Monday, October 31, 2011

nobody knows anything about the movie business

That's what screenwriter William Goldman once said, anyway.

Here's a little evidence. The A.V. Club declares Puss in Boots and its $34 million dollar weekend take a disappointment. The article also describes Justin Timberlake as "reliably bankable." Meanwhile, New York Magazine's Vulture blog describes Puss in Boots and the self-same $34 million dollar opening weekend  as a winner that shows commercial "gusto." The post agrees with the A.V. Club that Timberlake's In Time was a failure, but identifies the main culprit as being... Timberlake and his lack of drawing power.

Sunday, October 30, 2011

I know it can be hard to demonstrate tone in text, but if you have to write "/sarcasm" or similar, perhaps you should just rethink things.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

quality control levers in blogging

Let me get away from my usual aggressive rhetoric for a bit to talk about the lack of accountability in contemporary political punditry.

If I didn't believe in the value and importance of political blogging I wouldn't spend any of my time on it, or on critiquing it. And if I felt that the people I write about most weren't worth critiquing I wouldn't bother. I think that political blogging, and many political bloggers, are worth investing in. But I am saddened and angered by the lack of accountability and quality control levers within the profession. Let me show you what I mean.

 Here's Yglesias at his best, on education, a topic on which he and I have great disagreements:
My father dropped out of high school in the middle of 10th grade. As it happens, my father went on to have a successful career as a novelist and screenwriter and is by no means poor. Still the fact of the matter is that my mother could help me with my high school math homework and my dad couldn’t, since he has very little formal math education. A person who grows up in a household headed by a single mother who didn’t complete high school is going to be at a significant educational disadvantage vis-a-vis a person who grows up in a household with two college educated parents for reasons that are not going to be solved by a transfer of financial resources to the single mother. Similarly, a person whose parents were both raised in Latin America and don’t speak English is going to be at a substantial disadvantage. Literate English-speaking parents do a lot to teach their kids to read and write, parents who don’t speak English and may have limited literacy in their native language aren’t able to do this.
This is smart, and the kind of smart that reminds you why it's worth sticking with Yglesias through his less well-developed ideas, and why his prominent role in the political blogosphere is on balance a good thing. I'm not particularly pleased with the reference to common sense on what is an empirical question, but that's no big deal. I think he's making trenchant observations about how conventional wisdom can be distorted or distorting. This kind of thinking is the beginning of inquiry-- you've got to follow up with your empiricism-- but perfectly legitimate and necessary, and an example of the best kind of policy generalism, which is necessary for a functional democracy. You'll note, incidentally, that here Yglesias is moving in the direction of complexity.

Here's Yglesias at his worst, on education:
my experience is that a lot of people on the left, rather than arguing the merits of the issue, seem to take it as self-evidently un-progressive to try to improve the performance of a public agency in part by doing things that the people who work at the agency don’t like. When it comes to big city police departments, I think a much healthier attitude exists. Not one that says cops shouldn’t have rights in the workplace or that “cops are bad,” but one that recognizes a substantial tension between the liberal desire to have police departments work well and the police officers’ desire for high levels of job security and low levels of accountability.
I should hardly have to tell you that this is a specious and childish comparison, one that distorts more than it clarifies. There are a vast amount of difference between education and policing. As happens so often, his commenters just absolutely school him here, so you can look to them for a comprehensive set of critiques of this post. To stake out my usual position, I would just add that Yglesias continues to ignore (despite having heard this critique many times) that there are persistent and non-trivial epistemelogical difficulties in measuring teaching quality fairly, accurately, and to our practical good, and that accordingly we have far more reliable information about best practices in policing than we do in education. Also, criticisms of policing don't actually take the form of calls for widespread privatization, nor the destruction of police unions, which are the goals of the education reform movement and are transparently conservative/libertarian. You'll note, incidentally, that here Yglesias is moving in the direction of simplicity.

What I want is to get more of the former and less of the latter. I'm just one person, so my opinion individually should  naturally be of little consequence. But there should be some mechanism of accountability through which the mass can influence professional bloggers. And you'd certainly like that system of accountability to privilege factual accuracy, reference to empiricism, and an appropriate acknowledgment of complexity.

The problem is that there's simply no reliable mechanism of accountability in political blogging to deal with the dross. People say that the oppositional ideologies within the blogosphere ensures pushback, but as I've been trying to document, that doesn't really happen. Social capture happens. Professional incentives distort. The think tank and media distortions in professional punditry, such as the massive over-representation of libertarianism in comparison to the number of American libertarians, upset the balance. Yglesias's commenters are often a good check on his laziness, but they are very easy to ignore, and he does. The Center for American Progress certainly doesn't seem to be imposing any accountability for him; they don't appear to ask him for accuracy or quality control. (They did, however, hijack his blog when he criticized Third Way, which should tell you something about CAP.) There are those few critics such as me, but I'm also ignorable, and there are standard measures to delegitimize people like me, such as the ubiquitous insistence on personal vendetta.

I just don't see any particular set of incentives or penalties for your average political blogger. This is exacerbated by the manic pace of blogging, which means that most posts are quickly forgotten, so there's little opportunity for public accountability. It frustrates me when professional bloggers don't evolve or improve, but I can't really blame them, as there's no concrete reasons for them to change.

I will be the first to tell you that knowledge making in the university system is imperfect. Many people can recount all the ways in which the publication/peer review/tenure process is politicized, detrimental to teaching, distorting, and inimical to certain kinds of inquiry or topics. But there is at least a clear process here. If I want to make an article and have it resonate professionally, I have to publish in a reputable journal. The editors of the journal will give my proposal an initial vetting. They reject many or most. If I get through that original vetting, my paper goes through the peer review process. The peer reviewers make comments and set standards. I have to change my article in order for it to be published. Once it's published, it's accessible to a field of experts who will evaluate it for quality and accuracy. If I'm wrong, others will publish criticizing me. Publication is rare enough that every piece really counts. If my work is consistently poor or inaccurate, it will deeply impact my ability to get hired, to gain tenure, and earn promotion and professional laurels. It's an imperfect system, but it's a system with a clear set of quality control levers that are directly tied to professional advancement. There simply is no equivalent system in political punditry. See the careers of, for example, Bill Kristol and Jeffrey Goldberg for evidence.

Oh, by the way: Yglesias's comparison is more apt than he knows in one particular way. As so often happens with policing, the inevitable result of the ed "reform" movement will be juking the stats. These educational problems are irresolvable given the realities of our system of resource distribution, inequities in quality of parenting, and the unspeakable but real fact that people are substantially unequal in intellectual aptitude. But since our society is incapable of recognizing that we don't have the tools to solve all of our problems, we instead cover those problems with pleasant lies. There is absolutely no question in my mind that the educational reform wars will cool through a consensus decision to pretend the problems away.

The question is, will we do so in a way that destroys unions, harms teachers, and hands yet more public over to private enterprise-- dare I say it, a self-evidently unprogressive outcome.

Friday, October 28, 2011

the tyranny of Washington DC

Brad Delong was kind enough to link to my post about social and professional capture in blogging. I would just say that the point is less about who gets linked to and who doesn't and more about the pressures that professional or professionalizing bloggers feel to adopt certain mainstream positions, or to kowtow to certain prominent figures within the blogosphere. This problem is much less acute for someone like Dr. Delong, who has a day job and operates outside of the DC bubble.

