Dear Atlantic: Sure, Millennial’s Politics are Incoherent, but so are your complaints

I have the misfortune of reading Derek Thompson’s recent article on the incoherent of millennial politics.   At first, my immediate reaction was #duh (because all expressions of obviousness are #hashtags now), but then I read the complaints Thompson made:

  • Millennials hate the political parties more than everyone else, but they have the highest opinion of Congress.

  • Young people are the most likely to be single parents and the least likely to approve of single parenthood.

  • Young people voted overwhelmingly for Obama when he promised universal health care, but they oppose his universal health care law as much as the rest of the country … even though they still pledge high support for universal health care. (Like other groups, but more so: They seem allergic to the term Obamacare.)

Of the three paradoxes he immediately mentioned from the Pew Poll and his own 2014 article, one wonders if Thompson himself isn’t confused about the meaning of paradox. While I cannot account for why Millennials hate political parties and love congress–as a perfectly sensible person with any knowledge of the blood sausage that is the US congressional establishment should turn their nose up at both–the two other “paradoxes” are obvious.

The first one is simple.  The number of working class single parents among millennials is extremely high even for a generation that engaged in less pre-martial sex and reports having less affairs than Boomers.   In short, their parents, the later boomers and earlier Gen X’ers had plenty of divorces and AIDS scares to impart unto their children.  The reason why millennials are not likely to get married and working class Americans are much less likely to get married, and much more likely to get divorced when they do, than upper middle class Americans.  That is true trans-generationally, but it millennials particularly hard.   It seems like Derek Thompson, whose position at Senior Editor at the Atlantic almost mandates he is a Generation ‘X/Generation ‘Y shill for liberal boomer politics,  should know this. After all, he wrote the article on how despite Obama’s job boom, the economy is objectively terrible for most young people. 

So what is there not to get? I am not a single parent. I have no children, but my mother was for the first five years of my life. It is hard. Extremely hard, particularly when you are poor and working class.  We lived with grandparents and in cars in the 1980s when such things were much less common. My mother then re-married to my step-father, and things improved greatly for both of us. I don’t encourage single parenting either.  I see it as a fact of divorce, long-term partnerships that fail, etc., but its not a particularly good idea.  Experience would teach it that so why is that a “paradox?”

Then Thompson makes a real disingenuous complaint Obamacare.  Millennials want universal healthcare, generally single payer, like most industrialized countries. They want cuts to the cost of insurance. For millennials in particular, Obamacare is just a mandate to buy high deductible insurance that they can’t afford to use.  It is a universal insurance program that doesn’t even have price gaps and keeps exceptions to anti-Trust laws for the medical field in place.  Why would anyone with any knowledge of that want Obama’s “universal healthcare” when it has no cost controls–it’s designed not too because cost controls would hurt key Democratic donation blocs–and little mandate for care, but makes you buy a product that most people see as broken and which, outside of liberal areas like New York and California, have seen cost increases. 

Sorry, Derek, that isn’t incoherence.

Now sure Thompson may have a few points:

First, they’re young and poor, and young, poor people are historically more liberal. Second, they’re historically non-white. Non-white Americans are historically liberal, too. Third, their white demo is historically liberal compared to older white voters, as Jon Chait has pointed out. It all adds up to one cresting blue wave. For now.

But something interesting happens when Millennials start making serious dough. They start getting much more squeamish about giving it away.

You are going to try to pretend that is unique to millennials? Didn’t the same boomers that made up the bulk of the late 60s and early 70s movements also vote for Reagan in 1980? Statistically, they would have had to for that victory to have happened.  All groups tend to be less given to redistribution as they get richer. You don’t even need a Marxist like me to tell you that. That is the contradiction in the nature of Keynesian-inspired  redistribution schemes, if they work, they also undercut their own support.

Then Thompson gets particularly obvious:

This just barely makes any sense. Here is a generation that trusts peers enough to meet random strangers in bars on Tinder, ride in cars with strangers on Uber X and Lyft, visit strangers’ apartments through Craigslist, sleep on their beds through Airbnb, and we’re also the least likely to say “most people can be trusted”? Put your theories in the comment section; I don’t know what to believe anymore.

Do you not understand how alienation works? The more connected you are to people in superficial ways, the less likely you are to the communities and long term responsibility to social groups to built trust. Again, this is not a paradox of millennials.  Similar themes go back the science fiction of the 1960s: boomer and lost generation writers like J.G. Ballard and Philip K. Dick were illustrating us the logic of this before we even had social media and the “sharing economy” (which turns many non-fiscal transactions into fiscal ones) to hyper-accelerate those trends.

This isn’t surprising. It’s not a paradox about generational attitudes. It’s utterly predictable counter-trends of a liberal society.  None of which are even that unique to the young.

Let’s go onto more:

I predict that any readers over the age of 30 will absolutely love this fact about voters under the age of 29. Forty-two percent of Millennials think socialism is preferable to capitalism, but only 16 percent of Millennials could accurately define socialism in the survey.

