The more things change

Everywhere there is talk of revolution. People are disturbed when they think of the future. There are those who look forward eagerly to a sudden violent change in the social order. It is said that the revolutions which have occurred in continental Europe are symptoms of a world movement; that bourgeois liberal democracy is inevitably drifting toward catastrophe. There are loyal defenders of the existing order who seem to see in any suggested reform signs of revolutionary conspiracy. And there are many liberal-minded people, neither revolutionists nor apologists for entrenched interests, who are confused by the din of excited propagandists. These liberals are not averse to the orderly process of change. They may even welcome what they would like to regard as trends toward a better social system. But they hear it said that liberalism is dead, that parliamentary government is ineffective and that resort to force in the settlement of present-day economic issues is unavoidable.

Are such fears or hopes well founded? What is a revolution? When is it likely to take place, if at all? How large a portion of the public has in times past participated in revolutionary movements? What has been the behavior of the crowd in such crises? What forces, historical, economic and psychological, have transformed social stress and change into deeds of violence? What, in the end, have revolutions accomplished for human advancement? Are we facing a revolution in America at the present time?

—Everett Dean Martin, Farewell to Revolution (1935), p. ix (from the Foreword)

Quis repugnet ipsam repugnatiam?

As the university representative announced that Murray and Stanger would move to a different location, the crowd began shouting, “Where are you going?”

Somehow, they found out. Because when Murray and Stanger finished their dialogue, they found themselves surrounded by protesters. The protesters—some of whom were wearing masks and may not have been Middlebury students—began pushing them. When Stanger tried to shield Murray, according a Middlebury spokesman, a protester grabbed her hair and twisted her neck.

Murray, Stanger and their escorts made it to a waiting car, but the protesters “pounded on it, rocked it back and forth, and jumped onto the hood,” according to The New York Times. One took a large traffic sign, attached to a concrete base, and placed it in front of the car to prevent it from leaving.

Finally, Murray and Stanger got away. They had planned to eat dinner at a local restaurant, but, upon learning that the protesters planned to disrupt their meal, left town altogether. Stanger later went to the hospital, where she received a neck brace.

–Peter Beinart, A Violent Attack on Free Speech at Middlebury

From “The Mark Manifesto”

With a community of almost two billion people, it is less feasible to have a single set of standards to govern the entire community so we need to evolve towards a system of more local governance.

–Mark Zuckerberg, Building Global Community [via Recode]

There’s so much in the manifesto that smarter people than me will hash over, but this stood out to me, appearing as it does about three-quarters of the way through a polemic advocating for Facebook’s centrality to the building of a truly global community. I’ve no idea how this claim will be translated into algorithmic practice. The general tenor of that section of the manifesto gives the impression that what Zuckerberg means is that individuals will still (sort of) control what they see, but those settings will be refined by Facebook’s programmers to set regional norms for community standards. But in a global community, how are locality and region going to be defined? In a digital space where people choose their associations, how will Facebook determine boundaries? To what extent will cookies, likes, and reposts determine new forms of subcommunity identity? If Facebook is successful in its global agenda, will nation-states morph into digitally-facilitated forms of groupthink? Zuckerberg seems determined not to contribute to the atomization of society via his particular social media platform (and it’s clear that he’s wrestled with this issue pretty extensively), but what checks and balances do Zuckerberg and his army of programmers intend to build into the code? Zuckerberg also intends to grow the Facebook community; if 2 billion makes it “less feasible to have a single set of standards,” what happens when Facebook hits 3 billion? Zuckerberg claims at the outset of the manifesto that the goal is “building the long term social infrastructure to bring humanity together.” I feel like there’s a lot of slippage between terms like “community,” “government,” “standards,” and “infrastructure” throughout–as there tends to be in any extended political conversation–but very little acknowledgement of who or what comprises this infrastructure. It’s fine and dandy to insist that the sociability of people is the nucleus of Facebook. And that’s sort of true. But it’s also true that Facebook remains a private company whose product is a patented digital system whose language is known only to Zuckerberg and his employees. Facebook is infrastructure, even social infrastructure in a capacious sense of the word. But Zuckerberg seems to entertain seriously the idea that it’s the users who are driving the formation of the community even as he promotes the role of the Facebook corporate entity in giving it shape and function. What does locality look like in a global village whose infrastructure is house in Silicon Valley, yet whose fiberoptic materials and electronic signals remain almost literally invisible to the eye of the people who “live” there?

