he just has to “delegate” and make “judgment calls.” He has to have “leadership,” which is not actually a thing.11 And of course he has to have been born rich, such that being a rich fuck is his identity rather than a contingent result of particular circumstances. It doesn’t even matter if his tax returns come out and he turns out to be broke – he can never not be a rich fuck. Trump is not a Steve Jobs type who is known for his vision and for pushing new ideas. He doesn’t actually advance anything, he just “makes deals.” He defends his sorry escapades in Atlantic City not by pointing to anything he actually accomplished or any lives that he actually made better, but simply by pointing out that, hey, he made out all right. What else is there?
The critical contradiction in the schoolbook version of capitalism is that, on the one hand, the only rule of capitalism is fair exchange: giving equal value for equal value. A worker is supposedly hired at a rate that equals their marginal contribution to production, meaning it should be a wash for the business. A perfectly efficient market is one where nobody makes any profit – but the possibility of profit is the only thing that motivates businesses to exist in the first place. The missing ingredient is exploitation: getting more out of an exchange than you put in. In other words, making a “good deal.” Of course, this is not a hypothetical argument. The fantasy of capitalism is actually true: some people really do get their money for nothing and their chicks for free.
The reason for the popularity of MBAs and management books and soforth is that they promise entry into the fantasy world. The idea that there is such a thing as a “business secret” betrays the fact that there is no real skill involved; it is merely a matter of positioning yourself on the right side of “the deal” (The Secret itself is exactly the same thing). And this, also, is why real estate and stock picking and other forms of capital investment are such hot topics among wannabe business assholes: because they let you make money without actually doing anything. It is this desire that Trump University exploited. If you just learn Trump’s “business secrets,” you too can be a self-important jackass with more money than sense. Per capitalism, business – the “art of the deal” – is actually the art of taking credit for other people’s work.
(Hence it is beyond appropriate that The Art of The Deal itself was 100% ghostwritten. This is what I’m talking about when I say that Trump is the most normal candidate possible: everything about him lines up perfectly. Honesty, the only thing that’s strange is that we didn’t see it coming.)
Some people consider things like skill and wisdom to be beneath them. Not only do they care only about being “in charge” rather than actually being good, they specifically desire arbitrary power. It’s not really power if you have to earn it; authority is necessarily unjustified. The Trump fantasy is about becoming rich and powerful without ever learning anything or developing any skills, and the reason it’s convincing is that Trump is exactly that person. In other words, the fantasy of the business mogul is the same as the fantasy of the white master race, or the fantasy of the masculine genius. It is the fantasy of abstract greatness, untethered from any of the inconveniences of hard work or introspection or compromise or doubt. Rather than having the capability of greatness, you simply are great, just because, and you can just sit there feeling great without actually doing anything. It is about being someone great rather than actually doing something great.
If Trump’s appeal is his self-presentation as a great businessman, then the specifics of his business practices – the nature of his “greatness” – is the critical point. Liberals have attempted to exploit this by pointing out that Trump isn’t actually any good at business, but this argument falls to one of the most basic rejoinders: if you’re so smart, why ain’t you rich? The fact is, entirely apart from any practical assessment of what he’s done with his life, Trump lives like a successful business mogul, and for his supporters, that is the entire game. It is, in fact, better for them that Trump has gotten where he is without ever actually accomplishing anything, because that just makes him more of a winner. The truth is that Trump’s mediocrity is not a liability that must be covered by a con; it is an asset – it is his only asset. People support Trump precisely because he is a mediocre businessman.
Another way of saying this is that Trump is a mansplainer. The salient aspect of his much-parodied speaking style is that he talks as though everything he can think of to say is meaningful simply because he’s the one thinking it and saying it. More notable than anything that he actually says is the fact that he just keeps talking. He has to be sure that everyone knows his dumbass opinions about every single thing that happens (hence also his identification with Twitter). The core element of mansplaining12 is believing that you know better than someone else just because of who you are, and who they are. If you try to interrogate the situation to determine who knows what, you run the risk of exposing yourself as ignorant, having your preconceptions shattered, and losing your glib self-assurance. In order to maintain your own sense of importance, you lock yourself in your own perspective, and talk over anything that might refute you. Rather than trying for greatness, you settle for mediocrity, and then just mouth off as though there were no discussion to be had. This is exactly what Trump does, every second of every day. He obviously knows nothing about anything, but he thinks he does, just because he’s a rich white man. His own perspective is the only one he sees any value in considering. It doesn’t matter how long the generals have been fighting ISIS, or what the demographic and economic indicators say about immigration, or what the actual crime statistics are. They can’t possibly tell him anything he hasn’t already figured out, because if they could, that would mean that he’s not special. He’s just some guy. And it is because he is not actually good at anything real that he has no option other than to embrace every practice designed to make useless white men feel better about themselves. Trump is every oppressive social schema crammed together into an approximation of a human being; he is the anthropomorphic personification of unearned and unjustified advantage, and people support him because they want to maintain those advantages for themselves. I mean, it’s pretty obvious that what Trump is doing could never come close to working for anyone other than a white man, right? That even a milquetoast centrist like Hillary Clinton has to constantly walk on eggshells to cover for literally the one thing that differentiates her from any other central-casting political operative?
This is also the significance of Trump’s beyond-parody aesthetics: he’s too good to have good taste. Good taste requires learning about things and placing them in context and exercising restraint and taking other people’s subjectivity into account. All that shit is for poor people. What’s the stuff that only rich people can afford? Gold. Marble. Tall buildings. Whatever, just cram it all together and put my name on it so everyone knows I have more money than them. Oh, you think it’s tacky and stupid and wasteful? Fuck you, I’m going to make it ten feet taller and slap another coat of gold paint on it.
In the same sense, this is why, for some people, a burlap mannequin like Trump is actually appealing as a person. His personal shoddiness proves that you can be a big fancy rich asshole without actually having to make the effort to be any kind of worthwhile person. You don’t actually have to bother trying or looking halfway presentable, as long as you’re the right kind of person. Trump’s “authenticity” has nothing to do with whether he’s sincere or truthful; it’s that no amount of money can disguise the fact that he is a true schlub.
You may be thinking that all of this sounds like the opposite of Trump’s promise to “make America great again,” but remember what we’re talking about here. We’re talking about the feeling of greatness minus the substance. The key word is not “great,” but “again.” Hence the advocacy of simplistic nationalism in response to globalization. Hence unjustified confidence and bluster as a response to the hollowness of standard political discourse. Hence, especially, The Wall, which represents escaping from all problems by simply shutting out the rest of the world, responding to the fear of the monster in your closet by hiding under the covers. The slogan would be better rendered as “make Americans feel like precious little angels again.”
