This is the first of three posts which I originally began shaping not for the general public but for friends and family members who are understandably perplexed and occasionally vexed by my difficult-to-pin-down politics, which some have described as "weaselly," "shifty," and "hard-to-pin-down." Oh yeah, wait, that last one was me just now. But really, they could all be me, because I've changed my mind before, sometimes as many as six times before breakfast, and I usually skip breakfast. See what I mean? Shifty.
In short, I too am vexed by my politics; and it is important to note that my politics is not vexing because it is especially subtle or clever; it is vexing because it stems from certain basic predispositions which are not all in accord with each other, and because among these is the predisposition to ask, Yes, but on the other hand... This post and the two that follow are a sort of interim report on some of those predispositions, a snapshot of their current state in what is a continual, ongoing, semi-reflected-upon flux: semi-, because I always start with what I already believe, value, love; reflected-upon, because I know that my starting point is not magically right about everything, and besides, reflection is also one of the things I believe in, value, and love. I have posted this, rather than just circulate it among a few concerned-for-my-health loved ones, because it charts a degree of continuity with previous installments here, in a way that I think adds some context and where-the-metaphor-meets-the-bone urgency.
I am a philosopher first, and so when the rivalry between politics and philosophy comes to a head -- and politics and philosophy are always going to be rivals -- I am going to look for how philosophy can endure. Politics is just the art of finding (and trying to enact) the least bad solution. When least bad is kinda OK, really, philosophy will remind you not to get too comfy, and when least bad is still pretty fucking atrocious, philosophy will see you through, the way it did Confucius, or Boethius, or Miki Kiyoshi, or Alexandru Dragomir. (You can be an Emperor or a slave, but there is more kinship between Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus than between Marcus and Heliogabalus.)
Moreover, I have seen just how depressingly irritated people get when they are preoccupied by politics -- a fate I didn't want for myself. Both of these facts -- my first loyalty being to philosophy itself, and my observation of just how miserable politics could make people -- led me to put most of my attention elsewhere. In retrospect I can see that the cost of this attending-elsewhere was arguably lower for me than it might be for many; at the time, though, it was just what I was doing. I had positions, and preferences, and I (sometimes) voted, but I kept my distance from the ads and the campaigns.
But for a long time there was another side, a less philosophical side, to this distancing as well; I was alienated. I perceived that I was effectively powerless in the system as it is set up, and I chose to stay aloof -- and growingly cynical -- because this was less unpleasant than facing up to the reality of this disenfranchisement. My confrontation with this -- and auto-therapy for it -- is ongoing. What it does not and cannot involve, however, is refuge in imaginary scenarios about how "Voting Matters," or how "protesting makes a difference." (Voting can matter, and a protest may make a tactical difference in some cases; but fetishizing either of them just distracts.)
If I could -- and I still might, if God calls me -- I would organize an enormous Don't-Vote campaign which would involve showing up to the polls, markng your ballots on whatever small, local measures count, and then leaving the Presidential question BLANK. If a million -- or even a hundred thousand -- such ballots were turned in (along with an effective media campaign) -- this could (potentially, not inevitably) highlight the need for election reform much more pressingly than another Democratic win. It would surely put whoever "won" on notice that they had the opposite of a mandate.
What -- an anti-vote argument now?! Now, when we've seen how disastrous an election-gone-wrong can be, and when the midterms show just how crucial every single voter is?!
Answer: As I predicted during the 2016 U.S. presidential race, the one sure and certain result of that election has been the inflated sense of the consequences of elections. This has been borne out by the midterms' record voter turn-out. Here's the thing, friends: this national case of the DTs was decades in the making, little pressure-points being aggravated, and pressure building up slowly, slowly over time ... and yes, then the fault slipped. But the dramatic nature of the break when the camel finally collapses shouldn't blind anyone to the chronic and pervasive straw-piling that was going on, no matter who was "in control" of Congress or in the Oval Office. Yes, I am (in this) a pragmatist, and for certain purposes something of a seeming-centrist, so I believe in carefully and intelligently deploying the tools at ones disposal, including the vote if it looks plausible that it can be effective. But I also think that the vote could be Oh, So So So effective if it actually, like, worked. At all. As a voice of the people instead of a pretense to move some powerful people from one office into another office. (I know there are not theoretically perfect electoral models, but the first-past-the-post system is truly awful and more or less guarantees the worst of all worlds. I beg you to look into, and advocate for, range voting, ranked voting, or really, almost anything besides first-past-the-post. Start here, for example.) In any case -- do I think that right now is the perfect moment for an assault on defensive voting and the sham of "two"-party politics? I don't know. Do I think it is obvious that right now is the Worst. Time. Ever., for such an intervention? I don't. Maybe you could convince me.
I continue to read reports of Russian Trolls infesting the American electoral process. Aside from the beautiful surrealism of it all -- please, just pause for a moment to consider the phrase Russian Troll Farm, this title of a straight-to-video horror film, and the sheer bizarreness of seeing it in big black-and-white on the front page of the New York Times -- there's something a little mote-in-thy-brother's-eye about the whole ongoing story. Every time I hear about some social media giant being called on the carpet to answer for "not taking seriously" the threats to American democracy, I think, how about the online Plague of Bile that preceded this debacle by two decades? And when I hear of hackers who from St Petersburg or Volograd or Moscow sent out Fake News to "fan the flames of American incivility," I wonder to myself: are we saying that the problem of American incivility is... Russia?
From the always-intelligent Scott Alexander I cull ("cherry-pick," I am sure someone is saying) a single representative statistic from Pew research:
One of the best-known examples of racism is the “Guess Who’s Coming To Dinner” scenario where parents are scandalized about their child marrying someone of a different race. Pew has done some good work on this and found that only 23% of conservatives and 1% (!) of liberals admit they would be upset in this situation. But Pew also asked how parents would feel about their child marrying someone of a different political party. Now 30% of [consistent] conservatives and 23% of [consistent] liberals would get upset. Average them out, and you go from 12% upsetness rate for race to 27% upsetness rate for party – more than double.Alienation is indeed painful, but I think I would rather be alienated than enlist in unending trench warfare on a seesaw. Or rather: this unending seesaw is the form of our alienation. If you want to deal with it, get off the seesaw.
Which does not mean, try to feign indifference; it means, stop thinking that any given position -- each thing you care about -- requires one to hop on one side or the other. The next two posts will mention some things to which I am not indifferent. But remember that above all, I am not indifferent to the ability to ask, "but on the other hand..." And this, Not out of perversity or perpetual indecision, but because this question naturally occurs to me. If there's anything more alienating than the seesaw, it's being told that your natural disposition makes you a traitor to both sides.