Angry, White, Male and Utterly Insane

320px-portret_van_een_man004“I’ve passed the point of no return. You know when that is? That’s the point in a journey where it’s longer to go back to the beginning than it is to continue to the end. It’s like when those astronauts got in trouble when they were going to the moon. Somebody messed up and they had to get them back to Earth but first they had to go around the moon. They were out of contact for hours. Everybody waited breathlessly to see if a bunch of dead guys in a can would pop out the other side. I’m on the other side of the moon now and everybody will have to wait until I pop out.” — Bill Foster, Falling Down


After the Las Vegas shooting on October 1, 2017, Drexel University associate professor George Ciccariello-Maher tweeted that his belief that a form of aggrieved entitlement drove the shooter, a well-to-do middle-aged white man, to commit the massacre. “The narrative of white victimization has been gradually built over the past 40 years,” he wrote. As is customary, conservative critics hounded the Drexel administration over the comments, claiming Professor Ciccariello-Maher was blaming Donald Trump or Republicans for the slaughter in Nevada. Unfortunately, the Drexel administration wavered and suspended Professor Ciccariello-Maher, giving in to a chorus of far-right voices, emboldened after Trump’s victory in 2016, to claim that radical academics are promoting “racism against white people” or “cultural Marxism.” While the dominant narrative in U.S. political discourse is that individuals on the left wish to suppress views they disagree with, it is in fact conservatives who are squelching academic analysis.

Professor Ciccariello-Maher is not alone in linking the phenomenon of “angry white men” in the U.S. with acts of violence. Michael Kimmel, a sociologist, wrote an entire book (published in 2013) on the aggrieved entitlement of white men. Some causes for white men’s anger have a basis in material conditions, such as the impact of off-shore outsourcing under globalization on working class men, or the lingering effects of the 2008 financial crisis. Other times, grievances may stem from evolving social norms and values that threaten the traditional dominance of white men in racial as well as gender relations. White nationalists complain that job-stealing immigrants will eclipse the country’s “white identity,” while “men’s rights activists” blame their “involuntary celibacy” on modern feminism. Whatever the source or reality of the deprivation, many white men in the U.S. present themselves as victims of oppression, even though the historical record clearly illustrates that the U.S was created by white men for white men.

320px-peinture_murale_de_lachilleion_28corfou29_28327885976029Kimmel directly links aggrieved entitlement to violence, citing a 1994 study by Richard Felson that found if a culture promotes retaliatory violence as acceptable, even praiseworthy, then men of all ages would be more likely to engage in violent behavior. In other words, regardless of why white men are angry, or who they are angry about, there is also the issue of what to do about it. Voting for Newt Gingrich or Donald Trump may be one outlet, but so are mass shootings and spree killings. In popular culture, the customary plot arc of a masculine hero seeking and attaining vengeance for an injustice, imposing his will and cleansing himself through destroying his enemy, reflects this. The quintessential example of this in Western literature is Achilles in Homer’s Iliad, who slays Hector after the Trojan prince kills Achilles’ beloved companion, Patroclus. Hector himself exhibits a traditional masculine virtue, seeking a valiant death even when it becomes clear that he is going to die. Many readers, including ancient ones, read hubris into the actions of Achilles and Hector, flaunting their warrior prowess, but it is also possible to see in their characters the embodiments of masculine pride. Achilles kills Hector not out of mere bloodlust, but as a requital of an injury. Hector, seeing the consequences of his actions, chooses to die courageously than to concede and be humbled. In these actions we see the template of the murder-suicide that has become the foundation for all mass shootings, from Charles Whitman’s 1966 shooting spree to the November 2017 First Baptist Church shooting in Sutherland Springs, Texas.


“Ever notice how you come across somebody once in a while you shouldn’t have fucked with? … That’s me.” — Walt Kowalski, Gran Torino


It is important to note that men do not possess a genetic disposition to retaliatory 122px-visconti-sforza-11-fortitudeviolence. Men do not exit the womb with aggression coded into our DNA. It is not a “biological truth” that we must dominate others. Instead, this is learned behavior. Just as the ancient Greeks listened to the epics, boys today grow up with fathers, many of whom in the U.S. own at least one gun, that is it better to stand your ground (and your property, and your family, and your honor…) than to retreat. Boys become engrossed in contact sports, where the athletes who hit the hardest and show the most competitive spirit are the ones to emulate. They find leisurely gratification in gratuitously violent TV shows, movies, video games, and pornography. At the same time, many young white men find their behavior policed. Rather than receiving instant support from authority figures, young white men encounter challenges they are unprepared to face. They must confront a future where they may not be better off than their parents, where student loans and stagnant wage growth means they likely be working until they die. They must also confront elite institutions like corporations and political parties where even white men, unless they belong to a narrow 1% band of the upper crust, have less and less influence. In the meantime, they find themselves asked to confront their conscious and unconscious prejudices, to not only admit that white men have profited off the exploitation of women and people of color, but also to examine how they contribute to the ongoing racism and sexism of today. None of this is to say that white men are the most put-upon group in society; obviously, police officers are not shooting unarmed white boys in the back, and men do not face the same rate of sexual discrimination, harassment and assault as women do. While growing economic inequality among the white population in the U.S. is a failing of the system, it must be stressed that for much of the postwar period – from the 1950s to the end of the 1970s – the “Golden Age of Capitalism” was so named by white men because the prime benefactors were white men. After all, under Jim Crow and without equal rights, it was not a “Golden Age” for many people in the U.S. Tellingly, it was with the civil rights movement and the campaign for an Equal Rights Amendment that the “angry white man” phenomenon first began.

herbert_marcuse_in_newton2c_massachusetts_1955Herbert Marcuse, a critical theorist of the Frankfurt School, analyzed Western society during the postwar years in his 1947 work One-Dimensional Man, wherein he deconstructed the state-managed capitalism of his time through a Marxist as well as Freudian lens. The Western proletariat, he argued, had become integrated into the status quo, invested in the maintenance of the welfare state as well as culturally identifying with the owners of the means of production. To paraphrase Steinbeck, Americans did not conceive of themselves as poor, but as “temporarily embarrassed millionaires.” Although the West had obtained the wealth and technology to abolish work and to enable individuals to pursue their own creative potential, the exploitation of workers and other vulnerable social groups proceeded through the manipulation of what Freud called the death drive, our inherent impulse toward self-destruction. By playing on humanity’s instinctive aggression and competitiveness, modern society produces the energy needed to fuel the high levels of productivity and economic expansion it needs.

While the arguments of One-Dimensional Man offer an insightful indictment of the postwar era, its Keynesian consensus, and the atmosphere of conformity that captured Western life in the 1950s and early 1960s, the “modernity” described in its pages does not reflect present conditions. Marcuse himself became “the Father of the New Left” that arose in the late 1960s and 1970s, a broad intellectual movement that began on college campuses. While the labor movement remained important on the New Left, the movement really distinguished itself by its emphasis on identity issues: civil rights, gay rights, and equal rights for women. Whereas radical left-wingers had historically converged around labor issues, touting the proletariat as potentially revolutionary, the New Left idealized young intellectuals belonging to the countercultural Zeitgeist opposed to the Establishment. The 1960s-1970s counterculture era, however, while seeing important strides in areas such as civil rights and feminism, did not produce the promised social revolution. In contrast to Freudian death drives, Marcuse hitched his philosophical optimism to our will to live, the positive life-affirming instinct in humanity. What Marcuse did not anticipate was how consumerism could hijack the counterculture. Whereas society once offered a bland, one-size-fits-all life to the population (a suburban home, a picket fence, a Plymouth in the garage), it came to embrace rebellions and subversion (or, at least, the superficial substitute). The policy-driven collective action of the past became more about individual expression and a lifestyle choice. Instead of bettering society in concrete terms, the individual demonstrates their dissent by wearing a Che Guevara shirt, taking illegal recreational drugs, patronizing art deemed transgressive and seditious, and so on. A person could accrue the coolness of the rebel without the risk associated with the organization and agitation required in an effective social movement. The counterculture sold out.

320px-jessicaThis is not to say, however, that the New Left did nothing for social justice, just that it fell short of its more ambitious goals. It would be daunting to provide an itemized list of the contributions the civil rights movement, the Black Power movement, the National Organization for Women, Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique, the gay liberation movement, and so on. Suffice to say that enough actual change took place (imperfect as it was) that from the nucleus of the “angry white man” took shape. It was they who gave Richard Nixon a mandate in 1968 and even more so in 1972 to annihilate the Black Panthers, to crack down on the students burning bras and draft cards on campuses, to reverse the trend of “moral decay” in the once most sacred of U.S. institutions. In this agenda we see many parallels to the aspirations of conservatives today: the reigning in of the Black Lives Matter movement, denigrated as terrorists; the condemnation of predominately African-American athletes kneeling in protest during the national anthem; the policing of speech and behavior labeled “un-American” in higher education; the reversal of protections offered for women or marginalized groups, be it the weakening of Title IX, the repeal of the Voting Rights Act, and on and on. “A conservative,” said the conservative public intellectual William F. Buckley, “is someone who stands athwart history, yelling ‘Stop!’” And so, from the counterculture period of the late 20th century to the present, the angry white man has stood in opposition to every modicum of social progress made in the preceding decades. He is not just yelling, however. He is bullying women anonymously on social media. He is posting incitements to violence against women on message boards devoted to complaints about “femi-Nazis.” He is listening to talk radio and watching Fox News and learning who to hate. He is calling the cops on the “suspicious” African-American boy in his neighborhood. He is touching his female co-workers inappropriately. He consistently told that he is in danger, targeted by terrorists, impoverished by globalists, emasculated by women. He is afraid, embarrassed, frustrated that the transgressions and trespasses that once so easily forgiven and ignored are, to his inconvenience, bringing unfavorable effects. He finds himself in the uncharted territory of working for a woman, or losing a job to someone who is an outsider, foreign, whose patriotism is suspect. Finding no respite, confused, the angry white man lashes out. Betrayed by an Establishment he no longer perceives as responsive to him, he imposes himself instead on those around him who are weak. The mass murderer who carried out the 2017 Las Vegas shooting, Stephan Paddock, had a history of publicly berating his wife. The gunman responsible for the Sutherland Springs church shooting, Devin Patrick Kelley, had a history of domestic abuse and is believed to have targeted the church in an effort to kill his estranged second wife and her relatives.