All the statistical details about how immigration affects the economy are entirely beside the point. What immigration means is change: it means that the country is going to become something different than what it is right now. The ideal of inclusiveness – of “melting pot culture” – is a safeguard against this. It’s okay for lots of different types of people to come here, as long as they play by our rules, as long as they do their part to keep our country the way we want it, as long as they don’t do upsetting things like speaking Spanish in public or wearing burkas to the beach. People seemed to get a little bit confused when Trump referred to himself as “Mr. Brexit,” but whether he actually had any idea what he was talking about or not,13 he was exactly right. Brexit represents exactly the same thing as The Wall: responding to the big scary outside world by shutting your eyes and plugging your ears.
It is a necessary aspect of greatness that you can’t get it back – it is something that flares up and then burns out. This is the danger that’s always present in “comebacks” from great artists. They’re exciting because they offer the promise of the same original inspiration channeled through improved skills and experience, but that can’t actually happen. They’ll either be trying to do the same thing they did before, in which case it will necessarily manifest itself as a pale imitation, or they’ll do something different, in which case it might actually be great, but it won’t be the same greatness. The recent Stooges album (yes, there was one; no, you don’t need to know anything about it) was completely pointless, because the Stooges can’t exist in the current situation, even when they are the actual Stooges themselves. Whereas Sleater-Kinney’s recent album (which wasn’t really a comeback, but close enough) is actually great, because, as they always do, they did something different. It’s not another album from a ’90s band, it’s a new response to a new situation. What Trump supporters are opposed to is doing something – anything – different.
And since this is what we’re actually talking about when we talk about “traditional American values,” this isn’t some new thing that’s happening just now. We’ve been slowly drowning in it for a very long time. Consider the commonplace idea that “real Americans” are “salt-of-the-earth types” who believe in “traditional values.” Even ignoring how much bullshit this is and taking it on its own terms, isn’t this a completely lousy ideal? It’s an attack against any kind of self-improvement at all; not merely acceptance of current circumstances, but active embrace of the idea that one ought not do any better then one is already doing. It is love of mediocrity.
It’s been noted that Trump is the least plausible candidate to garner evangelical support, ever (especially since Clinton appears to have sincere religious beliefs that she doesn’t go around throwing in people’s faces), but this assumes that evangelicals adhere to the commonly-portrayed peace-and-love fairydust version of Christianity. They don’t. That is not their actual religion. In truth, Trump is a devout believer in exactly the same faith as evangelical Christians. You may have heard recently about something called the “prosperity gospel,” which is essentially bizarro Calvinism. The world is divided up into the “saved” and the “damned” (a.k.a. “winners” and “losers”), but what separates them is not divine predestination, and it’s also not faith or good works. It’s just money. But money by itself is an empty heuristic, and the prosperity gospel mostly appeals to poor people. So it’s not about being rewarded for hard work or anything like that. It’s just about showing up and deciding that you’re going to be one of the “saved.” It is, again, exactly the same appeal as that of The Secret, and of Trump University.
In other words, “positive thinking” is an alternative means of support for the belief that you’re special just because of who you are. And for people with that belief, the fact that the world is simply too complex for any one person to understand is unacceptable. If understanding the world requires keeping an open mind and listening to lots of people with different backgrounds and perspectives, this necessarily compels the conclusion that white people, and men, and you, are not special.14 Each person simply has one perspective among many.
The psychological aspect of white supremacy is the belief that a mediocre white person deserves more than an accomplished black person, a.k.a. Abigail Fisher Syndrome. When Abigail Fisher doesn’t get into UT Austin because she’s a mediocre student, she doesn’t take advantage of the transfer program and resolve to work harder. That would be admitting that she wasn’t good enough; she doesn’t actually want to go to Austin, she wants to be thetype of person who gets in to Austin. That’s why she has to argue that she deserved it in the first place. She can’t just live her own life, she has to make a federal case out of it. Trump becoming president would prove that white male privilege trumps everything else, and that is what his supporters are voting for.
If white people really were superior, there would be no need for white supremacy. This has always been the central contradiction in oppressive discourse: it tries to portray the oppressed group as both hopelessly inferior and overwhelmingly dangerous at the same time. If black people are simply criminal thugs, how are they capable of destabilizing a well-designed society? If women are fundamentally unserious, then why do they have to be bullied out of public spaces? The truth is that oppressed groups really are a threat to polite society, for the precise reason that polite society sucks.
So when your John Oliver types try to argue that Trump is not actually a winner, but is in fact a loser, they are entirely missing the point. Trump is evidently on top of the world; he has won. So the only coherent response here is to argue that Trump has won at a bad game – but that game is American society itself. Again, regardless of how much of a fraud Trump is, he actually is a rich fuck. Our society has decided, implicitly, to value his contributions at an extremely high level. If this was a bad decision, then the aspects of our society that enabled it have to be destroyed. There is no other way to prevent the next Donald Trump from arising. Trumpism actually does represent the limitations of American politics, not because it is an “aberration” that has “broken” the system, but because it is the complete fulfillment of our current discursive structure. To counter it with “normalcy” is to ensure its survival. To respond to the specific immorality and incompetence of Trump himself by clinging to “American values” is to accept a state of permanent Trumpism. I mean, if Trump himself is the problem, then an honest, even-tempered, respectful candidate who advocated the same policies would be perfectly acceptable. Right? Actually, the inverse case is far more apropos: a candidate who was just as much of a ridiculous jackass but who actually advocated good policies would be someone we would be right to support, even though we would have to fight the New York Times in order to do it.
What the Trump campaign truly represents, then, is the retrenchment of mediocrity against the threat of greatness. This, finally, is the real danger, the worm gnawing at the roots of the human project. If mediocrity means accepting what we’ve already got as being “good enough,” then it is a natural fact that mediocrity rules. Once achieved, goals become crutches; once instantiated, vision becomes constraint. As soon as you settle, you’re dead. Which is why fighting for the absolute validity of any one standard is ultimately the same as fighting for nothing. If you win, you will accomplish only the destruction of your sole defense against the inexorable march of time, which is guaranteed to leave you bleached in the desert alongside Ozymandias.
This dynamic was well understood by mediocrity’s most implacable foe: Friedrich Nietzsche. First, because this is just completely amazing, here is Nietzsche’s commentary on our current situation:
“We ‘good Europeans’ – we, too, know hours when we permit ourselves some hearty fatherlandishness, a plop and relapse into old loves and narrownesses – I have just given a sample of that [ed: Nietzsche is referring to his own feelings about Richard Wagner] – hours of national agitations, patriotic palpitations, and various other sorts of archaizing sentimental inundations. More ponderous spirits than we are may require more time to get over what with us takes only hours and in a few hours has run its course: some require half a year, others half a life, depending on the speed and power of their digestion and metabolism. Indeed, I could imagine dull and sluggish races who would require half a century even in our rapidly moving Europe to overcome such atavistic attacks of fatherlandishness and soil addiction and to return to reason, meaning ‘good Europeanism.’
As I am digressing to this possibility, it so happens that I become an ear-witness of a conversation between two old ‘patriots’: apparently both were hard of hearing and therefore spoke that much louder.
