5 articles Articles posted in philosophy

Sundays with Skokie

Jewish Sunday school was traumatic. For a lot of reasons, many personal. I was forced to go by my father after an upbringing of religious indifference, I had no friends there, the kids were cruel, and the teachers rather dim. I’ve had a grudge against it, in my memory, ever since.

Because I intellectualize everything, one way I express that grudge (to myself) is to pick at the ideological commitments of that Sunday school curriculum. To say the Holocaust was an important part of it does not express it. It’s not that we dwelled on the piles of bodies, though at points we did – but as a political problem, it was omnipresent. Other than the weeks we spent memorizing ancient Hebrew prayers – this was a confirmation class, so it was assumed that if you’d wanted to learn Hebrew you’d have already done so pre- bar/bat-mitzvah – it was all Jewish history, and all that was through the lens of the Shoah. Pre-Holocaust history was the crescendo leading up to the Holocaust; everything else was in one way or another about Israel, as the resolution.

I don’t believe in anything about that narrative, but these days I interrogate my Sunday school less to expose that narrative’s historical deficiencies than to marvel at what a fractal the thing was. Every little piece of the curriculum reflected the whole of that sweep in miniature.

The organizing slogan was “never again”, but given that it’s happened about nineteen times “again” and nothing about this narrative changes, indeed nothing at all changes, I’m curious about why such an obviously universal slogan, a slogan that dovetails so beautifully with Vonnegut’s plainspoken “no more massacres”, ends up being uttered in such a particularized and sightless way. Liberal American Judaism seems fully capable of intoning “never again” without the slightest irony from atop a pile of massacred bodies. As long as – I may as well say it – they’re not Jews.

Somehow it never became explicit, or explicit in the right way, that “never again” didn’t mean just to us. That, in fact, it wouldn’t be us next time. It would be someone else, and it would be the duty imposed on us by passing through the Holocaust to stand up with them.

There was of course that tendency in Holocaust studies, partly owing to Blanchot but being a terrible misunderstanding of him, which said that the Holocaust was a radical historical singular, absolutely unique. Which implies – unrepeatable. Because of its industrial character, because of the special, irreducible nature of Jew-hatred, because, ultimately, of the fearful body count – the Holocaust was not like other holocausts and should not be compared. There will only ever be the one.

Insisting on the absolute historical uniqueness of the Holocaust does make it easier to condone what Israel does in Jewry’s name today. After all, that’s not a Holocaust – it can’t be, we know that to be impossible. I don’t like claims that certain historical nightmares are unique beyond comparison for just this reason. It puts them beyond use as a lesson. There is that shudder at the word “use”, as if six million tortured ghosts were put to work turning the capstan of historiography, but I still don’t see how you can deny the fungibility of the Holocaust without, paradoxically, ensuring its repeatability.

One day they showed us a video of the TV movie “Skokie” (1981), a dramatization of the 1979 Nazi march through the heavily Jewish Chicago suburb of Skokie, IL. Skokie had refused permission for the march; the ACLU sued on the Nazis’ behalf and won.

The movie is a fascinating piece of liberal propaganda, and I think I’ve been haunted by it since, because, like all good propaganda, it makes clear what the proper resolution is; but it does not fail to present – at least its own version – of the essential conflict. I think at the time I swallowed whole the proper resolution – something like, “American rights ask us to bear difficult things, but, in the end, yay free speech!” But something about the film has always made me uneasy.

These days, I can put the movie in more theoretical terms: the ostensible lesson is to insist on the universality and reciprocity of abstract rights, because thereby we are all saved, equally. I think the movie betrays this claim, though – and I think it betrays this claim because the claim is betrayed by its nature; there is something essential about the ideal of abstract reciprocal rights that is paradoxical, in a bad way.

The movie rightly places the Holocaust at the center of the drama. The confrontation is intra-Jewish: on the one hand, Skokie’s Holocaust survivors (who would have still been relatively young and numerous, only 34 years after the event; my next door neighbor growing up was a survivor, so my first association with the term is “that guy next door who mows his lawn and has a number on his arm”, not “those old people, nearly all dead, with their stories of the distant past.”) are opposed to the march, indeed opposed to permitting the existence of out-and-out Nazis, because they experienced the rise of Hitler themselves. Their opponents are liberal Jewish town pols and Jewish ACLU lawyers, who patiently explain that the rights that protect the Nazis also protect the Jews; a universal right must be extended to everyone, no matter how odious, or it is not in fact a right in the first place; pace Niemoller, if we now permit the silencing of the Nazis, can we expect anyone will stand up for us, if the time ever comes?