Given that most of the boomers I know–both left and right lately–talk about police and snow plows as “socialism”? How is this a generational problem? In the absence of even a failed and deformed socialist state like Soviet Union and when people calling Nordic countries socialist even though they have a market economy and fair amount of “inequality”–although lower than the US and the Anglo-speaking world–is this surprising?

I can go on and on. The main point here is the astonishing “contradictions” of millennial politics either aren’t contradictions or they aren’t unique to millennials. I mean looking at the hip authors of Generation X: Doug Copeland’s or Irvine Welsh’s or Chuch Palahnuik’s politics were all maddening.

(And before you go off on me for protecting “my generation”–I find the life style and identity politics to be silly, but they didn’t start it. I am also published in Gen X poetry analogies. I am in the “Generation Y” gap of those old enough to remember the cold war and a time before not only smart phones, but CDs and cell-phones but don’t remember a time when there was only three television channels or party-lines rotary phones. In short, I am in the gap between as I am 35.)

Review: League of Regrettable Superheroes by Jon Morris (Quirk Press, 2015)

Morris’s “League of Regrettable Superheroes” is exploration of the flukes of the superhero genre, and this breaks things down into the nice explorations of vices and would-bes of the various comic book ages. Since the book focuses primarily on the super-heros with brief shelf-lives, you don’t need to dig down into massive mythologies or character inconsistencies or revisions of character history or alternate universes. Or, not as much as in more standard and long-running superhero fair.

Each character has, at least, a two page spread. A cover or panel is given as well as brief bio. Morris is not laugh at loud funny, but he is humorous without being snarky or pedantic. In the spirit of early comic books, there are few cute puns. The current break down is the Golden Age with 44 heroes; The Silver Age with 26 heroes; and The Modern Age with 30 heroes. The Golden Age has similar themes from comics publishers run amok, and the discussion actually gives you a insight into the early history of comics. The collapse of the “Bronze Age” and the “1980s-early 2000s” is probably a thematic mistake: the “Edgy” “adult” (teen vision of adult prurience and violence) and the bronze age attempt at more psychologically realistic and socially conscious heroes are actually quite different in their vices.

One of the interesting things discussed in subtext of Morris’ book is that not only are some of the more interesting superheroes more or less flops, but that superhero comics often go out of favor. For example, in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Morris mentions that superheroes were often in serial movies in theaters, but that superhero comics declined in popularity very quickly thereafter. Conversely, the early 1990s were an unusual prolix and profitable time for comics, but it collapsed out from under the industry and basically only related properties keep the current industry afloat. Indeed, we live in an age where superhero comic properties dominate the movies and popular culture, but superhero comic books are on the wane. This is something Morris does not discuss directly but hints at in his erudition about the medium.

The book is beautiful and well-laid out, the heroes range from hilarious to the vices of their age, and Morris shows his power as a subtle writer of pop culture and an academic of comics. In age of Geek and nerd dominance, this a refreshing reminder of its silliness.

A Rant: The Brief Discussion of the Birth of An Error

Collectivism vs. Individualism is the primary and fundamental misreading of human self-formation out of the Enlightenment and picking sides in that dumb-ass binary has been the primary driver of bad politics left and right for the last 250 years. This binary definitely let to both right-wing (Herbert Spencer’s Social Darwinism) and left-wing (the progressive eugenics movement as well as eugenics among American pragmatists as well as Stalin’s New man, etc) misreadings of biology.  It is fundamental misunderstanding of Marxian vs. capitalist economics (markets are not truly an individual enterprise and the collective powering of workers was not a denial of individual agency). It is what leads to horrible misreadings of other cultures as well as the US own culture.
 Of the post-Enlightenment thinkers–utilitarianism vs. deontology dominating the philosophical debates since 1700s while neither seemed to deal with multiple valance of virtue ethic theory–Hegel was one of the few to point out that the self only arises against the recognition of something apart from it, and struggling to be recognized by something apart from it to understand itself, it emerges as a being.  You are formed by and against a collective, and you can not more abandon your individual self to the mob at all times any more than you can learn to speak without some to teach you and to talk.
So kindly, let’s quit this damnably stupid way of binary thinking that was perfectly obvious to most philosophical and religious thinkers of the past to sillily reductive (see Stoic epistemology, skeptic epistemology, Greek virtue ethics, Christian and Islamic virtue ethics,  Abhidhamma, etc).

Attempts 4: Expatriation, Teaching, and Memory

I was grading tons of essays today–the kinds of student essays that show the students were mostly paying attention but were not quite there yet–and listening to podcasts.  I took at break, walking around my third floor Cairo apartment and noticing that it was raining.  It’s hyperbolic to say it never rains in Cairo, but this is a culture that had the status of bread basket to both the Roman and Islamic world because it was so wet yet never rained enough to erode the minerals in the soil.  For some reason, perhaps somewhat obvious, I thought about the time in Torreon, Mexico, when the uncharacteristically heavy rains put out my gas water heater, and I miss lit it, and melted my eye brows and third-degree burned my face to a vivid pink. Then I thought about my first monsoon season in Yong-in, when I just met my current partner over talking about competitive debate in South Korea, and Osan river flooded the first floor of my apartment building, leaving me having to climb up and down fourteen flights of stairs.