On the subject of the DC bubble, and to defend myself against the typical claims that I'm just making all of this up, I would point you towards a great piece by Conor Friedersdorf called "The Tyranny of Washington DC." Friedersdorf comes from an entirely different ideological background than I do, is much more familiar with the DC bubble than I am, and comes to many of the same conclusions that I do. I'm not just making this stuff up.
In a situation where a close personal friend genuinely considered some action to be a personal betrayal, I'd try to avoid taking it even if I disagreed with his assessment. Washington, D.C. is a city where taking that approach can preclude whole classes of criticism directed at one's "own side," so stringent are the demands for a loyalty that is too broadly construed. Or else one can transgress, and be shunned by folks who were much friendlier when you agreed with them. 
Read the whole thing.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

here's the problem

The problem isn't conservatives. That's not what I worry about, when it comes to my residual hopes for real change. The screeching of pathetic drones like Rich Lowry or Kevin Williamson is expected and immaterial. They don't change, nor are they corrigible, so they are ultimately irrelevant.

No, here's the problem.

Someone called Tom Bridge takes to the tastefully gated pages of Tumblr to express some sort of formless complaint about the Occupy protests. I've read it back three times and I'm still not sure what kind of argument is being expressed here. There appears to be an annoyance that Occupy protests are "taking up our public spaces," which is a criticism that is perhaps blunted by a familiarity with the definition of "public." He doesn't like the equation of the Occupy protests with the Arab Spring. I don't either, but then this is the kind of empty, citation-and-specific-target-free complaint that you can feel free to discard at any time without prejudice. He also is apparently under the impression that a police baton feels like the gentle caress of angel hair. Beyond that... what? What is the argument here? I haven't a clue.

What's funny is that this is a perfect inversion of the typical whinge about Occupy-- you don't stand for anything! Where's your list of demands! Who is the specific Democrat whose campaign you must be supporting!

You'll note, though, that this sentiment is popular. This Tumblr post has been reblogged and Tweeted and whatever else endlessly, despite not being insightful, fair, well articulated, specific, funny, meaningful, or intelligent. It doesn't need to be. Mr. Bridge is here operating as a cog in the resentment machine, and others celebrate his piece because they are afraid of what Occupy represents: the death of the idea that you can be protected from political impotence by apathy and your cultural convictions. 

This photo is prime evidence for my conviction that anything, no matter how lame or poorly executed, can be celebrated online, as long as it speaks to some kind of base animal anxiety. For Hipster B. Cool here, the idea that politics is something that has flesh and blood consequences for humanity is a terrible affront; he and those like him have built an entire culture around self-defense mechanisms. To admit conviction is to admit the possibility of vulnerability. To admit vulnerability is to lose in the endless game of "I am on the Internet and I am better than you." So Jackof Smirnoff here doesn't have to have a point, funny jokes, meaningful criticisms or a political notion to get reblogged. He just has to reassure his "arty" koffee klatsch that they are protected and safe within the bubble of their meaningless convictions about media and culture.

I mean, really. "Call a Congressman." Yes, that's the way to create change! Remember how Congress took action after the financial crisis and all of our problems were solved? When the money stopped going to the same tiny group of rapacious financiers who drove the entire world economy to the edge of the abyss? When the unemployed got a comprehensive jobs program? When we stopped spending billions on misadventures in the Muslim world and instead stimulated the economy and rebuilt our employment base? That was sweet.

The idea that the Occupy protests have no core complaints is and has always been a pure media phenomenon. It is an invention, fobbed off on people like Tom Bridge or Beardo McNotFunny here by a media that plays them for fools. I'll say it again-- there are those who are so deeply savvy that they become immeasurably stupid. (Think almost everyone who writes for New York magazine.) Here's all you need to know. For the large majority of our country's people, the engine of economic improvement has stalled. You can look at any chart of inflation-adjusted dollars and see that for the average American worker wages have been stagnant since the early 1980s. Meanwhile, for a tiny sliver of our population, wealth has exploded beyond the dreams of avarice during the same period. And this sliver represents the same people who ruined the economy and cast millions into unemployment. What Occupy represents is the loud and angry reaction to that fact. This reaction has been deeply deserved. Meanwhile, the legislative branch which Seamus J. Ironic Mustache here supports has done nothing of substance to redress this injustice. Nothing at all.

I genuinely believe that a person like Socially Approved Facial Hair here has to look out at Occupy with a kind of existential terror. Many people out there generate their self-worth from their ability to make fun of others. And who has traditionally been an easier target than the stereotype of an Occupy protester? Hippies are the people everyone can make fun of! Unfortunately for this anonymous man with his limp satire here, Occupy is not made up of the stereotype, and it has not been met with this kind of showy superiority. Instead it has been met with cautious but genuine interest, with critical examination, and with a deep interrogation of our current way of life. This kind of genuine, unfussy, and unembarrassed consideration of values and community morals is anathema to many, but they find their influence collapsing. In the face of that, they take cheap swipes like this.

Let me say this a thousand times, let me say it a million: I will take the most horrid conservative over this, any day of the week. I will take someone who is wrong, but is wrong about something, over this desperately preening, showy nothing. I will take total commitment to incorrect values over this proud emptiness. This kind of showy cowardice, this contempt for the notion of meaning, is what it looks like when you give any control of your country or your community away, or worse, when you sell it for some cheap commodity like irony or "wit."

Put that on your Tumblr, culture bunny.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

what we mean when we talk about establishment media

Fair and balanced!

 hat tip to Shani O. Hilton, via Yglesias

Monday, October 24, 2011

we live in clarifying times

"The documentary makes it clear how repressive and brutal Gadaffi's regime is. How he has locked up and tortured thousands of his opponents. But then it takes a fascinating turn. The interviewer asks Gadaffi to explain why he has sent Libyan troops to fight with the Palestinians against Israel, and why he has sent in Libyan agents to try and overthrow President Sadat of Egypt.

In response Gadaffi launches into an explanation that countries like Libya have a duty to intervene in other nations where the ordinary people are being oppressed by autocrats or oppressive governments - and help free them. That includes helping to liberate Egypt and Tunisia....

Kouchner quickly discovered that victims could be very bad. There was an extraordinary range of ethnic groups in Kosovo.

There were:
Muslim Albanians
Orthodox Serbs
Roman Catholic Serbs
Serbian-speaking Muslim Egyptians
Albanian-speaking Muslim Gypsies - Ashkalis
Albanian-speaking Christian Gypsies - Goranis
And even - Pro-Serbian Turkish-speaking Turks

They all had vendettas with each other - which meant that they were both victims and horrible victimizers at the same time. It began to be obvious that getting rid of evil didn't always lead to the simple triumph of goodness."

-Adam Curtis, "Goodies and Baddies"

"An analysis of video obtained by GlobalPost from a rebel fighter who recorded the moment when Col. Moammar Gadhafi was first captured confirms that another rebel fighter, whose identity is unknown, sodomized the former leader as he was being dragged from the drainpipe where he had taken cover."

-Tracy Shelton, Global Post

"The Arab Spring has provided US policymakers with a set of golden opportunities to help make the Arab World a better place for its people. The time has come to think boldly of a brand new course that will help the Arab World extract itself from the malaise it has found itself in since the end of the Second World War. After the fall of Qaddafi, we should seize the momentum the West has won and help the Syrian people topple the Assad regime."
-Colonel Cedric Leyton, "Beyond Qaddafi"

There you go, Andrew. You bought your tickets. Now you know your companions. Enjoy the ride.