‘He thinks and knows as much of philosophy as a peasant or a fraternity student,’ said one; ‘he is still innocent. But what does it matter today? This is the age of the masses: they grovel on their bellies before anything massive. In politicis, too. A statesman who piles up for them another tower of Babel, a monster of empire and power, they call ‘great’; what does it matter that we, more cautious and reserved, do not yet abandon the old faith that only a great thought can give a deed or cause greatness. Suppose a statesman put his people in a position requiring them to go in for ‘great politics’ from now on, though they were ill-disposed for that by nature and ill-prepared as well, so that they would find it necessary to sacrifice their old and secure virtues for the sake of a novel and dubious mediocrity – suppose a statesman actually condemned his people to ‘politicking’ although so far they had better things to do and think about, and deep down in their souls they had not got rid of a cautious disgust with the restlessness, emptiness, and noisy quarrelsomeness of peoples that really go in for politicking – suppose such a statesman goaded the slumbering passions and lusts of his people, turning their diffidence and delight in standing aside into a blot, their cosmopolitan and secret infinity into a serious wrong, devaluating their most cordial inclinations, inverting their conscience, making their spirit narrow, their taste ‘national’ – what! a statesman who did all this, for whom his people would have to atone for all future time, if they have any future, such a statesman should be great?’
‘Without a doubt!’ the other patriot replied vehemently; ‘otherwise he would not have been able to do it. Perhaps it was insane to want such a thing? But perhaps everything great was merely insane when it started.’
‘An abuse of words!’ his partner shouted back; ‘strong! Strong and insane! Not great!’
The old men had obviously become heated as they thus flung their truths into each other’s faces; but I, in my happiness and beyond, considered how soon one stronger will become master over the strong; also that for the spiritual flattening of a people there is a compensation, namely the deepening of another people.”
Returning to business, and sparing you the disquisition on how thoroughly Nietzsche has been misrepresented on this point, the relevant argument is as follows:
“In an age of disintegration that mixes races indiscriminately, human beings have in their bodies the heritage of multiple origins, that is, opposite, and often not merely opposite, drives and value standards that fight each other and rarely permit each other any rest. Such human beings of late cultures and refracted lights will on the average be weaker human beings: their most profound desire is that the war that they are should come to an end. Happiness appears to them, in agreement with a tranquilizing (for example, Epicurean or Christian) medicine and way of thought, pre-eminently as the happiness of resting, of not being disturbed, of satiety, of finally attained unity, as a “sabbath of sabbaths,” to speak with the holy rhetorician Augustine who was himself such a human being.
But when the opposition and war in such a nature have the effect of one more charm and incentive of life – and if, moreover, in addition to his powerful and irreconcilable drives, a real mastery and subtlety in waging war against oneself, in other words, self-control, self-outwitting, has been inherited or cultivated, too – then those magical, incomprehensible, and unfathomable ones arise, those enigmatic men predestined for victory and seduction, whose most beautiful expression is found in Alcibiades and Caesar (to whose company I should like to add that first European after my taste, the Hohenstaufen Frederick II), and among artists perhaps Leonardo da Vinci. They appear in precisely the same ages when that weaker type with its desire for rest comes to the fore: both types belong together and owe their origin to the same causes.”
The narrowness of a single set of unquestioned values, as seen most prominently in nationalism, is a source of power, but also a fatal restriction. It offers an easily-understood goal to aim for, at the cost of being completely unable to operate outside of the context of that one goal. When one gains the “historical sense” of other cultures and value systems, one comes to understand one’s own values as transient, contingent, and even accidental, and one is inflicted with doubt. It becomes impossible to advance once you start thinking that every step you take might be in the wrong direction. This is the threat of multiculturalism – it is what the ranters against “postmodern political correctness” are actually afraid of. Recall that the argument is often along the lines of “things are changing too fast” and “it’s impossible to keep up with all the new terminology” and “you can never know what the right thing to say is.” This is exactly what we’re talking about: people don’t know how to deal with clashing standards.
Naturally, then, there are two possible responses. One is simply to reject doubt – to build a wall against the influences of other cultures. This allows you to “go back” to advancing in the way you were before, but only in the sense of mere denial. You already know that your teleology is phantasmic, so all you’re really doing is going to sleep. The other option is to embrace danger, to harness the conflict within yourself and start moving, even in uncertainty, even knowing that your pursuit may soon reveal itself as quixotic. Indeed, one may even value this danger itself, accepting that the struggle to determine how to advance is part of what advancement itself actually is.
We are, of course, living in an “age of disintegration” with far more “mixing” going on than Nietzsche could ever have anticipated, and the primary response to this has been cowardice. There’s too much noise, too much tension, and all anybody wants is for it all to go away. We want things to “make sense” again. And while it actually is legitimately scary, this is still a better situation than any possible alternative, because it means that we have a chance. We are not obligated to retreat; we can accept the terms of the battle against ourselves, and we can fight. This is our opportunity to turn our gaze towards actual greatness.
The catch is that it doesn’t come lightly; in fact, everything is organized against it. The revolt of mediocrity is not just expected, it’s built in to the basic structure of how the world works. As Nietzsche points out, morality aside, Social Darwinism doesn’t actually happen. Greatness is not the natural result of an optimization process – any optimization process. It can’t be, for the very reasons we’ve just discussed. On the contrary, all roads lead to mediocrity:
“As for the famous ‘struggle for existence,’ so far it seems to me to be asserted rather than proved. It occurs, but as an exception; the total appearance of life is not the extremity, not starvation, but rather riches, profusion, even absurd squandering – and where there is struggle, it is a struggle for power. One should not mistake Malthus for nature.
Assuming, however, that there is such a struggle for existence – and, indeed, it occurs – its result is unfortunately the opposite of what Darwin’s school desires, and of what one might perhaps desire with them – namely, in favor of the strong, the privileged, the fortunate exceptions. The species do not grow in perfection: the weak prevail over the strong again and again, for they are the great majority – and they are also more intelligent. Darwin forgot the spirit (that is English!); the weak have more spirit. One must need spirit to acquire spirit; one loses it when one no longer needs it. Whoever has strength dispenses with the spirit (‘Let it go!’ they think in German today; ‘the Reich must still remain to us.’). It will be noted that by ‘spirit’ I mean care, patience, cunning, simulation, great self-control, and everything that is mimicry (the latter includes a great deal of so-called virtue).”
“Survival of the fittest” is a somewhat inaccurate term. “Fittest” connotes “strongest” – that is, “greatest” – but what it actually means is “best adapted,” which means it is a quality that is not just contingent on but entirely defined by its environment. Certainly, nothing can be said to be “great” which only applies to one tiny set of arbitrary conditions. In the context of evolution, anything more than what is required for survival and reproduction is a waste of energy. Hence, cavefish evolve to lose their sight – to become weaker and less capable, simply because such capabilities are not required of them. With no adaptive pressure, capabilities above and beyond what is immediately required never evolve – no animal ever becomes any better than it absolutely has to be. Naturally, this trend reaches its zenith in the human body, an absurd tangle of vulnerabilities that barely performs its one function of supporting a bloated mutant brain. In short, evolution does not tend towards greatness; it tends towards mediocrity.
