Thursday, December 27, 2012


Trickstarting: Contributing to a friend or family member's Kickstarter only after it becomes clear that they won't meet their funding goal.

the trouble with Brave

I gave one of my nieces the DVD of Pixar's Brave for Christmas, so I got the chance to watch it for the first time since I saw it in the theater. I think I understand better why it doesn't ever really come together, despite a ton of good things going for it. Thar be spoilers here.

First, I should say that I'm pretty far out of the mainstream when it comes to Pixar. I adore the second Toy Story and respect the first and third a great deal. I think Finding Nemo is lots of fun, and incidentally one of the few Pixar movies that are actually for children. I love the first half of Wall-E and, while I don't much love Ratatouille, I do respect it a lot. But I legitimately hate both The Incredibles and Up!, the latter of which I find a profoundly cynical act of emotional manipulation. In general, I think that Pixar has been oversold; none of Pixar's movies, in my estimation, are as good as Beauty and the Beast or Aladdin. So that's the context. It's funny but I suppose just expressing reservations about Pixar can sound contrarian.

For this reason, I was actually less disappointed by the movie than other people; my expectations were lower. And I think it's a truly beautiful movie, with great attention paid to detail and some fine character acting. (I wasn't really charmed by Billy Connolly's thick Scottish brogue, but I get why they went in that direction.) It's a fun movie. But it's also a profoundly small story, one that seems to me more like an episode of a TV show than a full-fledged movie, and for me that's its central problem.

Consider the following trailer, to my mind by far the most effective and engaging:

Now, let me be clear that I know better than to judge a movie by its trailer, or to think that a trailer amounts to a contract. Trailers are a vehicle for exposure and marketing, and it's fine by me for them to be somewhat misleading. And as far as that goes, this one is fine; I don't recognize any shots from this trailer that aren't in the movie. Rather, the trailer represents to me a better use of the movie's setting, characters, and visual aesthetic than we actually get in the movie. It's got a better grasp on the movie's ethos (an admittedly nebulous concept) than the movie itself.

I know some people might find the lilting Gaelic melody a little too on the nose, but I think it works brilliantly here. The movie is a pastiche, a self-conscious nod to a vision of rolling green hills and vaguely Celtic accents. Part of what made the movie intriguing in the first place is the welding of a fantasy landscape with an assumed cultural understanding of Celtic/Gaelic culture, a largely apocryphal notion that nevertheless has great romance to it. In a live action movie, that can often seem cloying or sentimental, but in an animated fantasy like this one, it should fit perfectly. And Pixar really set themselves up for success, filling the movie with gorgeous detail on both the broadest view (those lush landscapes) and the smallest (Merida's remarkable hair, for one). Watching that trailer, I want to spend time in that world.

So why doesn't Pixar show us more of it? It's a profoundly frustrating question. We have a setting and characters introduced that show tremendous promise, and then we spend the entire movie in a few distinct locales. Think about the plot: Merida and her parents squabble about her betrothal at the castle; the suitors come to the castle; Merida bolts from the castle and to the standing stones, which leads her to the witch's cabin; she returns from the witch's cabin to the castle; she and her mother flee the castle to the standing stones and the witch's cabin; they return to the castle; everybody runs from the castle to the standing stones; we end up back at the castle. Not only does all of that back and forth mean that we're filling up time that could be spent elsewhere in the world, it leads to a profound sense of deja vu, or "been there, done that." When Merida and her mother are back at the castle, Elinor still in bear form, I can't help but think "didn't I just watch this?" The interior space of the castle feels so cramped, yet we spend a significant majority of the scenes there. The end result is a movie that feels at once too short and too long: too short because you feel as though you haven't really gone anywhere at the end, too long because its repetition makes you feel impatient.

A good example of how the movie seems smaller than it should is in the morning after Merida and Elinor initially flee from the castle. (Remember, they have only until sunup after the second night or her transformation will be permanent.) Elinor has prepared a meal at a makeshift table for her and Merida's breakfast, one which goes disastrously. The point, I think, is to show how out of place Elinor's domestic values are in the wilderness; it's Merida who ends up providing for them. But while that (perhaps too obvious) point is made, you're still looking at a scene where we spend ten minutes in one spot, which happens to be right next to the witch's cabin. You're out in the wilderness! Explore more. But instead, you've got this inert scene which advances a message without being entertaining. I felt restless constantly during the movie.

Think of the trailer again. We get to see Merida climbing a tall rock spire, we see a figure emerging from the snow and gloom, we see her riding her horse through a fantasy landscape.... All of those elements pop up in the movie, but a discouraging amount of them are found in montage or flashback. There's very little in the way of journeys or quests or challenges to overcome in the movie. I am most certainly not asking for a Hero's Journey storyline, which are bullshit. What I am saying is that I like Merida and I love the world Pixar has built and I want to spend time seeing her making her way through that world, and as part of the actual plot of the movie, not through an early establishing montage. I think you could tell the story of Merida and her mother each learning to compromise over the course of the movie in a story that leads Merida on a grander adventure to reverse Elinor's condition. Instead, through the plot of the movie, she (and we) are stuck, and that lack of freedom to explore is embodied in Merida's mother in bear form. Bear Elinor is a drag on Merida in every sense.

I acknowledge that I am essentially complaining that the movie that we got wasn't the one that I wanted, although I would point out that this is essentially true of any criticism of a movie. But I also think that the story as told doesn't really pay off either. The basic structure is very common: a young person wants to be free and chafes against the control of his or her parents; the parents want the young person to be responsible and fail to recognize the child's individuality. The resolution is compromise, with both sides agreeing to give in a little. That's alright, as far as it goes, although I never quite trust stories that resolve their central conflict with little lost on either side. This movie just doesn't execute that basic plot, unfortunately. For one, success comes in a way that doesn't seem to resolve much of anything. Merida solves a major problem by delivering a speech to the assembled lords, including her father. Rather than having the princess be married off according to the outcome of a competition, the young people will be allowed to fall in love with each other, and that will determine, I guess, the future of the alliance. (It's unclear to me how they would deal with having heirs of all the same sex; after all, we see seven children of the various lords, and six are male.) One of the lords says something to the effect of, "alright, we'll let the children court each other and see who falls in love." In other words, the basic condition of trading political power through romantic pairings endures, just with a different mechanism to bring those pairings together. That doesn't pay off as a real change, which is particularly problematic when the conflict resolution amounts to the old "make a big speech to save the day."

Watching Merida give her speech, meanwhile, heals the rift with Elinor; Elinor realizes as she listens that Merida understands responsibility, I guess. Does that constitute growth on Elinor's part? I'm not so sure. There are times when the movie seems to set up a growing understanding on the part of Elinor of Merida's skills and strengths. When they are in the woods for the morning, Merida feeds her mother by fishing with her bow and arrow. I thought this was a way to demonstrate to Elinor just how impressive a figure Merida is, but it doesn't go anywhere, and there's no indication that Elinor has come to value Merida's physical abilities or independence. I'm asking, in other words, in what way the compromise at the end is a compromise at all. How has Elinor grown to see the importance of recognizing Merida for who she is? In fulfilling the dictates of political gamesmanship, Merida's speech has not demonstrated a new set of values to her mother, only that she can succeed in her mother's existing value system. So it's an open question whether Elinor has grown at all. And it's unclear whether Merida has learned to respect her mother's responsibilities. After all, it takes her mother turning into a bear to make her value her mother at all. Did she change her ways (change her fate, as she says over and over and over again) because she came to understand the value in what her parents think, or merely out of the immediate necessity of physical risk to her mother? If it's the latter, I think that's a failure to tell the story the movie intends to tell.

The biggest difficulty in storytelling, it seems to me, is not in writing a good plot or developing good themes but in the interface between the two. And an essential problem for Brave is that the resolution of the plot problems (some conveniently solved through a rousing speech, some through a battle with a Big Bad) and the resolution of the thematic problems (Merida's independence vs. her mother's desire for her to be responsible) don't fit together. It's great from a standpoint of plot resolution that the other lords are cool with a less-explicit system of political horsetrading, but that does nothing to settle whether a satisfactory "meeting at the middle through recognition of the other viewpoint's legitimacy" has happened. The plot's happy ending can't fix the thematic ambiguity.