“The idea had been growing in my brain for some time. True force. All the king’s men cannot put it back together again.” — Travis Bickle, Taxi Driver


Connecting the “angry white man” as understood in a political context to the mass shootings in Las Vegas, Sutherland Springs and elsewhere is provocative because there seems nothing political about those massacres. Neither Paddock nor Kelley left behind manifestos like that of right-wing extremist Anders Behring Breivik, who perpetuated the 2011 Norway attacks as part of a crusade against Islam and “cultural Marxism.” In our highly partisan political climate, making such a connection triggers an automatic dismissal on the presumption that is mere mud-slinging. It might be less controversial to say that recent mass shootings by angry white men are not about politics but power (even though the difference is a matter of semantics). The “angry white man,” political pundits agree, is angered because of a seeming deprivation of power, which is manifest in all aspects of life: politically, economically, culturally, even in his personal relationships. He makes his own lack of a voice be heard by hurting others, which usually means those who are vulnerable to him in some way. When he makes the choice to embark on the ultimate display of power – to remove his fellow human beings from the face of the Earth – he ensures he will receive the attention he feels entitled to, even if it means lasts if the next media cycle. He also, like Hector, resolves to choose death – a self-inflicted gunshot wound or suicide by cop – as the price-tag attached to his doomed exhibition of destructive power. Thomas Frank once famously pointed out how people in Kansas were voting against their own economic self-interest by voting for a Republican Party bent on lowering corporate taxes and promoting deregulation. So too, in a much more extreme and existential sense, are the angry white men who carry out mass shootings taking an action that goes against their fundamental biological self-interest – their literal survival – by doing what used to be unimaginable and unthinkable and what now occurs almost daily. Rather than study this, however, the Establishment institutions – itself largely controlled by white men – encourages the absurd notion that these men are “lone wolves,” a collection of bad apples, mentally ill outliers. We cannot handle that their violent behavior might be associated with our systems and society.

240px-circle-a_red-svgAfter eight years of President Barack Obama and moderate progress in some social areas (same sex marriage, repealing the military’s “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy, passage of the Hate Crimes Prevention Act and the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act), we are seeing the latest resurgence of the “angry white man.” Yet why is the “angry white man” of today so much more violent than in previous decades? The answer might be gleamed in the counterculture movement that came after the hippies: the punks. Whereas the hippies envisioned better worlds, the punks of the 1970s and 1980s looked with clearer eyes at the world as it was and responded with an intense nihilism that fed intensely off the Freudian death drives. A rejection of the status quo ran through the punk subculture, but while the hippies had failed to propose a convincing alternative arrangement of society, the punks did not bother, or if they could be bothered, supported anarchy. At its best, this anarchy expressed itself as the individual having absolute freedom, but at its cynical worst, it meant entropy and chaos. From this sprang not idealism but apathy, giving rise to the slacker ethos of the 1990s, the grunge movement, and to the intense irony that throbs like a heartbeat through radical subcultures today. It is often very difficult to separate sincerity from satire among radical voices in the present moment. This is just as true for the former Bernie Sanders supporters gravitating toward resurgent left-wing organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) as it is for the so-called “alt-right.” Is the neckbearded white man in his 20s holding a Pepe sign consorting with neo-Nazis because of actual shared racist convictions, or a rejection of conforming to the standards and opportunities offered to them by a society that they perceive, rightly or wrongly, as uncaring and even hostile to them and those like them?

None of this is to absolve any “angry white man,” mass shooter or Trump voter, from their choices. Firstly, whatever the structural parameters of our environment, individuals possess agency, and whatever expectations or obstacles individuals face, how they choose to react to them – whether through literal or figurative violence – is a choice. More importantly, however, the hindrances and problems faced by white men are still minimal in comparison to the huge, deeply institutionalized impediments women and people of color face throughout the U.S. White men have never been a persecuted group in this country, always the prosecutors. If some white men are angry that social forces in the U.S. are dragging them, kicking and screaming, to a more diverse and inclusive world, we should no more sympathize with them than we would commiserate with the Neanderthals driven extinct by evolution. In fact, it behooves us a society to see the ways in which we are actively encouraging mass shooters. This goes beyond the glorification and aestheticizaton of violence or the sensationalism of the mass media, and requires us to ask hard questions about race and gender relations. Why do African-American communities live in virtual police states, where they are routinely targeted and harassed by law enforcement, but white men face few deterrents in engaging in incredibly violent crime? Why might a Muslim man who commits mass murder face being tortured in a cell in Guantanamo, while a white man who commits mass murder will likely be taken alive, enjoy a trial, and then imprisonment? How might we better protect victims of domestic abuse and ensure their abusers do not get easy access to firearms? Finally, how might we raise white men in our society so that they do feel the compulsion to act with retaliatory violence when distressed, to see the benefits of a truly egalitarian social order rather than just the reduction of their privilege?


“People are continually pointing out to me the wretchedness of white people in order to console me for the wretchedness of blacks. But an itemized account of the American failure does not console me and it should not console anyone else.” – James Baldwin


Discussing such questions is a tall order for the U.S., where white supremacy is still deeply ingrained but also fiercely and willfully overlooked. It is far easier and less introspective to silence people like Professor Ciccariello-Maher and to perpetuate the myth of the looney lefty academic than it is to admit that the cracks and contradictions in our society might be generating, through real alienation and exploitation along with false narratives and outdated ideas, the death and destruction we see around us.

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Stressed & Depressed: On Not Getting By in Academia

It is late October 2017. I sit in a coffee shop above the American University bookstore. 187px-depression-loss_of_loved_oneAlthough the ambience is warm and casual, the men and women around me are finely groomed and well-rested. I, however, am not. Underneath my red eyes and unkempt beard, I wear a bright orange SEIU “Graduate Students Forward” shirt underneath a wrinkled jacket. I get the feeling that I do not belong, a feeling I am familiar with as a PhD student on campus. Still, I cling to the belief that I do belong, and my voice matters.

I am attending a listening session held by the new AU President, Sylvia Mathews Burwell, the former Health and Human Services Secretary, so she can hear the views and concerns of graduate students. Despite the stated purpose, however, this meeting is ostensibly just with members of Graduate Leadership Council. With respect to the GLC, it is like most student government organizations in higher education: it does not actually act like a government. Many graduate students think of the GLC as a body that plans social functions with free food. Most GLC members are Masters’ students who attend AU for two years, earn their degree, and then leverage their part-time internship into a government job (complete with spiffy lanyard) upon passing comprehensive exams. I know this because I earned a MA at AU before becoming a PhD student. I can say, then, that the needs and experiences of MA students are not identical to PhD students.

GLC members do not have office hours to meet with graduate students to hear their concerns and then pass them on to, well, anybody, even though it says they must in their bylaws. I know this because I was heavily involved in the campaign to unionize graduate student workers at AU last year, and we did our best to coordinate with the GLC during our outreach drive. It is because of my involvement with the union that I’m at the listening session now. One of my colleagues arranged an invite for me to attend this event, which is invite-only. I should be focusing on my dissertation in this, my sixth year, so that it will be my final year, but my colleague is out of town and this chance to have an audience with the new president is too important an opportunity to pass up.

After a very positive chat with the new GLC president, Mina, I listen as GLC members 320px-bananas-svgpose their questions. Unsurprisingly, the response to the racial abuse incidents on AU’s campus last year, which made national headlines, features quite prominently. President Burwell responds about improved safety measures on campus, committees and councils set up in the name of “diversity” and “inclusion.” As I sit there, I remember that one of the two classes I was teaching assistant for last semester – in a program tailored for exceptional students – was completely white and overwhelmingly male. The same course this year is majority female and more diverse, although the only African-American student in the program recently quit. I also recall that one of the students accused of throwing a banana at an African-American student last year was in that all-white, male-heavy class. I do not know the name of the accused student was, or what his punishment was, as the university did not disclose these, presumably so as not to ruin the student’s future. I wonder, however, about the rights of Neah Gray, the freshman girl who found a banana outside her door, or the rights of Taylor Dumpson, the student president whose election resulted in bananas hung from nooses around campus. They had no say about becoming involved in those incidents, but I do not say anything. I sit silently and raise my hand, waiting for my turn to speak. That is how it works.

One representative complains that AU has a dry campus and that this hinders “socialization.” As a member of Alcoholics Anonymous for a little over three years, I can say that the unavailability of alcohol on the AU campus did not deter me from drinking, although the stress and anxiety of being a PhD student certainly helped to fuel it. This is unimportant, however, so again I say nothing and keep my hand raised.

The session is almost over before I am called. I try to be brief. I have asked to read a statement, but I summarize it by expressing, on behalf of the union, a cordial welcome to President Burwell and appreciation that the administration is bargaining with us (something not all university administrations are doing with their graduate workers). I do not want to monopolize the remaining time, so without expounding on all the issues at interest for AU PhD students, I talk about something personal: the lack of support services I feel are available to PhD students like me. Most of us don’t know about psychiatric or counseling services offered by the university, and it’s common for PhD students to become isolated in a constant miasma of stress and anxiety. We receive lots of rhetoric about “self-care” and “stress management,” but in concrete terms, we get limited assistance from school counselors before being referred off-campus, and we must pay extra fees to gain access to the sparsely attended exercise and yoga classes offered at the campus fitness center. I also mention the importance of Title IX for women graduate students, as well as support for international students due to the anti-immigrant policies of the Trump administration. In her answer, President Burwell focuses on Title IX and AU’s work in that area, plus its work for undocumented students benefiting from the DACA program. These are important issues in higher education, but to my larger point – that more could be done to make PhD students feel supported – I do not hear very much of substance. She does refer to the special circumstances of those of us who are both “students and staff,” but I know that if counsel for the administration was present, he or she would have whispered in her ear to correct her slip. The official stance of the administration, as it is with so many administrations, is that graduate student workers are students, not employees. The teaching, the grading, the research we do, that the university depends on, is not really “work.”