Social evolution works in exactly the same way. From a functional perspective, the most successful people are, in fact, people like Trump: those who do exactly what is required to accumulate resources under the current set of rules, and who don’t waste their time with anything extraneous like imagination or taste or morality. The “starving artist” is a somewhat inaccurate stereotype – people who are genuinely good at something tend to be at least somewhat successful – but it remains the case that the people at the top are generally not the best, but the most broadly palatable – the people with the fewest complications and the simplest focus.
Nietzsche’s counterideal to the rising nationalism of his own time was the “Good European”: one with expansive values and broad allegiances, who undertook the difficult task of loving “the farthest” rather than settling for the easy comfort of merely loving their neighbors. Just so, our present task is to reject the simplistic, small-minded ideals of Americanism, understand ourselves as citizens of humanity, and act accordingly.
I mean, globalization is really a good thing, right? It’s kind of hard to keep this in mind under the current circumstances, but increased cultural exchange and productive efficiency really are beneficial. They make people’s lives better. That’s not where the problem is, and even if it was, the clock’s not going to turn back. The only way to go is forward. We have no other option than to make this work, and a return to an imaginary past – whether the blind conformity of the pretend ’50s or the blithe complacency of the pretend ’90s – is not going to work. We require a different future.
And just so no one gets any silly ideas, the Democrats are not capable of resolving this. They are also the problem. Supporting a candidate based on “competence” and “qualifications” is also active embrace of mediocrity and a retreat into the past – as is claiming that “America is already great.” Hillary Clinton is the candidate of the neoliberal consensus, the goal of which is precisely to establish a fully inclusive system of global exploitation. At this point, that may be the preferable alternative, but it’s still evil. And as the evil that’s actually going to happen, it demands our opposition. To defeat Trumpism via Clintonism is to win the battle and lose the war.
It is no accident that The Wall has become the synecdoche for this entire campaign. It is, of course, the perfect representation of Trump himself: as dull as it is senseless, impressive only in what an absolute waste of space and resources it is. But it is also the prefect representation of the ideology that informs his support. It is something understandable that doesn’t actually make sense. It is the simplest, easiest response to the new problems of a complicated world. It is something that looks big and impressive, but is in fact pathetically small-minded. It is a toddler’s idea of greatness. Look what I built, Mommy. Look how big it is. Aren’t I special? Did I do a good job, Daddy? I did it all by myself; you don’t have to bail me out this time. Are you proud of me? Do you love me now, Daddy?
The Democrats have exploited this metaphor in their amicable, self-serving way, promising instead to “build bridges.” But of course this is no solution; the point is precisely that all those bridges lead to the same place – while leaving the existing walls intact. Because The Wall is not actually something new that is going to be built “over there”; it is something that exists directly in front of each of us. There are walls going around us and through us; they divide our homes and criss-cross our streets; they direct our movements, curtail our futures, and overshadow our thoughts. The job of politics is to decide where to build walls, and the task of liberation is to advance the negative response to this question.
Which is why, despite everything, we’re actually not screwed. Quite the contrary: this is a fight we can never truly lose, because the existence of the struggle itself is already victory. Mediocrity rules, but desire burns. You can quell the voice of doubt in your head down to a whisper, but you can’t silence it. It’s still there, waiting for the still of night to rise up again, to get its claws back in you.
Ultimately, Trump is not the enemy. He is merely the shadow cast by our society, something that has to exist given the way things are right now. He really is just some guy. I’m pretty sure everyone realizes that it’s impossible to avoid picking a side at this point – not that it was ever possible before. But there are more than two sides to each story. It’s not enough to merely be opposed to the worst possible thing. You have to look underneath the speeches and the processions, feel the blood pulsing through the hidden veins of the world, identify the real fault lines, and strike. This is how to tear the walls down.
Not to mention that substituting personality for politics, complete with the culmination of soundbytifying the whole thing into a goofy nickname, is Trump’s exact strategy. Abyss/monsters/etc. ↩
Somebody please come up with a better way to do this. ↩
This is actually pretty funny: the anti-PC argument is that PC types are “relativists” for whom “anything goes,” while simultaneously being uncompromising tyrants who insist on one exacting standard of behavior. ↩
These alternatives are typically conflated via the absolutely meaningless umbrella term “diversity,” which is why we have to go through all of this. ↩
By the way, multiculturalism is not going to be the “end of history” or anything. There will still be a ways to go from there – or, rather, multiple different wayses to go. For one thing, we can question the idea of having standards at all. As Marx said, even true liberation will not be the end of history, but rather the end of “pre-history,” i.e. the beginning. ↩
This is what the term “white feminism” refers to in this context: inclusive but not multicultural feminism. ↩
And this is only a paradox for people who claim they’re opposing the “restrictiveness” of political correctness, because words actually do matter. Not in the Sapir-Whorfian sense that they control what we’re allowed to think, but in the Wittgensteinian sense that they represent collective agreement. ↩
Holy Hera I hate this post. What am I doing with my life. ↩
This is the fatal contradiction in egoism, by the way. If the self is all that matters, then no one can ever have any claims on anyone else, meaning that the self doesn’t matter. In order to argue that, for example, men’s opinions matter more than women’s, you need patriarchy to exist as an external structure that can be appealed to for judgment. Without anything external, you can’t make any claims at all. Egoism is a spook. ↩
Something about the Brexit vote is still nagging at me. I’m honestly not sure why I care – well, aside from the fact that we’re probably watching the opening act for the next generation of racism. I’m not particularly well-informed as to the dynamics of the situation, and the actual consequences of it are likely to be fairly boring after the government jostles and slumps its way into a comfortable position. It’s easy enough to conclude that 52% of any population are uninformed idiots, but this feels like more than just a bad decision. Something about it feels wrong.
The most notable aspect of the voting demographics is the age gap. 73% of 18-to-24-year-olds voted Remain; 60% of those 65 or older voted Leave. The conventional wisdom is that people get more conservative as they get older, but that doesn’t apply here. The conservative choice was Remain; if old people are set in their ways and want to keep things the way they are, that’s how they should have voted. Leaving is precisely the sort of dramatic change that’s considered characteristic of naive young people who want to shake things up.
So what we’re actually looking at here is a values split, and the obvious interpretation is that old people are racist. This is statistically accurate, but it’s a fact that’s never really given its due. We frame racism as a matter of ignorance: racist people supposedly don’t know that there aren’t really major behavioral differences between people of different races. But this is exactly the sort of opinion that should be overcome by the wisdom of experience. The science isn’t difficult to understand, and the topic has been discussed to death; surely anyone who’s been alive for 60 damn years has had enough time to figure this out.