Those thematic problems are also political problems. Some people have suggested that the plot's cramped nature is a reflection of how Merida grows: she is a wanderer by nature but must learn to change that in order to meet her responsibilities. The narrow confines of the movie reflect her growing domesticity, the way in which responsibility shrinks her world. If that's the case, well, ick. Not just because I think that reading suggests that Merida is becoming domesticated in a way with lots of noxious gender politics, but also because if that's so, it suggests that the movie privileges one side of the independence-responsibility tension. In fact you could make a strong argument that the movie does that just on the surface, in part by making Merida rather annoying at the beginning. Also, by having Merida slice the tapestry without any outward remorse, then matching that by having Elinor throw the bow into the fire but immediately retrieve it out of guilt, the suggestion is that Elinor is already a more kind, compassionate person. And frankly, I don't agree with that. Responsibility is important, but so is independence, and it's particularly so when we're talking about young women asserting their rights and the bullshit of aristocracy. Merida is correct to resist her fate, even though she also should do more to recognize the importance of her responsibility.

Is Brave feminist? I don't need it to be, to see it as a good movie, although I do need it to be to agree with its politics. Certainly, lots of people longed for a feminist Pixar tale, considering that the film is the first from the studio with a female protagonist and originally had a female director. But I find its relationship to feminism and gender deeply troubling. As I said above, the question of whether marriage is a suitable vehicle for political compromise at all is left ambiguous at the end. And the fact that the young male heirs agree with Merida that the children should be allowed to fall in love as they choose (and seemingly justify her position with their male opinions) undermines the important sense in which Merida's particular lack of agency is a product of her gender. Her condition is not the same as theirs, and the parallel drawn obscures that. In the larger sense, I get that a story built on compromise must have each side give in some. But the notion that Merida should have no say over her own life because of her place in the aristocracy and her gender is unambiguously bullshit, to me, and not a point on which compromise should be represented as a good thing. I said before that the thematic problem is that neither Merida nor her mother seems to have changed in anything but a superficial way. But thanks to the explicitly unequal power dynamics in the story, Merida's problem is more acute. She has a deeper grievance, and I think the movie should reflect that fact. If the movie is ambivalent on her claim to freedom, well, it's not a movie I can respect that much.

This all sounds more harsh than I mean it; there are many lovely elements to the film, and the craft of the visuals and music and acting are all exquisite. The issue is that those great strengths are not deployed to maximum effect; rather they are devoted to a story of troubling politics and incomplete themes. I applaud Pixar for wanting to tell a girl's story, but I am disturbed by what Brave says about what Pixar thinks a girl's story should be.

Wednesday, December 26, 2012

a little reading material re: material v. affective politics

Without endorsing it, or suggesting an affinity I don't have a right to claim, I think you should read this pamphlet originating from within the Occupy Oakland movement. It's extraordinarily thought provoking and touches on one of my common hobby horses, which is the tendency of reference to privilege to actually act as a regressive force in its obsession with feelings at the expense of material conditions.

The fact that we must specify our identities in advance before making our argument is an index of how powerful, widespread, and largely unquestioned is the premise that arguments always reduce to identity positions. While 21st century anti-oppression politics in the US is an evolving, ad hoc patchwork of theories and practices, we argue for the necessity of identity-based organizing while criticizing how dominant forms of anti-oppression activism have been incapacitated by an unquestioned rhetoric of checking individual “privilege,” by a therapeutic idealization of “culture” and communal origins, and finally by the assumption that identity categories describe homogeneous “communities” of shared political beliefs. We argue that left unquestioned these practices minimize and misrepresent the severity and structural character of identity-based oppression in the US. 
According to the dominant discourse of “white privilege” for example, white supremacy is primarily a psychological attitude which individuals can simply choose to renounce instead of an entrenched material infrastructure which reproduces race at key sites across society – from racially segmented labor markets to the militarization of the border. Whiteness simply becomes one more “culture,” and white supremacy a psychological attitude, instead of a structural position of dominance reinforced through institutions, civilian and police violence, access to resources, and the economy. At the same time a critique of “white privilege” has become a kind of blanket, reflexive condemnation of any variety of confrontational, disruptive protest while bringing the focus back to reforming the behavior and beliefs of individuals. We contend that privilege politics is ultimately rooted in an idealist theory of power which maintains that the psychological attitudes of individuals are the root cause of oppression and exploitation, and that vague programs of consciousness-raising will somehow transform oppressive structures. 
This politics assumes that demographic categories are coherent, homogeneous “communities” or “cultures.” In Oakland, police, politicians, downtown business interests, and even many “progressive” activists have promoted versions of “community” with radically conservative political content. Communal identity is not automatically a site of political resistance. The violent domination and subordination we face on the basis of our race, gender, and sexuality do not immediately create a shared political vision even though it may create a shared sense of oppression. Identity categories do not indicate political unity or agreement. But the uneven impact of identity-based oppression across society creates the conditions for the diffuse emergence of autonomous groups organizing on the basis of common experiences and a common political understanding of those experiences. There is a difference between a politics which places an idealized and homogenizing cultural heritage at the center of its analysis of oppression, and autonomous organizing against forms of oppression which impact members of marginalized groups unevenly. 
Anti-oppression, civil rights, and decolonization struggles clearly reveal that if resistance is even slightly effective, the people who struggle are in danger. The choice is not between danger and safety, but between the uncertain dangers of revolt and the certainty of continued violence, deprivation, and death.
Read the whole thing.

Friday, December 21, 2012

10 points for Hufflepuff

So I don't want to go in on one of those "see I'm in on the joke on me so therefore it doesn't hurt and we're all just friends here hardy har" deals-- trust me, this is a "laughing at" and not a "laughing with," and I dig that. But this is accurate and funny. And deeply hurtful, you fucks.


Wednesday, December 19, 2012

If yule excuse me...

Well, the holiday season is upon us, and like a lot of you I'll be traveling and merrymaking and cavorting and such for the next couple weeks. I expect not to post much between now and the new year, unless something crazy happens.

I gave thanks in this space recently, so I won't rehash it again. But as another year draws to a close I feel compelled to say again how profoundly fortunate I have been. It's been a full year, one with lots of success and some failure and some loss, one with separation and sadness but truly inspiring growth. At some point in my life I realized how important it was to be thankful for everything that I have, to not forget my great fortune. What's surprised me this year is just how easy that's been. More than happy, I've felt fulfilled. I hope you do too.

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

where are the posts attacking Joe Scarborough?

A weird aspect of the Zero Dark 30 conversation, and I would argue a straightforward dodge, is the idea that we don't know whether people will read ZD30 as an argument for torture and incorporate that into their advocacy. We already have people doing that. Take Joe Scarborough:
Scarborough then told the panel that Hurt Locker director Kathryn Bigelow‘s Zero Dark Thirty “presents a narrative that is going to make a lot of people in the mainstream media, in the Democratic party and in the administration uncomfortable, and that is the truth that Barack Obama learned, the first briefing that he got after after he won the election, and that is that the CIA program, whether you find it repugnant or not, actually was effective with KSM and other people getting actionable intelligence that led to couriers, that led, eventually, years later, to the killing of Osama bin Laden.”
Scarborough went on to complain about the years he’s had to endure people telling him that torture doesn’t work (yeah, that must have been torture), but “I knew that was just not true. It did get information, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and other terrorists, that eventually led to not just the killing of Osama bin Laden, but a lot of victories.”
Far before the general release, we've got a man with a national morning news show-- someone with a far larger audience than the critics of the movie-- claiming that the movie that proves that torture leads to "a lot of victories." So my question is, where are the complaints from these critics about Scarborough? Where is Andrew O'Hehir? Glenn Kenny? Devin Faraci? Scott Tobias? Where are all of the people grousing on Twitter? Why is it that the complaints all fall on the people who are criticizing the movie for supporting torture, rather than for those who are praising it for supporting torture? They've penned long diatribes against Glenn Greenwald, Jane Mayer, Peter Bergen, and others for suggesting that ZD30 supports torture, yet on Scarborough, they're silent. It's especially strange given how many of them profess to oppose torture.

Scarborough is the tip of the iceberg. When the movie is widely released, the conservative press will fall all over themselves to claim that it proves why we need to torture. Those arguments will show up at RedState and World Net Daily and The Corner and elsewhere. I sincerely hope that the sophisticated film critics are just as forceful in condemning each of them as they have been in condemning people questioning the film.

Update: It would also be really, really cool if some of this film critics could discuss this topic in a way that isn't drenched with condescension. We get it: you guys are media insiders and true sophisticates. Congratulations.

the real problem with Instagram's policy is not the user

Boy, the Internet cycle moves fast. The something gets attention/backlash to that something/backlash against the backlash progression happens so quickly I can't keep up.

Instagram has published some pretty obnoxious Terms of Service that go into effect next year, saying that Instagram can use your pictures in advertising, without your permission or even your notification. Some people are freaking out about it. But some people are already pushing back, noting (correctly) that an Instagram user can just opt out of the service altogether. That's an important point, and while I'm probably going to ditch Instagram when the change goes into effect, I understand people who will stick with the service. That's a rational choice they can make. The issue is with the nature of photography and photo sharing. The problem is not on the side of Instagram's users. It's on the side of people who are in a private place who are photographed by Instagram's users and then have their likeness used in advertising without their notification or consent.