"In a press conference, yesterday, Libya's transitional leader Mustafa Abdul-Jalil said that Sharia law will become the 'main source' of legislation in a post-Gadhafi era."

-Eydar Peralta, NPR

Friday, October 21, 2011

understand what they're celebrating

When you've got something like Steven Pinker's latest book making the rounds, it's helpful and clarifying to look to the pathetic spectacle of yet more whooping and hollering and celebrating of death at this high tide of rational civilization. The absurd rationalizations for our appetite for bloodletting tells you all you need to know about the state of Western civilization: we love murder, bloodshed, and death, but we cover it by pretending to feel bad about it. (I'm sure you really struggled with the decision to show Qaddafi's corpse, MSNBC. Keep the fires burning.)

Nothing can match the farce of the showy, desperately affected celebration that attended the slaughter of Osama bin Laden and unnamed members of his family. ("No, really, we really do believe we're number one again! We so, so believe it! Look at the excited and happy expression I'm putting on my face!") But the usual suspects are doing as they do. The prominent members of the establishment's messaging machine provide the pseudo-intellectual justification; the tabloid press operates most honestly and stimulates the public lizard brain by giving them what they really want;  liberal members of the media provide the moral justification, and buttressed by their Lord of the Rings worldview, smack down any criticism or questioning with far more zeal than they employ against their supposed ideological enemies. There is a machine to justify our country's killing, even the killing of innocent children, it operates with great efficiency, and the ostensibly antagonistic liberal house intellectuals are in fact paid up parts of that machine.

Here is what I know more than anything else: no one who cares for Libyans themselves could see this turn of events as an ending, a conclusion, or a victory. The future is Libya could not be more unsettled, more dangerous, more precarious. What happens next is what is important, in the next month, the next six, the next year, the next five. Will a new flowering of democracy and freedom take hold? Will a new reigning military junta take hold, as appears to have happened in Egypt? Will a newly repressive Islamist state develop? Nobody knows. Nobody will know, for a long time. Those declaring victory today are doing it because they have achieved what they wanted, which is a justification for limitless American military aggression, and support for Barack Obama, one of the most unapologetic militarists in American political history.

So we know, for example, that John Heilemann doesn't actually care about Libyans at all. For him the story has concluded.

Look to the work of Andrew Sullivan in the near future. It will tell you everything about him and his agenda. Are the Libyan people his concern, or are they the means that support his actual concerns? Does he care more about Barack Obama's electoral chances than about the blood of the people that he has so ostentatiously draped around his blog for months? I'm afraid that the situation in Libya won't comport to the 2012 election cycle. Of course, for some, the important thing is merely the appearance of victory. For the "liberal interventionists," for whom the Libyan people have never actually been fully human, the material results of this situation are immaterial. They have only ever existed to support an aggressive military posture justified with a fig leaf of "humanitarian intervention." They are means to an end. The Libyan people have been instrumentalized.

Is that the truth about Andrew's regard for them? Initial reports are not encouraging. But I have hope for Andrew. I hope he will get out of the celebration business.

If your concern is for the Libyan people, you are quiet, afraid, hopeful, and unsettled. If you are interested in vindicating a strategy, if you are interested in crass partisan political concerns, if you treat living human beings as a means to an end, then you are happy and unconcerned. And with each passing day Libya will fall farther and farther away from your mind.

Update: This was too harsh on John Heilemann, who is only a symptom of a broader disease. I reiterate that it is wrong and ugly to discuss the political fallout and other US-centric issues as if there is something resembling a conclusion here, and I do believe that this tendency reveals a deeply disturbing set of priorities when it comes to the Libyan conflict.

Also, I was far too glib and mean spirited towards Adam Serwer. He's too much of a critical thinker to be dismissed in that way. The zeal with which he prosecutes his arguments against anyone on his left who questions his stances on these issues disturbs me, and I believe his certitude regarding the moral importance of killed-before-capture/captured then killed distinctions is misplaced. I have profound differences with him, obviously. I apologize for my characterization and my tone but not for my particular convictions.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

recognize administrative work in tenure decisions!

One of the sadder elements of the current difficulties in the university is just how little sway the faculty-- the people who actually disseminate and generate knowledge-- have in decisions about the fundamental structure of the university.

Here's what I mean specifically. It really does seem that, though there are a variety of factors, the biggest individual contributor to rising college costs is administrative costs. As I've told you many times, a lot of these issues are intertwined: more administrators is both a function and a cause of the rampant mission creep of universities, the rising number of activities and services that universities provide for students... which cost money. Now, part of our duty to tamp down these costs certainly involves cutting programs, which will be painful but necessary.

But there's always going to be administrative tasks that have to happen. Part of the rise in administrative costs stems from the fact that jobs that used to be performed by faculty members are now performed by dedicated administrators. That means that you've got to pay another salary and for another set of benefits, and since the university tends to give employees living wages and generous benefits packages-- to its great credit-- this is expensive. You might assume that faculty members want it to be this way, but many faculty members actually would relish the opportunity to take over some of the administrative duties that have been farmed out. (Personally, I'm pursuing a designation in writing program administration in my own doctoral program.) Benjamin Ginsberg wrote a really great primer on these issues called The Fall of the Faculty that I recommend to anyone with an interest in higher education.

A lot of the job of clawing back these appointments and responsibilities simply has to come from the upper levels of university leadership, and potentially from the state legislatures when it comes to public U's. But we also need to demonstrate to faculty that this work is valuable and valued within the institution. That's why it's imperative, if the faculty is to regain some administrative control and if we're to reduce costs, that we factor administrative duties into the tenure review process. I don't have a strict formula here-- a full year as a program admin is the same as one journal article, etc.-- but there's got to be allowance made for the fact that this is important, time-consuming work that should be professionally valued. Faculty members who feel the great pressure to publish have to know that they aren't endangering their careers by taking on this kind of work. This problem needs to be alleviated from above the faculty level, but it's also got to be addressed within the apparatus of professional advancement.

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

why Occupy Wall Street exists, reason #1,734

I'm afraid I don't know who is responsible for this image, so I can't give credit where it's due, but I thought this was too enraging not to post. (Note that the bottom story is from 2009.)

Monday, October 17, 2011

blogging is a system of control

Matt Yglesias calls attention to an interview with Glenn Greenwald. Both the interview and Yglesias's commentary on it invoke ideas that are close to my heart. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Yglesias and Greenwald are considerably more optimistic about the state of blogging than I am. In fact what's remarkable to me is that the current status of blogging is the absolute worst of both worlds from traditional media and the conditions of the early blogosphere.

The first and most important thing to understand about mainstream blogging is that it is made up of a numerically tiny and considerably homogeneous group of connected insiders. Criticisms of the prominent blogosphere are often blunted by online mythology, and that is nowhere more clear than in the idea that there is this vast swath of disparate people from different backgrounds, all of whom contribute to this open and accessible online forum where ideas are judged on merit.

