Saturday, April 05, 2014

Fanning the Flames That Will Warm No One

Heywood J:

I submit that if one were of liberal sentiment and potent influence on these here internets, and one wanted to get the most bang for their ideological buck, as it were, one might choose different targets. Targets that matter, for starters. Where are the concerted hashtag efforts to push congress-critters into making corporations pay taxes; where are the #CancelAdelson or #CancelKoch campaigns, with nice laundry lists of the things those assholes own and sell (aside from, you know, people and influence) so that like-minded folks can, como se dice, boycott those motherfuckers?

No. Let's go after some techie slapdick, let's go after Stephen Colbert, let's go through yet another round of urban wailing over Ralph Nader's capital transgressions in the previous millennium. Good grief, from climate change to income inequality to poaching to overpopulation to the oppression of women and the trafficking of children to the open theft of this country's political system, there are a multitude of issues over which one can get one's panties into a death-dealing wad. Yet these other non-issues are the things they choose to get jiggy with, and over.


An activist is someone who wants to create change. Taking the desire to be an activist seriously, whether in Park or anyone else, means assessing whether they are creating that change. You can call that attitude tone policing, or mansplaining, or whatever else you want. But as long as you deploy that language as a way to protect someone from the truth of her own intentions, you are neither an ally or a friend.

My suspicion is that those who claim to stick up for Park, or other Twitter activists like her, know very well that she has no ability to dismantle the state.  My suspicion is that they know she has done nothing to halt racism. My suspicion is that their forceful rejection of questions about her efficacy is not, ultimately, a defense of her, and certainly not of her project. My suspicion is that they reject those questions because they have already assumed her political irrelevance; my suspicion is that they quietly believe the worst things people say about her. I think the current contradiction in popular attitudes toward political intentions functions, ultimately, as a kind of modesty screen, placed in well-meaning condescension around adult, passionate people, under the false presumption that they must be shielded from the harsh truth of a broken and friendless world.

I started reading Russell Jacoby's The End of Utopia last night. My goodness, what an incisive and well-written book it is. Published in 1999, it hasn't lost any of its relevance that I can see. Here's a bit from the preface:

We are increasingly asked to choose between the status quo or something worse. Other alternatives do not seem to exist. We have entered the era of acquiescence, in which we build our lives, families and careers with little expectation the future will diverge from the present.

To put this another way: A utopian spirit — a sense that the future could transcend the present — has vanished. This last statement risks immediate understanding, since utopia today connotes irrelevancies or bloodletting. Someone who believes in utopias is widely considered out to lunch or out to kill. I am using utopian in its widest, and least threatening meaning: a belief that the future could fundamentally surpass the present. I am referring to the notion that the future texture of life, work and even love might little resemble that now familiar to us. I am alluding to the idea that history contains possibilities of freedom and pleasure hardly tapped.

This belief is stone dead. Few envision the future as anything but a replica of today — sometimes better, but usually worse. Scholarly conclusions about the  fall of Soviet communism ratify gut feelings about the failure of radicalism. A new consensus has emerged: There are no alternatives. This is the wisdom of our times, an age of political exhaustion and retreat.

However long this period may last, I think he's clearly right. The examples of pseudo-radical rhetoric he examines could have been plucked from the twitosphere yesterday. Nothing's changed in a decade and a half, except that we now have a bunch of shiny tech gadgets and platforms which themselves occupy a good portion of our aimless critical analysis. There is an entire chattering class of ostensible leftists, whatever that term even means, whose energies are devoted purely to schmoozing around the scene. Of course everyone knows, even if they won't say outright, that Suey Park is just another useless fucking clown showing off her expensive cultural studies chops for viral reward; of course they're all aware that the trivial meta-dramas they engage in online are of no consequence. I think they feel in their bones what Jacoby illustrates at length: there is no more actual belief in a radical alternative to liberal capitalism, to market democracies. Even when real-world events conspire to practically give them a gift-wrapped opening, they retreat back into their comfortable niche of harmless performance. As Thomas Frank said about OWS: "It would remain captive to what Christopher Lasch criticized—way back in 1973—as the “cult of participation,” in which the experience of protesting is what protesting is all about."