The Iron Cage of Ideology

Let’s encapsulate the problems of the Democratic Party in a single tweet:

The implicit assumptions underlying this position, insofar as it can be called any sort of position at all, are worth examining, and they point directly to a fundamental difference between America’s two major parties. Republicans never behave like this; you will never see them apologizing for their ideological approach. You could waterboard Paul Ryan and he’d never admit that tax cuts could have anything but a salutary effect. Tax cuts, under any circumstances whatsoever, are always good; this is the Republican party line, and damned if they don’t stick to it. By contrast, the signature rhetorical maneuver of the modern-day Democrat is the attempt to position oneself above “ideology.” The Republicans are ideological, goes the thinking, and since we are the opposite of Republicans, we must be non-ideological. What does this non-ideology consist of? Mostly maintenance of the status quo, with occasional tweaks around the edges if it seems like the status quo is threatening to end up somewhere truly catastrophic.

This, then, is the essence of the modern Democratic governance: “technocratic” “competence” in the service of vaguely-defined ends. Any suggestion of systemic change is foreclosed on before a discussion can even get going because it’s ideologically driven Governance denuded of any specific moral content coupled with campaigns devoid of rhetorical appeal; can you think of a better electoral strategy?

It should go without saying, but does not, that this position is, of course, [extremely Zizek voice] PURE EEDEEOLOGY. It just happens to be an ideology that places a kind of procedural neutrality above substantive advances. The important thing is not that the system be made more just, but that the unjust system be administered more competently. The current generation of Democratic politicians has this ideological construct bred in the bone, with the consequence that even when they can desire substantive justice, they are at a loss to draw a connection between ends and means. Sure, it would be nice if we could get everyone health care, say Ossoff and his clones, dime a dozen, but we can’t. Thinking that you can do a thing, viewing politics as a substantive struggle between competing visions, that’s ideology; keeping the rickety ship afloat by patching on the fly only what needs to be patched, well, that’s just “common sense.”

Lionel Trilling once famously described conservatism as a “irritable mental gestures which seek to resemble ideas.” That description still holds, but sadly, today’s liberal imagination is little better. The reflexive position of the Democratic party leadership is that anything which threatens the utter supremacy of the donor class is such a non-starter that it can’t even be vocalized for fear of driving away the moneyed interests that keep the party a going concern (if barely). In the past, this strategy worked pretty well for suppressing dissenting leftist voices, but with the rise of the internet, it doesn’t work anymore. Anyone who is interested in actual ideas can quickly ascertain for themselves that the top of the party pyramid is a barren wasteland devoid of intellectual sustenance. You might venture into the wastes as a practical matter because there’s something there that you need (e.g. registering as a Democrat in order to vote in primaries), but the ideas and the motivation aren’t going to come from the conventional Democratic politicians.

Ossoff lost his special election race, underperforming Clinton in the district by several points. Could a more committed leftist have won? Maybe, maybe not. GA-6 is hardly the ideal testbed for left politics, comprising as it does some of the wealthiest households in the state (although, as even the neoliberal Matt Yglesias observes, there are good reasons to take class warfare to the suburbs). Still, the perennial emptiness of Ossoff-style campaigns has failed to succeed there as well, so about the worst you could say for an openly left-wing campaign is that it wouldn’t do any worse than the current strategy. Even a losing campaign might have positive knock-on effects, by motivating activists and creating potential for future changes. Instead, Democrats spent literally the most money they have ever invested into a Congressional race, staffed it up with a bunch of DNC flacks, and still lost, by more than their presidential candidate in the same district (in which, previously, they ran someone named “Rodney Stooksbury,” who I’m not entirely convinced is a real person, and still got nearly 40% of the vote despite literally not campaigning at all).

Today, Republicans embrace their ideology while Democrats run from any recognizable form thereof. Mainstream liberalism has done such a good job of embedding itself into the background assumptions of its practitioners that they no longer even recognize the ideological underpinnings of their own beliefs. They want to act as if some form of procedural neutrality coupled with technocratic competence is a trans-ideological position, failing to recognize that politics is fundamentally a conflict about power: who will have it and what they will do with it. If you are unable to offer voters a vision that says “I will use the power of the state to make your lives better,” it’s not clear why they should entrust you with that power. Republicans, for all their terrible policies, understand this on a basic, primal level, even as they fuck over their own constituents, hoping that in the ensuing general confusion they will be able to slough off responsibility for doing so. Democrats, apparently, do not.

You can go down tweeting about Donald Trump’s manners, or you can go down swinging. Maybe you go down either way, but when you swing, you have a chance to connect fist with nose, and that’s worth something.

They’re Blinding You With Race Science

Like a kind of acid reflux of the 90s, Charles Murray has returned to public life. Or to be more accurate, his long-time schtick has gained new exposure at least partly due to the protests against his appearance at Middlebury College. This was followed by a bunch of Very Serious People wringing their hands about liberal intolerance on college campuses and a self-satisfied Murray making the media rounds. Including, apparently, on the podcast of Islamophobe and all-around crank Sam Harris.

The interview itself doesn’t have anything to recommend it. Harris is in enthusiastic agreement with Murray about everything and unquestioningly accepts both his premises and conclusions. If you’re interested in the substance of Murray’s claims, you can do a lot worse than read this explainer by Turkheimer, Harden, and Nisbett, all of whom are professional researchers in the field of intelligence. That covers the scientific side of the question pretty thoroughly, but even so, it seems to me that a lot of the people responding to Murray are failing to understand exactly what he’s up to.

I think it should be fairly clear that Murray is not engaged in a standard scientific dialogue. He does not publish peer-reviewed literature, nor does he hold any actual academic position at any reputable institution. He can’t even be properly called a “popularizer” because his audience is not actually the public at large. What Charles Murray does is write policy documents targeted at a particular stratum of our intellectual class: the self-satisfied “wonk” who wants to imagine they are making decisions based on science but is too lazy to actually learn any.

Looking at Murray as a political advocate makes it clear why he’s engaged in the project of spreading garbage race science. It’s not a project that is, or has ever been, about discovering truth; what it has always been about was finding justifications for already-extant racial hierarchies. The upshot of most of Murray’s work is to argue that interventions to correct racial disparities are fundamentally misguided because any environmental intervention would be swamped by the genetic inferiority of black people. This provides a very convenient reason to achieve many of the desiderata of the conservative movement, chief among them the defunding public institutions and the reinforcement of the American system of racial stratification. If state interventions are shown to be a priori useless, then we can immediately dispense with any corrective measures that might cost money and inconvenience America’s white elite, such as school integration or anti-discrimination measures.

This is actually the game that Murray is playing, but the rules of American political discourse, even in its present debased state, make it difficult to argue this directly. That is the province of the outright fascists and white supremacists, those gauche elements of the conservative mass who provide the votes necessary for operationalizing this ideological program. In order to sell this to the more “elevated” conservative leadership, for whom displaying naked racial animus still contains a measure of the taboo, it has to be clothed in a scientific veneer, and it is Murray’s job to provide that veneer. Since the conservative establishment is constitutionally and intellectually hostile to the sort of genuine inquiry after truth that characterizes real research, it has to rely on simulacra generated by hacks like Murray. As an added bonus, it allows them to try to defeat science-minded liberals by their own logic: witness repeated conservative imprecations that it’s really liberals who are the ones who refuse to follow science to its logical end (that end being racial segregation and a dismantling of the welfare state).