That’s an appealing story, one that, as Americans, we’ve imbibed all our lives, almost with the tap water. Yet the fact that I can summarize the survivors’ case in a handful of words (they saw Hitler), while the liberal case requires more than sixty, should tell you something: there is a certain ideological contortion going on.

To begin with, the equivalence, between the Jews and the Nazis, as two embattled minorities, is really an extraordinary one. We must tolerate the Nazis, who want nothing more in this life than to kill us, because one day we might need the protection of that very right that they now avail themselves of: in other words, as these Nazis now are, so might we one day be. Actually, that’s not an equivalence only: it’s an affective identification. The correct attitude toward these Nazis is not to fear them, it is to pity them – while one should fear that which the Nazis also fear, the vast, trackless, potent expanse of – simultaneously deracinated and goyishe – America.

In America, it turns out, a safe Nazi is a safe Jew. The survivors do not understand this. They are chained to the past. They see only Nazis, who killed them once, and whom they want to kill. They represent the particularity of the horror of the Jewish experience. The liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers represent the universal reply. “Skokie” hopes you will chose the universal over the particular, however difficult that may feel.

Yet there is something unsatisfying about the terms of this universal/particular pairing. In fact, I think it’s backwards.

For “a safe Nazi is a safe Jew” to have the appeal “Skokie” says it does, it must be the case that these Nazis are not dangerous, or the survivors would simply be right. Even though as Nazis their whole existence is predicated on killing Jews. These Nazis are neutralized; America’s Nazis are domesticated. It is all right to allow the majesty of Constitutional right to drape these Nazis, to displace the necessary violence of self-protection, because there aren’t really any Nazis at all: there is only this pitiable lot, while the vast, terrifying expanse of America within which the Jew is still an alien, is on our side. It will never permit actual Nazis, only these shambling reminders. In America, the Jew has somehow won – as long as this America persists, the Jews are in charge of their own destiny.

In other words, the liberal Jews rely on one of the necessary but unstated paradoxes of liberal democracy: we can be confident that liberal democracy will not permit the rise of a movement that will abolish the protections of abstract civil rights, even though how to prevent this is impossible to specify from within the principles of liberalism. Liberal democracy is evenhandedly protective of the rights of all within it, yet there will come a time when it will have to act against a specific political tendency within itself and destroy it, to save itself. This is the vital moment of illiberalism within liberal democracy. Every political persuasion is treated with all the unjudging serenity of mere political procedure – every tendency is permitted everything any other is permitted, no matter what it actually is. There is no legal or constitutional principle that specifies when liberalism must step outside the framework of equal protection and put its foot down. “Straying into violence or criminality” isn’t it. It is quite possible, after all, for an undemocratic movement to attain power while obeying all liberal democratic rules regarding violence and criminality, as long as enough people approve of it. It is then in a position to abolish the whole thing. Yet this does not happen.

Except – it manifestly does happen. Of course it does. The unspecifiable moment when liberalism translates itself from a procedure to an ethos and suppresses internal, existential threats to itself, which is to say, to its universal extension of rights and protections to all citizens, never arrives. Liberal democracies are subverted and abolished, as Germany was, and even when this does not happen wholesale, they permit within themselves every imaginable mode of particularized exploitation, degradation, and oppression. It’s how liberal democratic America has been at the same time constitutively white supremacist America.

The provision of liberal abstract rights in fact guarantees nothing. And this is obvious. All you have to have is the memory of a Holocaust survivor. All you have to do is drive from Skokie to the Chicago south side.

Realizing this, what is the real content of what the liberal Jews and the ACLU lawyers say to the survivors? It’s not “we have rights.” It can only be this: “It can’t happen here.” The one slogan that every Jew is taught from birth not to trust. If it does not rest upon liberal abstract rights, it can only be mere historical triumphalism, easily reversed: Here, we won. America likes us. We can get in all the clubs and schools now. We’re in no danger.

I’m less interested in how foolish this claim is on its face, than in how a movie like “Skokie” makes it possible for the American children of Holocaust survivors to hear it and believe it. Because once you scrape off the ideological trappings, it’s completely threadbare. It’s completely particular. Here, now, we Jews are okay. Others are not okay, but we are okay. Just keep playing along.

In this way, the reliance on the polite fiction – among the privileged – of universal liberal rights, becomes a striking defense of the status quo. It is the alchemical transmutation of mere Jewish self-regard into a political philosophy of complacency. We – we Jews, triumphant in America – let the Nazis march; from this we know that the promise of American universalism is untrammeled. That is the proof. (Don’t get off the Dan Ryan on the South Side.)

