the cult of multi
Well, well, well. In news that will shock absolutely no one, another right-wing, pro-family, homophobic fundamentalist preacher has been outed as a participant in the sinful lifestyle he railed against from the pulpit. Except by “right-wing”, we mean “left-wing”. And by “pro-family”, we mean “conspicuously poly“. Also, by “homophobic fundamentalist”, we mean “doctrinaire social justice-atheist“.
(With apologies to the original.)
…adding, this is a pretty good summary too.
Alice More: Arrest him!
Sir Thomas More: Why, what has he done?
Margaret More: He’s bad!
More: There is no law against that.
Will Roper: There is! God’s law!
More: Then God can arrest him.
Alice: While you talk, he’s gone!
More: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law!
Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned ’round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast– man’s laws, not God’s– and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.
But the horrible irony is that PC is actually a horribly ineffective weapon against the devil of intolerance. Real bigots, like real rapists who we are told should be taught “not to rape,” care nothing whatsoever for shaming or moral chastising. To the contrary, they take pride in being monsters. To call them bigots or racists or what-have-you is for them a badge of honor.
No, as Professor Tom Nichols pointed out in his excellent article on PC and Donald Trump, what PC did was something else: utterly destroy the political center. Once upon a time, you could hold a middle ground, nuanced position on any given issue in public discourse. Now? You’re either all the way one way or all the way another way.
In going after the devil, PC has slain the good men, the knights who could fight the danger, or at least check or weaken it. It searched for enemies where none existed only to release the ones that did. It reminds me, sadly, of Europe of the 1930s, when democracy and any hint of moderation was so thoroughly discredited and weakened in the name of instant solutions and hatred of “the system” that everyone ultimately had no choice but to pick which side was less awful: Stalin or Hitler.
Radical Islamist terrorists certainly exist. We all know that. But fifteen or so years ago, to many of us on the political left, center, or even moderate right, it seemed at times that the threat of Islamic terrorism was a rhetorical trope more than a geopolitical reality. The Bush administration used the shock of 9/11 in service to an incredibly radical agenda, cynically conflating honest critics of particular policies with reflexive anti-American radicals, smearing the patriotism of people who had supported them in Afghanistan, but balked at invading Iraq. You’re either with us, or you hate America and you want the terrorists to win. We all know this by now as well.
Likewise, racists, sexists and rapists certainly exist. However, this generation of freshly-hatched university students, their heads filled with academic grievance-mongering and their hearts yearning for a grand, significant civil rights battle of their very own, started training analytical floodlights on language, video games and other harmless phenomena in order to make shadows appear larger and more threatening. The undeniable progress that society has made over recent decades regarding race and gender issues wasn’t good enough; in fact, it only added to the crusaders’ frustration. If devils couldn’t be easily found, they’d have to be invented. As should have been expected, the people who bore the brunt of their fanatical fury weren’t the proudly racist or the crudely sexist, but the mostly-liberal people who, up to the point of their own show trials, had thought themselves part of the fight against those reactionary ills. You’re either with us, or you’re with the misogynists. And the line defining who was a misogynist kept creeping closer. If you protested, you became a rape apologist.
The moderate Democrats circa 2003 thought that by giving the administration the benefit of the doubt, and by rhetorically distancing themselves from anyone to their left, they might be respected as loyal opposition. Likewise, many progressives made excuses for the social justice warriors, rationalizing that “at least they’re not Republicans”. They urged critics to soften their oppositional stance and inevitably smeared the character of anyone who refused. Honestly, though, I expect nothing less than fanaticism from those who would hunt devils, which is why I reserve the bulk of my contempt for the foolish cowards who make excuses for them in hopes of saving their own skins.
Too lazy and impatient to do the hard work of formulating arguments and trying to persuade, and too addicted to sanctimonious displays of moral righteousness, these liberals now prefer to use the ever-expanding edifice of anti-discrimination law to impose edicts from the top down.
Such liberals get to enjoy the satisfaction of reenacting the civil rights movement every few years, holding up victims of ever-new forms of discrimination as heroes of a great moral saga and demonizing those on the other side as bigots. Once the courts accept the narrative, the logic of anti-discrimination locks in, new rights become codified, and the former victims of injustice get to enjoy total victory while decades or centuries of communally based norms, practices, and beliefs get pulverized.