Think about it: you go to an invite-only party in a private residence. You are not a celebrity. The law says that you have a reasonable expectation of privacy, which means that your likeness cannot be sold without your permission. But somebody is snapping Instagram photos that include you without your knowledge or consent. Now Instagram can sell those photos of you, without your permission or even the notification of the person who took them, in a place where you have a legal expectation of privacy.

Doesn't that seem like a problem? Yes, if you don't want your photos used in this way, you can just not use Instagram. Agreed there. But the reason a photo-sharing service is a particularly worrisome application of this kind of advertising is the high likelihood of other people having their likenesses monetized without their consent or even knowledge. And I personally think that Instagram is responsible if their service is being consistently misused in this way.

So look at this blog. I'm using Google's free blogging platform. I don't pay for the URL or the server space. Tomorrow, if Google said to me "if you're going to keep using Blogger, we're going to start selling your posts," I'd be bummed out. But I'd have the the right to opt out, by not using Google's free service. I'd have to make a choice as to whether the free platform is worth it for me, and if so, I'd consent to having my work sold. I'd have a choice. But imagine if I was taking someone else's writing that hadn't been previously published and publishing it on my blog. They couldn't opt out; they would have no ability to consent or refuse. That's essentially what happens if an algorithm is deciding whether to use an Instagram photo in an advertisement.

One of the things that has consistently bothered me about the new digital erosion of privacy is how many people are willing to make decisions for the rest of us. In her infamous interview with Jimmy Kimmel, Emily Gould made the popular argument that "the private is now public." And I just remember thinking, says who? When did we vote on this? Who passed these laws? I understand that technology changes culture. But so many of the changes that are described as inevitable are actually not; they're instead the product of choices people make. And we have a right as a society to make decisions on the basis of our democratic process, and not give up consent as a matter of what is "just going to happen" given technological change. We've got to privilege consent.

For myself, I'm realizing how little thought I've given to taking pictures with other people in them and uploading them to social networks. That lack of thought is exactly the problem. From now I intend to ask anyone in my pictures for explicit permission first.

giving up the floor

Since I've been going back and forth with commenter Q, I think it is only fair to give her/him the floor without my commentary as a way to wrap up.

Our degrees of optimism and perhaps our assessment of where America is "racially" also seem to differ. You express worry about white people opting out of racial dialogue. I think they already have. I think we're in the middle of the most racist and least racially aware generation since the 60's, and I think a combination of color-blind racism as well as the lack of meaningful correctives to racial consequences has caused a reassertion of whiteness that's striking to me.

I think every single advantage black people have accrued since the 60's is eroded or on the cusp of being eroded, I think most meaningful efforts to combat and societally resist white racism have been undermined and that there's a general assumption that willpower - divorced from political action to remove white power - is sufficient. I think the primary culprit of this collective, societal, white American failure is that what's racist and non-racist, what's racially positive and racially divisive, what's necessary and what's not has been exclusively defined according white terms and in ways that are consistent with white morality. Which is to say, it's been defined in a way that's explicitly comfortable to white premises, white understanding and, mostly damningly, white stability. Morality has been asked to conform to whiteness without an acknowledgment of their incompatibility.

The desire to maintain the racialized reality of that stability, and the efforts to use vocal anti-racist language and solidarity to advance narratives that rearrange but never challenge the fundamental nature of white supremacy is founded on this key fault. You predict a dismal racial reality where whites feel excluded, and that's fine and dandy. But you should perhaps incorporate into your imagination that the open desire to include white perspectives, white opinions and white assent is what led us to a point where black people came a hair away from losing their voting rights, where they lost welfare before they could materially take advantage of it, and where they're losing affirmative action (thanks, largely, to a white Millennial) and where the stereotypes, discrimination and depicted racism is just as prominent but more silent.

I think black people have had enough white input and I think if you're going to prize it and defend your self-serving application of it, you should at least consider that the blanket interpretation of its ends as "positive" is not self-evident.

drilling down

So I've been having a back-and-forth with someone who is clearly well-trained in undergraduate seminar jiujitsu, about race and privilege. (See here, here, here, here, here.)  It's an old argument. My commenter, Q, has taken a fairly conventional but fraught position:
Which is to say, maybe you should link black, Latino, Asian and Muslim anti-racist writers (or white writers deemed valuable by them) when you feel like talking about racism and build on what they're saying instead of going on white-serving, self-serving tangents about intra-tribal spats you have with other decently well off white liberals. If an aware, anti-racist, non-white person is unwilling to say that white poverty negates white privilege, maybe you should respectfully share that unwillingness. If intra-POC discourse says absolutely nothing about poor whites when they references racism, maybe you should pay heed to their fine example.

Racism, attacks on racism, and an identification of the whiteness which justifies and perpetuates racism has scarce little to do with you, particularly when you're unwilling to helpfully participate. Stop making it about you. You help with your vote, your support and paying attention to anti-racist writers who are capable of empathically, righteously and subversively discussing their experiences. If you can't do that, you help by kindly shutting up until you can work out the awareness to speak about these issues
Note, first, that the discussion was not just about racism, but rather gun control, and in fact my entire argument was that allowing gun control to be defined as an issue that pits black interests against white interests was a political and theoretical mistake. More importantly: I say that this position is fraught because it indicates the essentialism that I'm reacting against and the avoidance I'm cautioning against. The essentialism rises from the absurdity of speaking about nonwhite people as some sort of unified bloc.

I brought up the fact that, if I'm going to abandon any particular perspective on race myself and merely adopt the positions of nonwhite people, I might choice nonwhite people whose views are deplorable. I brought up Allen West in our conversation. My point about Allen West is simple: when people say "you should give up your racial arguments and simply listen to what nonwhite people say," they are suggesting that all nonwhite people have the same views. Allen West is black, and he is an Islamophobe. So when he says vile things about nonwhite Muslims, am I obliged to keep quiet, because of his greater understanding of race and racism?

Q dug deeper: "I explicitly specified the kind of people that would be valuable to link and implicitly excluded people who've internalized white supremacy to anti-black, racist ends."

Which is to say (explicitly) that no nonwhite person could arrive at opinions on race that Q finds  objectionable unless that person had internalized white supremacy. This is the height of liberal essentialism, the need to look on nonwhite people not as people, with individual agency and fully developed consciousness, but as symbols of purity, which dehumanizes and infantilizes them. I will admit to not always knowing exactly what is right or wrong when we talk about race. But I am damn sure that saying that nonwhite people can only disagree with me because they've internalized white supremacy is a terribly ugly idea.

I don't think this person is a bad person. Hell, I'm certain that s/he has a far better take on race and privilege than 99% of people out there. But this call for enlightened silence is a corrosive seduction. The truth is that all of us are involved with race, and white efforts to remove themselves from the racial dialogue-- to say "forgive me, and I'll hold my tongue"-- are really efforts to be rescued from the discomfort of race talk, to be rescued from the possibility of being accused of racism. I understand that appeal, but I think it's ruinous, and based on a host of bad assumptions. Trust me: it would be far safer for me to adopt the company line of defensive avoidance and noncommittal silence that is the common tongue of social liberalism. I risk incurring the wrath of commenters like Q because I think that trying to hide out is a kind of capitulation.

And for that reason, I have to thank Q. As unhappy as these conversations are, they are profoundly necessary.

Monday, December 17, 2012

people aren't good at things

I want to make it clear that I'm not at all exempting myself from this point, so: I am generally amazed when I finish a day without hurting myself. I am clumsy, frequently lost in thought, and easily distractable. I am generally speaking bad at all sports or games that involve coordination or agility. And like a lot of people, things just go wrong for me. I was at a mixer on my very first day at my master's program, years back. I was pretty nervous and just wanted to get through the day without embarrassment. While standing on the deck of the faculty member hosting the party, I shifted my weight and my leg broke through, and I fell in down past my knee. I'm thin, I wasn't jumping or pressing hard. It just happened. I think a lot of people know what it's like to attract mini-disasters.

I say this to make it clear that I'm not being an elitist when I say: the "arm everybody" argument for stopping gun crimes is a bad idea, because people aren't good at things. Most people I observe are just serviceable at most skills. Those that require coordination are even worse. It's not a function of intelligence, and I don't intend it as some sort of terrible condemnation of people. I'm just saying, if you've ever watched somebody work the self-scan machine or try and parallel park, I don't know how you can feel confident proposing that regular people carry guns just in case of a spree killing. Cops and the military have to undergo countless hours of training before they are given weapons, and people can and do flunk out of both professions for a lack of skill.