Patience is what it takes.

I know there comes a point in time when you say, okay, enough time, now things have got to change … if you need to legislate something or force something, then fine, you have those tools available. That’s why we have lawmakers. But the day the law changed to when black people could ride in the front of the bus, or not have to give up their seat, the day that law changed did not necessarily change the minds of the white riders. You can legislate behavior but you cannot legislate belief. Patience is what it takes. But patience doesn’t mean sitting around on your butt waiting for something to happen. Be proactive. And don’t just sit around and talk with your friends who believe the way you do. Invite other people who have differences of opinion.

–Daryl Davis

–Conor Friedersdorf, Every Racist I Know Voted for Donald Trump

The only problem is if you think there are no righteous mobs

The black bloc I joined met at Logan Circle, some two miles north of the inauguration parade route. We peered through bandanas to find friends. We gathered in bloc formation behind wood-enforced banners, filled the street, and began to march. The bloc takes care to stay together, move together, and blend together. Within minutes, bottle rockets were shooting skyward and bricks were flying through bank windows. You don’t know who does what in a bloc, you don’t look to find out. If bodies run out of formation to take a rock to a Starbucks window, they melt back to the bloc in as many seconds. Bodies reconciled, kinetic beauty. If that sounds to you like a precondition for mob violence, you’re right. But this is only a problem if you think there are no righteous mobs, or that windows feel pain, or that counter-violence (like punching Richard Spencer) is never valid.

–Natasha Lennard, Neo-Nazi Richard Spencer Got Punched–You Can Thank the Black Bloc

 

Unchecked privilege

Consider the world as viewed through the lens of intersectionality. At the very top of the pyramid of privilege stands a straight, able-bodied, white man — whether he was born rich, attended Harvard, and works on Wall Street, or is a laid off coal miner who struggles with opioid addiction in eastern Kentucky. Below him are straight, able-bodied white women, with straight “people of color” of either gender even less privileged, followed by gay, lesbian, transgendered, and disabled variations on each identity category — with a hypothetical disabled black lesbian perhaps least privileged of all. But of course, this is a matter of controversy, since a transgendered Latina who comes from a poorer neighborhood or a more broken family than her black lesbian rival might contest and take offense at this ranking, insisting that she’s actually the one who deserves to be recognized as the least privileged.

It should be obvious that this brand of politics is profoundly poisonous. Instead of seeking to level an unjust hierarchy, mitigate its worst abuses, and foster cross-group solidarity, intersectionality merely flips the hierarchy on its head, placing the least privileged in the most powerful position and requiring everyone else to clamor for relative advantage in the new upside-down ranking. Those who come out on top in the struggle win their own counter-status, earning the special privilege of getting to demand that those lower in the pecking order “check their privilege.”

This is a sure-fire spur to division, dissension, and resentment.

–Damon Linker, Liberals are drunk on a political poison called intersectionality

Caliban’s triumph

The academic left interrogated the discourses of “truth” and “reason,” revealed the aporias thereof, exposed the inner workings of the power-knowledge regime, all in the name of social justice. I remember vividly Andrew Ross’s insistence, twenty-five years ago, that it was actually perfectly appropriate and consistent for a would-be revolutionary like him to have a tenured position at Princeton: “I teach in the Ivy League in order to have direct access to the minds of the children of the ruling classes.” It turns out that the children of the ruling classes learned their lessons well, so when they inherited positions in their fathers’ law firms they had some extra, and very useful, weapons in their rhetorical armory.

In precisely the same way, when, somewhat later, academic leftists preached that race and gender were the determinative categories of social analysis, members of the future alt-right were slouching in the back rows of their classrooms, baseball caps pulled down over their eyes, making no external motions but in their dark little hearts twitching with fervent agreement. […]

Sauce for the goose, sauce for the gander. It seems that we’ve all now learned the lessons that the academic left taught, and how’s that working out for us? The alt-right/Trumpistas are Caliban to the academic left’s Prospero: “You taught me language, and my profit on’t is, I know how to curse.”

–Alan Jacobs, lessons learned

A place where aggression and consensus go together

Stanley Fish, lawyer and literary critic, is in truth about as left-wing as Donald Trump. Indeed, he is the Donald Trump of American academia, a brash, noisy entrepreneur of the intellect who pushes his ideas in the conceptual marketplace with all the fervour with which others peddle second-hand Hoovers. Unlike today’s corporate executive, however, who has scrupulously acquired the rhetoric of consensus and multiculturalism, Fish is an old-style, free-booting captain of industry who has no intention of clasping both of your hands earnestly in his and asking whether you feel comfortable with being fired. He fancies himself as an intellectual boot-boy, the scourge of wimpish pluralists and Nancy-boy liberals, and that ominous bulge in his jacket is not to be mistaken for a volume of Milton. […]

In the teeth of all such soppy consensus, Fish is a Hobbesian and Machiavellian who enjoys conflict, believes only in what he can taste and handle, and likes to win. He sees his dislike of universal essences as anti-Platonic, though much of the time this is just a high-toned way of saying that he has the outlook on life of an estate agent. It is unclear how winning and intolerance go together, since you cannot be said to have beaten a rival whom you have tethered to the starting blocks; but it is clear enough how this philosophy, which Fish implicitly recommends as universally valid, fits rather better with being the dean of a US university at the turn of the millennium than it does with being a sixth-century Scottish hermit.

To refer to Fish the Dean, however, is to reveal the fact that there are two Fishes, Little and Big. Little Fish is a sabre-rattling polemicist given to scandalously provocative pronouncements: truth is rhetoric, free speech is an illusion, unprincipled behaviour is best. Big Fish is the respectable academic who will instantly undercut the force of these utterances by insisting that they are descriptive rather than normative. Far from being radical recommendations, they simply describe what we do anyway without always knowing it, and ‘theory’, the Trumps of this world will be relieved to learn, thus has no effect whatsoever on practice. Anti-foundationalism is therefore unlikely to alienate the New York foundations, and Fish can buy his reputation as an iconoclast on the cheap.

Little Fish is in hot pursuit of a case which will succeed in alienating absolutely everyone; he is the cross-grained outsider who speaks up for minorities, and himself Jewish, comes from one such cultural margin. Big Fish, by contrast, has a consensual, good-boy disdain for rebels, whose behaviour is in his eyes just as convention-bound as those they lambast. It is fortunate for this schizoid character that there is a place where aggression and consensus go together. It is known as the US corporation, of which the campus is a microcosm. In academia, you can hammer your colleagues, safe in the knowledge that, since you all subscribe to the same professional rules, it doesn’t really mean a thing.

–Terry Eagleton, The Estate Agent, a review of Stanley Fish’s The Trouble with Principle (1999)

The federal talent farm

Across his eight years in office, President Obama has overseen an enormous amount of consequential policy change. He’s also presided over a broad and deep collapse of the Democratic Party at lower levels that simply can’t be reversed in 2016 because far too many state and local offices aren’t on the ballot this fall.

Turning that around ought to be one of Hillary Clinton’s major goals in office. The transition provides a great opportunity to get started by tapping young, talented, ambitious people whose elevation to federal jobs can set them up for later runs for federal office.

–Matthew Yglesias, Hillary Clinton should use her appointments to build up her party

I don’t feel as though I should have to to burnish my anti-Trump credentials before making my remarks, but bear them in mind anyway. When populists on the Right and the Left curse the Establishment for its incestuousness and slimy power politics, this is exactly the thing they’re talking about. (Even if they don’t know it.)

Patronage has been a cornerstone tool of partisan politics for a long, long time. Everybody does it. Romans called it the cursus honorum. Yglesias cites Daniel J. Galvin’s 2009 book, Presidential Party Building, which argues that Republican presidents since the mid-twentieth century have done more to secure the future interests of their party than the Democrat presidents have, because the GOP presidents wanted to convert their “minority” party into the majority (taking into account all downballot elected offices), whereas Democrats were able to rely on fairly stable majorities (again, downballot). The Republicans have enjoyed a lot of power in state and local offices (and the House of Representatives) for nearly a decade, putting the Democrats in the overall minority role. Yglesias’s logic, as far as I can figure, seems to be that the Republicans were able to abuse the system for their own partisan gain, so the Democrats should do it, too.

