1. My Burkean friend likes to say that there is no teleological progress within history.
This was something I thought I knew. I didn’t really know it.
There is no progress within history. There are better deeds and worse deeds and better words and worse words (words being a subset of deeds). And that’s it. This train isn’t going anywhere. It was never a train. There are no tracks.
2. You know how cartoon characters run off the edge of a cliff but never fall till someone glibly points out that they’re in midair? That, but with American exceptionalism.
3. “These white, conservative men,” I said to myself. “They’re so scared of a changing world, of a Muslim who runs a gas station, of two women holding hands, that they go off the deep end. They gather their loved ones, run off to the country, start buying doomsday rations, and stockpile guns. Monsters!”
Then I watched Trump win Michigan.
“Self,” I said, “you must gather your loved ones (especially the women and POC), run off to the country, start buying doomsday rations, and stockpile guns…”
4. From a note to a friend:
5. Everybody is absolutely sure what everyone else failed to do.
We should have talked to the rural whites. We should not have talked so much about talking to the rural whites. We should have had John Oliver say more things or other things or no things at all. We who criticized Clinton from the left should have instead loved her mindlessly and uncritically; we who loved her mindlessly and uncritically should have loved Bernie instead. White people, you should have disassociated yourselves from racists more. White people, you should have argued with your racist uncle more. (What a slender reed! The white person who takes this critique seriously is the last white person racist uncles will ever listen to.)
Or it’s all Gary Johnson’s fault. (This is the weirdest of them all. Johnson almost certainly dragged on Trump more than on Clinton. Have you ever met a libertarian?)
What this election actually means is that nobody knows much of anything about why anything happens. Maybe we should sit with that too.
6. Centrists in this election all but eroticized the act of voting for deeply compromised Dems. It was tough, manly, adult, pragmatic. It was impure, it got your hands suitably dirty, like throwing pots or planting a tree. People who voted their “ideals” were sterile, hermetic, privileged: so many antiseptic Neros playing their, uh, fiddles. (Along with this, you also get a weird admiration for “horse-trading.”)
This strategy may be working, who knows. Jill Stein’s drag on Clinton’s vote totals, I read somewhere the other day, amounts to a rounding error. I think, though, that this may have more to do with the fact that Stein appears to be something of a ditz. More broadly, this strategy irks me because it’s dumb. It’s dumb on factual grounds: I’ve only ever heard this rhetoric about the “privileged” dead-ender from immensely privileged people, and the two “dead-ender” types I’ve ever met, post-2000, were actually quite poor. One of them was black. (You read that right: I’ve met two of these people in my post-Nader life.) So the effect is that a bunch of well-established pundits and activist types are trying to convince people younger and, one assumes, less established in life through shame and scorn. I don’t respond well to shame or scorn, myself; they are bad ways to try to get me to do things. They make me dig in my heels.
I think we need to try something else next time: taking the emphasis off the holiness of voting; for the fallacy of the Bernie or Stein dead-ender is that voting is a holy piece of self-expression, that when you vote, you are making a deep statement about who you are and what you value. The shamer and the shamed are both in some way romanticizing voting. What you’re actually doing, in a two-party system, when you vote, is choosing bad over worse. No romance, and nothing especially individual. Neither candidate could possibly be a good representative of your beliefs in their fullness and complexity, unless you’re about an inch deep. By the way—and I really don’t feel like giving them this much fairness right now, but facts is facts—this applies, to some extent, to Trump voters as well. Four the next four years, I will want to blame every last lynching, every racist beatdown, every sexual assault on a woman in a hijab—and all of that stuff is coming, is already here—not only on Trump’s avid fans, the creeps who supported him in the primary, but also on his many millions of half-hearted supporters, the people who think he’s a bad man but that Pence will “save babies” or that his ascendance deals a well-deserved blow to the drafters of NAFTA. But by this logic, had Clinton won, I, her reluctant supporter, would be responsible for every dead Yemeni. Better to just admit that nobody gets what they really want in a two-party system and that mandates are thin. Voting for district judge or county dog-catcher: there you can really express yourself. But voting for President is unromantic. It is necessary and adult and pragmatic, but in the way brushing your teeth is, or making your kids wear seat belts. You have to do it. You have to pick the milder of two poisons. But it doesn’t make you a hero; and nor do you now own all the damage that your mild poison will surely do. Heroism—that’s what you display when you go to work in your own life, fixing all the things that Presidential administrations are too big and too compromised to fix. Reduce voting to its real important-but-quotidian dimensions, and maybe people will be more willing to make the quotidian, practical, imperfect choice.
Or, on the other hand, we could nominate someone who excites people.
7. The people who were most excited about Clinton were generally those who saw in her a parable of professional women writ large: she loves her work, gives herself to it totally, and is passed over at the last moment for the boss’s wastrel son, a loudmouth dilettante. It’s totally understandable that people see HRC in this story, and vice versa. But holy God, is it dangerous.
Nobody wants to hear this from a man and I respect that. Unfortunately it’s still true.
The president is not a CEO. “Professionalism” and “experience” are means to an end, at best. The end—the policies—are what matters. Our only good President, Abraham Lincoln, was a losing Senate candidate. The least bad President of my lifetime, Barack Obama, was far less “experienced” than John McCain, but I can’t imagine a timeline where BHO wasn’t a far better President than McCain would have been. When we valorize political “experience” in a system this corrupt, it mostly means we’re lauding people for the extensiveness of their experience with corruption.
8. We have got to stop talking like condescension is a fault of liberals in particular, when it’s actually a problem built-in to democracy.
Alan Jacobs, as I think I’ve said before, is my favorite conservative writer. Here he is describing his “temperamental alienation” from liberalism:
But despite the sizable liberal element in my own personal political constitution, in times of serious conflict—today’s Brexit contretemps, for instance—I am always temperamentally alienated from liberalism. For what distinguishes many (most?) liberals from both conservatives and socialists, as today’s social media torpedoes reveal, is genuine incomprehension that any sane and decent person could disagree with them…So when liberals lose contests, they have a marked tendency to attribute disagreement to malice or stupidity or, when they’re being kind, naked emotionalism—though they themselves can get altogether overwrought in their insistence that the liberal position simply is the rational one….Once their howls of outrage get wound up — and there is no outrage like that of a thwarted cultural elite — I just want to back quietly out of the room, close the door behind me, and get as far away as I can.
What liberal has not felt this, about other liberals? What liberal has not been accused of behaving this way? Jacobs’s insistence that we take seriously the possibility that someone else has a rich and complicated mind, even when that mind (say) supports Brexit, is one reason that I like reading him.
A few days later, Jacobs calls out some specific examples:
Everybody knows that there are people like this—smug, self-satisfied, massively condescending towards everyone whom they believe to be less cosmopolitan. Everyone also knows that there are people like this—bloated by a sense of entitlement, hyperbolically emotional when their will is thwarted, oblivious to any perspective or experience but their own. The sort of people you dread being seated next to at dinner, or being unable to escape at a party.
I read both of the pieces he links to. Let’s take Smug, Self-Satisfied Cosmopolitan first. Here’s a representative passage:
But dig below the surface, and you will find the demons crawling. You can see them in the looks that residents give you when they pass; sneering snobs glaring down their noses with entitlement; small-minded townies, bullying you with eyes that you recognize from the primary school lunchroom; the old people, 80 and above, wearing blank stares. You can hear it in their bothered tutting at the bus stop (especially if they ever hear a visitor mispronouncing the name of the town), the shots that constantly ring out from across the countryside as they set about murdering as many of the local pheasants as they can.
First of all, the writer lives in the town he condemns, which already complicates Jacobs’s description a little bit. I have never been to Alresford, so I can’t confirm or deny the truth of his description. And I take exception to his last phrase especially, with its condemnation of hunters as such—I do tend to think of this attitude as an often-unexamined liberal crotchet. But the rest of it, whether true of his town or not, is definitely true enough of, or one part of the truth about, the place where I grew up. I regret and resent what neoliberal globalization has wrought on that place, but I could never live there. You don’t want to return to a place where, as a teenager, you couldn’t train for the cross-country season without someone throwing their garbage out the window and yelling “Faggot” at you. Or making like they’re going to swerve and hit you. That smallness, that hatred of even the smallest and least important manifestations of difference or unusualness (running was considered a “pussy sport” as compared with football; I’m not gay but have never performed traditional masculinity with any conviction), is a thing that really does develop quickly and strongly in small towns. (One reason I have never been able to fully join up with the small-and-local-is-great wing of conservatism is that it always ends up coming around to some version of “they were right to call you names.” Think, for example, of Russell Kirk’s defense of “prejudices.” The bone-deep suspicion of tiny difference is one of the outcomes of those prejudices.) Another thing that develops in small towns is the intense snobbery of people contending for a small turf. Both Jacobs and the writer of the article he objects to, a philosophy lecturer, have likely witnessed the same dynamic in academia. What this guy is describing is not implausible. The article is ultimately cruel and over-the-top—it represents the way I would feel about my hometown, Alma, Michigan, if I were to forget every time I was cruel, every time I was small-minded, every time I called someone “faggot” to avoid having it said about me—but it is not the work of the “smug, self-satisfied” cosmopolite Jacobs describes. It’s the work of someone scared, sad, enraged, maybe a little guilty. Something real happened to this person, and it wasn’t pretty.
My American Heritage Dictionary defines condescension as an attitude of “patronizing superiority.” I think Jacobs, a great critic of liberal condescension, has fulfilled at least one part of that definition here. He’s not patronizing (he definitely doesn’t want to be this guy’s dad!), but he is certainly superior. He looks at this mess of a person and sees the liberal hipster elitist with a latte, the guy who has no soul except the one he purchased ironically late at night in a Brooklyn bodega. I’m not pointing this out to shame Jacobs. I’m pointing it out because this seems to me to be one of two major problems with the cultural conversation: we all (well, mostly all) lament polarization, we all want to see more charity between opponents, but, for all of us, there are people we can’t do this with.
My liberal hero Marilynne Robinson contradicts herself just as baldly in this respect. The Givenness of Things talks about how polarization is an evil and fear of the Other is a sin. But she’s afraid of right-wing fundamentalists. And it turns out she should be! They helped elect Donald Trump!
If you care about anything at all, there are opinions you can’t excuse. The people who hold those opinions you can view as either dupes or willing servants of evil. There is no third option. That doesn’t mean you’re done with them, that doesn’t mean you put them in a basket of deplorables, it certainly doesn’t mean you call them “irredeemable,” as Hillary Clinton stupidly did. We don’t have to render final judgment on each other. But practically, a person who thinks it’s a good idea to tweet pictures of gas ovens to Jewish journalists is either very, very stupid, or very, very evil… for now.
9. For now. One silver lining: nobody knows anything about anything. Certainly nobody knows anything about the future. The election proved that.
One thing I can guess: there will probably be a recession in the next four years. (This was always true.) Clinton was going to own that. And worse, her loss in 2020 might have been to the bete blanc of 2016’s political imagination: a Trump who is actually competent, who actually wants to rule.
Now Trump will be President during that recession. His party’s ideology will make that recession worse.
He will try to make his followers blame the recession on Jews, or immigrants, or college professors, or the New York Times, or Rosie O’Donnell, or the existence of sexual consent, or Jay-Z. We can, if we want to, try to make sure they blame it on those whose fault it is. We will have to do it ourselves. CNN was never going to do it for us. If we manage it, though, the far right will be discredited for a generation. The imaginary “competent Trump” we’ve all worried about will have no chance to emerge.
10. Join DSA. Join BLM. Break shit, if you’ve a talent for it. Organize, if you’re (unlike me) an organized person.
But keep trying to be good. Marxists downplay this, they want to emphasize structure. But personal goodness is the only thing that has ever durably convinced anyone of anything.
That Trump recession will, if it’s sustained enough, reduce carbon emissions by at least as much as any actual policy I can imagine the US political establishment embracing. Is that good news? No. The human suffering will be absolutely immense. The government will be stingy. Only personal charity on a scale and organization never before seen in American history will prevent deaths by the hundreds of thousands. You’re going to have to give your money to people less fortunate than you. You’re going to have to let your loser cousin live on your couch.
We will have to show that we can be a good people in order to ever again be a good country.