Furthermore, the longer you’ve been alive, the more opportunity you’ve had to be shaken out of your preconceptions by formative experiences. In America, anyone who is in the vicinity of 70 years old today was a young adult during the civil rights movement. As the story goes, this was when Martin Luther King, Jr. calmly and patiently explained to white America that they shouldn’t judge people based on their skin color, so the people who were just becoming politically aware at the time should have internalized this lesson very deeply. Indeed, seeing as today’s young people have not yet experienced a major anti-racist movement, they ought to be the uninformed ones; the demographic situation should be the exact opposite of what it actually is.
From what I understand, British history hasn’t followed the same pattern. Immigration has come up as a big issue only recently, so it seems that even old people have the excuse of inexperience. But then, the same is true of young people, so why the age gap? Again, shouldn’t the situation be the opposite? Shouldn’t young people be reacting naively to immediate events, while old people are able to fit things into a well-developed political framework? The gap, then, must be one of values: regardless of how well-informed anyone is, old people believe in racism and young people don’t (as much). But this is a deeply unfortunate conclusion; it can only mean that values are completely separate from knowledge and experience. If we can’t educate people out of racism, if values fundamentally don’t accord with the truth, then what hope do we have of ever getting this right – of ever getting anything right?
That story about the civil rights movement is indeed the bad kind of myth. What actually happened was that successful political organization resulted in laws and structural changes that made society function in a less racist manner, without changing most people’s minds about it. The result was that subsequent generations were raised under less racist conditions. For example, they were more likely to have childhood friends of different races, interracial relationships were not illegal, and increased financial and educational opportunities meant that adults ended up with more diverse peer groups. The effect was not that anyone’s mind was changed at the time, but rather that a new, less racist generation was created while previous generations stayed the same. The reason people in general are now “less racist” is simply that more racist people have died and less racist people have been born.
(Just so we’re clear, I’m not saying that no one ever changes their values based on experience, just that the effect is dramatically less significant than it’s commonly portrayed to be. Two people can have exactly the same experience and draw opposite moral conclusions from it. Also, I’m not claiming that young people aren’t racist, just that the age gap isn’t merely aesthetic, that it does have some amount of substance behind it.)
This, in fact, is the actual engine of progress: old people fail to indoctrinate the next generation with their ideals, and then they die. The great democratic drama where everyone comes to a rational consensus through reasoned debate is worse than a fantasy; it’s close to being a malicious lie. In the end, the only way to get rid of harmful ideals is to kill the people who believe in them. Right now we’re, uh, fortunate enough to have time taking care of this for us, but if the utopians ever live up to their bluster and do something about death, this would become an immediate issue. Even without resource consumption being a factor, there are certain sets of ideals which simply cannot coexist. We would not be able to avoid choosing who lives and who dies.
Actually . . . this issue isn’t particularly theoretical. There exist people right now who are enforcing ideals that prevent other people from living their lives. If they can be argued out of it, super. If not, well. There are times when moral behavior is not merely desirable, but imperative.
Even with that aside, though, there are still some unsettling political implications here. To be blunt, what the hell are we doing letting old people vote? I mean, it’s sort of a common joke that old people are big voters, but this isn’t just some wacky coincidence. Electoral results are being decided by the people least qualified to be deciding them. To be even blunter, old people aren’t going to get to live in the future, so why do they have any right to decide what it’s going to look like? Given that the Brexit vote was close and the actual implementation is going to be a multi-year bureaucratic process, it’s entirely possible that the vote was decided by people who won’t live to see any of its effects.
There’s a magnificent scene in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner where, after the boyfriend’s father tries to push him around by going on about how hard he worked and how much he sacrificed to raise him, the boyfriend finally snaps and informs his father that he doesn’t owe him shit, that everything he did for his son was merely the fulfillment of his basic responsibilities, and that he and his entire generation has the further responsibility to die and to let the next generation get on with their lives, with the “dead weight” of the past finally off their backs. (Yeah, I’m not doing this justice. Click the link.) While I don’t hold any particular antipathy towards previous generations, I was deeply struck by this scene, as it was the first time I’d encountered the idea that it is parents who owe their children deference, that part of the wisdom of age ought to be the wisdom to know when something is not your decision to make. If we’re talking about fixing democracy, this might, paradoxically, be a good place to start: don’t let people stick their noses into things that are none of their fucking business.
And yet, it wasn’t supposed to be this way. Old people are supposed to have precisely this wisdom; they should be the ones telling us this stuff. America is on the low end, but pretty much every culture has at least some notion of respecting the accumulated lifetime knowledge and highly-developed judgment of the elderly. And yet our current model for old people is basically Grandpa Simpson piecing history together from sugar packets. So, like, what happened?
Presumably, the concept of the “elder” came about because old people used to actually know shit, and, when considering simpler forms of social arrangement than what we’re currently used to, this makes intuitive sense. People used to have to survive in smaller units under particular environmental conditions; people who had done so for a long time would naturally have better knowledge about what worked and what didn’t. But today, for those of us comfortable enough to spend our time writing speculative blog posts, survival has stopped being an issue, replaced by prosperity. And the way you become prosperous in a society like this is by finding a functional niche and filling it, by becoming an effective cog in the machine. Hence, the comfortably retired are those who have spent their lives avoiding moral problems and focusing on a single, narrowly-defined task, which is the exact opposite of the conditions required for the development of wisdom. When we talk about old people being “set in their ways,” then, we are talking not about a natural phenomenon but about a constructed dynamic. And we are talking not about a simple status quo preference, for conditions such as staying in the EU, but about traditional values, such as supporting racism.
I don’t know if there’s anything “to be done” about this, exactly, but I do think this means we need to keep our guard up. There’s a real threat here: the future must not be sacrificed to the past. This may be a bit melodramatic, but I really am reminded of the story of Abraham and Isaac. It’s a rather important story, since it asks something that is very close to being the only question that matters: if god commands you to kill your son, do you do it or not? That’s basically most of morality right there. The original story, though, pulls its punch, which is rather unbecoming for a story about the mystical profoundness of faith. The fact that Jehovah doesn’t actually want Isaac to die means there’s no moral conflict; the only problem is that Abraham guessed wrong about his god’s will. And even that doesn’t get the story anywhere, because to believe there was a real decision being made here, you’d have to believe that Abraham would be punished for “disobeying,” meaning he would be punished for making the choice that Jehovah agrees to be morally correct. So the story as it is is incoherent. Faith isn’t merely about obedience, it’s about loyalty to the truth that lies behind individual acts.
There are two possible ways to fix the story such that it actually makes a substantive moral statement. In one, Abraham disobeys Jehovah, saves Isaac, and is punished for his transgression. He bears the burden of his decision for the remainder of his life, but he believes without question that he did the right thing, that his god would never truly command a child sacrifice, that he acted in accordance with the true will of the divine. He dies in agony, unforgiven, with only the implicit comfort of having protected his family, of knowing in the deepest part of himself that, god or no, he did the right thing.
In the other, Abraham kills Isaac, Jehovah declares him to be truly faithful, and everyone lives happily ever after. The end.