The truth of the matter is that the blogosphere is largely a closed loop. The ability of individuals, particularly those dedicated to amateur blogging (out of principle or out of practicality), to penetrate the larger conversation is quite small. As Yglesias laments, the capture of the blogosphere by the media and think tank apparatus means that there are now a whole host of gatekeepers who rigorously police the online discussion and determine which voices are heard. It's hard to think of anyone who has come up in prominence the last few years who was not quickly co-opted into the service of a large media or political entity. This ensures that those who participate in the prominent blogosphere (the "official" conversation) are from a very limited set of backgrounds, both personal and ideological. Because mainstream media publications and major political organizations draw from only those blessed by the shambling apparatus of American achievement, those who make it in now are almost all coming from the world of status games, big name colleges, and perennial overachievement-- a subset of our young people that has far more in common, demographically and ideologically, than it has in difference. And because mainstream media and our political policy edifice are dedicated to the protection of a particular economic system and strata, getting in also means kowtowing to a narrow range of political argument. As is usual in our politics the appearance of internal disagreement gives cover for a broad conformity of ideas.

I am aware that, if this critique penetrates, it will speak against exactly what I am arguing. And I don't mean to suggest that the system is beyond reform, or that the broad conditions I'm describing don't permit exceptions. The question is whether the system is conducive to internal critique, whether ideas like mine could ever exceed my small readership, and whether this kind of criticism could come from someone who has not been met with considerable opprobrium.

Then there is the system of social control that I have long identified. The world of elite media and politics is dominated by social relationships. The environment in which most of these people work and live is a small fishbowl in which the connected and influential rub shoulders all the time. It's an open secret that those from supposedly antagonistic political backgrounds socialize together. There's nothing wrong with that in any specific instance of friendship and camaraderie, and even I'm not critic enough to suggest that people shouldn't be friends. (Indeed, it's precisely that this social environment is so natural, human, and understandable that makes addressing its consequences tricky.) But in aggregate you get a tremendous amount of social capture, and it has real relevance. Those who have social commitments to their ideological enemies have great incentive to moderate their political messages and express disagreement in particular and anodyne terms that lead towards certain outcomes in discussion. My standard example is the case of health care reform, a straightforwardly moral issue where the moral argument was often ignored in favor of a bloodless policy argument. In an environment where the public was often skeptical of or hostile towards particular policy details about health care reform, the refusal to speak about the need for that reform in unambiguously moral terms was a tremendous failure by the liberal messaging machine. I have no doubt that this failure was caused in part by the discomfort many connected liberal bloggers felt in expressing moral condemnation of the selfsame conservatives and libertarians they were drinking buddies with.

(You'll note that a lot of these problems could be avoided if the DC media and policy system was decentralized. Obviously, there's got to be a central locus of national government, and that requires a DC press corp. But in the Internet age, the vast majority of policy people have no legitimate need to reside in DC. Many of the media and think tank operations currently operating out of Washington could be removed from that environment without any meaningful impact on their ability to analyze, explain, or advocate. These institutions remain where they are, I think, primarily out of inertia and drift.)

There are exceptions. Greenwald has remained independent, and his geographical distance from DC is both symbolically and practically important. Atrios is truly independent, buttressed by his longevity and grandfathered in from a time when you could be prominent without being attached to any particular legitimizing institution. And there are of course plenty of voices that are smart and principled and worthwhile operating within the bounds of the conventional, approved ideological range. Being within the enforced political boundaries doesn't render someone unprincipled, unworthy of being listened to, or illegitimate. It's just that there are tons of those voices in the establishment blogosphere, almost none from outside the approved alternatives, and the common assumption that there is great disagreement and ideological diversity is the kind of distortion that has negative consequences.

As usual, this is a critique that people will think I am making with great personal judgment, and as usual I'm actually not. (Actually, the insistence on the personal origin of system-wide critique is one of the ways the system is protected.) I have a great deal of sympathy for a lot of the young people who come up into the political media world. People who have legitimate and noble desire to live and work in this environment aren't bad people in any sense. But they face an environment that relentlessly influences their political makeup and steers them again and again towards establishment orthodoxy. From the minute young politicos emerge into the DC system, they are taught the importance of coloring within the lines and of not rocking the boat socially. The message that is delivered unambiguously is that those who want to make a life and career in these fields must do so by playing ball and deferring to authority, convention, and the social authority. I'm sure many who have gone through the process or are going through it now could diagnose the problem far better than I can. But if they want to remain in the game, they have to play by the rules, and so you see their dilemma. The end result is that generations of passionate young people arrive fiery and combative, ready to buck the system, and leave as creatures of that system. It's perverse.

You should note that the personal doesn't have to operate in the actual social sphere for social conditioning to happen. Razib Khan mentioned me in a post earlier this year that I think is indicative of a certain kind of subtle control. Khan is right that I have a certain reputation, to the degree that anyone thinks about me online at all. (Which isn't much.) But note that he is both describing reality and reinforcing that reality. When someone like Khan speaks obliquely about bad reputations, he is reinforcing the idea of "blogosphere as high school," and further separating the officially condoned from the officially excluded. People are very aware of these kinds of cues, and they are all over the place in blogs. I imagine that Khan or others enforcing these social constraints would say that my reputation is the product of my conduct and not of the content of my opinions, but I find this divide totally illusory. People with fringe views are constantly buffeted with accusations of bad interpersonal conduct. But there's nowhere that the ideological ends and the social begins. People who hold ideas that are outside of the narrow partisan boilerplate will inevitable be accused of violating some sort of community standards, when in fact the reason for their marginalization is the unpopularity of their ideas.

(You'll note that these are not mutually exclusive. It could be that I both have a bad reputation because I don't conform to narrow political constraints and also that I'm an asshole.)

Finally, one of the most important mechanisms of control is the cone of silence. I've been making some version or another of this argument for the four years or so that I've been blogging. And while I've gotten some limited attention to some of the issues that I've written about in that time, I've gotten no purchase whatsoever for the ideas presented in this post. I am sure people disagree with my opinions on how blogs work, but I've never read any counterargument. I don't mean that I've never agreed with arguments against my ideas. I mean that I've literally never encountered one. I am unaware of anyone even trying to rebut me here. That doesn't mean that I'm right, but it does mean that these ideas go undiscussed and thus unamplified.

The point isn't that people should be paying attention to me and my ideas specifically. The point is that when such a small number of people account for such a large amount of the linking and commentary that creates discussion points, there's tremendous opportunity for unapproved ideas to disappear into the ether of an intentional lack of attention. Arguments don't need to be rebutted in a context where they can be effectively ignored. In fact the very act of rebuttal suggests that an idea has at least merit enough to require argument. An ignored argument enjoys no such legitimacy.

I'm not alleging coordinated conspiracy here. People don't email each other and say "shh, nobody respond to such and such argument, it's too uncomfortable for our social circle." It's just the natural consequence of symmetry in the professional and social needs of influential and connected people. Impolite and impolitic ideas are excluded by bloggers of influence because that is human nature. The conformity and homogeneity of bloggers of influence means that most will find the same ideas impolite and impolitic. Conspiracy isn't necessary when mutual necessity will do. The end result is an arena of ideas that is neither open nor varied nor democratic nor fair.

Now, in the interest of self-disclosure: as a graduate student, I am myself part of a system that suggests broad political and ideological latitude for its constituents that nevertheless influences and corrupts personal opinion endlessly. I think that the controls are far more subtle and effectively less noxious than those within the political realm, but as a paid-up (in all but the literal sense, I'm sorry to say) member of that system I am of course inclined to think that. I express no criticism here that wouldn't in one way or the other be an apt description of the compromises I make all the time in my own quest to professionalize. It's just that my own petty corruptions don't help to dictate the political policy of the United States.

Saturday, October 15, 2011

the resentment machine in action

If you'd like to see an absolutely perfect, absolutely dreadful display of what I was talking about, see the comments on this post.

