Looking Where The Light Is

The left has focused on the easy fights rather than the necessary ones…

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The glamour of the Oscar red carpet and the grime of a violent street protest like those that greeted Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley last month seem like an incongruous pairing. Yet in the left’s fixation on each I see a strange symmetry.

The ongoing efforts to diversify the Academy Awards, and the limited, temporary success of same, are noble and worthwhile. However little they may have to do with actual quality in movies, the Oscars matter, culturally and economically. The ceremony is watched by millions, and who gets awarded influences who gets to continue making movies and of what stature. In any given human competition, even one as cynical as the fight for status in Hollywood, we should strive to make the playing field more equitable and more diverse. There’s little doubt that celebrity shapes our cultural conceptions of what kind of lives are valued, for good and bad, and so we should want our showcases of celebrity to reflect the full sweep of human difference. Much work remains to be done to make the film industry and its award shows more inclusive, diverse spaces, but when a little progress was made on Oscar night, I was pleased.

Yet I can’t help but observe that this particular pageant now draws a truly inordinate amount of attention in left-wing discursive spaces, on an annual cycle. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy dominates discussion of race and diversity for weeks leading up to every ceremony and for weeks after. Social media buzzes with endless debate about the symbolic meaning of various nominations and wins; the takes industry churns out reams of nearly-identical copy, probing every possible dimension of this story. Meanwhile, the vast and seemingly invulnerable architecture of white supremacy stands untroubled. I don’t expect an awards show to tear down our racist system, nor do I think every victory has to be a major one. But it would seem others disagree. What else would explain the sheer volume of attention this story attracts year after year? With all of the vast number of ways that people of color remain marginalized and oppressed in our country, particularly given the contemporary political situation, the outsized priority that diversifying this tiny awards show has taken on seems misguided. Hollywood is a small industry, and the number of people who could ever plausibly win an Academy Award is a truly limited group.

That stance—that diversifying the Oscars and other high-profile ventures enjoyed by a tiny elite is a worthwhile endeavor, that we should celebrate it and take inspiration from it, but that it is ultimately a minor victory that does not imply a larger ability to address racial inequality—seems sensible, to me, and not worthy of great controversy. And yet when I push back gently against the larger meaning of the ceremony, I receive howls of objection. To question the preeminent role that the Academy Awards take on in our race discourse is to be accused of not caring about diversity at all. Of course we should push for diversity in this context; of course representation matters. But in a world of limited political and attentional resources, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask basic questions about priority.

I can’t help but conclude that the disproportionate attention fixed on the Oscars stems from a natural but potentially destructive impulse: the desire to focus our political gaze on arenas where it seems we might plausibly win. Hollywood is a business and its corporations are as unprincipled as any others, but at least the industry is reliably made up of people with progressive sympathies. The people who make up the Academy may be affluent and disconnected from middle and working class American life, but they are solidly blue. The media that follows the industry is almost universally politically liberal. Prominent people who commit gaffes and say offensive things are regularly called to account in the industry; the institutions of the entertainment business at least pay lip service to fighting racism and sexism. So the attention we pay to those worlds seems somehow proportionate to our odds of achieving progress within them. The problem is that almost nobody lives in those worlds, and the space between them and the day-to-day lives of average people of color is vast. Saying so does not disrespect the achievement of those who have finally begun to be recognized for their excellence by their industry, nor does it imply that representation doesn’t matter. It merely insists on recognizing the numbers we’re talking about here.

What does this have to do with black bloc protests against Milo Yiannopoulos and the punching of Richard Spencer? In these instances, too, I perceive a dogged insistence on fixating on the pleasant-but-minor at the expense of taking in the broad horrors of the larger picture.

The left has always had a certain preoccupation with political violence. Wherever you find contemporary left-wing protests, you will find sentiment about “really doing something,” usually implying some kind of insurrectionary violence. Comparisons to past victories achieved through force, such as in the French or Cuban revolutions, are common. So too are discussions about the moral permissibility of such violence under different political philosophies. Indeed, if you’ve been on the left for as long as I have, you will have found them inescapable, endless dorm room-style conversations about who is a fair target for violence, of which type, under which circumstances. For a long time I have opted out of those conversations, for a simple reason: the question of the morality of left-wing political violence is irrelevant in a world in which the potential efficacy of left-wing political violence is so limited. The state’s monopoly on violent power has grown exponentially since the great armed socialist revolutions, and so has its surveillance capability. Meanwhile the most recent examples of left violence in the United States could hardly be less encouraging, with groups like the Weather Underground having achieved none of their strategic aims despite planting a lot of bombs. 21st century America is not 1950s Cuba or 1910s Russia. There is no potential for armed liberation here, even if we had some sort of an army, which we don’t. I do not have time for moral arguments based on ludicrous hypotheticals.

