What is a thing, and what is not. II. Bad abstractions

Black people are a thing. Gay people are a thing. Are straight white people a thing, or just the reification of a negative – the set of people who aren’t black or gay, whether or not they have anything else in common? Redheads are a thing. Are non-redheads a thing? Women are certainly a thing – but then, so are men.

It would seem we need to figure out what is and what is not a thing. Perhaps we can at least agree at the outset that a thing which is essentially a non-thing is not ipso facto a thing. Non-redheads, perhaps we can agree, are not a thing. But men are not just non-women, and vice versa. Are white people a thing, or are they just the intersection of the sets non-black, non-Asian, non-Latino, non-indigenous, etc. – a purely algebraic concept? This is actually a question of some importance.

One might as well drop the Socratic pose here, and come clean. I don’t believe “white people” are a thing, and I don’t believe “straight people” are a thing. There are people, of course, who are what is commonly called “white” – i.e., they aren’t categorized as anything else; and there are, of course, people who are “straight” – i.e., they don’t have same-sex sex, or not very often, anyway. But while “black” and “gay” are identities, as that term is commonly used and understood, “white” and “straight” are not. Identity, in the current social sense, is created by a sort of carving-off; it is conferred by distinction and separation, and in great part, as a matter of fact, by injury. These acts of carving-off don’t reflexively confer an identity on the people not carved off, however. They remain on the outside of identity, looking into it. They have no identity. They’re just ordinary Joes and Janes.

What is a thing, and what is not: I. Bad analogies

The immense importance of the black liberation movement gave it, inevitably, a kind of paradigmatic character; it became the theoretical template for all the others. Understandably, no doubt, but certain conceptual confusions have ensued.

Black people in the US were born to black parents, mostly married other black people, and had children who were by definition black. They mostly lived in black neighborhoods, prayed in black churches, worked in occupations that were open to black people, and so on. My own particular strain of Communist sectarianism, when I was a young man, identified the black liberation movement – rightly, I still think – as a national liberation movement; it saw American black people as a people, an ethnos, still in bondage after four hundred years. A people with its own speech, its own music, its own sense of humor, its own stories, its own internal history.

Now this is not the case with women, or with gay people. Though in both these cases, to be sure, there are plenty of inside jokes and zones of mutual understanding that aren’t obvious to the casual non-woman or non-gay observer. In fact, people sometimes speak of “gay culture” or “gay subculture”, and these phrases ring true – though nobody, as far as I know, speaks of “women’s culture” or subculture. So the distinction I’m trying to make here isn’t absolute. Nevertheless, I argue that it’s important.

Women, typically, don’t have all-women parents; there’s usually a dude in the picture. They may have men as siblings, and they are quite often married to men, and live with them on terms of intimacy, occasionally successful and reasonably happy, as human happiness goes. They have some children who will grow up to be women, and others who will grow up to be men. If they go to church, the pew-sitters beside them may be women or men. This is to say that women are not segregated, and don’t constitute an ethnos or a nation.

One does not seek, here, to minimize the relative harms that women (in general) endure, compared to men (in general). One suggests, rather, that a tempting analogy may only be serviceable up to a point. John Lennon famously observed that “woman is the nigger of the world.” It’s a catchy phrase, but not quite accurate.

Much the same can be said for gay people. Their parents, for the most part, were not gay; their siblings often aren’t; their children often aren’t; they often have close friends who aren’t.

There are of course occupations that are thought to be characteristically gay, and neighborhoods ditto, so that’s a bit different from the situation of women; women may be disproportionately represented in women’s occupations, but they don’t generally congregate in women’s neighborhoods. Of course, neither do gay people, necessarily or even generally; but the phrase “gay neighborhood” doesn’t sound preposterous, whereas the phrase “women’s neighborhood” certainly does. There are certainly gay churches, but as far as I know, there are no women’s churches.

In short: these three movements, while they may be able to learn from each other, and more than that, to draw encouragement from each other, are actually quite different, and it’s serious mistake to conceptualize them as three different instances of the same thing. Black nationalism is a political orientation that must be taken seriously, and can make a good case, whether you agree with it or not; but women’s nationalism and gay nationalism are manifestly non-starters (though Proust had some fun with the latter, and neatly skewered Zionism in the process).