I went to see case/lang/veirs last week, basically just out of loyalty to one particular part of that equation (go on, guess). It was a solid show, especially for being the second time they’d ever performed. The differences in their vocal styles filled out the songs really well without feeling superfluous. Also someone threw a bra onto the stage. They surprised me by doing “Man,” which is a little harder than I thought they were going. The band really nailed it, though, and that song has some extra significance coming from a collaboration of women.
They also covered “People Have the Power,” which definitely has some extra significance re: recent events. It’s not like the best Patti Smith song or anything, but it has its merits. The more I thought about it, though, the more I felt like this whole understanding of progress being a matter of “the people” standing up for themselves is getting to be rather behind the times. What we’ve been seeing recently is actually the opposite: successful populist movements are the ones fucking everything up. The people really do have the power, and that’s the problem. Sure enough, I was awakened the next morning by a text message from my sister, informing me that a populist movement in Britain had voted in favor of racist nationalism.
The standard evasion here is that things like this happen when “uninformed” people are “mislead” by “demagogues,” which isn’t exactly wrong, but it’s pretty facile to pretend like this is a real explanation. It’s actually the bad kind of conspiracy theory: an explanation so totalizing that it doesn’t explain anything. All bad decisions are made by evil shadowy elites; all good decisions are made by virtuous ordinary people. This puts you in the anti-analytical and very convenient position where the things you support are the things the people really want, while people who vote for things you don’t want are “voting against their own interests.” The irony, of course, is that this ends up becoming a populist argument for elitism: the people can’t be trusted to make good decisions on their own, so they need the right kind of people as their leaders.
(Sanders fans have been fucking up pretty badly on this front by refusing to accept the fact that their candidate lost in a fair fight. I really don’t think anyone was “mislead” into thinking that Clinton was more liberal than Sanders was.)
The Brexit decision is a pretty clear demonstration of the problem. It’s an instance of the people throwing off shackles that were placed on them by the elites for the purpose of global economic management, but the actual motivation for it was a confused mix of biases and half-baked theories, and the only reason it was even at issue in the first place was because of politicking, resulting in an unnecessary decision that almost everyone agrees will ultimately be harmful if not catastrophic. I mean, it’s kind of obvious that people don’t generally know what they’re doing, but this isn’t a fucking Dilbert comic, it’s a real political problem. Almost everyone takes it as an article of faith that “the people” are the only valid source of moral justification, and I think we have to confront the fact that this probably isn’t true.
Pro-Brexit voters had a number of different motivations. The most obvious was racism via anti-immigrant sentiment, but there were also leftists who supported it as a blow against neoliberalism, and there were even people who didn’t actually understand that they were voting for a real-world action to take place. So the question is: why does this slight majority composed of conflicting and nonsensical motivations have any moral significance? What is the actual justification for the claim that society should do whatever 50.1% of the population thinks it should? There’s nothing magic about a majority. In America, amending the constitution requires 2/3rds support, because it’s “more serious” or whatever, but there’s nothing magical about that number either; it’s exactly as arbitrary as 50.1%. And everyone actually knows this: the filibuster is an American tradition that is respected because it is blatantly anti-democratic; it prevents an issue from being decided by a straight up-or-down vote. That is, it’s respected when it’s our side doing it. We’re fine with claiming moral authority when 50.1% of the population is on our side, and we’re just as comfortable claiming it when we’re the virtuous underdogs battling an ignorant majority.
Gay marriage was opposed by a majority of people until it wasn’t; the answer to the moral question didn’t change over that period of time. When the great state of California voted to ban gay marriage, it was widely regarded as a perversion of the democratic process. At the same time, polls showing majority support for gay marriage were leveraged as an argument in its favor. So, like, which is it? Do the people rule or not? Scalia’s buffoonish Obergefell dissent raised the objection that nine people who had followed one particular path of elite development were deciding the issue for the entire country. Obviously, this was hypocritical as fuck: Scalia wouldn’t have been whining about the tyrannical power of the court if it were on his side. But that’s just it: the only reason we got gay marriage is that the court happened to have the right composition at the right time. In fact, what happened was considerably worse than that. The actual direct cause of the Obergefell decision was that one fickle mushhead wanted to go down in history as having written a big important civil rights decision, and this is actually what everyone had expected all along. After learning about Brown v. Board in history class, we all assume that the Supreme Court will take care of civil rights issues for us, overruling the annoying prejudices of the unenlightened populace. But Scalia was inadvertently much more correct than he knew: court decisions are ultimately as arbitrary as anything else, and no one really cares. When the elites are on our side, they’re representing the will of the people; when they aren’t, they’re Machiavellian schemers.
The “people vs. elites” framework omits at least one important part of the scenario, which is expertise. Lumping rulers and experts together as “elites” is a significant analytical failure; there’s huge difference between people who happen to hold power and people who actually know what they’re doing. Unlike rulers, experts actually matter and are necessary. It’s not possible for anyone to know enough to make an informed decision on every issue. And something like Brexit is complicated enough that its consequences are not really understandable by ordinary people, so even in a “real” democracy, there’s no reason to expect that people would be able to figure it out. Of course, the real killer example here is global warming. The expert consensus is quite clear, and it is largely being ignored by the ruling class because it has inconvenient implications (i.e. capitalism sucks). But pawning this off as a problem of the “elites” is too easy, because the rest of us aren’t actually doing our job either. Even now, with the projections widely known and the effects beginning to be felt, people aren’t going to give up their cars and their lawns and their two-day shipping. We know for a fact that a majority of people just doing what seems right can literally destroy humanity. I shudder to imagine the results of a world referendum on global warming.
But simply putting the experts in charge, a theoretical arrangement which is commonly referred to as “meritocracy” or “technocracy,” is less of a solution than it is an evasion of the problem. Experts can, ideally, be trusted on knowledge, but not on values. In fact, the very process of attaining expertise accrues bias. This is most obvious in the case of economists. Expert economists are experts in the operation of the current economic system, capitalism, and are therefore necessarily only going to be interested in working within that system, making their abilities useless to anyone opposed to it for moral reasons. They can warn you about all the terrible economic consequences, but a vote against Brexit is still a vote in favor of neoliberalism, even if it is better than the alternative.
So the idea is supposed to be that these problems are balanced out by a separation of roles. The people express their values, which are then administered by the rulers, with the experts informing them as to the best way to get it done. But all three of these roles are based on fallacies. The part that everyone knows is that rulers are not disinterested administrators, they’re rulers; their goal is to increase their own power; their relationship to the people is purely rhetorical. The technocrats’ blind spot is that fact that expert knowledge is not neutral; all knowledge is contingent on ideology. Expert recommendations are not simply pearls of wisdom to be taken or left; they are formed with embedded assumptions and motivations. And finally, the real problem: “the people” aren’t any better at morality than any other idealized grouping. Racism is currently undergoing a renaissance as a populist phenomenon that the elites are actually trying to resist. Of course, the elites aren’t actually on the right side here; they’re still trying to maintain white supremacy. But their current goal is to promote inclusiveness as a bulwark against systemic change, and that’s a damn sight better than mass deportations and refugee crises.
