Tuesday, October 2, 2012

requests, easy and difficult

My father use to say that, in a free country, you say what you want to say and then attach your name to it. So I've never tried to hide my identity; I think that's what basic intellectual honesty requires. And it's true that I have an online presence that is connected to my academic identity, which I mostly try to keep separate. My political views do not inform my teaching or my research, to the degree such a thing is possible. I know how the Internet works, and I've never been naive enough to think that I could create a firewall. But I have always hoped that people will recognize when parts of my academic and professional life are not germane to my political views and acted accordingly.

For a long while now, people have used my separate lives against me. It is very common for people to email me and say "what would School X have to say about this post?" It is also common for people to mutter darkly about my disconnected academic life in the comments of other places. (Take, for example, the comments at this literally and comprehensively nonresponsive post at the Mahablog.) Very often, these are merely an attempt to undermine me in a petty way, to add a hint of real danger, to invoke a kind of "I know who you really are and so you better watch it" tone. As a graduate student, I am vulnerable in many ways, but I usually brush these off. But sometimes it's a little darker. I have had, for example, people post in my comments not only with the typical "as a graduate student at School X, you should...," or to name my field, but actually to list the particular professors I am studying under, as well as their email addresses. This is one of the very few instances where I will delete a comment. Other behaviors that I think are untoward include bombarding academic sites where I have a presence with comments that are totally unrelated to the issues at hand at those sites. But I'm a big boy.

However, within the last two days, emailers have consistently insisted that they will cross a line that I frankly thought never would be. I am working under the assumption that it is one person sockpuppeting, but it could be a few loons working in coordination. I have to make a request, knowing full well that it could easily backfire and result in people doing this more: please do not contact people who I know and work with in my professional life, whether they be my professors, administrators, or peers. They have done nothing to any of you and they shouldn't ever be asked to answer for me. Almost all of them know my political ideals, anyway. Neither I nor they allow political symmetry or disagreement to affect our day to day work. I find what I'm asking to be so basic a courtesy that it barely qualifies as a courtesy at all, but it seems I have to ask for it. Also: while it's true that my university will soon be undergoing an administrative change, and not one that I agree with, I don't think that the administration will abandon academic and intellectual freedom wholesale.

I love teaching. I love it more than I can ever say. I have taught, in some capacity or another, in elementary schools and middle schools and high schools and colleges and in private programs. I have taught everything from CPR and oxygen administration to the GRE. I have taught in mainstream education and in special education. In my college teaching work, I have enjoyed immensely rewarding teaching relationships with students who were liberal, conservative, libertarian, reactionary, radical, and everything in between. I have never hidden who I am ideologically from my students, but I defy anyone to suggest that my political beliefs would influence my grading to the detriment of students whose politics I disagree with. To threaten me with recourse to the often poisonous debate about politics in academics, when you have no knowledge of my pedagogy or my personal character, is not acceptable.

I have been accused, before, of conflating vigorous dissent with the attempt at censorship. I think that people often are being too cute when they say that; my point in the previous points, for example, is that the immediate gut reaction to scream and go crazy whenever presented with criticism of Obama, no matter how anodyne, essentially forbids those opinions entirely. Many people have responded that you've got to build the case (for not killing innocent people!) and only with a lot of time will you get people on board. My point entirely is that there is no way possible to build the case when you are immediately vilified beyond anything that is directed at conservatives. But with this kind of behavior, I am willing to say that, yes, this is an attempt at actually bullying me into silence.

My prior two posts have worked as expected: the response they have generated has proven the point. The posts have generated exactly the kind of preemptive and unresponsive response that I suggested are always present when President Obama is criticized. Don't just check out these posts from the Mahablog or Steve M. or "Booman." (Nice aliases, guys.) Check the comments, the truth-telling id of any given website. They are, well, they are what I said they would be. Each of the bloggers gets stuff wrong; Steve M. tells me to get out of the basement and organize for change, which is funny, considering that I have done so since I have reached legal adulthood. I don't organize as much as I used to, I'm sorry to say. But then again, this blog is how I engage the world politically now. Just like Steve M. does through his blog. I wonder why his blogging doesn't count as living in the basement? (You can observe a humorous bit of question-changing and deliberate obfuscation, if in fact he doesn't delete my comments. I also responded in the comments at Mahablog but she has yet to unleash my comment.)

