Tuesday, August 29, 2017

Uncertainty is intellectually honest, but it's hard to write about

I was going to try to draw some lame connection between this post and writing in order to keep with my promise to make this mostly a blog about writing, but I might as well face it that this is a post about politics.

I can do a lame tie-in to evangelical Christianity, though

I've written before that nothing probably has as profound an impact on who I am now than the fact that I used to be an evangelical Christian. Over several years, I went from believing something completely and being totally committed to it to being more certain than I am of anything that it wasn't true. That's made me mostly skeptical about everything I've been into since. There's a limit to how into something I can get, because I know at some point, whatever the thing that I'm into is will end up deconstructing itself. Obviously, I'm this way about writing, even though writing was the thing I hit upon as my solution to a mid-life crisis several years ago. But just because I spend a lot of my time writing, reading, or working for a literary magazine doesn't mean I'm sure that it's a good way to spend my time. I'm not totally sure that too much literature isn't bad for you.

I definitely find there are built-in limits to my ability to participate in politics, too. I don't really feel like I fit in with any political community. Around liberals, I feel like a conservative, and around conservatives, I feel like a liberal. Much like when I was in church, I find the best way to be accepted is to not say anything about the doubts I have, or risk being shunned by the doctrinally pure set.

No political comfort zone

I was in favor of same-sex marriages at least a decade before the majority of America was. So a lot of Republicans don't like me. But I also think a cake maker ought to be able to decide what services he does and doesn't provide, and face the judgment of the community for it. So Democrats don't like me.

I think the government should invest on a grand scale in blighted inner cities--massive jobs programs, huge security mobilizations to make make the cities safe, top-to-bottom plans to make life better. If a kid in Baltimore going nowhere walks into an office somewhere and says he wants to turn his life around, there ought to be a thousand things to offer the kid. But I also think corporations should pay lower income taxes, since they generate jobs.

I think that America's prison systems are an ongoing affront to the values we say we believe in. I think kids who grow up in Baltimore grow up in a police state that seems intent on sending them to those prisons. I also think that blaming police for the inner city school-to-prison pipeline is lazy. Because we are too short-sighted to fully commit to improving Baltimore and cities like it, we throw police at them like band aids. Then we wonder why the band-aids sometimes fail us.

I think it's a given that everyone should treat transgendered people with respect, and that every opportunity to do anything in life should be open to them. I give nary a shit about the moral implications of becoming transgendered. I take people at their word when they say being transgendered is an expression of who they really are. At the same time, though, I realize that the notion that male and female might not be the fixed concepts we thought they were represents a radical shift, and it's one that's come upon us suddenly. I can understand skepticism. I can understand that society isn't willing to immediately invest scarce resources to accommodate everything this community wants, like reconfiguring the male-female public restroom system. And I can understand wanting to do an honest intellectual inquiry into what the effects to society might be of such a change coming so fast. 

I could go on, but the point is, on almost every political issue, I'm likely to have views that make nobody happy, or everyone unhappy.

Then came Charlottesville

In one sense, I'm very much in the liberal mainstream when it comes to the past few weeks. I don't understand why there are Confederate monuments (or, more troubling, military bases named for Confederate generals, although nobody seems to be talking about that). I'm happy to see them go.

But since Charlottesville, I've been noticing a trend among friends that I think of as liberal. I'm generally likely to come down in the liberal spectrum on racial issues. I read Ta-nehisi Coates. I have a black daughter. Most of Mrs. Heretic's students are black, and they become like family to us for nine months a year. But I find myself unable to get on board with something that seems to have become a common opinion among my liberal friends, almost overnight. This trend I'm not on board with can be expressed by this cartoon I saw on someone's Facebook feed the other day. It's a graphic representation of Popper's Paradox of Tolerance:

 This is in addition to the many "punch Nazis" posts I've seen.

I must have missed when the liberal consensus went from "hate what you say, but defend your right to say it" to "punch Nazis."

Not in our house

There's been a lot of verbal scrum since Charlottesville about the role Antifa played in the violence. Trump was attacked for saying he thought there was violence on both sides. There are videos that claim to show that one side or the other was mostly responsible for the violence. The LA times did an interesting report that pretty much just slapped down a bunch of brief eye-witness accounts, including far left, far right, and mainstream journalists. I'd say the bulk of evidence makes it look like the neo-Nazis were more aggressive and more organized about being aggressive, but that there probably really was violence on both sides. BuzzFeed reporter Blake Montgomery put it that "Conflict would start much the same as it has at other alt-right rallies: two people, one from each side, screaming, goading each other into throwing the first punch.” That seems to pass the smell test for me.

Nearly a year before Charlottesville, Peter Beinart of the Atlantic did a great piece on the rise of Antifa. He explains that what is troubling is the way that violence is being approved of tacitly by even mainstream people of the left, thus becoming normalized.

Such tactics have elicited substantial support from the mainstream left. When the masked antifa activist was filmed assaulting Spencer on Inauguration Day, another piece in The Nation described his punch as an act of “kinetic beauty.” Slate ran an approving article about a humorous piano ballad that glorified the assault. Twitter was inundated with viral versions of the video set to different songs, prompting the former Obama speechwriter Jon Favreau to tweet, “I don’t care how many different songs you set Richard Spencer being punched to, I’ll laugh at every one.”

The same is true for some conservatives, of course, who may not themselves carry shields into parks, but who will chuckle if they see someone they hate enough being attacked. Violence is being winked at on both sides. Our president is guilty of it.

Beinart points out that the real problem with this normalization of violence on both sides is the erosion of "the quality Max Weber considered essential to a functioning state: a monopoly on legitimate violence."

Liberals were incensed that Trump pointed out that there was violence on both sides. Beinart rightly pointed out that Trump is wrong to imply there is a moral equivalency between neo-Nazis and antifa, but that doesn't mean he was technically wrong about there having been violence on both sides. Even if the other side did more of it than "ours" did, it seems to me that the primary job of liberal leaders is to lead liberals. That is, to make sure we aren't the ones responsible for this, that we aren't looking at vigilante solutions to dealing with the people we disagree with. I don't give a shit if we're not mostly to blame; I want us to be blameless. We shouldn't allow the possibility of murkiness to enter the conversation. This is especially important because, as Beinart pointed out, Antifa has sometimes expanded its definition of what constitutes an agent of intolerance to people wearing MAGA hats.

Instead of redefining what our own movement means, instead of setting our own agenda, we are simply criticizing Trump. That's all that liberal philosophy in America amounts to now: we're against Trump. We're so on board with criticizing him, we don't even care who we align with, as long as they are against him, too. We don't even have real leadership right now. We're still looking to Clinton and Obama, who last I checked are both now ex-politicians. There is just nothing at all going on in the Democratic Party to be excited about. I can't seem myself going to that church, so to speak. But there isn't another one for me to go to, either. I'm like one of those people who says he considers himself "spiritual" but just doesn't go to church.

Okay, I will make a quick lame tie to writing

If there is a link between my writing and my lack of a political home, it's this: when I see so many people feeling so certain they know the answers they're willing to torch the opposition, and I compare it with my own uncertainty, I feel like there must be something wrong with me. Maybe I'm the one who doesn't get it. Maybe feeling unwarranted self-confidence is the only way to be happy in the world, and that's why so few people seem interested in stories about characters who feel genuine confusion. Lately, when I go to write a story, I just scrap it, because I assume at some point that I must just not get it.


  1. Jake - I'm not a writer, so I don't give advice to writers. I am, however, a reader, and every couple of months I come across an essay that is hailed far and wide as being "brave" because it says something like, "I'm insecure because I'm fat and I'm trying to live like I'm not" or "As a writer I worry about money" or "I have trouble with depression/kids/physical illness getting in the way of my writing." Or even, "What's the big deal about an MFA?" I'm telling you, this is a VERY brave essay in this time and place. And that says a lot about this time and place.

    So I'm going to give you some advice. First: Delete this post. Second: Rewrite it slightly - start with the last paragraph about never feeling comfortable as a writer, then do the whole middle, every bit of it (I didn't read closely enough to see whether some phrases/sentences need polishing, but don't change the content at all) and end with a recapitulation of the parallel between the not-fitting-in sense of being a political left-centrist and being a writer with your particular point of view. Then submit it everywhere that takes nonfiction. I initially thought of The Millions, but there are other places and you're probably more familiar with them than I am.

    And of course, include a bio with your credentials, including the book that won a prize and was just published.

    Seriously. Do this. This needs to be read by more than those of us here. This needs to be discussed. I have a feeling you're going to discover you're not as isolated as you think. Who knows, someone may come up with reasons you haven't thought of for the exceptions you list. Someone may come up with objections to the inclusions. But if we can't talk to each other, we're doomed. And this essay is a GREAT place to start.

    1. Thanks so much, Karen. Those are really kind words, especially considering I've fallen so far behind in Pushcart I'll never keep up with your blog. (I just signed up for too much this summer with the journal and the book and Mrs. Heretic and I are reading a bunch of Pulitzer Prize winning novels together.)

      I've sometimes wondered if I'm not better suited to non-fiction, but I've honestly never sent anything out to be published in non-fiction. The creative non-fiction in Pushcart seems like an odd genre: some of it I wouldn't know wasn't fiction if it weren't telling me that. I don't think what I have here is like that. But I'll think about it.

      I'm so glad you don't hate it. When advice #1 was to delete it, I felt sort of scared.

      I'll think about what you said. If this is deleted in a few days, it's because I tried to publish it somewhere.

    2. Alright. So I've decided to leave this up and not submit it elsewhere, but to also give more thought to writing some non-fiction for publication somewhere outside my blog.