Future, Present, & Past:

~~ Giving itself latitude and leisure to take any premise or inquiry to its furthest associative conclusion.
Critical~~ Ready to apply, to itself and its object, the canons of reason, evidence, style, and ethics, up to their limits.
Traditional~~ At home and at large in the ecosystem of practice and memory that radically nourishes the whole person.

Oυδεὶς άμουσος εἰσίτω

Wednesday, November 16, 2016

After the snark, the ruin. After the ruin, the light?

There's a line from Annie Baker's play The Aliens:
The state of just having lost something is like the most enlightened state in the world.
By this measure, the American political left should now be on the brink of Nirvana. Somehow I think this is not the case. Why not? What's the difference between the smashing defeat that has just happened, and genuine realization?

Part of it must lie in reflection. We all suffer loss, and so we "know" that loss is endemic. But to parlay that knowing into a a sense of the always-incipient enlightenment of all sentient beings, one must catch oneself knowing it.

This question, or this distinction, arises in looking at the immediate past. Looking to the future, there is another distinction to be made. It is obvious that a great deal of watchfulness will be called for during the next four years (at least). This watchfulness can be primarily attentive and mindful, or it can be primarily suspicious; nepsis, or paranoia. Nepsis is a characteristic of the enlightened: clear-sighted, unjudging and unapologetic, the neptic adept can often answer questions you didn't know you had, but this is because they've troubled to be unflinchingly honest with themselves and with their own spiritual teachers. The paranoid, when you encounter them, churn up confusion and disorder and fear (unless you've got a really good filter, usually from training). Practice in nepsis is difficult and painful and whole-making; paranoia is easy and ruinous. And very tempting.

I don't say it is always easy to discern between them -- at least, not for me. Real spiritual masters can probably tell just by looking at you. It may be hard to fool them, but as Wittgenstein warns, it is perilously easy to fool oneself (Culture & Value p 34). Both forms of watchfulness imply a sort of vigilance. But whereas the one is ascetic, and primarily addressed first of all to oneself and one's own conduct, and is a honed attention to what is the case, the other is directed outward, is egoic, and finally delusional. Put that way, of course, they sound pretty different, but spend five minutes trying to work on the former, and you'll find yourself easily sliding into the latter. It's humbling. It hurts.

This brings us back to the first distinction, for "humble" is not how I would describe the left -- at least, let us say the "liberal" left -- either before the election, or afterwards. Before, the prevailing mood was clearly (with some exceptions) the confident anticipation of a very different outcome, to which it felt not only destined but entitled. Afterwards, there have been a few varieties of reactions. A panicked, rage-stricken, caught-in-the-headlights fury. Or, a benzodiazepine-flavored assurance that if, now, we agree to trust the system and maybe see each other as human we will all learn to get along. Or, analysis which (sometimes) stops just short of saying actually-we-saw-it-coming, because either (1) Racism, Homophobia, Sexism, or (2) idiots voting "against their own interests." As to the analyses, the only ones that are really worth listening to are the ones that acknowledge the near-complete disconnect between the culture of urban, liberal elites (even those who don't feel so very "elite", even those who work very hard) versus rural and small-town poor. (And yes, I am aware of good studies which show that voters for president-elect Delirium Tremens were not on average of lower income than those for HRC. I am talking about culture).

I don't have a general account of the election, or even of What To Do Next, aside from what one must always do: be at one's post. I share the alarm over our national case of the DTs, although I believe its causes are endemic and go back much further than our sequestering ourselves in social-media-bubbles, or the invention of political correctness, or the shameless exploitation of a hollowed-out evangelical "Christianity" by the GOP. I am aware that we may not get through this bottleneck. Yet we may.