It is October 2014, several years ago. I stare at over 100 blue booklets stacked in front of 320px-gfp-lecture-hallme on a circular brown table. I am sitting in my fiancée’s apartment in Adams Morgan. I must grade these mid-term exams in one week, “preferably” less. I then must turn them into the professor for whom I am a teaching assistant for, who will go over the grades and change those he feels are wrong. I then must to record the changes he makes before making a PowerPoint showing each grade, so the class can see the distribution. Every grade must be perfect. What is in the Excel must match what is in the books, and what is in the books has to match what the distribution PowerPoint shows. I do not dread the reaction of the students if I make an error. Most of them are freshmen, and in honesty, the majority are content with a passing grade. After all, how many times have I actually read the notes and not just peeked at the grade? No, what I fear is how the professor I work for will react, as this is a man that has yelled at me, thrown stacks of papers in the trash, and otherwise made me deeply uncomfortable if I do match his standards. Such experiences are common throughout academia. Several of my peers have reported being bullied. I am just grateful that I am a white man, and therefore do not have to deal with discrimination and harassment, endemic problems for many graduate assistants.

In the views of the administration, none of this is “work” for me. Of course, the huge, auditorium-filling general education political science class could not function without me grading the papers and exams the students take, nor without the squad of other assistances taking attendance, recording participation points, and so on. If we were to suddenly quit, could the professor – one man – possibly pick up the slack, while also teaching multiple other courses, most just as large? After all, faculty across higher education are also underpaid and overworked, adjuncts and term faculty especially. Yet universities rely on their labor, so every academic year another swarm of students enters their halls, paying high tuition fees with borrowed money, to obtain diplomas that used to carry the promise of higher earnings and a more comfortable life. The system is as fragile as a house of cards, dependent on its most exploited workers to continue the soul-crushing, mind-numbing, ulcer-inducing work that is not, legally, “work.” It persists, however, because there is a collective belief that it is this way, it has always been this way, and it must be this way. There is no alternative. This is how it works.

It is still October 2014 and my daughter, a little over one year old, is crying in the other 320px-good_night_281723505258129room.  My fiancée is caring for her. I feel regret that I cannot give my daughter more: more resources, more security, more of my time. The work that is not “work,” however, beckons. I must first attend to the 100-plus freshmen, and their answers to the same exam questions posed to them year after year. I will not (and cannot) give them all thoughtful and thorough answers. I will ensure their grades equate to a B average for the class, regardless of what they deserve. In the next few days, I will easily work more than the 20 hours a week I am meant to work. That, however, is just the way it works.

It is now August 2016. I am sitting in the psychiatric ward at Sibley Hospital. I have had a mental breakdown. Last month, my ex-fiancée, after surviving breast cancer and enduring a double mastectomy and reconstruction, has broken off our engagement. She is moving to Philadelphia to take a new job there and is taking our daughter. She does not and cannot trust me because of my past of substance abuse and related behavior. Although I am in AA, even though I have tried to change my behavior, I know the relationship is doomed. Yet the pain of losing easy access to my daughter, the abrupt agony of a broken heart, all combined with the “inherent” misery and isolation of the PhD life sends me spiraling. I start to fantasize about jumping from the Duke Ellington Bridge, near my ex-fiancée’s apartment, even though it has an anti-suicide fence, and the nearby William Howard Taft Bridge, doesn’t. I suppose we always prefer to pursue what’s more challenging. Anyway, I don’t kill myself. Am I coward? Am I afraid of my daughter growing up without knowing my father? Whatever the case, I seek help.

The social workers upon my admission tell me right away the system is broken. I will be staying a week. They need the beds. I also learn that I came, quite accidentally, to the best psych ward in Washington, D.C. I spend my week as the model patient, trying an increased dosage of my anti-depressant (I cannot take benzodiazepines for anxiety because they are addictive). I recommit myself to positive thinking, counseling, talk therapy, going to AA meetings, social rhythms. I even try encouraging some of the other patients who have substance abuse issues or just need someone to talk to (the doctors and nurses, while nice, are themselves quite overworked). I leave after a week convinced that I just needed to hit the pause button on my life, that I was briefly and justifiably overwhelmed by a series of traumas compounded with the intense pressures of school.

I have to convince myself of this because the alternative is that my depression will forever be an obstacle to me realizing my career ambitions, which in turn will enable me to get the other things I aspire for: some financial security, a stable family life, leisure time. Most importantly, however, I cannot be a father to my daughter if I am committed in an institution. Still, the doubt follows me. Are these chemicals in my brain, the ones that make me spiral into this fog of activity-killing apathy and daydreams of self-annihilation, meant to keep me from this vocation I long for, this profession which all society agrees can only be entered after a brutal, lonely experience characterized by poverty, competition, ruthless politics and the constant seeking of validation from others, be it your cohort and your dissertation committee? Do I, so to speak, lack the ingredients? Am I kidding myself? Is everyone laughing at me? Could these years of sweat, sacrifice and sleepless nights all be for nothing? Am I meant to fail or quit?

It is possible, once you learn how, to set aside such angst-filled, existential questions, but uscurrency_federal_reserveless so the material hardship that comes with the PhD experience. You can convince yourself that you are not crazy, and you are not killing yourself. Simple math, however, will show you that you cannot afford to live off the monthly stipend you receive from AU while receiving your doctoral fellowship. Washington, D.C., is one of the most expensive cities in the country, and the AU campus is situated in Spring Valley, one its most affluent neighborhoods. Even MA students will complain about the long commute to campus, as well as the unreliable nature of the metropolitan transit system and AU’s own shuttle services. AU now, thankfully, does provide its students with transit passes that cover fares to and from campus, although this was not originally offered to doctoral students (mostly undergraduate students were targeted for the pass roll-out, as is the case with most university services). Yet, transport costs are but one expense out of money. PhD students must eat, and after rent, they have little with which to purchase groceries. Packed lunches from home are a must, as the AU campus offers little in the way of nutritional value beyond Subway and similar fast food. This has become such a problem that I know at least one fellow PhD student who has taken to eating Soylent – the pleasure-free meal substitute product – because AU is such a food desert. Until this year, PhD students also had to pay for their health insurance, which does not include dental or vision; now, PhD students already receiving financial assistance from AU have their health care enrollment paid for, although this begs the question why those students already getting aid should get subsidized and not those still in school beyond their initial fellowship. You do not have to be independently wealthy to be a PhD student, it would seem, but it certainly helps. Again, there seems to be a disconnect between that choir singing hymns to “stress management” and “healthy lifestyles” and the purse-strings that leave us stocked only in canned soups and ramen noodle cups.

Most PhD students, of course, leave room in their budgets to consume large quantities of alcohol_desgraciaalcohol. College and binge-drinking have always gone hand-in-hand, but I am not talking about the all-night raging kegger of undergraduates. I am talking about the let-me-tie-one-on-so-I-can-get-through-another-day self-medication, the reckless pursuit of a mind-evaporating, emotions-erasing oblivion that sets in after enough hard liquor. It is nihilism made manifest, the “comfortably numb” that Pink Floyd sang about. Hate your job and your boss? “Go to the bar” has been the solution for time out of mind, and for those of us who have no job because our work is not “work,” despite the duties of a dissertation and the obligations of being a teaching assistant, while making time for family and health, it is an island of respite in an ocean of pains and pressures. You may think that, as someone in recovery, I am passing moral judgment on my peers who continue to drink. This is not true. If anything, I am jealous. When I wake up in the morning, sober, that is as good as I will feel all day; no normal drinker can say the same. They, at least, can take comfort in the bottom of the bottle, to render them oblivious to the deadlines, urgent e-mails, and self-doubt with which PhD students are perpetually immersed. I, on the other hand, on bad days wish that terrorists would trigger a nuclear bomb in our national capital, obliterating me and hundreds of thousands more in a towering mushroom cloud, freeing me of the agency in continuing to slog through my daily routine of juggling numerous tasks – not the least of which is researching and writing my dissertation – without dropping any of them. If I screw up my dissertation, I will never leave academia, except as a failure. If I screw up being a father, I will have failed my daughter. If I screw up my sobriety, I may lose access to my daughter, and given enough time, I will lose my life. If I screw up my good mental health, I may start thinking of suicide again. If I screw up my teaching assistant job, I lose my only source of income.

It is October 2017, days before the listening session with President Burwell. I am sitting, hunched over, in the office of the program director for the course I am a teaching assistant for. I have screwed up big time. I was supposed to proctor an exam, but instead, I had gone to Philadelphia to care for my daughter while my ex-fiancée went to New York to participate in a cancer walk. Even though my job description is limited to the weekly experiential learning excursions, I agreed to administer the exam because I had a good relationship with the professor, one of the few faculty members to treat me like a human being and not just labor or another student passing through the department. I am mortified and embarrassed, and send out emails, to the professor and the students, completely owning my error. While I was gone for the weekend in Philadelphia, I have received the silent treatment in response to my voicemails and emails. Only through my direct supervisor do I learn that my professor is furious at me. She wants to replace me, but cannot, since it is the middle of the semester. I don’t exactly blame her. I let her down. But, I point out, I am trying to balance a dissertation, health, family, recovery, plus her job – which I have taken seriously, grading quizzes, covering classes, posting photos on social media, chaperoning excursions, etc. She, however, and the program director wield all the power. There is no advocate in my corner, nothing for me to do other than throw myself upon the mercy of others. I am 35 years old and I feel totally powerless. I am on the verge of tears. The fact is that I am doing all that I can – my best – but my best may not be good enough, and there is no one who is going to pick me up or help me if I should stumble or fall. Just as when I checked myself into the psych ward, no one is going to help me but myself.

