So I finally read the Jonathan Chait article about PC, which I think is excellent, though he overstates its systemic nature.
Back in the ’90s I used to opine that PC was as popular as it was on campuses because college students are mostly young and youth, as filled with passionate intensity as they are, are as prone to intemperance in politics as they are in other matters of the heart. The outrage, I said, wasn’t so much that young people were being so thin-skinned, or that they were blackballing and banishing each other (that’s what a lot of apolitical kids spend much of their time doing too)–it was the absence of a moderating “parental” point of view. When the Jewish kid at U Penn called that girl a “water buffalo,” for example, the school’s administration made things worse by reacting as if he’d burned a cross. A lot of the “trigger warning” and “micro-aggression” bullshit that makes people like Chait feel like they’re walking on eggshells is childish by definition–the valorization of hurt feelings.
As a mostly unread writer, I can attest that it’s sort of perversely gratifying to get trolled by my enemies, as when Glenn Beck roused his followers against me or when MRAs fill up the comment board at Hatewatch–it gives me the illusion that I’m having some kind of an impact, that people are reading and discussing me (even though most of them haven’t read past the headline).
At the same time, it hurts when my fellow travelers turn on me, as occasionally does happen. I was amazed by the leftish tone of some of the commentary on an article I wrote about Newtown Trutherism a couple of years ago at Truthout, and by the over-the-top nastiness of some of the trolls who showed up at a book group I moderated for Bill Press at Firedoglake.
A writer like Chait that people actually do read and talk about can’t but be a lightning rod; it’s got to hurt him when his smart peers like Joan Walsh and Ta-Nehisi Coates accuse him of being clueless and obtuse on the subject of race, as they did just a couple of weeks ago (Coates quite brilliantly and, I might add, graciously). But the Internet amplifies and equalizes everyone; when hundreds and thousands of nobodies pile on, their comments occupy the same virtual space as Coates’ and Walsh’s, and seem to have equal weight.
I read John Hodgman’s Twitter essay on the lessons you can learn from PC, privilege and the Internet before I read Chait’s article and at first glance it seemed a little like pandering to me. Now that I’ve read both and thought about them, I can see Hodgman’s wisdom. Leftist thought-policing, labeling, privilege-accusing, and racial and religious and sexual and classist demonizing and silencing are terrible things, but for most of us they are still mostly happening at the margins (it’s quite a different story for women, blacks and Muslims when you look at what’s coming from the right side of the spectrum). Yes they hurt, but they don’t kill, and sometimes they even carry a germ of truth. Some of us do pontificate from a position of privilege, and privilege can’t but distort or color or block our perspectives from time to time. “I’ve never had an exchange with the so called SJWs,” Hodgman wrote, “that I couldn’t shrug and move on from–sometimes smarter for it.”
Those “sometimes” almost make all the grief worthwhile. Almost.
“These celebrities that we worship who haven’t done a doggone thing to protect our Constitution or our freedom, and then you have someone like Chris Kyle out there putting his life on the line, getting rid of the bad guys before the bad guys get us. And yet he’s demonized by some of those celebrities….Hypocrites are the ones who are slamming Chris Kyle.” —Sarah Palin
“The film portrays Kyle as a proud southern, rural, religious, patriotic jock and gun enthusiast who was much more anguished about the people he was unable to save in Iraq than about the 160 confirmed sniper kills that the Navy credits him with. All of these traits are anathema to the left….Leftists simply can’t digest the fact that their own safety is predicated on the willingness to fight of courageous men they openly disdain.” –Mark Hemingway, The Weekly Standard
“Hollywood progressives don’t look forward to having to write, direct and star in patriotic pictures and if they can’t destroy American Sniper at the box office, they can taint it enough that no major star or director will want to be associated with anything like it. Adding to their undercurrent of anger is the way that American Sniper upstaged Selma at the box office and at the Academy Award nominations. Selma is a mediocre movie, but it was meant to be a platform for the usual conversation that progressives want to have about how terrible Americans are. Instead audiences chose to see a movie about how great Americans can be even in difficult times. There’s nothing that threatens the left as much as that.”–Daniel Greenfield, Front Page Magazine
Everything I’ve read about the “wolf, sheep, and sheepdog” politics of American Sniper sounds so appalling–and most of what I’ve read about it was written by its defenders.
But for all I know, it’s a good movie. I haven’t seen it and I’m a little surprised how incurious I am. When I was writing THE NEW HATE, I couldn’t stop reading and quoting people like Andrew Breitbart, Glenn Beck, and Sarah Palin, and even more-so, historical haters like Henry Ford, Francis Parker Yockey, Eustace Mullins, and Elizabeth Dilling. I probably ruined the book with all the extracts, but it seemed so important to me that people understand that these people really wrote and thought the way that they did–and that opportunistically or not, supposedly mainstream politicians were still channeling their wolf, sheep, sheepdog brand of supremacism.
As a Jew, I was appalled by the persistence of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion–among the racist far right and in the Arab world and among NWO conspiracists, of course, but especially in the writings of extreme Zionist reactionaries, who use them as the template for their own brand of programmatic Islamophobia. A Pam Geller, a Frank Gaffney, or a Robert Spencer substitutes Taqiya for Talmudism and Sharia for Kehilla, but they retail the same totalizing garbage about Islam’s innate dishonesty and its thirst for world domination as the Protocols does about the Jews.
And finally as an American, I was embarrassed and repelled by a corollary assumption that goes along with American Exceptionalism–“that there are those of us who are really ‘us,'” as I put it, “and those of us who are essentially ‘other’–aliens, interlopers, pretenders, and culture distorters, parasites and freeloaders.”
All that stuff still upsets me, but I guess I convinced myself that it is an ineradicable part of who we are. I feel less and less inclination to rub my nose in it–and less of a need to share it with everyone else.
A lot of the news stories I’ve been reading and watching about the NYPD’s war with DeBlasio imply that the city at large is part of the backlash too, that he is as good as going the way of Dinkins. Dinkins, lest we forget, was even less popular with the police than DeBlasio is. On September 16, 1992, off-duty police officers gathered at City Hall to protest his refusal to give them automatic weapons and his appointment of a panel to investigate police corruption. “‘He never supports us on anything,'” Officer Tara Fanning of the Midtown South Precinct told The New York Times’s James McKinley, Jr. “‘A cop shoots someone with a gun who’s a drug dealer, and he goes and visits the family.'” Afterwards, thousands of them ran amok on the Brooklyn Bridge, blocking traffic, denting cars, and assaulting reporters, while on-duty officers stood by and did nothing.
But let’s look at the numbers. According to Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight, 62 percent of the NYPD resides within the city limits — a comparatively high figure compared to, say, LA, where only 23 percent of police do, or Miami, Florida, where just 7 percent of cops are residents.
“But there’s a stark racial divide,” the article (dated August, 2014) continues. “Seventy-seven percent of black New York police officers live in the city, and 76 percent of Hispanic ones do, but the same is true for only 45 percent of white officers.” 53 percent of the approximately 35,000 officers in the NYPD are white, according to Wikipedia. Even if all of them hate DeBlasio, they only account for 8347 votes–the equivalent, say, of about a third of the population of Brooklyn Heights, just one of the city’s 177 neighborhoods.
Granted, Giuliani wasn’t swept into office in 1993 by angry cops alone, but those demographics are telling. The city has changed in the last two decades. It’s a lot less violent, for one thing — and a lot more of its middle class are people of color. Stop-and-frisk might have played well in the suburbs, but outside of Staten Island and the offices of the New York Post, there hasn’t been much of a clamor to bring it back in the city. The white backlash is real, but it’s much more powerful in the suburbs and in the media whose consumers live in the suburbs. Though De Blasio’s brand might not be exactly booming, I suspect much the same is true of the DeBlasio backlash.
“Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.” –David Copperfield
I know I’m not the first person to think of this–Tom Stoppard’s “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” says it with much more wit and poignancy than I could ever muster–but what with this being 2015 and all, 31 years since 1984, 14 years after 2001, and the very year, I learned from a TV news program the other day, that 1989’s “Back To the Future II” is set in, I have been a little overwhelmed by the fact that I am living in what science fiction has primed me to think of as the far-off future. I’m not exactly senescent, but I’m far enough past the mid-point of my allotted three-score and ten that “middle-aged” is a euphemism. The narrative arc of my life is way past the point where something big and triumphant could occur to redeem or vindicate it, or send it off in any new direction but down. I’m too married to get the girl and too old to land the big promotion; my children are already out in the world. If I ever was the hero of my own life, its times for heroics came and went without any major fireworks.
Everybody probably feels this way at some point, even bonafide A-listers. Our subjectivity, the fact that we experience the world from the vantage of our own heads, and hence through the lenses of our prejudices, interests, desires, and disappointments, creates the illusion that we are the ultimate subject of whatever production it is our fate to be cast in.
A long time ago I was waiting for a table outside the dining room of a mediocre expense account restaurant when I noticed that the man behind me in line was Robert L. Bernstein, who until just a few years before had been the Chairman and President of Random House. If I’d had any doubt who he was, it was dispelled when he gave his name to the hostess and she impassively checked it off her list. He was wearing an expensive suit, but he didn’t fill it out quite like he did when I’d see him climbing into or out of a limo outside 201 E 50th Street. Seeing him was a little like reading the obituary of a former personage you hadn’t realized was still alive–a Hollywood star of the 1930s; the first black US Senator since Reconstruction. In his mind, though, the world was still revolving around him, because of course it was, right up until he drew his last breath.
Stupid people go through life without realizing how stupid they are, because they are lacking in the smart stuff that would allow them to take the true measure of their capacities; supernumeraries like Rosencrantz and Goldwag believe that they are really stars, even if they are just walk-ons, or more likely still, faceless extras in an unimportant crowd scene.
No matter how humble and self-effacing we try to be, we are all narcissists and conspiracy theorists to one degree or another. It’s how we’re wired.
These days half the posts I read on the Internet seem just as nasty and tendentious as the trolls’ comments that unscroll beneath them. Salon’s Britney Cooper cast herself as a victim of over-weaning white male privilege when, “buoyed by his own entitlement, his own sense of white male somebodiness,” a passenger moved her bag off an empty seat on a crowded train, because manhandling a black Rutgers professor’s computer bag is just one short step away from extra-judicial execution. Jezebel’s Anna Merlan peremptorily dismissed Richard Bradley’s early concerns about the Rolling Stone gang-rape story as a “giant ball of shit” (to her credit, she went on the record a few days later and admitted that she had been “dead fucking wrong,” which is something it’s hard to imagine a Sean Hannity or Bill O’Reilly doing under the same circumstances). But still….These people are supposed to be on my side, which is to say, members of the reality-based community. Why so quick with the ad hominems? Why so ready to demonize? Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be fighting against?
Of course their words weren’t journalism, rough first drafts of history, but real-time advocacy. Advocacy can be high-minded, but as often as not it’s opportunistically prosecutorial. At its worst, it’s sloganeering, which doesn’t leave a lot of room for any of the shades of gray that reality is always colored in.
When a mentally ill misogynist easily obtains an arsenal and uses it to kill a random bunch of men and women in California, one side seizes on it as the apotheosis of rape culture, a continuum that begins with catcalls and ends with rape and murder. When a mentally ill black man easily obtains a handgun and uses it to shoot his girlfriend in Baltimore and then two cops in New York City as revenge for Eric Garner, the other side seizes on it as the end of a slippery slope that begins with voting for Barack Obama (cf Rudy Giuliani).
Of course spree killers often do have ideas and write manifestos about them (Anders Behring Breivik’s was a veritable encyclopedia of The New Hate), but mass murderers are hardly the most useful frame of reference for a discussion of politics, anymore than Hitler are Stalin are. It’s a little like Godwin’s Law: whoever brings them up effectively loses the argument.
Still, both sides do it, and I suppose it’s not an altogether terrible thing. Complacency is a kind of complicity and they both thrive in silence. If the backlash depends on rancor and disruption, progressivism demands a certain amount of creative destruction as well. If you want to change the world, you can’t be diffident; if you want to make an omelet, you’ve got to break a few eggs.
But it’s not my thing, and I feel less and less inclined to engage in it. I’m not good at catchphrases anyway; my preferred mode is the run-on sentence.
My New Year’s resolution for 2015 is to hold my tongue in public until I’m sure I have something to say.
Trying to read the faces of the cops encircling Foley Square last night was as useful an exercise as trying to formulate a political philosophy from the slogans being chanted and waved around me on placards would have been. Demonizing all cops is as useless as angelifying them; the same goes for their victims.
The problem isn’t whether this cop or that cop is a racist or this victim or that victim is a good citizen or a thug–it’s whether the criminal justice system is delivering anything remotely equitable, whether the net product of the police is service and safety or oppression and terror.
But of course it’s both. Watching the video of the cops standing over the prostrate body of Eric Garner doing absolutely nothing to help him is horrific. They are swaggering brutes, and they are wearing very different faces than the guys standing around Foley Square last night were–or the Brooklyn beat cop who rang my doorbell 25 years ago to ask me how I was doing and tell me that the guy who’d pistol-whipped me had been arrested and indicted.
Racism is a huge factor in our current crisis, of course, but so are our absurd drug laws. And so is economic inequality. As the unskilled white working class continues to devolve into a virtual underclass, they’ll learn this. Staten Island’s Oxycontin problem is a case in point (“from 2005 to 2011, according to city health statistics, as fatalities from overdosing on drugs decreased citywide, the death rate from opioid overdose on Staten Island nearly quadrupled, leaving it more than three times that of the Bronx”–New York Times).
When I was in college, they taught me that FDR saved capitalism by giving the working class such a big stake in the economy. I suppose that was true up to a point, but racism, xenophobia and cognitive dissonance probably did more.
I wonder if historians will see the rise of the Tea Party, Occupy Wall Street, Alex Jones’s John Birch-style populism, Glenn Beck gold bug-ism, and the post-Ferguson protests as part of a continuum, rather than opposing tendencies.
If I was a Communist, I might see that as a good thing.
So this is funny. Yesterday when I first woke up I noticed a story about Glenn Beck’s latest health crisis. For all I know it’s true, though I have heard about so many sensational, shocking things on Glenn Beck’s CNN HN, Fox, and now Blaze shows over the years that didn’t quite pan out that I had to wonder.
For example there’s this one from last summer: “This country is, I believe, going to be rocked in the next 24 hours with some things that are going on in Washington and beyond that we found out about yesterday and that we will be telling you in detail in the next 24 hours….you are going to witness things in American history that have never been witnessed before….My people have seen one document, one….that will take down the whole power structure, pretty much everything.”
Anyway, I dashed off a comment on my Facebook author page (there’s a button over there on the right if you’re interested in seeing it) and forgot all about it. Here’s what I wrote:
The first time I ever noticed [Glenn Beck] was in 2008, when he had hemorrhoid surgery that went wrong. I was channel surfing at my father-in-law’s house, and there he was on CNN Headline News, showing videos of himself hallucinating. Talk about TMI!
By the end of that year, he had moved to Fox, Obama was elected, and he became a media giant. In 2012, when Fox was getting ready to dump him, he announced that he had macular dystrophy and might lose his sight within the year. He’s so sinister and smart and yet he’s also like a giant baby in his need for attention. I’m sorry for his troubles, but at the same time I can’t help wondering if he doesn’t have Munchausen syndrome.
It was all true–I had had no idea at the time that he would come to occupy such a large space in The New Hate.
Last evening, I looked at my iPhone as I was walking across the Manhattan Bridge, and to my astonishment I saw that Glenn Beck had commented on my post and shared it with his Facebook friends. He was long-suffering and sad: “It is interesting how far down the rabbit hole of lack compassion we have traveled,” he wrote. “People make all kinds of sick videos for attention and our culture cheers. I share true stories that can actually help others by breaking down the walls of fear and silence about our health and you accuse me of all kinds of evils. If this is the world healthy people live in, I am proud to be sick. I wish you peace and wholeness.”
By this morning, some 50,000 had read my post, and more than 400 had replied. Suffice it to say they weren’t very happy with me. This afternoon, I dashed off another little comment:
So what have I learned from my 15 seconds of infamy? That Glenn Beck’s reach is amazing–when he shares something on Facebook, it goes out to tens of thousands of people, hundreds of whom, anyway, share his essentially Manichaean world view. There are the absolutely good (them and Glenn Beck) and the absolutely degenerate and depraved (me and Barack Obama, and maybe Salon.com and MSNBC). Many bear witness to their hatred of my wickedness and cruelty, some with what they see as justifiable fervor (one commenter confessed that he sometimes wishes all liberals were sent to camps and exterminated), some with love (many have offered me their prayers).
But here’s the thing. As rich and powerful and beloved and Godly as Glenn Beck may be, as faithful and loyal his followers, even a completely obscure liberal writer like me, someone with just a handful of Facebook likes, a couple of books to his credit that didn’t sell particularly well, and a funny elitist-sounding Jewish name, has the power to wound him.
If you read Alexander Zaitchik’s terrific Common Nonsense: Glenn Beck and the Triumph of Ignorance, you might remember this anecdote, which sort of puts things in perspective. When Beck was a shock jock in Phoenix, his rival Bruce Kelly pissed him off.
As Zaitchik relates the story, Beck “got his revenge with what may rank as one of the cruelest events in the history of morning radio.”
“A couple couple days after Kelly’s wife, Terry, had a miscarriage, Beck called her live on the air and says, ‘We hear you had a miscarriage,'” remembers Brad Miller, a former Y95 deejay and Clear Channel programmer. “When Terry said yes, Beck proceeded to joke about how Bruce apparently can’t do anything right–he can’t even have a baby. It was low class,” adds Miller, who is now president of Open Stream Broadcasting. “There are certain places you just don’t go.”
Let me just say this: I wish him peace and wholeness.