Then I thought about my last teaching day in Georgia. Listening to podcasts and backing up my classroom for the last time.  My first three years of teaching had been hit-and-miss, and I was exhausted. A few months prior, my principal had given me a warning: if two other teachers didn’t retire that year, I was to be laid off.  I had applied and been accepted to a Phd in Educational Leadership, but got no funding, and without a full-time job, I had hedge my bets.  Two weeks prior, a friend of mine had asked me to interview for a job. This friend was my former philosophy professor in undergrad–a rather conservative philosopher who had tried to get out of academia in housing, then when that collapsed into the abyss that was 2008-9, he left to Korea to work in publishing and then at Korean Universities. I did not know this.  We had not spoken in several years aside to argue about politics and Hegel, and sometimes relationship between Buddhist logic and post-Enlightenment Christian logic.  He would later live with me in the ends of his marriage for a few weeks after we refused to speak over a political argument. He was trying to find qualified lecturers for University and my part-time job after school had been teaching Composition and Literature courses to community college students. I sent my C.V. to him, and went a week, I got an interview.  That interview as at four o’clock in the morning because I was interviewing with a panel of professors in Seoul.

I got that job, but at the moment I was packing up my desk and going to tell my Department Head at the community college I was teaching that I would be leaving in two months, I felt like an utter failure.  My marriage was on the rocks, although I had no idea that it would end. My then wife had lost her job somewhat unfairly and unexpectedly, and was swimming in a sea of confusion about what to do with her life. Our worlds had moved further and further apart–I thought she was, of course, as intelligent as me but she was intimidated by the academic world I had moved in and since she had no college degree, she was not employable at any institution that I would work at abroad.  Furthermore, I was leaving as the first class of students I taught who were graduating, and as their graduation ceremony completed, I just slowly stuck out of the hall my school was renting, and went home to drink.

So as I was listening to a podcast like “Atheist News” or “The Geologic Podcast,”  trying to laugh, sending tons of documents to University a million miles away, canceling my plans to appear at Skepticamp.  I stopped blogging on the first incarnation of this blog for about a year, I had let my live journal go dormant. I was drinking a lot of whisky. I had also gained weight.  I would go to a dinner one last time with my ex-wife to a new Chinese restaurant, and I remember just playing with the orange chicken and trying to talk about closing out my 401-3b to pay for our medical bills before I left the country.  We argued about whether or not it may sense for her to move in and go to school online in South Korea, if she could transfer our cats to Korea.

I went a few times to my favorite used book store and sold most of my unsigned physical books.  I bought a kindle despite thinking e-books where stupid because they were easy to transport from country to country. I said goodbye to some students. I visited my family, and would say goodbye to some  people. I got on a plane to Seoul, and softly and quietly tearing up as left my life behind, I watched mumble-core movies and French films about Moliere and Mic Macs, and was wowed by the powder blue uniforms of the Korean inflight attendants. All of whom were preternaturally tall, and disturbingly beautiful.  A Korean woman rested her head on my shoulder.  I felt alone.  My relationship to the past changed.

I mark time by places there forward, and my media I consume.  Each period of my life feels discrete, although for months there were reminders.  Three months later, I found my now ex-wife’s hair in my clothes and books.  I was in shock, and my ex- and I drifted further apart. She got a new job.  We fought sometimes.  I started talking to other female friends.  I visited over Christmas, and then we decided to divorce.

In that time, I wrote this poem, which was later published in the Ann Arbor Review,

EXPATRIATION

Moving my books out of baggage
a brown hair from my wife
brushes my hand. Fissure
and erasure. Trace of small
moment, even the hair
without the scent, dialectic
pull of the memory. Loss.
Once there was a love
story. Once a beginning,
middle, end. Here absence
stalls and sputters. Trace
of keratin, cutting of crown,
moving her here, a bleak
scar across a page and palm.
Everything apart pulls back
together. Gently tucking
the hair into my pocket,
I become ellipses
as if I can reconstruct
specters from loss.

Yet at the end of the day, the specters of lose became a new life: one in which the trauma of my twenties–some of which is too personal to mention on this kind of blog–turned into a turn to philosophy, writing, and travel. I have been a writer for six or seven years, but in jumping to Korea and packing up my old life, when I really moved into having something to write about other than childhood, and something to say about America other than just the reactions to whatever political tribe seems nearest to my emotive core.

Travel changes you.  Travel becomes you.  It unsettles your sense of time and plac,e but in that disruptive sorting, defines time and place for you more clearly.

Twenty Novels That I Think Are Important

But will not necessarily explain why, and will let me readers speculate on any trends they see:

The MaddAddam trilogy by Margaret Atwood*
High Rise by J. G. Ballard
Ada, Or Ardor by Vladmir Nabokov
The Name of the Rose by Umberto Eco
Storm and Steel by Ernest Junger
The Sound of Waves by Yukio Mishima
The Buddha’s Little Finger by Victor Pelevin
Invisible Man by Ralph Ellison
Rabbit Angstrom: A Tetralogy by John Updike*
2666 by Roberto Bolano
Near to the Wild Hear by Clarice Lispector
Kindred by Octavia Butler
The Fifth Head of Cerberus by Gene Wolfe
The Man in High Castle by Philip K. Dick
Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel
Orlando by Virgina Woolf
The Cairo Trilogy by Naguib Mahfouz*
The Border Trilogy by Cormac McCarthy*
The Burning Secret by Stefan Zweig
The Map and the Territory by Michel Houellebecq

*I realize this is cheating but I consider the effect of these works together as a unified piece of art.