Although real and bitter racism exists and is not to be yawned at, I do not believe that a half-century of sulking from white supremacists has been unleashed and swept the DTs into power (not all by itself, anyway). The causes of that are many, complex, stochastic, and all too easily still mis-read in hindsight; some of them may be mendacious or manipulative (restrictive voting laws); others are possibly random (weather, traffic, whether the home team won). It is certainly insufficient to blame voter indifference, or third parties (of whom we have too few, not too many). Those -- especially party leaders -- who want to blame third party voters should look to the beam in their own eye. The Democratic party nominated a candidate who was under criminal investigation for having been slapdash and cavalier with highly sensitive information, and by extension, with the lives of American citizens (to say nothing of others'). This was, how shall I put it, a choice whose prudence may be questioned, regardless of the merit of those charges. Moreover, her campaign clearly attempted to rig the primary against her challenger; and she was known to enjoy at best lukewarm support among many of the party's go-to supporters. This last point holds no matter what you attribute that lukewarm reception to -- voters' misogyny, the candidate's squirreliness, whatever. When voters tell you they hate the choice you are giving them, it is either disingenuous or tone deaf or both to be angry at them later for not voting the way you want them to. I do believe that a vote for HRC was a vote for the continued establishment (and I stand by my claim that she was not obviously the less hawk-ish candidate; she certainly was not in any way less tied to money). All of this indicates the way that the Democrats thought that in some sense their victory was in the bag. The polls! The numbers said so!

On the other hand, DT took the nomination after having snubbed every major interest in the GOP. Unless our unseen Bilderberdger-Illuminati-grey alien puppet-masters are playing a more cunning game than I gave them credit for, DT really does seem to have thrown the whole American political machine into disarray.

There is a genuine opportunity in this. To seize the moment, however, will take all of us working together -- or indeed, fighting together, and maybe with each other, but in genuine good faith. I hope we can remember what that felt like.

So yes, I am fairly squarely in the The-Left-Did-This-To-Itself camp. This only increases the nausea I feel, like a kick in the solar plexus, at the new license that bullying, barbarism, and hate have felt themselves granted. The anecdotes are plentiful and disturbing, and no, alt-right, they are not made up. Muslim women having their head scarves yanked off, brown children yelled at, gay couples being told with a sneer that soon their "fake marriage" will be annulled, graffiti clearly meant to intimidate -- all these tares have sprung up, almost overnight. An enemy hath done this. If the press does not ask President-elect Delirium Tremens, unrelentingly and at every opportunity, whether he disavows and condemns such actions, they are derelict of duty. But much more, it is the responsibility of every person of good faith to resolve to impede any such thing they see, and to live, by concrete action and confrontation especially of one's own residual biases, to make this new license wither. (This resolution may have to last a long, long time. It is important to remember that in the parable of the wheat and tares, the two crops grow up together.)

I want to remark upon just one aspect of this in a little more detail because it connects the watchfulness I commend to the opportunity for realization. Over and over I read of the astonishment felt over the fact that suddenly people "feel like they can say" things that had previously been taboo. The DTs' casualness with regards to demeaning language for women and his pandering to racism has given thirsted-for legitimacy to some of the worst and lowest behaviors and attitudes from the past century. This much is obvious and lamentable. But the language used to describe this new legitimacy is telling. "People feel like they can say these things now." This doesn't mean that these attitudes are being newly created; it means they are being given a new permission, a permission that had been withheld; that had hitherto been subject to sanction -- a sanction against which people chafed and strained, and that suddenly was lifted.

The source of this sanction, and the form under which it existed, is shame. What social liberals are discovering now -- what ought to have been obvious -- is that shame, and especially the shaming disapproval of others, is by itself woefully insufficient to eradicate these spasms of baseness. Shame can stifle, but it does not extinguish; it exacerbates. In their enforced silence, those who are shamed will nurse on a festering resentment. Shame was never going to be an adequate bulwark against wrong. To think it would be was naive, lazy, and indeed a symptom of (a word I choose carefully) privilege. Shame may be useful -- it's a universal emotion, and it could even be necessary; but it is not sufficient. To point this out is not to say anything about whose responsibility anyones shame is; I've no interest in guarding "white fragility," for instance, and I am aware that one reading of US history is that the disempowered have borne a hugely disproportionate share of collective shame for over two centuries. The question isn't whether shame can be deployed; no doubt it can. But it cannot be relied upon. It's too easy; and when it stops working, it stops with a vengeance.

