Sunday, April 29, 2012

I hate corruption, except for my own

So Mr. Hitler Cartoon here starts this long list of (accurate) complaints about the Beltway by saying "except for all the friends I've made...." Which, of course, is maybe the biggest problem with the Beltway: that people like Ackerman, who are ensconced in the upper echelons of power and influence in political punditry, are constantly subject to the corruption of social and professional pressures. You've heard it all from me many times before. The remarkable thing here is just that he sees no contradiction or difficulty in the fact that so many of the problems he lists are similar to that problem, or even consequences of that problem.

Of course, it's easy to complain about other people's petty corruptions. It's another thing entirely to interrogate your own. So none of them ever do.

Cocktails at Sully's tonight!

Saturday, April 28, 2012

anti-racism as social sorting

You likely have encountered this piece by Lindy West about "hipster racism." It's pretty great, in many ways, and yet indicative of the problem with a particular flavor of Internet political discourse, and if I'm right, you encountered it in a particular context, and that context is the problem.

The post gets a lot of it right, and some of it deeply, proudly wrong, and sadly its character and its positioning suggest to me that what it gets right in content is less important than what it achieves for those who tweet, share, and endorse it. Its positioning, that is, in the broader consciousness of the Internet tastemakers who are responsible for so much of what crosses your browser.

If you're like me, with a lot of vaguely leftish friends, you likely will recognize what has become a daily encounter. Someone on Facebook will post an enjoyable, aggressive piece that gets it mostly right, about racism or sexism or various other shitty attitudes. Everybody will click like, people will post their various "right ons," and in general it will all be a little orgy of feeling good. And, more, feeling better than whoever the target of the piece is. What is unclear is the theory of change, how exactly the ideas being celebrated by the people on Facebook are supposed to spread. I suppose it's possible that some apolitical people read the links and are inspired. I worry that it's more likely that the self-congratulatory aspect of these daily spectacles confirms every bad stereotype about liberals said apolitical people have ever heard.

But perhaps there's a question that preempts one about a theory of change: is achieving change really the point? Or is what's being celebrated really the people doing the celebrating? Certainly, a common thread to pieces that the Twitterati self-aggrandizingly call "real talk" is a proud ambivalence towards actually achieving anything more than being righteous. It doesn't help that so many of the venues for this kind of aggressively enlightened writing are places generally dedicated to cultural competition-- competition over art and clothes and music and style and, in general, leading the kind of aspirational life that is at once validated by all the cool kids and yet conspicuously uninterested in being cool.

On the one hand, the wedding of egalitarian politics and websites devoted to aspirational culture has resulted in a lot of funny, aggressive and liberal-ish essays being passed around between connected (and therefore loud) people. On the other hand, there is a necessary and inevitable dilution of what politics means in such a context. It's no coincidence that this subgenre is almost exclusively devoted to feel-good identity politics and barely touches actual structural change, which is messy and requires greater conviction than that which can be expressed on a Facebook wall. Worse, websites like Jezebel (which is only a convenient placeholder, here, for a broader phenomenon) explicitly and unapologetically link the conviction one feels about bands and denim with the conviction one feels about slurs, street harassment, and Islamaphobia. The question is whether that latter shouldn't be a different kind of conviction altogether. I know that those who write for and enjoy these websites would say that they of course believe that. I'm just not so sure that they can so mingle pop culture nonsense with political righteousness and maintain such a distinction in effect.

The question that gnaws at me is simple: would so many people tweet and like and share those links, if not for the culturally competitive aspect? Is the point really anti-racism, or anti-sexism, or anti-homophobia, or is yet another example of people taking psychic pleasure in announcing on the Internet the ways in which they are better than others? If Lindy West got to keep her principled opposition to racism, but was forced to do so in a way that contributed nothing to her considerable self-regard, would she still invest the effort? I have my doubts.

Which is not to say that she doesn't understand many of the phenomena that she describes, or that she isn't perceptive, funny, or politically principled. In some measure, she's all three. But I worry that her stances on various flavors of hipster racism-- which, let's be clear, really means "racism as expressed by people I and others like me feel socially competitive with, racism I live with"-- are not ultimately different from her stances on the wrong shoes, or the wrong band, or whatever random piece of personal baggage people are magnifying online today to feel better about themselves.

This is a document designed not so much to solicit a response or provoke a change as to position the author. Consider the statement "Race is one of the least complicated issues that there is," an obvious absurdity that the writer patently does not believe. (Having just written hundreds of words on the subject and all.) Such a notion would certainly come as a surprise to the myriad thinkers, educators, philosophers, and activists who have labored on opposing racism for longer than West has been alive. But then, such rhetorical aggression is largely the point. Enlightenment without provocation has such little percentage in it. Part of the point of this sort of document is to achieve invulnerability: so much chest-pounding righteousness numbs you to the details, makes you stupider and reassures you that this stupidity is actually an expression of righteous passion. Meanwhile, West demonstrates AP-test level mastery of a profoundly important Internet skill, which is associating yourself and the value of your writing with the political effort itself. The unmistakable subtext of the post is that criticizing West would be tantamount to criticizing the anti-racist effort itself. (The problem is that this defense mechanism ensures that the post's fundamental character is more about Lindy West than about the problems she identifies.) And, indeed, the showy stupidity of calling race an uncomplicated phenomenon is really preemption, a way to dare people into criticizing her post and in so doing open themselves up to the charge that they oppose its intent and not its content.

In my own life, truly critical understanding has only ever come from self-indictment. That notion, that greater enlightenment comes first from criticizing the self, is totally alien to the culture of competition that hangs around the trendy Internet like a thick fog. The needy aggression that is the default state of the paradoxically passionate and disaffected digital class, cultivated and commodified so brilliantly by Gawker Media and its sundry imitators, cannot stand the loss of regard that might come from genuine self-criticism. These days, even those sentiments that take the form of self-criticism tend, with a moment's review, to collapse into a sidelong critique of others. (JD Daniels: "I have trouble talking about books because to me it feels like narcissistic display. I’m reading this great book because I’m so great." Don't worry, JD. That's only you.) So it is all directed outward, and so attitudes as righteous as anti-racism become just more fuel for the engine of self-promotion. In fact, they are better than all of the other insubstantial bullshit that people use to compete with each other, because while such wars have to be waged secretly (the worst loss possible comes from revealing that you are invested in the fight), purportedly enlightened political aggression contains the plausible deniability of self-aggrandizement.

What is left to be decided is if anti-racist and anti-sexist goals can survive being instrumentalized. I'm a pessimist. I'll tell the truth: I felt more hopeful for the end of racism when opposing racism was an end and not a means.