I mean, Jesus.

Kate Bolick's piece in the Atlantic

1. About that piece-- first, read Phoebe Malz, Amanda Marcotte, and this interview with Edith Zimmerman.

2. I really do think that this is a story that makes perfect sense to what is in context a tiny sliver of people, and would seem totally inscrutable to a lot of other people. That's just my intuition. I think if you are among a certain social strata and you live in a particular kind of urban enclave with particular dating dynamics and particular assumptions about gender roles and a particular type of educated, socially liberal, and ambitious participants, this all sounds like the world around you. I think for most Americans, let alone most of the world, this kind of article causes people to say "...what?" The most glaring problem with American media is that it is written by people who genuinely believe that their neighborhood is the world. And most of them live in the same half-dozen neighborhoods.

3. Marcotte's point needs to be repeated and extended. Writers of all stripes enjoy engaging in the most cynical readings of human behavior because they think it makes them appear hyper-rational. But in fact here is a perfect example of how trying to achieve that makes you irrational. Human emotion is real. It is an observable phenomenon. It observably influences behavior. Therefore to fail to account for it when discussing coupling and relationships is the opposite of cold rationality; it is in fact a failure of empiricism. Speaking as a social scientist (in training), for someone to write about human romantic and sexual relationships without reference to the reality of human emotions-- that is, that people feel love, affection, desire, lust, and other imprecise but physiologically observable phenomena-- is a profound mistake when trying to fully interpret the world of relationships. You don't get credit for a showy cynicism when that cynicism results in poor ethnography.

4. My least favorite aspect of contemporary long-form journalism: "as I am, so must be the world." I don't understand why an intelligent and educated woman like Bolick is so resistant of saying "this is the choice that I've made; others will and should make different choices themselves." Reference to evolutionary psychology is the last refuge of a lazy writer. I celebrate the fact that Bolick feels that she doesn't need to get married. I wish she had the confidence necessary to express that idea without having to make it seem as though it is the only valid choice, and one that is insisted on by evolution. Real confidence stems from the recognition that others make different choices than you do and remaining secure in your own choice; fake confidence insists that others cannot make choices different than the ones you've made, or that they are fooling themselves, or living a lie, or whatever else.

That's the persistent and sad subtext of Bolick's piece. She insists that she is comfortable with her choice, and yet she feels the need to justify her choice in ways that undermine that insistence. Saying "evolution makes me do it" is exactly the opposite of expressing confidence in a choice. It instead is denying that a choice was made at all. I celebrate that more and more women are choosing to stay single if that's what they want, and I hope that the cultural assumption that an unmarried woman is an unhappy woman continues to erode. But the fact that it requires a 4,000 word essay in the Atlantic tells us that this is still not a fully accepted phenomenon yet. I'll recognize victory when a woman as accomplished as Bolick doesn't need to spend so much time justifying her choice.

5. Here's why I think she's on the cover of the issue of the Atlantic in which her recent story appears: I think she is on the cover, and in pictures inside the story, because she is writing about her superior desirability to the men whom she might potentially partner with. And I think that in order to make that possible, she and the Atlantic need to show that she's attractive. And she is. If there were no pictures of her, that would be the question on most people's minds: what does she look like?

That, in and of itself, tells you a lot. Bolick can convey socially-relevant information about the relative desirability of the men she's talking about in the article, with words. She can write about education and ambition and drive and money and whatever else, and that says enough to make the point. But Bolick's desirability can't be meaningfully conveyed without showing what she looks like. For all the talk of the declining fortunes of men relative to women, and how women are gaining the upper hand in the romantic and sexual marketplace, women's desirability continues to be largely determined by their physical appearance. I wish Bolick's accomplishments were enough to convey her desirability, but the cold calculus her editors performed in putting her on the cover says otherwise.

As with Hannah Rosin's "The End of Men," this strikes me as an article that superficially details victory for women while the context in which it emerges reminds us of how far we still have to go.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

I'll tell you, one thing that I appreciate about getting older, you really do learn to let go of your own bullshit.

It's not that life stops being full of day-to-day indignities for you and injustice for those in a worse station than you, it's just that you can learn how to give yourself a break. You really do come to understand which of your responsibilities are real responsibilities, and which of them is nonsense that you've self-imposed out of some combination of genuine concern and self-importance. I don't even think that it's a matter of losing ideological purity, or anything like that. I think it's a matter of recognizing that you can't do any good for the real, important causes if you are so busy beating yourself up about illusory commitments.

And you do count your blessings. When I was younger I could rage about injustice but had no perspective on how profoundly fortunate I was, or was becoming. I knew to say it always, like a preemptive strike, and I insisted on it in the academic sense. It has taken a rehabilitation of myself in my own mind to realize that good fortune in anything like a profound or meaningful way. My self-hatred and self-inflicted problems, I've come to realize, were not the mark of someone wrestling with an unjust world but were rather an attempt to crowd it out. 

The bias is always towards saying that you'd prefer to be your own age rather than younger. Most of us want to be younger, after all, but know that we're supposed to say that we're happy where we are. I'm not sure I can say either way. Here at 30, all I can tell you is that I am so much more of a healthy and fulfilled person than I was at 25, and I wouldn't trade this perspective for anything. 25 included. I'm trying to make 30 an age of letting go.

Sunday, October 9, 2011

what to do for the young, debt-ridden and jobless

Some people have read my piece on Occupy Wall Street as being more critical or unfeeling towards recent college graduates than I intended. I don't take back anything that I said in that post, but I want to point out that the point wasn't and isn't that these people don't have legitimate grievances, or that we shouldn't take their problems seriously. Some constructive ideas:
  1. First, I have argued that college costs need to be reined in, perhaps dramatically, since before the financial crisis and the attendant hit in employment rates for college grads. I wrote a piece here on that issue. The takeaway, for me, is threefold: first, stop the rampant expansion in administrative costs at universities, which are the primary driver of tuition increases, in large part by second reducing the vast array of services that colleges are offering that, whatever their merits, are tangential to the educational mission, which is itself a part of the third element, stopping the manic physical expansion and focus on facilities, beautification, and high-cost/high-maintenance construction.
  2. You can certainly find far, far more educated and nuanced discussion of Keynesian economics elsewhere, but I do believe in the general Keynesian countercyclical economic model as endorsed by Paul Krugman et al, and I think properly executed fiscal and monetary stimulus could do a world of good for our job market. (Unlike Krugman et al, I don't think the failure by policy elites to enact that kind of stimulus is a product of short-term political forces but rather is due to an endemic capture of the policy apparatus by our financial and banking system.)
  3. Personally, broad student loan forgiveness strikes me as a sound policy both ethically and from a stimulus standpoint. You wouldn't have to make it complete, but could agree to waive some percentage or some fixed value off of anyone's load debt. I understand the sense in which this seems to punish those who paid off their loans, and I also know that the deficit hawks would howl. But this is indeed a great burden on our young adults, and I don't see a moral hazard problem per se when it comes to student loans.
Update: A commenter sends along this link to an argument against student load forgiveness from Justin Wolfers. My theory is that Wolfers has a lot of student loan debt himself, or his children do, so while his economic mind opposes the idea, it would be personally better for him if student loan forgiveness passed. That's the only explanation I can offer for why he would express seemingly sound ideas in such an irritating tone. I don't know, seems like loan forgiveness would be a bad idea, but golly. Scraping together a little sympathy for these people wouldn't make your arguments less valid, and would do your tone a world of good.