This conservative argument trades on a fundamental dishonesty, a sleight of hand that transforms relatively anodyne questions such as genetic inheritance into questions of value. This blurring of the fact-value distinction is intended to achieve conservative aims that could not be achieved through the direct articulation of the those ends, for the simple reason that those ends are morally repulsive. So, an alternate path has to be found, and “serious” liberals are hoodwinked into going down that path. Instead of making that mistake, we should resist the collapse of this boundary. No matter what the Ayn Rand acolytes might say, questions of value and equity, justice and fairness, can never be reduced to mere questions of fact, whatever they might be. Genetic inheritance can never account for world in which black communities are consistently dispossessed or discriminated against, their wealth confiscated and their people systematically targeted by a system of mass incarceration. It cannot account for a world in which black children in Flint have to drink lead-tainted water, or a world in which black and Hispanic children in New York City are shunted into segregated schools that are starved of resources. Those things don’t happen because of genes, no matter what those genes are; they happen because we make them happen, because it is advantageous to an elite of white power for those things to happen. They are moral choices that we make as a society, and the job of a Charles Murray is to obscure those choices, to provide spurious rationales for making them so that polite society doesn’t have to look in the face of the horrors that it’s wrought.

In my view, the mistake made by well-intentioned interlocutors like Turkheimer et al. and others is that they either don’t understand or don’t acknowledge this basic ideological function of people like Murray. The debate still revolves around questions of scientific fact, despite the fact that research has long indicated that the simplistic conclusions proffered by Murray are entirely without justification. This is a failure to understand that Murray and his ilk are not engaged in scientific debate at all, but rather in an ideological project. Of course the fake science can and should be called out, but if there’s anything we’ve learned from the global warming debate, it’s that for the hacks the science won’t ever be settled. Murray’s successors will be writing the same books fifty years from now, just as Murray inherited the race science mantle from earlier generations of white supremacists. What needs to be realized is that we’re not going to get very far taking Murray seriously as a scientist; anyone debating him needs to treat him not as a serious interlocutor but as a propagandist. There is no value to be gained from treating any of this trash as intellectually respectable or worth rebutting for the hundredth time.

None of what I’m saying here is new; Stephen Jay Gould made these same points decades ago. But coming to terms with this would require white society to undergo a self-examination that it would rather not. Discussing the barely-hidden ideology of Murray and the attendant remora that have latched on to him in order to undermine the welfare state is the kind of impolite threat to The Discourse that cannot be tolerated. So instead, the boundaries of polite conversation are drawn and Charles Murray admitted therein, because he wears a suit and is employed by a “respectable” organization like Heritage, and we all have to listen to insinuations that black people are subhuman and undeserving of equality. That’s an opinion that The Discourse is perfectly comfortable with.

Update: Apparently Charles Murray is actually employed by AEI. Management regrets the error.

You Don’t Have to Give Bullshit a Platform

After the 2016 election, the New York Times underwent a cynical rebranding. Blithely ignoring its own role in perpetuating decades of anti-Clinton propaganda, up to and including a front page spread featuring five(!) stories on what eventually turned out to be a complete nothingburger in the form of Comey’s letter, the Times decided to brand itself as the #voiceoftheresistance. Subscriptions skyrocketed, presumably driven by gullible liberals who wanted to believe that someone, somewhere might actually pretend to care about the truth.

Naturally, the Times then decided to take all this goodwill, shit on it, set it on fire, and then dump the flaming shit on their readers when they hired Bret Stephens as an opinion columnist. Stephens’ schtick comprises nothing more than the standard conservative tropes about how very intolerant liberals are, how diseased Arab minds are, and how fake global warming is. This last one turned out to be what Stephens would lead with when he wrote his first column (you want to work your way up to the thinly disguised racism), and as you might expect from 750 words hastily typed up on the john, it’s shit. Not even the good shit, but the kind of shit you wouldn’t turn in if you were a college freshman, much less a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist[1].

Here’s Bret:

In the final stretch of last year’s presidential race, Hillary Clinton and her team thought they were, if not 100 percent right, then very close.

This is a classic denialist trick: at one point people were certain about X, but look, X turned out to be false! Thus, other people who are certain about a different thing are also wrong! I am very intelligent!. The poverty of this rationale is so stunningly obvious and indefensible that Stephens then spends two paragraphs detailing the provenance of the above anecdote, like a child padding a book report. Several more paragraphs are devoted to revolutionary ideas like “sometimes models are wrong” and “you should update your models when you get more data.” You can tell this is Pulitzer-level writing because it takes an inordinate amount of time to get to a point we knew was coming all along. Either that, or it’s pornography.

Bret goes on for a bit more, setting up the rhetorical frame on which he intends to hang his “evidence”, misrepresenting along the way both the statements of Andrew Revkin and the IPCC. Ultimately, like every scientifically illiterate swamp-dweller nurtured by the right-wing welfare gravy train, Stephens lays bare the true source of his incomprehension and dishonesty:

Anyone who has read the 2014 report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change knows that, while the modest (0.85 degrees Celsius, or about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit) warming of the earth since 1880 is indisputable, as is the human influence on that warming, much else that passes as accepted fact is really a matter of probabilities. That’s especially true of the sophisticated but fallible models and simulations by which scientists attempt to peer into the climate future.

This is the sort of statement that could only be made by someone with no comprehension of what a climate model is, or what a scientific model more generally is, or how evidence is processed and incorporated into models, or, indeed, any part of the actual process of generating scientific predictions. To castigate a model or a theory for only offering a “probability” is, in the possibly-apocryphal words of Wolfgang Pauli, not even wrong. It’s tantamount to attempting to make a chess move while playing poker. It is a category error of the gravest nature, a product of either a fundamental confusion or a fundamental dishonesty. Or both.

It is in fact the case that our most successful physical theories run on probabilities. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics, two foundational theories that give rise to such miracles as me typing these words and you being able to read them, are fundamentally probabilistic at their core[2]. The more complex global climate models that power projections like those made by the IPCC are built on top of those theories: you start with the basic theory of quantum transitions in molecular systems, work out a theory of radiation transfer in the atmosphere, and build in higher-order effects such as feedbacks[3]. Because your model is going to have some free parameters that aren’t part of the basic theory, you perform measurements to try and come up with plausible values for them. Typically this means coming up with a range for those values, and any given model is going to contains many of these parameters, so you then run your model across an entire range of the multidimensional space spanned by your parameters. And because different models themselves make different assumptions about the relevance of various mechanisms, you end up with entire ensembles of models, run across many sectors of parameter space, which you then average into some overall projection[4].

So the probability that Stephens expends so much rhetorical effort to decry is in fact the primary piece of information yielded by any empirical model. The range of model outcomes represents different assumptions and different trajectories within the parameter space, but they are all based on the same underlying physics. And in the end, it turns out that the models have been quite good at tracking observations.