I really shudder to think of what would happen in the chaos of a mass shooting, if many bystanders pull out their own weapons and start firing. It's hard enough for cops to avoid shooting the wrong person or hitting a bystander. I don't see any good that comes from adding more bullets flying around in these situations.

This argument is all over at the moment. Here's Jeffrey Goldberg's version, just as a point of reference:
People should have the ability to defend themselves. Mass shootings take many lives in part because no one is firing back at the shooters. The shooters in recent massacres have had many minutes to complete their evil work, while their victims cower under desks or in closets. One response to the tragic reality that we are a gun-saturated country is to understand that law-abiding, well-trained, non-criminal, wholly sane citizens who are screened by the government have a role to play in their own self-defense, and in the defense of others (read my print article to see how one armed school administrator stopped a mass shooting in Pearl Mississippi). I don't know anything more than anyone else about the shooting in Connecticut at the moment, but it seems fairly obvious that there was no one at or near the school who could have tried to fight back.
I'm not being glib when I say this: I wonder if Jeff Goldberg has seen most people operate a motor vehicle or even a cart in the supermarket. I know that most people believe themselves to be competent, and they are, at certain skills or talents. But most people are never going to be good at most things, and shooting a gun is a complex skill that requires a lot of practice, and one where failure to perform adequately has tragic results. Solutions that presume broad competencies shared by large groups of people just aren't solutions.

continued, or to be continued

It's always interesting, which posts get more angry pushback in comments and which get more angry emails. (I tend to get a lot of both.) Yesterday's post arguing that gun control, while inevitably going to be enforced in a racially unequal way, could be of a net benefit to both black people (who are the victims of gun crimes far out of proportion with their numbers) and society alike was one of the latter.

When it comes to a theoretical gun control regime, I don't see any conflict between what's good for black people and good for society overall. Yes, in a deeply racist society, some of the negative consequences of any major legislation will be unfairly borne by black people. But we can make a good faith assessment that the net gain for black people and society at large would make the legislation worth it. I could be wrong on that score, but it's worth having a conversation on that question itself, about the net material benefits or drawbacks.

Now, for me to take critical emails seriously, two things need to occur. First, you need to accurately portray what I'm saying. I said before, as I would say at any time, that black people face totally unique discrimination in this country, that our criminal justice system is deeply and intractably racist, and that we need to be cognizant of the certainty of discriminatory enforcement when we discuss any law. If you're suggesting that I'm not acknowledging institutional racism, you're just lying. Second, if you want to yell at me, you have to be able to say on which issues you and I actually disagree. That's not me restricting the world of argument to "policy prescriptions." There are plenty of theoretical things we can disagree about. But you have to actually name something that you specifically disagree with me about. When people sputter on, accusing me of being a bad person without being able to articulate a coherent disagreement with anything I've actually said, it suggests that they feel indicted by the criticisms I'm making.

Social liberalism is very sick, in my opinion, despite the advancements we've had on issues like gay marriage. (To be clear, I'm talking about social liberalism writ large, including the left wing, socialists, etc.) It's sick because so many of its white advocates have developed a profound comfort with the inequalities they say they hate. And that comfort arises from the social value they see in portraying themselves as more enlightened than their peers, their social competition. That dynamic has led to a situation where people are endlessly able to define who is unenlightened and broadly unable to explain what progress would look like, to speak of "this is betters" rather than "you are bad."I am not in any sense a political pragmatist, and I don't need people to articulate a strategy for immediate change to take their critiques seriously. Philosophy and rhetoric matter. But if you're interested in actual critical practice, you do no one any favors when you limit your critique to the people involved.

I didn't, at all, bring up the issue of white poverty yesterday, and yet it has gotten inserted into the conversation. I suppose my interlocuters bring it up because they believe it offers them an argumentative advantage. I am glad that it's been brought up, though, because it's a topic which shows the ways in which ostensible anti-racism really advances the logic that underpins traditional racism. I'll tell you, as someone who has been around liberals and leftists for my entire life, it's my perception that there are a lot of white left-wing people who deeply hate the white poor. They often can barely contain their revulsion with them. They'll speak against classism, as pure theory. But in their day-to-day lives, when they see poor white people at the convenience store or on street, there's quiet contempt.

Why? Not because of anti-whiteness, but because of the core assumption of anti-blackness. The reason many white, affluent social liberals do not want to be talked to about white poverty is not that they want to show greater concern for poor racial minorities, but because they identify with the white poor, and in that identification comes judgment: you are like me and yet are worse off than I am. Why aren't you doing more with what you have? Poor minorities, meanwhile, are not subject to this same judgment, because nothing more is expected of them. They judge the minority poor, but not according to the standards by which they hold white people. They are, in the minds of those self-same white social liberals who claim to want the best for them, in their natural state. They don't judge them because they don't consider them to be fair targets of judgment, because they don't see them as fully human. They have accepted the basic assumption of anti-blackness.

A commenter on the post yesterday said, referencing a discussion about white people in poverty, "It's that same privilege that took a post explicitly about social hierarchy and moaned about the lack of consideration for the people highest on it." But the people we were discussing were in poverty; how could they be perceived as being on the top of the social hierarchy? No one who has lived in an area with both affluent and poor white people should mistake poor white people as being on the top of the social hierarchy. Hatred of the "white trash" is too deeply ingrained into such cultures for anyone to believe that. So where does the sense of superiority for such people come? It comes, naturally, from the belief that white people are superior. The perception that a dirt-poor white person is on the top of anything only can exist if you think that whiteness is inherently so much more valuable than blackness that the status of being white transcends material powerlessness and need. A person who asserts that poverty-stricken white people are at the top of the social hierarchy is simply stating classically racist tropes: the superiority of white people. It's merely wrapped in the language of undergraduate cultural studies. This commenter thinks s/he's saying "white people are the bearers of privilege!" I think s/he's saying "what a privilege it is, to be white!"

Part of my point here has always been that we have reduced antagonism to a shell, and in so doing deny the right to true rejection, to true refusal. Far too many of the social liberals who express that social liberalism as apology nonetheless expect that stance to protect them. No political stance that operates from the position of apology can advance the cause of true social criticism, because apology is a way to avoid the indictment from which criticism springs. To say "forgive me, and teach me how to not oppress you" is mere avoidance.

In an undergraduate existentialism class that discussed race throughout the semester, one of my white classmates solemnly informed the class that, had she been born in the right era, she would have been a Black Panther. The next semester, I was chatting with the professor (one of the best) and mentioned that it bothered me. She told me to try and take the statement on its intent, rather than its unfortunate execution. And then she said (paraphrasing), "She would reduce a political movement that angrily defies white power to a vehicle for ameliorating white guilt. And she only imagines that she has the right to do so because her culture tells her that she has the right to everything." There's wisdom in that.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

Bill Zeller and Newtown

I'm thinking, tonight, of Bill Zeller.

You might remember him. He was a computer programmer and graduate student who killed himself last year. His suicide note was widely publicized because of how eloquently and agonizingly it described the source of his pain: a long and horrific history of childhood sexual abuse. Bill's note spoke of a darkness inside of him, one he couldn't shake, one which followed him and tormented him and kept him from living his life. He described himself as feeling a darkness that destroyed his relationships and kept him from feeling any joy or human connection.

I knew Bill, a little. We went to the same high school; he was a freshman when I was a senior. My older brother was friends with his older brother. We knew each other's names, chatted a few times, but we didn't know each other well. Like I said: he was a freshman, I was a senior. When he died, I thought of him often, but I never wrote about it. I didn't know what to say.

I bring this up because I've been thinking a lot about difference, and mental health, and pain.  And I've been thinking about the history of school shootings. I was in high school when Columbine happened. And the immediate aftermath saw a host of oppressive security measures imposed on children and teenagers across the nation. As Michael Moore pointed out in Bowling for Columbine, it was open season on anyone who was considered different or strange or unusual or unpopular in high school. I was saddened and disturbed to hear some draw connections between Adam Lanza's unpopularity and his crimes. An article in the Times: "Still, after hearing of the news on Friday, Ms. DeVivo reconnected with friends from Newtown, and the consensus was stark. 'They weren’t surprised,' she said. 'They said he always seemed like he was someone who was capable of that because he just didn’t really connect with our high school, and didn’t really connect with our town.'" If anyone who doesn't "connect" with their town or high school were capable of mass murder, there would be massacres every day. But this is the basic logic of harassing anyone who doesn't fit in. I know of no evidence that the increased security following Columbine prevented a single school shooting. We have plenty of evidence that tons of good kids who had the misfortune of not fitting into the norm or being popular were unfairly and unnecessarily vilified.