A few short years ago, if you had asked me my opinion on transgender rights, I would have shrugged and paraphrased Thomas Jefferson’s line about religious belief: whether my neighbor says there are twenty genders or no genders, it neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg. And in the context of an individual’s choice to dress and present themselves however they want, I still feel that way. In a personal context, I still have the ability to opt out. If you’re the kind of person who wants to force the issue over your pronouns, to demand respect and validation from me regardless of whether it would have been naturally forthcoming or not, well, fine; I’ll likely just decide you’re too much trouble to bother talking to at all. Problem solved.
I’ve come to see this as a bit short-sighted. The problem is, that strict libertarian-ish stance essentially forfeits the right to have any say in deciding which issues even become part of the agenda, the conversation, or whatever else you want to call it. Like a political form of Stoicism, it accepts that other people will act to create the normative framework, and the only thing you can control is how you react to it. And as I just said the other day, the whole fight over trans rights, as silly as it can be in some of the particular details, is fundamentally an important philosophical argument over whether we even share a common reality. It is not merely a logical extension of already-existing rights to an excluded group who simply want to be seen as, and treated like, everyone else. It’s a demand for a special exemption from a bedrock social consensus. It’s an argument over the significance of biology versus a postmodern dogma that asserts reality can be changed through linguistics and abstract theorizing. What does it truly mean to be a man or a woman, and what is the basis for making the distinction? Partisan activists naturally have no interest in debating the question for the sake of truth; they simply want to impose their standard by fiat.
Even Snopes, in the course of debunking some of the wilder, inflated claims about NYC’s new law, allows that:
For instance, an individual who simply mistakenly uses the wrong pronoun when referring to a transgender individual will not be fined under the new law. However, a person who intentionally and repeatedly refuses to use an individual’s preferred pronoun would be subject to fines (that could reach as high as $250,000 for multiple violations) under the the law…
I don’t care if you want to believe in an absurd form of mind/body dualism that involves being a different gender “on the inside”; it’s no crazier than most religious beliefs. I don’t care if you want to challenge the arbitrary cultural standard that says men can’t wear makeup and dresses; in fact, I’d support you. But that kind of respect is earned, not given as a birthright. It develops in the context of strong personal relationships. Forcing people, under threat of financial punishment, to deny their very perception of reality in deference to an alternative version which, as we’ve said, is by no means conclusively settled, is unjust. You have every right to demand that people not overtly discriminate against you in housing, employment, education, etc. even if they think you’re a delusional weirdo. But you shouldn’t have the right to use the power of the state to compel them to participate in your delusional honorifics. It’s a question of individual conscience. I may not be legally permitted to heap abuse and vitriol upon you, which is fine, but I shouldn’t be legally compelled to address you with your preferred terms of respect either.
Perhaps as a result of life under a two-party political system, arguments like this tend to break down along stark partisan lines. Black/white, left/right, you’re either with us or against us. Progressives, as Linker says, are indeed hopelessly addicted to their own narrative, compelled to invent new categories of victimization, if need be, simply to avoid having to give up the righteous thrill of crusading against oppression. Part of that narrative is the assumption that anyone with misgivings about the latest crusade is plainly a fascist who wants to see members of the oppressed group beaten to death in the streets. That sort of relentless bigotry-baiting serves well to enforce ideological conformity within the tribe — progressives who have participated in the group shaming rituals directed at opponents are viscerally afraid of receiving the same treatment themselves if they fall out of lockstep. But I can’t help but think that oppression narratives are the new fossil fuels — increasingly labor-intensive and cost-prohibitive to extract. We’re getting into the fracking stage at this point, becoming increasingly reckless in our pursuit of cheap sources of outrage and righteousness. Perhaps some of the more far-sighted progressives should be attempting to develop more sustainable sources of self-worth and purpose before the inevitable crash.
I happened to be reading this just last night, from Andrew Potter’s excellent The Authenticity Hoax:
Despite all the sensational media coverage, the bathrooms in question are actually peripheral. Why do we have segregated bathrooms by gender anyway? Who knows — probably because of the fact that exposed genitals are involved. Why do men and women have to occupy different rooms in order to void their bladders and bowels? Why is a metal stall door not an acceptable barrier, but a layer of drywall and plaster can keep chaos at bay?