Incidentally, Wolfers's piece utilizes my least favorite bit of political illogic, the part where he say
Do this once, and what will happen in the next recession? More lobbying for free money, rather than doing something socially constructive.  Moreover, if these guys succeed, others will try, too. And we’ll just get more spending in the least socially productive part of our economy—the lobbying industry.
Except, well, no. This kind of argument gets bandied about all the time, and it happens because when the future actually arrives, nobody remembers this hogwash and bothers to refute it. Look at it this way. We were in recession. Obama got a stimulus passed. We may have slid back into recession already or may be about to. Does that mean we're going to get more stimulus? Anybody who is politically engaged would say no. That's because things change. The political situation changes, conditions on the ground change. "If we do this now we are required to do it again," or "we did it then so we must do it again now" are arguments nobody makes, thanks to their complete emptiness, so using the prediction of those arguments to preempt potential policy is equally empty.

Finally, Wolfers is disingenuous when he says
Notice the political rhetoric?  Give free money to us, rather than “corporations, millionaires and billionaires.”  Opportunity cost is one of the key principles of economics. And that principle says to compare your choice with the next best alternative.  Instead, they’re comparing it with the worst alternative.  So my question for the proponents: Why give money to college grads rather than the 15% of the population in poverty?
 This would be more convincing, and much closer to that cutting tone Wolfers is so transparently trying (and failing) to achieve, were the "worst possible alternative" not, in fact, the status quo. Wolfers is speaking here as if government supporting the richest and corporations over more progressive alternatives is some lame straw man. It is in fact standard operating procedure, as he is well aware.

Friday, October 7, 2011

solidarity first, then fear for this movement's future

One of the frustrations of being a left-wing activist is that the admirable self-critiquing aspect of left-wing discourse often makes organization difficult. I put in years and countless hours in the antiwar movement in the mid-2000's. (I don't organize myself, anymore, although I feel plenty guilty about it.) Back in those days I was constantly frustrated by the smart liberal people I met who were dedicated and articulate opponents of the Iraq war who refused to ever sign on to any public show of support. The reason was often that they could express some fairly convincing critique of any given protest, group, or movement. Fairly convincing, that is, but not nearly proportional to the great necessity of opposing our invasion and occupation of Iraq.

There is frequently a tendency in left-wing circles to fail to see the forest for the trees when it comes to political expression. If you feel the way that I feel, opposing the war in Iraq, as with opposing the continuing capture of our political process by moneyed interests, is a matter of exigence and necessity. If you wait around for the perfect moment, the perfect movement, the perfect march, the perfect rally, and the perfect protesters, you will never protest anything. You will make the perfect the enemy of the alright and effectively self-censor. Yes, goals matter, process matters, message matters. First you take the streets. That's what people in right-wing protest movements know. First you take the streets. Perfect doesn't happen and you can't wait for it. You find the change that must happen and you advocate for it as fiercely as you are able. The self-critiquing aspect of liberalism is of great value to me, and I recognize that what I'm describing stems from that. But change can't come without accepting the non-ideal.

So let me say off the bat that I am in broad solidarity with the Occupy Wall Street movement, that I celebrate the spirit of resistance for its own sake, that I welcome the recognition that our finance and banking sectors are the cause of a huge portion of our problems, and that I am thrilled at the existence of a genuine left-wing resistance movement. Those things come first. They matter most.

That commitment and solidarity expressed, I'm disturbed by a recent development in the Occupy Wall Street movement. I keep seeing photos of people holding signs, or watching interviews with people, or reading blog posts or on Facebook, that express some measure of this: the problem is that young college graduates have lots of student loan debt and can't get jobs, and so now they're taking to the streets. And to me, if that is the message here, heaven help us.

Here's a post by Mike Konczal that illustrates this idea. Here's Jonathan Alter expressing similar sentiment. Here is a piece from Reuters that explores some of these issues. This idea is all over if you look for it.

Consider what the idea here is: that this protest becomes something worth considering when and only when it becomes about those who are most visible. Only when the young and college educated begin to express grievance, and only when that grievance concerns their material wealth and opportunity, do the protests begin to take off. It is extremely disturbing to me how quickly a movement opposing our system of prestige and wealth becomes a movement about those who thought they were entitled to succeed in that system. Complaining that a college education hasn't moved you into the material comfort and social strata you wanted isn't an argument against this system; it's a complaint about the outcome of the system that tacitly asserts the value of that system. When someone says "I have a law degree and I work as a barista," the necessary assumption of that statement is that their law degree entitles them to a certain material and social privilege. That privilege is precisely what animates the system they say they are protesting.

If the message is "I went to college and I don't have the job and the car and the lifestyle I was promised," then none of this means anything. These complaints, I'm sorry to say, are ultimately a way of saying "I didn't get mine." That's not a rejection of our failing order. It is an embrace of it in the most cynical terms.

The educated unemployed young deserve better from our system, it's true. Recapturing some of the vast portion of wealth that flowed to the richest in the last decades will help them, and they are right to ask for that. But this country cannot be fixed by wishing to go back to the economics of 2005. The problem with our model is that it is inherently unjust and inherently unsustainable. Yes, we must take back from the wealthiest what they have taken. But we also must understand that defining success or failure based on who gets what level of security and luxury is to fall right back into the materialist trap that has created this system.

I have great sympathy for the people of my generation and those a little younger than me, as they are emerging from a childhood where they were told that they could have whatever they wanted into a world where they can't. But they must recognize that the problem was always the promise, and not the failure to get what was promised. You can't, actually, have everything you want. You are not entitled to the life you have dreamed. And we are not so wealthy that we can all live in opulence. If the goal is merely to restore the condition of the previous two decades and add more people to the ranks of the middle class, then that is the problem reasserting itself. After all, wages have been stagnant for decades. But the educated class was bought off by the widespread "prosperity" provided by endless easy credit and the phony growth of bubbles and illusory housing wealth. Those protesting because they thought they were entitled to a house and consumer electronics are announcing that they want to be bought off again.

To mean anything, this movement must be a movement that opposes both the means and the ends of the contemporary American engine of "success," both out of a conviction that it is unfair and that it is unsustainable.. It cannot merely be a complaint about outcomes.

All popular movements are more likely to fail than to succeed. This is the reality of power, the momentum of entrenched systems, and the truth of where power resides in capitalist democracy-- in capital, and not the people. But if this movement becomes merely about the failure of our system to provide our educated young people with the material goods they thought they were entitled to, it will be a victim of a kind of philosophical suicide. The reality is that the rampant materialism of the past order was unsustainable on its own terms, even absent a moral critique. That we cannot return to that system is non-normative, but merely descriptive; it is neither left nor right wing but rather simple reality. Many of these people seem to have entitlement to material goods so ingrained into their core philosophy that they cannot imagine an alternative.  But an alternative is what we must develop, not because of what any of us wants but because of cold reality. If their antipathy for Wall Street is merely anger that the old system has failed to give them the life of their dreams, they will switch targets until they run out. Eventually they might find that there can be no protest because no one can restore that empty and unhealthy dream.

A new order is possible but it can only be a genuinely new order, and it cannot carry with it the empty promise of boundless wealthy that preceded it. If this protest becomes a complaint about what people thought they deserved and didn't get then the movement has been strangled in its crib.

