Lies of the Machines

This entire article by Kevin Drum is worth reading, at least for people who don’t pay much attention to AI threat (if you do pay attention, it will be old news). But I’d especially highlight one quote:

#3: Okay, maybe we will get full AI. But it only means that robots will act intelligent, not that they’ll really be intelligent. This is just a tedious philosophical debating point. For the purposes of employment, we don’t really care if a smart computer has a soul—or if it can feel love and pain and loyalty. We only care if it can act like a human being well enough to do anything we can do. When that day comes, we’ll all be out of jobs even if the computers taking our places aren’t “really” intelligent.

Drum is writing about technological unemployment, the threat that robots will one day take our jobs. He devotes a portion of his essay to rebutting common objections to this scenario, and this particular objection really needs a good strong rebuttin’. Philosophical chestnuts like this are a constant source of distraction.

So far as immediate threats are concerned–putting aside, that is, the truly apocalyptic sci-fi scenarios–it doesn’t matter whether machines ever become recognizably human. It doesn’t even matter whether they become approximately human. All they have to do is get really good at doing a few human things.

I think of the objection above as the “but can it enjoy a sandwich?” argument. Sure, AI can play Go. Sure, AI can write news articles. Sure, AI can outfox military strategists. Sure, AI can drive cars. Sure, AI can pick stocks. Sure, AI can write music. Sure, AI can parse and respond to speech. But can it enjoy a sandwich?

This isn’t necessarily a trivial point. It would be really, really difficult to build a machine that could demonstrate, to the satisfaction of informed human observers, that it had truly eaten and enjoyed a sandwich. Enjoyment is the ultimate embodied experience, blending body chemistry and subjective self-awareness. Simple digestion isn’t enough. Nor is it sufficient to have a program spit out some serviceable approximation of things humans say when they enjoy sandwiches. To replicate this ordinary event would be a daunting challenge. And so long as machines don’t enjoy sandwiches, it will be true that organic beings have some claim to distinction.

So what? That doesn’t have much bearing on the questions AI researchers are worried about. And to the extent it does bear on those questions, it offers scant comfort. It throws us back on quasi-religious conceptions of intrinsic worth. Try showing up to a job interview and telling the hiring committee, “Well, no, I don’t have any relevant skills–but what about the irreducible miracle of simply being me?”*

AI doesn’t need to replicate the human mind to do most things humans do, and do them better. Most work in an industrialized market economy is already mechanical and repetitive. If it weren’t, workers wouldn’t be able to barter services for steady income. Machines don’t have to think human thoughts to do our jobs. Quite the opposite. They have to think the kinds of thoughts that most of us spend all day trying to think, while our pesky human minds get in the way.

This is true even for creative work. It’s true in part because a lot of so-called creative work isn’t especially creative at all, as with the intricate corporate systems that churn out our television shows and pop songs. But it’s also true because any useful kind of creativity is by nature programmable. Detecting patterns, recombining familiar elements to generate new patterns, producing–i.e. “brainstorming”–huge sets of combinations and using applied rubrics to weed out weaker entries, running elaborate simulations to model hypothetical events–or as it’s sometimes called, “using the imagination”–these are all things computers are rather good at. I suspect any confusion on this point comes from conceptual slippage between different notions of creativity. There’s self-help creativity: a vague, fuzzy handle for whatever makes people feel special. And then there’s real creativity: a grueling regimen of practice, study, experimentation, and revision that produces new art and ideas.

Many people are skeptical–rightly, in my view–that we’ll ever have machines that resemble human beings in more than a few respects. But that’s partly because such machines would be impractical, uneconomical, and pointlessly redundant. Why take the trouble to create a single integrated program endowed with all the various aptitudes and oddities of the human mind when you can build a hundred different machines, each as powerful as a human brain, each tailored for a particular task? Why bother teaching a machine to feel human hunger, human lust, human fatigue, human bowel discomfort–all our many bodily sensations–when you can edit out such encumbrances? Why invest a truck-driving module with religious longings, a combat drone with cowardly scruples, a stock-picking program with suicidal tendencies? Why go to all the trouble of recreating humans when by most calculations we already have too many of them?

So, yes, Drum’s raising important issues. Still, I have some objections to the way he develops his argument.

First, I think Drum is way too optimistic–or pessimistic, as the case may be–about implementation. Even if we have superior robot surgeons by 2053, that doesn’t mean human surgeons will be out of work by 2060. And the same goes for truck drivers, novelists, CEOs, doctors, and everyone else he mentions in his article.

I have little doubt a computer could do my own job right now, for instance. A significant portion of my job actually consists of trying to arrange for a computer to replace me, since so much of what I do is repetitive to a mind-numbing degree. I do clerical work for a library, for Christ’s sake. Most people assume my job is already outdated.

So what’s the holdup? What’s taking so long? Why am I still in the office every day, dithering around on a desktop?

One answer: bureaucracy. It ought to be possible, using current technology, to have a machine do everything I do. But someone would have to requisition, design, and pay for that machine, a huge up-front hassle. More importantly, someone would have to pull off the legal and administrative wizardry needed to embed that machine in the institutional architecture of my workplace, which would involve a lot more than writing a few scripts. It would mean bending the ear of influential people at six or seven different organizations, convincing them to change the way they run things. It would mean retraining other staff members. It would mean having someone–perhaps another machine–troubleshoot a host of new problems.

Another answer: physics. The cognitive aspects of my job are simple. The interpersonal aspects are marginally more complex. But I also do a lot of dumb stuff like pushing carts around, putting things on shelves, opening boxes, loading staplers, fishing paperclips out of cracks, going to meetings, dealing with people who don’t like dealing with computers, and so on. I know, I know: big deal. But this kind of stuff gets overlooked precisely because it’s so ubiquitous. And it’s much harder to build robots for these kinds of varied daily tasks than to extend and upgrade software.

There’s no reason all this can’t be automated. It’s the essence of unskilled labor. But plugging these innumerable little automation gaps becomes increasingly expensive and unwieldy. And most jobs are full of this stuff.

None of this is fatal to Drum’s argument. It just means technological unemployment will be a slow disaster instead of a fast one. Even when machines can do certain jobs, those jobs won’t suddenly disappear. They’ll slowly dwindle away, becoming less common and more soul-crushing, as large forces of workers give way to skeleton crews of reps and troubleshooters–human handmaidens to a suite of applications.

Second, I think Drum is too easy on the Industrial Revolution, which caused a lot more disruption–and over a longer period of time–than he lets on. Drum mentions the early Luddites, who smashed mechanical looms to protest weaving jobs they’d lost. But he makes it sound as if this was a short-term hiccup:

The Industrial Revolution was all about mechanical power: Trains were more powerful than horses, and mechanical looms were more efficient than human muscle. At first, this did put people out of work: Those loom-smashing weavers in Yorkshire—the original Luddites—really did lose their livelihoods. This caused massive social upheaval for decades until the entire economy adapted to the machine age. When that finally happened, there were as many jobs tending the new machines as there used to be doing manual labor. The eventual result was a huge increase in productivity: A single person could churn out a lot more cloth than she could before. In the end, not only were as many people still employed, but they were employed at jobs tending machines that produced vastly more wealth than anyone had thought possible 100 years before. Once labor unions began demanding a piece of this pie, everyone benefited.

To be fair, Drum’s writing this way out of deference to his critics, who pooh-pooh AI Cassandras by citing the Industrial Revolution as a counterexample. What’s so scary about automation? It worked out fine last time, right?

To which Drum responds, Last time, yes. But this will be different.

I see his point. But this blithe historical summary concedes too much to his critics. The Industrial Revolution didn’t just put weavers and buggy-whip manufacturers out of business. It devastated small communities, displaced huge rural populations, replaced cottage craftsmanship with hired-hand wagework, ramped up environmental devastation, undermined political systems, forced workers to adapt themselves to dehumanizing routines, provoked a backlash in the form of Communism from the left and nativism from the right, and contributed to all the discontents and upsets of modernity, many of which we’re still grappling with today.

If the upheavals of the first Industrial Revolution lasted centuries, destabilized the world, and plunged humanity into a lingering existential crisis, and the second Industrial Revolution will be even bigger–hoo, boy.

That’s not to downplay the benefits of automation, by the way. But we’re still struggling to distribute those benefits in a fair and sustainable way. We haven’t come near to solving the problems of the first revolution, and now we’re getting hit with a bigger one.

My third objection is that I think Drum underestimates how creative people can be about attaching value to, well, bullshit. He acknowledges that this is true for material goods:

Intelligent robots will be able to manufacture material goods and services cheaply, but there will still be scarcity. No matter how many robots you have, there’s only so much beachfront property in Southern California. There are only so many original Rembrandts. There are only so many penthouse suites.

Yes, sure. But I have screens in my house right now that can simulate the view from a luxury location. I have cheap transportation that can take me to the beach. I have access to as many Rembrandt reproductions as I want, along with countless other images.

If a Rembrandt can still be considered scarce when the pleasure of seeing a Rembrandt isn’t scarce at all, why shouldn’t the same be true for people?

This already applies to huge tracts of our economy, where money, jobs, and whole careers are conjured out of sentimental, wishy-washy concepts like celebrity and glamour and authenticity. Sure, you can hear Beyonce’s music for free, but have you seen her in concert? Have you met the key influencers who have what it takes to help you become a key influencer? Have you talked to the helpers and coordinators and assistants who control access to the influencers?

Postmodern professors, anyone? Modern artists? Models? Gatekeepers? Rent-seekers? The flocks of factotums that staff our culture industries? The world’s many flocks of flacks, quacks, and hacks?  Drum would probably say that to the extent these people offer anything valuable, they’ll eventually be replaced by machines. But that implies that these jobs have clear, measurable outputs–or, to put it bluntly, that these people are genuinely useful.

Right now, huge chunks of the economy work like pyramid schemes, with hordes of hopeful people borrowing and wasting money so they can gamble for a chance to become rich superstars. And most middle-to-upper-class careers are shaped to some extent by vague advantages: contact, signaling, status, reputation. These are very different from personal traits like charisma and beauty, which can be manufactured (and already are). The essence of reputation is that it floats free of merit. You might get a reputation for being a great musician, but you can lose that reputation, through some unfair fillip of fate, without actually losing your skills.

All the money that feeds this game of aspirer’s poker can be traced back to older parts of the economy, the parts that make stuff and service stuff and grow stuff. That’s dangerous for everyone, because the system is fueled with infusions of daily wages. When the supply dips too low, it has to be topped off with resource surpluses and complex credit arrangements and other volatile supplements. But if the revolution Drum foresees comes about, and wage-work becomes a trivial part of the economy …

Well, why can’t everyone have a bullshit job? Sure, machines will do all the building and designing and growing and transporting, will even handle most forms of service and entertainment, but there will be a parallel human economy in which value is indistinguishable from status. Suzie will make handcrafted whatever which is incredibly rare because it is, by definition, only made by Suzie. Rajit and Bob and Sunil will be Suzie’s assistants, who get paid for having lunch with other movers and shakers. Kwame and Lee will be waiters at the restaurant where power lunches take place, adding their human je ne sais quoi to a fleet of robot waiters. The restaurant will be owned by Julie, who uses her ineffable taste and discernment to select menu options from the most fashionable AI chefs. Those chefs will be a subject of obsessive study for people like Bohi and Mandy and Tim, who also comment on and critique the words of AI food critics, explaining how these critics, despite their popularity, fail to comprehend the finer distinctions of the human palate. And yadda yadda yadda, and yakkety-yak-yak, through countless groups and social classes, all the way down to the equivalent of people who pass their time critiquing someone else’s comments on a let’s-play video. All of this will be ludic and narcissistic and otiose, to be sure. But this is already how thousands of people–including Kevin Drum himself–spend their time. So far as I can tell, they love it.**

I don’t think Drum’s a hypocrite; he would probably argue that he himself, as a pundit, is eminently replaceable. And we’ll soon reach a point at which software can perform all the superficial functions of his job: making predictions, composing clear sentences, interpreting data. But is that what makes punditry profitable? Don’t make me laugh.

A pundit’s value can’t be meaningfully disentangled from his authenticity: the idea that there’s some human guy, made up of the same juicy stuff as the rest of us, who’s thinking and feeling various loony or perspicacious things. Heck, I could probably write a chatbot this weekend that would tell me all the things I like to hear from pundits. “That Trump, he be very bad human.” “Democrats guilty of big epic tone-fail.” “More slime make better movie.” But you know what? It wouldn’t be the same.

This won’t change when robots get better at providing services, however “service” is defined. It will only change when people place so little value on their own humanity that they lose interest in the humanity of others. It will only happen, that is to say, when people take no interest in their own lives. And how likely is that?

As it happens, Drum thinks it’s not only likely, but inevitable, though he doesn’t say so in his article. In a separate blog post, Drum argues that once machines take our jobs, people will realize that we never had much worth in the first place:

This is actually the scenario I consider most likely. After a while, humans will finally be forced to accept that, yes, robots are so much smarter and more knowledgeable that we’ll never even come close to catching up with them. That literally leaves us with no purpose. Over time, we’ll get listless and depressed, stop having children, and eventually just die out of our own accord. This will take a little while, but probably only two or three hundred years. This might explain why we’ve never seen signs of life elsewhere in the universe. For biological life, the window of time between the invention of advanced technology (i.e., things that can be detected across long distances, like radio signals) and the end of the race is only a few centuries. Every few million years there’s a very brief spark of intelligent biological life and then it winks out.³ The odds of two of them happening at the same time is slim.

He goes on to predict that intelligent machine will eventually die of futility, too–naturally, since the astrophysicists haven’t seen any sign of robot ETs, either. And here we come to my fourth, last, and biggest objection to his thinking, though to call it something as mild as an objection hardly seems apt.

One of my favorite catchphrases from online arguments is “I just don’t understand,” as in:

“If someone hasn’t actually said the word ‘Yes,’ they haven’t consented. I just don’t understand how people fail to grasp this simple concept.”

“I just don’t understand why people make it so complicated. A man has a penis and a woman has a vagina. Simple.”

“I just don’t understand how people can still believe in God, after everything science has taught us.”

I just don’t understand why you refuse to accept that you’re a rapist, or pathologically delusional, or a benighted primitive. Why is that so hard?

I find that people who sound the alarm about AI are especially guilty of this rhetorical maneuver. They begin their arguments in seductive fashion. Wake up, folks: AI’s improving by leaps and bounds, and it’s really going to shake things up. Then they turn up the heat: it could even be a threat to our very civilization.

But they’re never content to leave things there. They always take that fatal extra step.

AI is coming, people, and it’s going harness all matter in the universe for the construction of a giant computer implementing an arbitrarily chosen program for eternity!

AI is coming, and it’s going to reinvent the world as a giant simulation!

AI is coming, and in fact it probably already came, and we’re living in a simulation right now, but only one in a hierarchy of simulations of increasing and various complexity, merely to contemplate the existence of which is to risk disrupting its stability!

AI is coming, and it will teach us all that life as we know it is empty and pointless, a ruthless grind of meaningless competition that ultimately terminates in a hollow and empty death, and that nothing has mattered or could ever matter, and that the only reality is futile suffering and the word for truth is Void.

And then, the inevitable addition: I just don’t understand why people don’t take this stuff seriously.