Views from Egypt: Saqqara, Dashur, Memphis

Taking a break from the long essays, I wanted to post from my travels.  While there are a million travel blogs all over the world, I travel extensively. In the past five years, I have been to South Korea, Taiwan, Japan, Northern Mexico, Southern Mexico, and Cairo.   It is one of the perks of the job I have chosen to do: I make a middle class living at much lower pay than I could in the States, and I get to travel all over the planet.  This has been crucial to changing my thinking in the past five years, even if the internet lessens the alienation (and thus the impact) of travel.

Today, my partner and I went to outskirts of Giza with a group of Americans and two Egyptians to ancient capitals of KMT.  Here are some pictures for your enjoyment:

Woman making street bread outside of Mat rahina (Memphis).

Woman making street bread outside of Mat rahina (Memphis).

The funeral Temple at Saqqara. The oldest known cut stone structure on Earth built by Imhotep.

The funeral Temple at Saqqara. The oldest known cut stone structure on Earth built by Imhotep.

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis.

The alabaster Sphinx at Memphis.

Memphhis

Memphhis

Statue of Ramses the II

Statue of Ramses the II

The Red and Bent Pyramids of Dashur

The Red and Bent Pyramids of Dashur

Step Pyramid of Djose r

Step Pyramid of Djose r

Ramses II at Memphis

Ramses II at Memphis

Step Pyramid at Djoser

Step Pyramid at Djoser

Memphis

Memphis

The Sour Grapes of the Body Politics, Or The Troll and the Tumblrite, part 2

(Author’s note: Read part 1 first.)

IV: The Politics of the Alienated Is Alienating

Baudrillard was right. We don’t have a real political left or right. We have simulacra of the left and right. These put on a show and meanwhile everything is governed by the inexorable logic of capital. This is why I don’t get upset by the antics of right wing extremists. What they might think has little to do with what happens and why. -Michael Rectenwald

“… just as early industrial capitalism moved the focus of existence from being to having, post-industrial culture has moved that focus from having to appearing.”
― Guy Debord, The Society of the Spectacle

“We will live in this world, which for us has all the disquieting strangeness of the desert and of the simulacrum, with all the veracity of living phantoms, of wandering and simulating animals that capital, that the death of capital has made of us—because the desert of cities is equal to the desert of sand—the jungle of signs is equal to that of the forests—the vertigo of simulacra is equal to that of nature—only the vertiginous seduction of a dying system remains, in which work buries work, in which value buries value—leaving a virgin, sacred space without pathways, continuous as Bataille wished it, where only the wind lifts the sand, where only the wind watches over the sand.”
― Jean Baudrillard, Simulacra and Simulation

 

One of the darker implications of this for “democratic polities” (if such a thing exists anywhere on this earth in a meaningful sense), the politics of alienation seem to be designed to increase alienation, and to have litmus tests to which everyone eventually fails.  This stands to reason because it essentially isn’t interested in fundamental economic change at the level of ordering an economy or defending even pre-capitalist forms of society.  Even Bernie Sanders is not making such a point as he backs down on any links to “socialism” that more substantive than Keynesian distributive logics.

The shadow logic though is that spectacle eats up more and more of one’s political identity because political logic is functioning a like proxy for community, and community itself is a proxy for kinship.  In this hollowing out, the easiest way to do moral sorting of essentially computer avatars and constructed online personas is a political sorting that corresponds with the class and cultural sorting that has already happened in US, UK, and Canada. (Here I frankly do not have the on-the-ground knowledge to know if this applies to commonwealth countries outside of the British Isles and North America).
This trend is not new–newsprint and television presaged it both dramatically and more passively–but rendered less passive by the internet. This glut of identity markers washes out in the discourse to politeness norms being taken as universal political statements, which is much of what language policing and the pro-/con- complaints of “political correctness” and “problematic statements” both reduce.

Still we are rendered “together” by our virtual communities as we would like or as anyone who has read the anonymous comments on Youtube or newspapers can easily attend. Our politics are without  a clear polis–often I see people from India and New Zealand having very particular opinions not just on American national politics, which clearly does effect the world in ways that only the totality of EU, Russia, China can only really balance out, but on local politics and political controversies to which their situation is a best a dim proxy, yet it dominates the English language discussion.

In a sense our discourse has been rendered more extreme because the antagonism has been rendered more external and more abstract.  But false pretensions to post-political moderation of the late cold war and the early 1990s do nothing to undo this: Trump is one example.  Clearly not a conservative in most of the senses that matter to the GOP, he has managed to show that being a reality Television and deliberately courting controversy is a dramatically effective way to get free press and to dislodge competition.  This, again, is not new: The founding father of post-Nixon conservative political coalitions was himself a figure out of the media, and know how to use “lost generation” and boomer rhetoric effectively.