That models, of any kind, do not generate “certainty” is not actually a knock against them. Metaphysical certainty is not the kind of thing that exists in the real world; there are only better models and worse ones, and the only way to judge them is by measuring them against observed reality. This observation, by the way, is an incredibly difficult thing to perform; vast amounts of technical work goes into things like instrumentation, calibration, and data analysis, all in the service of getting the highest quality data. People devote their entire lives to finding better methods of reconstructing temperature from tree rings or ice cores, or developing better statistical methods for analyzing time-series. Thousands of highly skilled professionals devote an incredible amount of time and effort to solving these problems, and here comes Bret Stephens and shits on their work with his child’s understanding of probability.

Of course, Stephens wouldn’t even have a platform to peddle this garbage if it weren’t for the fact that the New York Times decided to give him one. Many other commenters have pointed out the problems with the Times’ editorial page; I will instead confine myself to the response to this fiasco given by Liz Spayd, the Times’ Public Editor. After Stephens dropped his turd on Times readers, they understandably were less than enthused and let Spayd know it:

Jim Thomas is a gay man living in a red state. He has friends who voted for Donald Trump and he interacts daily with people whose political views he finds questionable. Which is fine, because he believes that hearing perspectives different from your own is essential to healthy public discourse. Only not the views of Bret Stephens, the newly hired conservative columnist on The New York Times’s Op-Ed pages.

Why not Stephens? Thomas sees in him a provocateur who intentionally tried to incite his audience by choosing for his first column a subject of urgent concern to the left. “What troubles me is that he had to have known that writing about climate for his debut column was a meaningful and disturbing choice,” Thomas said. The Missouri resident believes Stephens is trying to create niggling doubts about the dangers of climate change by employing a tactic similar to that of some industries that stand to lose from stiff environmental regulation.

Jim Thomas… is right. He’s entirely correct. He has sussed out the essence of Stephens with an uncanny accuracy. Jim Thomas for public editor of the New York Times.

Thomas is among the thousands of readers who have written in protest since Stephens, a conservative, took a seat among the elite,

If you don’t think the guy who went to boarding school, the University of Chicago, and the London School of Economics and followed that up with stints at various right-wing op-ed shops is elite, you are a sucker. I’m not sure whether Spayd is a sucker, liar, or both, but she definitely has no respect for the intellect of her readers.

and mostly liberal, ranks of Times Opinion writers.

The Times employs walking sexual pathology Ross Douthat and David Brooks, a conservative who unironically taught a class on humility before marrying the woman who was his research assistant on a book about character. I wouldn’t call Thomas Friedman a “liberal” because it’s not even clear whether Friedman is even writing in any known human language. The farthest-left voice allowed at the Times is mainstream liberal Paul Krugman.

His first column last weekend — arguing that climate data creates the misleading impression that we know what global warming’s impact will be — produced a fresh geyser of complaints, either to the public editor, on the letters pages or posted on the column itself. No subject since the election has come close to producing this kind of anger toward The Times. Among the scores who have taken to social media are several of Stephens’s new colleagues in the newsroom, some welcoming him aboard, others not so much. I expressed my own concerns about Stephens after his hiring, but I support the general principle of busting up the mostly liberal echo chamber around here.

This is the point where Spayd really exposes the ideology that drives the Times’ op-ed page. Her argument is based on multiple false premises: first, as shown above, the Times’ op-ed page is hardly some liberal echo chamber, even “mostly”, and Spayd knows this. She’s comfortable lying to her readers about even the most trivial, easily fact-checked things in the service of preserving the fake neutrality that is the Times’ hallmark. But more importantly, she is miscasting the question of factual accuracy as a question of political affiliation.

Now, this is not a claim that the operations of science are somehow apolitical. Science, like any human activity, is subject to the vagaries of human experience and behavior; this is inescapable. Nevertheless, we are not, in fact, locked in some Foucauldian discourse prison where only power dictates what is true. There is an objective physical world out there[5] and objective physical processes that determine what is true and what is not. Quantum mechanics and thermodynamics do not care about your politics, so for Spayd to argue that this is in the service of “breaking up the liberal echo chamber,” is actually to admit that she is fine with having a professional liar and obfuscator on staff on the grounds that his lies and obfuscations are different from the “echo chamber” that is the truth.

Institutions that take truth-seeking seriously as an activity do in fact perform gatekeeping functions to keep out cranks, and appropriately so. Serious AIDS researchers steer clear of Peter Duesberg; serious cosmologists don’t publish “electric universe” theorists in their journals; (most) serious economists don’t entertain gold bugs. The reason for this is that these people are wrong because the empirical evidence does not support their views. Spayd thinks that the basics of climate science are debatable in the way that, say, the proper level of taxation or Constitutional interpretation is debatable, but it isn’t. There are people who are correct, because they’ve worked for decades to come up with physics-based models that reflect reality, and there are people who are wrong, because they are bullshitters. If Spayd was honest with herself and her readers, she would say, “Bret Stephens is a bullshitter and that’s fine; we have him on staff mostly to rile people who know what’s what.” She cannot say this, of course, but it is still true.

Since his column published last weekend, I’ve been sifting through the rubble, poring over complaints and reaching some readers by phone. The goal wasn’t to resolve the finer points of atmospheric physics, but to get an answer to a simple question: Do you actually want a diversity of views on the Opinion pages, and if so, what’s the matter with Bret Stephens?

Again, Spayd pulls a procedural maneuver where the situation calls for a substantive one. I do not want a “diversity of views” on climate science because there is no virtue in this diversity. I do not want it any more than I want a “diversity of views” on the question of whether abortion causes cancer, say, because it does not. This is not a question of diversity, it is a question of who is right or wrong.

This of course is a perfect illustration of the sort of procedural liberalism that is practiced by the Times. If you are an honest person, then you must confront the question of whether the arguments presented to you are actually true, but if you are a dishonest both-sides hack, then the only thing that matters is that there are multiple arguments. The substance of the arguments doesn’t actually matter because truth-seeking is not the function of the op-ed page (though it should be). In general, faced with real, genuine conflicts of truth and value, the standard liberal maneuver is to retreat into proceduralism and hope that the whole thing will work itself out somehow. But procedural norms on their own are useless, except insofar as they encode substantive norms that we think are valuable. Spayd believes that the fake “marketplace of ideas”-style neutrality is the overriding norm, but in fact that norm is only useful because it serves as a kind of first-order organizational principle for debate. Once an idea has been shown to be false, it needs to be kicked out of the marketplace; it no longer merits the real estate taken up by its stall. And Stephens is peddling exactly such false and discredited ideas. That Spayd is comfortable allocating space to this bullshit indicates that she doesn’t actually understand (or doesn’t accept, which is even more troubling) that truth ought to be an actual standard that institutions like the Times should be held to.

It’s worth pausing here to note a very obvious thing: there are absolutely limits to what the Times will tolerate. The Times’ op-ed page unquestionably acts to police the bounds of acceptable discourse. Here’s a small sampling of views you will not find there: anti-interventionism, left-wing economics, crude right-wing racism (scientific racism a la Nicholas Wade is fine though), gold bugs, homeopaths, conspiracy theorists. This of course is not to say that the Times should give a form to all of these people, but if they were really committed to disrupting the “liberal echo chamber,” then these views would do just as well. Why not, as Jesse Myerson said on Twitter, give space to someone who thinks Jews have horns and drink the blood of Christians?