You can go on at length, but the basic point is, social norms and taboos are produced at the end of a long cultural game of Telephone. At some point in the distant past, someone probably noticed that a significant number of people who ate shellfish or pork were puking their guts out shortly thereafter. After a couple centuries of the Telephone game, the message morphed from “Don’t eat that stuff because it’ll make you sick” to “God says don’t eat that stuff or you’ll burn in hell forever.” Likewise, the fact that men and women go to different restrooms in public is just one particular reflection of the widespread, underlying assumption that there are some essential differences between the sexes that require ritual acknowledgment for society to function smoothly. Like making small talk with strangers about the weather, it’s just gear oil for the social machinery — one of those things that’s not strictly necessary, but not really worth the energy to make a scene about either. This is what people are reacting to — the perception that a useful, fundamental social norm is being needlessly destroyed by an elite progressive vanguard without anyone’s else’s desire or consent. As the above excerpt suggests, a widespread perception like that is just as corrosive to a society as all the economic inequality that progressives are so monomaniacally obsessed with.
Taboos don’t have to be precise or efficient; for society’s purposes, they just have to be clear and easily understood. There’s always a certain amount of arbitrary absurdity to them, which isn’t necessarily a serious problem. But for progressives, who look at culture the way Frederick Winslow Taylor looked at workers on the factory floor, taboos are irrational remnants of an archaic, superstitious past, illegitimate rules imposed on us by illegitimate rulers, and obstacles to true, rational human flourishing. The sooner they’re demolished and replaced by rules based on the latest brain scans and sociological studies, the better.
This isn’t to say that taboos are sacred and can never be challenged or modified, of course. But you’re more likely to be successful at it if you modify them from within, as someone with a certain amount of standing and earned respect within a community, rather than as an imperious outsider giving orders and dripping contempt. I realize that it’s progressive dogma at this point to have a Menckenesque sense of themselves as isolated, civilized cosmopolitans in a wasteland of ignorant, inbred, fundamentalist, redneck barbarians, but as satisfying as it may be to keep indulging in that sort of ego-stroking, it’s ultimately dangerous. Even from my own perspective as an antisocial loner who can’t stand people in any group with more than three members, it doesn’t require much effort to feel genuine sympathy for social conservatives. I mean, on the very day of the Obergefell ruling, Freddie deBoer published a viral article explicitly urging progressives to start pushing for legalized polygamy next. The bottom-feeding progressive tabloid Salon has recently published several articles attempting to humanize the public’s attitude toward pedophilia. Even for those who just want to tune out all this political bullshit and watch ESPN, they still had to endure an extended propaganda barrage over how Caitlyn Jenner is an amazing beautiful woman with the exquisite bravery of a beautiful butterfly flying against the wind. All after having been tirelessly mocked for raising concerns about a slippery slope during the push for gay marriage. And now, this top-down edict from the administration ordering public schools to accept the new, tendentious party line on gender. Now, I’m just wondering what form the inevitable backlash will take.
Progressive media is best pictured as a bunch of attention-deficient, not-too-bright children batting a balloon around. Soon enough, the balloon pops, and the poor little dimwits stand there looking befuddled, and then they start to cry and wet their pants until someone blows up another balloon and floats it back into the group.
A couple years ago, we snapped a photo of one of the resident SJW writers at the A.V. Club in full tears-and-pissy-pants mode:
Despite consistently negative media attention on the topic (and negative reaction to that negative media attention), apparently two-thirds of Americans still believe that the name “Washington Redskins” isn’t disrespectful toward Native Americans. This stance, most fervently defended by people who own warehouses full of “Washington Redskins” T-shirts…
But for more than a decade, no one has measured what the country’s 5.4 million Native Americans think about the controversy. Their responses to The Post poll were unambiguous: Few objected to the name, and some voiced admiration.
…Even as the name-change movement gained momentum among influential people, The Post’s survey and more than two dozen subsequent interviews make clear that the effort failed to have anywhere near the same impact on Indians.
Across every demographic group, the vast majority of Native Americans say the team’s name does not offend them, including 80 percent who identify as politically liberal, 85 percent of college graduates, 90 percent of those enrolled in a tribe, 90 percent of non-football fans and 91 percent of those between the ages of 18 and 39.
Even 9 in 10 of those who have heard a great deal about the controversy say they are not bothered by the name.
What makes those attitudes more striking: The general public appears to object more strongly to the name than Indians do.
I’m sorry, Ms. Rife, you were saying something hilarious…? You were disregarding the lived experience of People of Color in order to impose your own white intellectual/moral colonial standards, just like your racist ancestors did? Surely, you’re not going to violate one of the bedrock commandments of intersectionality and “appropriate” the native struggle as your own, right? Surely you’re not going to condescendingly “whitesplain” to these benighted savages how they’re too primitive and uneducated to understand what they should be offended by, are you?