The other problem with this master analogy is that it flattens all these struggles out onto the same level of significance, and this, I believe, is also seriously mistaken. With all respect to the women’s liberation movement and the gay liberation movement, neither of them, in the actual concrete American historical context, has anything like the heft of the black liberation movement. Chattel slavery in the US, and its successor institutions, are the rock on which our entire economic and social development was essentially founded, whether directly or at one remove (and never more than one).

At this point it is necessary to bring on stage an important member of our dramatis personae; the arch-villain, in fact. I am going to call him Capital, with a big ‘C’ – not “capitalism”, which sounds like an ideology or perhaps a condition, but not like an actor. Capital, I argue, is very much an actor; an alienated power, a sort of Golem, who has become independent of the human hands that created him, and indeed very largely independent of individual human “capitalists”. The latter may falter or fail, become eccentric or remorseful, give their money to good causes, or exhibit other symptoms of weak-mindedness, irresolution, and irrationality; but Capital, though blind, though insensate and without consciousness, is nevertheless purposeful. Indeed, his deficiencies, as a subject, are his strengths. Capital never falters or fails; he is never distracted; he has no vanity, no self-regard, and therefore doesn’t care what people think of him; he never suffers from feelings or from guilt, never entertains second thoughts; and when one capitalist retires from the management of his affairs, Capital will quickly find a replacement.

People often argue about whether racism is essential to Capital. This is obviously a hypothetical question, since actually existing Capital clearly has found ways to derive considerable benefit from the existence of racial categories, racialist ideology, and discriminatory treatment of various “races”. And in fact during its foundational phase, Capital seems to have invented the concept of “race” in the first place. So what we’re really asking is whether there is some conceivable cousin of our actually now-existing Capital who could exist without racism in this sense.

The only reasonable answer, of course, is “Who knows?” But it does seem pretty clear that actually now-existing Capital is fine with women, for example, entering the labor force – in fact, by increasing supply, it’s driven down the price of labor, relative to its productivity, which surely makes Capital very happy. As everyone knows, few families these days can get by on one wage-earner’s income; the expectation, now, is that Hubbie and Wifey both work at Wal-Mart, or the local slaughterhouse. – If they’re lucky, that is, and keep their noses clean, and pass the drug screen. One imagines Capital rubbing his ghostly hands together and chuckling, well, that worked out just fine, didn’t it?

And of course Capital has never had any problem with gay people, whatever the ambient culture at any given moment may think. Capital – credit where it’s due – is unprejudiced. He doesn’t care about sex, who has it or who doesn’t, or with whom, unless there’s money to be made from it.

But then, too, Capital is always happy to make distinctions, and arbitrage them – to have first- and second-tier labor, and a corresponding price differential. In that sense, Capital likes sex differentiation too, up to a point, or at least finds a way to derive some benefit from it.

It would be interesting and useful to examine in more detail the ways in which Capital seeks out fault lines and makes use of them, and on the other side of the dialectical coin, simultaneously needs to level everyone into an indistinguishable, interchangeable commodity. But for my present purposes it’s sufficient to observe that actually-existing Capital’s cradle was rocked, and his young manhood was fostered, by the enslavement of Africans and their children, and grandchildren, and great-grandchildren. This was the matrix that molded our robust, handsome, modern, progressive, enlightened young Capital, much more significantly than the subaltern status of women or the stigma attached to same-sex sex, onerous as these often were.

Hence, I would argue, the uniqueness and primacy – in the immediate, concrete American context – of the black liberation struggle. This is not to minimize or dismiss the others. But the difference must be recognized.

(To be continued)

What is a thing, and what is not? — An ongoing series. Prolegomena.

When I was a young person – in the 1950s and 1960s – I was, like everybody else who lived in North America at the time, greatly impressed, one way or the other, by what we then called the “civil rights movement”, but which I now prefer to call the black liberation movement. And now, upon long-matured consideration, I think it was arguably the most important thing that happened in the United States in my lifetime, and certainly the best. Looking back today, after yet another low dishonest decade wound to its dismal close, with little obvious prospect of better times to come – looking back from the perspective of a Left mired in deep confusion and sterile conflict, I want to rewind the film, and ask how the hell we got here from there.