Gee, I wonder? Why do so many people have this idea that people who worry about AI are really seeking an outlet for their own hidden fears? Could it be becau–

OH MY GOD LIFE IS MEANINGLESS WITHOUT MY CAREER AND SUPERIOR SMARTS I WILL BE WORTHLESS NO ONE WILL EVER LOVE ME ONLY SOULLESS EMPTINESS WILL REMAIN AFTER THE RUTHLESS LAWS OF DARWINISM EXTERMINATE US ALL!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Whoops. ‘Scuse me. Don’t know what happened there.

This post has gone on long enough, so I’ll wrap up. In the past, technological revolutions–agricultural, informational, industrial–brought a lot of power to human groups, but at a cost to human individuals. They threatened to reduce millions of people to the equivalent of pack animals, or mechanisms, or voiceless masses. The solution in each case was to develop new systems of meaning and morality–new religions, philosophies, laws–to restore the dignity and agency that had been lost.

Those changes involved much more than better distributions of resources. They depended on new justifications for distributing both resources and power: new visions of human worth.

If the AI revolution has the effects that many of us expect, we’ll need to do much more than come up with a more progressive tax policy. We’ll need to develop better ideals.

The deeper thinkers on the subject already understand this. But they tend to focus on training computers to comprehend our existing morals. That’s not enough. We need to change. As in the past, we need to become worthy of our creations.

This isn’t something that can be done in a day, or by one person. Certainly it can’t be done in a single article or blog post. Baby steps. And the first of those steps, I think, is to scrub away the taint of misanthropy that sours so much writing on this subject.

Soon, Kevin Drum argues, our computers will be smart enough to teach us that our lives are worthless after all.

Call me crazy, but I’d say that’s probably not the best banner to bring to a revolution.

—–

*Here’s another way to look at it. Humans are, most people would agree, smarter than spider monkeys. Does this mean a human can simulate the behavior and thoughts of a spider monkey, become virtually indistinguishable from a spider monkey, blend into spider monkey society? Isn’t there something about the immanent experience of spider monkeys that is irreducibly and irreplaceably spider monkeyish? If all the spider monkeys went extinct, we could probably hire humans to live in the jungle and imitate aspects of spider monkey behavior. But this imitation would be imperfect. Wouldn’t something have been lost?

Absolutely. I’m of the belief that something inexpressibly precious would have been lost. But that doesn’t stop humans from putting spider monkeys in zoos, destroying spider monkey habitats, killing spider monkeys at will, and generally treating spider monkeys as if their dubious economic value translates to a total lack of intrinsic value.

**It’s an essential feature of this vision that human crafts and services are inferior to machine-made counterparts. Suzie’s handcrafts are cruder than AI-made equivalents, human waiters are sloppier, human writers less lucid, and so on. These goods are valued over robot offerings only for having been made by real people.

If your response is to say, “But that’s silly: once Suzie’s ‘crude’ handcrafts come into fashion, smart machines will simply learn to imitate her style”–whoa, stop. Can’t you see you’ve just raised the value of an original Suzie even further by flooding the market with cheap knockoffs? What’s more, because AI imitations are so good, only a few people know the difference between a knockoff and an original. How do they come by their special knowledge? By tracing the provenance of Suzie’s artworks. But computers also generate the records of artistic provenance, as well as brilliant forgeries of those records. And if AIs can learn to detect those forgeries, they can also learn to produce better forgeries. And on and on forever.  Ultimately, everything comes down to knowing the right people: an expert who knows someone who knows someone who is willing to vouch that a given Suzie was actually made by Suzie, because he was in the room when she produced it, or because he personally knows her agent, or because he employs a computer scientist who works with an AI that’s trained to detect forgeries, or whatever. Reputation itself becomes the final scarce resource.

And if you say, “That’s all well and good for art enthusiasts, but what is everyone else going to do?” then I beg you to expand your definition of the term “art enthusiast.” The basis of this kind of reputational economy is a group of people with enough leisure to bid up the value of trivial stuff. Because people who had this leisure in the past secured it through systems like land inheritance and education, we associate leisure with aristocratic habits: high fashion, deipnosophistry, appreciation of fine wine and art. But that’s old-hat. When other people get leisure time, they gossip about tabloids and games and TV shows, and build up status around those pursuits. As we used to say when I was in middle school: “Same difference.”

Finally, if you’re tempted to say something like, “But all this falls short of true AI, which involves digital creations that have a will of their own … or augmented humans that have been uploaded into machines … or godly supercomputers that can predict the future”–well, then, I think mass unemployment is the least of our worries.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Nerd in His Natural Habitat

Oi. This essay by Willie Osterweil makes some important points. But the whole thing is so choked with social-justice cliches that his conclusion, I think, is almost completely off-base.

Osterweil is writing about nerd culture and cinema. He argues that persecuted white boys appeared in films of 70s and 80s as a way of diverting attention from larger social issues:

New Hollywood, the “American new wave” movement of the ’60s and 1970s, remains to many film historians the last golden age of serious Hollywood filmmaking. Though often reactionary and appropriative, the films of the period were frequently dealing with real social problems: race, class, gender violence. …

This turmoil, as much as anything else, produced the innovative Hollywood cinema of the period …

But along came American malaise, Reagan, the blockbuster era, etc., etc., and “films like A Woman Under the Influence, Serpico, One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest and Network” gave way to the “miserable schlock” of the 1980s: “big-budget spectacles with lowest-common-denominator subject matter.”

In Osterweil’s view, this was part of a larger conservative backlash:

Reagan’s main political move was to sweep social conflict under the rug and “unify” the population in a new “Morning in America” through an appeal to a coalition of whites concerned about “crime” and taxation. … Hollywood in the 1980s worked hard to render social tensions invisible and project a safe and stable white suburban America (as opposed to urban hellscapes) whose travails were largely due to bureaucratic interference, whether through meddling high school principals like in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off or the tyrannical EPA agents in Ghostbusters.

Well, all right. I’m wary of any cultural critic who puts scare quotes around the word crime, but Osterweil’s certainly onto something. The 80s really were a time when crowd-pleasing spectacle replaced the gritty sensationalism of the 70s and the socially conscious experimentalism of the 60s. (I think this made the 80s something a golden age for children’s cinema, but that’s a subject for another day.)

Osterweil goes badly awry, however, when he gets to the nut of his argument:

Central to this program of making social conflict disappear, oddly enough, is the nerd.

The archetypal nerd is a common figure in movies of many eras, including the 80s. But a central figure? Osterweil describes this stock character as:

a smart but awkward, always well-meaning white boy irrationally persecuted by his implacable jock antagonists in order to subsume and mystify true social conflict — the ones around race, gender, class, and sexuality that shook the country in the 1960s and ’70s — into a spectacle of white male suffering.

He goes on to blame this “myth of nerd oppression” for a host of social ills: Trumpism, white supremacy, neo-Nazis, the rise of the alt-right, GamerGate, the excesses of Silicon Valley, persecution of women and people of color–essentially every political problem of modern America.

Osterweil holds up Revenge of the Nerds as a prototypical fairy tale of nerd oppression. Revenge of the Nerds is certainly a lousy movie, and a good illustration of his thesis. But what’s most striking about Osterweil’s argument is how much it leaves out.

After all, the cinematic backlash that put white male antiheroes at the center of Hollywood revenge fantasies didn’t begin with the suburban melodramas of the 80s. It began with the exploitation films of the 70s–the very period Osterweil extols. In films like Assault on Precinct 13, The Warriors, Escape from New York, and the original Mad Max, heavy-hitting, hypermasculine men fought back against what they saw as a sick and declining society. The violent loners of seventies cinema were hardly “smart” or “well-meaning.” They were savage, broken, angry, vengeful. And they took to the streets to vent their rage.

This was an overt backlash to the social upheavals of the sixties, and, I think, a revealing one. These bitter white men didn’t simply replace minorities as sympathetic figures in tales of persecution and resistance. They actually did battle with violent hordes unleashed by broken social bonds–along with scheming authorities, hypocritical establishment types, and anyone else who stood in their way. They packed heat and hit the street, blasting away pimps, gangs, rioters, dealers, dope-fiends, anarchists, bums, and the shills and shysters of an effete establishment.

In this upside-down myth of American individualism, white male mavericks were the true rebels, the renegades, the loners, the underdogs. But the films did have a skewed sort of racial consciousness, and black men still had a critical role to play. They were often cast as unwitting accomplices of an evil elite, dupes or fools or unknowing tools, doing their best to play along with the rules of a wrecked society. The ubervillain would always be a white man in a suit, pulling levers behind the scenes. But the white hero frequently found himself in the company of a strong black man–a Billy Dee Williams, a Danny Glover, a Carl Weathers–who hadn’t realized he was carrying water for unworthy masters. Usually these unwitting accomplices came to realize how badly they’d been used. But by then it was too late.

What role, exactly, does the persecuted nerd of the 80s play in the context of this larger, longer trend? Most white-male rebels of the 70s and 80s hardly fit the profile of a skinny, geeky teenager yearning to score a date with a blonde cheerleader. Is Rambo a nerd? Is Rocky a nerd? Is Dirty Harry a nerd? Is Travis Bickle a nerd? Was Charles Bronson known for playing nerds?

What about the action stars of the 80s and 90s? By the time Arnold Schwarzenegger hit his stride, the conventions of the outdated Western genre had been thoroughly remodded as hip new tales of urban cowboys, post-apocalyptic loners, and wasteland warriors. The updated image of a white-male renegade, operating at the margins of society, had hardened into a durable cliche. Mel Gibson, Sylvester Stallone, and Steven Seagal all forged careers by playing variations of the type, while Bruce Willis and Schwarzenegger learned to woo mainstream taste by cannily playing against it. A lesser star like Kurt Russell could get away with doing both.

What surrounds and binds these icons, I think, is a simmering stew of white-male resentment that bubbled up in the 70s, was quicky channeled into an orgy of cinematic escapism, and slowly congealed into a set of caricatures. The horny nerd of 80s comedy is certainly one of those caricatures. But he’s hardly the most influential.

Even the films and characters cited by Osterweil offer little to support his thesis, and much to complicate it. The heroes of Weird Science, the character Brian from The Breakfast Club, Ted from Sixteen Candles: those are great examples of resentful geeks. But two of them are minor characters, and Weird Science is hardly a landmark film. What about the other names Osterweiler offers? Ferris Bueller, the too-cool-for-school slacker with rich pals, a gorgeous girlfriend, and a laid-back attitude–this is a nerd? The hard-drinking losers of Animal House–nerds? Skateboarding California kid Marty McFly–a nerd? (Perhaps Osterweil means George McFly, a much better example.) The everyday hero played by Ralph Machio in the Karate Kid? River Phoenix’s character in Stand by Me? The only nerd in The Goonies is Data, who embodies a troublesome stereotype but hardly advances a fantasy of white oppression, while the “bullies” in the movie are hardened bankrobbers. And Osterweil fails to name the ur-nerd of late eighties television: Steve Urkel.

There’s also a revealing elision here, in that Osterweil, like so many writers on this topic, slips freely between describing stories about nerds and stories beloved by nerds. When Osterweil says that today, “nerd culture is culture” he doesn’t mean that popular culture has been overtaken by sequels to Revenge of the Nerd, reboots of Weird Science, and integrated film franchises set in the world of Ferris Bueller. He doesn’t mean that overgrown nerds are lovingly curating their collections of Meatballs and Animal House DVDs. He doesn’t mean that a new generation of nerds is bickering about fan edits of The Breakfast Club and Sixteen Candles.

Star Wars, Star Trek, X-Men, Aliens, Indiana Jones, epic fantasy: these are the pop-culture products that nerds embraced in the eighties, and while they’re as white-centric as any other property of the period, they hardly play into the narrative of nerd-persecution that Osterweil has in his sights. If anything, these stories are notable for eschewing the curdled ressentiment Osterweiler makes his focus, harping instead on simple fables of stoic virtue and moral growth. The utopia of Star Trek depends on a legitimate and well-ordered establishment. Spock, the original nerd icon, is a model of Senecan self-restraint. Star Wars is a transparently anti-fascist fantasy. Indiana Jones and Captain America are the original Nazi punchers. I could go on.

That’s not to say these works aren’t flawed or flimsy in other ways. But if you take the white-male-frustration out of Rambo, or Dirty Harry, or Animal House, or Taxi Driver, you don’t have much left. You can put a black man at the helm in Star Trek, or a woman at the center of the Star Wars mythos, or zip just about anyone into a superhero suit, without changing the fundamental appeal of those stories. Which is why, I think, so-called nerd culture expanded to engulf the world, while the freaks-and-geeks celebrated by John Hughes and Judd Apatow ended up sequestered in a narrow market niche.

Finally, I have to mention my own experience. As a late Gen-Xer, I grew up in the period Osterweil describes. I wasn’t queer, fat, disabled, or nonwhite–traits Osterweil cites as targets of true oppression–but I was very much a nerd, and very much an outcast, at least up through middle school. And I was always baffled, put off, and not infrequently disgusted by the cliched depictions of nerds in mainstream culture, which I saw as having little connection to my own experience.

My mother often urged me to watch the kinds of movies Osterweiler critiques. Sixteen Candles, Weird Science, The Breakfast Club, Revenge of the Nerds: I saw them all at her prompting, thanks to her mistaken belief that I would find them comforting or cathartic. But I didn’t see myself reflected in the grubby caricatures of those films–gawky, bobble-headed, perpetually horny geeks, who never seemed to read or study but were addicted to shallow pranks and crass sexual humor. For that matter, I didn’t recognize the bullies onscreen, either. I didn’t think of myself as having been pushed around by jocks (who were, if anything, kinder to me than most other kids, precisely because their high social status relieved them of the need to buff their reputations by trashing geeks and dweebs). I didn’t get chased after school by gangs of meatheads. I didn’t dream of molesting and raping cheerleaders.

As I got older, I dreamed of having a girlfriend, sure. But the travesty of a movie like Revenge of the Nerds is that it doesn’t have much to do with love or even lust at all. It depicts a cynical and joyless world where girls are passed around as trophies in a savage male status competition–a bully’s view of life.

No, I’m pretty sure I saw this stuff for what it was: a bundle of gross stereotypes peddled by people who didn’t evince much genuine interest in science fiction, math, myth, or truth–who weren’t nerds themselves, and didn’t care to understand those who were.

And I didn’t think of myself as a good kid unfairly persecuted by a few cruel jerks. I thought of myself as someone who was legitimately hateful, and as a necessary consequence, universally hated: by athletes, by teachers, by the school bus driver, by mean girls, by nice girls, by ordinary kids, by video-game fans, by comic-fans, by straight-A students, by straight-F students: by every single person in school. That attitude is, of course, pathological in its own way, and throughout my childhood I oscillated between the familiar poles of narcissism–obsessive self-loathing and disdainful misanthropy–but I certainly didn’t think of myself as an ordinary kid victimized by alpha males. I thought of myself as a monster, an incarnation of all that was loathsome, repulsive, and odious in the universe. Sometimes I imagined that my monstrous status had given me a rare insight into the cruelty and hypocrisy of others–I liked to believe I could be both special and despicable. But I felt little affinity with the angry white men I saw on movie screens. In my view, they were, themselves, exponents and enforcers of an oppressive normalcy.