I don’t think “abuse” is too strong a word. What Yglesias recommends is that President Clinton treat the federal government as the Democrats’ very own personal grooming machine for future electoral candidates. He calls that a “major goal.”

Well. Okay then.

To be “Machiavellian” need not be a bad thing. I think Clinton’s generally pragmatic approach to politics is, on the whole, a good thing. Her willingness to be different things to different interest groups is extremely pragmatic, as is her relationship to Wall Street. RuPaul basically nailed what makes Clinton an effective politician. That said, I do think there’s a distinction we ought to make between appreciating what makes a politician effective and what a politician’s priorities ought to be.

Political critics must always hedge against being either too idealist or too cynical. Treating the federal apparatus as a farm for up-and-coming Democrat talent, with that explicit purpose in mind, is extraordinarily cynical. There’s a cold calculus involved in all political interactions, but Yglesias doesn’t even give lip service to the notion that perhaps those appointments ought to be filled by the best people for the job, regardless of partisan affiliation.

I don’t think it’s incurably starry-eyed to expect that the president, who’s supposed to govern all Americans, not just the ones who voted for her, with restraint and a semblance of parity, should try to hire the best people for the job whether or not they’re Democrats. Nor is it untoward to expect that writers who have spent the better part of a year snarking at Trump’s authoritarianism be a bit more reflective about how nakedly partisan they want their government to be. “Major goals,” indeed.

When a Trump supporter reads someone like Yglesias (yes, yes, I know how unlikely it is that the average Drumpfkin has even heard of Vox), he sees a representation of all that is wrong with Clinton-style governance, and perhaps the so-called Establishment as a whole. He sees a Hillary booster who wants to see the United States turned into a machine dedicated to the perpetuation of Democratic (read: left-wing) political power. And that’s not an entirely inaccurate impression. Bernie supporters may feel similarly, though less viscerally. Imagine if Yglesias replaced every mention of Democrats with “lobbyists”–also known as “those special-interest puppets politicians become when they fail their re-election bids.”

The view that the government should be nonpartisan is not incompatible with the view that sometimes it simply can’t be nonpartisan. Reality is hardmode. Really, I do get it. But what makes a republic work is a commonly-held faith that, on balance, our government does not work primarily, as a “major goal,” for the prospects of a single political party. It is supposed to work for all of us most the time, regardless of which party has the upper hand at a given moment. Not even to pretend that that’s the case is the privilege of the elite and the prerogative of those for whom government is ideological war conducted by other means.

“Maybe for you, but not for the country.”

I think Black Lives Matter is, in the larger pattern of history, where Occupy energies went and what that Occupy moment gave way to. And Occupy understood itself as a re-manifestation and derivative of the Arab Spring. Each new formation does what a predecessor couldn’t do, didn’t know to do. It shifts to completely new populations and causes — but it preserves the continuity of a Movement. Occupy was beaten by police, both literally and figuratively, even though police had no real stake in its concerns; and maybe it was defeated too by a white bourgeois ethos. Black Lives Matter does what Occupy couldn’t, or wouldn’t; and it invites people into the Movement in a larger way, while pursuing its own necessary ends. I don’t know about the mood of the young people I see as a whole, but my mood is pretty optimistic, and optimistic in their presence above all. There are always new people coming into the world, and that means the possibility that they’ll see how this world is not the way it could be. Not the way it should be, to be worthy of them. I think this happens to be a singularly good time. Every time I read another headline, “Is the Country Coming Apart?,” I think, Maybe for you, but not for the country.

As for my students and the young, I sometimes do think they believe too much of what they hear without really pressing on it or sitting on it for a while. How could they not believe too much? It is very difficult to distinguish a true from a false authority. And you’ve been told so many things. I think you have to take it slow, and keep checking yourself. In the book, I mark a difference at one point between extraordinary revolt and ordinary defiance. It’s the latter which I think we are most in need of, and it’s within reach.

–Mark Greif interviewed by Greg Gerke, True and False Authorities