One could have seen this fraying of the power of shame in the invention, a quarter-century or so ago, of political correctness, which tried to martial explicitly the social opprobrium that had always been the lever of shame. This sort of doubling-down should have been a clue. But I don't want to turn this post into an excavation into the past. Most importantly, for my purposes here: by liberalism's own values, which I broadly share, shaming is actually wrong. This is the crucial point in trying to think philosophically into the future about our politics.

Obviously I believe, at least on a good day, that a genuine leftist politics and a sort of small-c conservatism (Cornel West would prefer to say, "preservativism") can work together. I would even say, they have to -- if we're to have any chance at all of navigating this bottleneck (and I fear it may be very tight). Thinking forward will require a scathingly honest appraisal of the ways condescension and snark has poisoned us -- each of us*. This doesn't mean bleeding all discourse, or all political discourse, into a bland and inoffensive paste -- political correctness of a different (non)flavor. What I've said before of irony is true also of other little jabs, like sarcasm or caricature: they make a good spice, and a bad main course. (There is, you will have noticed, a sprinkling of them in this post.) Above all, it is -- to use a dangerous word -- a matter of authenticity. It has to be asked in the first person: do I need to say this this way? Do I have the relationship with this person that allows for this expression? We have ultimately no control over whether the other person agrees with us or not. But we have a great deal of control over whether we listen to them. And it turns out that listening actually does cultivate being heard.

I know this sounds very kumbaya. It's not. It will be every bit as tense and "confrontational" and conflicted as ever. But there is a difference between styles of combat. If the left, maybe even the radical left (if by "radical" we mean something like Sanders' new New Dealism) steels itself to "win next time," it may succeed -- next time. But if this is all that happens, it will have squandered the chance to catch itself knowing what can be known from loss. Of course, this is what will happen, on the large scale, for politics is not philosophy and "the left" does not exist as an entity that can "realize" in the same way that a Bodhisattva can. Nor, in any case, do I think it is the business of the political left, especially in the United States, to construe a metaphysics. But a few more gentle and more deep figures on the left would be a really, really good thing; and a broader shift in culture (what used to be called "a change in consciousness") can still develop, if we truly decide to eschew the vilification of each other and commit to seriously listen to those we find hard to understand, or to even want to understand. This is hard to get right, and we'll all fuck up, and need to start over. But rather than talking to ourselves about how obviously wrong the other is, we'll be talking to each other. Hearing, and seeing, not our preferences or our fears, but what is the case. Edging ever so slowly towards enlightenment.

I hope.

(Addendum: I got a comment from a reader (who later deleted it) which asked me some searching questions that I hope I dealt with honestly in this followup.)


* The best long take I've seen on this is this article by David Wong of Cracked. It's had approximately ten million hits by now so chances are good you've already seen it, but it really bears thinking about.

(Added later) Another take, from the always-smart Slate Star Codex here.

(Again added later) And how gratifying to see Slavoj Žižek vociferously arguing many of my same points.

(And still another), from The Archdruid.

(for contrast) This from Tablet, which underlines the fundamental moral seriousness of the situation. Despite my various caveats above, I think the basic circumstances are stark.

(again for contrast) The most sustained and well-put critiques of the poor-white-folk story I've seen have been from Kirsten West Savali, though I don't agree with her in every respect any more than I do with those I link to above.

(Still want more?) The unflinching and pacifist stance of Stan Goff.

(And last, for now) I agree, however, with Cornel West who described the choice between DT and HRC as that between neofascist catastrophe and neoliberal disaster (and has summed it up in the Guardian).

Some of these links were forwarded to me, some I found myself and some were added in response to feedback I got on this.


  1. Because it is evidence based What Scott Alexander says . No wonder he has closed comments for that post as his normal audience would howl with righteous indignation. Howling wolf. Generally though for a good period of time sentences beginning with 'Polls show' will be rare and the chattering classes will cease to try to educate the great unwashed.

    1. I of course don't agree with everything Alexander says in the post I link to. But I do think he's correct in arguing that the KKK & fellow travelers' role in the election is overplayed, that DT's anti-LGBTQ stance is likely just plain old misconstrued, & most importantly, that getting this wrong has bad effects on those who are very vulnerable. Having said that, I still think that a DT presidency is bad news in the short term, & that for some -- like some endangered species or some citizens w/ no safety net -- the short term may be all they have.

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