Clearly, if we talk the terror management theory seriously, this has a limit to actually community politics because outside of virtue signaling and in-group/out-group regulation, this really can’t deliver on much materially.

A few darker thoughts enter ones mind here:  perhaps, given the complexity of modern society and the increasingly obviousness of our limited autonomy, we don’t really want the organic communities anyway as they could make demands of us.  I am hardly the first person to think this. First, there is more obscurely, Baudrillard.

“Human rights, dissidence, antiracism, SOS-this, SOS-that: these are soft, easy, post coitum historicum ideologies, ‘after-the-orgy’ ideologies for an easy-going generation which has known neither hard ideologies nor radical philosophies. The ideology of a generation which is neo-sentimental in its politics too, which has rediscovered altruism, conviviality, international charity and the individual bleeding heart. Emotional outpourings, solidarity, cosmopolitan emotiveness, multi-media pathos: all soft values harshly condemned by the Nietzschean, Marxo-Freudian age… A new generation, that of the spoilt children of the crisis, whereas the preceding one was that of the accursed children of history.”
― Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories

But perhaps with less understatement, the novelist J.G. Ballard, most clearly saw this:

Orr asks Ballard about the likelihood of nuclear holocaust, and his response both predicts and undermines the nuclear hysteria and paranoia that would peak in the 1980s. Warning that networked technology and identity theft will become greater threats, he argues that we must be prepared for a coming age ‘where bank balances will be constantly monitored and at almost any given time all the information that exists about ourselves will be on file somewhere … where all sorts of agencies, commercial, political and governmental, will have access to that information’. (This can be tested empirically: who among us has been the victim of online identity theft, and who of a nuclear holocaust?) Compare with Alvin Toffler’s bestselling non-fiction book Future Shock, published three years earlier but in 1974 still considered a frightening, all-too-real vision of the future. Toffler warned of ‘massive adaptational breakdown’ unless ‘man quickly learns to control the rate of change in his personal affairs as well as in society at large’. He predicted turmoil on an epic scale, with most of the population struggling to cope with the psychological shock of a mass-mediated life. While Ballard is concerned about the effects of new technologies, he discerns a rather different outcome, rooted in his belief in the affirmative possibilities of technological advance. He tells Orr that modern urban dwellers are psychologically tougher than ever before, ‘strong enough to begin to play all kinds of deviant games, and I’m sure that this is to some extent taking place’. . .
Patiently, Ballard clarifies the true ‘togetherness’ of the technological age: people pressed together in traffic jams, aeroplanes, elevators, hemmed in by technology, an artificial connectedness. Protesting, Orr says she doesn’t want to be in a traffic jam, but neither does she want ‘to be alone on a dune, either’. Ballard counters: ‘being alone on a dune is probably a better description of how you actually lead your life than you realise … The city or the town or the suburb or the street –these are places of considerable isolation. People like it that way, too. They don’t want to know all their neighbours. This is just a small example where the conventional appeal of the good life needs to be looked at again.’ The exchange is significant because, with hindsight, we can determine Ballard testing the hypothesis behind Concrete Island, the follow-up to Crash, and a concentrated study in willed social isolation (marooning himself under a motorway overpass, and deciding to stay there indefinitely, Concrete Island’s protagonist finds new reserves of psychological strength in the process). Here, his interview-art is in full effect: running the test, storing the results, turning the tables on his interrogator. – Simon Sellars, “Introduction,” Extreme Metaphors: Collective Interviews

So if we are plagued by our lack of community and our politics are more signs and signifiers of politics than community politics, and we really actually want our alienation anyway… where does that leave us?

to be continued

Attempts #3: The Sour Grapes of the Body Politics, Or The Troll and the Tumblrite, part 1

I. On The Strange Contradictions of Our Political Spectrum, or Why I don’t see myself as political in the way American’s mean by it. 

Dear Mick: Why do you think that readers get so agitated and hammer you personally for a film that they like and you don’t? I can see getting that worked up over politics, but not film criticism. What’s up with that? Jack Barnes, Berkeley “The short answer is that people are nuts. The longer answer is that, for many, popular culture has replaced religion, philosophy and politics as the center of the ethical universe, so if you criticize something they like, they react as they might have to a heretic 500 years ago. I also feel that there’s a certain bullying spirit on the part of some who take comfort in believing themselves part of a majority, so when a minority opinion presents itself they get angry: It means they might have to think — or come up with an excuse for not thinking. This is not unrelated to politics, in that the ways people get angry usually correspond to worldviews that, in turn, correspond to political affiliation. Rabid right-wingers have the highest tendency to glory in being part of a mob. They’re outraged at the existence of anyone who doesn’t see things their way, and they love to predict the ultimate eradication of all dissenting voices. They believe the future belongs to them. Rabid left-wingers, by contrast, see themselves as glorious individualists, in the advance guard of some future sensitive universe, which they hope to bring about by finding offense in absolutely everything. They want to take the revolution one step at a time, by suppressing individual voices. Both sides see everyone in media as part of a conspiracy to forestall the glorious day when everybody will be just like them. Thus, their letters, if seen in the right context, are political, in a nutty kind of way. By the way, it’s ironic: Conservatives brag about being part of a collective, and liberals brag about being individualists, when philosophically they should be doing the reverse.” – Mick LaSalle

Why do the conservatives always talk about “real Americans” while also prattling on about “individualism.” Why do left-liberal activists, whom their enemies derive as social justice warriors, always talk about structural problems while focusing solely on recognition and often on individual taste? Why have “concern trolls”–to use internet parlance that seems to have faded–and just general trolling seemed to dominate politics as well as constantly accusations of personal immorality and bad faith?