Bill speaks, in his suicide letter, about social difficulties, and I'm sure they were debilitating. But it's important to say that he was not an Adam Lanza figure; I remember him as a gregarious and fairly popular guy, with many close friends and a tight-knit group. But suppose he had ever divulged the thoughts he expressed in his letter. Suppose he had talked about a darkness, about an evil inside of him. In the post-Columbine environment? In the context of our country right now? I'm willing to bet there would be police at his door in short order, or at least a heavy-handed meeting with school administrators. Perhaps such an intervention would have resulted in him getting some help, but I'm not optimistic. Likely it would have made him feel more alienated than before.

I have often thought of Bill and his suicide and how much it challenges us. As someone who knew him and who read his note describing his pain, I want so much better for him. As someone who believes in the right to take one's own life, I am challenged by both the knowledge that the horrific pain he endured must have distorted his decision making process, and by his repeated insistence that he was making the only rational choice. I think about his admissions that he might be mentally ill, that he has been broken in a fundamental way by what happened to him. How could he make a rational choice? Is that not itself a kind of mental illness? But I think also about how psychiatric treatment didn't help him, how little respect he had for his doctors. And I wonder whether he was medicated, or how.... Reading his note after this tragedy, I think about mental illness, and trauma, and choice.

Bill invoked his fear of hurting others specifically in his note.
I feel an evil inside me. An evil that makes me want to end life. I need to stop this. I need to make sure I don't kill someone, which is not something that can be easily undone. I don't know if this is related to what happened to me or something different. I recognize the irony of killing myself to prevent myself from killing someone else, but this decision should indicate what I'm capable of.
 I want to believe, quite desperately, that there was a third way, that Bill had another option beyond killing others or killing himself. And I'd also like to believe that he chose the latter option over the former because of his goodness, because of his character, because of his toughness. But then I think about trauma, and I think about the brain, and I think about all we know and don't about mental health. The truth is, it might just have been chance that Bill killed himself rather than other people, random chance that he turned his pain inward rather than outward, as hard as that is to say. I think we're still so powerless to fix broken people, or to even understand them. We have a shamefully inadequate mental health system, one where people who feel themselves at risks to themselves or others have no consistent access to treatment. In a country with such a deficient social safety net, I don't know what to do to help them. In a country awash in guns, I don't know how to help them from hurting other people. I just have no fucking idea.

good for some, good for all

Like most people, I'm sure, I spent much of the day yesterday trying to think through the terrible events in Connecticut. I didn't think of anything of comfort. There's something of a ritual for a lot of us after these events. (The fact that we have enough mass murders in this country to have rituals in their wake is a terrible shame.) We ask why; we ask why nothing has been done; we lament the fact that nothing was done last time; we ask if finally the time is right for real change; nothing changes; it happens again. I'm afraid I have very little faith that we'll break this cycle.

When I hear the pro-gun side start to recount the same old arguments, I just feel such an exhausted feeling of despair. Their defense is so full of evasion and hypothetical and avoidance. I guess each time I just hope that they'll feel shamed into really grappling with the devastation, rather than falling to the same old arguments.

I was also bummed out to read this argument from Project NIA that we shouldn't take hold of this moment of passion and attention, because the legislation we pass in response has a high likelihood of being enforced in a racist way. (I have been unable to conclusively identify who's tweeting, and I don't want to get it wrong, so I will just refer to the Twitter account. The website in question can be found here.) I think that this is problematic first because I can't see any positive change arising against guns without the immediacy and passion of recent events. The pro-gun lobby is simply too powerful. But more, I think that the argument is indicative of a deep and deeply troubling pathology among contemporary progressivism, one that ultimately makes necessary structural and economic changes far more difficulty.

First: I don't mean to come across as too critical. I understand that this is mostly a call for caution and prudence, and I also recognize that this country has suffered in the past decade or so from bad laws written in reaction to tragedy. And I am totally cognizant of the impact of any law and order legislation on racial minorities. But the piece is filled with the classic social liberal tendency to define problems as uniquely or solely afflicting racial minorities, when in fact the best chance for lasting political change that positively affects those minorities lies in demonstrating their universality. The question, as often, is whether social liberals are more interested in actually benefiting society in a way that helps everyone, including the traditionally oppressed, or are merely interested in demonstrating their superiority on issues of race and gender.

Start, for example, at the Tweet within the Storify that says, "Let's see... After Columbine, they passed a slew of "zero tolerance" laws. Guess which schools got the police officers and metal detectors?" Was the post-Columbine expansion of security disproportionately face by racial minorities and students from low socioeconomic backgrounds? Of course. Does this mean that only those students were negatively affected? Plenty of schools with predominantly white student bodies got police officers and metal detectors. Plenty of white students who were perceived as odd or different or unusual faced routine harassment and discrimination following Columbine. That's just the facts. The white students who endured such hardship deserve our attention and sympathy too, though advocating for their needs doesn't score any points for the person so advocating. The crackdown on difference post-Columbine and similar efforts generally afflict all kinds of people. They just do. And it is bizarre to me that social liberals are frequently so desperate to appear on the side of black people that they draw divisions between the problems affecting them from problems that affect everyone else. In a pluralistic democracy, you do minority groups no favors when you work to convince others that their problems are only theirs. What's the priority?

Yes, it's true: we live in a fundamentally racist society, and that means that laws will be enforced in a way that perpetuates racial oppression. That will be true of any legislation. Think of a huge piece of policy legislation like Obamacare. Is anyone under the misapprehension that Obamacare won't, in many instances, be applied unequally and unfairly, along racial or socioeconomic lines? To suggest that this is a reason not to support the legislation is perverse. Racism cannot be fought by avoiding structures and policies that might be applied in a racist manner. It can only be fought by attacking the root discrimination itself. Arguments like those from the Prison Culture Twitter feed suppose that they are taking racism more seriously, but in fact they underestimate racism, because they operate on the false assumption that racism can be combated through the avoidance of certain kinds of policy. That's without even getting into the way that this "anti-racism of avoidance" essentially lets racism dictate public policy.

As whoever wrote these Tweets knows better than I do, we already have effectively criminalized young black manhood. We don't need to imagine the mass incarceration of black men. We're already there! The forces of racist oppression will use any legal regime to lock up black people out of proportion with their numbers. They don't need the excuse of new legislation. We have to have the right to say "let's pass non-racist gun control legislation," even as we know that we will achieve imperfect results. If we give up that right, no progress for racial minorities or anyone else is possible.

Another issue, and one that's even harder for most people to talk about, is the way that social liberal positioning forbids the suggestion of problems for marginalized groups that are internal to those groups. Take, for example, the massive problem within the black community of black men shooting other black men. This is a hugely important topic for our discussion of gun control; it's one of the most consistent and terrible consequences of our gun culture. Yet many of my left-wing friends are unwilling even to discuss it, because they're so afraid of the perception that they are blaming black people for their own problems, or simply for not being "on black people's side" in some vague and useless way. For myself, blame is simply not the way to consider the problem; black-on-black gun violence is the product of a complex combination of forces, almost all of them beyond the control of the individuals directly affected. Black on black gun violence is without question a consequence of historical oppression and institutional racism, and addressing it will take structural change that acknowledges racism and seeks to fight it. But it's also true that positive change could come from within the black community itself. Stating this idea publicly is enough to make me persona non grata among those white liberals who see racial politics as first a vehicle for social sorting, for declaring who is more or less enlightened. Yet anyone who genuinely cares about the terrible violence that afflicts black America has to reckon with that reality.

I can think of almost no major change in American society that would do more to help black Americans than removing all of the guns from our society. The tweets correctly point out that school shootings are rare, although not nearly rare enough. But shootings are not rare. They are the opposite of rare, and they harm black people more than any other group. We are a country in which black people make up 13% of the population but suffer half the homicides. That's reality. Yes, efforts to criminalize gun possession would inevitably be used against those same black Americans. But with the numbers on gun violence against racial minorities as stark as they are, the net benefit would likely be huge.

I know that the specific argument from the Prison Culture Twitter is coming from a genuine and noble desire to address terrible structural inequality and racism. But the urge to define any and all problems first through the lens of their reference to minority groups threatens the ability to build mass action in a country that still has a dominant white majority. And while I am certainly not accusing this particular person of this, my time interacting with fellow left-wing people (of various self-definitions) suggests that there is a deeply unhealthy tendency among many of them to speak out in favor of racial minorities primarily as a way to position themselves against their peers. What's more, there is a constant stream of social liberal arguments that seem to make a fetish of counterintuitivity and condemnation of the wrongheadedness of other liberals. This "social liberalism as cultural competition" aspect of today's left-wing discourse is, I think you'll agree, filled with problematic and unhealthy tensions. I am deeply concerned with what I see as a growing divide between social liberalism and economic liberalism, between issues of racial and gender equity on one side and issues of class and economics on the other. This is disastrous for left-wing causes. These sets of issues are one and the same, and any worthwhile anti-racism movement will necessarily favor stricter gun legislation.

