Dubai Reflections: Particles (Or Four Italians and One Iranian American)

-for Susan, Khristian, Darcy, and the world that almost was.

“Perfection belongs to narrated events, not to those we live.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

On holidays I swear I hear an echo
You hold tight to it then you simply let go
Sure as you let those feelings show
They let you know that you are not alone

Speak now love to me of your return
It’s not how much you make but what you earn
Put your petals in a pile and watch them burn – Lampchop, “Kind Of”

A Prelude


Taking a break, briefly, from my “Strange Death of Liberal Wonktoplia” pieces, because I am becoming more and more irate at the state of politics in the US.  If the increased instance of racialist violence and legitimate fear over rights seemed completely to be just rhetoric, I would just laugh it off but it doesn’t seem to be.  Furthermore, the liberal histrionics  around this have done more than not helped.  It has included doubling down same kinds of rhetoric, limitations of speaking, and pipe dreams that led liberalism into the current crisis.  Talk of succeeding from the Union is bubbling up from the same Californians who called Brexit racist.

Such middle class demons:  To quote the recently late Leonard Cohen, “I didn’t know I had permission to murder and maim, you want it darker?”

We kill the flame.

In part, I want to write about that flame we are killing and how it is smoldering my own vision of life.

A Context 

I am nursing a lung infection caught on a job-related trip to Dubai.  The city in the shadow of Burj Khalifa and the Burj al El Arab is like a colony on the moon.  You meet Emirati men at passport control in the ultra-modern airport in clean, freshly pressed looking keffiyeh and taub.  They are polite, but curt, and shuffle you into Dubai.  The entire city seems to have a new car smell, and overly polished look of a mall.  Chain eateries from all over Europe and the States are around, and so is high in shopping. There are currency exchanges everywhere. However, you quickly notice that most of the shoppers are not Emiratis and most of the workers aren’t either.  English and Arabic are both spoken, but more the former, and most of the workers are each convenient store seem Indian or South Asian.  Businesses with a more white collar tendency tend to have European, North American, and other non-Emirati Arab faces around.

There is something at once beautiful and dystopia about Dubai.  The Sultanate and the Emirates of the Gulf definitely have a history, but you would hardly know it.  Yet, like Yew’s Singapore, the trains run on time and are incredibly clean. There is little obvious crime. And aside from the encroaching desert, mocked my foundations and water features that abound, and the Gulf, there is something completely inorganic about Dubai.  Both wonderful and terrible, and utterly commercial.

That is not to say I did not like Dubai. I did. I could see why young people want to work and live there, but it definitely feels to have a darker side than its marbled floors indicate and a more generous side than its oversized malls would make apparent. In some ways, Dubai is product of the globalization and the reaction against it, and as such is remarkable in how impressive yet unremarkable it is.   If I go back to the Emirates, I would like to go less commercial areas to get a taste of what the country’s face to itself is.

Part 1: Heat, the desert, and my fear of driving 


“IF you keep your heart soft, you will will find an entire of life of poetry”– Susan Atefat- Peckham inscribed to me the year we met in a copy of That Kind of Sleep 

Susan Atefat-Peckham and her young son Cyrus died in a bus wreck around Ghor Safi, Jordan in 2004 while on a Fulbright, the year after I got married the first time, too young, and went to work for an insurance company.  In 2005, my checkbook, a few of my notes, and a copy of Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew were found in a overstuffed arm-chair in her former office where I would talk to her about poetry.  I worked with her and her husband Joel my senior year, and both said goodbye to me before they left from the middle east the day after I was married.  Susan and Joel was there first professors that became personal friends.

Susan’s advice to me has been seldom followed, and in a Holiday Inn Express, while the team I was coaching was asleep, missing partner, my second wife, who is in the states visiting family and fighting cancer, I couldn’t stop crying.  I have been adjusting well, building up small habits, focusing on my job, but as I began to cough from a lung infection I caught from a sick student on the airplane. I missed her.  I missed a lot of other people too. I feel like a particle let loose on the world, out of its quantum orbit, and flying wildly into some nebulous space.

The hardness of my heart was something that always bothered Susan.  She thought I was essentially a kind person, hurt by situations, and I didn’t think that. Rage was my prime whisky, to quote another dead poet, Alan Dugan.  In retrospective, Susan was responding to someone only ten years younger than her. Indeed, it is shocking to realize, that I have outlived her two years writing this. I have flown over the desert she died in.  Perhaps why her crept into my mind in the darkness of my hotel room, and I picked up Carlo Rovelli’s Seven Brief Lessons on Physics, a brief and poetic, but somewhat superficial introduction to modern physics.

Yet I hit on this passage, from the Sixth Lesson:

“…The difference between past and future only exist when there is heat. The fundamental phenomenon that distinguishes the future from the past is the fact that heat passes from things that are hotter to things that colder.

So, again, why, as time goes by, does heat pass from hot things to cold and not the other way round?

The reason was discovered by Boltzmann, and is surprising simple: it is sheer chance. 

Boltzmann’s idea is subtle, and brings into play the idea of probability.  Heat does not move form hot things to cold things due to an absolute law: it only does so with a large degree of probability. The reason for this is that it is statistically more probable that a quickly moving atom of the hot substance collides with a cold one and leaves it a little of its energy, rather than vice versa. Energy is conserved in the collisions, but tends to get distributed in more or less equal parts when there are many collisions.” (pages 51-52, translation by Simon Carnell and Erica Segre)

This was strangely conforming in that moment, thinking about Susan’s advice for me keep my heart soft, my partner’s struggles, and where I am going.  It’s like when I feel small and think of the curvature of the space itself.