The black liberation movement inspired others, or in some cases, re-animated movements which had a prior history.

Middle-class white kids, like me, who quite rightly didn’t want to go get killed in Vietnam, found in the black liberation movement an inspiration for the anti-war movement of the 60s – which did not, regrettably, survive the war that spawned it; there is in effect no anti-war movement in the US today, and the wars roll merrily on, with the dumb, stunned, poleaxed acquiescence, if not enthusiasm, of the American public. Still, it helped, at least, to put an end to at least one unspeakable war, and that was undoubtedly a good thing.

Women began to take the view (again, after a period of some quiescence) that contemporary social conditions called for a reassessment of the relations between the sexes; specifically, it became difficult to justify any distinction between women and men, as regards the jobs they might do or their roles in the household.

People who enjoy same-sex sex began to resist the culture of pathologization and policing that arose over it in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Those of us who didn’t like being policed, or pathologized, or who had any regard for the dignity, autonomy, and privacy of the human subject, had to identify and applaud, regardless of our own sexual predilections. Besides, the Bastille of the gay liberation movement – I’m referring to the Stonewall intifada, of course – was a downright street battle with the cops, a thing which any decent person must regard as constructive and praiseworthy.

These were the foundational developments of the US Left in my lifetime. Some good theory emerged from this heady period of history, and some bad. The latter has rather festered, and calls for disinfection. Meanwhile, the tide of general insurgency which fostered all these movements has ebbed, left them beached on the rocky strand of triumphalist neoliberalism, desiccated and dead, or nearly so – reduced, at best, to a repertoire of spasmodic and perseverative gestures, increasingly desperate and futile.

The reflex of this degeneration within the Left – or at least, what thinks of itself as the Left – is what is generally referred to as “identity politics”. The concept of “identity” in itself calls for some examination. One thing that has become pretty clear about “identity politics”, though, is that it is a concept which can be deployed for extremely reactionary purposes, and often is. For example, identitarian arguments and appeals during the most recent US presidential primaries were almost without exception used against the only candidate who had any claim at all to being a Leftie.

I refer of course to Bernie Sanders. He was never a hero of mine, and his Leftism is a fairly mild thing, but compared to all his fellow-contenders – this is the benighted US context, remember – he looks like Lenin. All his opponents lay well to his right, yet they and their supporters revved up the identity machine against this old white cis-het male Boomer, with considerable success. The result being the emergence of the unspeakable old racist white neoliberal cis-het male Boomer Joe Biden as the nominee.

Something has gone very wrong here. Perhaps we should retrace our steps.

(To be continued)

A little parable

Once upon a time there were three friends. Their names were Charlie and Bob and Alice. They lived more or less contentedly on Earth.

One day they were sitting in the park, discussing Monteverdi or some other absorbing topic, and suddenly a space alien materialized before them and said that they were to be deported to a far-away galaxy.

They had a choice of two planets for their new home, and they had to take a vote among themselves which it was to be.

Planet A had a surface temperature of 1000 degrees Celsius, and was highly radioactive. Planet B was slightly cooler at 800 degrees Celsius, but even more radioactive, and the atmosphere there consisted of vaporized sulfuric acid.

Alice voted for planet A, because she had always hated the cold. Bob voted for planet B because he felt sure that he could live a few milliseconds longer there, so B was the lesser evil, obviously. He delivered this opinion in a rather pompous, surely-you-see manner.

Charlie pondered for a a while, then said, “The hell with it. We’re done for, either way. I refuse to play your sadistic game, you tentacled plug-ugly. Do your worst.”

Instantly they found themselves on the surface of Planet A (the alien had kind of a thing for Alice, and Bob had annoyed him).

In the last millisecond before their brains fried, Bob rounded on Charlie and shouted, “See? This is ALL YOUR FAULT!”

A fish rots from the head


If New York Magazine is to be believed, Hillary is as delusional as her diehard votaries, with their mad flat-earth theories about Russia and so on. Of course, she could be faking it, but somehow I think not. The NY Mag piece linked above has its longueurs, but it’s still fascinating. A few excerpts:

History, says Clinton, “will judge whoever’s in Congress now as to how they respond to what was [a Russian] attack on our country. It wasn’t the kind of horrible, physical attack we saw on 9/11 or Pearl Harbor, but it was an attack by an aggressive adversary who had been probing for many years to figure out how to undermine our democracy, influence our politics, even our elections.”