Incidents like the black bloc protests at Berkeley or the punching of Richard Spencer grant people license to overestimate the current potential of violent resistance. Hey, Spencer got punched; never mind that the Trump administration reinstituted the global gag rule on abortion the next day. Hey, Milo’s talk got canceled; never mind that the relentless effort to deport thousands, a bipartisan effort for which the Obama administration deserves considerable blame, went on without a hitch. Better to make yet another meme out of Spencer getting hit than to attempt to confront the full horror of our current predicament.

I mean, think about it: if I said “the Nazi punch” to fellow travelers on the left, every one of them would know exactly what incident I’m talking about. So what really is the value of this tactic? How important can a tactic be if its application is so rare that a single use of it caught so much attention? If I said “the protest” or “the legislation” or “the strike,” the immediate question would be, what protest, what legislation, what strike? Because those things are routinely-accessed parts of political organizing. Punching Nazis is not, because as execrable as Spencer is, and as much responsibility as we have to protect people of color from his followers, the actual number of Nazis wandering the American streets is very low. The national conference of Spencer’s organization got about 200 attendees in a country of 315 million. Meanwhile mainstream conservatism has an army of millions. But again, perhaps that is the reason for this fixation: Spencer, a cartoon villain, seems defeatable. The relentless and organized conservative movement does not.

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That Yiannopoulos has attracted an enormous amount of attention relative to his actual power has not gone unnoticed. Neither he nor Spencer has as much real-world power as, say, the treasurer of Wichita, Kansas. And there is certainly a danger in contributing to this disproportionate attention here. But it’s worth asking whether that attention is precisely a function of Yiannopoulos’s relative lack of power. We attacked his book contract because the left is well-represented in publishing; we criticized his appearances at college campuses because we have some power in universities. His followers are not the huge numbers of the wealthy and connected that the Republican party enjoys but a limited number of marginal gamers and social outcasts. Yes, of course, he has the potential to do real harm to real people, and we must prevent that from happening. But consider the claim that he was going to out an undocumented student during his visit to campus. Who really threatened that student? Yiannopoulos, or the uniformed authorities who would have actually carried out the actual violent application of state force? (It is entirely unclear to me why Yiannopoulos would not have simply shared that information with ICE after his appearance was shut down anyway. Does Milo not own a cellphone?) Again, the same dynamic: Yiannopoulos’s followers seem punchable, subject to the application of a level of force that we imagine we can bring to bear. ICE doesn’t. The forces of state violence, I assure you, are perfectly capable of rolling right over the most passionate antifas. It turns out you can’t punch an MRAP or a Predator drone.

This, then, is what I think the political investment in the Oscars and the rabid fixation on Nazi punching and the black bloc share: they provide the left with something pleasant to think about. Neither is a vehicle for any kind of larger victory. Neither can be replicated at the kinds of scale that would be necessary to rescue us from our current condition. But both become an object of online obsession thanks to the convenient fact that both seem like battlefields on which we can win.

It’s become a cliché, at this point, but it’s still a powerful image: the man who searches for his keys at night not where he lost them but next to a lamp post, because that’s where he has light to look. That’s what I think about when I see the left fixating on these things, a political movement that is so desperate for good news that it’s willing to lie to itself to find it. The conservative takeover of state, Congressional, and federal government has been a slow-building horror. The compromises and betrayals of the Obama administration have revealed how little soaring rhetoric and liberal promises mean. Years of seeming progress on social issues did not prevent a man who regularly engaged in racist tropes and bragged of molesting women from winning the White House. A left-wing insurgent movement captured widespread dissatisfaction with a rigged economy and a feckless Democratic Party to build an unprecedentedly enthusiastic youth movement, powered by a sophisticated messaging and fundraising apparatus, and pushed for the nomination of a solidly left-wing presidential candidate. That effort failed, as the centrist establishment waged all-out war on the candidate and his followers, a war that continued on after the election with the smear campaign waged against Keith Ellison. The Trump presidency has been as terrible as advertised, as he has put together a brutish kakistocracy filled with a rogue’s gallery of America’s worst people. We are powerless to stop many of his actions. The urge to retreat to fantasy and fixation has never been more understandable, or more dangerous.