For solace, I looked to portrayals of creatures, characters, and entities who were in some way monstrous themselves: unreal, eldritch, or anyway, inhuman. My favorite 80s flicks were the Dark Crystal, Labyrinth, Gremlins, Aliens, Krull, The Neverending Story, Return of the Jedi, and Little Shop of Horrors–anything, in short, with rubber monsters. Some of those movies have a strong dose of nerd-revenge in them (the original script for Gremlins is heavy going), but that’s not what attracted me. I liked the monsters themselves, the idea that you could be a sentient and self-aware animal without necessarily being human.

That fantasy, too, has its childish and self-involved aspects–as does the impulse to see oneself as uniquely monstrous, or for that matter, uniquely anything. But I’m not sure it’s resentful in quite the way Osterweil describes. It underlies, I think, a widespread tendency to find villains–flawed, colorful, shunned–more appealing than sanctimonious heroes. And as I got older, my fascination with monsters led me away from the white-bread patriarchs of classic science fiction, toward the countercultural misfits of sci-fi’s new wave. It led me away from stock stories about hypercompetent supermen toward outsider views of every kind. And it led me away from stories about loners in search of revenge toward tales of losers in search of grace. It may not be optimal to grow up seeing oneself as something other than a member of the human race. But if the antihero secretly longs for respect, the monster privately yearns for redemption.

Is this what other nerds and outcasts feel? I can’t be sure, but the nerd culture so prevalent today, for all its childishness and absurdity, strikes me as an implicit rebuke to the antisocial impulses enshrined in seventies and eighties cinema. The story that modern Hollywood tells–over and over and over–is a self-esteem-boosting fairy tale of personal transformation, the account of a humble kid who discovers a magical destiny, strives to be worthy of a special power, and ultimately saves the world. That’s a recipe for overblown effects and sentimental moralizing. But it’s a far cry from the implicit demand made by the antihero: that society change to meet his needs, while he refuses to change at all.

So what’s really going on? I think the story goes something like this. After the ructions of the 60s, America underwent a backlash of white anxiety and resentment that ultimately found an important outlet in mass culture. Moviemakers learned to channel social tensions into homey fables of heroic solipsism: one lone (white) maverick against the world. Over subsequent decades, Hollywood served up thirty-two flavors and then some of this kind of middle-class iconoclasm: macho warriors hemmed in by stuffy pencil-pushers, slobs and deadbeats harangued by pushy dads, broken veterans harassed by ungrateful civilians, stoners bothered by squares, snide ironists alienated from mainstream life, poor Molly Ringwald types persecuted by suburban snobs, preppy slackers chased by stuffy principals, disillusioned cops, underdog athletes, gloomy girls with suicidal tendencies, and a dozen other stereotypes of suburban nonconformism. Almost as an afterthought, nerds were added to the list, usually as secondary characters–sources of comic relief, convenient sidekicks, or peripheral additions to crews of misfits.

Meanwhile, what were nerds in the real world doing? Learning to code, studying science, obsessing over trivia, and diving into fantasy worlds. The fantasies they chose were the ones everyone loved. Every kid in the 80s loved Star Wars, every kid in the 80s played Nintendo. Nerds became associated with these cultural touchstones not because they were the only ones who liked them, but because they were unusually dependent on them–more obsessive about trivia, more limited in their tastes, more likely to use pop culture as a therapeutic crutch. A well-adjusted kid grew up with movies, TV, games, toys, sports, computers, school, friends, church, clubs, cars, books, and camping trips. A nerd might emotionally invest in a handful of those hobbies, becoming, as a result, overinvolved and weirdly possessive.

Those trends have run alongside each other ever since, and now we see the result. The nerds who learned to code are still coding. The nerds who loved superheroes still love superheroes–and most other grownups do too. Nerds are still weird, socially awkward, and irksomely overattached to their small set of cultural preferences.

Meanwhile, white resentment is very much with us, and still seduces whites of all types: elite businessmen, churchgoing soccer moms, grown-up jocks, potty-mouthed trolls, smarmy comedians, duckhunting woodsmen, graying feminists, and just about every type of white person imaginable. If millions of white people voted for Trump, and millions of white people are nerds, is it really so surprising that some nerds are also Trump supporters? And if nerds as a group are persnickity, socially awkward, clueless around people of the opposite sex, and tiresomely opinionated–well, isn’t that what being a nerd means?

Osterweiler, and many writers like him, attempt a kind of magic trick. They take a broad cultural trend–white male resentment–that touches every aspect of Western society. Then they take a specific stereotype–the nerd–that, like almost everything else in American culture, has been affected in some way by the trend. They wave their rhetorical wand and say, “Abracadabra–make the stereotype a metonym,” and voila: every resentful white male becomes a reflection, facet, or aspect of one type: a geeky, horny, awkward loser, masturbating to anime in his mother’s basement. Louche comedians? Just another type of nerd. Underdog heroes? Well, nerds see themselves as underdogs, so all underdogs can be, by inference, nerds. Gun-nuts? They’re resentful loners, and nerds are also resentful loners–so, yes, they’re also nerds. Drunken frat boys? Well, they’re rapey, and nerds are also rapey, right? Take the process far enough, everyone’s a nerd.

But this obscures the reality on the ground. Osterweiler, straining to draw a connection between a few flashy fascists and a handful of half-forgotten films, ignores how overwhelmingly mainstream the archetype of the white-male loner used to be. And if we’re serious about tracing the origins of modern social ills–well, it’s not as if libertarian coders have a monopoly on misogny. Harvey Weinstein; Roger Ailes; Bills O’Reilly, Clinton, and Cosby; all the way up to the big DT himself: are these men nerds?

It irritates me that this kind of sloppy sloganeering so often stands in for a sincere attempt to grapple with subtler issues–including the actual ailments of nerd culture. The pains suffered by shy, smart, sensitive kids may not amount to structural oppression, but they’re real, and they lead to real problems. And the place where nerd culture rubs up against feminism is a source of severe social friction, to say the least. But how are we going to cope with those issues if people insist on collapsing the cultural chasms that separate PewDiePie from Rush Limbaugh, Tom Cruise from James Damore, Richard Spencer from Louis C.K.?

By cherrypicking examples and skating over significant differences, Osterweiler makes nerds both more important and less meaningful than they are. He commits the mistake nerds themselves are often accused of: confusing fantasy and reality.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Mommie Jeer-Fest

Whelp. I finally saw Mommie Dearest, the infamous cult film about Joan Crawford’s poor parenting skills. It slumps horribly in the later chapters, and has all the structural flaws common to most biopics, following the messy course of a life instead of the tidy arc of a narrative. But you  know what? I thought it was pretty good–at least for a tell-all-celebrity-memoir.

The story … well, there isn’t much to say. Joan Crawford adopts a child. She has career troubles. She takes it out on her child. This goes on, and on, and on, until Crawford dies. The end.

The meta-story, now that’s something to talk about. Apparently Faye Dunaway was pilloried for her lurid scenery chewing in the title role. I’m not sure what people expected. The whole point of the movie is to make a viewer cringe at Crawford’s lousy behavior, so of course Dunaway’s performance is cringe-inducing. The response to this film reminds me of those people who order the richest dessert on a restaurant menu and go on to wince at every bite, groaning, “God, so sweet!” Well, it’s what you asked for, babe. If you can’t handle humiliating domestic scenes, stay away from tell-all memoirs.

When I became an F. Scott Fitzgerald fanboy, I took in a lot of biographical info about his life, and all of it fell into this same pattern. First a breathless tale of fervid social ascension. Next, a quick montage of bright career highlights. Finally, endless scenes of personal degradation.

The whole genre of trash biography aspires to a kind of sublimity through sadism. We have a curious institution in our society–a vast, pervasive, elaborate system ingeniously engineered to drive ordinary mortals insane. We call it “celebrity culture.” We run ordinary people through this psychological mill, and lo and behold, they go insane. Then we turn their insanity into a grotesque spectacle, and wring from their ruined lives another stimulating dose of sensational entertainment.

The whole affair is something like a morality play turned inside out, in which the moral of the story is that some people deserve to be gawked at and exploited and humiliated, because being gawked at and exploited and humiliated has turned them into just the sort of vain and erratic people who deserve to be gawked at and exploited and humiliated. Hmmmm. We treat actresses as if they’re rotting corpses after they turn fifty, then mock them for getting plastic surgery. We treat minor actors as if a few television spots have made them public property for life, then wonder why they seem ambivalent about public attention. We give people more money than they deserve to have, then resent them for having it.

In a way, it’s a very clever arrangement. Let’s say you’re a sadist who also happens to be a narcissist. You enjoy tormenting people, but you also hate the thought that you’re the sort of person who enjoys it. You want to have your stone and throw it too: jeering at someone who can’t fight back, but also congratulating yourself for being the kind of person who stands up for good old-fashioned virtues.

Well, celebrity culture has you covered. One way to rationalize contempt is to direct at people with unfair advantages: the privileged, the powerful, the elite. But that can be inconvenient when the advantages are based on things like money and power, because it takes so long to build people up and tear them down.

Not in the case of celebrity. When it comes to celebrity, everything comes down to attention. Give someone lots of attention, and she rises in status. Give her an absurd amount of attention, and she rises in status to an absurd degree. Which is totally unfair, right? Why should she have all that attention? Clearly she owes you something, though it’s hard to say exactly what. At any rate, either she relishes your attention or she bridles at it; both reactions smack of ingratitude. What a bitch! She’s the overdog and you’re the underdog, you’ve given her the gift of attention and you didn’t get any attention in return, which means you’re completely justified in hating and attacking her.

Congratulations: you’ve successfully engineered an excuse for guilt-free sadism.

The test of a tell-all celebrity bio is whether, and in what way, it calls attention to this sickly dynamic. For most of the second half of Mommie Dearest, I was bored. But for most of the first half, I hated myself and also humanity. I thought the movie did what it set out to do.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Life Among the Junior Spies

Libertarian types are going wild for a story about a bisexual philosophy student disciplined by his department chair for making dicey remarks about Islam.

From Reason:

A bisexual male student at the University of Texas–San Antonio said during an informal conversation outside class that he was uncomfortable with Islam because people still receive the death penalty for being gay in 10 Muslim-majority countries.

For expressing this thought, the student … was instructed to meet with the chair of the philosophy department … [who] told [him] in no uncertain terms that he had committed the crime of “offending” someone, and she warned him that his habit of saying what he thinks could bring down the entire program. …

Unfortunately for [the professor], [the student] secretly recorded their conversation. The transcript, first publicized by Gay Star News, is incredible.

You really have to read a chunk of the transcript to appreciate its full Orwellian awfulness, but one passage has proven especially popular:

STUDENT: I said that I was bothered that I could be killed in 10 Muslim countries. I’m bisexual. So they’d definitely do that in the 10 countries where I would be— you know.

PROFESSOR: Doesn’t that strike you as an inappropriate thing to say about someone’s fiance?

STUDENT: I wasn’t talking about the fiance. The fiance could have whatever interpretation of the religion that they want. I said something like…(thinking) that I…yeah it wasn’t about the fiance, it was about the religious practices in those countries.

PROFESSOR: How is it appropriate to bring that up in connection with someone’s fiance?

STUDENT: They brought it up. The Islam part.

PROFESSOR: And you brought up the threat to your life as posed by this fiance?

STUDENT: No. We got to the subject of Islam, not the fiance.

PROFESSOR: Do you understand how someone would find that offensive?

STUDENT: How someone would find that offensive, yeah; how they could perceive it, yeah; yeah, I mean, if I…

PROFESSOR: It’s a confusing comment to me because Muslims do not all live in countries in which bisexuals are executed. Muslims live in the United States—

STUDENT: Sure.

PROFESSOR: —Muslims live in France, Muslims live in every country in the world—it’s the fastest growing world religion.

STUDENT: Yeah, one of my good friends at the university is Muslim.

PROFESSOR: And do you tell him that you object to his religion because there are places on earth where gay, lesbian, and bisexual people are discriminated against, including your own country?

STUDENT: Well, “her.” And my verbiage was “killed” not “discriminated against.” I mean, death penalty’s pretty severe.

PROFESSOR: What does that have to do with her being engaged to a Muslim?

STUDENT: Nothing. I wasn’t talking about the engagement to the Muslim. I was talking about Islam in that particular moment.

PROFESSOR: Well, let me just say that kind of thing is not going to be tolerated in our department. We’re not going to tolerate graduate students trying to make other graduate students feel terrible for our emotional attachments.

STUDENT: Um…all right.

PROFESSOR: And, if you don’t understand why that is, I can explain fully, or I can refer you to the Behavior Intervention Team on our campus, which consists of a counselor, faculty member, and person from student affairs who are trained on talking to people about what’s appropriate or what isn’t.

Behavior Intervention Team? They have a mandatory counseling program, and they call it the “Behavior Intervention Team”? You can’t make this stuff up.

Of course, the libertarians think the professor is the Orwellian villain in this story, a petty apparatchik on the hunt for thoughtcrime. But the professor isn’t the one who’s secretly recording closed-door conversations. What’s really Orwellian is the state of affairs that made this a national story in the first place. The comment about Islam was made during an informal chat. Someone tattled to the school administration, who called the student in for a stern talkin’-to. The student secretly recorded that encounter, which apparently is legal in Texas, because why the hell not, everything’s legal in Texas. And then the student went and tattled on the professor to the internet, because no one handles matters of justice and philosophical nuance better than a mob of anonymous outrage-addicts.

That’s how someone like me can get worked up about this kind of thing in the first place–a casual exchange on a campus quad somewhere on the far side of the country.

In conservative reporting on the case, the student comes across as something of a hero–not just a culture-war hero standing up to PC ideologues, but an intellectual hero who is, in the words of one conservative commentator:

… a great deal more interested in “truth-seeking” … than is the philosophy professor – who is manifestly far less of a true philosopher, wrestling with facts and ideas and prepared to entertain opposing views, than she is a dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrat, reflexively spouting inane platitudes and enforcing irrational procedures and regulations, and a good multiculturalist, unwilling to address the darker sides of the institutionally fetishized “other.”

All very lofty and inspiring–except that this conversation wasn’t happening in philosophy class. It was part of the inevitable grind of university administration, something the professor seems to understand much better than the student. Could it possibly be true–I’m reaching, here–that the philosophy professor was acting like a petty bureaucrat because that’s what she was required to do? If the professor comes across as an administrative flunky dispensing the bromides of campus PC-speak (Muslims come in all kinds of flavors!), the student gradually reveals himself to be a sophist of a different stripe, using all the passive-aggressive tactics of a conservative gadfly to badger his interlocutor into tongue-tied tergiversation. I don’t understand. Can you explain what you mean by that word, “offensive”? I’m just asking. Y’know, some of my best friends are Muslim!

As for platitudes–oh, I’ll give you some platitudes:

A university should be the time you are the most intellectually uncomfortable you’ve ever been. The most unique function of a university is to use ideas to challenge other ideas. Every other function: certification, knowledge transmission, and so on can be replicated trivially by online courses. To the extent universities have a unique, irreplicable function it is to the extent they challenge and test your ideas. The concept of restricting outside-of-class speech at a taxpayer-funded university due to something like ‘appropriateness’ is itself inappropriate to the very idea of a university.