Back at the show, they also did “Margaret vs. Pauline,” which k.d. lang introduced as the song that made her fall in love with Neko Case. Which is understandable; it’s a probing and deeply sympathetic piece of work. It’s a song about privilege: about the invisible lines that divide the lives of otherwise similar people. Two girls ride the Blue Line and walk down the same street, but one of them leaves her sweater on the bus while the other loses three fingers at the cannery. But it’s important to avoid the trap of romanticizing oppression; losing those fingers does not impart any particular political wisdom. Those invisible lines are as arbitrary as they are vicious; the horror is not simply that some people are fated to live under the gun, but that their suffering is meaningless. The real conclusion, then, is that nobody has a privileged epistemic position on anything; each person is merely an idiosyncratic mess of random experiences and pointless prejudices; there is no such thing as “the people.” Obviously, the phrase is primarily a rhetorical device, but if this is true in a substantive sense, then popular consensus is a phantom, and the concept of democracy loses its meaning. Putting things to a popular vote does not result in a consensus opinion, it results in an arbitrary decision chaotically determined by a writhing mass of misinformation and prejudices. It’s literally worse than nothing.
I may be a conceited motherfucker, but I’m not quite arrogant enough to pretend like I have a real answer here. But there’s a line from “People Have the Power” that struck me: the idea that remaking society involves “redeeming the work of fools.” This conception of the ruling class as “fools” cuts against the usual narrative, whereby rulers are hypercompetent master-planners whose problem is that they’re “corrupt.” In fact, rulers are mostly just a particular type of nerd, ambitious but otherwise boring, and for the most part they really do think they’re making the world a better place. The catch is that being embedded in systems of power has a severe distorting effect; what looks good from the inside tends to look pretty fucked up from anywhere else. Their foolishness lies in their inability to understand their own perspectives as limited. Meanwhile, the myth of “the people” is that true goodness lies in the decency of reg’lar folk with no particular hopes or dreams. In fact, the opposite is true: ignorance and myopia are not conducive towards morality; the people we respect from history are the ones who went against the common sentiments of their times.
I really hate to say this, but rich fucks are people, too. They aren’t actually a different species; they are vicious lizards, but so are the rest of us. The structures of oppression were not created by anything outside of humanity; we did it all by ourselves. They’re in our blood. Specifically, oppression is naturally occurring, it’s how people organize themselves by default. Most people will vote in favor of a society that doesn’t work for most people. Fixing this is not as easy as getting rid of the bad influences and going back to the good old days when everything was fine. There were never any good old days; justice is an undiscovered country. A just society will be something new, something that we have to invent, and then build, using the tools we have available right now.
Which brings us to the corresponding ideal of “redemption.” Despite its many, many crimes, our society has created a lot of things which are important to people. Things like amphitheaters where people can see music they care about and transportation systems that can take them there. It’s no good to aim for some kind of ideal revolution while ignoring what makes the world worthwhile in the first place. This is addressed in a couple of the new case/lang/veirs songs. “Down” points out that there’s beauty even in something as banal as driving down the highway. Indeed, there has to be: if the basic experience of day-to-day existence isn’t worth it, then nothing is worth anything; ideals can only exist as instantiated in mundane reality. But this does not license us to ignore the larger issues. “I Want To Be Here” addresses the bifurcation between the things we care about and the practical operation of society, asserting that the grind cannot quell the flame: “surely they can’t ruin everything.” This is true in general, but not in specifics: economics really does kill people; every day is the end of the world for someone. “Being here” may be what we’re truly aiming for, but if just being here were enough, we wouldn’t have to fight.
So the things we care about have to be preserved, but more than that, they have to be redeemed. A concert stage can also be used to distract people, to placate with cheap escapism, or to sell shit, and we really shouldn’t be allowing any of that to happen. But it’s not as easy as just doing the right thing, because we’re in a situation where things have already been organized incorrectly. The right motivations acting within the wrong structure can be just as harmful as explicit evil. We have to maintain the content of society while changing the structure to point in the direction of right things rather than wrong things.
Again, you tell me how this is actually going to work. There shouldn’t be anything impossible about synthesizing expertise and populism while eliminating the ruling class, but relying on “the people” isn’t going to get us there.
I’m doing my best to avoid contributing to the noise vortex surrounding the Tangerine Muppet, but as some people have pointed out, the real story is what this whole cowboy cosplay convention reveals about the values of a disturbingly large number of Americans. So let’s talk about that.
People have been more willing than usual to throw around the r-word recently, which is nice. Yes, it’s largely an empty signifier at this point, but if you can’t call a racist a racist, you can’t really do anything. The problem is that there’s this persistent idea that race is an “identity” issue, that it’s sort of an add-on to the “real” political issues like jobs and taxes. Specifically, the story is that economically disadvantaged white people who are “low-information voters” are being “fooled” into thinking that people of color are the problem and are therefore “voting against their own interests.” All of these terms should trigger maximal skepticism. People know what their interests are, and you don’t really need a whole lot of information to make basic political decisions. Furthermore, racism is severely off-putting to all decent people; if there was a candidate with really good policies who also happened to be a Klan member, few of us would be able to overlook that and support them. So the only honest conclusion is that people who support racist policies do so because they’re racists.
This conclusion is supported by history. The two political parties as currently constituted are defined by their attitudes toward racism; the historical shift was finalized in response to the Civil Rights Act. And the “Southern Strategy” wasn’t just a marketing gimmick – basically all of the “conservative principles” that supposedly define the Republican Party are actually just restatements of racism. Most famously, opposition to “big government” isn’t really something that makes sense on its own. Nobody actually thinks there’s a correct “size” for the government to be. Rather, everyone has certain specific things they think the government should be in charge of. Nobody argues that we should defund the military in order to make the government smaller. Also, Republicans obviously don’t support “small government” in any sense; whenever they’re in office they run up deficits, inflate the military, and expand executive powers (Democrats also do all of these things; the point is that there isn’t a difference between the parties on these issues). The truth is that, for Republicans, the part of the government that’s “too big” is just the part that helps black people. This applies equally to just about every other conservative shibboleth: universal healthcare, welfare, and economic stimulus spending are all bad things because they mean spending money on black people. Recall the old insult “tax-and-spend Democrat” – you’d think that both taxing and spending would be the budgetarily responsible thing to do, but it’s a different story when it’s white people being taxed and black people being spent on.
Recent history also bears this out. The Tea Party arose in response to Obama’s election, rather than any actual policy he advanced. In fact, Obama hasn’t really done anything dramatic enough to have credibly provoked a backlash – it’s cliched by now to note that Obamacare was originally Romneycare. And there’s plenty of pure nonsense like the claim that Obama is secretly a Muslim, when he clearly comes from a typical black Christian tradition (there was that big controversy regarding his minister, remember?). The only explanation for this is people projecting stereotypes – either about scary black Muslim radicals from the 60s, or modern-day “Muslim extremists.” So, racism. The people who claimed that Obama’s election heralded a “post-racial era” were obviously morons, but it’s important to understand just how wrong they were: not only is racism as strong a political force as ever, but Obama’s visibility as the most powerful black man in the world has made race an even more salient issue.