(As of this writing, Ms. Rife’s byline at the A.V. Club displays no posts commenting on this latest setback for white SJWs in their mission to take offense on behalf of all those too weak or politically ignorant to take offense for themselves. But we’ll see if that changes soon.)
Those interviewed highlighted again and again other challenges to their communities that they consider much more urgent than an NFL team’s name: substandard schools, substance abuse, unemployment.
It’s like some random blogger once said:
These people are pathetic truffle pigs who squeal in delighted outrage whenever they root out another trivial instance of this-ism or that-phobia; once their flickering attention span is distracted by the next pseudo-issue, they’ll go right back to knowing and doing absolutely nothing about the lives of actual, living American Indians.
I didn’t notice, but Monday was the 50th anniversary of the Cultural Revolution — did Google feel that was also worth commemorating in a doodle? I mean, that had something vaguely to do with “equality”, too, didn’t it? Perhaps the same SJWs who are currently praising Kochiyama as an inspirational “human rights activist” on Twitter would have likewise been inspired by the heroic example of the Red Guards.
Nearly fifteen months ago, I said:
Now, anyone can make the easy joke about how, even as we speak, sites like Salon, Alternet, Vox and the like are in a race to see who can be the first to publish an article about how white privilege is being able to take for granted one’s majority status in a crowded room full of emoji. I, on the other hand, prefer to stalk bigger game. I’m shielding my eyes and looking toward the horizon, anticipating the inevitable article analyzing the phenomenon of white flight from emoji use, dating back to this policy change. For that one, I think we’ll need the New Republic, or maybe the Atlantic itself.
So, is this close enough to count as a validation of my prophetic powers? Yeah, I think I’ll claim this one.
While backpacking through Eastern Europe, I stopped at a pub for a drink. On the stool next to me sat a squat, disheveled man. His strange habit of constantly fiddling with his nose, beard or shirt, as well as his grunting and snuffling, put me in mind of a groggy bear with a cocaine addiction. Before I could think better of my choice of seat, my presence apparently triggered a monologue that he had hooked up to a motion-detector.
“I told those imbeciles at Salon that I related to Robespierre and Lenin! But did they call me ‘Zizek the Fanatical Jacobin’, or ‘Zizek the Bolshevik Monster’? No! I was ‘the coolest, most influential leftist in Europe‘! I’ve loudly proclaimed my admiration for Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but did they call me ‘Zizek the Mass-Murder Apologist’? No! They just gently admonished me to ‘stop clowning around‘! I wrote in one of my books, ‘Better the worst of Stalinism than the best of the liberal-capitalist welfare state,’ but do my leftist comrades call me ‘Zizek the Nihilist Nightmare’? No! The Chronicle of Higher Education even dubbed me ‘the Elvis of cultural theory’! They have no principles! It’s all just a big fucking joke to them!”
He turned fully in my direction, his jittery gaze coming briefly to rest as if consciously noticing me for the first time, and muttered, “But you write one article or give one speech that criticizes Islam…”
You can argue about whether to call our culture post-modern, multicultural or politically correct. But its fatal contradictions ought to be beyond dispute. It was driven by the notion that a “rainbow coalition” of groups marginalised by straight white men deserved to be championed: women, gays, ethnic minorities. The alert among you will have noticed the first problem. There is no mention of class. An unemployed ex-miner coughing his guts up in a South Yorkshire council flat may be white, male and straight, but he is not more privileged than a female CEO, let alone a kleptomaniac politician in a post-colonial African state. Yet both the capitalist and the dictator can pose as victims and enjoy a global narrative that casts the sick old man as an oppressor.
Enormous consequences have flowed from the failure to think about economics. Across the developed world, Donald Trump and the European far-right parties are gratefully seizing on the lie that the white working class is by definition oppressive, and are busily detaching it from the Left.
True but irrelevant, and this is why, after sharing a bitter laugh over the incredible stupidity of the identity-obsessed left, I have to part company with Cohen and others like him. Really, that’s all you’ve got? A toothless demand for a stronger welfare state and higher taxes on the rich? As if you wouldn’t still be complaining then. Honestly, it seems to me that calling yourself left-wing these days amounts to little more than either frantically performing CPR on Marx’s corpse, bullshitting with fraudulent hucksters like Slavoj Zizek, or pretending it’s 1968 all over again and creating new Trump voters in the process. Well, that’s not entirely fair. There’s also a thriving online scene of competitive signaling over culture-war symbols that provides a semblance of meaning in the empty lives of sad little office drones.