If the liberals are particularity in disguise, it’s the survivors, who’d been portrayed as (understandably) tribal, clenched to history, who make the properly universal claim: Nazis are everywhere dangerous; Nazis must everywhere be fought and destroyed. The Danny Kaye character in “Skokie” – Kaye uses his trademark evocation of manic hysteria to excellent effect – was the only sane one. The survivors are not interested in even-handed proceduralism; they know what Naziism is, and they know there is no way to make peace with it.

“Skokie” is topsy-turvy. “Skokie” is liberal propaganda. Yet “Skokie” cannot abolish the universal claim hiding in the smokescreen of liberal proceduralism. I could never get past that fear that it left me with – that, in pointing at the pathetic false Nazis, its gesture of genuine terror past them and towards the immense fields of American possibility, was dead right all along.

The universal lesson of the specificity of the Holocaust is always clear: what has happened to us, is what can happen. As the philosophers say, actuality is the best proof of possibility. Nothing prevents it from happening here. Because it already has, and still is.

The iconicity of “peaceful resistance”

The New York Times’ Mandela Obituary Headline Couldn’t Have Been More Wrong

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Before it falls down the memory hole, it should be noted that the online US edition of the New York Times marked the sad passing of the great Nelson Mandela with this odd headline: “Nelson Mandela, South African Icon of Peaceful Resistance, Dies”. (They’ve since changed it to “South Africa’s…Moral Center”, which sounds like a place FIFA could have held business ethics conventions during the last World Cup.)

“Icon of Peaceful Resistance” makes it sound like Mandela was an advocate and practitioner of nonviolence. He wasn’t. Apartheid was above all a socioeconomic system of structured viciousness: the whites were not going to give up their advantages without a fight. The struggle against Apartheid was necessarily bloody. The symbolic force of an “icon”, no matter how noble its martyrdom, could not have defeated Apartheid. It had to be defeated at the cost of lives. Mandela always knew this.

Mandela founded and ran Umkhonto we Sizwe, the paramilitary wing of the ANC, which carried out armed resistance and a bombing campaign. The bombings mostly targeted high-profile pieces of property, but were nevertheless responsible for many civilian deaths. Umkhonto we Sizwe also executed collaborators.

Botha would have freed Mandela in ‘85 if he’d agreed to renounce armed struggle; Mandela courageously refused. On his release in 1990, Mandela repeated:

“The factors which necessitated the armed struggle still exist today. We have no option but to continue. We express the hope that a climate conducive to a negotiated settlement will be created soon so that there may no longer be the need for the armed struggle.”

He was right on both counts.

Don’t think he wasn’t reviled for it. In the eyes of many among the Western elites, Mandela was a Soviet-dominated terrorist until the day he walked out of jail, and into iconicity. Reagan put the ANC on the State Department terrorist organizations watch-list; this wasn’t undone until 2008. Reagan vetoed the South Africa sanctions bill, and was overridden — not before Jesse Helms fillibustered the override vote.

Then there were even more charming expressions of Western antipathy to Mandela’s violence, like this poster produced in the 80s by the UK’s Federation of Conservative Students, which I will reproduce without further comment:

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Poster by the UK’s Young Conservatives (thanks to @sarahlicity)But in American bourgeois fantasy life, the only good liberation struggles are Gandhi and King, and if a struggle does not match that mythologized template, could not have matched it, it will be roundly condemned while it is ongoing, and if it happens to be successful (despite us), its history will be rewritten.

The dialectic is a familiar one — familiar and a little sad. There is a way in which the myth of peaceful resistance is flattering to the oppressor and disabling to the oppressed. It’s as much the oppressor’s narrative as anyone’s. “You ought not to fight us with more than the image of your own broken body,” it says, “for we who oppress you are good and rational — most of the time. We have the same interests as you, and understand that you enjoy the same basic rights. We, your rulers, simply need to have our consciences pricked from time to time.” By couching the antipathy as a mere moral lapse, the oppressor is permitted simultaneously to deny the actual material basis of the social division and hence the necessity for a struggle for liberation that is more than merely symbolic, and to perform a mental splitting-off from its own identity of those aspects of itself it can now pretend were inessential deviations from its rational, humanistic core. Just as the United States broadly did with the benighted South of Bull Connor and the Klan. As if the story of American racist oppression was one of mere regional ideological peccadillo and not one of the founding principles of the whole nation’s economic structure. As if the story of Apartheid were simply those nasty Afrikaners and their gauche racism. They’d probably lived in Africa too long and allowed its “tribalism” to rub off on them, and so deviated from the European universalist norm. Still, one of us in the end, eh?