That’s from a Facebook post the student wrote about the experience. Such a refreshing change from the usual officialese, eh?–this talk of knowledge transmission and most unique functions and things that can’t be trivially replicated. Here’s some more good-faith truth-seeking from our earnest young “true philosopher”:

[The professor], and professors like her, are unfit to guide the direction of scholarship and knowledge. There’s no telling how many ideas have never seen light at UTSA under her leadership. Whatever her role, she thinks the foundational principles of universities themselves are a joke. She should not be in charge of anyone in any knowledge-based profession, and she should be stripped of her taxpayer-funded influence at the University of Texas at San Antonio.

His whole Facebook post is like that: a series of attacks on the professor herself, glued together with hoary liberal cliches about TRUTH and KNOWLEDGE and IDEAS. You almost expect the guy to come out and say, “The only proper response to speech is more speech–which is why my professor should take a vow of silence and live the rest of her life in a sealed oil drum, where her dangerous PC views will never hurt anyone again.”

Naturally, the professor is getting harassed. From the conservative pundit quoted above:

When a gay news website contacted [her] about [the student’s] charges, she “declined to comment.” Why? Believe it or not, she offered the following excuse: “The number of threats I am receiving (due to threads the student has started on Reddit) makes this a subject I would not feel safe discussing even very generally.”

So the woman who enjoined [a student] to retreat from intellectual reflection and honest expression into cowardly silence is now taking her own craven advice – staying mum.

Believe it or not? Oh, I believe it. You better believe I believe it. Most of the comments I’ve read on this story call for the professor to lose her job. Quite a few of them go further and imply that she should never work again. And those are the civil comments.

Sure. Let’s gin up a hate mob and get someone fired. That’ll solve the problem. That’ll solve every problem. Lord knows, there’s got to be another squirrelly bureaucrat waiting in the wings, thinking about his own career, his own kids, his own car payments and peace of mind, already drafting his public statement: “Our university won’t tolerate professors who make students feel unsafe by threatening their free-speech rights …” And that will cool things down. Until the feminist backlash hits.

That phrase above, “the institutionally fetishized ‘other'”–that’s actually not bad. One of the most important things to note is that a devout Muslim student making similar statements would probably have gotten dragged in for the same harangue. “To be honest, homosexuality still makes me a bit uncomfortable, since it is contrary to certain teachings of …” Nope. Verboten. In my own travels in Liberal Land, I’ve heard plenty of people denouncing conservatives for demonizing Muslims, but I’ve rarely heard progressives speak as if Islamic thought can be a source of wisdom, or a guide to behavior, or anything meaningful. Islam is indeed reduced to a fetish, a badge of identity, a sticker to be stuck on someone’s forehead, offering certain exemptions and protections so long as no one says anything that might make trouble.

This kind of washed-out, institutional humanism is quick to denounce and discipline and dismiss, but it doesn’t really stand for much of anything. It certainly doesn’t stand for individual people, who always fall short of its de facto creed of perfect inoffensiveness.

That is, incidentally, why I’ve cut the personal names and links from this post. My own little blog isn’t likely to steer much viral hate toward anyone, but why take the chance? More importantly, who cares who these people are? It’s the nature of a story like this to flense away the humanity of the participants, reduce them to caricatures in a Punch and Judy show. That is, I think, why both the student and professor speak in faltering equivocations and mealymouthed cliches, why the whole scenario plays out like a bizarre show trial where it’s not entirely clear who’s being judged. I’ve had conversations like this myself, encounters in which people speak and behave like participants in someone else’s psychodrama, frantically passing back and forth the hot potato of controversy. In the manner of reality-show participants, we learn not to speak as ourselves, but as performers in front of an imaginary audience, trying to trip one another into saying something that will earn a zillion downvotes.

There’s a moment, late in the transcript, when the professor finally gets down to brass tacks:

PROFESSOR: It’s clear you’re not taking my word for it. I don’t care to convince you. If I can’t persuade you that it’s in your interest to behave in ways that other people don’t find offensive and objectionable, then at least I’ve done my job.

STUDENT: Well I know that it’s in my interest. I’m just trying to understand the reasoning.

PROFESSOR: You don’t have to.

STUDENT: Well, this is a truthseeking discipline!

At this, the professor laughs. Conservatives have pounced on that response with all the glee of a coach pointing out an unforced error. She … laughed? At the search for TRUTH ITSELF? What does she think philosophy is, some kind of a JOKE? Has this woman never heard of the ENLIGHTENMENT?

Feel that breeze? That’s the wind from a million wagging jowls.

Me? I thought that laugh came as something of a relief. As if the sheer accumulation of truisms and talking points, the young philosopher’s grandstanding and the bureaucrat’s obligatory banalities, had finally gotten to be too much. The human mind can only handle so much self-seriousness. Sooner or later, something cracks.

A laugh. At conservative pomposity. At liberal preening. Maybe that’s the kind of behavioral intervention we need.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

The Misanthropes

Daniel Everett’s book about the Piraha Indians of Peru isn’t what I’d call a masterful work of anthropology. Just a fairly readable account of his time doing fieldwork as a linguist in the Amazon.

It’s not until a third of the way through the book that we learn it’s also a profound  challenge to everything we believe.

Typically for this kind of memoir, Everett writes with affection of the indigenous people he met. He takes pains to emphasize that the Piraha, though technologically unimpressive, aren’t barbaric or stupid, just a group of people that has settled down into an unusual but workable cultural arrangement, a rapprochement with the demands of a difficult environment. You might say they’re not so different from us.

And then we learn, in an offhand remark, that “most men” in the village have been involved in the gang-rape of a young girl.

Most men? And people know about it? And freely talk about it? And they haven’t been punished?

That sounds even worse than the situation in America. At least here, when a people conspire to cover up a gang rape, they’re expected to pretend not to know about it. And however common these kinds of crimes are in our culture, it’s considered newsworthy to find a town where most men have been involved in one.

What do we make of this? How do we fit such a fact into the moral framework of contemporary liberalism? We disapprove of gang rapes, sure. But what can we say about this particular gang rape?

In America, anyone who takes part in a gang rape is a bad person. Not just bad. Evil. Monstrous. Beyond the pale.

So what about the Piraha men? Are they inherently bad people? Everett tells us they don’t “approve” of violent acts like gang rapes. But here they’ve gone and committed one anyway, and according to him, no one seems to care. Is Piraha society infected with rape culture? Is their rape culture worse than our rape culture? In their own village, these men have escaped both retribution and condemnation. What does that say about them?

We could challenge Everett’s account, call him a liar. But he’s lived among the Piraha. Most of us haven’t. What grounds do we have for dismissing his account?

We could say the Piraha have a sick society, since for all intents and purposes it condones gang rape. But that would be ethnocentric, imperialistic, jingoistic.

We could say that gang rape is okay for the Pirahas but not okay for us. Different cultures, different worlds. Let’s respect local traditions, including traditions that excuse or sanction gang rape. But that’s patronizing and potentially exoticizing. And it opens a loophole for sexism. Sure, gang rape’s okay as long those people are doing it, but we hold ourselves to a different (higher?) standard.

We could say that gang rape is essentially universal. All kinds of people commit gang rape. Lots of societies (if not all) have this problem, therefore the Piraha shouldn’t be singled out for reproof. Should we then have the same reaction when Americans gang rape each other? Should we say, “Well, that’s terrible and all, but you know, it’s not so unusual.” Can gang rape be shrugged off? Is it “just a thing men do”?

We could argue that the Piraha gang rape only happened because a foreign person came and interfered in Piraha society, and if Everett hadn’t been poking around their village, the rape probably wouldn’t have taken place. Call it the Anthropological Uncertainty Principle: the act of observing a cultural event should be taken as a contributing cause of that event. I think this is an intellectual dead end; it suggests that anthropological study is, strictly speaking, impossible.

In the case of the Piraha, as it happens, we can cobble together a more sophisticated version of the same argument. As Everett explains, European invaders disrupted the society of their ancestors. No one seems to know for sure, but it’s possible the Piraha are descendants of refugees from a Spanish-inflicted cataclysm. Maybe their society was hopelessly twisted by the trauma. Maybe that’s why they’re so casual about gang-raping people.

This seems awfully reductive. Besides, the cataclysm in question was over three hundred years ago. Any society can trace its history back to some disaster or conquest or forced migration. How much time has to go by before we grant a people ownership of their cultural legacy? The Piraha differ in meaningful ways from neighboring tribes with a similar history. Are they all just helpless victims of history? If so, what accounts for the cultural variations?

The easiest solution is to say, “Stop worrying about the Piraha! We have plenty of problems right here at home, not only gang rapes but bigotry and classism and sexism of every flavor. We can worry about judging the Piraha when we’ve cleaned up our own mess.”

In other words, we’ll reserve judgment. But isn’t this just another variety of ethnocentrism? The Piraha might be fine to look at, this attitude suggests, interesting to study, intriguing in many ways, but our real focus should always be on America’s moral failings. America and Europe. Plus Japan and China. Maybe India. You know: civilized people.

Even if we limit our focus to America, we run into new iterations of the same dilemma. Muslim-Americans who discriminate against gays. Gay men who say nasty things about women. Women who are hostile to trans activists. Blacks who are anti-Semitic. Jews who are racist. Rich people who exploit the poor. Poor people who fear foreigners. Religious folks who are anti-science. Atheists who are anti-Muslim.

George Carlin had a famous comedy routine in which he recited words you can’t say on television. We could draw up a similar list of beliefs you can’t convey on television. Beliefs that would make coastal liberals fighting mad. Sexism, racism, ableism. Islamophobia. Homophobia. Transphobia. Thinking fat people are funny. Thinking sexual harassment is funny. Thinking it’s sexy when a guy kisses a woman without asking. Thinking it’s okay to poke fun at other cultures.

But a whole lot of Americans hold at least some of those views. A whole lot of people in the world hold at least some of those views. The Piraha hold quite a few of those views. Heck, Everett even tells us they condone pedophilia! What do we make of that?

Forget about looking to the past for guidance. We know those people believed and did horrible things. The best we can say about our ancestors is that many of them were so oppressed and beleaguered they left no record of their views at all. Those who did leave a record profited from systematic oppression, or cleaved to parochial religious beliefs, or were shockingly violent, or are virtually guaranteed to have held beliefs about race and sex that would strike us now as appallingly benighted.

Of course, there’s a stock response to this line of argument. That’s to say, “Yes, but come on. Lots of people in the past believed and did awful things. But we all know that white men were by far the worst. They did the most awful stuff. What’s more, they did it in a uniquely determined and systematic way. And a lot of them are still at it! You can’t temporize by waving your hands and saying, ‘Everybody’s biased!'”

Point granted. White men are by far the worst offenders, and we have been for at least, say, the last five hundred years. White men have proven to be uniquely evil.

But where does that leave us? If we’re taking a broad view of history, what do we say about the white women who were racists? About the black men who were sexist? About the billions of people, privileged or oppressed, who held hateful views toward foreigners and homosexuals and people of other faiths? Do we let them off the hook?

Do we say, “Well, they lived in the past, so it’s natural they believed wicked things”? Isn’t that the same excuse people make for the white male oppressors?

Do we say, “It’s wrong to judge those people; they had no power, or anyway they had less power than others.” Does this mean white male oppressors were the only people with moral agency? That only the powerful can be held to a moral standard? That the underprivileged are essentially amoral–not immoral, not wicked, but incapable of making meaningful moral decisions?

And let’s not even talk about other countries: sexism in India, homophobia in Iran, bigotry and fanaticism and elitism and parochialism everywhere you look.

Here’s what bothers me. By the ethical standards of the culture I’m talking about–liberal, educated Americans, who insists that these same standards be taken as firm guidelines, not just arbitrary ethical fashions–virtually every person who has ever lived has been inexcusably evil. Many of those people have been racists. A lot of them have been imperialists. Pretty much all of them have been cultural chauvinists. Most of the men have been sexists, and quite a few of the women, too. Let’s not even talk about exploitation of children, treatment of prisoners, respect for the handicapped, jokes about weight, handling of mental illness, or animal rights.

Most of the world’s people, past and present, would probably fail prevailing American tests of decency by almost every measure. Millions of Americans fail those tests right now. So if we take current liberal mores as a standard, we have to allow that virtually the entire human race, living and deceased, is not only flawed or wrongheaded or uninformed, but unpardonably monstrous–with the exception of a tiny group of people born during the last thirty or forty years.

That’s over one hundred billion people. One hundred billion people with odious beliefs. One hundred billion people who acted with–or tolerated–unforgivable cruelty. One hundred billion people whose views, habits, jokes, customs, opinions, assumptions, and societies can now only be contemplated with revulsion or contempt.

What does that say about those people?

What does it say about us?

Ignorance, my liberal friends often remind me, is no excuse. History is no excuse. Good intentions are no excuse. It’s not enough to say, “Well, opinions differ.” We’re talking about common decency–or what ought to be common decency. All those racists and rapists alive today? All those racists and rapists alive in the past? They should have known better.

One hundred billion people who can only be considered, in a word, inhuman.

The label for this attitude, in today’s America, is “tolerance.”

How do we make sense of the fact that, in the current worldview of educated Americans, essentially the entire human species is utterly reprehensible? That in our vaunted respect for all kinds of people, we’ve created what may be the most misanthropic and exclusionary subculture in history? That in our insistence on tolerance and humanism, we’re only willing to tolerate the views of, at most, one thousandth of one percent of humanity?

It bugs me.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Cultural Depreciation

Here’s Catherine Rampell of the Washington Post writing about a university fraternity disciplined for cultural appropriation:

[T]hey called their event “Bad(minton) and Boujee.” It’s a pun on “Bad and Boujee,” a popular rap song by the group Migos about being newly rich and hanging with materialistic women. Sigma Alpha Mu registered the fundraiser on American’s online scheduling system, required for all campus events.

Colin Gerker, assistant director of fraternity and sorority life, said the word “boujee” might be criticized for “appropriating culture.” He would not approve the event unless the fraternity changed the name.

Rampell goes on to explain where the word boujee comes from, tracing the etymology through Latin and French and Marx, and asks:

When the fraternity was accused of “appropriating culture,” the obvious question was: Which culture? Latin? French? Marxist? Urban hip-hop? Maybe their own? After all, if you’re wondering who best epitomizes today’s upper-middle class, bear in mind that these are college kids whose parents pay extra money on top of tuition to throw parties.

Oh, Lord.

Look. I have my issues with the notion of cultural appropriation. And I agree that this brouhaha is silly. But is it really so unclear what the administration had in mind? I wish people would quit it with this sort of faux naivete.

I mean, the bureaucratic behavior here is pretty repellent, but don’t we all know what the administrator meant? That the word boujee, as part of Black culture, is used in a particular way, to complain or gripe about certain kinds of experiences. And that when white people take the word and use it in different ways, they weaken the original set of meanings, thereby dulling the word’s power. And that when you dull the power of a word that’s used by a particular group of people in particular ways, you also dull, in some small but non-trivial way, the power of that group. And that this loss of words, of meanings, of power, makes people upset.

I get the larger point Rampell’s making, about cultural porosity and the inevitable evolution of language and so on. But her “obvious question” is a disingenuous one. The people who fume about cultural appropriation certainly know that cultures borrow from one another. Everyone knows that. Their point isn’t that these borrowings should never happen. It’s that some borrowings are harmful and some aren’t.

Responding to an argument like this with truisms and glib history lessons is insulting to everyone. It’s as if someone were complaining about a law passed by Congress, and another person piped up to explain, “Well, you know, laws are human inventions, and new laws are passed every day, and if you look at history, you’ll discover that once upon a time our laws were actually very different. Didn’t you know that?”