How did I end up in the Dubai?   Or in Cairo? Or Seoul? Or San Francisco?  Or New York?  I was small town Southern boy who came from a strange background whose origins were obscure even to him, whose anger at the drug problems that taken a girlfriend and several friends by 21 was mounting, and whose intelligence was compromised by that emotional brokenness.

I felt like a particle because I was one, but while am not soft-hearted, I left it soften enough.  Indeed, when I speak of politics, I manifest an anger that strike even close friends as borderline abusive. There was beauty and openness to the world that I didn’t have before.  Yet that beauty can be snatched away at any moment.

Resentment can’t linger because your heat spills out in each collision. Save the heat for the collisions where it is needed.  Then I read more of Rovelli’s poetical reflections and used the bits of knowledge of mathematics I had to refocus, I had students to coach for Quiz competition in the morning, and I had done a good job of hiding my worries from them.

Part 2: Hyperreal 


I woke up that morning, when to the hotel buffet breakfast, and got my morning ful madames –fava beans with tomatoes, onions and spices–and a chopped salad. My students chatted in a mixture of Arabic and English–more English than anything else–and after running my students through some drills, I started reading Umberto Eco’s Tavels in Hyperreality.

In early 2000, my conservative Hegelian philosophy professor assigned me that book when I was a sophomore. It exploded my mind, and I found myself coming back to Eco in general, and this book, in particular when I am feeling estranged and alienated, I go back to Eco’s reflection on the superficially of America.

In many ways, Eco’s writing here reflect Baudrillards, but Eco seems less bombastic, more calm. In a sense, more true. So on the bus to the competition, I hit this passage:

“In other words, to see if through these cultural phenomena a new Middle Ages is to take shape, a time of secular mystics, more inclined to monastic withdrawal than to civic participation. We should see how much, as antidote or as antistrophe, the old techniques of reason may apply, the arts of the Trivium, logic, dialectic, rhetoric. As we suspect that anyone who goes on stubbornly practicing them will be accused of impiety.”- Umberto Eco, Travels in Hyperreality ( William Weaver translation)

The secular mystics meets the secularized piety. Prayer rooms in giant malls, Islamic banking and halal industries, and teaming poverty in most of the “Islamic” world. Looking out at Dubai, one gets the feeling that we have seen the transition into the end of an antiquity. The world changing faster and this seems the product of hubris, and while I tend to discount the most apocalyptic. Eco was writing about America, but now even the Emirates resembles the kind of malls that US itself largely doesn’t have.

The relationship to the Rovelli is clear: The simplicity of the universe is daunting, and the reality of reality seems more slippery. In such time, we tend to value our commentary and chatter.

Indeed, in absence of meaningful community, one sees retreats into nebulous ideas of tribes.  Hyperreality is not just the authentic fake, but the fake authenticity in response to it. Constant discourses on whiteness or construction of identities, and the response to that is to insist on the material of reality of the community between people who do not know each other, and do not enact except on wires.

If an election between a celebrity wonk-political agent and a celebrity real estate mogul, both largely famous from legacies that they didn’t actually create, and watching different disadvantaged groups rush to either as if they represented “them” proves how little reality there is this.  Indeed, Trump and Farage claiming to represent a rebellion against elites while in a gold elector is about as rich as pretending that a career politician who cut her teeth supporting Nixon somehow cares and knows the plight of working black families is beyond laughable.

Yet the worse of it isn’t political.   On the internet, there are more space for counter-cultures than ever before, yet they seem to constantly collapse in relationship to the larger culture.  Jacobin lamenting the lack of socialism in comic hero movies instead of really looking at movies of deeper substance.  There is an opportunity cost here, and that opportunity cost is withering of the political imagination to reified categories like “whiteness”–again, if the almost all white middle class Huffington Post editorial board writes another editorial beginning “Dear White People,” my jaw might clinch enough to drip blood.

The entire spectrum of criticism of the mediocre by the mediocre.  Authenticity itself inauthentic.  Forced.

Looking around Dubai?  Who is a local? What is real Dubai culture?  Capitalist water features?  Sharia courts while trophy wives of business men sun themselves in bikinis between brick walls while women in niqab walk just beyond.

It is so unreal, it is more real than real. Eco was a prophet, and it seems almost too apt that he died this year.

Part 3:  Passions 


After shaving a beard down a bit, sending my team to bed, and making myself an evening cup of tea, I took at a book I purchased at giant mall underneath the Burj Khalifa. The largest English language bookstore I have seen in the middle east is in that mall, and has all the charm of a mall bookstore, but with books from the US, UK, and the Arab world, it was worth pursuing.

I have a book addiction and thus don’t allow myself in book stores that much. Indeed, this one was massive, although I have been to bigger used book stores in Utah and New York, but since two students asked me to purchase a book for them since they left their dirhams at hotel and had used their pocket money on dinner.  I agreed since I knew that could pay me back and who was I not to support at ninth grader request to read.

Going through the stacks, I found Giacomo Leopardi’s Conti, Zibaldone, and Passions. I have been pursuing both Conti and Zibaldone, but Passions was new to me.  More pithy aphorism and reflections collected at the end of Leopardi’s life, they were like a condensed form Zibaldone.

Reading an article on Sheikh Zayed bin Sultan Al Nahyan, impressed with his attempt to funnel the oil and natural gas reserves into Emirati infrastructure and education, but bemused that most of the wealth still seemed primarily from resource extraction,  I came started reading Tim Parks’ introduction to Passions and came across this quote from Zibaldone,

The most unexpected thing for someone entering into the social life, and very often for someone who has grown old there, to find the world as it has been described to him, and as he already knows it and believes it to be in theory. Man is astonished to see that the general rule holds for him too. (quoted in Passions, Parks translation and introduction, page viii-ix)

Even a great man like Sheikh Zayed has trouble overcoming long term probabilistic trends. Like Rovelli’s description of particles, greatness is against all odds and often forced upon the normal individual, but the probability is still weighted towards the mediocre and forces outside of even a great person’s control.

