Archive for December, 2011

That Was The Year That Was
December 31, 2011

Alternate title: I Beg Your Indulgence: Another Fucking End-of-the-Year Retrospective

The horrifying thing about the Internet is that it encases every single dumb mistake you’ve ever made in amber. So for example, this blog’s archives go all the way back to November 28, 2006, when I was, to put it delicately, a seventeen year old white dude with a lot of opinions on the Internet. A lot’s changed since then: I’m now a twenty-two year old white dude on the Internet, with non-trivially different opinions.

It’s not a particularly long way to go, but it took some time. And oddly enough, it feels like most of the real work took place in 2011. The beginning of this year found me gainfully employed in DC, but lodged in a pit of deep political solipsism and despair. That feeling of personal dissatisfaction didn’t make any real sense to me: I had, after all, been working my way towards DC, in ways both conscious and unconscious, since early high school. I had completely internalized the Aaron Sorkin/West Wing vision of the ideal state, but the DC I found was (surprise!) nothing like that. The politics of the city were so strangely self-contained, so seemingly disconnected from consequence. I spent my days arguing trivia and trying to convince myself that it was the issue of the hour, because I was unwilling or unable to give a name to the perverse sense of wrongness lurking in the back of my mind.

Fear made it easy, but it was fear that I managed to conceal even (especially) from myself. By adopting an attitude of reflexive cynicism I was able to convince myself that fear was actually a bold willingness to see things the way they really are. I didn’t choose the major political battles of the day, I told myself, but they’re the battles I had to wage. I wasn’t going to be one of those useless hippies who opted out of politics as currently constituted and just voted for Nader or something.

I was afraid, also, of self-marginalization and self-alienation. Never mind that I already felt sort of marginal and alien; my approach to the personal as the same as my approach to the political. Please just let me fucking hold on to what I have. I wanted to be part of the team, and I desperately wanted to be the reasonable, savvy, cynical-but-justifiably-so caricature I had created in my head. So I kept one eye on the 24-hour cycle and the other on my public brand, which I sculpted with the diligence of a compulsive gardener.

I can’t write about this process with resentment, because the truth is that it was no one’s fault but my own. The pressures I felt were wholly self-invented. Maybe it was a derangement caused by something in the Potomac water, but more likely it was the thing in me that drew me to DC in the first place, that existed many years prior to my experiences there. Either way, I instantly recognized it in Freddie DeBoer’s epic post on “the incredible naiveté of the incredibly savvy.” We were Internet acquaintances when he wrote that post, but I never had the courage to ask if I was one of the folks he had in mind when he wrote it. It didn’t really matter, anyway. I knew that passages like this applied to me, whether intended to or not:

In any event, our political class operates in an environment where their opinions are constantly conditioned by a host of various pressures, and perhaps none more so than the drive to appear savvy and unique. Due to the fact that liberal institutions are ultimately under the control of establishment power, and power establishments are antithetical to the liberal project, the fundamental dynamic of political commentary in this country is that conservatives demonstrate seriousness by showing fealty to conservatism and establishment liberals demonstrate seriousness by showing their distance from conventional liberalism. What’s more, as our social system conditions people to believe that the value of their attachments and statements is derived from their distance from the uncool throng, people attempt to find political positions that are endlessly “different.” The media liberal thus operates in an environment where he has achieved his purpose not when he has written something true, accurate, generative, or responsible, but when he has written something unconventional, contrarian, and provoking.

I got so good at shaping myself to these pressures that it wasn’t even a conscious process. I could reflexively censor a thought before it even had a name, and it was only when Freddie named that reflex that I saw it in myself. I owe him an enormous debt of gratitude for that.

Two other events made my flight from DC inevitable. The first was the labor uprising in Madison, Wisconsin. You couldn’t engineer a more perfect event to shatter my Beltway solipsism: here was an event that was well-covered by the DC press corps, but clearly not of DC. It didn’t even happen on one of the coasts — we were talking about the Midwest, for chrissake. But most importantly, it was a political moment that was not driven by the established mechanisms of power. Instead, sitting at my desk and watching cable news, I saw a mass assembly of ordinary people opposing the state government’s coercive power. Not supplicating, not bargaining, but outright demanding that they have some basic right to self-determination.

That blew my fucking mind. All of a sudden, the Jed-Bartlet-as-philosopher-king approach to social change didn’t look so appealing. I knew enough history to recognize what was happening in Madison as a typically American small-d democratic phenomenon, but it was not something I had ever watched unfold in real time. I found myself unable to maintain the appropriate level of ironic detachment.