We have a crisis, in this country, a constants crisis, of gun violence. That issue must be addressed and addressed forcefully. And efforts to undermine our attempts to deal with such problems through reference to the persistent racial inequality that haunts all aspects of our society are terribly wrongheaded and self-defeating. Worse still, they reflect an American left that seems more concerned with deciding who is righteous than in doing the righteous thing.

Update: I got an email in response to this post which I would like to quote from, but the emailer did not give me permission to do so. Again, I have to ask: what is the purpose of social liberalism? Because right now, most people writing about social liberalism online appear to me to be far more interested in winning some sort of weird social competition than in actually fixing the material conditions that improve the lives of the groups they claim to be speaking for. No complaints about someone's privilege have ever done anything to materially improve the lives of those who lack that privilege. And they demonstrate the degree to which white liberals view minority groups as symbols rather than as human beings.

Lewis Gordon once wrote
The eyes that are evaded are the eyes that matter, the eyes that judge... . Whoever desires to be protected from these eyes accepts the core assumption of antiblackness-- the supremacy of whiteness. Such a figure experiences vertigo in the presence of whites; whites become the bottomless subjectivities at the edge of which, the body of which, there is the threat of slipping into facticity, slipping into being seen by "truly human" eyes. The exoticist is therefore not a masochist, for as it turns out he doesn't want to be seen. He wants to stand before innocent eyes, eyes incapable of understanding what stands before them, eyes that can look without seeing.
That strikes me as a perfect example of many people who write online about social justice.

Friday, December 14, 2012

solidarity forever

I always considered myself a liberal. I think it was my mother's influence. She had a classic politics of care, a political identity of compassion and generosity. The best liberals, in my experience, have always been generous in two sense at once, in the sense of pursuing a world where more is given to those in need, and in expanding the definition of what needs are real and legitimate. The question is, what would you work to provide for others, were it in your power to try? Which of their desires would you take as your responsibility to fulfill? If it's not a moving target, I don't know what the purpose of any of it is.

At the bottom of it all, though, is the need to be recognized as a human being. Liberalism, to me, has always been at heart the simple principle that human beings are of equal value. Not the idea that all humans are of different abilities or potentials-- that's a caricature of liberalism-- but that all human lives deserve equal dignity and equal protection. It's a simple idea and one that most everybody will claim to believe, but it's violated, every day, oftentimes by the same people who assert that principle most loudly. Nowadays, public people can't usually come out against this principle explicitly, so they find various ways to talk around it. When conservatives talk about welfare mothers, they justify their violation of the principle of equal human value by subtly insisting that the people in question aren't people at all. When liberals sigh about collateral damage in Pakistan, they are justifying the violation of the principle of equal human value by accepting as a "necessary evil" that which they would never accept if the victims were different people. The functional difference between American progressives and the left-wing critics of same, these days, is that the former justify and support these violations of that basic and sacred principle. The latter call them on it.

Why has Glenn Greenwald become such a ritualized hate figure to the progressive blogs? And he has: the vitriol and rancor that attends any mention of his name, in most movementy Democratic blogs, genuinely frightens me, and I'm no shrinking violet. I think they direct their hate towards him because he points out how deeply complicit they are in our most common and malicious violation of the principle of equal human value, our treatment of Muslims. The history of America is a history of violations of the various principles that we spend so much time celebrating. In the present moment, the most common and worst is our collective punishment of the Muslim world. What we are doing to those people will one day be looked back on as one of our great national shames. There was a time when American liberals recognized that, and fought against it, and eloquently expressed the moral reasoning that compelled them into that fight. But then the Democrats decided that it was in their political best interest to take part in that collective punishment, to demonstrate their "toughness" to the American electorate. The liberal blogs got in line, and those principled stands against the killing of Muslims turned immediately to justification. Greenwald, along with a few others, represents the voice reminding them what they used to argue, and why. He shames them.

Liberals and Democrats have flattered themselves for a long time that they are not merely correct, in their disagreements with conservatives and Republicans, but far healthier too. Independent of any stance on the issues, the argument goes, liberals and Democrats are far more honest, far fairer, far less angry, far less insane. As someone who has become the frequent target of progressive blogs (and, more, their commenters) I feel equipped to say that this simply isn't true. All of the petty misbehavior and ugliness that people associate with conservative sites is fully present in those comments. I've been on the receiving end, not that I mind. And the bloggers themselves work this dynamic in a deeply cynical way. They chum the waters and wait for the sharks to attack, and then can claim to have clean hands. Think of Greenwald again; whenever his name comes up at these blogs, he's personally insulted by commenters through barely-disguised homophobia or references to the fact that he lives abroad. The bloggers themselves, meanwhile, maintain plausible deniability. It's gross. It's also indicative of weakness.

Nowadays I'm as likely to evaluate people based on their language as anything else: what percentage of their statements of principle come before the word "but"? "I don't like drone strikes, but..." "I don't like that Obama put social security and Medicare in play, but..." "I don't like that the administration has been aggressively going after medical marijuana dispensaries, but..." Last night, when I reflected on the people I've been fighting with, it occurred to me that I couldn't recall the last time they expressed a moral principle that wasn't just a setup for an argument for why it had to be violated. Yes, I know, it's an imperfect world. But at some point, if you want to claim a principle, you actually have to stand for it itself, and not use it as a chip to be traded on, to be given away. Surely the fact that everyone must sometimes compromise is not an argument that every compromise is principled, or benevolent, or fair. I have asked my various antagonists many times, and in as specific and frank a way as I know how: where is the limit? What is the boundary beyond which you will not compromise? I've never received any answers.

Married to the notion that you must compromise your beliefs in the pursuit of partisan politics or else be worthless is the proud acknowledgment that partisan politics will likely bring you little anyway. The furor with which people argue that politics happens only within the boundaries of Democrats and Republicans is, somehow, married to an admission that we cannot achieve truly moral ends with those means. So what you end up with is a perfect lockbox of acknowledged impotence and aggressive enforcement of same. This stance has the virtue of an impregnable defense. Unlike the activism vs. partisan politics debates of my youth-- I always tried to do both-- the debate is now not between people arguing how best to improve the world. The argument is rather against those who have walled off every avenue to effect that improvement. As I said, that's an easily defended opinion, because the cynicism of "it cannot be done" speaks volumes in an age defined by reflexive retreat to the presumption of failure. The problem is that people are suffering, are dying, and they don't have the luxury of a showy disbelief in the ability to create positive change.

Only the comfortable could insist that there are no politics but partisan politics while they simultaneously acknowledge that partisan politics will not stem our violence or our cruelty. Only those who have never suffered could assert that impotence with pedantry and with pride.

If the problem was just with me, it would be no problem at all. But I am not alone, out here. I speak bluntly and provoke fights because I believe that papering over these distinctions only serves to make the problem deeper. Democrats and liberals have to decide what they would tolerate from Barack Obama and the leaders who come after him, if there are literally no limits to the logic that compels them to support policies they themselves call murderous or inhumane. They will have to reconcile righteous rage against Ralph Nader for somehow contributing to the Iraq war with love for Hilary Clinton, who supported that war with full force and the power of her vote. They will have to ask whether defining any and all political questions as a matter of opposing the far worse Republicans actually amounts to letting Republicans determine the future of our country. They need to reckon with the fact that most every observer of the 2012 election could detect no meaningful difference in the foreign policy of the two candidates. They have to ask whether an ideology that has always defined itself by its forward-thinking and evolving definition of the good can systematically cut out extremists and hope to survive. And I think they have to ask themselves what they risk becoming in their pursuit of victory.

None of which means, of course, that they can't avoid the questions. But I call them liberals in part because I believe that they have it within themselves to ask them, and perhaps even to answer the call. I believe in this principle for arguing: go with full force at all times, without restraint, but be quick to forgive and quick to ask forgiveness. Who knows what tomorrow will bring?

I have asked, in the past, a question I don't mean rhetorically: what is the proper relationship to ones own conscience? I never asked to interpret politics as anger, never wanted to feel as intensely about them as I do. But here it is. And I have absorbed a literature that tells me, quietly, that the problem with life is not conscience but its lack, not conviction but its marginalization, not too little compromise but too much. Pick through a library of great books, read a list of quotations from famous people, synthesize the compatible ideas of the world's religions; they'll tell you to pursue the good and the true, without apology. I'm just trying to take their advice,

I'm a hard person to like, but it's not hard to earn my admiration. I will break bread with anyone who can look me in the eye and tell me that they are following the dictates of their conscience. That so many take abandoning conscience not only as necessary, but as self-evidently necessary, as obvious, as a prerequisite of being taken seriously-- well, I wonder what happens to democracy in those conditions. I find the pose of self-seriousness and superiority from those who advocate the principle of limitless compromise to be made of iron. But that's okay. I have a little iron in me too. And maybe we'll all be able to make up and get along sooner than we think.