Even when we are the exception that proves the rule, we still find the weight of probability upon us. Contingency after contingency and all teleology factors are developments from otherwise stochastic developments.

Leopardi feels haunting to me.  Born in the conservative papal states and pessimistic like a conservative, he still understood the Enlightenment and science more than most.  His writings seem like Montaigne having a conversation with Nietzsche. Even in some ways, a precursor to Stanislaw Lem as much any other, but the framework, the dizzying erudition, the classical mind.

It felt surreal to read in the shopping mall in desert on the coast with the Persian gulf. Yet Leopardi himself lived in a time of upheaval.  Perhaps he lived to see beginnings of the modern world and formation of Italy, and yet his writings already see the problems that would arise from it:

Just about the strongest inducement to suicide is self-loathing. Example: a friend of mine deliberately went to Rome intending to throw himself into the Tiber because someone somewhere had called him a nobody. My own first experience with self-hatred provoked me to expose myself to all kinds of danger—to kill myself, in fact. How amour propreworks: it prefers death to admitting one’s worthlessness. And so: the more egotistical you are, the more strongly and continually you will feel driven to kill yourself. Meaning: love of life equals love of one’s well-being, so if life no longer seems of value, etc. – Zibaldone

Conversely, yet confirming of this: one of my beloved friends lost her brother this year. 36. My age, two years older than Susan when she died, but far too young. She was depressed, and even engaged in lots of self-damaging, but suicide seemed too narcissistic for her.  Instead, she stabilized herself in the life of others.  Leopardi could see the development of modern narcissism.  Indeed, in countries with high suicide rates, it is social shame as much as depression that prompts it.

Rarely do you see suicide among the urban unemployed in Cairo or Lagos, or the poor women in a village in Oaxaca.

It is the absurd amount of self-regard our own modern alienation gives us that makes suicide an absurdly common way for modern people to die.

Leopardi was a ruthless particle, and realizing he was set loose, wrote about it unforgivingly.

Something about that brings a wry, tired smile to face. Indeed, Plato said the unexamined life was not worth living.  Leopardi answers:

Noia is plainly an evil: to suffer it is to suffer utter unhappiness. So what is noia? Not a specific sorrow or pain (noia, the idea and nature of it, excludes the presence of any particular sorrow or pain) but simply ordinary life fully felt, lived in, known; it’s everywhere, it saturates an individual. Life thus is an affliction; and not living, or being less alive (by living a shorter or less intense life) is a reprieve, or at least a lesser affliction—absolutely preferable, that is, to life.-Zibaldone

Part 4:  Fundamental Elements

“This cell belongs to a brain, and it is my brain, the brain of me who is writing; and the cell in question, and within it the atom in question, is in charge of my writing, in a gigantic minuscule game which nobody has yet described. It is that which at this instant, issuing out of a labyrinthine tangle of yeses and nos, makes my hand run along a certain path on the paper, mark it with these volutes that are signs: a double snap, up and down, between two levels of energy, guides this hand of mine to impress on the paper this dot, here, this one.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table


Reading so many Italians in the desert, but Primo Levi comes back into my mind. Of the most likely suicides I know, Levi’s is the most baffling in that it doesn’t fit Leopardi description of narcissism nor did it seem to come out of reprieve from physical pain.

My students won their match, I packed the trophy in my carry-on, and took it back to Cairo. I delivered it this morning, hacking out a lung, and coughing yellow phlegm into a napkin.  I was sent home.

The night before I had come home, and a taste of Levi’s life hit me.  Slightly delirious from exhausting and the bronchitis developing in my chest, I saw my two siamese cats welcome me home.  My friend’s son had fed them while was I gone, but they missed me as they always seem to when I travel and leave them to others care. My apartment is “our” apartment–mine and my partner–even though I moved out of the one we lived in together over the summer because it was too large for just me and saddened me with its emptiness. Yet in this second,  I thought Khristian would welcome me home.  I awaited for a second before realizing she was literally an ocean and two continents away.  For second, nothing in the house seemed like mine, seemed to belong to me, seemed to be anything other than random.

It is the awareness of that chance moves us, and that we don’t know where we are going. We are not without will or anchor, nor are we JUST particles in a void, moving from heat to cold in time.  Yet we are not NOT such particles either. We self-overcome but in doing so are still subject to forces beyond any of us.

Levi leaves me with a thought that got me through that night:

“If it is true that there is no greater sorrow than to remember a happy time in a state of misery, it is just as true that calling up a moment of anguish in a tranquil mood, seated quietly at one’s desk, is a source of profound satisfaction.”
― Primo Levi, The Periodic Table

A life of poetry isn’t the only life we lead, and it is hard and sometimes requires hard people–hard men and women–to go beyond the vague poetry of our dreams because life is so contingent. Yet that is the reason to soften your heart sometimes because even hard people eventually lose all their heat, all their energy, and no longer exist in time.


The Strange Death of Liberal Wonktopia, Day 4, Part 2: On Parrhesia

For the first time in my adult life, I cut someone out of my life over politics.  He was one of several talking about how Trump voters deserved no compassion and neither the demographics that didn’t vote.  I pointed out privately that a lot of the demographics that didn’t vote were the people who he is fearing reprisals against.  The headlines say it all:  AFRICAN-AMERICAN VOTER TURNOUT ‘LOW’ IN KEY STATES.  It’s not just that working class whites sat on their hands, but even large numbers of black women did, a demographic that the Democrats have assumed were loyal as butter.