I can’t pretend that I am going to answer these questions. Indeed, any attempt at answering these questions with a grand theory would be against the very tendencies I am critiquing about reducing complicated social processes into simplistic narratives that fit more easily into one’s ideas about the body politics. In this sense, I have found myself writing often about how writing about politics isn’t helpful, but also since this is more concretely about “values,” I cannot pretend that it is possible to have any serious beliefs about the morality or aesthetics and NOT address this kind of problem.

Mick LaSalle is a film critic I enjoy, and this letter to him from almost exactly a decade ago seems to have only accelerated in the last ten years: Ammon Bundy, Sarah Palin, Donald Trump.  All individuals braying at the maw of appealing to a collective identity. That identity’s hey-day being objectively past, and yet also appealing to the “individualists who made America great.”  Appealing to “tradition,” which, despite the post-Reagan tendencies to pretend that the libertarian-conservative alliance made any sense, tradition has never been particularly a respecter of individual aspirations.  Conversely, why the liberal obsession over media and respecting people’s individuality, while talking about collective and structural problems?  While respecting individual subjectivity may be a good thing, this was not really part of the historical project of “leftism,” even within the states.

It is telling that LaSalle wrote about this in California, where the hyper-realism of the extreme trends of American politics be in full bloom, as Joan Didion said, it’s the end of the continent and there is feeling that America must get its act together, there is no more land to steal and no more West to expand into.  In some ways, as California goes, so goes the national extremes, and it is no accident that California is the historical home to the field of dreams we call Hollywood, even if movies are increasingly made in cheaper locales like Georgia.  It also wrong to think that this extremity in California is just left-wing. The inner-valley of California can be one of the most conservative places on earth–after all, it gave us Reagan.

It in increasingly my contention that this isolated dreamscape of a country is reflected in what LaSalle was saying. We think more diverse comic heroes and Star Wars is good or bad instead of just a reflection of the shifting demographics of who has some spending money. This may be a good or a bad thing, but fundamentally does not change the system–either economically or morally–that led to the disparities in the first place.  Furthermore, the right too is busy in the collective dreamscape, idolizing either the 1950s, which ironically may be the Keynesian “social Democratic” period of American history (if one was white), or the 1890s, when things were so bad that anarchists were bombing Presidents.

What one notices though is that the “bad faith” move here is subconscious rather than conscious. The tendency is to denounce people as “bad actors” (see the popular “sick puppies” denunciations of SJWs as lairs, which some are, but is probably not a universalizing political trait) and conservatives as merely interested in protecting their own interests at the expense others. In short, the popular narrative assumes that both are merely power mongering for the control of the state in their own imagine, and the moral assumptions of both are that other is acting in total bad faith while one’s own motives are pure and pristine.

Of course, this is self-justifying bullshit.  But why has this come to dominate our culture? The prevailing liberal myth is that this is a sign of progress, and the speed of change means that society was must markedly worse for everyone in the past.  As if there were not “conservative” tendencies and traditionalists outside of white, male Europeans, this goes on to basically claim this tolerant form of capitalism is a sign of the moral progress that runs, albeit, unevenly, through western culture. Ironically, this makes these progressive, generally young middle class, white commentators, show the necessary amount of self-denouncement while conversely implying that their tolerance has moved society forward.  This kind of thinking can be seen as both “American exceptionalism” (although one also sees this in the other English Speaking commonwealths and the UK) and a denial of that very exceptionalism by wearing the necessary hair shirt for the sins of the past.

In short, it’s having your cake and eating it too.

Conversely, the identity claims of much the right are similarly mealy-mouthed. Denouncing the ideology of the victim in the social structure, many of these individuals often flip and claim that they themselves are the primary victims.  Why are white, exurban and suburban poor seeing a massive drop off in life-span?    Of course, its because #blm and #occupy are stealing from them and are all semi-secretly racialist themselves.   In other words, in denouncing the victim, there is a move to claim the mantel of the victim themselves Again, cake and eating it too.

Now, one may say, “You are buying into the binary of the America, and falsely claiming they are equally guilty of the same sins.”  I am not, but I am saying if most Americans are fighting, despite all this talk of “red” states and “blue” states or millennials versus boomers, they are essentially taking part in the same culture of hyper-real, media monopoly capitalism.  While this is a dramatic oversimplification: even the liberal-left and the “right” are hyper-fragmented now and one sees this in the confusion of BOTH primary elections, this narrative does offer some clear explanatory value for the stalemate and over-simplifications that have really taken hold of the “national” narrative–a national narrative that has left the US and infected, through media and the internet, the entire English speaking world.