A couple months later, Washington DC plunged into an apocalyptic squabble over whether or not to raise the debt ceiling. And while I combed through all of the latest updates from Capitol Hill and tweeted the appropriate shibboleths, my heart wasn’t quite in it like before. Fear alone kept me engaged in the fight, but this time I recognized it for what it was: naked and unashamed terror at the possibility of a federal default. The fear was almost comforting, insofar as it gave me a reason to hate the Republicans and root for the Democrats with the same religious fervor I had felt during the Bush years. But somewhere near the end of the fight, something in me crested and broke. Maybe I was just tired. Maybe it was the news that Obama was just straight-up handing out chunks of the social safety net to Republicans like party favors. But I think what really did it was the realization that the whole battle’s outcome was already predetermined: the debt ceiling would get raised, but only because Democrats and Republicans together were willing to make deep contractionary cuts to the federal budget — cuts that would leave only the country’s top 1% unscathed.

The stakes of the outcome, and my fear of a worse outcome, only disguised the artifice of the whole fight. And while everyone waited with bated breathe to see what would happen, both parties in Congress quietly approved Obama’s secret version of the PATRIOT Act. As I wrote at the time:

To be sure, partisan polarization is a real phenomenon. But it is also theater, and our willingness to accept its more theatrical qualities at face value has had dire consequences for civil liberties.

The beauty of polarization theater is that it paradoxically asserts and reaffirms a holistic political consensus. You probably already know one of the ways in which it does this: oftentimes both parties will implicitly accept the same basic premises but become “polarized” over the implications. In this way they make the premises established fact, so that challenging them lies outside the parameters of acceptable debate.

But polarization theater also serves as a crucial distraction. The fights of polarization theater dominate the news to such a degree that they almost entirely crowd out those issues on which both parties agree. Which is why, as Greenwald writes, another four-year extension of the Patriot Act just managed to whisper through Congress on the wings of bipartisan sanction.

Pretty neat trick, huh? But don’t fret: we’ve still got a debt ceiling to squabble over. So me and the rest of the political junkies can continue to pretend that this is about white hats versus black hats, instead of power versus everything else.

Later I found a name for that holistic political consensus: neoliberalism. And through my post-Madison reading and reflection, I found a new cause: organized labor. So, two thirds of the way through 2011, I found myself back in New York City pursuing a graduate certificate in labor studies at CUNY. The subsequent four months have been absolutely insane (due in large part to the sudden eruption of Occupy Wall Street during that time). But this time, at least, I never lost sight of the good and true thing I felt like I had finally uncovered. I still believe in the reasons I originally gave for making the move back to New York and into labor studies, though I think now I’d articulate them differently. In another four months, my political vocabulary will probably shift even more. But here’s what I’m reasonably confident won’t change: there is joy and a certain amount of peace in advocating local democracy and freedom for the working class. I have no idea what I’m going to be doing in a month, let alone a year, but I’ve got an idea from which I withhold very little. If I’ve traded away some of the security I had in DC, I feel like I’ve won a much more important kind of security in return.

And now some acknowledgements: thank you to the friends I made (or finally met in person) in DC. I’m sure I wasn’t always easy to be around while I was figuring this shit out. But thanks for lending a sympathetic ear to my pissing and moaning, and for providing the appropriate level of push back.

Thanks also to the amazing crew of radicals, thinkers, writers and activists I’ve met through CUNY and New York’s left-wing journalism crowd. Your passion, wit and knowledge is both an ongoing education for me and an endless source of pleasure.

Thanks to my parents for being so supportive during a rather bumpy (and 95% over, I swear) transitional stage.

Thanks to those of you who recommended the books and thinkers that I found so enormously helpful in clarifying my current thinking. Regular readers of the blog perhaps know I wouldn’t be where I am now if I hadn’t read Philip Pettit’s Republicanism: A Theory of Freedom and Government and Seneca’s Letters from a Stoic. The former text is concerned wholly with the social and the latter with the personal, but I’ve come to see both as opposite ends of a larger lifelong project.

Last of all, thanks to anyone who bothered to read this whole thing. A lot of what I write on this blog is a little self-indulgent, but perhaps this post was uncommonly so. I went back and forth a lot on whether I should even write it, but some things just gnaw at you until you suck it up and do them. I hope, at the very least, that clarifying how I got where I am now will help some of you regulars interpret my less personal posts. Stay tuned next year for your regularly scheduled left-wing polemics and philosophy jokes.


Havel to the Castle
December 18, 2011

“Truth and love must prevail over lies and hate.” – Václav Havel
1936 – 2011

When Václav Havel was still a playwright and dissident in Communist Czechoslovakia — before the Velvet Revolution and his ascendance to the presidency of the post-Communist Czech Republic — he would urge his fellow anti-Communist revolutionaries to “live within the truth.” The Communist regime, he argued, perpetuated itself on the basis of lies. By forcing its subjects to go through small daily rituals of deceit, the Communist Party could make everyone culpable in their crimes. They could strangle resistance by turning everyone into a collaborator by default.

