December 16, 2016

Excerpts below from not-quite thumbsuckers published over the past week that thread the needle of what Jonathan Lethem, writing in the December 15 London Review, called “calm down” people and “freak out” people. His full essay is behind a paywall for now, but here’s a teaser:

The non-sequiturs are as enraging as the lies and insinuations, I think. The destruction of language and meaning, the erosion of principles of truth and accountability perpetrated by Trump and his immediate circle is not only destabilising and distracting, but comes to seem part of the point, maybe even the centre of the operation. Everything is gestural now, everything has two names. At least two. Alongside outright denial, the dogs of the racist right have learned to whistle back to their master, in the form of the plausibly deniable. Slippage from ‘Black Lives Matter’ to ‘All Lives Matter’: these are notions that render sense insensible. We’ve all got our least favourite example. Mine came early in the campaign, when Trump declared that a Muslim ban was needed until ‘we can figure out what the hell is going on’ – the solipsistic implication being that a topic hadn’t begun to be contemplated until Trump turned his own enlivening attention to it (but of course he was a very busy man, and hadn’t gotten to it yet).

Corey Robin is a professor of Political Science at Brooklyn College. His collection of essays The Reactionary Mind should be on your shelf or Kindle for its insights and clarity of expression. Its first essay, “Conservatism and Counterrevolution,” contains many passages that helped inform my reaction to the Trump phenomenon so that I wasn’t quite as in the “freak out” column as it was happening. Some examples:

People on the Left often fail to realize this, but conservatism really does speak to and for people who have lost something. It may be a landed estate or the privileges of white skin, the unquestioned authority of a husband or the untrammeled rights of a factory owner. The loss may be as material as a portion of one’s income or as ethereal as a sense of standing. It may be of something that was never legitimately owned in the first place; it may, when compared with what the conservative retains, be small. Even so, it’s a loss, and nothing is ever so cherished as that which we no longer possess. It used to be one of the great virtues of the Left that it alone understood the often zero-sum nature of politics, where the gains of one class necessarily entail the losses of another. But as that sense of conflict diminishes on the Left, it has fallen to the Right to remind voters that there really are losers in politics and that it is they—and only they—who speak for them.

Because his losses are recent—the Right agitates against reform in real time, not millennia after the fact—the conservative can credibly claim to his constituency, indeed to the polity at large, that his goals are practical and achievable. He merely seeks to regain what is his, and the fact that he once had it—indeed, probably had it for some time—suggests that he is capable of possessing it again. Where the Left’s program of redistribution raises the question of whether its beneficiaries are truly prepared to wield the powers they seek, the conservative project of restoration suffers from no such challenge. Unlike the reformer or the revolutionary, moreover, who faces the nearly impossible task of empowering the powerless—that is, of turning people from what they are into what they are not—the conservative merely asks his followers to do more of what they always have done (albeit better). As a result, his counterrevolution will not require the same disruption that the revolution has visited upon the country.

What else? La Ravitch exhumes Orwell for the right reasons, Jesse Singal adjusts the aim of the circular firing squad, Conor Friedersdorf joins the pep rally, and Edroso is back for the lulz. His piece this week, more than usual, provides evidence of a trend disturbing not for “what it says” about the nation, but because there are human beings in our communities suffering from serious delusional thinking and we should always feel bad about that. Moreover, the joy at what the writers feel will be the reaction of their bogeyman Left to Trump’s latest piss in the well…I mean when the Supreme Court affirmed marriage as a universal right, my first thought was not, “Ha! There’s a Christian in Wichita crying into her Metamucil right now! Suck on some enfranchisement, Grandma!” You know?

Laura Carter was a force of nature.

Eo ipso

Against the Politics of Fear

In any event, among the many reasons the election of Trump has so depressed me, why I’ve not commented much since the election and have mostly stayed off social media, is that it has given license to the politics of fear on the left. Particularly on social media. Once again, we have that sense that we are face to face with some deep, dark truth of the republic. Once again, we have that sense those of us who insist that the horribles of the world should not and cannot have the last word, are somehow naifs, with our silly faith in the Enlightenment, in politics, in the possibility that we can change these things, that politics can be about something else, something better. I find that sensibility deeply conservative (not in my sense of the word but in the more conventional sense), and I resist it with every fiber of my being.

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The Misplaced Fear of ‘Normalization’

The battle over norms is lost. Thankfully, the battle over outcomes remains. And liberals have triumphed in plenty of bygone contests of ideas, on harder demographic terrain and in more illiberal eras, before norm-policing became the go-to strategy. “In appealing to what’s typical rather than what’s right or true,” Katy Waldman recently argued, “we’re missing an opportunity to make a stronger statement.”

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Word Policing

Why the Liberal Infighting Over ‘Coddling’ Racists Matters

Yes, publications of all stripes should be less mealymouthed about calling racism racism, but the question of whether candidates, institutions, and media “can create social conditions and stigmas by which bigotry is diminished” depends hugely on the specifics, and it’s often the case that this simply isn’t true. The New York Times has very limited power to shape the attitudes of people who don’t read the Times, or who view it as a mouthpiece for out-of-touch coastal elitism (setting aside whether you think this concept makes any sense). At a time when media is incredibly fragmented and everyone is constantly having their own worldview, well, coddled, there’s more reason than ever before to be skeptical of optimistic theories about the media’s ability to shape norms and behavior across partisan or ideological lines.

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Let Your False Flag Fly

Rightbloggers Plug Their Ears to ‘Fake News’ on Trump, Tillerson, and Russia

“Trump SHOCKED The Nation With Who He Just Picked for Secretary Of State,” gun-jumped Paris Swade of Liberty Writers News. “This is going to get interesting! Look how much the left will soil their pants. Seriously. Look at the liberal closest to you. Do you smell that? Do you smell that faint smell of pee? That’s because Trump is a genius and picked a genius Secretary of State.” I love the smell of ressentiment in the morning. It smells like…urine.

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Double Plus Good

George Orwell on Fake News and Fascism

I think what he wrote in that essay casts a fresh light on what appears to be the new phenomenon of Fake News. It comes to us via the Internet, which did not exist when Orwell wrote this essay. It comes in the same typography as the news that has been carefully fact-checked. It seeks to discredit the mainstream media. It seeks to discredit the views of everyone because of their suspected motives. I am not suggesting that we should be credulous of everything we read. To the contrary.

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