It is January 2017, around six months since my ex-fiancée broke off our engagement and moved to Philadelphia. I am visiting and staying with her in the beginning of what will be monthly trips up to the city. It takes four hours by Greyhound bus to get here, but I go every month for my daughter. We are at music class, and even though my daughter is only two, she loves percussion. At the end of the class, the children sit in the laps of their parents as the teacher sings a farewell song. Part of the song is “hug the person who takes care of you.” My daughter hugs her mother. A simple gesture that speaks to an unpleasant truth: I cannot take care of my daughter. Despite my sobriety, even with my depression controlled, my daughter would have to live with me, in a dank one-bedroom basement apartment, on a diet of cereal and tap water. Even if I could afford a daycare – I cannot, and AU does not offer one for PhD students – it was hard enough holding down a dissertation and a job and being a parent when I had my ex-fiancée as a partner. I cannot comprehend how single parents do it, except that they probably have some form of help. Like all PhD students, they call upon their parents, swallowing their pride and admitting they cannot handle everything themselves. Some of us call home asking for money. Some of us call home asking for a place to stay because we cannot afford rent over the summer. Some of us call home because we cannot afford a therapist. Still, there is only so much mothers and fathers (if they are available) can do. In the end, the PhD student lives alone. Even among friends, few can understand his or her life.

There is an entire subculture online for PhD students, full of memes that mix an 190338aca114712fae2f5c69e193bc2e-phd-comics-phd-studentexistential despair with levity, vintage gallows humor. A common joke are the phrases we hear repeatedly: “What is your dissertation about?” “Why haven’t you finished yet?” “What’s taking so long?” One image also included: “Why are you so unhappy?” That deflated the punchline for me. It speaks to the reality that most people, at least if they are so inclined, can leave their work at work, or turn off their phones and be present in the moment. The PhD student rarely can. There is always more data to analyze, more algorithms to check and re-check, p-values to be studied and verified, more chapters to write, more revisions to include. There is always a student with a question that could easily be answered if he or she consulted the syllabus. There is always a request to attend a job talk or to judge a symposium for undergraduates. There is always is “call for papers,” so important in the “publish or perish” world, and there is always some faculty member to schmooze for a reference or recommendation or just for simple departmental politics. There is always some document you can’t access because the professor hasn’t added you on Blackboard, or some social media post you have to worry about because it might impact your job application to a university in the future. And, of course, there is always the future to worry about… The future of driving Uber just to make ends meet, of losing your academic job because alt-right Nazis hounded the administration because you like Marx, of sleeping underneath a bridge in a cardboard box because you wanted to be a professor and not a welder… Whatever problems you are contending with now, it can always be worse, because it is always getting worse.

A pessimist philosopher once compared humanity’s consciousness of its own mortality to animals developing horns so heavy they anchored the beasts to the ground, rendering them immobile. So, it would seem that the intelligent and perceptive minds lured to academia find themselves in the unenviable situation of abject alienation and exploitation while being acutely aware of it. If you do not believe me, I would suggest you look at most private universities where graduate unionization campaigns have occurred. Graduate workers, PhD students in the main, realize how bad their conditions are. It is administrations, not their fellow workers, who obstruct their unionization. It is also likely to be pure politics, the machinations of the Trump administration, that reverses the National Labor Relations Board’s ruling that graduate workers are employees, that the work we do is “work.” Everyone knows it; even university presidents admit it in off-guarded moments. Yet, the system as it stands only operates if there is consensus around the fiction that we are not workers, that we are “living the life of the mind,” as if we were idling away the hours in some classical Greek symposium rather than working in whatever coffee shop or basement apartment where our laptop is presently parked. Just like everyone else, we watch the news, we know what is happening just downtown in the White House and in Congress, and we see bigotry and prejudice in graphic form right on our very campus. We witness this cruel and malignant status quo, aware of our own impotence and lack of a voice. Some of us fought to change things, thinking a union would help us, or at least the students that came after us. Now, though, knowing that the NRLB ruling stands on brittle ground, we do not hope that the administration will voluntarily recognize our union. They already do not consider our work to be “work.” The system will stay. That’s just the way it is.

It is not lost on me, of course, how this despondence juxtaposes with the usual platitudes that go with college. After all, college is supposed to be where you figure out who you are, what you want to do with your life, etc. For me, it feels as though every day is a punishment for my choices, for seeking my calling. All around me, I hear calls for activism, for young people to be the change they want to see in the world; I see the change I have tried to affect destined for futility. I hear all the time about an AU “community” and a “family,” but most times I coast through a campus intent on ignoring my existence, which at least is better than the threats and harassment reserved for students of color. I remain as convinced as ever that things do not have to be this way, that academia is in desperate need of change, that higher education needs a human face. I do not believe, however, that I will see meaningful progress in this area in my lifetime. In so many ways, we are moving backward as a society, not forward.

It is October 2017 and I am back in the listening session. A GLC member seizes on something I said, which I repeated here – about being treated as a human being, not just as an employee. He makes a point of contradicting me, saying he has never felt not treated like a human being. I want to say that his experience is unlike mine, that he would not be so ready to dismiss what I said if he lived with the complications of my life, or anyone else who pursues a PhD while raising a child, dealing with a pre-existing health condition, or recovering from substance. I wanted to say – as I’ve wanted to say whenever confronted with this attitude – that just because you have things okay does not mean that everyone else is okay. I didn’t say this, however, because I had already raised my hand and taken my turn to speak. And that’s just the way it works.

The National Question, Revisited

In Spain, Catalonian nationalists advocating separation from Spain are likely to go ahead320px-20set_barcelona_14 with a symbolic referendum on independence. Madrid has threatened it will seize control of polling booths if the vote proceeds on October 1. These events come on the heels of a landslide referendum victory in Iraqi Kurdistan, where allegedly 93 percent of over three million voters expressed support for independence. This is indicative of a global trend of unrest often described as populist, but which is also commonly nationalist. Throughout Western Europe, these upstart parties and politicians have tended to be of the right-wing variety, arguing for policies of exclusion and discrimination against immigrants, especially followers of Islam. These two referendums, however, involve communities are seeking the creation of two states, not the preservation of traditional polities. Catalan separatism is rooted in Castilian supremacy in Spain, starkly characteristic of the 1936-1975 Franco dictatorship. Upon the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire, Turkey and its former Arab possessions divided up Kurdish territory and subsequently suppressed nationalist agitators (ironically, it was the 2003 U.S. war on Iraq and the following destabilization of the region that sowed the seeds for an autonomous Kurdish government and any possible state it forms).

An independent Catalonia or Kurdistan would indubitably frustrate the hegemony of the U.S. and its Western allies, showing once again their inability to maintain the status quo. The weakening of imperialism is clearly anti-imperialist, but is it left-wing? The standard answer is that any nationalism is inherently anti-Marxist, as The Communist Manifesto explicitly states: “The Communists are further reproached with desiring to abolish countries and nationality. The working men have no country.” In isolation, the second sentence could mean that workers have no stake in the bourgeois state, but the preceding one makes it clear that communists seek to eliminate nationality as an identifier. This makes logical sense, if one accepts that communism stems from a belief in the unity of humanity; it would do little good to obliterate distinctions of class and state power while retaining ethnic division, a keystone of discrimination through every epoch. The Marxist theorist who married Irish nationalism with socialism, James Connolly, put it so: “If you remove the English army tomorrow and hoist the green flag over Dublin Castle, unless you set about the organization of the Socialist Republic your efforts would be in vain. England would still rule you. She would rule you through her capitalists, through her landlords, through her financiers, through the whole array of commercial and individualist institutions she has planted in this country and watered with the tears of our mothers and the blood of our martyrs.” Or, as paraphrased in, Ken Loach’s The Wind That Shakes the Barley: national liberation not based on left-wing principles will change only “the accents of the powerful and the color of the flag.”

There are also contextual factors that guided the thinking of Marx and Engels. Both men came from Germany, a country borne from the confederation of smaller states, the opposite of nations seeking to separate from unwanted unions. Moreover, their version of socialism was scientific and anti-utopian. Nationalism is inherently emotional, a moral conception not easily operationalized. Of course, Marx considered issues of nationalism in the Poland and Czech cases, for example, but through what Rosa Luxemburg called a “sober realism, alien to all sentimentalism” fixated on individual cases, rather than some vague, generalized idea of the metaphysical “rights of nations.”

Marx and Engels became more sensitive to issues of imperialism due to the 1857 Indian320px-the_sepoy_revolt_at_meerut Rebellion, wherein Indians revolted against the British Empire over issues of taxation, land annexation, abuse, and general exploitation. Marx wrote that: “However infamous the conduct of the Sepoys (Indian soldiers), it is only the reflex, in a concentrated form, of England’s own conduct in India, not only during the epoch of the foundation of her Eastern Empire, but even during the last ten years of a long-settled rule. To characterize that rule, it suffices to say that torture formed all organic institution of its financial policy. There is something in human history like retribution: and it is a rule of historical retribution that its instrument be forged not by the offended, but by the offender himself” (emphasis mine). This dialectical viewpoint reflects the notion that capitalism is the author of its own destruction; its contradictions cause its own collapse. He observed that the violence inherent in imperialism breeds violent uprisings in response. Neither Marx nor Engels may have had little time for patriotic fervor, but they understood anti-imperialist movements as forces for positive social progress.

In 1909, Luxemburg wrote The National Question, in which she sought to bring nationality “from the clouds of abstraction to the firm ground of concrete conditions.” She acknowledged that states should be able to choose their own paths, while asking:

“[W]ho is that ‘nation’ and who has the authority and the ‘right’ to speak for the ‘nation’ and express its will? How can we find out what the ‘nation’ actually wants? Does there exist even one political party which would not claim that it alone, among all others, truly expresses the will of the ‘nation,’ whereas all other parties give only perverted and false expressions of the national will? All the bourgeois, liberal parties consider themselves the incarnation of the will of the people and claim the exclusive monopoly to represent the ‘nation.’ But conservative and reactionary parties refer no less to the will and interests of the nation, and within certain limits, have no less of a right to do so.” To her, the pursuit of some ideal nationalist state is a farce and distraction of workers everywhere, while the capitalist empires benefit from their wasted efforts.