But when a regime derives its legitimacy from lies, telling the truth becomes a revolutionary act. The regime, Havel wrote, “only works as long as people are willing to live within the lie.” If enough Czechoslovakians were willing to live within the truth, the truth would eventually prevail.

Neoliberal America is not Communist Czechoslovakia, but much of the American state’s power also rests on a foundation of lies. In this country — ostensibly a beacon of freedom and democracy for the rest of the world — 2.5 million people rot in prison. Eleven million undocumented immigrants are denied basic freedoms on a daily basis. The Obama administration has deported record numbers of the undocumented, and reserves the right to assassinate its own citizens abroad.

In what is supposed to be the land of opportunity, the Census now classifies nearly half of all Americans as “low-income earners.” Those who can still find employment are spending longer and longer hours in the workplace — which, as union density declines, remains the least democratic space in public life.

If you want to honor Václav Havel’s memory, tell the truth.

No True Neoliberal
December 15, 2011

At the beginning of his famous 2005 graduation speech to Kenyon College, David Foster Wallace tells a joke that goes like this:

There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”

In DFW’s speech, “water” is a metaphor for the ineffable mystery and wonder of being alive. My intention in telling the same joke — with apologies to fellow DFW fans — is not quite so lovely. Instead, I would ask you to think of the two young fish as members of America’s political elite, and the water as neoliberalism.

Thinking in those terms might help clarify the reasoning between the perennial progressive assertion that there’s not really any such thing as neoliberalism. Neoliberalism, the argument goes, is just a label that unreconstructed lefties stick to any policy with which they disagree. And when you ask those lefties to define it, they articulate a philosophical position that nobody anywhere on the political spectrum actually believes.

I was thinking about that argument when I read Elias Isquith’s pithy explanation of the logic undergirding Paul Ryan and Ron Wyden’s bipartisan Medicare plan:

It’s rare that you hear a politician or a respectable wonk or a think tank spokesperson discuss these kinds of plans in terms that aren’t loaded-up with jargon, for one; but even if the conversation is being carried out with plain language, there’s rarely if ever a focus on how the actual plan would work for real human beings, rather than abstract Consumers.

The disconnect Digby’s pointing out here is born from a larger ideological blind-spot of this era’s political class: they cannot see the world without the language and logic of the market. The wide swathes of the population who may not be able — or may not want— to adopt the mindset of the holy Rational Consumer might as well not exist; they’re square circles. To say that people can be quite real and quite valuable while, at the same time, not really being Consumers? Imagine telling a Medieval monk that the world can’t be divided between saints and sinners. It just doesn’t register.

See, nobody actually believes that all levels of society should be ordered around consumer-producer market relationships. It’s just that whenever we get to debating matters of public policy, the implicit framing of the debate assumes that we’re trying to determine the optimal form of a particular consumer-producer arrangement. But hey, how else would you engineer state and society? That’s not neoliberalism — it’s just the way the world is. What the hell is water?

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Shameless Self-Promotion
December 6, 2011

I have a new blog post over at Ms., called H&M Whittles Down Acceptable Body Types To Exactly One. The subject matter is even creepier than the title lets on.

And while we’re on the subject of sexism, Future of the Left’s new EP has the greatest, funniest, most biting song about male misogyny I’ve heard in a good long while:

One Last Question For The Reductive Materialists
December 5, 2011

Which is a more accurate picture of joy? This:

Or this:

This is only a hard question if you make it one. Or if you’re not into Sam Cooke.

Mind and God
December 5, 2011

For all you New Atheists out there, a little compare and contrast exercise. Tell me if you think this proof makes sense:

  1. My mind is identical to certain neurochemical processes in the brain.
  2. We have observed these neurochemical processes, and have verified that they exist.
  3. Therefore, my mind exists.

If that one sounds valid, how about this one?

  1. God is identical to the whole of nature.
  2. We have observed the whole of nature, and verified that it exists.
  3. Therefore, God exists.

I can think of two objections to the second proof. The first is that a lot of modern theists might not be able to sign onto our working definition of God. Fair enough, but I should note that our pantheistic account is not wholly without precedent — Baruch Spinoza believed in deus sive natura (God or nature) as interchangeable properties, and much of Eastern philosophy contains roughly analogous concepts. (Replace “God” with “tao,” and the proof still holds.)

The second, stickier objection is that “God” in this proof has a form, but not much content. (Same goes for tao.) We can point to physical properties we believe to be correlated with God as much as we’d like, but the deity’s most important properties are entirely spiritual. So demonstrating the existence of certain physical phenomena that we’d expect to exist in a God-created universe really tells us absolutely nothing.

So for atheists who believe in the existence of their own minds, here’s the dilemma: why does that rebuttal apply to the second proof, but not the first?

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