[C]iting FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver’s research on the impact of Comey’s October 28 letter: “If the election had been on October 27,” she said, “I’d be your president.”

Of course, Hillary isn’t the only one:

Later, [Christiane] Amanpour would tell me how surprised she was by the negative reaction. “The idea that she shouldn’t mention the Comey letter when the entire nation and the most respected statisticians are considering its impact is so strange,” she said. “If she were a man, would she be allowed to mention it? As a woman, I am offended by the double standards applied here. Everyone shrieks that Hillary was a bad candidate, but was Trump a good candidate?”

Well, of course Trump was a bad candidate, you blockhead. Unfortunately for you and people like you, Hillary was obviously a worse one.

Rebecca Traister, author of the NY Mag piece, obligingly supplies the plan B excuse (Russia, of course, being Plan A):

A competent woman losing a job to an incompetent man is not an anomalous Election Day surprise; it is Tuesday in America.

As if elections were about ‘competence’ — a corporate job interview writ large. (Of course such interviews are not about competence either, but don’t tell anybody.)

Hillary again, in the too-familiar didactic tone:

“Because the advocacy media occupies the right, and the center needs to be focused on providing as accurate information as possible.”

Apparently the US political system consists of a ‘right’ and a ‘center’. Calculate the listing moment. Show your work.

Round Up The Usual Suspects Dept.:

“Sixty-six million people voted for me, plus, you know, the crazy third-party people.”

This is an exceptionally bald statement of the usual Democratic Party zombie’s assumption that anybody who votes for a third party is just a renegade Democrat — a murtadd, in fact, an apostate, a traitor, a person who maliciously shirks his plain duty. (I originally typed ‘pain duty’, one of my better parapraxes.) It also, of course, exhibits in a very searching light Hillary’s profound contempt for the electorate, who are crazy when they’re not deplaaarable.

The return of the repression


It’s amazing to me how the Uni’s have gotten themselves so deeply into the business of policing sex — and not only sex, but the comprehensive penumbra of talk about sex and things that have some more or less tenuous connection to sex. Is this phenomenon limited to the USA? Have Uni’s elsewhere made themselves quite so ridiculous?

Some things never seem to go away. To adapt a phrase from the great Viennese doctor, it’s the return of the repressor.

I recall when I was an undergrad there was an elaborate Talmudic corpus of rules about who could be where when: whether a door could be open or shut, and if open, how many inches open; how many feet needed to be on the ground and how firmly. There were rules about skirt lengths and the tightness of trousers.

The late Sixties appeared to have swept all that away, but now it’s all come roaring back in the guise of liberal high-mindedness. Civilization — if you can call it that — still apparently has its discontents.

How we would have laughed, back in the day, at the idea of a guy claiming sexual assault after receiving — or no, having been the victim of — an unsolicited BJ (you should pardon the expression).

So many invariants, under the transient superficies. For example, it now seems clear that the Crimean War never really ended and continues to this day, though Prussia did create a couple of temporary distractions. For the moment, however, Prussia seems to have signed on, so all is well.

Stampede in Gadara


It’s been an amazing experience watching the decompensation, the unravelling, the descent into downright, open, manifest incoherence, of American liberals since the November catastrophe. First there was the nutty Russia thing — or no, I shouldn’t speak of it in the past tense; people are still nattering about it — and now the Comey business. Which is, if anything, even crazier.

One knows people — I mean, knows them personally, in the 3D world — who now advance, and who apparently really believe, arguments to the effect that if Hillary had been elected and fired Comey, this would have been a fine and good thing, but since Trump got elected and fired Comey, this is a really really bad thing. Once one’s laughter subsides — even at the best jokes, one can only laugh so long — one finds, having assumed something like a straight face, and tried to follow the cobwebby argument, that it turns on motive. Hillary’s motives (of course) would have been pure and public-spirited, and Trump’s (of course) are not.

As regards Trump’s motives, one must agree. To the extent that such a primitive organism can be said to have motives at all, Trump’s are surely bad. It’s also impossible for me, personally, to imagine Hillary having anything I would call a good motive either, so that’s pretty much a wash.

But apart from these Jesuitical casuistries about motive, what’s interesting is the unstated presuppositions which come floating palely to the surface, like flounders concussed by an underwater volcano, in these exchanges.

For example: Trump is said to be undermining the FBI. Well, for heaven’s sake, what’s wrong with that? The FBI is surely one of the most detestable, criminal organizations in the long sorry history of secret-policing. If Trump were to fire the whole outfit I might be tempted to vote for him next time around.

But perhaps we’re supposed to worry that Trump will find somebody *worse* than Comey. And so he might. So, in fact, he probably will. As the proverb says, it could always be worse — and usually is. But do we really believe that Hillary would have found somebody better? — Oh, sorry, of course we do. In the wonderful alternative reality of the subjunctive mood, the Democrat would always have done ‘better’, and the Republican ‘worse’. Whatever ‘better’ and ‘worse’ are supposed to mean in this madhouse.

The other trope I keep hearing is that this will diminish Americans’ confidence in their government — or rather, ‘their’ government. Again, what’s not to like about this? I’ve spent my adult life, more or less, trying to undermine Americans’ confidence in their government.

It’s not news that liberals are fundamentally conservative — great believers in existing institutions, which would be fine if only the right people were in charge; very much interested to hear what alternatives one has to suggest, and hair-triggered to reject them out of hand. What is rather new is the desperately chaotic, pillar-to-post, incoherent, improvisatory, self-contradictory and frankly delusional character of liberal thinking in the Age of Trump. It’s as though the man has lobotomized them.

But of course that’s the wrong way to put it. Trump hasn’t really done anything. He’s a curious piece of insignificant and unlovely rubbish, floating about at the whim of wind and current. What has really dismayed all these centrist, conservative liberals is the self-destruction of their cause, in the form of its consummate embodiment, Hillary Clinton. Hillary screwed the pooch, and made it clear that the whole project is a lost cause. It might work in France, for a while yet, to sell oneself as the not-quite-so-bad candidate; but it seems to have stopped working here. (I suppose we’ve had more of it, for a longer time.)

So where does this leave American liberalism? Nowhere. It never had anything to offer except fear of the Other, and that seems to have worn off.

No wonder they’re chasing their tails, and snapping at imaginary flies, and baying at the moon. Othello’s occupation is very much gone. Their pet bogeyman now frightens only themselves.

What if this present were the world’s last night?

Answer: On the whole, it would be a good thing. Oh, the snails and the cockroaches would soldier on, and perhaps their distant descendants would build cathedrals and atom bombs as we have done, and end as we seem likely to end — either with a bang or a slow braising. Having done a lot of harm along the way; whenever we end, and however, it will have been justice delayed. Good riddance to us, and good riddance to those highly-developed hypothetical hexapodes or gastropodes sapientes, should they arise, and come to believe in progress.

How amiable the butcherbird and the tapeworm seem, compared to us.

Of course this is all over-dramatic, self-indulgent, etc. The nukes will probably not fly. We, you who read this, and I who write it, will probably die in our beds, with plenty of morphine in our veins. Other people will be incinerated, gassed, buried under fallen masonry, widowed, orphaned, maimed; and we will pay for it. Pay for it, that is, in the monetary sense, not the moral one.

But you and I will no doubt go our rounds tomorrow more or less as usual.

Tonight I find it very much in my heart to wish this weren’t so. I love my comforts, and I fear pain; but tonight I long for judgement. Somebody please put an end to this relentless, inexorable, monotonically-growing horror.

Rien oubli, rien appris: anticipating the restoration


Assuming that we survive the evil Stephen King clowns of the Trump administration, I assume we can look forward to a Bourbon Restoration of the Democrats next time round. The prospect is distinctly unappealing, though of course one will be glad to have heard the last of Trump.

One does rather wonder whom the dems will anoint as their Louis XVIII. Will Hillary try again, and condescend to visit Michigan this time? Stranger things have happened. (Two words: Richard Nixon.) Or will Bill come back? Chelsea, I suppose, is still too young, and constitutional amendments take a while. Perhaps they’ll pickle Bernie in brine and run him.

But really, who cares? Whoever it is, we know what to expect. Neoliberalism, militarism, Zionism — the usual blue plate special.

What I’m looking ahead to — with a sinking heart — is the effect on my liberal friends. I feel sure they will have learned absolutely the wrong lesson from the debacle of 2016. They will be more convinced than ever that they were completely right last year, and that events proved it.

Of course any rational person can see that events proved them desperately wrong. But cathexis is difficult to withdraw, as any disappointed lover knows.

So my guess is that they will double down. They will conclude, inter alia, that it’s more important than ever to whip the strays into the fold. Their scolding, verberative, finger-wagging tone will amp up to deafening levels. And they will hold Trump’s coppertoned flayed skin up in our faces to prove they were right all along, and we were bad, naughty children, and it’s all our fault.

Resistance, schmesistance

Simone Segouin, the 18 year old French Résistance fighter, 1944

French girls, gotta love ’em. That could even be a pussy hat, though I suspect it’s really a garrison cap (or piss-cutter, as they used to be called, for some reason). You know, one of those fore-and-aft affairs that look like an overturned lifeboat. I always thought the US version, in plain khaki, looked rather snazzy. Certainly a lot better than those stupid floppy berets that all the US soldier-boys and -girls wear nowadays.

Not surprisingly, the Trump administration has given us one more turn of the screw, or perhaps a turn and a half, in our great nation’s decades-long screwing away from social democracy — what little we ever had of it — and toward downright fascism. All the people who were telling us that Trump was a fascist were right, of course — only they neglected to mention that his predecessors and his opponent were fascists too.

Still, Trump’s election does seem to have roused a certain sense of alarm. Long overdue, in my opinion, but gift horses and all that.

One has been hearing a lot of bold talk about ‘resistance’, mostly on facebook, but it unfortunately seems to be confined to facebook. There were a few marches — permitted, of course, the worst kind, and dominated by establishment Democratic Party careerists. Then tumbleweeds, except for the Russophobe mania.

Thank God that seems to be dying down. My liberal friends are starting to look a bit sheepish when I tease them about that bad ole Putin. Two weeks ago they would have called Homeland Security and dropped a dime on me. See something, say something, even if the something is an ignis fatuus.

But then everything else seems to have died down too. We’re exhorted to join the ACLU and send yet more money to the odious Morris Dees, of the Southern Poverty Law Center. Ridiculing Trump and his brummagem Versailles taste and his oafish manners is of course fun, and there’s ample material to work with. Though it has become something of a cliche.

But resistance? Don’t make me laugh. There’s nothing at all worthy of the name.

Of course, as the Psalmist perceptively inquires, מֵאַיִן יָבֹא עֶזְרִֽי — from whence is our help to come? What social formations, institutions, organizations, might incubate some real resistance?

There’s nothing. They’re all gone. The leadership of the labor movement climbed into bed with management decades ago, and was promptly smothered under a pillow, without even thrashing around very much. There’s essentially no labor movement in the US now, except for a wizened, vestigial vermiform appendix to the Democratic party.

There’s never really been any anti-war or anti-imperialist movement in the US, and certainly none since Nixon, that ingenious fiend, did away with the draft. What, after all, would it be based on? Whose ox, in the US, is gored by our wars — except the poor devils who sign up to fight them?

White guys like me are always hoping for something from black folks, and I for one haven’t completely given up. In my experience that’s the milieu where you find the clearest, least muddled view of our situation. But the hegemon is good at mowing the lawn. Real resisters (like the Panthers) get killed or imprisoned, and other potential leaders, or even actual leaders, get co-opted. The sad decline of John Lewis is paradigmatic, as is the whole career of Corey Booker, the smooth, glossy sweetheart of Big Pharma.

It makes me wonder whether real resistance is even possible from inside the global hegemon. I know, this was much discussed a long time ago, and third-worldism dismissed as a heresy. Correctly so, no doubt. Whatever we can do from inside, we ought to do, and shouldn’t be discouraged.

And of course one knows not the day nor the hour; the old mole pops up unexpectedly like a thief in the night, if one may mash up a few of one’s favorite texts. So perhaps what I am doing here is apotropaic contrarianism: every time I make a prediction, subsequent events make a fool of me, so let’s predict something bad and be delighted when we’re proved wrong.

Okay, Old Mole. Over to you. Bring it on.