Sometimes I wonder why I bother to follow these debates at all. As I’ve gotten increasingly alienated from contemporary leftism, I’ve cast around for critiques of leftist culture, trying to figure out why so much of it turns me off. But the prevailing critiques of the social justice movement are mostly beside the point. You have people like Rampell, who respond to complaints about cultural appropriation by saying, “Hey, have you ever noticed that cultures change over time?” You have people like Andrew Sullivan, who pooh-pooh social justice as a form of religion, as if that amounted to a convincing dismissal. (The idea, I think, is that social justice is a false religion, unworthy of the respect we give real religions, but the basis of that distinction has never been clear to me.) You have people like Jonathan Chait, who cobble together long lists of contretemps, times when various activists stepped on someone’s metaphorical toes. You have thousands of boomers and Gen-Xers who harrumph about sheltered kids and special snowflakes, which has always smelled to me like a classic generational freak-out, middle-aged people lamenting their own lost childhoods and assuaging their dread of aging by taking out their anxieties on the young. You have the free-speech fanatics (I’m sort of one of them) who make the whole social justice movement sound like a legal misunderstanding to be straightened out by the ACLU, when obviously there’s much more going on. And if you add all that stuff together, and throw in some TED-talky social science research that will no doubt fail to replicate, you get Jonathan Haidt, whose basic argument, so far as I can tell, is something like, “Kids today have been mentally stunted by our overprotective culture, so let’s change our culture to protect them from all this crippling overprotection.”

And, yes, this little precis of mine is glib and dismissive, and if I really dug into the arguments of these various factions and cohorts and commentators, I would no doubt find a lot more to consider and discuss … but it’s dispiriting to read the same shallow rebukes, over and over. Even serious critiques of liberalism or leftism or social justice stray into a kind of obstinate iconoclasm, a willful stupidity.

There’s probably no critic of social justice I’ve read more frequently or attentively than Freddie deBoer. At one point he had a piece on his blog about cultural appropriation. It’s since been flushed into the digital ether, so I’ll have to try and reconstruct it.

Freddie’s argument, as I remember, was similar to Rampell’s. To whit: nobody can presume to police cultural appropriation because nobody really knows what the term means. Cultures borrow from each other so often that it’s almost impossible to draw clear lines between one culture and another. What’s more, this borrowing has been going on for such a long time that the evolution of any particular cultural artifact is almost impossible to trace. Finally, because people themselves are always products of multiple cultures and subcultures, it’s virtually impossible to determine who has a legitimate claim to a given set of cultural goods.

I read the post when it was published and thought it was either heroically tendentious or superhumanly oblivious. True, policing cultural appropriation is complex. But that’s because anything to do with culture is complex. Interpreting movies is complex. Managing rights and licenses is complex. The notion of authorship is complex. The study of language is complex.

It’s not as if the ideas behind the concept of cultural appropriation are especially muddled. The key principle, the single vital assumption, is that cultural borrowing is bad when it reinforces imbalances of power, especially if those imbalances have historically led to abuses.

In this view, it doesn’t matter how long ago the abuses occurred. It doesn’t matter if a particular borrowing has a tenuous relation to a particular abuse. All that matters is that there was, at some point, a power imbalance between groups, and that the more powerful group later borrowed cultural traits from the less powerful group.

If you think of these kinds of arguments as games, the rules for the complaining-about-cultural-appropriation game look something like this:

  1. Identify two distinct cultural groups. (We can argue about what makes groups distinct.)
  2. Show that one group has at some time been more powerful than the other in some important way. (We can argue about what makes a group powerful.)
  3. Show that the more powerful group has abused its power. (We can argue about what counts as abuse.)
  4. Point to a time when the powerful group adopted a cultural practice that held special meaning for the less powerful group. (We can argue about what kinds of culture qualify.)
  5. Complain.

Applying these rules gets hairy, as deBoer pointed out. But that’s just how things go when you talk about culture and history. Any given complaint about cultural appropriation might be slipshod or poorly substantiated. But that’s due to poor argumentation, not theoretical incoherence. I don’t think the problem here is ideological inconsistency.

So what is it that bugs me so much about social justice, or lefty commentary, or whatever you call the particular social sector where radical cultural critique blurs into revolutionary praxis? Some of my unease undoubtedly comes from being a cis-hetero-white-male-Anglo-Saxon-atheist+. But I used to feel more kinship with this subculture. What changed?

The best way I can describe it is to say that it feels like talking to your uncle Baxter. You know Uncle Baxter–he’s the cool uncle, the former counterculture hero, the guy who did a lot of drugs and made a lot of music and spent his youth fighting against one thing and another, and now lives in a bungalow with furniture he made himself and a lot of funky looking art. And the first time your parents let you spend a day alone with Uncle Baxter, you’re twelve or so and he lets you try beer for the first time, but not too much, and then he takes you out to McDonald’s and explains about factory farming and chemical additives and how the whole American food production system is rigged for the advantage of the producers and not the consumers, and how even the buildings where food is served are designed to stupefy the senses and stifle the soul in a way that makes you crave empty calories as the only remaining source of stimulation, and really the whole eatery you’re sitting in is designed to convert your ill health into someone else’s profit, and you think, Wow, I’ve never thought about it this way before, but this is kind of intense and mind-blowing, I’ll have to find out more. And then at sixteen you meet Uncle Baxter again, and he takes you out to the woods behind his house and as you walk through the birch groves and the early sprouting seedlings he hands you a bowl just like it’s nothing and talks about Thoreau, and Gandhi, and Martin Luther King, and the literature of passive resistance, and what this land was like before the white man came with his tools of rapine and despoliation, and how you can never just passively accept what other people tell you, even your mom and dad, because they’re all a part of this big ugly civilization that operates to systemically constrain of human potential, and as you cough skunky smoke onto the fresh spring air you think, Holy shit, this guy really gets it, this explains a lot, and you can’t understand how other people don’t see how massively screwed-up everything is. And when you’re twenty you go to the movies with Uncle Baxter, and he explains how everything you see on the screen isn’t just idle entertainment, but carefully tailored corporate product coded with countless hidden assumptions, so crafty and artful that you barely even notice you’re being conditioned while watching it to accept a whole raft of stereotypes and relationships and normative judgments, your brain and your senses and your whole limbic system manipulated with a malevolent expertise to make you accept many covert and widespread abuses of power, and when you’re twenty-two, you go to a museum with Uncle Baxter and he explains how the whole art world is basically a display of fetish objects through which rich people simultaneously coordinate the manipulation of economic value and orchestrate their control of international culture, and at twenty-three you go to the zoo with Uncle Baxter and he explains how the place is really a grotesque celebration of humanity’s enslavement and abuse of nature, and at twenty-five you go to a concert with Uncle Baxter and he tells you that the history of Western music is basically a long sordid story of elitism and cultural theft and nationalistic chauvinism and pretentious aesthetics, and by this time you’re starting to think, Yeah, it’s not like any of this is untrue, exactly, or wrong or immoral or even irrelevant, I just, I don’t know, I just sort of feel … but you can’t exactly articulate what’s bothering you, and then at twenty-eight you bring your girlfriend to meet Uncle Baxter, and he’s still living in his bungalow with the funky art, still smoking up as if marijuana’s an invasive weed that can only be eradicated by one lone hero’s inhalative efforts, still watching TV ten hours a day which is something you never noticed about him before, and he explains to your girlfriend that committed relationships are essentially a tool through which a hidebound majority has historically asserted its hegemonic power over individual sexual passion, and you notice that his neck is unclean and that he has mousetraps in his house, the kind that kill mice by snapping little spring-loaded bars onto their spines, and you think, Yeah, you know what, I’m sick of this guy.

For whatever reason, that’s how I’ve started to feel about leftist politics.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Whither Social Justice?

(Author’s Note: I originally wrote this essay at the end of 2016. My thinking has evolved quite a bit since that time. Maybe I’ll write a followup at some point.)

Since the presidential election, a number of pundits have blamed the social justice movement for Hillary Clinton’s defeat. Sometimes this takes the form of an attack on identity politics, sometimes critics target political correctness or campus culture. Whatever the specific grievance, I can assure you that these pundits have two things in common. They disliked the social justice movement before Clinton ran. And they would have gone on disliking it even if she’d won.

The election? Only a convenient excuse for raising the topic.

Still, in essence, I agree. I’m not sure exactly what role social justice rhetoric played in liberalism’s defeat. But I do hope it will be discarded during liberalism’s revival.

Here’s why.

*

What exactly is the social justice movement?

I’ve chosen this term in preference to near-synonyms (identity politics, anti-oppression, intersectionality, wokism, etc.) in part because I mean to refer to something very broad, a set of behaviors as well as a set of ideas. I think most people now recognize these habits as characteristic of a particular subculture:

  • Denying a platform to conservative speakers
  • Calling people out for racist and sexist microaggressions
  • Seeking to expose coded forms of discrimination
  • Grading works of culture on their depiction of minority groups
  • Conducting online shame campaigns
  • Arguing about what makes a good ally
  • Challenging America’s free speech laws
  • Attacking forms of cultural appropriation
  • Demanding mandatory trigger warnings
  • Demanding safe spaces
  • Effacing symbols of America’s racist past
  • Using a characteristic and ever-evolving lingo–“you need to check your privilege,” “you need to unpack that,” “you’re centering whiteness,” etc.

This is a partial list of familiar ingredients. Stir enough of these ingredients into a community, and you start to get something that looks like the social justice movement, the key edicts of which seem to be these:

  1. That politics pervades every aspect of life: any given decision is, in some respects, a political decision;
  2. That politics is mostly a matter of oppression (and that people who claim otherwise are concealing or justifying forms of oppression);
  3. That oppression is fundamentally a personal matter: we should fight oppression not because justice matters in an abstract sense, but because of the suffering it causes.

The product of these assumptions is a curious hybrid, a movement that mixes together elements of political theory, cultural criticism, and private therapy. When a champion of social justice says that such and such a cultural work should be boycotted because it encodes harmful assumptions, the claim of harm evokes a therapeutic conception of trauma, the reference to coded assumptions reflects a critic’s habit of interpretation, and the call for a boycott reveals an activist’s interest in mass protest.

This singular blend of self-esteem, social critique, and radical politics has a long academic pedigree. As with Marxism and psychoanalysis, the scholarly theories behind the social justice movement–poststructuralism, postcolonial studies, critical race theory, gender studies–have leaked out of the university and invaded the popular consciousness. In the process, they’ve come to serve as a pidgin ideology, a set of shibboleths and assumptions holding together a host of political factions. Those factions sometimes organize protests or marches. But the larger movement has no organization, no leadership, no standards of membership, and few explicit policy goals. It persists as a set of habits, hangups, and instinctive affinities–a method of castigation, a manner of self-expression, and a mode of complaint.

*

One generalization seems fair. As a political project, the social justice movement has progressive aims. And the main thing to be said about progressive aims is that, whatever alarmists claim, they’re mostly grounded in old-fashioned values.

Liberty. Freedom of worship. Equality. Acceptance. Respect. Openness. Getting along with different kinds of people.

Most progressives, like most Americans, also believe in the need to strike a tricky balance. They believe that the state should protect people from exploitation and harassment. But they also believe that people should protect each other from state power.

True, there are people who reject those ideals. And there are disagreements about facts on the ground. People even disagree about the search for truth itself–how to find the answers to important questions.

But the basic bundle of ideals is widely shared. Equality. Tolerance. Individual rights. Lots of people, at the very least, want to live by those values.

The thing is, when you look closely at those values, you notice that they’re also very familiar. They look a lot like what we used to call American values. They come to us from a tradition running back through Western history. When I was growing up, every time someone talked about what made America great, this was the set of ideals they praised.

The problem for the social justice movement is that it consists of people who embrace the ideals America was founded on, but reject the notion that America (or Europe, for that matter) has any special claim on them. They see themselves as victims of American actions, not champions of American virtues. At best, they feel like castaways, served with a lot of empty promises but shut out of the American dream. At worst, they see America as the enemy, a corrupt regime using lofty talk to justify brutal oppression.

Apart from these feelings, the groups the social justice movement brings together don’t really have much in common. There are Black Protestants who deny evolution. There are Muslim Americans who embrace traditional gender roles. There are Chinese Americans impatient with affirmative action. There are Latino Catholics who oppose abortion. There are transgender activists who insist that gender is inborn, not socially constructed. There are immigrants who question affirmative consent laws. There are white feminists who oppose every one of those positions. And many more.

Social justice partisans aim to speak for all these people. But how is that possible? It’s the same old problem of diversity, the problem America has always had. How can you build a community of people who don’t actually see eye to eye?

The traditional solution is nationalism. Yes, we have our differences, the story goes, but we’re still one people—the American people. We don’t always agree, but we rise above our disagreements. We’ve made terrible mistakes in the past—tragic mistakes, hideous mistakes—but we have a proud tradition of looking forward to the future. We’re well aware that we share a planet with other cultures, and we see ourselves as an example to them, embodying the great things a country can achieve when different people learn to get along. We come together to share and enjoy the things that make us unique, and in doing so we become that rare and unlikely thing, a tight-knit community of independent-minded individuals.

This is exactly the vision of national greatness that social justice rhetoric repudiates. So what takes its place? What dream can unite so many different Americans, if they reject the validity of the American dream?

The problems with social justice activism begin here: members of the movement have no good answer to that question. There are hopeful and well-meaning people in the movement, dreamers and speakers and activists who embody the high ideals of progressivism. But they have no shared, coherent, optimistic vision for the future. They have no theory of what would make a good society. They’re angry at American culture, but can’t agree on what should replace it. In a vague way, they embrace American values, but they’re alienated from the Western tradition that gave rise to those values.

Still, they need to share something. How can a movement survive without dreams, without myths, without traditions to link past and future? How can it thrive without encouraging its members to feel pride in a shared heritage, faith in a shared destiny? How can it advance without laying out an inspiring project for the society to come?

All movements have opponents. The striking thing about the social justice movement is that it alienates so many potential friends. It does so because, having no good answers to the questions above, it uses various strategies to evade them.

*

The oldest gambit in politics is this: if you can’t go positive, go negative. And the second oldest is probably this: when you can’t go big, go small.

Nothing brings people together like hatred of a common enemy. And even an organization without a long-term plan can keep its members occupied by fussing over procedural issues and claiming symbolic victories.

That’s what we’ve seen with the social justice movement. It brings together a large variety of groups, most of them with origins in earlier protest movements. A lot of those groups once put forward utopian schemes, grand ambitions that still survive within various subcultures and factions. There are Muslim scholars who long for an Islamic renaissance. Black nationalists who push for an independent state. Feminists who trade tales of matriarchal and communal societies. Sexual rebels who fantasize about overthrowing the traditional family. Immigrant groups who still believe in the old American dream of opportunity. Since the social justice movement often draws on other leftist causes in pursuit of a stronger coalition, we might add in Marxists who hope for a socialist state, environmentalists who plan for a sustainable paradise, and champions of other radical schemes.

A lot of those dreams sound delusional to outsiders. But that’s precisely because they’re visionary, idealistic, almost mythical. They’re the kinds of plans that give people something to fight for, not just things to fight against.