That’s the funny thing about colonialism — even when it’s visible, it appears only in ideological garb flattering to the oppressor.

In fact, this is such a reflex that the Times probably wrote that headline without a second thought, and it was only after a few thousand derisive tweets that they remembered that there is occasionally such a thing as real history, and they quietly changed it.

This post also appears on Medium.com

Kimmel and Kanye, Žižek and Chomsky

Jimmy Kimmel and Kanye West. Noam Chomsky and Slavoj Žižek. Locked in gladiatorial beef.

In fact, these two beefs are the same beef. And I’m with Kanye and Žižek, all the way. They may be goofy and hyper and self-indulgent. They may be wrong. But Kimmel and Chomsky are much worse than wrong.

Chomsky’s criticism of Žižek and Kimmel’s criticism of Kanye are about very different subjects and are enunciated in very different registers, but they amount to the same thing: “I don’t know what you’re talking about, so you can’t be saying anything. I have admittedly done very little, maybe nothing, to try to understand you, but I am confident what you say is not to be taken seriously, indeed, is hardly even intelligible.”

Kimmel:

but I don’t know fashion. And to be honest I don’t follow a lot of what Kanye West has to say.

Chomsky:

What you’re referring to is what’s called “theory.” And when I said I’m not interested in theory, what I meant is, I’m not interested in posturing–using fancy terms like polysyllables and pretending you have a theory when you have no theory whatsoever. So there’s no theory in any of this stuff, not in the sense of theory that anyone is familiar with in the sciences or any other serious field. … See if you can find that when the fancy words are decoded. I can’t.

We have a word for that in philosophy and logic: arguing in bad faith. What Chomsky and Kimmel advance here is not the claim that the other is wrong, because no counter-claim is given. It’s not satire or even caricature: satire and caricature are (hyperbolic) critiques that arise from principled disagreement. It’s not a straw man, because it doesn’t pretend to be arguing with a genuine interlocutor in the first place.

Chomsky and Kimmel don’t enact the reception, comprehension, and interpretation of the other’s words at all. They claim that the other’s words are meaningless, empty, without purpose. Hardly even deserving to be called “words”.

If I’ve said anything else in the few other posts on this blog, it’s that you should be extremely suspicious of such a claim. On the face of it, it’s a very strange thing to say. After all, it’s not as if Kanye’s career can’t be tracked, and it’s not as if Žižek fills his books with literal gibberish: there’s clearly a phenomenon there. If you don’t get them or fail to engage with them, that, it would seem, is a fact about you, isn’t it? It’s surely a great argumentative risk to assert otherwise, and a very good and strong case should be given.

In other words, it’s a pure argument from ignorance. Or maybe more amazingly, it’s ignorance as warrant. “I don’t follow it. I can’t find it. Therefore, it’s crap.” These are not attempts at understanding. They are claims that understanding is not just impossible but so obviously impossible that no effort need be made, that the other is so degenerated that the very attempt at understanding is otiose.

If the interlocutor’s words have no meaning that can be engaged with, then what are they? What differentiates them from mere sounds? The difference between human communication and the grunting of an animal or the babbling of a brook is intention and meaning. What’s the difference between the Chomsky/Kimmel characterization of Žižek and Kanye, and the stereotyping of the Other as a beast or an object? Or maybe the Chomsky/Kimmel position is that the other has tried to cheat us, by dressing up mere sounds to resemble meaningful utterances, as if they were communication, but aren’t. Either they’re creatures or things, with no value and deserving of no respect. Or they’re trying to rook us into thinking that the sounds they emit are meaningful, even though they are no more than the oozing of muck.

You can do whatever you want to someone — is it even a person? — you see that way. That’s not just the first step on a slippery slope: that’s the last step. The reduction has already been performed. You may now silence that other, that pseudo-interlocutor, as casually as you would a drip from a faucet.

At worst, if Žižek and Kanye are cheaters out for a fast buck, they are cynics. At worst, Chomsky and Kimmel are something very much more vile.

Carl Schmitt, the great theorist of fascism, would have known well what they are. He saw the very essence of political life this way: not as various kinds of disagreements and compromises, laws and revolts, conversations and protests, but as the field of an endless, ruthless war between factions, constituted by nothing more than their bare difference from one another.
Schmitt:

The specific political distinction to which political actions and motives can be reduced is that between friend and enemy….it is sufficient for [the enemy’s] nature that he is, in a specially intense way, existentially different and alien… To the enemy concept belongs the ever-present possibility of battle. [Schmitt, The Concept of the Political]

This sense of the political, because primordial and constitutive, is ineliminable. For the fascist Schmitt, it is the lie and the doom of democracy that it does not understand this, that it actually would presume to try to undo its true nature as a welter of enemies eternally at war, and substitute the democratic process for necessary bloodshed. Indeed, war itself becomes the prime, in fact only, political value. It is the allegiance to friends and the willingness to permanently silence enemies that forms the grandest ethical register.