What all of this adds up to is that racism is and always has been the central issue in American politics. In other words, the fact that one of the primary motivating factors in people’s political alignment is now vulgar racism and nothing else is the least surprising thing that’s happened in recent history. What this election cycle represents is actually a return to normalcy. We’re no longer pretending that we all share the same fake centrist consensus; we’re finally beginning to regard our enemies as enemies. Or at least we’re getting closer. Racism as a concept has been permanently hexed; people still make transparent excuses about how banning Muslims is about “national security” and building The Wall is about “the economy.” But anyone operating with a basic level of honesty can clearly see the bright line dividing the two sides of the current debate: you either think that the government is for everybody, or you think it’s only for The Right Kind of People.
White people don’t like to think about racism this way. They like to think of it as an issue where certain “backwards” people just don’t like certain skin colors for inexplicable reasons (the adjective “ugly” is often applied to racist opinions, as though the issue with them were merely cosmetic). This impulse is understandable – at first glance, discriminating against people based on their ethnicity doesn’t really seem to accomplish anything (as a contrasting example, there’s direct motivation for sexism: men want control over sexual access and the reproductive process). When a person is facing the issues of a) losing their job and not having enough money to live on and b) encountering non-white people on a slightly more frequent basis, it seems like one of those issues would be the obvious priority. But that’s assuming that everyone has the same standards of value, and it’s also assuming that race and class are actually different issues.
Historically, it’s obvious that the function of racism has been to create an underclass. This serves two very important purposes. The first is economic: it creates a group of people who can be exploited with maximum efficiency, due to the fact that they lack both legal protections and public sympathy. This doesn’t just apply to black people; we saw the same dynamic with the Chinese immigrants who built the railroads, and we see it today with the Mexican immigrants doing our farm work. The second function is psychological: when it comes to social standing, people are motivated above all else to not be on the bottom of the pyramid. People care more about relative standing than absolute standing; we would rather make things worse off for everyone while preserving a tiny advantage for ourselves than improve the general condition while resigning ourselves to not being special. Racism puts white people on the side of the ruling class by promising them that, no matter what happens, they will always have someone to look down on.
This dynamic is required in order for capitalism to survive. Marx’s argument that capitalism would inevitably destroy itself was based on two important assumptions: that there are only two classes, and that the members of the working class would naturally develop solidarity. Racism undoes both of these assumptions. It essentially turns non-rich white people into a buffer class: one that is still mostly exploited, but which understands itself as a beneficiary of the status quo. This understanding is not entirely illusory. Being white actually is enough of a real advantage that many white people will fight to preserve it, out of rational self-interest – the same self-interest that created racism in the first place. Everyone knows that America was settled via genocide and slavery, but it’s crucial to understand that these crimes were not “mistakes.” They were foundational: America would not have existed without them. This is why Malcolm X said that you can’t have capitalism without racism.
And this is what connects current socioeconomic conditions to the modern resurgence of racism: white people are no longer confident that the old bargain will continue to hold. It seems absurd when racists claim that because of things like affirmative action and minority-targeted scholarships, white people are now the group without any advantages, because these things are obviously amelioration-based policies that don’t actually harm white people. But this perspective starts to make sense when you think of it in terms of psychological superiority: if people of color have any advantage that white people don’t have, then white people are no longer special. We’re all just different people with different advantages and disadvantages, trying to get by in a fucked up world.
So, since attempting to hold on to white superiority is, of course, the wrong solution, the right solution can only be to negate the advantages that white people have accrued via white supremacy. Thus, a general economic solution, one that appeals to everybody by attempting to lift all boats equally, cannot work because of racism – because such a solution would maintain white superiority. Affirmative action may be a hacky band-aid solution, but in this sense it’s at least a step in the right direction. The fact that it aggrieves racists is actually how you can tell it’s a good idea: logically, racists will be aggrieved by any anti-racist policy. A policy that “we can all agree on,” that racists feel comfortable with, can, under present conditions, only be a racist policy.
Ergo, reparations. If our goal is to end white superiority, then there’s no reason to beat around the bush. If we don’t want white people to be advantaged over black people, then we should take the advantages white people have historically accumulated via racist exploitation and give them to black people. The fact that such a policy would feel unfair and would make white people feel attacked is the point; making peace with racists necessarily means supporting racism. Racists don’t need to be negotiated with, they need to be convinced where possible and defeated where necessary.
This is what Ta-Nehisi Coates was getting at when he criticized Bernie Sanders for dismissing the possibility of reparations. Ever since Coates started on this angle, people have been pretty consistently missing his point (intentionally or otherwise). The issue is not that there’s a “correct” policy that everyone should support; the issue is that we have not yet reached the point where anti-racist economic policy can be articulated. And the problem with comments like Sanders’ is that they prevent us from getting there.
“Reparations” by itself is not one policy, which is another point that Coates has made and that not a lot of people have picked up on. Rather, taking the idea of reparations seriously would result in multiple different sets of demands, each of which would have to be assessed on its own merits. There could certainly be such a thing as a bad reparations policy, but we can’t start talking about policy until we’ve decided the moral question. This is not stereotypical leftist squabbling over minor points of procedure; there is a bright line dividing the idea that the past is past and we should just try to create the fairest policy based on current conditions from the idea that we occupy a historical system of injustice which must be dismantled, even when doing so requires sacrifice.
In fact, this is the same bright line as the one dividing the idea that capitalism is sometimes “corrupt” and should be made more “fair” from the idea that capitalism is fundamentally based on exploitation, and that even the fairly accumulated resources of the rich should therefore be reappropriated. The difference between improving current conditions and remaking society is supposed to be what defines radicalism. The point of revolutionary thinking is that, when the problems you’re facing are interlocking parts of a self-sustaining system, the only solution is to address everything at once.
So part of what matters about a reparations program is actually calling it reparations. A program of the sort that Sanders advocates – taxing rich people, who are mostly white, and using the money to invest in impoverished communities, which are disproportionately populated by black people – would have a partial reparations-like effect, but by casting the problem as a matter of general inequality, such a program avoids confronting racism. It lets white people off the hook. And because racism is baked in to our society, leaving it alone allows it to perpetuate itself. What’s required is a reckoning, using the exact literal meaning of that word: a settling of accounts.
We like to think of racism as though it were an evil demon from a fairy tale: it used to be a vicious tyrant, but the heroes of the past defeated it, and the evil that remains today is merely its shadow, a fading darkness that only weird cultists still worship. The truth is that the demon has been severely weakened, but it is far from dead, and its power is still enough to provide real advantages, both material and metaphysical, to white people. And because this is the case, it’s inevitable that reactionary sentiment will flare up in times of uncertainty. Overt racists are not fringe wackos, they’re just the least sophisticated manifestation of the real enemy. We should do ourselves the favor of taking them seriously.