Wednesday, October 5, 2011

Remember Fred Shuttlesworth

A hero died today. The Reverend Fred Shuttlesworth was not merely a prominent and important leader of the Civil Rights era. He was a repeated victim of terrible violence who remained dedicated to nonviolence and a symbol of what genuine courage represents-- the refusal to compromise ones principles in the face of fear. His courage in the face of physical danger is an inspiration to all of us. Read his obituary.

I've chosen to use this mugshot of Shuttlesworth because to me it symbolizes how oppression and adversity can reveal strength, and how defiance in and of itself can be a kind of grace. As the Times obituary recounts, Shuttlesworth was arrested dozens of times, brutally assaulted, targeted by politicians and police, and the victim of repeated attempted murder. He neither backed down nor succumbed to cynicism or the use of violence himself.

What's more, Shuttlesworth demonstrates that pacifism is natural partners with radicalism, pugnacity, and a refusal to compromise. Malcolm X and Martin Luther King are such toweringly complex and symbolically rich figures-- and our public consciousness has such little space for history-- that there is an unfortunate tendency to think of the Civil Rights movement as being defined only by the conciliatory message of King and the combative message of Malcolm X. This itself is a reductive reading of history. But Shuttlesworth was at once dedicated to the vehicle of nonviolence that King espoused and yet was fiery and obstinate as well. And he came from the same poor background that defined the lives of many of the black Americans living during the Civil Rights era and continues to define the lives of too many today.

A culture makes choices in the virtues it celebrates. What is celebrated determines what is valued and what is valued determines what endures. It is necessary for us to remember men like Fred Shuttlesworth, and in doing so to remember that what should endure in memory is real heroism, real sacrifice, and real principle.

Tuesday, October 4, 2011

the resentment machine

Note: the post appears, in a somewhat updated form, at The New Inquiry.

The popular adoption of the Internet brought with it great changes. Communication, commerce, media, and government had already each been impacted by the earlier Internet and proto-Internet technologies that were developed as early as the 1960s. But these were truly transformed, often quite radically and in relatively short order, following the broadening of access and sudden media attention of the mid-1990s.

Many of these changes-- reported accurately, greatly exaggerated, or outright invented-- have been recounted by those who have embraced the Internet most fully. One of the peculiar aspects of this particular technological revolution is that it has been historicized in real time. In a strange type of autoethnography, those most taken with the popular Internet of the late 90's and early 2000's spent a considerable amount of their time online talking about what it meant that they were online. As impressive as the various changes wrought by the exponential growth of Internet users were, they never seemed quite impressive enough for those who trumpeted them. In straightforwardly self-aggrandizing narratives, the most dedicated and involved Internet users began crafting a pocket mythology of the new reality. Rather than regarding themselves as consumers of a unique set of interesting and productive technologies, the most dedicated Internet users spoke instead of revolution. Vast, life altering consequences were predicted for these rising technologies. In much the same way that those speaking about the importance of New York are often actually speaking about the importance of themselves, so those who crafted the oral history of the Internet were often really talking about their own revolutionary potential. Not that this was without benefits; self-obsession became a vehicle for an intricate literature on emergent online technology.

Yet for all of the endless consideration of the rise of the digitally connected human species, the sociology in real time that has documented and dissected every minute evolution of the Web, one of the most important aspects of Internet culture has gone almost entirely unnoticed.

The Internet has provided tremendous functionality in a variety of contexts. But for a comparatively small but vastly influential group of its most dedicated users, its most important feature, the killer app, is its power as an all purpose sorting mechanism, one that separates the worthy from the unworthy-- and, in doing so, gives some meager semblance of purpose to generations whose lives are largely defined by purposelessness. For the post-collegiate, culturally savvy taste makers who exert such disproportionate influence on the Internet as it is experienced, the online world is above and beyond all else a resentment machine.

The vehicle of modern American achievement  prepares thousands of upwardly mobile young strivers for everything but the life they will actually encounter. The endlessly grinding wheel of American "success" indoctrinates a competitive vision in our young people that most of them never seem to escape. The numbing and frenetic socioacademic sorting mechanism compels most of the best and the brightest adolescents in our middle and upper class to compete for various laurels from puberty to adulthood. Every aspect of young adult life is transformed into a status game, as academics, athletics, music and the arts, travel, hobbies, and philanthropy are all reduced to fodder for college applications. This instrumentalizing of all of the best things in life teach teenagers the unmistakable lesson that nothing is to be enjoyed, nothing experienced purely, but rather that each and every part of human life is ultimately fodder for what is less human. The eventual eats the immediate. No achievement, no effort, no relationship is to exist as an end itself. Each must be ground into chum to attract those who confer status and success. As has been documented endlessly, this process starts earlier and earlier. Far less attention has been paid to what comes next.

It is of course possible to keep running on the wheel indefinitely. There are those professions (think: finance) that extend the status contests of childhood and adolescence into the gray years, and to one degree or the other, most people play some version for most of their lives. But for a large chunk of the striving class, this kind of naked careerism and straightforward neediness won't do. They have been raised to compete, and endlessly conditioned to measure themselves against their peers, but they have done so in an environment that denies this reality while it creates it. Many of them were raised by self-consciously creative parents who wished for children who were similarly creative in ethos if not in production. These parents operated in a context that told them to nurture beautiful unique butterflies while simultaneously reminding them, in that incessant subconscious way that is the secret strength of capitalism, that their job as parents is to raise their children to win.

It is no surprise that the urge to rear winners trumps the urge to raise artists. But the nagging drive to preach the value of culture does not go unnoticed. The urge to create, and to live with an aesthetic sense, is admirable, and if inculcated genuinely-- which is to say, in defiant opposition to the competitive urge, rather than as an uneasy partner to it-- this romantic artistic vision of life remains the best hope for humanity against the deadening drift of late capitalism. In the context in which this cheery and false vision of the artistic life is actually experienced, self-conscious creativity becomes sublimated into the competitive project and becomes twisted. Those raised with such contradictory impulses are left unable to contemplate the stocks and suspenders lifestyle that is the purest manifestation of the competitive instinct, but they are equally unable to cast off the social climbing aspirations that this lifestyle represents. They are trapped between their rejection of the means and an unchosen but deep hunger for the ends.

Momentum can be a cruel thing. High school culminates in college acceptance. This temporary victory can often be hollow, but the fast pace of life quickly leads that emptiness in the dust. Students at college enjoy a variety of tools to manage the competitive urge. Some find, in the exclusive activities, clubs, and societies of elite colleges, an acceptable proxy for high school competition. Some attack collegiate academics with the zeal that they once applied to high school. Some pursue medical school, law school, an MBA, or (for the truly damned) a Phd. Most dull the urge by persisting in a four or five year fugue of alcohol, friendship, and rarefied living. But all that survive eventually emerge from college and find a disordered world.

As dehumanizing and vulgar as the high school glass bead game is, it certainly provides to adolescents a kind of order. That the system is inherently biased and riotously unfair is ultimately besides the point. In the many explicit ways in which high school students are ranked emerges a broad consensus: there is an order to life, that order indicates value, and there are winners and losers. The end of college brings an end to that order, and for many, this is bewildering. Educated but broadly ignorant of suffering, scattershot in their passions, possessed of verbal dexterity but bereft of the experience that might give their words meaning, 20-something culture bunnies wander into a world that is supposed to be made for them and find it inhospitable. Without the rigid ordering that grades, class rank, leadership and office provide, the incessant and unnamed urge to compete cannot be easily addressed. The vague cultural liberalism that surrounds their lives like a haze makes the careers that promise similar sorting unpalatable. The economic resentment and petty greed that they have had bred into them by the sputtering machine of American capitalism makes lower class life unthinkable.