In today’s progressive politics, the grand, ambitious, hopeful parts of those schemes have mostly calved away, making the negative features salient—the bitter cultural critiques, fears of marginalization, rage at elites, suspicion toward white men, complaints of hidden bias, contempt for people outside the movement, and furious condemnations of quiescence and dissent. The message seems to be: “Everything we see around us, every aspect of our history and society, is rotten, biased, unjust, and corrupt. And if you can’t see that, if don’t spend your life consumed with fury over that, if you’re not filled with shame at your complicity in that, you’re part of the problem.”

Hardly a cheerful message. But it certainly is a revolutionary message. Out with the old. Tear it all down. The thing is, such stern talk usually comes with a revolutionary promise. Tear it all down and then build … what? Something better. Something beautiful. Something new.

Today’s progressive partisans never seem to finish the sentence. They agree that things are awful right now, but never get around to saying, in any vivid or detailed way, what would be better. What kind of new society are we supposed to create, once our storm of righteous fury has eradicated the existing one?

In the absence of a shared, positive vision, but needing a reprieve from rage and recrimination, members of the movement end up focusing on minor goals. Sure, the feminist utopia is a fading sixties dream, but at least more women are starring in action movies. Plans for a new Black nation have moved to the fringe, but maybe we can make African-American Studies a mandatory part of the college curriculum. The existing Marxist states are bizarre hybrids of crony capitalism and totalitarianism, but you can always spread devastating memes online. As for the Muslim renaissance … well, maybe it would help to read more memoirs by Palestinian authors. If the green-energy paradise seems slow in coming, you can still vent at idiots in your Twitter feed. And if gender norms are turning out to be depressingly resilient, well, we can always have a serious talk (social justice advocates are always up for a serious talk) about Caitlyn Jenner, or what Kanye said, or video games.

There are no new lands to settle. There are no welcoming homelands to return to. There are no inspiring revolutions to point to. But take heart, friends. We still have our social media accounts, our academic postings, our consumer preferences.

Eventually, this obsession with minutiae starts to wear thin. Worse, it starts to look like surrender, a capitulation to the status quo. What good is a revolution against American hegemony, if its members end up wallowing in the grosser aspects of American culture: the careerism, the materialism, the narcissism, the parochialism? Sure, people say they’re opposed to everything America stands for. But here they are, drinking from the plastic bottles, enjoying the sexist movies, buying the sweatshop products, moving to the gentrified suburbs. Still taking the wages of white supremacy, fawning over rich celebrities, luxuriating in cultural appropriation, teaching the colonizer’s history, turning a blind eye to offensive speech. Buying into the whole wicked regime.

So the righteous fury boils up again. Fights break out. Some members of the movement attack others. Those members push back. Everyone ends up with hurt feelings–bitter, angry, contrite, wounded. What happened? This was supposed to be a redemptive movement, not a tangle of personal grievances.

Still, every group has its squabbles, right? When fights break out, that’s a time to reflect on what truly matters. To lay new plans. To rally, to heal, to draw strength from shared sources of inspiration. In a dark hour, a community comes together to reflect on its deepest values, its proudest traditions, its brightest dreams, its fondest hopes.

But there are no visions. There are no dreams. That’s the whole problem: the members of the social justice movement have no glorious tradition to rally around, no unifying plan, no shared heritage. Not even, really, a common culture, except for the reviled Western culture that caused all the trouble in the first place.

What members of the movement do share is mutual frustration. Hurts, resentments, rage at common antagonists. Plus, for some, a sense of shame at being entangled in an evil system. And the frail comforts of intersectionality: people may be hurt and miserable and angry for different reasons, but at least they can all be miserable together.

In a time for moving beyond personal grievances, it turns out there are nothing but personal grievances. So this becomes the focus. The hurt feelings can’t be assuaged, but they can at least be validated. It doesn’t matter exactly what caused the hurt feelings—or rather, it does matter, because hurt feelings are the only thing that’s holding the movement together. Ergo, whatever caused those feelings is, of necessity, a symptom of what makes the movement necessary. Feeling bad becomes, in itself, sufficient indictment of a bad society. The personal is political. The political is personal. Validating feelings is reconceived as the essential political act.

And if validating feelings is a political act, then not validating them is also a political act. So which feelings are deserving of validation? Which feelings should be scorned and dismissed? Which people deserve empathy? Which people deserve mockery? The vitality of the movement comes to depend on these questions.

A further trouble: feelings are vague, messy, unclear. It’s hard to know what other people are feeling. It’s hard to know what we ourselves are feeling.

As a result, attention shifts to a kind of political pop psychology, an effort to tease out hidden dynamics, diagnose secret hatreds, evaluate symbolic actions. Political activism becomes synonymous with amateur mindreading. Political solidarity comes to depend on feats of emotional display. The exchange of ideas gives way to exhibitions of pain and sympathy. Political debates end up revolving around analysis of these displays, judging them on sincerity, tone, wording, timing.

Eventually, all this collective soul-study brings discussion back to where it started. Society is so complex, and people are so complicated, that there’s no way to judge feelings without judging everything else. So members of the movement run through it all again: the cultural critiques, the hunt for hidden biases, the contempt for outsiders, the condemnations of nostalgia and quiescence and dissent … the grousing and garment-tearing that initially caused so much grief.

Which throws us back on the original question. Can a political movement thrive on bitterness alone? Can it survive without offering an inspiring vision of the society it hopes to create?

Should it survive?

Part 2

Imagine a day in the not-too-distant future. Donald Trump’s reign is a fading memory. Environmental collapse, economic turmoil, and demographic trends have shifted politics to the left. The liberal coalition is now truly ascendant. White men are a shrinking minority in America. Their hold on power is broken, their dominion annulled. There are still plenty of white men around, but the proximate goal of proportionate representation has been achieved. Women and minorities effectively run the country.

Well? Now what? What are the women and minorities going to do? How are they going to get along? What plans and rituals and symbols will unite them? What inspiring stories will they tell about their past? What common projects will they pursue?

Is it just going to be business as usual? American media, American military, American corporations, American flags? The same old American system so many people loathe?

Will these multicultural leaders keep the free market? Scrap the free market? Polyamory: yes or no? Should religious institutions be forced to accept transgender members? Should Americans try to spread their values around the world? Should macho men of all ethnic backgrounds, in all nations, be upbraided for toxic masculinity?

How should society be structured? As a matriarchy? As a theocracy? As a socialist commune? As a Confucian empire?

Liberal values—keep them, or discard them as a relic of the white man’s era? If liberal values are to be kept, should people teach them without mentioning their origins in European history? If liberal values are out, what’s the alternative? Should speech be policed? Should the judicial system be overturned? What kind of property rights will be enforced? How will terrorists be dealt with? If a Chinese-American cis-hetero man writes a novel about a trans Inuit woman, and trans Inuit women get mad, is that cultural appropriation? Should it be stopped?

And if we’re not going to stick with American culture … well, what then? Will it be time to found a new government? A whole new society, with new rules, new customs, new norms? If so, who writes the laws? What political traditions will they draw on? Who will be in charge?

Or is the movement going to keep on the way it does now, reveling in consumer culture while writing blistering critiques of consumer culture, feuding over terminology without deciding on terminology, arguing over who has more privilege while bonding over the outrage du jour, validating feelings in lieu of exchanging ideas, searching for outsiders and quislings to berate—keeping everything basically the same, but complaining about it endlessly?

There’s one other option. The social justice movement could hold together by directing ever more anger at white men, even as they shrink in numbers and status. Let’s not ask how that would turn out.

I’m not trying to be alarmist. I’m trying to point to the gaping void behind the barbs and critiques of social justice rhetoric. The movement bristles with attacks and quarrels and demands. But where’s the hopeful vision? Where are the long-term plans? Where are the inspiring prospects?

*

Nothing is simple. What I’m calling the social justice movement is less a political movement than a collection of ritual utterances, thoughts, and actions. Those rituals hold together a diverse coalition of groups and ideas. There’s a lot of variety down in the trenches, a welter of coteries and factions rubbing against one another. And twenty-first-century progressivism has indeed had some big successes.

We elected our first Black president. The Black Lives Matter movement mounted major protests, got a ton of media coverage, and made headway on shifting policy. Transgender rights advanced. And then there’s the big, unequivocal victory: the legalization of gay marriage.

But when you dig into the details, it’s not clear that the social justice movement, as a movement, really did much for those causes.

Consider:

How did Black Lives Matter extend its reach? Not through finicky arguments about political terminology. Not through scathing movie critiques. Not through sophisticated theories retailed in academic seminars. Certainly not through careful stewardship of safe spaces. The movement rose to prominence through news coverage of lurid killings, amplified by the spread of graphic videos: awful, raw footage of innocent citizens getting murdered by cops. Bizarrely, social justice partisans and campus activists worked hard to redirect attention toward arguments about the regulation of speech. But the lesson of those videos was the opposite of a trigger warning. Look what’s happening. Don’t blink, don’t censor the content, don’t shy away. Look at the death. Listen to the gunshots. Hear the cries, the words, the human voices, the people of your country, brothers and sisters, neighbors and fellow Americans, crying out in terror: I can’t breathe.

The legalization of gay marriage? That’s been a long time coming, and one thing we’ve almost forgotten is that when the push for it started, many leftists were opposed. Why? Because of the same sweeping cultural critiques that are still in fashion. “Who cares about marriage?” the radical leftists said. “It’s a bourgeois institution. A patriarchal tool. A holdover of religious dogma. A symbol of heteronormativity. It represents everything wrong with the past–the backwards, stupid, sentimental fascination with family, home, and hearth. Forget about broadening access to marriage. Get rid of it.”

Not everyone on the left talked that way, but a lot of people did. I know, because I was one of them.

In the end, it was conservatives like Andrew Sullivan who articulated the winning case for gay marriage. And they did so by doubling down on the sentimental notions that radical leftists sneered at. Marriage, they said, wasn’t a repressive institution. Marriage was a beautiful institution. That’s why gays wanted to share in it. Don’t jeer, they said, at concepts like family and commitment. Family and commitment are the most precious things in the world. That’s why it’s cruel to deny them to gay citizens.

The sophisticated theories, the jibes at uncool institutions, the flippant denunciations, all faded away. And the sentimental arguments, drawing on humanism and faith and Western values, triumphed. As well they should have.

As for Obama, he may be a darling of the social justice movement, but all his political rhetoric is a repudiation of the movement. Conservatives have demonized him as a divisive figure, and in many ways he’s been a victim of hyper-partisanship. But in his speeches, Obama strives for an inspiring and inclusive tone, returning again and again to traditional themes and classic American values. It was this soaring rhetoric that helped get him elected, even in a time of bitter divisions.

The case of transgender rights … this one’s especially thorny, and especially interesting. How did a relatively small group come to command so much national attention, inspire so much debate, make such rapid (if precarious) progress? There are a lot of reasons—the inspiring precedent of the gay rights movement, the media obsession with celebrity exemplars, the idea that transgender people were the last significant overlooked minority—but I think one that’s been scanted is that this was one of the few leftist groups that actually put forward a hopeful vision.

Don’t let anyone tell you who you are, they said. Only you can know who you are.

Don’t let others force you to conform, they said. Take courage, and make the world conform to you.

Don’t assume, they said, that we have to keep doing things the way we’ve always done them. Fixed sex? We’re more creative than that. We’re building a new world, and with a little help from the miracles of science, everyone will be free to assert his, her, ze’s, or their own identity.

In other words, pure Americanism, doped with a heavy strain of California dreaming, shot through with all the utopianism and individualism and big thinking and technical know-how that make this country so weird and unique. The movement for transgender rights has more going for it than a bid for representation or a gripe about marginalization. It has a vision, a promise, a plan so crazy it just might work. Imagine if, working together, we can move beyond the irksome idea that anatomy is destiny. Impossible? Never! We’re the authors of the future.

This grand vision spread far beyond the usual precincts of campus theory and intersectional outrage. It reached the lower classes through tabloid culture and schlock TV. It attracted allies among tech-utopians and libertarians and transhumanists. Above all, it lit up the souls of the young. “Forget the past, the rules, the conventional wisdom. You are the owner of your identity.” That’s the kind of talk that inspires a generation.

Some of the attention, to be sure, was sheer prurience. And we saw the usual pushback and crass jokes. But don’t let that blind you to the excitement the movement for transgender rights has generated. It offered more than a condemnation of the status quo. It offered a vision of something better.

*

Social justice rhetoric? If anything, it’s been a drag on these causes. It swamps their most powerful appeals with sniping, histrionics, and doctrinal bickering. The hopeful and inclusive messages–gay marriage won’t hurt the family, it will strengthen the family; Obama’s career is a celebration of American opportunity; people should get to define their own identities; Americans must band together to defend innocent people from cruel treatment–collapse under an onslaught of recriminations, arcane theories, language policing, and jockeying for attention.

Groups like transgender activists are in something of a bind. They’re a small community faced with big challenges. Social justice rhetoric offers a way to build alliances with other movements–especially the biggest liberal bloc, the white feminists. But the resulting coalition is rife with disagreements, including basic disagreements about who should get attention. For reasons given above, the movement hangs together by prioritizing outrage over optimism. But the outrage ends up alienating moderates and unconventional thinkers. Activity consolidates around an angry core of vocal agitators with rigid views and loud voices. Other people feel ignored. Because one of the promises of the social justice movement is its offer of emotional support, this neglect is experienced as a political betrayal. Shared hopes disintegrate into a blizzard of apologies, accusations, complaints.

Eventually, some people get fed up. But where else can they go? The acrimony of the social justice movement inflames political divisions. People who try to break away are attacked by their former allies as traitors, even while they’re exposed to abuse and terror from right-wing thugs. The only option is to play along, using the politics of pain and disdain to try and make one’s views heard.

In a way, the problem is even worse, because minorities and activists who don’t reach out to the social justice movement will get drawn into it anyway–yanked into its warm, wet, loving hug, whether they’re happy about it or not. I often wonder how many people of color, especially young men of color, cringe at the words of social justice activists, but end up shrugging and playing along. What else are they going to do? Move to Trumptown?

Part 3

Back in what now seems like the ancient past, a month before the 2016 election, a writer at The Week published an essay that brought together the two great topics of the day.

Donald Trump was running for president. And Bob Dylan had just won the Nobel Prize.

“These are not easily separable events,” the author averred. Her explanation was depressingly formulaic. Both figures were white men, she pointed out, and both had drawn on America’s past for inspiration. Forget the obvious differences between a popular songwriter and a presidential contender. In her analysis, Dylan and Trump were two slightly different symptoms of one omnipresent problem, disposable icons of a sick society.

For that matter, the writer went on to argue, we probably ought to throw a lot of other things into the same cultural wastebasket: Thomas Pynchon, Mad Men, the legacy of the sixties, the American literary tradition, Hillary Clinton’s rhetorical style, fandom, the notion of American greatness, the “language of inspiration” itself. It might seem, naively, that there are meaningful distinctions between loving a folk song and persecuting a religious minority. But reader, you need to reckon with your own complicity. In this way of thinking, it’s all of a piece, and it’s all bad.

So we’re left staring, again, into the gulf of that enormous, unanswered question. If everything is really this awful, if we’ve gotten to the point where being a fan of a song or TV show is all but indistinguishable from a lifelong penchant for sexual assault … what next?