He called called me privileged. I am privileged now, but he lives in a suburb of a rich city, his kids go to rich school district that is majority white and Asian, and he grew up in one as well.  He told me that I couldn’t understand what it meant to black, and I kindly informed him that as non-African American biracial male from upper middle class background neither could he. We both only knew things by analogy and vicariously.  That there was no magical awareness going to come out of threatening people who could barely get PALE Grants to go Community colleges and still couldn’t afford it about the privileges but that they probably could see what some of the African American were going through. Not that this would magically make racism go away, but people will work together if they believe it will help them eat.

Eventually, after he said I was probably a racist anyway, and I asked why he didn’t send his kids to the an inner-city school so he could live closer to his job. We denounced each other. I cut him out.  I don’t believe in cutting people out because bubbling yourself because you don’t want to hear things and you don’t want to see things that are uncomfortable is a large part of how these things happen.  Yet when you can’t talk to someone because both sides assume bad faith instantly, even among people who in general trust each other otherwise, you have a problem.

I cut a few more people out who said the same thing, but mostly I tried to imagine why people feel so threatened. What they think they could accomplish. So I started talking to liberals about articles about declining outcomes for rural America.

Then I hear a liberal shaming rural people for shopping at Wal-Mart and ruining their own economy, and thus they are partially to blame for the decimation of rural America.  Not that the Farm Bill created perverse incentives for mono-cropping and mega-farm agriculture, and that this largely concreted non-soy, non-corn crops into a few valleys in California that are basically desert where they have to import water from Colorado and Nevada.  Not that for off-shoring and then automation moved those factory jobs away and all that was left was call centers, Wal-Marts and the military.  Not that the small town stores weren’t even that good at providing jobs anyway which is what led to Wal-Mart being able to force city councils into really disadvantaged tax incentives where often sells tax paid into Wal-Mart is not given to the local tax base but effectively kept by Wal-Mart. If is there was a choice for a few communities in the 1980s, there was NO CHOICE for de-industrialized Rust Belt and de-agriculturalized Southern cities in the 1990s. The localities that did where in rich states, with niche production like Tech, where there are monopoly productions on products like software and the arts, and thus they faired well and could offer to pass laws to protect against Wal-Mart.

This actually did make headway, and the person actually got my point, but only after we went through the rounds of mockery, moral outrage, calling each other stupid, etc.  It’s hard work. No one wants to do it.  I don’t blame activists of any variety of getting tired of it.  I often feel like an old man yelling at clouds and alienating friends.

Another example. Same issues with rural poverty but I was saw somewhat say, “Why don’t they just join a Union” and recounted their parents in rural Pennsylvania being in a Union and remembering the struggles they face.  Perhaps I should just offer screenings of Matewon, but there are reasons  because the South and parts of the lower west have effectively always been “right to work” states, and many employers ban unions outright. Furthermore, public sector unions are often illegal, and trade unions function more like licensing guilts with insurance benefits. Meaning there aren’t many unions to join, and the ability to collective bargain, etc, is weaken due to the structure of the industry.

This is not something people want to hear because it makes an easy answer much harder.  Chambers of Commerce colluded with Wal-Mart?  No Unions to join, and the unions that do exist don’t bargain anyway?   No everyone who sat on their hands is an enemy even if there is real danger out there.

Yet this comes to one of the few interest concepts Foucault wrote about: Parrhesia. In classical texts, particularly Plato, rhetoric and parrhesia opposed.  This is why the normal translation in English, “free speech” is misleading.  The opposition between rhetoric and parrhesia is not its civic limitation, but that rhetoric is stylized speech whereas open speech. It’s value is in its danger and even though it was key to civic life in ancient Athens, it was also a good way to get exiled if one were not careful. Still deliberation was key to bot the ekklesia and the agora, but not to the courts of law. 

There have been tons of rants about “PC” culture.  Ironically, this too is the realm of rhetoric, not parrhesia, as PC culture rants have a style and a certain blockage to truth. In Platonic dialectics, which have a very different meaning that the German Idealist or Marxist one, is based on two tellings of the truth. Freely.  Now, Plato does not really allow for Socrates debaters to have truly free speech that would undo Socrates except for one: Parmenides and . The one time one feels like Plato is willing to let Socrates truly lose.

Regardless, there is a regulation, perhaps coming from the contemporary ideas in identity political discourse that because derailing someone’s subjectivity is a way to silence them, then actually disagreeing on facts is derailing subjectivity. IN such a political climate, Parrhesia is impossible because the speech can never be unguarded. It doesn’t take a psychologist or a Plato to see how this would lead to confirmation bias and empty rhetoric rather quickly .

The moralizing impulse comes from places of concern, but the ignorance does not want to be discovered. No one wants to have someone else explain things to them because often it is done to silence, but take this just one step out:  how much are limiting by assuming that one’s subjectivity actually entails you to knowledge because of your individual qualia. Can you learn?  Can you be challenged? When political wins shift because you can’t see it, do see it?   Do you go through several stages of grief: pleading, threatening, then accepting.  Will you let acceptance be capitulation?  Will it matter?

