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)