The left has almost no political power, but it has cultural power, so it obsesses over cultural spaces. The left controls few institutions, so it obsesses over college campuses where it does enjoy a modicum of control, despite the fact that full-time residential college students are a tiny fraction of the population. The left cannot keep the president from saying patently offensive things about immigrants and Muslims, so it enforces a rigid and unforgiving linguistic code in progressive media. We cannot stop drug companies from gouging destitute people with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, so we scourge Justine Sacco for making jokes about it. Arguments about the morality of no platforming conservative speakers studiously ignore the fact that in most places, it is precisely the conservatives who have the power to dictate who gets to speak and when, not the leftists. The more that genuine power to do good slips from our grasp, the more tightly we clutch to the few tendrils of control we seem to have.

The stock reply, always, is “we can do both” – that there is world enough and time to punch Richard Spencer, crank out a few memes, and then go stuff envelopes for the local tenant’s union. I have no doubt that many of the people who spend a great deal of their attention on issues of dubious connection to the broader effort for social justice go out into the real world and do the work. But I want to trouble this contention that we can do both. I always want to ask not if we can do both but if we are doing both. The reflexive, unthinking insistence on what we hypothetically could be doing in addition to fixating on symbolic victories seems remote from a real-world political condition in which we aren’t actually doing much more than that. To look out at how limited our progress has been should compel us to ask if, given the very real weakness of the left in our present era, we might actually have to make tough choices about where to focus our time and our attention. Maybe we need to divert some of our mental energy from being the class clowns and discourse police back into more tangible forms of political work.

For weeks, the memes and jokes about Spencer getting hit went on. For weeks, Milo dominated left-wing conversation. Meanwhile Donald Trump put people like Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions into positions of considerable real-world power. Both attracted considerable attention, to the credit of the left and our conversation, but in left spaces neither came close to earning the fixation of the two neo-fascist figures who incontrovertibly, indisputably enjoy vastly less power than either DeVos or Sessions. I pointed out, several times, that this all seemed like a poor use of resources. The pushback to my questions was intense and vociferous. I was accused of Nazi sympathies, of caring more about broken windows than undocumented immigrants, of making free speech arguments I had in fact never made. When I would turn the conversation back to the actual practical effect of political violence, when I would ask basic questions about what our larger goals are and how these tactics actually make them easier to meet, I would never encounter serious disagreement about their potential to create change. Everyone, to their credit, seemed aware that we are not punching our way out of our problems. But the obsession continued, as did reflexive, angry lashing out at anyone who asked about whether any of this was useful. The response to questions about the real-world usefulness of Nazi punching was not disagreement on the questions themselves but, more or less, an anguished cry of just let us have this.

I can’t help noticing how the worm has turned. After all, for the entirety of the 2016 presidential primaries and election, the left critiqued the liberal addiction to politics-as-therapy. The Trump-is-Voldemort, Hillary-as-Khaleesi, West Wing fantasy school of liberal political iconography was roundly mocked in the radical left’s online spaces. And not without cause. As we said at the time, the fixation on this symbolic engagement, which depended on a set of social and cultural connections enjoyed by a very few, seemed to run directly counter to the interests of actually winning a campaign, which requires playing to as large of an audience as possible. Many people noted that Hillary’s appearance on the trendy show Broad City simply played to the precise kind of cultured urbanites who would never have voted for her opponent in the first place. Meanwhile all of the “yas kweens” and Game of Thrones mashups served merely to distract from the potent weaknesses of her candidacy.