The fact that the Times doesn’t give space to any of the above is prima facie evidence that it is engaged in discourse policing of a particular sort. The kinds of opinions allowed on its op-ed page are carefully curated to range from “median Republican” (which in our present world amounts to “frothing mad lunatic”) to “just a hair’s breadth left of the median Democrat”, so, Paul Krugman. That’s it, that is who is allowed to opine with regularity at the Times while drawing a salary from it. This is a direct outcome of the fetishization of a procedural neutrality and procedural diversity at the expense of substance; in reality, you end up limiting the substance anyway (how could you not?) but you give yourself a kind of cover to pretend you’re not doing it.

This, in my view, is the deepest dishonesty of all. Bret Stephens is a bullshitter, but we know how to deal with bullshitters. What’s much harder to do is to combat a media organ that at once presents itself as a neutral forum for ideas while factually discriminating against all sorts of ideas that it finds unpalatable. By allowing Stephens space in its op-ed page, the Times is trying to say, “look, we’re not just a liberal echo chamber,” but of course exactly this kind of faux-diversity and slavish devotion to both-siderism is emblematic of the hollowed-out post-value elite liberalism in which the Times traffics.

There is no virtue in playing this shell game. If you are legitimately willing to open your forum to all kinds of dissenting voices, do so. I do not believe that every idea is worth discussing or deserves a private forum, and I’m fine with publications that choose to filter their content on a substantive basis. I no more expect to read paeans to the free market in Jacobin than I expect to read paeans to Marx in the National Review. It’s hard to see why the Times’ op-ed should be any different, especially in light of the fact that the Times’ climate desk actually does some excellent reporting on the issue of global warming. But what the Times should not do is to present itself as a neutral arbiter while being very much engaged in a filtering process that keeps voices it deems unacceptable out of the public eye. That is rank dishonesty.

Spayd goes on:

That’s an important question. The Times, both in the newsroom and on the Opinion side, has proclaimed a public commitment to reflecting a broader range of perspectives in its pages. What its mostly liberal or left-leaning base of readers thinks about that strategy obviously matters. They represent the business model, after all, and many are threatening to cancel their subscriptions (although three weeks in, relatively few have).

There it is again, the same dishonesty as before. Substantive disagreements are transformed into a “someone said/someone else said” fake neutrality. Gotta hear both sides!

Most of the people I spoke with said they welcome opinions they don’t share and resent the suggestion that they prefer an ideological safe house. But many are incensed by what they felt was the gall of Stephens to take on climate change as his first column, and then to obliquely suggest that the data underlying climate science may be flawed, just like the data that predicted a Hillary Clinton win in November.

Most of the people Spayd interacts with on daily basis are almost certainly the same sort of milquetoast process liberals like herself, who think that it’s important To Be Scrupulously Fair to cranks and charlatans. It’s telling that apparently even many of those people are incensed at the obvious bullshit being published by the Times; apparently there are lines that even some milquetoast liberals won’t cross.

Rich Posert of Portland, Ore., said he would be happy to see a libertarian on the Op-Ed pages, or someone like Ross Douthat, another Times conservative columnist. But Posert said he doesn’t understand giving a platform to a columnist he sees as intentionally casting doubt on climate science. “It’s just too important,” Posert said. What made matters worse was when he saw the comments of two Times editors dismissing angry readers as people who reject free speech or alternative viewpoints. That’s when he canceled his subscription.

It turns out that if you publish someone who is openly misleading about the state of the science, people will object to this open dishonesty. That anyone could see this as a “free speech” issue just speaks to the utter derangment of senior people at the Times.

Ella Wagner, a graduate student at Loyola University Chicago, said she too favors a mix of opinions, but given the cast of mostly older white men on the Op-Ed pages now, she doesn’t see Stephens as some wild departure. “Instead, they found someone whose point is to destabilize the current science on climate change,” she said. “What really annoyed me was seeing Times ads promising to pursue the ‘truth’ and then you get this alert saying, ‘Read this column that questions the fundamental believability of facts.’”

Ella Wagner, a person who understands the difference between “things that are true” and “things that are not true,” is rightfully annoyed that the Times has chosen to give space to a person who peddles the latter.

Also among the readers was a climate scientist, who in an email went on for many paragraphs challenging Stephens’s “fallacious and misleading argument.” And a priest, who told me that, unlike the others, he took it upon himself to subscribe to The Times, as a gesture of reward for letting all voices speak.

A person who knows what they’re talking about is up in arms about a bullshitter who doesn’t know.

The bottom line: Few readers question the notion of having a conservative on the Op-Ed pages, with some caveats. But they thought it was a pugnacious move on Stephens’s part to choose climate change as his first target, a subject as flammable to many younger readers as the Middle East has long been to older ones.

“It turns out that unlike the straw-objector that I made up, actual people who understand how this game works object not to general conservative views, but to the specific proliferation of lies and obfuscations which the Times has abetted!”

That’s the readers’ side. Up the elevator on the 13th floor was Stephens, who sat beneath empty bookshelves in his new office. He was answering questions from readers for his next column, and was ready to take mine.

No one gives a fuck what “Stephens’ side” is. His “side” is to lie about climate science.

“It’s been an education,” he said of his maiden voyage into Times territory from the more conservative compound of The Wall Street Journal. “Some reader comments have been really smart and engaging,” he said, while many on Twitter, he said, have been less so. One tweet in particular left him explaining to his 11-year-old boy what it meant that someone wanted his dad “Danny Pearl-ed.”

Some people tweeted gross things at Stephens. All objections are therefore null and void. Give this man another Pulitzer!

He says he chose climate not to intentionally incite anyone, but because he was being attacked on that subject before he even arrived. He felt he couldn’t dodge it. What about the assertion that his broader purpose, like that of many industries, is to stoke doubt about global warming and thus reduce the need to act?

He chose to troll the readers of the Times because he knew they could be trolled. He’s in this respect no different than the people who use racial slurs because they know that it annoys decent people.

The first column was meant to recognize our fallibility. When I quoted the old Jew of Galicia, about someone who’s 55 percent right, that meant me. I am far from infallible, and I screw up all the time. I’m not offering my comments as statements of absolute truth. What I’m trying to do is offer statements about issues that matter in hopes that they approximate the truth. Just as I want to persuade readers, I understand that they might end up persuading me.

More dishonesty; if Stephens had been interested in the truth, the truth has been publily available to him for decades. He could have done the reading, he could have reached out to actual climate scientists, he could have educated himself in any number of ways. Instead what he did was to provide a glib and false summary of the state of climate science and then tried to pass off his bullshit as “wisdom.” When challenged on this, he takes refuge in an anecdote; I’m sure we’ll be hearing from Stephens in short order about how climate science is actually anti-Semitic.

The thing is, Stephens didn’t make any of the efforts he should have made because he knows there are no consequences for people like him. Incompetent mainstream pundits never die, they just fail upward into heaven! There’s no incentive for Stephens to be informed or honest because those would both require effort and self-reflection, whereas snarking on his readers is easy. The odds that any argument that a reader could make would “persuade” Stephens are less than epsilon; if he actually wanted to know the truth, it was there fore the knowing all along.

That may be where conciliation ends. From Stephens’s perspective, the gulf between his intentions and reader reaction is partly explained by how liberals tend to approach ideas with which they disagree.