So what is the relationship of Parrhesia to truth, Foucault puts it thusly:

There are two types of parrhesia which we must distinguish. First,there is a pejorative sense of the word not very far from “chattering” and which consists in saying any or everything one has in mind without qualification. This pejorative sense occurs in Plato, for example, as a characterization of the bad democratic constitution where everyone has the right to address himself to his fellow citizens and to tell them anything — even the most stupid or dangerous things for the city. This pejorative meaning is also found more frequently in Christian literature where such “bad” parrhesia is opposed to silence as a discipline or as the requisite condition for the contemplation of God. As a verbal activity which reflects every movement of the heart and mind, parrhesia in this negative sense is obviously an obstacle to the contemplation of God.

Most of the time, however, parrhesia does not have this pejorative meaning in the classical texts, but rather a positive one. “parrhesiazesthai” means “to tell the truth.” But does the parrhesiastes say what he thinks is true, or does he say what is really true? To my mind, the parrhesiastes says what is true because he knows that it is true; and he knows that it is true because it is really true. The parrhesiastes is not only sincere and says what is his opinion, but his opinion is also the truth. He says what he knows to be true. The second characteristic of parrhesia, then, is that there is always an exact coincidence between belief and truth.

It would be interesting to compare Greek parrhesia with the modern (Cartesian) conception of evidence. For since Descartes, the coincidence between belief and truth is obtained in a certain (mental) evidential experience. For the Greeks, however, the coincidence between belief and truth does not take place in a (mental) experience, but in a verbal activity, namely, parrhesia. It appears that parrhesia, in his Greek sense, can no longer occur in our modern epistemological framework.

I should note that I never found any texts in ancient Greek culture where the parrhesiastes seems to have any doubts about his own possession of the truth. And indeed, that is the difference between the Cartesian problem and the Parrhesiastic attitude. For before Descartes obtains indubitable clear and distinct evidence, he is not certain that what he believes is, in fact, true. In the Greek conception of parrhesia, however, there does not seem to be a problem about the acquisition of the truth since such truth-having is guaranteed by the possession of certain moral qualities:when someone has certain moral qualities, then that is the proof that he has access to truth—and vice-versa. The “parrhesiastic game” presupposes that the parrhesiastes is someone who has the moral qualities which are required, first, to know the truth, and secondly, to convey such truth to others.

If there is a kind of “proof” of the sincerity of the parrhesiastes, it is his courage. The fact that a speaker says something dangerous — different from what the majority believes— is a strong indication that he is a parrhesiastes. If we raise the question of how we can know whether someone is a truth-teller, we raise two questions. First, how is it that we can know whether some particular individual is a truth-teller; and secondly, how is it that the alleged parrhesiastes can be certain that what he believes is, in fact, truth. The first question — recognizing someone as a parrhesiastes — was a very important one in Greco-Roman society, and, as we shall see, was explicitly raised and discussed by Plutarch, Galen, and others. The second skeptical question, however, is a particularly modern one which, I believe, is foreign to the Greeks.

The truth is in the danger in telling.  Even honest dialogue can be dangerous.  Maybe most especially dangerous, exactly when it is when you need it because that is the time you will least want it.

This kind of free speech is deeper than just the legal right to say whatever: it is the courage to say the truth at a cost. It is not just to offend to do so. It is not be shocking for its own sake. It is for words to matter because the history and the weight, and the possible cost, of doing so.

Sancho Panza must ride with us.

Guest Post: The Convergence of Left & Right by Emanuel Kumlien

Making sense of Brexit and reactionary values

As human beings, we constantly look for patterns. We are, as Heidegger put it, “thrown into the world” – a chaotic and seemingly unpredictable world that we do our best to try to understand in order to interact with it and the other beings therein in a smooth and gainly manner. At no time though does the world appear more chaotic than during political turmoil, and making sense of it – much less understanding the underlying conditions and patterns – is a daunting task indeed.

Therefore, in the light of Brexit and the disastrous fallout that ensued, I set out to do my best to try to understand the leave campaign, the leave voters and what values and beliefs informed their stance and position. Before long I found myself digging deep into the contemporary reactionary movements of the right, browsing through countless forum threads and listening to hours upon hours of reactionary YouTube “celebrities”, all of which were vocal supporters of “leave”. My armchair social science field study took me through everything from the Gamergate movement, through the darker corners of the “manosphere”, the blue-brown waters of the “alt-right” before finally culminating in reading blog posts and manifestos from fringe neoreactionary movements. Desperately, I tried weaving these threads together, trying to find a pattern between them. What were their common elements? What were their lowest common denominators? What, exactly, is it that ties these movements together?

I thought the answers to the latter questions would be simple and straight-forward. Clearly, we all know “the right” hates homosexuals, the working class and the poor, immigrants, public service television and “communists”. We all think we know the right and what they stand for. At least, that was my working hypothesis. I already knew these people, I thought. I just had to confirm my already strongly held beliefs.

Before long though, I found that reality has an awful habit of not being as black-and-white as we sometimes wish it to be. At first, these different movements seemed to have nothing in common, except for them linking to each other from time to time. What looked like one huge, brown blob turned out to be a vast complex of venn diagrams, some with serious disagreements with their (at least when viewed from the outside) ideological “neighbors”. I found myself in a strange, almost surreal sphere where Leninists quoted libertarian thinkers on white supremacy forums, anarcho-capitalists applauded monarchist feudalists, scientifically trained libertarians supported long-debunked conspiracy theories, and professors of ethnic studies ranted against “jewish media”.