(but only after I win)

Thursday, December 13, 2012

Gawker is full of shit, continued

So awhile back I took Gawker to task for getting righteous about the publication of prurient pictures of women without their consent, when Gawker media itself has long profited off of the same thing. I didn't have a problem with outing the terrible, terrible Redditor ViolentAcrez as the proprietor of CreepShots. I did have a problem with Gawker doing it, as they (and their subsidiaries like Fleshbot) have hosted and linked to photos of nude or nearly nude women who did not consent to having those photos taken or published. The fact that the women in question are celebrities is irrelevant to me: celebrities do not give up their right to an expectation of privacy when it comes to their naked bodies. I'm not advocating legal restrictions on such photos, as I don't think that's enforceable. But I do think it's gross, and I think Gawker (and Adrian Chen specifically) is immensely hypocritical to be prosecuting that argument. (This opinion gave some New York big media types a sad, as Nick Denton and Gawker have paid or currently pay their rent.)

Well, yesterday, Gawker hosted a photo of Anne Hathaway's exposed genitals, a photo she certainly did not intend to be taken or published. And they got clicks and links out of it, which means they made money off of it. I won't link to that post, because I don't want to be part of that chain, but you can find it easily enough.

Today, Hathaway said exactly what needs to be said:

 "It kind of made me sad on two accounts. One, that I was very sad that we live in an age when someone takes a picture of another person in a vulnerable moment and rather than delete it, and do the decent thing, sells it.
And I'm sorry that we live in a culture that commodifies sexuality of unwilling participants...."

And that's the point exactly:  Prurient photos of a private part of Anne Hathaway's body were taken. Gawker published them. They profited off of it, less than a year after outing somebody for doing the same. The only way this is not blatant hypocrisy is if you believe that being a celebrity means you have no expectation of privacy when it comes to your physical body. So is anybody going to pop up at Gawker Media and call out the boss? Will Jezebel take its usual wrathful self-righteousness and apply it to cleaning up its own house?

I doubt it!

Update: I'm informed that Gawker Media sold Fleshbot awhile back. That's my mistake and I apologize for it. Worth saying, though, that they definitely featured the kind of content I'm referring to while under Gawker's ownership, as the flagship site continues to do.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012

let's dip our toes in the fetid waters of liberal support for torture

Scott Lemieux, flogging away, has questions. I have answers.

 I’d appreciate it if Freddie deBoer would cite some of the unnamed ‘liberals’ who ‘want to be forced to support torture’ and take the stupid ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously

Now, I'll list some of them (with links!) below, and please trust me: this post will be a work in progress. I will certainly update it when I have a chance. But let's start at the very top, shall we? Liberal crush object Barack Obama is in charge of, among other things, our intelligence services. Our intelligence services have repeatedly been alleged to have committed torture. Obama is also Commander in Chief to those in the military. And the military tortured Bradley Manning, during Obama's administration, and certainly with Obama's full knowledge and support. If Obama wanted the torture of Bradley Manning to stop, he would have stopped it. That's not intellectual or moral support for torture, it's direct complicity in torture.

How about another liberal favorite, Bill Clinton?
Look, if the president needed an option, there’s all sorts of things they can do.Let’s take the best case, OK.You picked up someone you know is the No. 2 aide to Osama bin Laden. And you know they have an operation planned for the United States or some European capital in the next three days. And you know this guy knows it. Right, that’s the clearest example. And you think you can only get it out of this guy by shooting him full of some drugs or water-boarding him or otherwise working him over. If they really believed that that scenario is likely to occur, let them come forward with an alternate proposal.
We have a system of laws here where nobody should be above the law, and you don’t need blanket advance approval for blanket torture. They can draw a statute much more narrowly, which would permit the president to make a finding in a case like I just outlined.
Also at the top, you have Attorney General Eric Holder:
"One of the things we clearly want to do with these prisoners is to have an ability to interrogate them and find out what their future plans might be, where other cells are located; under the Geneva Convention that you are really limited in the amount of information that you can elicit from people.It seems to me that given the way in which they have conducted themselves, however, that they are not, in fact, people entitled to the protection of the Geneva Convention. They are not prisoners of war. If, for instance, Mohamed Atta had survived the attack on the World Trade Center, would we now be calling him a prisoner of war? I think not. Should Zacarias Moussaoui be called a prisoner of war? Again, I think not.”
Does this amount to support for torture? I'll let you be the judge. Or perhaps we can look to liberal Democrat Chuck Schumer.

How about in the media? Prominent self-identified liberal Jonathan Alter:
We can’t legalize physical torture; it’s contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we’ll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that’s hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty
In the article, Alter discusses noted liberal lawyer Alan Dershowitz:
For more than 20 years Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has argued to the Israelis that this is terribly unfair to the members of the security services. In a forthcoming book, “Shouting Fire,” he makes the case for what he calls a “torture warrant,” where judges would balance competing claims and make the call, as they do in issuing search warrants. Dershowitz says that as long as the fruits of such interrogation are used for investigation, not to convict the detainee (a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination), it could be constitutional here, too. “I’m not in favor of torture, but if you’re going to have it, it should damn well have court approval,” Dershowitz says.
It gets better, with Alter. From an article in the New York Times on the subject:
Mr. Alter said he was surprised that his column did not provoke a big flood of e-mail messages or letters. And perhaps even more surprising, he said, was that he had been approached by "people who might be described as being on the left whispering, 'I agree with you.'"
Corey Robin helpfully posts in the comments at LGM:
Michael Walzer’s “Dirty Hands” argument is the classic case of taking the ticking time bomb hypothetical seriously, and it has generated an entire cottage industry in ethics, and of course it supports the use of torture. In 2004, Sandy Levinson edited a volume with OUP on torture, and he reprinted Walzer’s essay with Walzer’s consent (Walzer hasn’t, to my knowledge, walked back from that position; if anything, he’s amplified it in his book of essays on war, Arguing About War). Levinson also endorsed the position of supporting torture in the instance of the ticking time bomb, as did Oren Gross, Miriam Gur-Arye, and several others in that volume. The only one who came out categorically against torture — and the ticking time bomb scenario — were Henry Schue (and even he got squishy toward the end) and Elaine Scarry. Steven Lukes has written a piece where he takes the ticking time bomb seriously. I don’t know these fields of ethics or legal ethics that well, but I suspect these are just the tip of the iceberg.
But I talked about liberals wanting to be forced into a position of accepting torture. What does that look like? Here's Fred Kaplan in 2004:
I do not mean to advocate torture. I mean only to suggest that it's time to start wrestling with those moral and legal dilemmas, to face them straightforwardly. If al-Qaida strikes the United States again, our leaders—whoever they are—will be tempted to resort to torture as a method of getting vital intelligence quickly, and we or they or someone should have mapped out crucial distinctions ahead of time: What is acceptable, what isn't; who should engage in it, who shouldn't; for what purposes is it legitimate, for what purposes isn't it; or whether we should decide, after an honest appraisal of its costs and benefits, that the whole business of torture—however you define it—is irredeemably beyond the pale.
This is my point exactly. Kaplan here wants us to believe that he'd much rather not be talking about the possibility of torture-- indeed, he doesn't mean to advocate torture-- but he wants us to be clear about what we do before we torture. He leaves the door open to be forced to conclude, well, we have no choice, which is what liberals always want. Is this specific enough for you, Scott?

Without endorsing it without reservation, let me point you to an argument by David Luban of the Georgetown University Law Center. He apparently thought that liberal support for torture was enough of a thing to publish an article about it in the Virginia Law Review. And he made my own argument before me, in 2005:
more importantly, the liberal rationale for torture as intelligence gathering in gravely dangerous situations transforms and rationalizes the motivation for torture. Now, for the first time, it becomes possible to think of torture as a last resort of men and women who are profoundly reluctant to torture. And in that way, liberals can for the first time think of torture dissociated from cruelty-torture authorized and administered by decent human beings who abhor what circumstances force them to do. Torture to gather intelligence and save lives seems almost heroic. For the first time, we can think of kindly torturers rather than tyrants.
But maybe Scott Lemieux's right and I just made the whole thing up.

Now, perhaps Lemieux will claim that the people I've named aren't really liberals, in which case he should sell that argument to a textbook publisher for a section on "No True Scotsman." (I've left out self-identified liberal Sam Harris, for one, on the theory that Lemieux would object; he says specifically that he does not want to  be known as pro-torture but will support it when push comes to shove.) But if he'd like to pick and choose which liberals actually represent American liberalism, cool, I'll have that argument.