Lenin, writing a direct rejoinder in 1916 to Luxemburg, defended self-determination, which had become increasingly mainstream around World War I. He rejects Luxemburg’s claim that seeking statehood comes from moral rather than material motives, as separation from foreign control is required for the realization of conditions favorable to capitalism: common language and communal bonds lubricate all forms of commerce. They do this not to attain true sovereignty, as Luxembourg argues, which Lenin agrees is impossible; true economic independence is unobtainable in the capitalist world system. Nevertheless, some basic degree of autonomy is a prerequisite for any sort of fundamental economic development. Lenin argues against bourgeois arguments for national exclusiveness, advocating “the unity of the proletarian struggle” and the “international association” of all proletarian organizations, but remains firm in arguing that all states should enjoy an equality of rights, including the right of secession.

In a way, Lenin highlights the difference between hegemonic nationalism – embodied by 154px-bundesarchiv_bild_183-71043-00032c_wladimir_iljitsch_leninthe Great Russian nationalism of his time, which the House of Romanov had used for generations to justify its Imperial regime – and the emancipatory nationalism of dominated nations, be they the repressed states of the old Russian Empire or later colonial liberation movements. Lenin was acutely aware of the nationalist movements that had emerged in the declining Russian Empire as well as the draconian “Russification” policies pursued by the Romanovs to preserve their crumbling hold over the nations in the Baltics, the Caucasus, and elsewhere. Unlike Polish nationalism, which sought to overturn the status quo, Russian patriotism threatened change and revolution, and thus Lenin and the other Bolsheviks were hostile to it after taking state power in 1917. In the 1920s, the Soviet Union followed a policy of korenization or “nativization,” using traditional indigenous symbols and alphabets and promoting local cadres within governments and the Communist Party. In the 1940s, Nazi Germany’s invasion of the Soviet Union led to nationalism becoming resurgent, as the state extolled its soldiers to defend the “Motherland.” While this is often portrayed as a unilateral decision by Stalin, in truth it reflected conditions beyond his control: Hitler had framed the German invasion as a showdown between Western Europe and the Slavs, while the liberals of Europe had insured Soviet internationalism had bred no other socialist states in the image of the Soviet Union, save Mongolia. The Spanish Civil War in the 1930s showed that capitalist powers reacted better to nationalism than internationalism.

Lenin believed strongly in national self-determination, and in many ways the Russian Communist Party he established in 1918 was the first national communist party. This was reinforced after Josef Stalin adopted the “socialism in one country” policy. Yet this was not a policy of isolationism. The Soviet Union engaged in interventions suiting its own interests (such as in 1956 in Hungary and in 1968 in Czechoslovakia), but it also supported colonial liberation movements in Africa, especially in southern Sub-Saharan Africa and its long-standing white-ruled governments in Rhodesia (now Zimbabwe) and South Africa. In Latin America, Moscow aligned with the Castro regime, and in the 1970s, both Soviet and Cuban support was critical to the victory of the People’s Movement for the Liberation of Angola. Today, as the U.S. and its allies rush to place any number of new sanctions on nations deemed “rogue states,” there was much resistance even into the 1980s by that same West to sanction Rhodesia and South Africa. Virginia Senator Harry Byrd, a staunch conservative, introduced an amendment in 1971 that permitted the U.S. government to circumvent its own embargo of Rhodesia; trade necessary to defeat communism was more important than defeating racist regimes. Even the People’s Republic of China, before business interests replaced its ideological drive, financed African wars of national liberation. Robert Mugabe and his ZANU party, it is now forgotten, once claimed Beijing as benefactors and followed Maoist dogma.

Marxist-Leninists are entirely justified in supporting the Catalonian and Kurdish pursuits of self-determination, because it is a matter of materialist reality. These nations do not advance nationalism as a panacea, but as a necessary condition for pursuing a sort of national sublimation. In the words of the Indian communist M.N. Roy: “We want freedom, not to save the world, but to save ourselves.” Nationalism is not held up as an end, but a means to an end. States that act according to socialist principles will transcend nationalism, as the Soviet Union and early PRC did. It remains to be seen whether socialist governments would or will emerge in independent Catalonia or Kurdistan, but that is of course a question for the peoples of those nations.

Oppression shackles the aggressor as well as the victim. As Lenin said, “Can a nation be kur2017rrrfree if it oppresses other nations? It cannot.” The U.S., along with its allies, refer to the Catalonian and Kurdish independence movements as “internal matters.” Just as in the 1970s and 1980s, when anti-communism trumped anti-racism, partnerships in Europe and the Middle East surpass a right to self-determination. The Catalonians are no stranger to this; Francoist Spain, which actively repressed Catalonian identity, received support precisely for its anti-communist credentials. The Kurds, meanwhile, need only look to occupied Palestine for any guidance on the limits of Western moral authority.

The violence on display in Spain shows the high cost if states seek to squash popular movements; unfortunately, the tacit approval granted by the Western community that more concrete consequences do not accompany such abstract loss of legitimacy. It behooves followers of Marx and Lenin to denounce such tyranny and our own governments’ passive acceptance of it. Only after those nations are free can we amplify and ally with the movements within them promoting class struggle.

Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

Dutch Election 2017: Soft Drugs and Racism

Today is the beginning of campaigning for the Dutch general election being held on 15 hhcktrnMarch 2017 to elect all 150 members of the House of Representatives. Yes, the country famous for boring windmills, some great painters, and liberal drug laws is doing some politics. It’s likely that the election outcome will be incredibly terrifying at worst or just depressing at best.

That is largely because of the immense popularity of anti-Muslim nationalist Geert “I don’t hate Muslims, I hate Islam” Wilders, whose resonating message of immigrant hysteria has hit home with social conservatives and their racial pathologies. Naturally, mainstream politicians have embraced a more moderate version of Wilders’ message, choosing to condemn vague outside forces rather than Islam or refugees directly. Hence, you have Mark Rutte, the incumbent Prime Minister of the Netherlands, the beacon of tolerance to the world, telling immigrants to “act normal or leave.”

Only Wilders has come out in favor of a referendum on EU membership, so it’s unlikely that there will be a “Nexit” in the near future. However, the last general election in 2012 centered around the austerity measures introduced by the government, and the provision of state benefits (or lack thereof) remains a huge electoral issue. It is possible (not probable) that a EU referendum could be used to placate PVV voters who will be angry that PVV will have the most seats but no place in government; such a vote would probably fail in the Netherlands but could further the anti-EU momentum bolstered by Brexit.

The good news is that, even if Wilders’ party wins a majority in the election, it’s unlikely it would be able to form a government without entering into a multi-party coalition, which the other major parties would be loath to join, especially with Wilders setting the agenda. The bad news is that a lot of voters will be dissatisfied voting for his anti-immigration rhetoric and not getting anti-immigration legislation and policies. Whatever emerges as the new government will therefore probably adopt the PVV platform, even to a limited extent. So Wilders may get his cake and also maintain his status as an “outsider” that has been such a boon to his populist image.

Here’s EUObserver to explain the Dutch election process:

One important feature of the Dutch electoral system of proportional representation, where receiving 0.7 percent of the vote can be enough to enter the Lower House, is the multitude of parties.

On 15 March, 28 different political parties will be running.

Since the end of World War II, seats have been divided among at least seven parties, with 11 parties winning seats in the previous election, in 2012.

However, in the past four years, eight MPs have left to form six new factions, many of whom are now also running in the hope of getting elected on their own strength.

It is no surprise that with so many parties, Dutch voters seek any help they can get to make up their mind.

Online tools that compare political positions of the parties are popular: in 2012, 4.85 million people used Stemwijzer, the most well-known website offering such a service. The Netherlands has a population of 17 million, with 12.9 million eligible to vote.

The multitude of parties, and the fact that many do not differ much in size, also offers some organisational problems, for instance: who do you invite for election debates?

TV broadcaster RTL had wanted to organise a debate with the leaders of the four largest political parties according to an average of six polls.

But on Sunday, it decided to invite five: the numbers three and four were so closely trailed by the number five, that RTL thought it would be unfair to exclude the latter.

The two frontrunners, anti-EU MP Geert Wilders and then centre-right prime minister Mark Rutte decided to cancel.

They said a debate with five leaders was against the original agreement, but other motives may also have played a role. Political commentators have suggested that Wilders and Rutte, who in the current polls are competing for the top spot, would not want to give other politicians the platform to attack them.

The affair initially led RTL to cancel the debate altogether, but then it decided to go ahead without them.

Another important feature is that the Netherlands is a country of coalitions.

There has never been a party that received an absolute majority of votes, so Wilders, who wants to become prime minister, would need coalition partners.

All traditional parties, including Rutte’s, have said they would not enter in a coalition government with Wilders.

That does not mean it that it will not happen. In 2012, Rutte and his centre-left opponent Diederik Samsom had framed the election campaign as if it was a two-way choice between them as prime minister.

This has led to voters casting strategic votes according to which of them they would want to have as prime minister.

According to a inquiry by the Volkskrant newspaper, even traditionally left-wing voters are now considering to vote for Rutte to prevent a Wilders becoming PM.

If the two draw away many votes from other parties, they could become so large that working together becomes inevitable – a repeat of the 2012 scenario.

While the largest party has traditionally been given the time to form a majority government, it is also not unprecedented that the party that comes out the winner ends up being left out in the cold.

In 1977, the centre-left Labour party came out of the elections triumphant, but the numbers two and three formed a coalition.

Of course, those were days in which two parties would have enough seats to form a majority.

If the current polls are anything to go by, it may take four or more parties to achieve a coalition. It also means that smaller parties may play the role of kingmakers.

Who are parties and their leaders? You will never find a more wretched hive of scum and villainy. I have included the predicted number of seats each party is likely to win, according to a 14 February 2017 De Stemming poll:

Party for Freedom (PVV)
Leader: Geert Wilders
Expected Seats: 26

The PVV is a far-right, anti-immigration party led by poorly-drawn fascist Geert Wilders, who has promised to ban Islam from the Netherlands, including mosques and the Koran. wildersWilders, a life support system for a pompadour, has compared the Koran to Mein Kampf and referred to the Islamic prophet, Muhammad, as a “barbarian, a mass murderer, and a pedophile.” In December, Wilders was convicted of inciting discrimination against Moroccans for leading a chant of “Fewer! Fewer! Fewer!” at an election rally in 2014. The PVV is hostile to the European Union, promoting withdrawal from the EU and the restoration of the guilder as Dutch currency. It also wants to limit welfare benefits to people proficient in the Dutch language and who have lived in the Netherlands for a decade.