“People who dare to point out that I’m wrong on the merits are actually suppressing my free speech.” –conservatives generally, Stephens particularly

“The dominant mode of liberal disagreement in many cases is to express contempt,” he said. “That’s a real problem, really for liberals.” Especially in the wake of Trump, he said, “The New York Times is a last bastion of objectivity and human civilization to many liberals. My presence here suggests there is a Fifth Column(ist) in the Citadel.”

People who are wrong and who peddle bullshit deserve noting but contempt. Stephens is actually contemptible, a loathsome, snarky little toad whose job is to defend the powerful from his position of privilege.

After a little prodding about whether conservatives share the same attribute, he maintained that they do not, but said that they have their own behavioral issues: They can be overbearing.

Ah, the “I hit you because I love you” defense. Very good, I think there’s a third Pulitzer Prize here.

If that’s how Stephens feels, life on The Times’s Op-Ed pages should stay interesting for a while, though maybe not productive.

Fuck his feelings.

For Stephens to win over new readers he’ll need to make a strategic pivot, from preaching to a choir of Journal conservatives to winning over a Times audience of suspicious liberals. Being steadfastly anti-Trump, as Stephens is, might count for something, but whatever trust was built up among Journal readers may be back on empty here. Showing some patience and respect for the new audience could start filling the tank.

Everything is measured in “winning readers,” not “telling the truth” or “being right.” Of course if you fetishize the market, you’re going to think that “number of readers” corresponds to “value of idea.” That Stephens would cynically exploit this is unsurprising; that the Times accedes implicitly to this framework should tell you everything you need to know about its leadership’s substantive commitments.

Readers, on the other hand, face the serious test of whether they can show tolerance for views they don’t like, even those they fear are dangerous. Stephens questioned the models of climate science, but isn’t it possible to take him at face value — to accept that he thinks global warming is at least partially man-made — and see where he takes his argument over time? He may not change opinions in the end, but at the very least he might concede that his stereotype of the contemptuous liberal is overly broad.

No, they actually do not face any such test. There is not a reasonable debate here; there is one person misrepresenting the state of the science, and a bunch of people pointing out that this is bullshit. It is not “possible to take him at face value,” because his arguments have no face value. They are utterly devoid of content and uninformed by any understanding of the relevant science. “Where he takes his argument” is irrelevant because the argument has moved so far ahead of him that he’s in the position of arguing for phlogiston at the 1911 Solvay Conference and then complaining that no one is taking him seriously. The place where his argument belongs is in the trash bin with Stephens’ entire career.

As for Stephens, I’m taking him at his word, that he has no intention of manufacturing facts and that he will be transparent with his audience about his ideas and intentions. That seems like a good place to start.

Yes, let’s extend good faith to liars and bigots. Because the most important thing is that we hear from another conservative who definitely does not have a platform for his views.

Ultimately, the problem of centrist media as gatekeeper that promotes conservative bullshit in the interests of faux-neutrality is much more serious than the conservative bullshit itself. There’s no obligation to give these charlatans a space to promulgate their falsehoods, but the Times does so anyway because it wants to be considered a “serious” paper. Of course, the people that it’s trying to pander to will never respect it anyway, and the people who would otherwise be its natural allies are going to be turned off. The Times can’t break out of this trap because it’s trying to have it both ways, to be a respectable filter while pretending its serving the cause of intellectual diversity. The way out is of course to decide that you aren’t going to publish things that are categorically false, but unfortunately that is a stronger commitment than the pillars of late liberalism are willing to sustain.

[1]: Not that a Pulitzer Prize, especially for commentary, has much intrinsic value. Any prize that Peggy Noonan can win can’t be worth much.

[2]: Don’t @ me, Bohmians.

[3]: Yes, I am aware that real climate models are substantially more complicated. This is just a general schematic.

[4]: Again, the process of aggregating the results climate models is much more complex than my brief sketch.

[5]: Don’t @ me, anti-realists.

Conway’s Game of Life

Here is one profile of Kellyanne Conway. Here is another. What did these pieces tell us that we didn’t already know? What is their purpose, other than to fill column inches? They recycle the same basic uninteresting facts about Conway and her rise, facts which anyone paying moderate attention to politics is already surely aware of. Nuzzi’s piece is mostly fluff, Ball’s is a little more serious, but they both fail to engage with the true subject at hand on anything more than a superficial level.

The political profile, complete with origin story, is one of the most worn-out cliches in the history of journalism. It exists because we would like to pretend that a present-day personality can be reverse-engineered by examining certain formative events in its subject’s history (“tough childhood,” “absent father,” etc.) This is journalism’s version of the “Great Man (or Woman) Theory of History,” a formalism in which personality is forged entirely in reference to the atomized subject and retains its primacy as the driver of events. Sometimes this works, but for the maneuver to pay off, the subject has to be someone actually interesting, a genuinely complex individual. This, Conway is not; to appropriate a Russian expression I’m fond of, she is as simple as a garden rake†. Since it is impossible to give three dimensions to something that has only two, both profiles founder on the inability of their subject to uphold their own conceit.

The truth about Conway that neither Nuzzi nor Ball explicitly acknowledge (though Ball hints at it obliquely) is that she is a shameless grifter, an unprincipled operator who rose on the strength of her consistent willingness to defend the indefensible. She is about as banal as a political operative could possibly be, utterly devoid of anything resembling ideas and lacking any capacity for meaningful self-reflection (c.f her cynical invocation of feminism when she is criticized, while doing everything to destroy actual feminism). If Donald Trump is the distilled id of conservative politics, representing its substantive essence, Conway, in all her bullshitting vacuity, is the perfect instantiation of its form. Insofar as she has any ideology, it’s the reflexive cruelty of the Republican lizard brain; her chief asset is her willingness to lie baldly and maximally and without any sense of shame about everything and anything.

In a political landscape prepared by Fox News and right-wing talk radio to accept without proof any claims that damn the correct liberal targets, Conway makes perfect sense. Why bother with explanations or arguments when those have never convinced anyone anyway (and which in any case Conway herself is utterly incapable of making even if they were available, which they aren’t)? In another era, she’d be the perfect Politburo member, cheerfully condemning excessive formalism as a counterrevolutionary tendency or singling out people with glasses-marks on their nose for extermination in the prison camps. An utterly conscience-free human being, she’s the consummate avatar of conservative ressentiment.

So, in herself, Conway is an empty signifier. She is as personally uninteresting as anyone could possible be. What she points to instead is the purposeful and thorough stupefaction of our society to the point where the ability to make the basic dinstinction between fact and fiction, truth and lie, has nearly vanished from the public sphere. Conway is the seed that blooms in the ground tilled for decades (mostly by the right, cynically employing the tools of the left) to reject the foundational premise, necessary for any type of progress, that such things as facts even exist.

This is the uncomfortable reality that Nuzzi and Ball would have done better to explore, but it would have required a level of analysis and examination of self-complicity that I’m not sure either New York or The Atlantic could sustain. Maybe if Ball were still writing for the now-defunct Grantland, there would have been a venue for that kind of work, but there doesn’t seem to be anymore. And that’s a shame, because the question of how we got to the point where a human-shaped void like Conway occupies a central position in our political discourse is far more interesting than examining said void for signs of intellectual coherence.