Driven by the primacy of the competitive urge, and convinced that they need far more material goods than they do to live a comfortable life, they get jobs. Most of them will find some gainful employment without great difficulty. Perhaps this is changing, as the tires on the Trans Am that is America go bald, and the entitlement that attends their horror at a poor job market tells you more than anything, but the numbers indicate that most still find their way into jobs that become careers. Many or most will have periods of arty unemployed urbanism, but after awhile the gremlin begins whispering "you are a loser," and suddenly, they're placing that call to Joel from Sociology 205 who's got that connection at that office. Often, these office jobs will enjoy the cover of orbiting in some vaguely creative endeavor like advertising. One way or the other, these jobs become careers in the loaded sense. In these careers, the find themselves in precisely the position that they long insisted they would never contemplate.

The competitive urge still pulses. It has to; the culture in which they have been raised has denied them any other framework with which to draw meaning. The world has assimilated the rejection of religion, tradition, and other determinants of virtue that attended the 1960s and wedded it to a vicious contempt for the political commitments that replaced them in that context. Culture convinces our young adults, or rather preempts the kind of conscious understanding that attends to conviction, that all traditional designations of meaning are uncool. If straightforward discussion of virtue and righteousness is socially unpalatable, straightforward political engagement is worse still. Pushed by an advertising industry that embraces tropes of meaning just long enough to render them meaningless (Budweiser clydesdales saluting fallen towers), and buffeted by arbiters of hipness that declare any unapologetic embrace of political ideology horribly cliche, a fussy specificity envelops every definition of the self. Conventional accounts of the kids these days revert to tired tropes about disaffection and irony. The reality is sadder: they are not passionless but rather have invested their passion in a shared cultural knowledge that denies the value of any other endeavor worthy of personal investment.

Without the traditional tools with which the self is defined, they turn towards the technology that they have been assured holds the key to all futures.

Where else would people who believe in the artistry of their young lives but lack the ability to create turn but the Internet? There have been many brilliant and despicable turns by the anonymous architects of late capitalism, but none is more effective or pernicious than the rise of the self-as-consumer. Contemporary strivers lack the tools through which people in the past have differentiated themselves from their peers: they live in a post-virtue, post-religion, post-aristocracy age; they lack the skills or inspiration to create something of genuine worth; they have been conditioned to find all but the most conventional and compromised politics worthy of contempt; they even are denied the cold comfort of identification with career, as they cope with the deadening tedium and meaninglessness of work by calling attention to it over and over again, as if acknowledging it somehow elevates them above it.

Into this vacuum comes a relief that is profoundly rational in context: the self as consumer and critic.

Part of the cruel genius of capitalism lies in its ability to make all activity within it seem natural and inevitable. What we describe as "consumption" can be seen from orbit as an incredibly complicated interchange, created by elite institutions, enforced quite literally with the threat of violence, propped up by states and coercive governments, and generally as far from a state of nature as is possible. Yet the steady accumulation of monetary exchanges over the course of life conditions each of us to see consumption as an inextricable part of our being.

Given the emptiness of the material conditions of their lives, the formerly manic competitors must come to invest the cultural goods they consume with great meaning. Meaning must be made somewhere; no one will countenance standing for nothing. So the poor proxy of media and cultural consumption comes to define the individual. In many ways, cultural products such as movies, music, clothes, and media are the perfect vehicle for the endless division of people into strata of knowingness, savvy, and cultural value. These cultural products have no quantifiable values, yet their relative value is fiercely debated as if some such quantifiable understanding could be reached. They are easily mined for ancillary content, the TV recaps and record reviews and endless fulminating in comments and forums that spread like weeds. (Does anyone who watches Mad Men-- I'm a fan-- not blog about it?) They are bound up with celebrity, both real and petty. They can inspire and so trick us into believing that our reactions are similarly worthy of inspiration. And they are complex and varied enough that there is always more to know and more rarefied territory to reach, the better to climb the ladder one rung higher than the person the next desk over.

There is a problem, though. The value-through-what-is-consumed is entirely illusory. There is no there there. This is what you can really learn about a person by understanding his or her cultural consumption, the movies, music, fashion, media, and assorted other socially inflected ephemera: nothing. Absolutely nothing. The Internet writ large is desperately invested in the idea that liking, say, the Wire says something of depth and importance about the liker, and certainly that the preference for this show to CSI tells everything. Likewise the Internet exists to perpetuate the idea that there is some meaningful difference between fans of this band or that, or Android and Apple, or that there is a Slate lifestyle and a This Recording lifestyle and one for Gawker or the Hairpin or wherever. Not a word of it is true. There are no Apple people. Buying an iPad does nothing to delineate you from anyone else. Nothing separates a Budweiser man from a microbrew guy. That our society insists that there are differences here is only our longest con.

This endless posturing, pregnant with anxiety and roiling with class resentment, ultimately pleases no one. There are a vast number of websites and blogs devoted to media, culture, and fashion. When was the last time that you read one and emerged refreshed by the joy and authenticity of expression that you encountered? How many pieces do you have to read before you accumulate the satisfaction necessary for a single genuine smile? Yet this emptiness doesn't compel people to turn away from the sorting mechanism. Instead, it seduces them into drawing further and further in.

This is why the resentment machine is concerned with resentment. The bitterness that surrounds these distinctions is a product of their inability to actually make us distinct. Nothing is so endlessly provoking to us as those who are most like us, and the reality is that there is little to separate the cultural signifiers of postcollegiate middle class upwardly-oriented-if-not-upwardly-mobile Americans. But, again, people feel there is nowhere else to turn, so they invest more and more of themselves in what they consume. Faced with the failure of their cultural affinities to define an authentic and fulfilling self, they double down on the importance of those affinities, and confront the continued failure with a formless resentment.

The savviest of the media and culture websites tap into this resentment as directly as they dare. They write endlessly about what is overrated. They assign specific and damning personality traits to the fan bases of unworthy cultural objects. They invite comments that tediously parse microscopic distinctions in cultural consumption. They engage in criticism as a kind of preemptive strike against those who actually create. They glamorize pettiness in aesthetic taste. The few artistic works they lionize are praised to the point of absurdity, as various acolytes try to outdo each other in hyperbole. They relentlessly push the central narrative that their readers crave, that consumption is achievement and that creators are to be distrusted and "put in their place." They deny the frequently sad but inescapable reality that consumption is not creation and that only the genuinely creative act can reveal the self.

This, then, is the role of the resentment machine: to amplify meaningless differences and assign to them vast importance for the quality of individuals. For those who are writing the most prominent parts of the Internet-- the bloggers, the trendsetters, the uber-Tweeters, the tastemakers, the linkers, the creators of memes and online norms-- online life is taking the place of the creation of the self, and doing so poorly.

This all sounds quite critical, I'm sure, and there is criticism to go around. But ultimately, this is a critique I include myself in, or nearly enough. More to the point, for this to approach real criticism I would have to offer an alternative to those trapped in the idea of the consumer as self. I haven't got one. Our system has relentlessly denied the role of any human practice that cannot be monetized. The capitalist apparatus has worked tirelessly to commercialize everything, to reduce every aspect of human life to currency exchange. In such a context, there is no hope for the survival of the fully realized self.