People’s Party for Freedom and Democracy (VVD)
Leader: Mark Rutte
Expected Seats: 23

The VVD is a center-right pro-business party led by the current Prime Minister, Mark Rutte. They entered into a coalition with the Labour Party (see below) in the 1990s and oversaw the institution of your typical neoliberal policy prescriptions: privatizing state-owned assets, deregulating industries, slashing social services, etc. The 2008 markruttefinancial crisis and subsequent Eurozone crisis only increased their fiscal conservatism – as well as economic unease for the poor and vulnerable groups who lost out under unfettered capitalism. But FREE MARKETS BABY!!! Rutte is so boring he’s the embodiment of the color beige, although he has been known to have a glass of wine now and again. He admitted that his mother still does his laundry for him.

Christian Democratic Appeal (CDA)
Leader: Sybrand van Haersma Buma
Expected Seats: 18

The CDA is a centrist party that was long a major player in Dutch politics until its near collapse in 2010. This breakdown in occurred as there has been increasingly less 1003_bumaideological division between the major center-right and center-left parties. It also suffered because its leadership entered into an alliance with the more conservative VVD when most of its membership tend to be left-leaning on bourgeois issues like education and the environment. The party would generally like to see more restrictions placed on prostitution and soft drugs and tends to be pro-EU integration and welcoming toward immigrants. Their leader, Sybrand Buma, is descended from Frisian aristocracy and tends to look like he just smelled a big fart.

Democrats 66 (D66)
Leader: Alexander Pechtold
Expected Seats: 16

“I’d say I’m fiscally conservative but socially very liberal. The problems are bad but their causes…their causes are very good.” The D66 emerged in 1966 as part of an intellectual alexander-pechtold-sept2010movement to make Dutch politics more democratic, and even today they ostensibly favor creating a unicameral legislature and directly electing the Prime Minister. Generally, however, the party has become a haven for well-to-do, highly educated professional people who are socially liberal on the issues that affect them: education, the environment, research and technology, and so on. They could emerge as important coalition partners along with the CDA in the upcoming election. Their leader is Alexander Pechtold, a master of the PR dark arts who has tried to ape Wilders’ populist tactics. Wilders recently tweeted a doctored photo of Pechtold at a Muslim rally. Of course, no self-respecting D66 member would be seen in the streets cavorting with plebeians.

GroenLinks
Leader: Jesse Klaver
Expected Seats: 15

GroenLinks is the major green politics party, an odd amalgam of environmentalists, Christian socialists and communists led by a leader who is a mix of Justin Trudeau, jesseklaver-2Caroline Lucas and Bernie Sanders/Jill Stein. Obviously, ecology and animal rights are their unifying principles, but somewhat more vague what they mean by “shared prosperity” and “taking care of each other.” They are led by boy king Jesse Klaver, who wants to be Barack Obama so bad that he plagiarized him. The party has clearly invested a lot into creating a personality cult around Klaver and the result is that people either love him as a sincere idealist or hate him as a vacuous pop star.

Socialist Party (SP)
Leader: Emile Roemer
Expected Seats: 13

The anti-austerity, far-left Socialist Party has long sought to capitalize on the decline of the Labour Party, but so far has failed to make the breakthrough. This can be attributed to its start as an activist, grassroots party established in Marxism that has significantly roemermoderated and even flirted with more moderate social democratic politics at the local and regional levels, alienating its rank-and-file membership. Unfortunately, it is unlikely to be taken seriously as a governing partner by the more neoliberal parties if it considered too extreme. Its leader, Emile Roemer, is warm, cuddly and nicknamed “Fozzie Bear” – also because he is a bad joke.

Labour Party (PvdA)
Leader: Lodewijk Asscher
Expected Seats: 12

Originally the party of the Dutch labor movement and the trade unions, the Labour Party has, like so many of its contemporaries across Europe, become an ardent proponent of deconstructing the old social democratic consensus. From the 1990s to the present, the asscherparty has entered into coalitions with more right-wing parties, further diluting whatever claim to left-wing principles it may have once had. Its base is working class, skeptical of globalization and immigration, while its leadership is a haughty cosmopolitan technical elite. Once the premier center-left party, it is now headed to political extinction. Its latest in a long line of unappealing leaders is Lodewijk Asscher, the minister for social affairs and employment as well as deputy prime minister, meaning he is leading the party in opposition to the neoliberal reforms he himself designed and implemented. Irony!

50PLUS (50+)
Leader: Henk Krol
Expected Seats: 10

Not a mature porn Web site. All those old, angry retirees who want you to get off their henk-krollawn got together and formed a political party. They are opposed to austerity, but only so far as it affects them: they really want the retirement age moved back to 65. “Imagine if your roommate made you watch a movie and left ten minutes into it. Dick move, right? My point is old people shouldn’t get to vote.” Their leader is sleazy journalist and publisher Henk Krol, who resigned from the House in 2013 when it came out that Krol withheld pension money from his employees at a gay lifestyle magazine.

Christian Union (CU)
Leader: Gert-Jan Segers
Expected Seats: 6

The CU describes itself as a “social Christian” party, meaning they hate abortions but like the welfare state. They believe in the nice, merciful God from the Bible who died for your gert-jan-segerssins and loves you, but doesn’t want you to have control over your own body or have any fun whatsoever. They tend to be somewhat skeptical of integration with the European Union but are not generally hostile to immigrants. Their leader, Gert-Jan Segers, is a pious egg.

Party for the Animals (PvdD)
Leader: Marianne Thieme
Expected Seats: 6

A single-issue animal rights party, the Party for the Animals claims not to be a single issue party, even though they are. They have no illusions of entering into government but seek to influence legislation by holding seats in the House. Their leader is Seventh-day 800full-marianne-thiemeAdventist vegetarian Marianne Thieme, who ends all her speeches by saying, “Voorts zijn wij van mening dat er een einde moet komen aan de bio-industrie” (“Furthermore we are of the opinion that factory farming has to be ended”) in imitation of Cato the Elder concluding all his speeches by calling for the destruction of Rome’s rival Carthage. They have gained some respect because they stick to their positions on the issues they care about rather than trying to change for electoral success.

Reformed Political Party (SGP)
Leader: Kees van der Staaij
Expected Seats: 4

Unlike the CU, the SGP believes that God is angry because not everyone is a Calvinist. They believe in a government totally based on the Bible and eschew participation in cabinet. kees-van-der-staaijThey are not only strongly opposed to abortion but to feminism and universal suffrage in general, and only put forward male candidates. They are not so pro-life that they oppose the death penalty, but since most people in the Netherlands do, the SGP advocates that “people suspected of serious crimes, such as terrorism, should be extradited to countries where the death penalty exists.” Party leader and constitutional law expert Kees van der Staaij is probably not very fun at parties.

DENK (THINK)
Leaders: Selçuk Öztürk and Tunahan Kuzu
Expected Seats: 1

DENK was formed by two former Labour MPs, Tunahan Kuzu and Selçuk Öztürk, after they were expelled for criticizing Lodewijk Asscher, the minister for social affairs and fellow kuzuozturkLabour MP (now the Labour leader). Asscher announced that the government would be monitoring a number of Turkish groups in the Netherlands for “strengthening of the Turkish-Islamic identity” which could lead to a “departure from Dutch customs, norms and values.” Kuzu and Öztürk accused Asscher of promoting exclusion rather than inclusion since the groups were not doing anything illegal. DENK is basically a two-man band promoting basic center-left policies but with an emphasis on opposing racism and appealing to naturalized immigrants who feel threatened by the xenophobia in Dutch politics. Kuzu made international news in September 2016 when he refused to shake the hand of Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu in a display of opposition to “the abuse of Palestinian civilians living under Israeli military rule.”

Useful links:

http://www.volkskrant.nl/politiek/ — Politics section of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (in Dutch)
https://www.trouw.nl/democratie — Politics section of the Dutch newspaper Trouw (in Dutch)
http://nltimes.nl/categories/politics — English-language Dutch politics news site
http://www.dutchnews.nl/category/politics/ — Another English-language Dutch news resource
https://medium.com/@endeeh — A Medium writer writing about the Dutch election, whose best material I have shamelessly stolen

The Liberal Cult of Reason

On January 21st, 2017, the day after the inauguration of Donald Trump as President of the 320px-contemplating_the_headlines_at_the_newseum_283245120718529United States, over a million people took to the streets in women’s marches across the country. It was a remarkable demonstration of opposition to the new president and his right-wing agenda. The question remains, however, whether the emotion and energy that led to such widespread protests will sustain themselves, or if the marches were just fleeting acts of catharsis, a single day of activism to alleviate the severe distaste many American progressives felt following the swearing-in of a man whom they despise.

The realistic (if depressing) answer is that the latter is more likely. Like the Occupy Wall Street rallies and the Black Lives Matter campaign, the women’s marches signify a popular antagonism toward the status quo, but offer no clear road to major reforms. It is obvious to any observer that there is a national current of anger and anxiety, a reflection of global unrest aimed at elites over unaddressed grievances. The problem, however, especially among U.S. progressives, is how to create and sustain a unified social movement capable of affecting meaningful change. Sadly, one of the reasons the women’s marches were so successful is because they became empty vessels in which everyone could champion their favorite issue. Hillary Clinton Democrats, convinced Russia rigged the election against their candidate, marched alongside Bernie Sanders supporters arguing that Trump won because of his economic populism. Also present were left-wing radicals – socialists, communists, anarchists – who saw the election of Trump as a symptom rather than the disease. The “America is already great” crowd rubbed shoulders with the “America was never great” proponents because the march brought them together in their mutual rejection of Trump. It notably avoided asking the contentious but nonetheless important question: “Where do we go from here?”