[†]: “простая и незатейливая как грабли” -старая Одесская пословица

Some stuff I’ve been reading

An occasional update of what I’m reading: – Corey Robin on political fearThe purpose of TrumpismTrump and WatergateStructural causes of the racial wealth gapComparison of Trump and HitlerThe Reichstag fireMalfunctinoning SenatePresidential authority over immigrationTrump is a petty loserFuck the #nevertrumpersSome history of the AEATrump and the fascist aesthetic

No One Is Actually That Smart

The first weeks of the Trump administration bring to mind a term inherited from the previous era when a Republican occupied the White House: shock and awe. It has been the modus operandi of Trump, and particularly of his “deputy” Steve Bannon, to maintain a virtually uninterrupted assault on what are generally considered the pillars of the American liberal order. Whether it’s the don’t-call-it-a-ban-on-Muslims ban on Muslims or the refusal to accept decrees from federal courts or the reorganization of the National Security Council or the ranting calls to foreign leaders, the constellation of these actions appears designed primarily to overwhelm and exhaust.

Concomitant with this barrage, we have seen a proliferation of thinkpieces whose intent is to try and decipher what exactly all this means. A prominent example of the genre was a piece by Yonatan Zunger suggesting that Trump’s recent actions represent a “trial balloon for a coup.” Other posts have floated around suggesting that the various executive orders are merely “headfakes” to take our eyes off something more important. I don’t want to get too deep into the analysis, which I don’t think holds up all that well; what I’m more interested is the psychology and rhetoric behind such pieces and the intellectual current they represent.

The problem, ultimately, with all of these articles is not that they attribute excessive malice to Trump et al. but that they engage in torturous reasoning to do so. The chain of logic is strongly reminiscent of the conspiratorial theorizing exhibited by the subjects of Richard Hofstadter’s seminal essay, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”: the enemy is always a twisted genius, constantly outhinking the simple citizen. If the conservative solution to this problem is purity of heart and spirit, the liberal counterpart is the teasing out of every possible thread of causailty until the web of intrigue is unraveled. Conservatives are the daytime soap opera and liberals are the police procedural. This tendency speaks to the state of the liberal intellectual order: deprived of any actual influence over policy, it finds comfort in the “secret knowledge” afforded by deciphering the allegedly-complex puzzles presented by its enemies. As Matt Christman noted on a recent episode of Chapo Trap House, all we had left during the Bush years was our ability to know we were being had, and now even that is in danger of disappearing. So liberal commentators engage in the pursuit of an esoteric knowledge that does not exist and wouldn’t actually illuminate anything even if it did.

Sometimes, of course, there really is a web to be unraveled; actual conspiracies do happen, after all. But typically, the unraveling comes after the fact and is driven by uncovering what actually happened. Real conspiracies are invariably banal and straightforward and the main mystery to be solved consists of finding out what the principals want to conceal. The attempts to forecast Trump’s and Bannon’s actions, on the other hand, are prospective and are predicated on the assumption that the actors involved have a complex, multi-phase plan that they are carrying out.

The evidence for such a plan is virtually nonexistent, and indeed, it would make very little sense for such a plan to exist, or for the people ostensibly carrying it out to believe that it would actually work. The reason is simple: plans are good for situations where your opponents’ moves are strongly constrained and can be reasonably predicted in advance. Politics notably does not fit this schema: even zero-order predictions of how a policy will be received are proven wrong all the time, much less any higher-order effects. The reactions of political opponents also cannot be predicted, nor informational secrecy insured; the ship of state is constantly leaking, and never more so than when the government is as unpopular as Trump’s. Even if some secret plan existed on a whiteboard in a secret office, it would be delusional of its designers to think that it could actually work. Which is not to say that Trump is not delusional, but rather that we should not attribute to delusions the character of actually feasible master plans.

The disadvantage under this administration operates, in this day in which information literally travels at the speed of light, is that by the time anything has been planned it will very likely already have been made public. There is a large and experienced cadre of legal analysts in American society who are more than equipped to properly parse things like executive orders, so that five minutes after something becomes public, we can expect a pretty good analysis of its actual effects. In such an environment, multi-phase long-term plans that rely on successive stages of implementation would be useless: any meaning that can be read into a public document can almost certainly be read out of it, and such things have to be public in order to actually take effect.

All of which is not to be confused with the message being broadcast by some institutionalists that consists more or less of “don’t worry.” Do worry, but worry about the right thing. The people running the Trump administration are not particularly smart, but they do exhibit a certain animal cunning. In this, they are very much like the authoritarian regimes they tend to admire; such regimes have only a few ways of influencing people, typically either by trying to build support through mass media, or by visiting violence on their opponents. The tools at their disposal are actually very crude, which in my view is much more of a reason to be concerned, because history suggests that when the gentler methods of persuasion fail, Trump and Bannon will gladly move on to violence.

Trump is barreling into the teeth of the American institutional order because that is all that he understands. The various cranks and lunatics who work for him are not people who have bothered to spend any time comprehending how anything actually works; they only understand the language of domination. In this they are of course the distilled id of the Republican party, the culmination of a decades-long process of purposeful self-stupefaction in the service of revanchist ethno-nationalism and looter capitalism. Having hollowed out the pillars that hold up the country, they are now running into them head-first, intending to topple them entirely. Were they more subtle, we might have more to be concerned about the continuing erosion of these pillars in more circumspect ways (c.f. John Roberts), but subtelty is not a thing that they are either spiritually or philosophically or constitutionally capable of.

What we should concern ourselves with is not hypothetical twelve-steps-removed manipulations but the outright violence that is being worked first on actual living human beings and second on protective American institutions. Any effective confrontation with Trump has to start from those positions. But we also need to recognize that the danger we are fighting is not remote; it does not exist at multiple stages of remove from our current situation, stages that are decipherable only by some analytical priesthood. On the contrary, the sequence of steps is very clear and publicly visible to anyone who is willing to take a few minutes to gaze into the abyss. Sooner or later, whatever plans exist in Bannon’s fevered imagination will come in contact with reality, at which point the question of the degree to which the American state is willing to do violence to its political opponents1 will become paramount and the protective constraints will either hold or buckle. Which is to say that Trump’s actions are not so much the “trial balloon for a coup,” as they are just the coup itself.


  1. Which is, of course, quite high already, especially for anyone who isn’t white, straight, and male. 

Strangers in Every Land

I started responding to this piece by Emma Green on Facebook and before I knew I had written several hundred words, at which point I decided this would be better as a blog post.

I feel like this article asks the wrong question, and the reason it does so is that in American terms, “whiteness” has become a proxy for “legitimate member of the body politic.” This formulation makes sense in some ways because the cleavage between white and non-white has been the enduring fault line running through American history. But it’s also short-sighted because until very recently (in historical terms) people whose skin color wasn’t really a contestable issue as such (e.g. the Irish) didn’t really “count” as “white”; their integration into the mainstream of American society was accompanied by a sort of retroactive granting of whiteness while European racial divisions remained as fraught as ever.

Jews never properly fit into this dynamic; the author gropes at this problem but fails to apprehend it because, again, the framework she’s working from is the American framework of “whiteness” and “color.” But the knock on Jews was never that they weren’t “white” or even, I think, particularly that they were somehow racially flawed as such; that was Hitler’s particular innovation but again, there’s a lot of recency bias here making us think that it was always this way. But if you take a much broader historical view, one of the things that comes up, for example, is Christians using “Jew” as a broad category for “alien,” even in contexts where there were not even any actual Jews around to reference. The racist pseudo-science of the 19th century allowed for the possibility of grafting these views onto what was then perceived as “biological reality” but I think this was a convenient fusion of disparate streams of thought.