If Scott Lemieux is an intellectually honest person, he'll link to this piece and admit that, in fact, many liberals and progressives have advocated torture. If he isn't, he won't. Honestly, I think he must have figured I wouldn't bother to check; finding these people is that easy. Or perhaps he simply knew that he could play to his commenters and not face any forceful response.

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


1. There is no such thing as an apolitical movie. Few things are more political than the pose of being apolitical. Calling a movie that deals with current events of immense controversy apolitical is absurd. Calling a movie what opens with depictions of 9/11 apolitical is weaselly horseshit.

2. A "neutral point of view" and "refusal to judge," even if such a thing were possible, is not the mark of some mature artistic sensibility or refined aesthetic. It's a sign of moral cowardice. When Bigelow and the screenwriter say that they aren't presenting a political agenda or are merely presenting the facts, that in and of itself is advancing a political agenda. And saying you refuse to judge torture isn't a defense from criticism, it's self-indictment, because a refusal to judge torture is fucking immoral and disgusting.

Monday, December 10, 2012

bad faith and Zero Dark Thirty

One of the things I realized very early on in the post-9/11 world was how many people wanted to maintain the pose of sophistication and skepticism that was important to their self-conception while still embracing the militaristic, racist propaganda that was the common language of our country at that time. For a brief time, a kind of showy sincerity predominated; even the most sarcasm-drenched plastered their cars with those mini American flags. But the shelf life was short.

So a new method for protecting our national self-image of righteous violence against the subhuman Muslim throngs was developed: not unironic embrace of embarrassing patriotism or gauche militarism, but rather reflexive denial of left-wing criticisms of the same. Rather than making the affirmative case for America as the shining redeemer, fighting against the heathens who had wronged us, many among the culturally liberal elite instead reverted to a purely negative argument to undermine and ridicule left-wing critique of our military adventures. So the typical move was not to endorse Bush administration foreign policy but to deride as cranks and loons those who proposed an alternative. I know because from 2002 to 2005, antiwar activism was a 20-30 hour a week job for me, and I learned very quickly that cultural and social liberals did not want to hear about our abuses in the Muslim world. They preferred to deride any talk of American brutality abroad as conspiracy theorizing, the domain of the "loony left," and cluck their tongues at the incompetence and excess of the Bush administration, never really articulating the fact that complaints about incompetence and excess suggest an essential endorsement of goals.

I bring this up in regards to Glenn Greenwald's thoughts on Zero Dark Thirty. Based on his Twitter feed, it seems he has caused a conflagration for daring to criticize the movie. The typical, and typically cheap, response is that he has no right to judge the movie without having seen it. Which would be true, were he commenting on its quality or its perspective. Instead Greenwald has a very basic point, one that is being roundly ignored: a film that has repeatedly and proudly been sold as "documentary" and "journalistic" contains a lie of profound importance. The movie, by all accounts, shows torture as being an indispensable part of the capture of bin Laden, an idea that has been roundly debunked and specifically denied by many people on the inside of the government. (Adam Serwer, with typical thoroughness and fairness, has the run-down.) To say that your movie is "a hybrid of the filmic and the journalistic," as the writer of the film did, when your movie depicts the use of torture as essential to captuing bin Laden is to tell a lie. And in a country of vitriolic anti-Muslim hatred, a dangerous lie. Whether you've seen the film or not.

What the pompous film critics defending this film will have to grapple with is the fact that in this country, at this time, when we are continuing our decade-long policy of collective punishment against the Muslim world, it is a certainty that many people will leave the theater after seeing Zero Dark Thirty convinced that torture was used to find Osama bin Laden, and that Osama bin Laden was at the time a threat to the United States (when he certainly was not), and so we must continue to torture. That's just a fact. So: how do they feel about that? "You haven't seen the film, unlike me!" is not an argument either way.

It's not that I think liberals support torture. No, I think liberals want to be forced to support torture. What liberals want is ultimately to do what conservative hawks want to do, but only after experts and leaders assure them that they have no choice. They want extreme events to make the choice for them. That's why every discussion of torture always descends into some absurd hypothetical where you know that there's a ticking time bomb and you know that a terrorist in your custody has info and you know that you can get that info and stop that bomb if you torture him. They devise these incredibly complex scenarios because they need them to take away their personal choice. That's why writers like Spencer Ackerman exist, to present the proper level of squeamishness and showy moral grappling-- to say that these scenes "can make a viewer ashamed to be American, in the context of a movie whose ending scene makes viewers very, very proud to be American"-- before the torture happens anyway. The key is to go through the moral indigestion but to eventually get to the all-American pride. There's a whole cottage industry, like that, for fretting liberals who want to get to the tough guy routine in the end.

If Zero Dark Thirty shows torture as the key to killing bin Laden, that's what it's for, and I'm sure performing that service will prove very profitable. It will inevitably be folded into a narrative used to perpetuate violence in the Muslim world. That narrative will come wrapped in the flag and shouting about freedom. That's what it means to be an American today, to talk about defending principles you swiftly abandon in the process of defending them. And that's the message of American liberals today, like the film critics showing their profound sophistication as they snark at Greenwald: do the bad thing. Just make us feel that we have no choice.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

sacrifices from Democrats and Democrats alike

I'm sure people will patiently inform me of the answer in the comments, but I do have a pretty major question here.

Ezra Klein is reporting on a proposed deal for the latest absurd budget fracas between the chastened Republican rump and the Democratic party that they nevertheless dominate. And as Paul Krugman says, if this is the deal, it's a terrible one for liberals and Democrats. Terrible. I have no idea if this deal will come to fruition; I certainly hope not. If it does, I expect left-wing pushback, and the inevitable ugly, acrimonious fight between the existentially Obama-defending left and the we-should-stand-for-principles-and-not-politicians left. Now, I expect that the Kevin Drums of the world will, in the face of liberal criticisms of such a deal, pull out the old "the presidency is weak" line of argument. Corey Robin summarized this stance recently, as the notion of the presidency as "a radically constrained institution, which is often buffeted by forces it can’t control—in Congress, and elsewhere." Now, this is complicated, because the president's authority is unevenly distributed; a big part of my point when it comes to drones is that Obama has almost unfettered ability to shutter the program without the review of Congress. On domestic matters, it's a more complicated story. And this complication will be used to excuse Obama cutting a bad deal. "What do you want, liberals? Hey, it's a center-right country! We've got to restrict access to Medicare, or else we might get Republicans in office who will attack our social safety net!"

Here's my problem: for months prior to Election Day, many Democrats and liberals insisted that the position of the presidency was so vastly important that it was worth suspending certain moral and ethical principles in order to elect the better candidate. I don't want to rehash the wrongness or rightness of lesser evilism yet again. I'm just pointing out that this was the argument. And please note that the moral stakes simply could not have been higher; what was in argument were issues of literal life and death, of our stance towards the killing of innocent people. Retaining the presidency was so important that we had to put some of our most basic convictions on hold.

I don't understand how these two impulses-- to elevate the importance of the presidency to the point that you excuse any behavior to capture it, and acting like the president has essentially no power to implement his vision-- can be reconciled so effortlessly. How can it be the case that electing the more liberal presidential candidate is at once the solemn duty of all progressive people, because it's such a powerful position, and that the president shouldn't be criticized for the deals he strikes, because he just isn't that powerful? I understand that there is space to say "the presidency is very constrained, but the decisions the president makes are still very important." But that space simply is not the space occupied by the people defending Obama during the election. Rather they advanced a maximal reading of the power of the presidency, the better to make the case for supporting the lesser evil.

John Cole has the goods here. (I should admit that I was unfair to the BJ crowd during the election, although not so unfair as some in the BJ crowd tended to be towards Obama's critics. I am sorry, though. Few of us covered ourselves in glory.)

I said during the election that Democrats make winning a type of losing. I meant that even when they win, they play the Republicans' game, and in so doing create internal dissension on the left that the Republicans take advantage of again, and again.... As Krugman says, if we do nothing, rates rise without a cut in benefits. And Obama doesn't need to get reelected. And we just had a landslide election, at least in terms of electoral votes. And god, if this is not an existential issue for liberals... what could be? Read Digby, at her formidable best, schooling neoliberal troll Jon Chait. Raising the Medicare eligibility rate means that old people die of preventable illnesses. What is the purpose of winning elections if we then trade away what was won, based on extremely shoddy reasoning and the threats of a party in retreat? And just how far can "but Republicans would be worse" take us away from our core values before we have none at all?

I dearly hope that Klein is wrong. And I dearly hope that I'm wrong about who will defend such a deal, and with what force.

Update: Again: there's a good chance this won't be the deal, and I'll dance a jig if it isn't. I truly hope that Obama doesn't agree to this.