320px-trump_protest_283075103129029It should be evident that the U.S. needs a radical break with the past. Unfortunately, for the liberal centrist, radicalism is anathema, regardless of its principles. A supporter of far-left causes is as harmful to the body politic as a fascist. Last year, moderate pundits decried Trump’s surging popularity on the back of his anti-immigrant, Islamophobic rhetoric, equating him with Adolf Hitler. These same pundits then lambasted anti-Trump protesters for disrupting pro-Trump rallies and fighting with Trump supporters. This seeming contradiction reached peak levels on Inauguration Day, when an anti-fascist protester punched prominent white nationalist and leader of the “alt-right,” Richard Spencer. Those same pundits started to debate whether it was acceptable to use violence against someone whose views are essentially synonymous with Nazism. For some political “experts,” the political sphere must preserve civility and decorum in the political sphere, even as advocates of racial hatred gain a worrying amount of mainstream credibility. While perfect parallels between the 1920s and the 2010s cannot be drawn, it is worth remembering that fascism did not flourish in Europe entirely by force, but by becoming normalized as a valid and respectable political force.

For many progressives, that liberals could so ardently defend the rights of fascists given the lessons of the early 20th century is maddening, but it is understandable. Cooperation and consensus lies at the heart of the liberal mindset. Liberalism opposes the reduction of individual liberty for the health of the community; the state only holds the power granted to it by the people, whose natural rights are inviolate. In a political environment of moderation and compromise, citizens employ reason to arrive at utilitarian outcomes, just as merchants negotiate mutually beneficial arrangements. The presence of a regulator interfering with the organic, rational transaction goes against the premium liberalism places on freedom. As such, a racist such as Richard Spencer must have the freedom to espouse his vitriol without the threat of physical harm. In the marketplace of ideas, the liberal argues, racism on its own will gain no currency; to remove it from the shelf sets us down the slippery slope of wanton censorship and eventually repression.

Of course, the marketplace of ideas is no more “free” than the “free market” of 186px-johnlockeeconomics. Liberal idealists, from the Enlightenment to the 20th century, did indeed claim that peace and prosperity was a natural result of human nature and economic interdependence. When World War I broke out, however, it demonstrated the necessity of enforcing peace and prosperity. This is why we now live in an age of international regimes that foster collaboration between states as well as transnational corporations, international non-governmental organizations, and so on. These regimes ostensibly serve to ensure that gains between those actors are evenly shared, but it is now indisputable that those regimes benefit some and exploit others. Inequalities are mounting in terms of power and wealth across the world, reaching unprecedented levels. The Global South has long suffered in a global political economy that extracts more resources than the industrialized world invests into it. What is novel about the current moment is how globalization finds itself under attack in places like Michigan and Yorkshire, in the center of the two most historically prominent Western empires.

We must also see domestic events through the same lens with which we view global ones. In the U.S., there is also a regime that enforces peace and prosperity. This regime is comprised not by the state primarily, but by civil society and the business world. These groups tell the population that capitalism, property rights and liberalized markets will create a wealthier, more technological and more open-minded world. “Regular folks” defer to these experts and accept their arguments as “common sense.” Just as international regimes sanction states that defect from certain norms, so too do domestic regimes punish groups or individuals who stray too far from orthodoxy. There heretics are not censured or thrown in jail, but by liberal standards they suffer a fate worse than death: they are branded as possessing a defect of reason. Accordingly, they are generally excluded from the mass media in favor of analysts and commentators who can regurgitate familiar talking points between commercial breaks. Although “alternative media” has blossomed in the Internet age, the consumers of such media typically already have the evidence such dissidents would have to offer. When Noam Chomsky and Glenn Greenwald appear on Democracy Now!, they are preaching to the choir.

Fact-checking sites have also sprung up on the Internet, but their reporting is often disingenuous. For example, when investigating a claim by Mike Pence that the Qatari government promised $1 million to the Clinton Foundation for a meeting with Bill Clinton, the PolitiFact Web site had no qualms citing leaked emails from Democratic Party officials as evidence that the charge was “mostly true.” When Democrats alleged that the emails contained false information without supporting evidence, however, PolitiFact hedged its 248px-pinnochio_28868670831229bets, not only remaining agnostic on the accusation of forgeries, but even speculating that the Hillary Clinton campaign did indeed possess evidence that emails had been doctored, but was choosing not to release it. Meanwhile, when a chart listing 13 Democratic senators who had voted against lower drug prices by importing drugs from Canada and the money they had received from the pharmaceutical lobby went viral, PolitiFact had no problem rating it deceptive. The site said that the measure the senators voted against would not necessarily have led to lower drug prices. The source for this was not an independent third party, but the communications director for Cory Booker, one of the senators who voted against the amendment. Essentially, of the possible explanations of the votes, PolitiFact went with the one less empirically provable – that is, the public relations spin released by the politicians themselves. This went mostly unnoticed, receiving not nearly as much of the press attention as the Trump administration has in the early days of its coming to grips with the levers of power.

Sites like PolitiFact derive authority not just from their trading in “facts,” but also because they claim absolute neutrality. They occupy a space uninfluenced by normative judgments that would cloud their slavish dedication to the unvarnished truth. This is a space also claimed by most of the press writ large (even the partisan political operations like MSNBC and Fox News), as well as the Beltway “wonks” who claim to be less interested in political theory and more so in the minutia of complex policy details. They gain influence precisely because they situate themselves as above the fray, able to make pronouncements about proposals and behavior because only observe them. They deal not in rhetoric and emotion, but in empirical data and statistical algorithms. Their role in the political process becomes, then, to scrutinize the words and actions of public figures, to catch them in lies and then expose them or to poke holes in their plans. Their cult of reason, the story goes, protects the republic from frauds and charlatans.

Unfortunately, as the rise of Trump proves, they cannot keep us safe from frauds and charlatans. We do not live in an idealized world that operates according to the rules of an Ivy League debate club, where merely pointing out the cognitive bias or logical fallacy beneath a specious argument makes you the “winner.” For example, many Democratic 320px-khizr_and_ghazala_khan_august_2016voters reveled in the speech given by Khizr Khan at the 2016 Democratic Convention because it contradicted the premise that U.S. Muslims are not patriotic. The speech, however, did absolutely nothing to change the minds of prejudiced Americans who supported Trump’s ban on Muslim immigrants. Their prejudice was not based on reason to begin with, just as their homophobia does not truly rest on adherence to religious text. They did not arrive at hate because of any real knowledge, but rather an interpretation of reality inserted into their minds by cultural institutions. No amount of exposure to data will convince them that Muslims or homosexuals are generally regular people who want to live like everybody else. Their fear and anger toward these groups find root not in knowledge but feeling. If the excuses used to justify these intolerances seem like clumsy fig leaves for purely visceral proclivities, it is because they are.

The Trump campaign succeeded because it accepted biases and prejudices without caring for the semblance of facts. As a candidate, he accepted wholesale the long-running but unsubstantiated conservative narrative of foreign hordes and unrestrained crime making the country weak and at risk. He even aligned himself with fringe groups on the far right, from neo-Nazis to conspiracy theorists. He shrugged off gaffe after gaffe, scandal after scandal, refusing to recognize the power of the media and political elites to shame him out of the race. As noted here before, Trump was an idea made manifest. He came to embody every resentment and anxiety held by U.S. conservatives, and his disdain of conforming to establishment rules and expectations became a merit rather than a flaw. The things that the political establishment could offer him – media exposure and wealth – he already claimed as a business mogul and celebrity. Unlike Barack Obama, who built momentum behind his political career with his eloquence, charm and erudition, Trump rode a wave of fame and populist outrage that never quite crashed upon the rocks of decency. Many of us wanted to believe – myself included – that Trump would elect on Election Day. For all his appeal to base hatreds, the worst demons of our nature, even the “deplorable” would think twice before voting for him.

The sad thing is, he could have lost. Yet, as we know, the Clinton campaign eschewed a strong ground game in favor of a computer program. It operated from the presumption that eight years of an Obama administration had produced a country familiar with (perhaps even partial to) enlightened rule by a proficient, rational managerial elite. They seem to have forgotten that Obama rose to stardom around a feeling, not a fact: hope. In the future, however, it cannot be more of the same symbolic messaging or empty rhetoric. If there is to be true opposition to Trump moving forward, it must make real commitments and commit itself to definite political change. Protests alone are not enough.

Don’t Blame Identity Politics for Hillary’s Loss

“It is crucial that we not ignore the self nor the longing people have to transform the self, that we make the conditions for wholeness such that they are mirrored both in our own beings and in social and political reality.” — bell hooks, Sisters of the Yam

In modern politics, they are many phrases that we use that have no genuine meaning. For example, the U.S. upper class is referred to often as “job creators.” This frames the wealthy 240px-no_political_correctness-svg1% as benevolent employers, totally erasing the actual work of their productive employees. Another case is “political correctness,” the policing of discourse by sensitive liberals who treat harmless, everyday language as offensive and immoral. The term thrives in the lexicon of conservatives who frequently deploy it as a defense when accused of racism, sexism, or some other form of prejudice. Lately, many pundits have identified “political correctness” as the reason why Hillary Clinton failed to win the 2016 U.S. presidential election, despite polls and those same pundits predicting that she would defeat the worst presidential candidate in recent history, a racist narcissist.

Adam Johnson has a superlative, comprehensive piece at FAIR that gathers pieces from Vox, The New York Times and The Washington Post that all attribute a fixation on “identity politics” as a critical error of the Clinton campaign. On the November 19th episode of Saturday Night Live, Colin Jost said that Tinder adding 37 different gender identity options to its dating app represented “why Democrats lost the election.” On November 26th, Mother Jones columnist Kevin Drum disparaged the “fad” of signaling progressive bona fides by referring to “every sign of racial animus” as white supremacy. There appears to be a growing media consensus that the victories of Donald Trump and the Republican Party stem from effete, out-of-touch liberals who have prioritized affirming their own social values to the point of self-parody, alienating moderates and forgoing any compromise.