A much better framework for understanding this would be to read something like “Two Hundred Years Together,” Solzhenitsyn’s deeply anti-Semitic and yet also non-fascist history of Russian-Jewish relations. It’s not that Solzhenitsyn wants to send the Jews to the death camps or thinks they’re vermin, it’s that he fundamentally doesn’t believe that they can truly be at home within a Christian society. There’s more than a little parasite/host metaphor going on there, but the crucial point for me is that it operates in the long-standing tradition of viewing “Jewish” as synonymous with “fundamentally Other.” What could be more Other than the Wandering Jew, cursed with immortality for taunting Jesus and unable to find a home in any country of the world? The Jew’s fundamental rootlessness means that he can never truly be a citizen of anywhere, which is why it makes sense that many Jewish socialists and communists were purged by the USSR under the guise of being “rootless cosmopolitans,” who can’t possibly be trusted to be good citizens.

Viewed through this historical and trans-national lens, I think the question becomes not “are Jews white?” but rather “can Jews fundamentally belong to any place at all?” Or, for me as a Jew, the question is “can we ever have something other than provisional acceptance as Jews?” Because as we’re seeing, what can be made white can be made un-white (unmade white?) as long as the conception of the Jew as alien continues to underlie mainstream society’s attitude towards Jews.

What is the social purpose of David Brooks?

David Brooks is trash. This is so obviously the case that I will spend no time whatsoever proving it, except to link to his latest piece which equivocates between social democracy and the “alt-right,” or as we like to call it here in the literate world, fascism.

David Brooks being trash leads to an obvious question: what the fuck is he doing on the New York Times masthead? Who is so deeply invested in having him on board that they are willing to tolerate unceasing ridicule for it? It’s impossible to say for certain, of course, but I have a thesis.

Before I get to it, it’s important to point out that Brooks has virtually no qualifications to comment on anything; he owes his current position to nothing more than a moderate intelligence and a talent for social climbing. A child of two comfortable academics, he attended the University of Chicago where he begged William Buckley for a job via satirical sketch (no, really). He worked the crime beat for a local news service for a bit and then interned for the National Review; he also spent some time at the Hoover Institution. His only real job involved being editor of the book review for the Wall Street Journal, after which he promptly switched to the opinion page, where he pretty much has remained ever since. Brooks’ only qualifications for doing so involve being a “conservative commentator” of impeccable lineage, which is to say that he did time on the wingnut welfare circuit just like all the other washouts and losers who constitute the conservative “intellectual class.”

During his stint at the Times, which is ongoing from 2003, Brooks has repeatedly proven himself to be a howling void of thought, incapable of engaging on a serious and direct level with any idea he doesn’t already hold. His sociology is risible, and his lack of self-awareness is legendary; this is, after all, the man who unironically taught a class at Yale on the subject of humility and assigned them his own columns. His one constant is the rhetorical trick of always taking the most centrist position of milquetoast liberalism and the most insane positions of the right wing, splitting the difference, and then planting himself firmly in the “center” of political discourse that he has just engineered out of nowhere.

Again, what purpose does this serve? Who is actually moved by this? The answer, I think, is twofold: one is that David Brooks has the job that he has not because of any special qualifications (as shown above, he has none) or any critical capacity for insight (ditto) but rather because he knows the right people. Brooks went to the same schools they went to, interned at the “correct” magazines (in the upper echelons of boomer liberalism the National Review is incorrectly considered to have intellectual value), and has held the “correct” positions at more mainstream publications. That he is a waste of space doesn’t matter to anyone; once you ascend sufficiently high in this world, you can never fail out of it. No number of terrible columns or terrible books or terrible classes taught will ever disqualify Brooks from his post. His defenders will always shrug and point to his publication record, as though bylines and one’s name on a book jacket were more important than the actual work. In that sense, Brooks’ social value consists entirely of demonstrating how chummy quasi-nepotism and speaking the language of the elites is more important than one’s actual intellectual contributions.

The second answer is that Brooks remains a kind of lodestar for a certain class of Times reader: the relatively affluent, centrist (maybe even center-left) boomer, who of course does not at all go in for the vulgarity of a Trump, but finds protests by black people over their arbitrary murder at the hands of police just a bit too gauche. Brooks is their safe space, ready at all times to validate their fears of the masses they imagine must be assembled with torches and pitchforks right outside their castle gates. This goes double for Brooks’ liberal readers: they get to paint themselves as “openminded” and “willing to listen to the other side” by reading a man who will gently mock their bourgeois-liberal sensibilities while serving as a stalking-horse for your standard loot-the-country-and-fuck-the-poor Republicanism. Brooks provides the illusion of dissent which merely reinforces the circumscribing of acceptable political opinions into a boundary that just barely includes the center-left but mostly caters to the right. This works out very well for the center-left leadership of the Times, which cements its claims to “legitimacy” by employing obvious cranks like Brooks as a sop to the right while at the same time punching hard to the left to avoid any serious criticism of its own role in our coming nightmare. The twin poles of managerial liberalism and center-right culture-shaming generate between them a kind of affective niche occupied by the Times that it then markets to its readers.

David Brooks is trash, but he wouldn’t have a job if some other people weren’t socially predisposed to hiring him for frivolous reasons. Which is also why he’s going to keep that job until they carry him out of his office (real or metaphorical) feet first, and why we’re going to be reading his therapy notes in the form of thinly veiled columns about his divorce throughout the Trumpocalypse.

Fugue State

So, that really happened.

I had previously been working on a different piece that I had hoped to post this week but the outcome of the election and the realization that we will all soon be living under a one-party state interrupted that particular line of work.

Instead, I suppose the thing to do is to reflect, as intelligently as one can manage under these circumstances, on the path that brought us here. We might ask with Herzen, “Who is to blame?” but the catalogue of failures is almost too large to comprehend. Was there a failure of the media to take seriously the manifest danger of a Trump presidency? What about the strategic incompetence of the Clinton campaign? The FBI, flexing its deep state muscles on the eve of an election in which late deciders broke overwhelmingly for Trump? The Republican party, which for decades has groomed its voters to be receptive to conspiracist ideation and authoritarian leadership? The Democrats, who in doggedly pursuing a neoliberal economic policy had foreclosed on the possibility of a genuine left populism? The voters themselves, some for ignoring or wishing away Trump’s extremism and others for openly abetting and aiding it? Yes, all of these and more besides.

In the wake of this historic event, we are left standing amidst a pile of ruins after a cataclysm, sorting through the wreckage to try and understand where it came from and what drove it. For the more privileged among us, every day feels like an altered reality in which all of the things we thought were true are not just false but fundamentally incomprehensible; the frameworks by which we understand the world seem inapplicable. For anyone belonging to a sexual, religious, or racial minority group, the concerns are much more immediate: waves of violence and harassment have already broken out, as literal fascists come out of the woodwork, emboldened by the triumph of their Fuhrer.