“That’s a big claim,” you may be thinking. “You’re saying that Chomsky and Kimmel stand fundamentally against the kind of argumentative good faith that is required for a commitment to democracy, that they, at least in their ignorant dismissals of those who represent discourses even slightly different than their own, are becoming fascist.” Yeah. I really mean it.

To leap from your own failure of recognition to the denial that the other has any claim at all on your understanding is fundamentally a vicious, even fascist way to approach an interlocutor. It at once drives us away from the attempt at mutual understanding into the arena of violence.

Kimmel is the late-night-tv, pop culture version of Chomsky. The risk is that they are not themselves becoming the vanguard of some kind of authoritarianism — that would be to overstate the matter — as that their sheer bulletheadedness represents a kind of official, celebrity and intellectual, permission for the culture to slide yet farther into a dull, stultifying, yet prodigiously anti-intellectual Colonel Blimp-ism.

Colonel Blimp isn’t just an old fool. Colonel Blimp is a nasty symptom. Colonel Blimp’s willful stupidity is the official culture’s inability to critique itself. Colonel Blimp is the intellectual apparatus, the mass culture, the ruling class, in radical decline. People who otherwise look like they ought to be able to think a thought have downed tools and retreated into a snarling, anti-humanist, verificationism.

You see it everywhere. Steven Pinker’s gloating, tin-eared, “Don’t Worry, We Won’t Hurt You” article, addressed to humanists, was one version. “We’re not the enemy, humanities,” he says. “We respect you: some of you even once did science, and using our new quantitative methods, you can again. Once upon a time, we were all one discipline, and we will be again, as soon as whatever makes you distinct from the sciences is extirpated. Which you shouldn’t mind, because the rest of what you do is meaningless noise anyway.” That’s not an extended olive-branch; that’s an aimed howitzer barrel. You will be assimilated. You will cease to exist.

As Colonel Blimp said, “We should insist on peace. Except, of course, in the event of war.”

Sorry, no. I’m going down swinging on the side of meaning. Even error, excess, and goofiness are preferable to Kimmel and Chomsky, those two chattering skulls.

Penny Arcade, Geek Culture, and Hegel’s “Beautiful Soul”

I’m assuming you already know about Penny Arcade (PA), PAX, and the dickwolves. If you don’t, here is a summary, and here is a chronology. As you can see, this is one of those internet social-justice kerfluffles that was bottled in vintage.

They’re at it again. Just to be clear, before we get into the dry philosophy, I think Krahulik is behaving like a pig. A very pointed and intelligent denunciation of his conduct can be found here [Penny Arcade and the Slow Murder of Satire, by MammonMachine].

I want to talk about something a little different. I’ve long been uncomfortable with geek culture, despite arguably being a geek, and I’ve been trying to understand why I feel that way. Geek culture has pathologies that are not wholly different from what infects most American male youth culture, but they appear in a peculiar way. I think Hegel can help us understand what’s going on.

There’s a section in Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit in which Hegel is describing how we develop our consciences by encountering other people.

Say you’ve done something wrong. You did something dumb; you should have known better; you hurt people. What do you do? You apologize.

But an apology is a strange sort of act. An apology isn’t a recompense; it’s merely a statement of recognition. “I realize I fucked up.” Why is such a small thing so important? Because it’s supposed to be universal. We are all sinners, and in an apology, we recognize that we too have much to be sorry for; we see ourselves in the apologetic wrongdoer. It’s a moment of human equality.

Yet it often doesn’t work out that way. Other people can be recalcitrant. There’s no rule that they have to accept our apology just because we offer it. Sometimes they don’t, and they stay mad. They even say that we “still don’t get it.” Maybe we don’t! They refuse the moment of equality implicit in our apology. We don’t get what we wanted. Hegel says:

…seeing this identity and giving this expression, he openly confesses himself to the other, and expects in like manner that the other, having in point of fact put itself on the same level, will respond in the same language, will therein give voice to this identity, and that thus the state of mutual recognition will be brought about.

…But the admission on the part of the one who is wicked, “I am so”, is not followed by a reply making a similar confession. This was not what that way of judging meant at all: far from it!

…By so doing the scene is changed. The one who made the confession sees himself thrust off, and takes the other to be in the wrong…

Now what? Rage and resentment. The one who confessed now feels they are the one who has really been wronged. “Ok, what I did may not have been strictly the best, but where do they get off still flaming me after I said I was sorry! They aren’t really any different from me! Who do they think they are?

Sound familiar? It may even be that the one who now feels themselves wronged, after their apology was rejected, will retreat into feeling their original act was not even bad. Why? Because in the encounter with another person, a void opened up, a failure of understanding and forgiveness – that wasn’t what was supposed to happen. Instead, the other wronged me in return for my confession. There was no mutual expression of humility, no expression of common humanity, showing that our consciences were hardly the same to begin with. But that difference means theirs must have been broken all along! So other people are not the source of my moral development. Mutual understanding of conscience is not important for me to attempt.

The conscience, our own subjective feeling for morality, then changes its mind about the importance of listening to other people, and arrogates to itself the right to be the final authority:

Conscience, then, in its majestic sublimity above any specific law and every content of duty, puts whatever content it pleases into its knowledge and willing. It is moral genius and originality, which knows the inner voice of its immediate knowledge to be a voice divine.

For Hegel, conscience, when it reaches this stage, is uneducable. It has turned its back on others. It does not feel it has anything to learn from them.

I think you can see where I think Krahulik stands in this dialectic. He took his apology back, and said he was never wrong to begin with. He said he just should have kept quiet, not engaged. He said, in effect, that he never had anything to learn, that there was no point in his ever having listened.

Hegel calls this state “the beautiful consciousness.” Obviously, he doesn’t think much of it.

Why “beautiful”? That’s a little bit of a joke. It’s meant to evoke something like the narcissistic boho spirit of self-cultivation, to the exclusion of real-world engagement with others. The beautiful consciousness is sealed off from others. It’s not interested in, as Twitter and Tumblr social justice folks put it, shutting up and listening. All that would show is how dumb other people are. Instead, it gets all it needs from within. The beautiful soul’s own desire to express itself is its own law. (c.f. Amanda Palmer.)

But – here’s the big problem. There isn’t anything in there. The beautiful consciousness has sealed itself off from the very people that would provide its sensibilities with content other than itself:

We see then, here, self-consciousness withdrawn into the inmost retreats of its being, with all externality, as such, gone and vanished from it […] an intuition where this ego is all that is essential, and all that exists.

The result is a mind that is, in a profound way, empty – empty of engagement with others, of what one gains from engagement with others. It’s like…a beautiful snowflake. Crystalline and pure and inhuman and small. Beautiful, in a way, but utterly impoverished.

Even if it wanted more, to know more, to understand what it is about other people it has failed to understand, the beautiful soul has cut itself off and therefore no longer knows where to look. Even when it looks outside itself, it begins to see only versions of itself: objects that are as cold, inhuman, hollow, and empty as it itself is. Even in a crowd of such empty, identical beings, it must be desperately lonely.

Its activity consists in yearning, which merely loses itself in becoming an unsubstantial shadowy object, and, rising above this loss and falling back on itself, finds itself merely as lost. In this transparent purity of its moments it becomes a sorrow-laden “beautiful soul”, as it is called; its light dims and dies within it, and it vanishes as a shapeless vapour dissolving into thin air.

Because its own self-assertion is the whole of its own law, when criticized, the beautiful soul retreats immediately into non-sequitur, abstract defenses of its right to speak. Obviously, it isn’t really invoking the majesty of the First Amendment (as everyone points out, free speech isn’t a claim against criticism, it’s a claim only against prior restraint) or any other political ideal; it’s invoking its own endless need for pouring out the depths of its empty self. Indeed, because the principle of its activity is its own right to scream out its lack of interiority, it becomes deranged:

Thus the “beautiful soul”, being conscious of this contradiction in its unreconciled immediacy, is unhinged, disordered, and runs to madness, wastes itself in yearning, and pines away in consumption.

The beautiful soul, it turns out, is kind of a dick. Not a sociopath or an antisocial; those people actively enjoy causing pain and chaos. Just a dick. Someone who just isn’t interested in “getting it.” Someone who probably wants to see themselves as principled and justified, but whose principles are nothing more than assertions of their need to gratify themselves with their own forms of self-expression. That’s all that’s left for them.

I think this whole dialectic, this regression from a more mature conscience and consciousness to the “beautiful soul”, is emblematic of geek culture; I think it’s something that young male geeks in their “geekness” tend to do a lot (I mean, this is the smart kid’s version of being a dick; wordily, by being a snot). And I think it’s a repetition of something that happened before, in the life of many young male geeks, and in the ur-narrative of geekness itself.

What is the ursprung of masculine geekness, besides being smart and good at fiddly tasks? Being bullied in school. And having girls turn you down – either in a moment of humiliating explicitness, or implicitly, in the regular order of things. Well, I was there myself, and it’s frustrating. It’s frustrating in a way that warps minds.

The beautiful soul exposes itself and expects to find commonality. Consciousness seeks for its fellows in others; it expects to hear, in response to the admission that it is itself unworthy, the answering assertion that we are all unworthy. When it does not get it, but receives continued denunciation, it retreats into an angry, yet sterile, self-enclosure, in which the its own desire for self-expression at any price becomes the principle of its existence. Yet there is so very little to express, when the interior is empty of the voices of others.

Similarly. The young geek soul exposes itself in what it is already convinced is its brokenness. It assumes even in this brokenness it is still no less than human. But the reaction is not one of welcome, but revulsion – the riposte that other people are not broken at all, that it is just the geek who is unacceptable. Social and sexual life are withheld. The geek soul turns inward. Wasting itself in yearning, it turns inward.

And it gets angry.

Because what it wanted was only what it assumed was due any human insofar as they are seen to be human. Things one is owed simply because one is alive. Sociality. Sexuality. Belonging.

Owed. Sound like “the nice guy“? The nice guy is the beautiful soul in its sexual moment.

What do you do when you aren’t given what you are owed? Act out.

At last, our chance to be that asshole 16-year-old we couldn’t be the first time around because we were too busy getting jock locks and swirlies. Even if we really weren’t, we remember it that way, because that’s what it is to be a geek, and that’s why the world owes us an endless, consequence-free adolescence. Here’s to the crazy ones. Fuck you if you can’t take a joke.

This is such a nasty dialectic because, of course, the geek soul is right. It should have access to things like sociality and belonging and a sexual life. Humans need those things. To be denied them is as painful an experience as a human being can have. Geek youth is cruel. The geek ur-story is a tragic story. The turning-inward, the evolution of the geek soul into the beautiful soul, is not surprising. Probably it is inevitable.

But at the same time, it’s maddening and terrible. The older geek’s beautiful soul is one that feels violated by others’ righteous claims of conscience in the same way that the younger geek’s soul felt wounded by others’ cruelty and rejection. But those aren’t the same. The older geek’s soul hasn’t advanced enough to make the distinction that the rejection experienced in high school is not the same as the judgment it receives now. The geek soul retreated inward and so did not allow itself the experiences, the openness, needed to become the mature consciousness that could make such a distinction. The beautiful geek soul is stuck in a repetition compulsion. This repetition is what makes it such a dick.

Stop being a dick, geek culture. Grow up and stop being a dick.

Neurath’s Boat and the Righteous Bubble

I’m going to begin this blog with a few posts on its purpose, nature, and intended tone. Here is one.

On the Internet, there are two cultures – even going back to the days of the BBSes, there always were. One is loud, vituperative, and denunciatory. The other is shocked by the first.

Here is a recent example of the second culture – a Wall Street Journal article describing yet another study explaining why we’re so rude on the internet (anonymity, it’s always anonymity) and how that harms our polity. This has become a commonplace.

I’m not so sure.

The article describing the study was more interesting than the study. The protagonist, or sacrificial victim, of the piece is a poster called “ER Doc”, who gets flamed for offering an informed opinion on a list of dog-bite incidents by pit bull terriers. The WSJ reporter takes a dim view of ER Doc’s interlocutors:

Then a childhood pal of Ms. Bristol piped up with this: “Take it from an ER doctor… In 15 years of doing this I have yet to see a golden retriever bite that had to go to the operating room or killed its target.”

That unleashed a torrent. One person demanded to see the doctor’s “scientific research.” Another accused him of not bothering to confirm whether his patients were actually bitten by pit bulls. Someone else suggested he should “venture out of the ER” to see what was really going on.

“It was ridiculous,” says Ms. Bristol[.]”

Hm. Frankly, most of those replies to ER Doc don’t even sound rude. They’re exactly the questions you’d ask if you were conducting any kind of academic inquiry into ER Doc’s conclusions. And that is precisely the style of inquiry held up as the ideal from which “internet rudeness” supposedly strays. Where’s your data? Do you have more than anecdotes? Do you even know the accepted definitions of terms (here, dog breeds)? Or have you not been listening, and expected to drop in and shut everyone up on the basis of a putatively impressive credential? That’s another way of being rude – both rude and paradigmatically irrational, when you’re arguing something incendiary (here, implying that some people’s pet dogs should be euthanized). I would expect such a response as a bare minimum, and it’s hard to see how it’s improper.

What we lack here is a good model of conversational expectation – virtually everyone who writes “incivility on the internet” articles would be horrified by even mild academic Q&A sessions. Every part of people’s claims are hashed over, often in raised voices. Academia is not a tea party, even when everyone is doing it properly and playing by the rules. The level of discourse at a tea party is not the model of reasoned discourse, nor how things are done when Rational People get together to Have Their Rational Discussions – those often get quite tense, and certainly ought to cut deeply into the muscle of what anyone says. There’s a troubling conflation of, on the one hand, tough questioning and passionate argument, which I think are not only fine but completely in keeping with the ideal of deliberative inquiry, and, on the other, verbal assault (threats, humiliations, vicious epithets, racism and misogyny and so on). I think most people, in practice, are pretty good at seeing the difference.

Except when the inquirer is after something we ourselves said – then it all feels pretty mean. Spinoza noted that in our fondness for our own opinions, we tend to identify them with our own selves, and when our opinions are attacked, we feel the attack bodily, as an attack on our own being. But that’s not how it is, and it’s precisely what a reasonable person, or at least a person trying to be reasonable, has to get past.

The claim “we are rude on the internet and we must stop doing that because we are fracturing into different universes of discourse and it is wrecking our democracy” – this is an easy claim to make, but I think it’s mostly false, definitely ahistorical, and ideological. The assumption that without calm amity, minds do not change is, I think, demonstrably untrue – I know that I’ve changed my mind both in amicable conversations and not-at-all amicable ones (bellyflopping in an argument in front of other people has a way of clarifying the mind). And we know that calm discussion has no special power to crack open and merge separated universes of discourse: as the Public Conversations Project‘s section on abortion found, long-term, calm, reasoned conversation over a divisive issue tended to re-assert social pressure for politeness, but it manifestly did not bring people’s opinions together or even open up common ground: opinions became even more polarized.

Johnathan Haidt’s book the Righteous Mind is one that echoes the Wall Street Journal piece above. He thinks the internet has brought a historical break in our “national conversation”, which is qualitatively worse now, and it’s because we each live in self-reinforcing, filtered bubbles of opinion. We hang out online with only the like-minded, we consume media that only echoes what we already think. That’s true, but it raises a question: has there really been a time when human opinion was not formed mostly by a process of selection bias? Was there ever a time when our political discourse was not noisy, noisome, and scurrilous? I think even casual acquaintance with our history shows that this is not just wrong but an absurd claim. (The names they called Jefferson!) I don’t think the level of political acrimony is unique even in American history, and saying that discourse is too divisive now is one that’s too easy to make when social subalterns have just started gaining their own voices. That’s one reason I think the Righteous Mind ended up being a deeply conservative book (in the end, it was blue-staters who were really guilty of living in a bubble).

That’s not to say it isn’t a complete waste of time to argue with people who are Wrong on the Internet. It usually is. But it’s not because they’re loud, and it’s definitely not because “minds never change.” You can change a mind when you start from somewhere close to where it already is, not from the far side of some massive gulf you have to yell to be heard over. And minds move gradually, inch-by-inch. Opinion change is a nonrandom walk – a series of twitches and stumbles, really. I’ve had my mind changed more, and more fundamentally, by interacting with people who are like-minded, but not perfectly like-minded. I share their basic assumptions, I easily assume their sincerity and good faith, but precisely because of this I do not need to be spoken to by them in the kindest terms. I check myself, I think more, I read more, and I take a step. Then another step. And those steps change the nature of the intellectual community around me – it repopulates with different “like-minded” people as my mind changes. After a time, I find I am in a quite different place, with quite different people, and I no longer share the same assumptions as the people with whom I began. In so doing, I sail past the implicit barrier of Davidson’s model of interpretive charity in Neurath’s boat.

(You’ll want to know what that last bit means. The philosopher Donald Davidson said that, in argument, you will often find things in your opponent’s position that seem unreasonable or foolish or unfounded to you; it is your duty to reconstruct your opponent’s argument into the strongest case that you can, and then try to disprove that; in so doing you avoid arguing against straw men. Yet it has been noted by others (José Medina and Naomi Scheman, for example) that Davidson’s model has a flaw: you may be wrong in your reconstruction, because what seems to you the strongest version of their argument will rest on your own background assumptions, which may be wrong – and your opponent may have better ones. “Neurath’s boat” is a metaphor by the philosopher Otto Neurath about language: you rebuild the boat while you’re already at sea, so you can’t just start over and rebuild it all at once, because you’ll sink, but you can do it if you do it one little piece at a time (you use temporary extra pieces to keep water from rushing in). After a while you have a completely new boat, even if you never lay up and rebuild the boat from scratch. See?)

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