The central problem with this is that most journalists and pundits are confusing the “political correctness” canard with genuine identity politics: the struggle of women, 240px-black_lives_matter_logo-svgpeople of color, the LGBT community, and others against exclusion and belittlement. For decades, vulnerable social groups have sought to obtain a voice after being silenced for time out of mind, fighting against the institutional obstacles (in politics as well as society and the economy) depriving them of equality.  It is a fight that continues to this day, as evidenced by the Black Lives Matter movement against police brutality aimed at African-Americans, by the ongoing battle for transgender rights, and the seemingly never-ending campaign to secure for women equal pay for equal work. It would be (rightfully) outrageous if Colin Jost had implied that embracing feminism had cost Hillary Clinton the election, so he took a page from the “political correctness playbook” and mocked Tinder adding additional genders: an inclusive, innocuous act that only seems absurd to some because the idea of gender being non-binary is still a novel concept to some — as it was once incredulous that women or black people could vote.

There is also a bias among the “liberal intelligentsia” toward always finding the center, the reflexive inclination that “the truth is somewhere in the middle.” Racism and white supremacy exist, say these liberals, but only in rare cases. If African-Americans are much more likely to be incarcerated than whites in their lifetime, it must be because of “a few bad policies” rather than a pervasive institutional bigotry seeking to defend and extend power in the hands of a historically white political class. Similarly, if African-Americans are routinely killed by police officers without any consideration of due process, it must be because of “a few bad apples” instead of a endemic culture of racial profiling and prejudice throughout law enforcement agencies. Through their public platforms, these liberal talking heads set the limits of “acceptable” outrage. Movements that seek “dialogue,” piecemeal reform and symbolic concessions gain the stamp of approval. Those that demand drastic overhauls of the system or that white Americans become more self-aware of their racial privilege and its effects are labeled dangerous, foolish and self-defeating. (Noam Chomsky has covered this topic and the myth of the “liberal media” extensively, including how pundits suppress dissent by deciding what dissent should be.)

There is even the argument that, by giving more consideration to race and its role in politics and society, we are actually promoting white supremacy. In a September 2015 255px-welcome_to_harrison_billboardarticle, Conor Friedersdorf warned that white people encouraged to scrutinize race relations and how discrimination benefits them would come away not as humbled or more enlightened, but that they would embrace and celebrate their “whiteness.” Identity politics, he argued, would actually create more white supremacists. He instead endorses the long-standing, long-ridiculed “colorblind” approach: “I don’t see race.” The tragic irony of this, however, is that “colorblindness” does not do away with differentiation in politics, creating a united front. It serves instead to continue the muting of issues facing people of color, who go on chafing against institutions that are not colorblind, but in most cases were shaped precisely in order to include some and exclude others based on race. It is more important, however, to liberals like Friedersdorf that well-meaning whites not be “stigmatized” when they say or do something racist, but that they be “persuaded” to see the error of their ways. In this we see reflections of the liberal hand-wringing and pearl-clutching over protesters using violence against Trump supporters at Trump rallies. We also see echoes of the cringe-worthy praise heaped on Michelle Obama for hugging George W. Bush, the man responsible for an illegal war that killed thousands, and the fundraising by liberals to rebuild a bombed GOP headquarters in a bastion of racism and transphobia.

Neither identity politics nor its mythical cousin, “political correctness,” caused Trump to win the 2016 presidential election. There was no surge of angry white voters who, after being forced to examine their whiteness, picked up the Turner Diaries and started preparing for a race war. According to the exit polls, he won the white vote by a margin similar to that of Mitt Romney in his unsuccessful 2012 presidential campaign. Secondly, while the media has made much about the so-called “alt-right,” the far-right white nationalists on the fringe of U.S. conservatism, they represent only a small portion of the 60 million U.S. voters who cast their ballots for Trump. They did not guide Trump into the White House; rather, Trump validated their open racism and confrontational manner with his own toxic views and behavior. This is not to deny that racism permeates almost all aspects of U.S. politics (as Drum did). It is erroneous, however, to argue that white supremacy alone cemented Trump’s electoral triumph. Notably, he won with fewer votes than what John McCain and Mitt Romney lost with when they ran against Barack Obama.

Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because what she offered in terms of social issues was a watered-down version of identity politics, a cultural stevenandalangc3phenomenon known as “wokeness.” The term first started to gain major traction in the early days of the Black Lives Matter movement, when activists would encourage others to “stay woke” to the reality of white supremacy, to not fall back into the false consciousness that systemic racism exists only in the past. It quickly became a buzzword, however, and to be “woke” became a fashionable way for white people to indicate they are one of the “good ones.” Social consciousness gave way to self-righteousness and self-admiration societies. Online, white people desperate to prove how “woke” they are would yell at each other about the sufficient checking of privilege, why a popular TV show was “problematic,” and speak effusively in therapeutic terms about their white guilt. Jia Tolentino called this “performative allyship” in an article about Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey wearing a “Stay Woke” shirt even though the social media giant has a huge problem with diversity and inclusion. “Wokeness” turned confronting prejudice — a difficult process centered around introspection — and turned it into a narcissistic peacock-style way of signaling how perceptive and sophisticated a person you are while simultaneously doing nothing to combat the social ills you are clearly conscious of. A prime example would be a “woke” white person witnessing a hate crime on the street, and rather than saying or doing something, going home and writing a blog post about how witnessing racist violence traumatized them as an observer.

White supremacy is not a fad, as Kevin Drum claims, but performative allyship is, and the Hillary Clinton campaign embraced it totally. Rather than offer anything concrete to the Latino-American community, as someone truly concerned with identity politics might have done, she dubbed herself everyone’s “abuela.” Yes, she made criminal justice reform part of her campaign, but she never fully tackled how the legacy of her and her husband’s crime bill and welfare reform in the 1990s impacted to the African-American community. Her reaction to being confronted by protesters about her having called black teenagers “super-predators” and similar comments was not to own her history and speak about it, but to campaign less and less to avoid such interactions. Her praise about Nancy Reagan and her “action” on the AIDS crisis reminded the LGBT community that, far from being an outspoken proponent of marriage equality, she held back support until it became clear that it would become law — thereby making it electorally safe for her. Time and time again during the 2016 campaign, the sincerity of Clinton’s progressive principles were called out, either by protesters or the candidate’s own gaffes, and the response each time was to retreat and wait out the media storm rather than address the issues behind them. Again, no actual confrontation of privilege or prejudice, no genuine introspection.

320px-donald_trump_and_hillary_clinton_during_united_states_presidential_election_2016The Clinton campaign centered itself on a bourgeois feminism that relied heavily on a shallow, hollow feminist discourse that avoided facts and figures and played strictly on emotion. When Bernie Sanders supporters attacked Clinton, many Clinton supporters in the media attacked “Bernie bros,” left-wing misogynists who hated Hillary not for her convictions (or lack thereof) but simply because she was a woman. The “Bernie bro” label even extended to women (including women of color) critical of Clinton. Supporting Bernie Sanders became “problematic.” To be “with her” was to be “stronger together,” a catchy slogan with zero substance behind it, with no real plan to elevate the oppressed. The strategy only had credibility because  Clinton was running against an openly xenophobic and sexist major presidential candidate. Her stance on social issues did not need to be deep because the alternative was a billionaire buffoon who bragged on tape about sexually assaulting women and who promised to build a wall to keep out the “criminals and rapists” coming from Mexico to steal U.S. jobs and corrupt “American culture.”

And yet she still lost.

Hillary Clinton did not lose because of identity politics. She lost because Hillary Clinton depressed her own turnout. Rather than offer anything meaningful to traditional Democratic voters (young people, people of color, the urban poor, etc.) she took their votes for granted and attempted to woo moderate Republicans. The exit polls prove that her campaign botched invigorating groups that turned out for large numbers for Obama. Granted, the polls and Trump’s numerous scandals no doubt lured many would-be Clinton voters into complacency. Also, strict voter ID laws passed by Republican state legislatures suppressed Democratic votes. Yet, if these had been the main reasons for Clinton’s defeat, the election would have been much closer than it was. In several key battleground states where there were no harsh voter ID laws on the books, Clinton still under-performed compared to Obama in 2012. Her failure to do so cannot only be attributed to an absence of economic populism in her message. She also failed to inspire social groups whose support she took for granted, who she assumed would gravitate to her clear “wokeness.” When they did not, many Clinton supporters leaped at the chance to blame third party voters, despite there being no assurance those voters would have voted for Clinton under different circumstances. Some have even sought to defend Clinton’s “base” from the loss, when critics are clearly attacking Clinton for her inability to inspire and lead.

The clearest evidence that the Clinton campaign did not engage in identity politics was its decision to use “America is already great” as a counter-argument to Trump’s “Make America Great Again.” No one who seriously acknowledges the long U.S. history of marginalizing, repressing and murdering disadvantaged communities would make the assertion that the United States has ever been great; rather, we are a deeply flawed society with imperfect institutions striving to create a more just and equal country for those hitherto underrepresented and disenfranchised. “America is already great” has 320px-trump_sign_-_2016-11-08_283022776178329traditionally been the position of social conservatives in this country, those reactionaries who look back at our past with rose-tinted glasses and visualize the 1950s as a “wholesome” and “honorable” society full of white, God-fearing nuclear families. It was also a time of rampant racism and sexism. For the Clinton campaign to have adopted that stance, to have totally abandoned “hope” and “change” for the sickening, delusional patriotism typically characteristic of the Republican Party, illustrates just how utterly divorced the Clinton campaign was from even the basest elements of identity politics.

The U.S. left needs to remain committed to identity politics, but it needs to be honest and devoted to that commitment. Posturing and platitudes are not enough. We need to admit that there needs to be a social revolution in the United States, no matter how much milquetoast liberals protest otherwise. We do not need to be “tolerant” of hatred and we do not need to “persuade” white supremacists. On the contrary, we need to be more resolved against backwards reactionary politics than ever. If Democrats want a coalition with the same intensity and numbers as 2008, they cannot just pin their hopes on another relatively unknown charismatic politician of color coming along. They need to be willing to endorse policies and programs that acknowledge most people are deeply dissatisfied and alienated with the status quo in this country. They need to pair serious economic policy proposals that help the poor with meaningful social justice agendas that provide more than token representation or snail’s-pace improvements. For that to happen, though, the U.S. left must organize and remain as fired up as it was on November 9th, 2016. Most importantly, though, we have to honest about what went right — and what went wrong.