In such a strange world of seeming self-contradiction, I found myself utterly lost. My usual conceptions of “left” and “right” seemed to break down at the starting line. None of the labels I was used to apply to social and political movements and ideologies seemed to be adequate to accommodate for the myriad of beliefs and positions I found within these loosely correlated movements. These people disagreed on absolute ideological and philosophical fundamentals, yet seemed to get along most of the time and certainly had large portions of their audience in common. It seemed baffling to me that the same YouTube show could feature guests claiming that critical theory studies was a form of government-mandated mind control, exacerbated by electromagnetic “frequency pollution” (no, I’m not joking. This person really thought that Frankfurt school thinkers are being transmitted directly into student’s brains via government-controlled antennas) while at the same time accusing “the left” for spreading conspiracy theories. It baffled me further that a significant subsection of the show’s viewers were objectivist libertarians, people who typically are college educated and usually, at least in my experience, very apt and erudite debunkers of conspiracy theories. As a previously active member of the skeptic/atheist movement, I often saw these skills in action first-hand. The libertarian trail led to further confusion. Soon I found classical free-market liberals supporting welfare states and closed borders, in direct and vocal contradiction to the ideas of Adam Smith, and self-proclaimed classical liberals signing petitions to shut down select university departments in the name of protecting “free speech”.

I was ready to give up. These movements didn’t seem to hold any significant beliefs in common. They disagreed vocally on everything from welfare to immigration, gender and epistemology. Ironically, the only thing most (though certainly not all) of them seemed to agree upon was something I thought most of the far-right opposed: the right for homosexual couples to marry. Even some of the neo-Nazis on the far-right forums seemed to be supportive of gay rights, albeit from a very different standpoint.

Yet, for all their differences, they directed traffic to each other and seemed to have a significant overlap. How could this be?

It wasn’t long until I, desperate for something to help me understand this phenomenon, dusted off my old textbook in social psychology. This turned out to be a step in the right direction. For while they didn’t share many concrete beliefs about policy in common, they did have a significant overlap in values and attitudes. This discovery, though, led me to a quite uncomfortable conclusion, albeit one that had lurked in the back of my mind for some time.

Before we get into the actual studies and scientific theories, I invite you to imagine a person who holds a set of general conceptions of the world that looks something like this:

  1. The state of the world is largely determined by politicians and large corporations.
  2. These constitute a part of a group of “elites” that influence the world according to their will and self-interest.
  3. The current politicians are largely corrupted by these “elites”, if not outright a part of their group and replacing them together with getting rid of the “elitist” influence would therefore solve most of our current political problems.
  4. Due to the actions of the politicians and the elites, the world is currently in a critical state verging on collapse.
  5. The ideas and ideologies of the “ruling elite” are unfairly and undemocratically passed down to the public through social institutions such as universities as well as popular culture to which the public is largely defenseless. There is therefore a top-down indoctrination going on, which must be combated at all times.
  6. This ideology is specifically constructed to silence and shame my particular identity and cultural affiliation. This makes me feel threatened, and strengthens my bond to others within my cultural sphere in solidarity.
  7. The social group to which I belong is powerful, beautiful, articulate, and a real threat to the elites. This is why the ruling ideology tries to suppress it, or – worse – to conquer it and use it for their own agenda.
  8. There is therefore an effort from those that side with the elites to infiltrate my social group, which is why we must build barriers between us and them.
  9. My group is further targeted by the elites through economic and material means, effectively disempowering us since they came to power.
  10. The “elites” do everything they can to keep their plans secret, which is why mainstream media cannot be trusted outright. Alternative media might be flawed, but at least they get “the truth” out to the people.
  11. Because of all of the above points, swift action against the elites is justified and necessary. We might disagree on the forms and methods, but it is ultimately a disagreement about practical matters, not of goals or ideology.

I have tried to do my best not to make a strawman out of these beliefs, but truth be told I haven’t perhaps made my best efforts to strongman them either. Perhaps they sound weaker the way I’ve presented them here than they really are, perhaps it’s the other way around. I also do not wish to imply that someone that agrees with a few of these points must necessarily believe all of them, or that one logically necessitates the other. My point is merely to reflect a commonly held view, one that I hope you recognize – to some extent at least – among op-eds, books, debate articles and other forms of political commentary. Perhaps you even agree with a few of these points, or all of them. I certainly think more than a few carry a grain of truth, even though I – as you might have guessed by this point – do not think of it as the whole picture.

Again, consider our hypothetical person that holds the aforementioned beliefs. Who are you thinking of? You might be thinking of a person on the left who identifies the elitist ideology as “neoliberalism” and who might sympathize with – say – the occupy movement. Perhaps you’re not thinking of anyone in particular, thinking that these beliefs are far too generalistic to apply to any one person or movement. Whatever the case, you wouldn’t be wrong. I have, however, summarized these points from the opinions of one very specific person.

That person is Sargon of Akkad, or Carl Benjamin as he’s known in the real world. A right-wing reactionary YouTube celebrity, long famous for being a vocal critic of feminism and most of everything coming out of the contemporary left. A self-proclaimed “classical liberal”, he was also a vocal supporter for Brexit and – considering the sheer number his fans and audience – perhaps someone who might have had enough of an impact to sway voters to the other side in a very close referendum where tiny margins meant all the difference. Somewhat paradoxically for someone claiming to be of the same school as Adam Smith, David Ricardo and Jeremy Bentham, he advocates harsh border controls, isolationism and protectionist tariffs to “protect the jobs at home” and “protect the British working class” from the influence of the “elites” and “neoliberalism”. He’s also on record supporting Donald Trump, mainly due to his opposition to anything resembling Islam.

I have to emphasize here that I do not wish to engage in any sort of guilt by association. Clearly there a lot of people on the contemporary mainstream left, if not the overwhelming majority, that see him as a political enemy. The point of my investigation, however, was to understand how and why a significant portion of the left came to support a campaign directly orchestrated and organized by the far-right. The fact that someone on the far-right agrees on many of the same points as large portions of the left provides a clue.