There will surely be recriminations and autopsies aplenty; it is not clear to me that the responsible parties will learn anything from them. On the one hand, as I write this, even arch-establishmentarian Chuck Schumer endorses Keith Ellison (championed by Bernie Sanders) to lead the DNC. On the other hand, there are rumors that Chelsea Clinton, of all people, is being groomed for a run for Congress in suburban New York. This election ought to serve as a wholesale repudiation of Clintonian Third Way-ism, but its grip on the party’s affect, inclination, intellectual underpinnings, and ideology is far from being decisively loosed.

I don’t wish to spend much time rehashing the various arguments here. There will be ample opportunity to do so in the coming weeks. With unified control of the federal government, Republicans will be able to finally implement their fully destructive agenda in a way that we have never seen before. Any advances made in the previous 8 years, if we’re optimistic, and actually the last three decades if we’re realistic (let’s not say what we think if we’re being pessimistic) will be undone decisively. More than that, as it is easier to destroy than to build, the basic institutions that ensure the adequate functioning of governments at the federal, state, and local level will be dismantled. It’s easy enough to point to the obvious horrors of putting a climate denier in charge of the EPA or Ben Carson in charge of Education. Sarah Palin will duly sell off the national parks as head of Interior. But the real damage is going to be done not by top-level department heads, but by the legislative destruction that a Republican legislature sending bills to a Republican president can work. Civil rights, unions, reproductive rights, regulatory frameworks, taxes, environmental protections: all of these things are either going to vanish or be weakened beyond usefulness. Putting them back together is going to be the work of a lifetime. The institutions that even make resistance to this possible will be fatally compromised, and Republicans are going to do their best to dismantle civil society so that we are reduced to a nation of serfs. The new feudalism is here.

We have seen a preview of what this looks like from observing Kansas under Sam Brownback for the last several years. Now we’re going to see what this mode of governance produces when applied to an entire country. Perhaps its effects will be so devastating that the electorate, further demographically altered in another two or four years, will reject it, but pinning our hopes on that would be expecting too much. It’s clear that opposition will have to come from the ground level, and that means it will have to be organized for resistance. That is our collective task for the foreseeable future.

The Power of Mechanical Thinking

Last year, I stumbled across a project by an Italian artist named Gianluca Gimini in which he asked people to draw what they think a bike looks like and then digitally rendered the result. It’s really neat and worth taking a look at; as a cyclist, several things jumped out at me immediately. The first was that most people don’t really seem to have any good conception of what a bike frame looks like, and the second is that they don’t actually know how bikes work. A lot of these drawings have the chain either attached in the entirely wrong place or depicted in a configuration that would almost certainly fail to work correctly.

People of course make this mistake not because they’re stupid but because they are unfamiliar with the details of bicycle mechanics. I suspect most people don’t ever think too much about how bicycles actually move, but hopefully if they do, they quickly realize that in order for the bike to actually move, the rotation of the pedals has to be coupled to the rotation of the wheels via the chain. The chain is really a key component, but many people left it off entirely or misunderstood its purpose.

Which is all to say: thinking mechanically is hard. Even for a simple system like a bike, it’s actually quite difficult, if only because it requires people to traverse a particular chain of potentially unfamiliar thought. It requires one to think carefully about what each component in the system is for: what function it fulfills and how it relates to the other components of the system. Most people are not used to working through a complex sequence of causal mechanisms in this way, but when the mechanisms in question power a bike, you get by more or less on instinct. It’s when the mechanisms become more complicated that the troubles begin.

Ask an ordinary person, even a reasonably educated one, to draw you even an approximate diagrammatic representation of how the federal government (or state, or local, doesn’t matter; I’m rolling with the federal example for now), and probably the modal reaction will be great confusion. Likely most people can figure out that the president is somewhere on top. There will also be a circle that represents the legislature (two circles for the two chambers if the respondent really paid attention in civics class) and those with some degree of political awareness will also include the Supreme Court, although the mechanism of its interaction with the other two branches will evade most. The vast federal bureaucracy that exists under the auspices of the executive branch will not be present; if any executive agency even appears, it won’t have any relation to any other part of the government. I can’t imagine any significant fraction of people would know anything about such minutia as House or Senate committees or the operations of the lower courts. Describing the interactions of these various actors with each other is also likely to be beyond almost all of them.

Again, this is not because people are stupid: it’s because the details of how the government operates are extremely boring and also vastly complicated. This is sometimes lost when one’s social network consists of politically informed people who genuinely find politics interesting. To most people, even people with advanced educations, policy discussions sound like that “wah wah” noise the adults in the Peanuts comics make.

Maybe none of this would matter so much if what was at stake was something as simple as voting. I’m of the opinion that parties are useful as information aggregators that abet the functioning of cognitive heuristics, so it’s not as though ignorance of the mechanics of government would render people unable to make voting decisions. But this ignorance does have serious consequences for political rhetoric and thought. Faced with a problem of overwhelming complexity, people do not take the time to think mechanically through disparate pieces of evidence and arrange them into a coherent whole. Rather, people lean on various cognitive heuristics and biases to arrive, via motivated reasoning, at conclusions in agreement with whatever positions they already hold. This phenomenon presents itself across the political spectrum; perhaps the most recent and salient example on the left was the insistence by many Sanders supporters that his candidacy had the potential to usher in a fundamental political revolution. As someone who supported Sanders and voted for him, and who is generally quite closely aligned with him on most issues, I found these declarations to be downright delusional. They could only have been made by people who had but the vaguest ideas of how an administrative behemoth like the United States federal government actually functioned. What was missing in these declarations was any causal process that would lead to the promised transformation, and the missing spaces were filled in with magical thinking.

If the left was delusional about the promises of a Sanders presidency, then the right is delusional about… everything else. The conspiracist swamp in which the American right baptizes itself daily is home to a menagerie of monsters, from Agenda 21 to the ZOG. Routine operations of government are seen not for what they are (mostly boring administrative paper-pushing with occasional attempts to accomplish something), but rather as sinister operations to undermine the country. The most anodyne processes are endowed with occult implications; that bike lane is just a precursor for the invasion of the UN blue helmets, and don’t let any egghead intellectual tell you different. The left’s fault may be excessive wishful thinking, but the right has entirely abandoned even the pretense of commitment to existence in a shared reality. You might be able to convince someone who holds a different view from you, but you can’t convince someone who denies the fundamental premises of (even approximately) verifiable truth and causal connection between events.

Richard Feynman once characterized science as “a way of trying not to fool yourself,” while acknowledging that “you are the easiest person to fool.” But fooling themselves is what a lot of people do when it comes to politics, over and over again. The mechanisms at play are incredibly complex and tracing their operations requires a great deal of cognitive effort, so by and large we don’t even attempt it. And when it comes to teaching people how to think their way through these sorts of problems, we don’t do that either. Much is made of the importance of “critical thinking” in education, but all too often those words are just that, unmoored from any actual critical approach to problems. We mostly throw a bunch of facts at people without explaining how those facts can be synthesized into a meaningful whole and move on. Of course the end result is, even among highly educated people, an inability to follow a chain of reasoning from end to end or understand how disparate aspects of a complex system connect to each other. And now here we are in the 21st century, with a world’s wealth of information (much of it accurate!) available to us on demand and no handle on how any of it hangs together. We starve in the midst of plenty because we don’t know how to digest the food.