(Side note: I have a theory about why the numbers around mortality and longevity have frozen or slightly improved around the Black and hispanic community, but fallen amongst the “white” community. This comes from my experience in Southern versus Northern Mexico, where urban and suburban poor had massively decreased quality of life (and an increase in criminality) from the even poorer indigenous people in Oaxaca, Chiapas, and the Yucatan.  This is something neither left nor right in the English-speaking world can really deal with. Most white poverty is exurban and suburban, and the “traditional” community forms in the white community outside of work have been far more corroded.  Even religious forms of community have been increasingly “capitalistic” as anyone who listens to a AMC Preacher and compares it to Joel Osteen can tell you. Whereas, not only are both the black and hispanic community more religious, but have more pre-modern style “para-instituions” to combat the stress of alienation, even in criminal world, gang affiliation will probably shortened your life but in its shared trauma provides something like “organic community and symbolic kinship”. However, this puts US conservatives and liberals in a bind, conservatives would have to admit that their relationship to capital is corroding the very institutions that they supposedly value as Daniel Bell warned in the 1950s and 1960s, and liberals would have to admit that while they may be right about structural economic limits on specific minority groups, a simplified privilege narrative does not really explain much in that is going on in the white community unless one now wants to say that merely living is an entitlement. Not that things aren’t bad for blacks, who still have worse health outcomes than whites, but that is stagnated and slightly improved whereas the expectancy for white communities has dropped dramatically.  Hispanics in the states actually show better health outcomes that both groups. Now this is actually in line with Marx’s predictions about capitalist dissolution of prior social forms but to be a Marxist in this sense is to be seen as essentially conservative in the eyes of many modern leftists. For one thing, Marxists say they don’t believe–although they have never actually really practiced–in the oppressed being liberated from outside, be it reparations, social services, or even trade unions.

One can see Marx’s positive politics as humanly disastrous and still see this truth.)

II. Victims: Structural and Individual

“Like all ideologies, the varieties of the ideology of victimization are forms of fake consciousness. Accepting the social role of victim—in whatever one of its many forms—is choosing to not even create one’s life for oneself or to explore one’s real relationships to the social structures. All of the partial liberation movements—feminism,  gay liberation, racial liberation, workers’ movements and so on—define individuals in terms of their social roles. Because of this, these movements not only do not include a reversal of perspectives which breaks down social roles and allows individuals to create a praxis built on their own passions and desires; they actually work against such a reversal of perspective. The ‘liberation’ of a social role to which the individual remains subject.” –Feral Faun

So much this seems to be about being a victim or victimizing. Many libertarians often harp on this point, but fail to see that there really are victims and structural oppression in the larger world. Feral Faun does not deny these oppressions, but sees the evaluation of victimhood itself as problematic. Indeed, it can do two things: the first externality is that activism around such concerns, if professionalized, would need those concerns to never be fully addressed to to maintain ones own career. In other words, there is an perverse incentive in such activism to make fixing the problems seem, or perhaps actually be, impossible. The second concern of such an answer is the victim ideology renders one far more passive in the regards to addressing those concerns. It is something done to you, and for which you can seek redress, but if your identity is rooted in that trauma, such redress itself would be terror-management invoking shock to identity.

To speak in Hegelian terms, to abolish the identity is the goal of anti-racism, but that also abolishes anti-racism.  For people who conceptions of self is oppression to something, and most people are more coherent in what they hate as opposed to what they love, the very idea of success is undoing.  What have all nationalists realized?   From Tacitus-quoting Nazis to the “proletariat nationalism” of the Italian fascists to Dominionists claiming Christians are oppressed to Chinese claiming putting more and more “foreign disgrace of China” to various Third-World nationalist movements needing an enemy after kicking the colonialists out, often in weaker powers?  Fear of outsiders and the exclusion of a party perceived as wronging you is the best key to deep-seated fears and terrors that can bring people who otherwise have completely opposed economic interests together.  This is not a left- or a right-wing trait in our capitalist, liberal democracies.  This is also the source of both liberalism’s left and right having profoundly illiberal tendencies in terms of tolerance.

This is not to deny that there are structural victims.  In the aforementioned discussion of health outcomes and longevity rates among the poor, you will notice I didn’t mention first peoples, whose health outcomes remain abyssal in both the US and Canada. There are always victims, but against much of the narrative of liberal progress, there is also always antagonism between victims.  In 2008, a gang war in my home town in Georgia did lead to what looked like the strategic murdering of South East Asian shop owners in black neighborhoods. Who is a structural victim in that situation?  Well, obviously, both parties, but that does undo the violence and xenophobia is such acts.