The author herself certainly recognized the importance of the question. But, as usual, she had no answer:

“As for what greatness can mean in the present? The concept is under construction.”

This is the task we have to face: the need to construct such a concept. Without a great story to congregate around, without a hopeful message to extend to the unconverted, without a serious and passionate effort to reclaim “the language of inspiration,” progressivism will continue to languish in a culture of constant complaint.

So what’s the answer? How can social justice partisans rediscover the politics of optimism?

Potential sources of political inspiration are infinite. Realistically, however, there are three ways forward.

First, the movement might simply fall apart. Again, the social justice movement isn’t a movement in any organized sense, but a tangle of tropes and theories and norms that serve to hold together a jumble of political factions. If this rhetorical mode falls out of favor, those factions will drift apart and be free to make their own plans.

Already the old-school leftists have broken free, frustrated with the ways in which identity-based activism has muddled their plans for a socialized state. Further divisions could free other groups to reinvest in their own distinctive dreams. We could see a resurgence of African-American separatism. Today’s corporatized feminism might undergo a crackup into radical and moderate factions. Transgender activists weary of being overshadowed by cisgender allies might follow the example of gay cultures past, investing in local enclaves and cultivating nurturing subcultures. Muslim Americans might fall back on establishing stronger ties to a diaspora united by faith. Latino and Asian-American communities might be split among assimilationists and hardline traditionalists. Environmentalists might drift back into drop-out culture, scientific futurism, and communalism. Many people might abandon political or ethnic sources of identity, seeking shelter in different ideological homes, such as churches or professional organizations.

These movements would be in constant conflict, both with one another and with society at large. Some of them would be radicalized to a degree currently realized only in the right’s fever dreams. Their very existence would galvanize reactionary hatred in ways terrifying to contemplate. But they would also offer something to their members that today’s liberalism can’t: a sense of shared mission and passion and culture, a collective pride in common experience, a joyful hope for future triumphs. And they would serve as incubators for new plans, new schools of political thought, new models and modes of self-expression.

The second option is for the social justice movement to hang together, continuing its bitter critiques of white supremacy and American culture, but to embrace a new, positive vision that complements its many complaints. This would probably take the form of a pan-national (and anti-nationalist) cosmopolitanism, with members of the movement reaching out to build relationships with beleaguered communities around the world. Gays in Iran, feminists in Nigeria, activists in China, rebels in Guatemala–not to mention the many likeminded souls scattered through Europe–such allegiances would be cemented with dreams of a new global order, aided by hi-tech tools, distinguished by reverence for Earth as a whole and characterized by an ecumenical humanism. Horrified by the populists in their home countries, activists would go whole hog for internationalism, immersing themselves in a network of transoceanic ties.

A movement of this kind could draw young people, scholars, scientists, artists, and not a few entrepreneurs, all assisted by (and obsessed with) technology, all working to knit together diverse cultural traditions, all enamored of brainy ideas. Members would see themselves as stewards to the deep heritage of human civilization, joining hands and hearts across borders while the dying empires of the colonial era tore themselves apart. Effectively, they would carry on the world-spanning projects of the colonizers, communists, and American imperialists before them, but without the support–or the baggage–of national militarism. They would say, “Let the fascists preach. Let the nations fight. Let the white men cling to their guns and flags, their corrupt and decaying institutions. We have taken up the long project of human flourishing. And we will emerge from the rubble of today’s broken polities to carry that dream forward into the future.”

In a sense, this project is already underway. Much social justice rhetoric hints at such a vision: commitment to humanity as a whole, impatience with statism in particular. And in a worst-case scenario–barring total apocalypse–it may be the only choice. But at the moment, there’s a third way. The members of the social justice movement could lay hold of a rejuvenated nationalism. They could wrest the mythos of American greatness back from the white-pride nativists. They could revive the American dream.

Call it the Obama option: a revitalization of American optimism. At first blush, the chances of this seem small to nonexistent. The near future is almost unimaginably bleak.

For one thing, members of the social justice movement are understandably leery of patriotism. Should Native Americans take pride in a society that nearly exterminated them? Should Muslim-Americans take pride in a society that demonizes them? Should Black Americans take pride in a society that once enslaved them and now routinely murders them? Should women take pride in a society founded on their disenfranchisement? Should Americans of East Asian descent take pride in a society that often treats them as threatening aliens? Don’t all these people have good reason—more, a moral duty—to reject the rhetoric of patriotism?

Then we have the uniquely pressing problems of the present day. Even before Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, the right had sunk into a bog of paranoia, obstructionism, and crackpot ideology. Trump’s presidency is likely to strain even a fervent patriot’s faith in America. Liberals and lefties impatient with dissent will always have good cause to point to the brutes and wildlings of the right and say, “Why is anyone criticizing us? Those crazies are the real problem.” This has been the social justice movement’s tactic all along, even before Trump’s cabinet appointments enfranchised the far right. Why should anything change under Trump’s presidency?

As if this weren’t bad enough, Trump’s tenure is likely to prove frustrating to liberals in ways they haven’t anticipated. I have no doubt Trump and his cronies will make awful decisions. Liberals, understandably, will seethe. But they’re likely to find that the country as a whole remains maddeningly indifferent to their concerns.

For one thing, most people are always maddeningly indifferent, at least from an activist’s point of view. For another, Trump’s administration, through media stooges and the leader himself, will flood us with an unremitting stream of nonsense, scandal, palace intrigue, gossip, bald-faced lies, and propaganda. Contrary to common opinion, the main effect of propaganda is not to brainwash a citizenry into zealous compliance, but to stupefy them into cynicism and apathy. “Who cares what anyone says?” people end up thinking. “It’s all just lies and palaver.” Bereft of trustworthy ideas, people come to rely for guidance on strong emotions, making them insensitive to subtle or reasonable appeals. Dramatic actions, threats, vainglorious posturing, and seductive conspiracy theories come to command attention.

Finally, with his thrashing of the Republican party, his control of the executive branch, and his tribe of ultra-loyal yahoos, Trump is in a position to take at least a few decisive actions before his personal defects bog him down. Maybe he’ll build tremendous structures. Maybe he’ll go to war. Maybe he’ll crush dissenters, on the streets or in the government itself. Whatever his choice, the fact remains that people are suckers for decisive actions, even wicked or stupid ones. Trump stands to gain in power and popularity even if he does things Americans don’t like. What matters is that he act in ways people like: with conviction, with brio, with flashy displays of personality and power. All hail the Great Entertainer.

All this means that Trump is likely—though not, of course, certain–to be more popular, or anyway less obviously unpopular, than many liberals suppose.

And even if we put aside Trump and his hooligans, conditions are hardly ripe for a political reawakening. Extreme inequality, ethnic tension, the collapse of old media, failures of education, terrorism, the crumbling of the international system, all conspire to poison the cultural soil.

For these reasons, champions of social justice are likely to grow more extreme in the years ahead, prone to bitter inter-factional feuds, fascinated with ideological purity, contemptuous of moderates and the politically disengaged. If there’s one thing recent history teaches, it’s that many activists find sanctimony more satisfying than success. Leftist agitators will redirect their anger from Trump himself toward politicians who compromise with Trump, then toward Americans who make excuses for those politicians, then toward leftist allies with differing ideas and competing strategies.

Nevertheless, I think social justice activists have at least one compelling reason to embrace the language of American idealism. However genuine their anger and however justified their complaints, most of them are essentially American in spirit. They may as well make the most of it.

What does it mean to be American in spirit? Does it mean reflexively excusing every one of Thomas Jefferson’s misdeeds? Does it mean accepting the Founding Fathers as unimpeachable moral authorities? Does it mean passing ordinances against flag burning, whistling Dixie and attending rodeos, cheering when American warplanes bomb Pashtun villages?

I believe it means something deeper. America has always been unusually willing to present herself to the world as an adoptive homeland: settle on our soil, we say, embrace our values, comply with our slipshod bureaucracy, and you’ll be as American as anyone, in essence and in status. And to the rest of the world, American culture is a distinctive modus vivendi, characterized by rowdy individualism, instantiated in commodious toys and gadgets, broadcast via bombastic movies, and distinguished by a kind of frenzied obliviousness. Our clothes are childlike, our food is an embarrassment, our schools are pathetic, our entertainment makes an art of decadence. But we sure know how to keep busy.

The social justice movement spans the world, but most of its participants embrace aspects of American culture, and some are wholly steeped in it. They flock to American summer movies, fantasizing about being up there on the screen, a beautiful face framed in glitzy CGI. They have a guilty weakness for Cinnabon or Starbucks or McDonalds. They don’t read much, but they talk a hell of a lot—and indeed, they take both the right to speak and the ability to read for granted. They probably believe that their taste in pop music says something significant about who they really are—and they almost certainly believe this about their taste in consumer technology. They get a kick out of cosplay, face filters, and Halloween, they live far from their parents and are willing to move for work, they travel for Thanksgiving, they gripe about Christmas,  they’re always grateful for an excuse to drink something sweet. They may not be Gamers with a capital-G, but they’ve crunched a few candies and launched their share of angry birds. They use the pronoun they with a singular antecedent, especially in phrases like, “Everyone has a right to their own opinion.” They’re at home on the road, in cars or trains, and have meals on the go, in bar form or smoothie form, as if it’s a normal thing to do. They’re heading to the gym right now, or at least that’s what they claim, and they may be too busy to listen to a symphony or fix a decent meal, but they’re not too busy to binge-watch a whole season of Walking Dead. They’re Americans.

To be sure, champions of social justice harbor no special affection for John Quincy Adams. Jefferson’s thoughts on agrarianism impress them far less than his sexual exploits and exploitations. They didn’t care a whit about Alexander Hamilton until they heard him rap. As for fifties culture, they think it should stay in the fifties. In these attitudes, too, they’re quintessentially American. This is a country that celebrates its prospects, not its past. We’re not sure exactly where we come from—wherever it is, most of us didn’t come from there anyway—but we’ve got a lot of noisy ideas about where we want to go. That’s what brought us together, isn’t it: a nagging voice in someone’s head, asking what’s next, what’s next, what’s next?

If there’s one thing that holds together the crazy patchwork of American culture—one thing that smooths over the greedy competition, reconciles the multiplicity of idiosyncratic plans—it’s a set of values so deeply held and widely shared that most of us don’t think much about them at all. Liberty. The pursuit of happiness. An obsession with private truth and personal autonomy. A bone-deep resistance to being bossed around. Are there any values closer to the heart of the social justice movement? To be sure, the movement has made grievous errors, like the campus left’s challenges to the principle of free speech. But if the social justice movement has one overriding theme, it’s that Western nations ought to make good on their lofty promises. Social justice activists are often dismissed as crybabies, but their demands are childish only in the sense that they’re idealistic:

Keep your promises, America. Keep your promises to your citizens, be they Black, brown, female, male, asexual, gay, transgender, Muslim, able-bodied or differently abled, and on and on.

For this argument to have any force, however, the promises have to mean something in the first place. Part of American culture has to be worth keeping, worth praising: the part that values freedom, venerates equality, guarantees due process, and enshrines certain fundamental rights.

Why not just say it? Advocates of social justice are sometimes tweaked for speaking as a this or as a that. “As a cisgender single Muslim WoC, I believe …” It shouldn’t be a strain to add another designator. “As an American, I stand up for the rights and security of my Black fellow citizens.” “As an American, I believe in the power of independent thinking, so I think we should keep an open mind about gender.” “As an American, I’m ashamed of what my country has done overseas.” “As an American, I believe that everyone, rich or poor, male or female, white or brown, deserves a fair chance to get ahead.”

Will it change anything if social justice advocates talk this way? Will it win over moderates and principled conservatives? Who knows? The point is that leftists who share American values ought to say so. And those who reject American values ought to be able to say what values they prefer.

Perhaps some would call this a strawman argument. Of course social justice activists are proud of America. Who says otherwise?

If this is true, the message hasn’t reached me. I have in front of me an editorial in the Los Angeles Review of Books. The author, Katherine Franke, makes the case that classic, liberal values are all but synonymous with white supremacy. She provides a partial catalog of America’s sins, writing with a fury proportionate to the ugliness of our political moment:

Let me be blunt: this kind of liberalism is a liberalism of white supremacy.  It is a liberalism that regards the efforts of people of color and women to call out forms of power that sustain white supremacy and patriarchy as a distraction.  It is a liberalism that figures the lives and interests of white men as the neutral, unmarked terrain around which a politics of “common interest” can and should be built.  And it is a liberalism that regards the protests of people of color and women as a complaint or a feeling, ignoring the facts upon which those protests are based — facts about real dead, tortured, raped, and starved bodies.

The sins are real. But when you read the entirety of Franke’s piece, it’s hard to deduce what kind of liberalism she might prefer. Any essay that assails “abstract ideas of ‘citizenship,'” that belittles “commonalities between Americans,” that attacks the “grander, transhistorical idea of a nation,” that sneers at “an attachment to shared liberal values,” that forcefully repudiates, “a commitment to what we all have in common”–is raising far more questions than anger alone can answer.

Is the liberal tradition only a thin cloak for white male supremacy? Or have civil rights activists and social justice advocates become that tradition’s true inheritors? Is the American project such a wreck that it’s not worth saving? Or should we all work harder, at this moment of crisis, to rescue the American dream from people who would despoil it? Do women and minorities have no choice but to give up on America? If so, where does their allegiance now lie?

So hasty and single-minded is Franke’s attack that she ends up making the mistake she seeks to correct. She takes issue with a political adversary’s claim that “Black Lives Matter has delivered a wake-up call to every American with a conscience.” In Franke’s view, this translates to: “White people, aka ‘Americans with a conscience,’ have been given a window into the reality of the daily violent racism with which Black people live.”

But is that really the obvious interpretation? Are there no Indian Americans with a conscience? No Egyptian Americans with a conscience? No Native Americans with a conscience? No Latino Americans with a conscience? Franke is so eager to impute bad faith to her opponents, so focused on the evils of white supremacy, that she ends up slighting the very diversity she affects to champion.

Maybe it’s time to rescue American values from America’s historical crimes. Or maybe it’s time to give up on nationalism, and put effort into building a borderless coalition dedicated to human rights around the globe. Or maybe it’s time to invest in a multiplicity of insular political projects, with communities of feminists, socialists, and ethnic sodalities all pursuing their respective utopias.

At any rate, it’s time to start taking the crisis of liberalism seriously, and ask not only whether it’s real, but what to do about it. We see all around us the creaking relics of a political project begun by European men three centuries ago. Those men gave us, along with the legacy of their various prejudices, a system of governance, a system of jurisprudence, a system of study and education–all teetering. If we don’t shore up those institutions, they’ll collapse. If we want them to collapse, we may as well tear them down. Either way, it’s a good time to ask–maybe it’s always a good time to ask–what kind of society do we want to live in?

In early 2016, a writer for the New Yorker interviewed student activists at Oberlin College, a hotbed of social justice culture. These young activists had many complaints. They were tired of a conservative society that didn’t value diversity, but tired, also, of progressive institutions that trivialized diversity. They were tired of activism, tired of education, tired of working to get ahead, tired of feeling left behind.

One of them had grown so tired that her only remaining ambition was, “Just getting the eff out of America.” The nation, in her view, was “a sinking ship.”

But if America’s situation had gotten so hopeless, if the only reasonable course was to leave, where would this young woman go? What would come next? What was her guiding vision, her motivating purpose, her plan, her inspiration?