While they disagree on who the elites may be and what the content of their ideologies is, most seem to be in agreement on the aforementioned points. On the left (as well as portions of the right), we hear that neoliberalism is the ideology that’s been shoehorned into universities to indoctrinate the public. On the right, it is “social justice” and “postmodernism” that fits this bill. On the left, the group being dispossessed and fought by the elites is the middle and working class. On the right it is the white middle class. The groups being infiltrated and attacked from outside, requiring them to stick together and thereby excluding other groups from their meetings or cultural events might either be minorities if you’re on the left (cultural appropriation theory and safe spaces come to mind), whereas on the alt-right and reactionary forums it is rather the traditional family values and the position of the white middle class that’s under attack from “social justice warriors”. Indeed, the whole of GamerGate, a reactionary movement mainly based on the internet whose goal is to silence and oppress minorities online (especially women who dare to criticize mainstream “gamer” culture), can be read as a special case of cultural appropriation theory. These mainly white adolescent males feel that their culture is being attacked and infiltrated from the outside and that people who do not “belong” in their social sphere suddenly try to “take” their culture away from them. Therefore, they react accordingly. Women, minorities and people of color do not belong in gaming, according to them, and they have no business trying to change the cultural milieu that rightly “belong” to those who came first.

This is not to imply that both parties are equally bad, or that there is no way to claim that one side has more evidence and well-reasoned arguments on their side than the other. I think it is clearly the case that the proposition that white men are discriminated against in society due to their gender and race, as goes the narrative in the right-wing “Redpill” movement, is downright silly and goes against not only mountains of evidence to the contrary, but also common sense and the everyday experience of women and people of color. I also think that there are several good reasons for creating “safe spaces” on college campuses, provided they fill their original function – enabling people who suffer from PTSD to be able to flourish intellectually and exchange ideas without having to constantly struggle with people dismissing their condition or actively shaming them for their trauma. I also do not wish to imply that GamerGate is a mirror image of civil liberties movements trying to raise consciousness about how sacred symbols and clothing is disrespectfully used by people who are ignorant of the very cultures the try to assimilate. These are clearly different movements with clearly different goals. Trying to use the fact that both left and right agree on many common points to dismiss both is not only wrong in an intellectual and moral sense, but also builds a dangerous road towards crude relativism.

It would, however, be equally wrongheaded to ignore these common denominators because one side has more evidence and arguments on their side than the other. If a set of personal experiences, cultural affiliations, facts, and statistics is all that distinguishes a gender-exclusionary feminist from a member of the Redpill movement, it would be an easy task to make them switch sides by means of propaganda and cleverly manipulated statistics. If a switch from thinking that neoliberalism is the main ideological enemy to thinking that “social justice” and “political correctness” is the main culprit is all it takes for a certain subset of supporters of Bernie Sanders to suddenly lean towards Donald Trump, then we find ourselves in a very dangerous political situation, regardless of whether Sanders is the better candidate or not. It makes the left a very fragile movement and very prone to sudden political shifts.

Which, incidentally, is exactly what we see. Indeed, many supporters (as well as a well-known organizer) of the Occupy movement later turned to neoreactionary politics. It wouldn’t be jumping to conclusions to suggest that this explains a lot of the support for Brexit outside of the neoreactionary and paleoconservative camp. Indeed, a vocal part of the leftist Brexit movement made a point of saying that just because they vote in favor of neoreactionary politics does not mean that they support neoreactionaries. Just because they share a common enemy, they claimed, does not mean that they’re political allies in other respects. This may very well be true, but in distancing themselves from the right in this manner, they also tacitly admit that they share a common view on how the world is shaped and the mechanics by which it operates, since who the enemy is is directly determined by who, or what, holds the real power to shape society. Indeed, it also implies that their main disagreement with the reactionary right is about which social groups should be excluded from participating in British society, not whether exclusion or isolationism is the right approach to begin with. In doing so, they reveal a most unsettling tendency within the left to privilege political determinism over a more dialectical understanding of history and politics, as well as putting domestic trade-union protectionism before international solidarity.

Why, then, if both left and right seem to agree on these common elements, do we see an increase in these values currently? Many theories have historically been proposed, most notably Adorno’s theory of “authoritarian personality”. While commonly invoked among leftist debaters, it has been largely debunked and abandoned within the field of social psychology, or at least so we were told in the introductory course on social psychology at university. So instead of going for the usual sources, I tried to see if there was any good, solid behavioral and social science on the matter. I therefore digged into the enormous World Values Survey, a massive effort to empirically measure and theorize the values of different social groups across the globe.

What sets the World Values Survey apart from the common understanding of politics and political camps is that it starts without any concept of “left” and “right”. Instead, the researchers first collected a massive database of responses to questions like “When jobs are scarce, employers should give priority to people of this country over immigrants” and “Having a job is the best way for a woman to be an independent person.” and only after they had the empirical data tried to use statistical models to see how best the different responses correlated with each other. It is the most serious attempt at a scientific understanding of values and how they shift over time to date. What they didn’t find, unsurprisingly enough, was a clear cut between “left” and “right”. Instead, they found that sets of values would best be categorized into Survival Values versus Self-expression Values, and Traditional Values versus Secular-Rational Values, all of which can be found within both left and right-wing politics.

Self-expression values are what you’d imagine – someone supporting not only the self-expression of oneself but also of others. They feel safe among others in other out-groups and are generally tolerant to immigration, LGBTQ-rights and so on. They’re also more prone to self-sacrifice and altruism. These values are opposed not to religious or conservative values per se, as the common suspicion goes, but to Survival Values. Survival Values emphasize the belief that a threat is looming over them, and that their in-group needs to be protected from that threat. It therefore strongly correlates with political opinions on economic and social security. It’s easy to see how survival values might see an increase during economically challenged times, as indeed they do according to WVS.