Structures are rarely as monolithic as political polemics must make them. And in the age of hyper-reality, when so much of our mental capital is spent online and in entertainment, these structures can seem more real than real. In Amazon prime show Transparent, one actually saw a far more nuanced discussion of this allowed on the internet. In the end of the second season, a “radical feminist” festival that excluded transgender women, the main character had to admit as a man priorly she had oppressed some of the women around her. However, in a moment of rare lucidity, instead of painting all the discussions of radical feminism as unjustified, one woman says to her, “Your pain and your privilege are separate.” This is profoundly true, one can be both oppressed and an oppressor. Yet, the irony is that the women did not see themselves as doing the same thing at the moment, and because they did not, the main character did not hear that truth. Her children, however, did.

Most liberal television, such as Modern Family, cannot treat characters in such situations as truly flawed–and thus completely human–because they are interested in the acceleration of acceptance of those individuals, instead of exploring the damage and in around those individuals. Yet in doing so, people cannot be made to face how they themselves are oppressors as well as victims.  Some people are more one than the other, of course, both as individuals as well as groups, but the shallow views around such identities are actual limits to any notions of expanding the group.  Instead it just becomes about changing the face of the loyal opposition in that in-group, or even just reproducing the same dynamics with different people in charge. Such antagonism may always be with us as such as antagonism is at the root of the violence of daily life.

(To be continued) 

 

Attempts #2: The Poet, The Phonometrician, and the Dead

Yesterday, I wrote a blog post that wasn’t explicitly polemical or a review of something for the first time in many years. I thought to myself, I used to be non-fiction writer as well as a poet and not an internet pugilist. In truth, I have been a teacher for the past decade–both in the classroom sense, and in the popularizer of obscure theory, anthropology, and history on various podcasts. This a mission that I am increasingly embracing. I am also working with other authors on projects intellectual–Professor Michael Rectenwald and I working on a long interview book on the development of secularism and its strange relationship to socialism. Increasingly, Rectenwald contents in his already published work, Nineteenth-Century British Secularism: Science, Religion and Literature, that the truly agnostic career of British secularism as been ignored for the French laicism or Soviet positivism anti-theism, and this trend has led to a shallow understanding of the relationship between religion and economics/culture on the left, both Marxist and liberal. The interview book we are working on will make more comparisons like this as such and also talk about political theology, thus popularizing but also deepening his scholarly work.

 

That is as close to politics that I want to go as I understand where the 1990s “post-political” rhetoric bubbled up from now that I am well and truly burnt out. This is a meandering way to talk about something else on my mind: Erik Satie. This, however, is harder than it seems.

For one, it amazes that I started my “writing career” for ‘zines and blogs in the late 1990s under nom de plumes like slaveboy, which was a BDSM joke of the 14-year-old unfunny variety primarily for teenage girlfriend who used to leave me yellow bruises, and “D.” writing mostly punk and noise-rock music review and concert reports.  I say that this is ironic as the more I know about music, the more I find it impossible to write about.  I have some knowledge of tonal scales, beat counts, and the history of music.  This actually helps me a great a deal as a poet, but not as music critic.

I could can write Michael Gira or David Bowie’s effect on my childhood and teen years. I stubbled on my first Swans album around the release the Great Annihilator, or the girlfriend who introduced to Bowie/Brian Eno soundscape. I could talk about the experience of musical textures by experiential analogy or by technical precision, but the qualia of music is nearly outside of vocabulary.   Poetry is similar but its rootedness in the verbal makes its explication and technical prosody easy to talk about in a way where the vocabulary is not as alien as in music.

Yet I find myself moved by a particular recording and modification of Erik Satie’s Gymnopédie No.1, a piece of music that I already love, but overlays tons of recordings over each other and time corrects them so that slight dissonance and over-lingering of cords bring out the disturbing elements of ennui that one hears in the lackadaisical-seeming composition.  Satie’s music was both dadaist and surrealist at points, but Gymnopédie does not seem obviously avant-garde.  Satie called himself a phonometrician, and may be similar in my thinking about sound. 

This layering is something I often try to do in poetry, but with repetition and shifting the syllable counts in lines subtly. There are formal elements to my poetry that I deliberately try to obscure–I like Tennis without the ‘Net, but even handball has rules.  The musical instrument I understand the most is drums, and so the persuasive effects my writing as much as my dyslexia complicates editing it.

Now this movies to my love of genres like trip-hop, dark wave, and post-rock –whose late 1990s, early aughts pretensions in naming conventions almost make embarrassing to write in a serious essay. This has led to Chelsea Wolfe’s Abyss, which is darkening and layered textures over and over again.

Still the loss of several musicians whom there has been much ink spilled in the last month leads to me to write about poet who helped me with my own phonometry. C. D. Wright was probably one of the biggest influences of my poetry of a living poet: well, living until this week, when she also, like said rockstars, died in late 60s.  There is something haunting about these deaths of younger boomer artists who often, like Wright, hit strides in late life.  Wright wrote about Deepstep, a community close to where I was born, and oft ignored even by Southerner and Georgia writers–she also was a master at layering and variance twinges with both sadness and complicated eroticism.  I will leave our “Attempt” with a verse from her poem, Everything Good between Men and Women,

Bless it. We have so little time
to learn, so much… The river
courses dirty and deep. Cover the lettuce.
Call it a night. O soul. Flow on. Instead.