“Working my piece of land,” as she put it, “… and living autonomously—that’s the dream.”

Sounds like another dream I’ve heard about. There have been people–waves of people–who chased that dream over the years, who struck out, set sail, sought their piece of land, yearned for the autonomy of the open frontier. Some of them even realized their hopes, arriving at these shores, centuries ago, determined to found a new society.

You know what happened next.

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Falling Expectations

Is it just me, or is mainstream science fiction starting to look a little tired?

I’ve been working my way through some of the big novels of the day, and I find it to be a rather wearying experience. Blurbs for the books always tout their inventiveness, but the building blocks of science fiction are looking pretty shopworn. It’s as if every SF book comes with a kind of unwritten rubric, a series of questions or boxes that an experienced reader ticks off while reading:

  • Faster than light travel–possible or no?
  • Artificial gravity–possible or no?
  • Hard AI–possible or no?
  • Uploaded consciousness–common or unheard of?
  • Intelligent aliens–real or no?
  • Time travel–paradoxical or possible?
  • Parallel universes–real or ridiculous?

There are certain concepts that can simply be assumed–a ranking of lifeforms and civilizations as more or less advanced, a Cartesian notion that the mind can be extracted from the body and transferred to some other medium, the tendency to conceptualize space exploration as a recapitulation of naval history, the old idea that a sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. And there are gee-whiz elements that reliably reappear, like genetic engineering and a fascination with Einsteinian thought experiments. If a book deals with economics, chances are it will focus on theories of value grounded in scarcity. Religion is always treated as an exotic affectation, like using candles instead of electric lights. Aliens typically take the form of wondrous animals or exaggerated elements of the human psyche.

It’s remarkable how many old topics and themes have passed out of favor. Works of the golden age were heavily focused on psychology, political theory, allegory, sociology, religion, and history. What’s the best way to structure a society? What constitutes legitimate authority? How do civilizations and religions rise and fall? It’s rare nowadays to see a story about psionics. The fashionable topics of the New Wave–sex, drugs, family structure, altered states of consciousness–have also faded into the background, appearing now as forms of local color.

And then there are ideas that have never figured very prominently in SF. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a science fiction novel that really digs into statistics or probability. Meteorology is still an unpopular field, except as it applies to global warming. Few authors show any interest in economic models concentrated on labor. Chemistry still gets surprisingly little attention. (Aren’t chemists ever tempted to write science fiction novels? Have astrophysicists and computer scientists formed a secret, protective cabal?) The cyberpunk authors put a spotlight on fashion trends and marketing, but few subsequent authors have followed their lead.

What’s left? A lot of stories about cyborgs fighting wars and solving crimes in vast galactic empires. Sometimes the cyborgs are AIs who resemble humans. Sometimes the cyborgs are humans enhanced by AIs. But the basic formula–a superhuman hero, zipping world to world, fighting baddies–is all over the bestseller lists. A few subgenres–action-packed space opera, post-apocalyptic mythopoeia–and a few thought experiments (AI, enhanced humanity) have come to dominate the field.

The result? Something like this:

Ariadne embodied in Parsivel’s upper orbit at twenty degrees past meridian, local time. The transfer beam that had shot her from Epsilon-Tau 7 twinkled on the deuterium plates of the cytofactor as she lounged in her bath of xenon gas, waiting for the macroassembler’s botfleet to finish constructing her toes. When her neuro-net finished synching with her limbic simulation matrix, Ariadne realized she was impatient. Extremely impatient. Frantic.

Damn it. Scrambling at the emergency release, Ariadne waited for the gas to vent and pushed up the lid of the arrival pod. Hell with the finishing touches–hair, eyebrows–she would have to finish this job bald. Jumping to the expansion grate on toes bereft of toenails, she reached for the multi-beam rifle deposited by the port’s homonculi outside her pod. Ariadne checked the cells and set the gun’s autotargeting for local spin and grav. At times of high stress–when overdue, say, for an assassination attempt–she resorted to the archaic curses of her ancient flesh-based ancestors. Damn it all to hell and below.

She had less than fifteen thousand standard seconds to punch a beam through the solid-state psycho-chip of the Primus Orator. And unless her mnemonic implants had deceived her, she had two flocks of time-shifted space-skimmers on her tail.

What happened? Have all the innovative writers switched to fantasy? Have they gone to television? Are craven, conservative publishers putting constraints on what gets published? Are all the experimental SF novels now repackaged as literary fiction?

Am I just the reading the wrong books? The thing is, I’m reading books that have been consistently recommended to me as the day’s best SF. And it seems to me that what was considered the day’s best SF used to be more various.

What gives?

 

 

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Blah Blah Blah Trump Blah Blah Trump Blah Blah Blah

[Author’s Note: I’m not sure I ever posted this little comment on the Trump era, which I wrote back in March, during the health care fight. It might be buried somewhere in my earlier slew of Trump-themed screeds. Whatever; it hardly matters. The content still holds up, I think.]

“What happens,” Paul Waldman asks, “when [Trump] fails to deliver?”

What happens when coal miners don’t start streaming back into the mines? What happens when China doesn’t bow down before Trump’s superhuman negotiating skills and give us back our old-fashioned, labor-intensive manufacturing jobs? What happens when his voters join a long line of people who fell for the Trump scam, from the casino investors he left holding the bag when he declared bankruptcy to the people who thought Trump University would teach them how to get rich?

What happens is that Trump blames the problem on someone else, picks a fight, throws a tantrum, accuses Obama of something or other, blames Republican backstabbers for fouling up his tremendous plans, tweets something untrue but outrageous, reminds his supporters that the country faces an existential crisis because of shifty foreigners and snooty liberals, and uses the same diversionary tactics he’s used a thousand times before to exempt himself from any attribution of error. And it will work, more or less. Haven’t we seen this before?

I haven’t been paying much attention to the affairs of the Trump administration–not at a detailed level, anyway–the debacle of the ACHA, the wiretapping nonsense, the new Muslim ban, etc. etc. That’s largely because I’ve already settled on my long-view interpretation of this moment in history; everything else is just scorekeeping. And from my view, the score is already best calculated in negative integers. Nothing to do for the moment but bear through or fight back–and when the time comes, I’ll take a look back and see if my long-view interpretations were correct.

Most people I read and talk to are convinced that Trump is a narcissistic buffoon and his administration a rolling disaster, and that therefore Trump and his nearest minions are doomed to go down in flames. Some people believe this because, like Waldman, they think voters will eventually wise up to Trump’s lies and boondoggles. Some of them think Trump is a despicable but essentially clueless naif doomed to be undone by more powerful and more diabolical institutions: a cunning Republican Congress, a scheming deep state, a cabal of wily corporations secretly pulling the strings of government, or some coalition of unholy forces determined to plunge the United States into war with Russia. And some just think that a person as patently ridiculous as Trump has to sink into ignominy sooner or later, preferably sooner.

I agree with the preconceptions, but not the entailed consequences. Trump is a ludicrous buffoon, but I see no reason why he should therefore fail. The government is full of meddlers, but I don’t take it as elementary that they’ll meddle their way to success.

The reason lies not in my intimate knowledge of politics, but in my ugly suspicions about human nature. The fact that Trump is president at all shows that most of the arguments marshalled against his success are fallacious. Trump may be incompetent, but his fellow federal bureaucratics and Congresspersons haven’t yet proven competent enough to stop him. Trump may be a shameless con, but his supporters obviously don’t care–and those supporters punch the ballots for a feckless Republican Congress that’s already internally divided and all but paralytic. Trump may be at odds with the spies, but what are the spies going to do about it? Leak some more vague allegations to the Times? That all ya got?

The spies can pick off vulnerable Trump cronies. Republican Congresspersons can cough into their hands about naughty tweets Trump sent. The liberal talk shows will have great fertilizer for a bumper crop of viral jokes. And of course, the press will scold and scold. But what will it change? Unless something definitive happens–a smoking gun from the CIA, a Batman-style twist in which Trump is caught on tape trashing his devoted supporters, the emergence of an equally shameless lefty demagogue–all the feuds and failures just add to the general climate of scandal, gossip, conflict, and dysfunction. Governmental dysfunction builds frustration, which increases partisanship, which increases dysfunction. The only people who benefit from this cycle are extremists, demagogues, and entertainers. Trump is all three.

The ACHA would seem to be a disaster for Republicans. But for Trump? He’ll just pin it on Ryan. Or on the RHINOs. Or on Democratic stonewalling. Or on the press. Or on Obama. Or–heck, why not–on illegal immigrants and Muslims. Or all of the above, or none of the above. Who cares? What matters is that something is going wrong, and that makes people angry. And you know who it feels good to be angry at? Our enemies.

This says less about Trump (or Bannon’s) craftiness than about the tenor of our times. In a way, Trump’s regime would be more predictable in a less civilized society. Trump rules like a mad king, and if he were a mad king, the consequence would be obvious. Someone would assassinate or try to depose him, and we’d have a succession crisis or civil war. But Trump is a mad king ruling a sclerotic bureaucracy, a human whirligig spinning in a crowd of toilsome drudges, a clown amid hacks, a man without qualities pouting and preening in a rat maze packed with cowardly chair-warmers and careerist flunkies. Where’s the MacDuff who’d have his head?

Even if Trump gets taken down, we’ll still be stuck with the forces that brought him to power: growing inequality, demographic shifts, the culture wars, rogue finance, Islamic terrorism and Western overreaction to it, and–most importantly, in my opinion–a media environment that amplifies the destabilizing effects of every problem. Fifteen years ago I wrote in my journal that the internet was nothing but a “gossip machine,” and that we’d get ourselves in trouble if we tried to use it for anything else. Since then, the gossip machine has been chugging along, doing whatever gossip does with ever-increasing efficiency. We’re living in Marshall McLuhan’s global village, and we’ve gradually seen it evolve from Lake Wobegon, Minnesota to Winesburg, Ohio to Salem, Massachusetts.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

What Camille Paglia Understands about Camille Paglia

I was amused by this profile of Camille Paglia in The Cut. Amused because it so perfectly exemplifies the way mainstream culture misapprehends her talents.

But who is Camille Paglia, really?

Camille Paglia the scholar is a fairly unremarkable stooge who’s been grinding along for thirty years in the middle echelons of academia, teaching art history.

Camille Paglia the national phenom is a dynamo who achieved brief celebrity in the nineties and early noughts for lashing out in all directions with controversial opinions on charged topics–global warming, TV, the Iraq War, various pop icons, but mostly the sacred cows of feminism.

Camille Paglia the writer is a peculiar character–not a great critic, not a cynical troll, not a levelheaded pontificator, not quite a contrarian–but a holdover into our time of a kind of antiquated character type, like a Jazz Age flapper or Belle Epoque bohemian transported to our day.

You can feel the writer of this article trying to understand Paglia through the usual good-feminist/bad-feminist interpretive frame. Camille Paglia is assertive and stubborn–no fainting flower, she–and constitutionally impervious to the “will of the patriarchy.” Good feminist! But Paglia embraces poisonous gendered archetypes, like those that portray women as earthy, irrational seductresses. Bad feminist! But she’s a champion of gay rights and women’s sexuality. Good feminist! But she has ardent fans in the alt-right orc pit. Bad feminist! But she approved of the Women’s March. Good feminist! But she …

The list goes on. (The good-feminist/bad-feminist checklist always goes on forever.) The article opens ambiguously, as Paglia digs into a leisurely moussaka, and ends with a good-feminist moment, as Paglia digs into the chauvinist biases of male anthropologists. But the whole tally is beside the point. At one point, Paglia’s interviewer refers to “sex, gender, and feminism” as Paglia’s “most cherished and contentious themes.” Sex and gender maybe, but I’m not sure feminism has ever been a cherished theme for Paglia so much as a convenient forum for her favorite rhetorical posture–which is to approach all of life, from sex and food on up, as a form of impassioned art criticism.

Sex may be the anchor to Paglia’s public reputation, but art criticism is her vocation. Her later books mimic the invitational style of the critic Robert Hughes, offering written tours of assorted great works. More importantly, the mental posture of the art critic–the pose, the stance, the orientation toward the world–has become for Paglia an ingrained habit. React, express, explain, reassess. In her compulsive repetition of this process, Paglia reminds me of no one so much as Rebecca West, whose Balkan travelogue, Black Lamb, Grey Falcon is also, largely, an extended tour of one woman’s aesthetic prejudices. In her writings, West never approaches an object, person, or place without reeling off a long chain of free association, so that every vase or church window she encounters on her travels becomes an image of all that’s wrong or right with the world.

You can see the same attitude at work even in this short profile of Paglia. She fusses over seating arrangements at the restaurant–not, I think, because of any bossy desire to assert her will, but because she enjoys the process of choice itself, forming preferences and acting on them. She disburdens herself of opinions on sports, food, music, fashion, TV, and, yes, politics, but that’s just what a critic does. And if Paglia presents her opinions not as reasoned arguments but as vatic pronouncements, that’s because art critics usually come to their conclusions not through cautious empiricism but through a fascination with emotion, the mysterious internal alchemy that bubbles up into revulsion or joy. That’s also why Paglia revises her judgments so readily and so completely–why Madonna can be demoted in her estimation from brave libertine to tired has-been, Hillary Clinton from Amazonian bitch to neurotic wretch. Paglia is never interested in the truth of a matter, still less in authoritative prediction. Only in the mysterious relation of art (meaning everything) to audience (meaning her).

Paglia’s political positions are always ridiculous. I’ll never forget the time she chided George W. Bush for failing to heed inauspicious omens–e.g. a space shuttle crash–while making political decisions. Her forays into biological determinism are best left unacknowledged–or better, treated as artsy appropriations of scientific errata, like vapor tubes and circuitboards glued into some Rauschenbergian junk collage. (There’s no one I’d trust less than Camille Paglia to elucidate the fine points of molecular genetics.) And her comments on date rape are little more than a kind of misbegotten theater criticism; in discussing contemporary manners, she inevitably asks not whether people are doing the right thing, but whether they’re doing a striking thing. If Paglia were living in 1941 she’d be taking notes on Goering’s collection of paintings and calling for the head of the barber who oiled Goebbels’s hair.

I don’t think, pace the author of this profile, that Paglia has much in common with Donald Trump. As a personality, Trump is all emulous man-child, rushing into every status competition and shouting, “Me! Me! Me! I win!” Paglia’s type is the decadent aristocrat, surfeited on life’s fine things, slumming in search of novel pleasures, testing every new experience against her finicky sensitivities. If she overuses exclamation points, that’s less a sign of bullying aggression than an indication of conviction. She’s taken the measure of her mood, and the verdict is in. Who are we to argue, or reason, or cavil, when each assertion she makes is nothing more or less than a description of a fleeting state-change in Camille Paglia’s endocrine system?

It’s as if Emma Bovary worked up her nerve, came to America, and found herself. I don’t think we should take Paglia’s opinions very seriously. But I do believe we should take the relationship she has with her opinions seriously indeed. Today’s cultural commentary, with its piles of data, its pointilistic explainers, its frantic gestures of partisan affiliation, above all, its grovelling pragmatism (the Democrats need to find a strategy that works!) could use a few more failed aristocrats, willing to present their views as little more than personal eccentricities.

Is Camille Paglia a feminist? Bad question. Here’s a better one: What did she think of the moussaka?

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment