Who could have predicted it? Liberals are losing the culture war. But not to conservatives. According to the woke narrative, the old “liberal vs conservative” battle line, as least as it applies to race, has morphed into “wokes vs white supremacists.” That reframing certainly serves woke interests. In today’s USA, if you can scarlet anyone who disagrees with you as a white supremacist, you win. Unfortunately for the wokes, the real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media because it’s politically useful to all sides).
To a careless observer, the wokes may seem a natural extension of last generation’s liberals, but make no mistake: their world views are oppositional (at least on issues of identity). The old liberal values (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) are incompatible with woke values (stifle dissent and emphatically racialize value judgments about people and interactions). And the wokes are winning in university administrations and practices, where e.g. universities are placating the woke by going back to racially segregated housing, in newsrooms and online media, with the New York Times just the tip of the fallen iceberg, and to a lesser extent in the corporate hiring and training practices, and most obviously in museums and the arts, where the skin color of the artist often weighs more heavily with curators than the art itself.
So I’ll be curious to see where we go, now that Biden is in and the glue holding wokes and liberals together (fear of Trump) is dissolving. I would agree with the wokes that “liberal vs conservative” is no longer a viable defining line on race (though it still works on many other topics), but I disagree with their self-serving replacement (“wokes vs white supremacists”). It is more accurately “woke vs liberal” views on race. In this respect, for the past couple of decades, even many people who are otherwise conservative share the “liberal” view on race as I have defined it (pro free speech for multiple inputs and less racialization in our value judgments about people) and recoil at the racial essentialism of the wokes. Very few people today, on any end of the spectrum, would say that racial equality is not a valid goal. How and how much do we attend to that goal is what the fighting is all about.
Thus I come back to my thesis: The real 2020 front in the culture war on race is not “wokes vs white supremacists” but “wokes vs liberals” (with white supremacists as a group that is marginal but hot in the media). Do we want to see less racialization in our value judgments about people (liberal) or more racialization of our value judgments about people (woke)? Be careful how you answer, especially if you are an educator, because the way you answer that question may determine whether our kids have any real hope of moving toward a more ideal union of racial harmony.
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If you find yourself weighing policy issues in this US campaign season, you might take note of this one …
“The Trump government continues its race to sell out” nature for profit before the election (Adam Kolton, Alaska Wilderness League).
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Between the general disgust with Donald Trump and the specific outcry over the George Floyd killing, revolutionary momentum is building, and the possibility of social transformation seems more within grasp than at any time since the 1960s. This might be a good time to review the things that stoked the 1960s radicalism of Martin Luther King and the hippies for both inspiration and cautionary checks.
Of the various rhetorical angles one might bring, I’ll bring this one. Let’s say I’m a 1960s radical fired up about the 2020 movement but fearing that progressives have made some wrong turns. I’d express those fears as below, not to derail the movement but to prevent it from being derailed, not to push the movement back but to push the dialectic forward through counterpoints. Here are the wrong turns, as they might seem to a 1960s radical.
1. We were for chaotic free speech, rough and tumble, for wider freedom to think, speak, dress, and live in whatever unconventional arrangements you choose. Today’s woke progressives seem too much in favor of policing dissent and standardizing options to their own norms. We wanted to obliterate the cultural police; they want to BE the cultural police.
2. While acknowledging race, we struggled to remove race as the definitive marker of identity, to sort and judge people by values/character; today’s woke progressives seem to have restored race as the definitive marker of identity, sorting people into racial boxes and giving moral tags to the boxes. This may not be the intent, but beware lest you let the devil back in through the side door.
3. We saw a recognition of shared humanness (“they” love their kids, laugh, cry, like “we” do) as the antidote to distrust and bias across racial lines; today’s woke progressives seem to see “shared humanness” as a white supremacist conspiracy designed to elide black identity.
4. We worked to marginalize racists and racism; they seem to seek and magnify it everywhere. E.g., when I think of how over the years, I (white) have had black roommates in two different states, I believe by woke standards (parsing for white privilege and white fragility) I am racist because I look back and see only good friendship there, not insidious racial dynamics. I can think of no better way to reverse the gains in consciousness we’ve made since the 1960s than to re-read every instance of cross-racial love, friendship, and collaboration as an expression of insidious racism.
5. We sought to fix persistent racial inequality by identifying with each other across racial lines based on values, not skin color – with a rainbow coalition for justice and equality on one side and those clinging to an unjust status quo on the other. Today’s woke progressives seem to reinstall the battle lines between black and white, or blackness and whiteness. (There is nothing that old-school racists would like better than to peel off whites who would join the cause of racial justice by recasting that cause as a black vs. white battle.)
6. With regard to feminism, we sorted people into those (male and female) who were pushing for equality and those clinging to an unjust status quo. Today’s woke progressives seem to redraw the battle lines as female versus male. (There is nothing that old-school sexists would like better than to drive a wedge between women and progressive men by redrawing the battle line as female vs. male.)
7. With regard to gender and sexual preferences, our instinct was to obliterate all categories and let everyone enjoy whatever consensual arrangements they like, without sorting them into morally tagged boxes. Today’s woke progressives seem to continually generate more and more gender boxes for sorting people, tagging each box with a moral tag or victimhood level, and encouraging each group to defend the wall around its segregated turf.
8. We were (implicitly) in favor of all forms of “cultural appropriation” in every direction. Bust open the cultural lockboxes and play with each other’s stuff, continually wear the other’s shoes – black, white, female, male, every ethnicity and sexual orientation – incorporate, collaborate, and share a laugh when cultural cross-pollination becomes clumsy, as it often will. Woke progressives seem to prefer that each demographic circle the wagons and guard its turf against cultural appropriation. Applied to the arts, this wrong turn is especially devastating. When creatively identifying with people from other races and genders becomes the #1 cultural sin, we’ve pretty much lost everything the Civil Rights movement stood for. Whereas the “truism” today seems to be that whites cannot know the heart of blacks, Asians cannot know the heart of Hispanics, etc., 1960s radicals felt that we CAN and SHOULD see into each other’s hearts across those stupidly reified lines of race and gender, that we really ARE brothers and sisters under the skin, and that indeed all our future hopes lie in that very recognition that heart-to-heart human connection is not limited by race. I.e., we were radically integrationist in a way that must horrify today’s conservatives and woke progressives alike.
9. We were for extending the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment, however belatedly, to all peoples. They seem to reject the universal rights and truths of the Enlightenment as features of white supremacy, and prefer tribal (“you can’t know my truth because you don’t look like me”) rights and truths. To us, tribal rights and truths are the causes of distrust and bias across groups, not the solution to distrust and bias across groups.
Why I don’t fear (for) my progressive friends
1. Our long-term vision is the same – a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness.
2. There is a growing sense that rather than clinging to the left in an old left-right paradigm, people are ready to break the whole paradigm. This means breaking the grip of leftwing Establishments as well as rightwing Establishments. The left still has a hold on the progressive movement, but there is something in the air to suggest that progressives may soon break that hold and cross a new horizon line.
3. There is a gap between the intelligentsia of woke progressivism (in academia) and the grass roots progressives on the street that warrants optimism. Many of my fears above are rooted in the formulations of critical race theory (and critical theory as applied to women and other identity groups). These think-tank products are almost invariably divisive and counterproductive, enforcing a sense of identity defined by race and gender, drawing ever sharper lines and fomenting animosity between them. The kids on the street seem already beyond – or very nearly beyond – the academics in their ivory towers.
Why, one might ask? Why the disconnect between the academic think tanks and the street? We can start with the cynical idea that the main mission of every academic department (at least in Humanities) is getting funding for next year (cynical, yes, but not for one who has seen some of these annual and highly competitive funding battles). If you are in newly formed Identity X Dept, you had best prove quickly (and build a sufficient body of literature to back it up) that X is the cornerstone of identity, and that the struggle of people X is defined by trait X above all else and is a struggle that will continue in perpetuity (hence our need for funding in perpetuity). “Shared humanness” or the idea that one’s value system and not skin color is the defining aspect of identity means your dept is on the defensive in next year’s battle for funding. Call it a conspiracy theory, but at least it is one aligned with the accepted principle that self-preservation is often an operative force behind the scenes of what one thinks and does. It also aligns nicely with Karl Marx’s insight that the economic base is the driver and the political/ideological superstructure evolves in a way that serves the economic base.
Luckily for us, the kids on the street are not invested in next year’s funding for Dept X. The toxic influence of those academic theories is wide across newsrooms and other institutions, but it is not deep. Even where kids on the street mouth the slogans they learned from the academic think tanks, my sense on the street is that deep down they are not at all invested the divisions those slogans are designed to perpetuate. Deep down, they are invested, on the contrary and perhaps to the dismay of the more self-aware of those theorists, in that long-term vision of a harmonious multicultural society, comfortable with diversity, free from shame and self-loathing on any side, in which we recognize that we are all on spaceship Earth together and are able to celebrate our differences as well as our shared humanness. They already intuit, on some level, that there is no retreat back to conservatism, but there is also no future in the divisiveness of academic theories or in the increasingly narrow speech and thought zones of too many of our media outlets. They already know. Turn off the news and love your neighbor. Talk out of turn. Never stay in your lane. Never trust anyone, left or right, who says we need to respect walls of separation.
The ever-prescient LSD guru of the 1960s, Timothy Leary, had the right solution after all: If you want to bring society over the next horizon line, “Drop out, turn on, tune in!”
Or, if you prefer Lennon/McCartney, “All You Need Is Love.” Get that part right and the rest will follow.
(Trigger warning: equivalence alert!)
No, I don’t think the Democratic and Republican platforms are equivalent. Ideologically, I’m with the Dems maybe 50% of the time and the Repubs maybe 10%. No equivalence there. But the partisan tone has become equivalent on both sides. If a Dem or Repub leader says anything at all, the other side must consider it a priori wrong (and indeed evil) or risk being kicked out of the club. Perhaps social media is the worst for trapping people into such silos, but with many friends posting political comments daily, I can’t remember the last time any of them on either side deviated from the preset party line when an oppostion leader spoke.
So yes, I favor the Dem platform (or at least find it less bad), but there are three beasts in the cage, and the Republicans are not the most destructive of the three. There are the two major parties, and then there is the “us vs. them” paradigm of politics and social relations, shared equally by denizens of both parties. With my old hippie vision of moving toward a more ideal union, where people still disagree but with the understanding that we are all on spaceship Earth together, it is the paradigm itself that is the most destructive beast of the three. As long as we are locked into the zero-sum, “us vs. them” paradigm, we can move laterally to fix this or that local issue, but there can be no forward movement. We can get short-term ideological gains from our party – e.g., as I favor the Dem platform, I can hope the Dems seize the reins from Trump for at least the short-term benefits I think they would bring. But I cannot hope that Dems any more than Repubs will fix the long-term, and possible fatal, disease in the body politic. Neither party has the slightest motivation to correct the “us vs. them” model that is killing us.
Our only long-term hope is for someone to emerge outside the current political spectrum, an MLK-type voice. Politics per se is dead, killed by the two parties and the army of idiot activists on both sides. I don’t mean the government won’t continue its administrative function, but I mean something more along the lines of Nietzsche’s “God is dead” proclamation. Nietzsche knew that religious structures were not about to disappear, but he also could see that God was no longer a credible anchor of human belief structures. In the same way, for those who would step back from the everyday administration of government and re-envision a better society, politics is no longer a credible tool. Best to throw it away.
The good news is that underneath the veneer of us vs. them activism, I find that many people are quietly hungry for a unifying voice. I thought Obama was potentially such voice, but his failure to unify the country was pre-ordained by the fact that he emerged within one of the two major parties. Half the country will never listen to any unifying voice that emerges from the opposition party. Thus, my statement that the voice must come from outside the current political structure is a kind of logical tautology. Logic permits no other way. Of course, such a voice, on such terms, may never come, and we may disintegrate slowly or quickly, depending on which of the two parties is in power. But those people I meet hungering for some voice to restore a sense of shared humanness, those people still give me hope. We just need to take all this activist energy invested in one side or the other of the us vs. them paradigm and turn it against the paradigm itself. I would especially ask my friends on the left who consider themselves radical: How radical can you be if you are still hauling around the old albatross of the “left vs right” paradigm? If you want to be radical, break the paradigm.
Can we really get a critical mass of people to shed the dead snakeskin of politics as we know it and start over with a blank slate, a social vision stripped of politics with nowhere to turn but to heart and imagination? Probably not, but it’s worth a try.
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You can find the arguments all over the Internet – baby boomers broke America, millennials are aimless and self-absorbed, etc. Let me try to put the competition to rest.
All of these arguments have one thing in common: They all rest upon the false premises that these imaginary generational constructs are (1) real and (2) monolithic. Sure, history goes on, and the youth vs. age theme is perennial, but calling Obama “Gen X by personal temperament” (as Ben White does in his generation-based commentary in Politico, 2019/10/26) is no better than astrology, which says those born in November have one temperament and those born in August another. Why should people born 1965-80 have a collective “temperament” but not people born 1975-90?
If anything, this habit of reifying and playing generations against each other is even more absurd than our habit of building walls around races and playing them against each other (a favorite theme on the Right during the Civil Rights era that has now become a favorite theme on the Left in the woke era*). Race, at least, is not as imaginary as the generational categories. Except in tightly localized areas, like elevated risk of certain diseases, race is virtually meaningless as a biological concept. But it is not as meaningless as the generational constructs. African-Americans, e.g., have suffered historical conditions as a group that leave them, not universally but in the aggregate, with a set of legitimate shared concerns in today’s body politic. But playing off the races against one another is no way forward. The idea of race as something that can be circumscribed with sharp lines and defended against all penetration by other groups is as imaginary as the generational constructs. Even “African-Americans,” despite the socially produced set of conditions that apply in the aggregate, is a porous term, genetically and culturally. Studies show that “58 percent of African Americans have at least 12.5% European ancestry (equivalent of one great-grandparent)” and “about 30% of self-identified White Americans have recent sub-Saharan African ancestry.” Even those without mixed blood have grown up with enormous cultural cross-fertilization, from music to movies to cooking and social life. Let’s celebrate the unique attributes of our different subcultures, but this pitting of one group against another is nonsense, and the game has to stop here. Things like wealth inequality and declining environmental resources are becoming too serious.
Bottom line: We have enough categories dividing us without inventing imaginary ones. Yes, let’s fight for a more equitable society and a more sustainable environment, but not by building walls around imaginary groups. We need to leave that way of thinking behind, whether it’s coming from Trump conservatives or woke progressives. Let’s rather bust all the walls and windows and open ourselves to the great multicultural carnival, all working together, celebrating each other across our demographic lines – that could be our future if we just turn the dial on how we think. And we can start with throwing out the stupid faux conflict between invented generational tags.
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This old meme circles back to relevance over and over, as Trump’s steady rollback of Obama-era environmental protections continues this week behind the scenes.
As an addendum, below is a clip from a Fedex commercial, torn from context and re-presented as a cause-and-effect metaphor for Sapiens’s treatment of nature during their brief run on the planet. (And by “brief run” I mean that unless our species lasts another few hundred thousand years, which seems unlikely, even Neanderthals will have proven more successful and robust than their short-lived, destructive, and relatively unsuccessful cousins, Homo sapiens.)
The footprint that marks our time on Earth may be … well, not our own.
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Per the new fictional non-fiction genre of the Trump eulogy, here is my contribution:
Poor George. Sweet guy. Like a kid. Gee-whiz George. Couldn’t tell a lie. But the Brits were laughing at us. I love the Brits. I got Brits working the greens at Mar-a-Lago. Great for managing the shithole country workers. But they were cleaning our clocks, while Gee-whiz George was busy telling the truth. So I says to him, “George, you gotta storm the airports.” And he says, “There ain’t no airports.” And I says, “George, you see that crowd out there. Biggest crowd ever. They don’t want facts. They want entertainment.” No, Gee-whiz George could not tell a lie. So he had a failed presidency. And I’m here today to save his image by telling you about the great storming of the airports at Yorktown and Fort McHenry. And I can tell you, my friends. Believe me. Wherever Gee-whiz George is today, he is looking up and saying, “Trump was right! Thank God for Trump! Thank God for a winner!”
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It’s only a guess, but I suspect Trump’s campaign is fighting impeachment on two fronts: overtly condemning it and covertly doing everything they can to get it started. Impeachment allows Trump to put the spotlight where he likes it (personal fights instead of policy) and to control the narrative. When the Senate absolves him (which we all know will happen), he gets to say, “See, it was all a witch hunt. Democrats have now spent the last few years ignoring issues that concern average Americans to focus (unsuccessfully) on personally destroying me. Now that the Senate has proven me right on all of this, why vote for useless Democrats?” And his case is much more persuasive in the wake of a failed impeachment. Indeed, though I’m not a Trump supporter, I do think he may have a point. Besides hard-core activists, most commoners are probably not that excited about Trump’s taxes or which Playboy bunny he slept with. If they voted for Democrats, they probably did so in the hopes that they’d focus more on issues that affect average Americans. Impeachment is the golden goose for Trump’s narrative.
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