The results and findings of the survey are fascinating, and I wholeheartedly recommend looking through their summary of findings. What is interesting for the purposes of this analysis though is that we see a grounds for a dialectical materialist understanding of values and how they shift.

While WVS is careful to point out that the data in no way supports economic determinism, as – for instance – the support for gay marriage seems to be the result of conscious political campaigning and not the result of an increase in GDP, they also find that there are correlations between economic security and self-expression values, as seen in this graph:


While certainly not deterministic and not quite linear, the difference between economically prosperous nations and developing nations is quite clear. 

Thus, when I wrote the list of values at the start of this essay, I made sure to make them correlate with survival values. Notice how all of them play on the threat of security and safety, and how they fit within a framework of political determinism. If you feel that your security is threatened when it previously had been quite satisfactory, it is a lot easier to attribute this sudden change to a political movement, a group of people or a certain strain of politics than it is to derive it from the inner contradictions of a mode of production. It is a lot easier to see neoliberalism as the source of all the ills of society than it is to see capital as the source of neoliberalism. It becomes easier to see the state and judicial apparatus as the base and the economy as the superstructure rather than the other way around. Thus, we turn on the enemy, protect our own in-group and stick it to the elites that brought us into this situation. Whether your enemy is neoliberalism, muslims, white men, bankers, migrant workers, corporate CEO’s or state bureaucrats (or all of the above), the solution is the same: isolate, separate, secure, survive. And the theory usually rings the same: if we could only go back to the way it used to be, things would be better (at least for me). Gone is solidarity, and in its place is put the fetish of the noble politician, the one who will set things right again.

Marx had a different idea. It’s a shame we don’t listen.

Attempts: Some thoughts on identity and politics

I find confronted with the actual mask-like nature of most people’s political posturing, people start to avoid the question: people who are inclined to dislike you, dislike you more, and people who are inclined to like you think you are asshole but its better just to not response. I used to wonder why. I know why. It is not that you are questioning their politics. People actually can accept that. Politics is by nature deliberative when it is not about violence. Those are the two most common modes, after all, a state is the normalization and regulation of both modes of deliberation and modes of violence. It’s most basic functions: how do you make decisions, and how do you violently deal with those decisions. That isn’t what the silence is about. It is that you are calling into question a performative aspect of the self. You are denying people an identity. Look at most politics. They are not remotely coherent: values conflict, virtues conflict, virtue signaling one thing is done at the expense of another that actually is in the same mode of ethics or economics. No, when you expose someone’s political theology/ideology, you are ripping off their clothes while also showing them the water they swim in. They didn’t realize they were in the water and now they have nothing to protect their skin.

To give an example: A friend tells you that x-injustice that effects a specific minority community made by specific people is caused by x-demographic privilege.  You say, fine, that is structural racism, but how is structural racism caused by privilege?  How is saying that it this is privilege of x-demographic ignores that while all of x-demographic group may get tangential benefits, they don’t get all the benefit equally.  However, even given this blaming of an entirety of x which seems to get very specific people an out is legitimate, you can’t explain the structural oppression but pointing out its results.  X is caused by privilege which is the result of X.  The tautological nature of that is hiding something as much as it is pointing something out.   This is both why I have always find privilege talk to be not helpful or, often, serves to protect the powerful.  However, this talk does reify an identity.   Conversely, complaining about people pointing out is reifying a different identity.    It is unfair to say that people don’t care about “justice”–they do.  What they don’t want to do is actually question what justice is, or more importantly, who they are.

In race and gender, this is fascinating.  The move to stay that these identities are socially normative more than biological, but yet we must reinforce them even in the pretense of breaking down the oppression that has buttressed them.  It’s obviously a precarious and somewhat contradictory position. It’s easy for opponents of “social justice” or the “the left” or “liberals” to make fun of, but the making fun of it actually is premised on the same game but going back to the innateness of the positions too.   Instead of society, it is turned to biology or “human nature.”  Often, however, with no proof either of what that is. Both end up being motte and bailey tactics.   Why do them?

For most people politics is their social being when they have little connection to less ideological modes of community.  Instead of a place or a tribe being who you are–this ideology gives you justice.  It is important to remember, most community is actually attempt to symbolize kinship relations–kinship, more than family the way most of thing of it, being what does drive most primate traps and humans ability to abstract that into more abstract ideas seems unique to us–and stabilize our means of life.  It is abstraction of the two most practical and social ideas around us: how we eat, who we have sex with, and who has our genes.  This is the reproduction of social life.  This is the basis of our identities in societies where these things are obvious.  The motte and bailey tactics of identity politics and counter-identity politics are  based on the same impulse but skewed, and largely hidden from us.  We don’t want to believe our virtues are that simple. Indeed, they actually aren’t that simple, but this still is the basic driver of who we think we are.

This is not just true in “identity politics” either.  That is actually an unfair, but commonly made, assertion. When people say “pragmatist” they either mean, I don’t know, or they mean, I already feel that know but don’t want to argue for it. The pragmatic of course just can assume position because of it’s value to you. It just won’t openly adjudicate between values. As such, when used this way, it is either circular–this is good because it is good–or it is avoiding the question of premises in the first place.  Not-knowing is actually a hard place to be. It is alienating. It is a transitional identity-state.  So saying a position comes form ignorance or incompleteness is harder than saying it comes from pragmatism. The pragmatist has a community of other pragmatists.  It can be tribe.  Uncertainty can’t.



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).