But what would happen if that same potent microscope was turned on the left, post-election? Could the obsession with Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos survive the same sorts of questions? It seems perfectly plain to me that setting the Spencer punch to the tune of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is precisely as therapeutic as porting Hillary into Dr. Who. Both do far more to identify the people creating these memes with a particular social caste than they do to spread a plausibly constructive political message. Neither is connected to any coherent narrative of political victory. And yet the same people who mocked the Hillary memes now while away long hours delicately adjusting Photoshop layers for yet another meme of that punch. I cannot comprehend of a consistent, internally-coherent philosophy that sees the former as worthless and the latter as worthwhile. Liberals, too, said “just let us have this,” and the answer from the left was a loud “no.” What right does the left now have to demand otherwise for themselves? “Politics is not therapy,” it turns out, is a statement that applies to everyone or no one.

None of this is to reject the importance of satire. None of it is to suggest that we must be joyless. Satire remains an absolutely vital part of a healthy political tendency. The problem develops when the satirical sensibility so fully saturates an ideology that satire essentially never ends. I love to read a good satirical article in magazines like the Baffler or listen to a political comedy podcast like Chapo Trap House. Then the article is over and the podcast ends, and you have to return to the grim reality. But social media and the 24-hour internet cycle means that the satire never has to end, that you can always jack right back in, and there’s always another person to tell you that those conservative rubes are uncool and unfunny, always an escape into “lol nothing matters.” The jokey, superior, blankly sarcastic tone of limitless derision is ubiquitous online, but it is essentially universal in left spaces. Snarky gloating is now almost impossible to avoid in left-wing spaces, the old vision of the dour communist now entirely old fashioned compared to the digitally-enabled class clown. Strange that this attitude has grown at a time of near-total defeat for the left. Strange that so many on the left gloat like the Harlem Globetrotters while they lose like the Washington Generals. Or perhaps not so strange.

Many people who take part in social media politics deny that they think it has any impact, strange as it may seem for those who engage in call outs morning, noon, and night. They insist that they know the online space does not meaningfully impact real-world politics. But strange as it might seem, I think this is wrong. I would, at this point, reject the notion that social media and online political spaces are irrelevant to real-world political engagement. It is true that the online space cannot be a site of activism or organizing, that the levers of power simply do not exist in those forums, that one cannot tweet their way to justice. But I have increasingly come to find that the basic communicative tenor of broad political movements is in fact deeply influenced by how people interact online, the vocabulary and norms and social codes that can appear so inscrutable from the outside. We are social creatures, and every hit of dopamine from the likes and retweets we consciously dismiss as unimportant conditions us, in this massive experiment in behaviorism called the internet. No, social media can’t get a union certified or block legislation, but it can etch ideals about what kind of behaviors are rewarded by the social hierarchy in the minds of the young and the impressionable. That this condition amounts to the worst of both worlds should go without saying.

And so I think that perhaps it is time to say that all of the ironizing and jokes and endless meme-ification are not just politically inert, as nearly everyone acknowledges, but actively malignant. A generation of young leftists is being conditioned to fully separate their emotional and communicative engagement with politics from the actual reality of politics. We are creating a vast social architecture to make losing feel like winning. We need not experience the joys of hard-won progress when the temporary thrills of a sick burn are always moments away. The addiction to jokes is like the addiction to anything else – it starts out as a method to achieve pleasure but gives way to pathology, and though victory remains elusive, you can always get another hit, and then another, and then another…. Meanwhile, the world is what it is.

I am not counseling despair. There are green shoots. The Women’s March protests and many that have followed demonstrate widespread populist unrest with our current political leadership. Groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have seen their ranks swell since the election. Organizations both national (like the ACLU) and local (like many urban tenant unions and immigrant rights groups) have found new public support and interest. Left-wing discontent within the Democratic Party is not going away, and Trump’s presidency is uniquely embattled for one so young. But let’s not fool ourselves about how grim the situation is, and let’s not allow our coping strategies to overwhelm our basic understanding of just how badly we are losing.

Make and enjoy satire when useful; it’s an important tool. Tell jokes when you feel it’s appropriate; I will too. Enjoy the moments of victory along the way, which will be rare and valuable. But tell the truth. Tell the truth about where we actually are, about how bad things have gotten. Be real, with yourself and with others, about just how deep the pit we find ourselves in is, and be prepared to face it without the numbing analgesic of endless jokes and memes. You don’t have to succumb to fatalism. I myself have not; a better world is possible. But to achieve it you must have the courage to live in the mire of our awful, awful reality.