When I first set about trying to make sense of the ongoing Great Awakening of social justice fanaticism, I found that the most helpful sources of information were books written in the mid-to-late-’90s, shortly after the last wave of political correctness had attracted mainstream attention. I’d been wondering how long it would be until we started to see book-length analyses of today’s SJWs, and now Kim Holmes has produced one of the first examples:
Progressive liberalism in America today is not at all like what has come before. It is not merely a logical extension of the old progressivism popular at the turn of the 20th century, or the New Deal liberalism of Franklin Roosevelt and its outgrowth, the “Great Society” liberalism of Lyndon Johnson. It is not even the same as the 1960s New Left. It is something entirely new. It has roots in these old movements, but it has acquired a new ideology all its own.
The historical roots are twofold: 1) the tradition of radical egalitarianism that first surfaced over two centuries ago in the radical Enlightenment; and 2) various intellectual movements that arose as a negative reaction to the Enlightenment’s rationalism, often lumped together in a movement called the Counter-Enlightenment. The first tradition is normally associated with the left, while the second is a phenomenon normally of the right, at least in Europe. The fusion of these two opposing intellectual traditions is a major reason why the postmodern left is so philosophically elusive. It is also a factor in why it has been so politically successful.
The historical inspirations for the New Left were typically leftist. But the postmodern left was also fed by another set of ideas associated with the right-leaning Counter-Enlightenment. Partly a romantic rebellion against the rationalism of the Enlightenment, but also a continuation of some of its more radical egalitarian ideas, the Counter-Enlightenment was characterized by distrust of rational discourse, a disdain for empiricism, contempt for Western liberalism, a hatred of modernity, and a tendency to glorify human passion as the mark of authentic individualism.
Hegel’s dialectic in action! The old windbag is probably smiling in his grave. Holmes goes on to distinguish postmodern leftism from traditional liberalism (the postmodern left favors epistemic relativism over liberalism’s affinity for natural law, it has no qualms about using state power to coerce opposition to accept its radical egalitarian claims, and it is strongly opposed to open inquiry and debate) and from early-20th-century progressivism (progressives, he stresses, were interested above all in building a new collective society, not in creating a balkanized zone of warring identity tribes, and they approved of the basic cultural and moral frameworks of Western civilization).
Taxonomy aside, he notes one especially interesting thing about their style of argument:
The deconstructionist method used by the postmodernists, albeit ostensibly theoretical in intent, is a powerful political weapon. It is a way to critique society without exposing oneself to easy counterattacks. By promising, for example, to tear away the veil of myth that supposedly props up capitalism and Western culture, it offers an all-purpose method of criticism that is political without appearing to be political. Postmodernists present themselves as relativists, not dogmatists, and thus they can sling arrows at the system from every possible angle. Since they are not held responsible for defending anything that actually exists, they wear their theoretical slipperiness as a badge of honor, as proof of a profound authenticity that is exceedingly difficult to disprove. They are intellectual guerrilla fighters in an asymmetrical war against Western culture, only they often pretend not to be fighters at all, but simply disinterested academics. They attack from the cultural flanks and then slip back into the cloistered protection of the academy, professing an interest only in literary theory or the nature of perception, language, and knowledge.
This actually made me laugh. Those of you who used to read the blog Who Is IOZ? (it’s now private, as the author, Jacob Bacharach, has gone on to become a novelist) back in the day should recognize this description. He espoused an intensely moralistic, non-denominational radicalism while sarcastically, ironically deflecting all challenges to him to defend a practical stance (and, perhaps true to his generation’s stereotype, he still likes to style himself as too special to fit within anyone else’s categorizations). IOZ managed to keep the shtick alive for several years due to his exceptional and entertaining writing ability, but in the hands of an ordinary practitioner, its sanctimony is merely tiresome.
At any rate, the salient point is that, unlike the fellow-traveling left of the early 20th century and the Third-World-liberationist sympathies of the New Left, today’s radicals are too jaded/afraid to be caught committing to a positive vision; theirs is entirely negative, relentlessly critical. Everything that actually exists is to be condemned for its imperfection (or, as a wiseacre likes to say, everything’s a problem). But how long can you occupy a morally pure “view from nowhere” while still expecting the targets of your attacks to continue taking you seriously? Hopefully, if the appearance of books like this is any indication, not much longer.