More than anything, both bloggers and commenters are relentless in keep the focus of the conversation squarely on me and my deficiencies rather than on the matter at hand. They call me all the usual stuff, self-righteous and pretentious and childish and weepy and whatever else. That all may be so. It says nothing whatsoever about the moral reality of our terrible abuses against the Muslim world. The constant reversion to the personal reveals the failure of these people to articulate an ideologically consistent defense of the drone program. And by attacking me for positions I don't hold, such as saying that I think Romney and Obama are the same (a position I have never held or expressed), they reveal the weakness of their arguments and their character.

Mistermix at least attempted a response. But he ignored important issues of considerable substance: he ignored the fact that (and it is a bare fact) many in his community at Balloon Juice and the larger progressive world hate left-wing critics more than conservative Republicans, and this has serious consequences for our politics. He ignore my suggestion that, taking the "if you don't support Democrat you support Republican!" thinking to its extreme limits, it asks you to support any reprehensible candidate whatsoever as long as the other guy is worse. Would Mistermix vote for Zell Miller, if the alternative were, say, Todd Akin? And would he be similarly angered by criticism of Miller as he is towards that of Obama? He doesn't say. Nor does he address the issue of drones in anything like a substantive way. Like many of my critics, he addresses the drone killings by waving them away: I don't like drones, but.... My purpose is exactly to make people stop changing the conversation and focus on the actual issue. I believe that the refusal to do so reveals that the continued support of Obama's foreign policy is predicated on emptiness. More than anything, he has failed to articulate what I am supposed to do, given that these issues for me are truly non-negotiable. If people don't want to engage with me personally, then fine, think of it as a hypothetical: what is someone who has a profound and unyielding opposition to our violence against the Muslim world supposed to do? If just getting over it is not an option, what are people supposed to do?

To whatever degree people actually have attempted to meet my arguments with argument, they have said that I should do what I am already doing: organize, argue, create pressure from within. That is precisely why I work on this project, here. I keep pointing this out: saying that you've got to argued internally and then support the lesser evil suggests that people will listen to the argument or admit that the lesser evil is still evil. And that simply is not how these bloggers or commenters speak or act. They act, instead, as people who have nothing whatsoever to question or criticize. They say that I must do the work but their conduct insists that there is no work to be done.

That these bloggers deflect and roll their eyes and dismiss and in general layer on condescension like frosting on a Cinnabon doesn't disprove my point. It proves it, irrefutably. That they evince so much more discomfort and unhappiness with my post than with those of the conservatives they say they hate-- that they actually answer those conservatives with substance, rather than with sneering contempt-- proves my point. That they feel they must create a typical bit of blogging groupthink to attack an opinion that has essentially no electoral support in American politics proves my point.

Our political righteousness is meaningless if our process is poisoned. It has become a truism around liberal circles that conservatism is deeply diseased. And rightly so. Certainly, liberalism is healthier. But that does not mean that it is healthy. Many within liberalism have come to the conclusion that to win, they must become more like the conservatives tactically, to "take off the gloves." The treatment of critics of Obama demonstrates that many are ready to do so. It should go without saying that blind leader worship, as well as the tactics these people are using, is inherently illiberal. People wonder how it is that conservatives don't see the deep rot growing within their ideology. But would the people who write the blogs I've mentioned ever do the same?

Bloggers are insecure, as a species. I find that if you scratch at the perfectly calculated pose of preemptive superiority, you find people who are unable to look you in the face while they tell you you're wrong. Why else would anyone adopt the tone of almost all progressive blogs? The endlessly tiring, tired pose that not only are you right and your opponents wrong but that this rightness was adjudicated long ago... there's almost no other idiom in mainstream progressive blogs today. And it signals fundamentally a fear in the possibility that your ideas might have to be met in a battlefield where they could possibly win. If you act like your ideas have always already been proven, where is the danger? But progress depends on danger. I have always known that I could hide out forever in the typical lefty circles, reading only the socialist rags and far left websites, talking only with other Marx-influenced academics, staying on the fringes.... I have chosen, instead, to stay and fight. I have chosen because I think that doing so is the duty of all people of conscience-- especially when they are alone. My critics may believe that having a network of like minded people to attack me makes them strong. I think it makes them weak.

I don't intend to speak about these matters again. I will likely not have much to say for a little bit. Until then, as always: