so sue me

I have developed a theory about academic life in America today, one that started as a kind of joke but has developed into a genuinely held view. Here’s my theory: A great many university administrators want to get sued, or at least to get seriously threatened with lawsuits.

Many university administrators are under heavy, heavy pressure from politically agitated students and faculty to combat racism by introducing speech codes, implementing racial quotas in hiring, expelling noncompliant students, firing noncompliant faculty members even when they’re tenured, compelling speech in favor of their policies, and essentially creating an enormous panoptic surveillance state to discipline and punish. The whole business is logistically impossible and would be a nightmare to build and an even worse nightmare to maintain.

Fortunately for these administrators, almost all of the proposed remedies for racism are legally forbidden to public institutions, and many of them are forbidden to private ones as well. When organizations like FIRE show up to remind administrators of that, those administrators have a card to play in their tense poker game with protestors. FIRE has actually had a good deal of success in getting colleges and universities to rescind fundamentally illiberal and often illegal policies, and the success has come through meaningful threats to take the universities to court. (FIRE itself has no standing to sue, of course, but its lawyers can represent those who do have such standing.)

My theory is that many administrators love it when FIRE shows up, or when other plausible threats of legal action come across their desk. Then they can go to the protestors and say, I did everything in my power to create Social Justice U, and I would’ve gotten away with it too, if it hadn’t been for that pesky Bill of Rights!

wokeness as Counter-Reformation

My old friend Jody Bottum thinks that the various Woke movements amount to a kind of post-Protestantism. I think this is wholly wrong. Wokeness is aspirationally Roman Catholic in its structure. It already has:

  • magisterial teaching that one must hold de fide in order to belong
  • the pronouncing of anathemas upon those who dissent from that magisterial teaching
  • a distributed Inquisition devoted to unearthing and prosecuting heresy
  • an ever-growing Index of Prohibited Books

Wokeness despises the fissiparousness of Protestantism and wants to replace it with Real, Substantial, and Visible Unity under its banner. It’s basically a secularized Counter-Reformation.

dog whistles

A friend kindly explained to me that this post was quite badly written, so I have fixed it. Sort of. 

Perhaps the most tiresome — not the worst, probably, but the most tiresome — feature of journalistic/social-media discourse today is its fervent belief in the near-universality of dog whistles. Consider, for example, the convulsive and dyspeptic responses to the letter on justice and open debate recently posted by Harper’s. No reasonable person could object to the letter’s actual statements, and so those who pretend to be reasonable don’t even try. They ignore what the letter says in order to focus on what it really and secretly means, its inner and essential nastiness and cruelty so carefully concealed by a thin veneer of decent common sense. As Sam Kriss says, this kind of exercise in the hermeneutics of suspicion is “a virulent form of paranoid signification.”

You adopt the ugliest possible interpretation of something, and then you convince yourself that it’s true. In fact, it’s not just true, it’s so shiningly, obviously true that anyone who doesn’t have your particular psychotic read on events is immediately suspect. Don’t believe Corbyn was activating secret Nazi programming implanted in people’s brains? Well, then you’re probably an antisemite yourself. Bad-faith positions are never cautious or provisional. You scream them loud to drown out the doubt inside your own head. And because the other side is screaming too, you have to pump up your agony to match their pitch. The thing spirals faster with every improvement in our communications infrastructure.

Everyone is furious and nobody really cares. Emphasis mine. Because if you really cared you’d understand that there are differences between good-faith disagreement and malicious hatred and you’d try to read carefully enough to discern those differences. I mean, there are certainly plenty of dog-whistly statements out there — POTUS specializes in them to a perhaps unprecedented degree — but there is something perverse about people who make it their default reading stance to presume hidden malice in any old text.

Reading these people puts me in mind of a sadly funny passage in C. S. Lewis’s autobiography Surprised by Joy in which he’s describing one of the strongest features of his father’s personality:

It was axiomatic to my father (in theory) that nothing was said or done from an obvious motive. Hence he who in his real life was the most honorable and impulsive of men, and the easiest victim that any knave or imposter could hope to meet, became a positive Machiavel when he knitted his brows and applied to the behavior of people he had never seen the spectral and labyrinthine operation which he called “reading between the lines.” Once embarked upon that, he might make his landfall anywhere in the wide world: and always with unshakable conviction. “I see it all” — “I understand it perfectly” — “It’s as plain as a pikestaff,” he would say; and then, as we soon learned, he would believe till his dying day in some deadly quarrel, some slight, some secret sorrow or some immensely complex machination, which was not only improbable but impossible. Dissent on our part was attributed, with kindly laughter, to our innocence, gullibility, and general ignorance of life.

We can only hope that the Machiavels of this moment are even a fraction as honorable as Lewis’s father was. Not much hope of that, I fear. Albert Lewis’s practice of “reading between the lines” wasn’t founded on an unshakeable faith in his own perfect righteousness.

The point of the reading-between-the-lines is usually to discover the hidden bad motives of the people who hold a particular position — but once you have done that … so? Let’s suppose that you are absolutely correct, that you, with your profound insight and utter purity of soul, have peered into the hearts of the people who hold Position X and have genuinely discerned impurities there. Now what? Every good thing in this world, without exception, is commended by at least some people of impure motive and gross sin. Love is celebrated by the cruel, justice by the misogynist, kindness by the rapacious. No virtue or good deed is exempt from this taint, not free inquiry or free speech or free beer. Only a dimwit would think that the patronage of Bad People discredits justice or kindness or free beer themselves.

So even on its own terms, presuming bad faith is a useless exercise that typically disables you from reflecting on the validity, or otherwise, of stated claims. It shits down your own intellectual equipment. So as for me, I’ll keep trying to respond to what people actually say as opposed to what reading between the lines, AKA listening for the dog whistles, might lead me to suspect. I mean, probably Salman Rushdie signed that Harper’s letter because he just wants to protect his great fame and privilege, but there’s the tiniest sliver of possibility that he signed it because he prefers living in a society that responds to offensive speech by argument to living in one that responds by offering a rich bounty to anyone who murders him.

Freddie is right

Freddie deBoer:

So how can someone object to an endorsement of free speech and open debate without being opposed to those things in and of themselves? You can’t. And people are objecting to it because social justice politics are plainly opposed to free speech. That is the most obvious political fact imaginable today. Of course Yelling Woke Twitter hates free speech! Of course social justice liberals would prevent expression they disagree with if they could! How could any honest person observe out political discourse for any length of time and come to any other conclusion?

You want to argue that free speech is bad, fine. You want to adopt a dominance politics that (you imagine) will result in you being the censor, fine. But just do that. Own that. Can we stop with this charade? Can we stop pretending? Can we just proceed by acknowledging what literally everyone quietly knows, which is that the dominant majority of progressive people simply don’t believe in the value of free speech anymore? Please. Let’s grow up and speak plainly, please. Let’s just grow up.

“the corporate monster is always the corporate monster”

That’s the basic idea, that power is power always and that it’s exceedingly unwise to presume that power stops being power when you want to access it. So take student protesters. When they go begging to the campus administration to solve their problems, they are forgetting that power is always power. It happens that the peculiar financial dynamics of elite universities means that administrators will often side with students. But that should only make students more suspicious and less likely to supplicate before the administrators; they are most certainly not doing what students want out of an authentic endorsement of the principles the students fight for. When Screaming Woke Twitter asks Twitter, the huge evil Silicon Valley corporation, to censor someone, they are forgetting that the corporate monster is always the corporate monster. Sure, they might give you what you think you want in the short term. But you’re writing a check, and they will cash it.

It should go without saying: running to someone else’s boss to get them fired means that you’re validating and endorsing the power of bosses. You don’t get to pick and choose. You believe in the boss having arbitrary power over people or you don’t. That’s it.

Freddie deBoer. Cf. this recent post of mine that I still need to revisit and correct.

working the refs

Last Sunday afternoon, in the aftermath of the first game of the NBA playoff series between the Houston Rockets and the Golden State Warriors, there was much online huffing and puffing about whether the game’s referees had failed to call fouls against the Rockets’ James Harden and Chris Paul.

But something important was overlooked in said huffing and puffing: the fact that, whether Harden and Paul were fouled or not, they were desperately trying to get fouls called against their opponents. And that makes the last few seconds of that game a kind of parable of our cultural moment.

It’s possible that the Warriors’ Draymond Green grazed James Harden as Harden came to earth after shooting — after, that is, missing a shot quite badly, possibly because he was thinking less about making the shot than about getting the ref to believe that Green had fouled him, which he did by falling, completely unnecessarily, to the ground. The ball ended up in Chris Paul’s hands, and Paul charged into the Warriors’ Klay Thompson while flailing his arms wildly, determined to force a call. (He did not get the call, and in his rage shouldered the referee, which has earned him a fine.)

This kind of thing has, of course, long been the bane of soccer: players who might have a legitimate chance to score a goal, or at least got off a shot on goal, fling themselves to the ground and roll about in feigned agony hoping that they will get a penalty called or a yellow card assigned to the opponent.

I have come to believe that this is what almost all of our culture is about now: working the refs. Trying to get the refs, whoever the refs might be in any given instance, to make calls in our favor — to rule against our enemies and for us, and therefore justify us before the whole world.

What are students doing when they try to get speakers disinvited from their campus? Or when Twitter users try to get other Twitter users banned from the platform? Or when people try to get executives or members of some board of directors fired from their jobs? In each case, it’s an appeal to the refs. These people are not trying to persuade through reasoned argument or to attract public opinion to their side through the charm of their personality. They’re demanding that the designated arbitrators arbitrate in their favor. (Sometimes, as in the case of the college admissions, scandal, they just bribe the refs.)

And it’s easy to see why people would think this way: If I assume the point of view underlying this habit, it means that nothing that goes wrong is ever my fault. If anything that I want to go my way doesn’t go my way, it’s because the referees didn’t make the right call. It’s never because I made any dumb mistakes, or indeed had any shortcomings of any kind. Things didn’t go my way because, whether through incompetence or bias, the refs suck. I would’ve won if it hadn’t been for the stupid refs.

I think this is a particularly attractive strategy in our current moment, especially on social media. As I wrote a couple of years ago,

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

Call-out culture has many, many mechanisms of enforcement but none of forgiveness or restoration. A culture that knows only how to punish creates an environment in which, as Freddie deBoer has said, “everyone’s a cop”; but it simultaneously creates disincentives for people to admit they they might themselves need policing. Because who wants to apply the single-sanction one-strike-and-you’re-out criterion to themselves?

These reflections might help to explain a phenomenon that Michael Lewis describes on his new podcast “Against the Rules”: that the NBA is dealing with unprecedented levels of complaint about its officials at the moment when the league gives those very officials unprecedented levels of scrutiny, and unprecedented levels of training, and unprecedented opportunities to review and correct bad calls.

If refs are doing their job better than ever and simultaneously catching more grief for their errors, that just might be a result of our expecting more of them than is reasonable. In the NBA, and also in society at large, we do better when we try to solve problems ourselves rather than try to manipulate the refs into solving them all for us. I hope the Rockets get swept by the Warriors. (And that the Warriors swept in the next round, because their moaning and bitching are almost as bad.)

UPDATE: I realized something right after I posted this — that’s always how it happens, isn’t it? — which is that by circling back to the NBA at the end of the post I elided a major distinction: The NBA refs may be “doing their job better than ever,” but that doesn’t mean that the same can be said for all our society’s referees. Indeed, many of them are doing a very bad job indeed. More on that in another post. (This is also what I get for writing a short post about an issue that needs to be treated at length.)

the fish in the fish store window

A writer was invited to teach a religion-and-literature course at a prestigious divinity school, but found himself rather in trouble with his students. One of the works he assigned was King Lear, and some students found it rife with “sexist language.” Another was Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, and had he noticed that all of the characters were men? A third text was Graham Greene’s The Power and the Glory, and its intrinsic racism should have been obvious.

The school was Harvard Divinity School, the professor was Frederick Buechner, and the year was 1982. He describes the experience in his memoir Telling Secrets. It all happened thirty-seven years ago, if you weren’t counting: sometimes today’s kerfuffles were also the kerfuffles of yesteryear, which more of us would know if we had some temporal bandwidth. That could help us to get some context, and a grip.

You might take Buechner’s side on all this, or you might take his students’, but in either case the really interesting thing, to me, is how much more confident those students were about their political commitments than about anything that could even half-plausibly be described as “religious belief.” Thus this memorable passage:

Harvard Divinity school was proud, and justly so, of what it called its pluralism – feminists, humanists, theists, liberation theologians, all pursuing truth together – but the price that pluralism can cost was dramatized one day in a way I have never forgotten. I had been speaking as candidly and personally as I knew how about my own faith and how I have tried over the years to express it in language. At the same time I had been trying to get the class to respond in kind. For the most part none of them were responding at all but just sitting there taking it in without saying a word. Finally I had to tell them what I thought. I said they reminded me of a lot of dead fish lying on cracked ice in a fish store window with their round blank eyes. There I was, making a fool of myself spilling out to them the secrets of my heart, and there they were, not telling me what they believed about anything beneath the level of their various causes.

And then one of his students, an African, said: “The reason I do not say anything about what I believe, is that I’m afraid it will be shot down.” But no one was afraid that their political commitments would be shot down. Perhaps — and perhaps for that reason — there wasn’t anything “beneath the level of their various causes.”

I’ll leave you with Buechner’s reflection on this exchange: “At least for a moment we all saw, I think, that the danger of pluralism is that it becomes factionalism, and that if factions grind their separate axes too vociferously, something mutual, precious, and human is in danger of being drowned out and lost.”

defilement and expulsion

A couple of years ago I wrote this:

When a society rejects the Christian account of who we are, it doesn’t become less moralistic but far more so, because it retains an inchoate sense of justice but has no means of offering and receiving forgiveness. The great moral crisis of our time is not, as many of my fellow Christians believe, sexual licentiousness, but rather vindictiveness. Social media serve as crack for moralists: there’s no high like the high you get from punishing malefactors. But like every addiction, this one suffers from the inexorable law of diminishing returns. The mania for punishment will therefore get worse before it gets better.

I’d like to pair that brief reflection with an essay I published around the same time, in which I made this claim: “For those who have been formed largely by the mythical core of human culture, disagreement and alternative points of view may well appear to them not as matters for rational adjudication but as defilement from which they must be cleansed.”

It is this sense of defilement that makes people want to cast out wrongdoers, to expel the contagion they carry. It seems increasingly common on the right to cast all this in Girardian terms — my friend Rod Dreher does this a lot — but that wouldn’t be quite right even if Girardian terms were valid, which they are not. (The nearly absolute uselessness of Girard’s thought is patiently and thoroughly demonstrated by Joshua Landy in this essay.) The scapegoat is by definition innocent; the malefactors our punitive society casts out are not, but their crimes are so small in comparison to their punishment that they seem like scapegoats.

But if we understand how the experience of defilement functions we will also understand its punishment. The University of Virginia has an honor code which punishes violators with the “single sanction” of expulsion: one either has honor or one does not. Similarly, the woke social order has a single sanction: either your presence does not defile me or it does, and in the latter case the response is and must be expulsion. This is what Phillip Adamo of Augsburg University learned when he used the n-word in class — or rather, quoted James Baldwin doing so. This he was removed from the class he was teaching and then suspended from all teaching, “pending the outcome of a formal review.” The separation of the source of defilement from the community must always be the first step, when one’s responses arise from what Kolakowski calls mythical core.

If you really want to come to grips with what’s happening on many college campuses today, and in social media countless times every day, put down thy Girard; take up thy Kolakowski.

“religious myths recycled as ersatz social science”

John Gray:

With the referenda on same-sex marriage and abortion, tolerance and personal freedom have advanced in Ireland – a latecomer to the liberal West. But there is no reason for thinking this a chapter in a universal story in which humanity is slowly being converted to these values. Theories that posit a long-term historical movement towards a liberal future are religious myths recycled as ersatz social science.

Despite everything, liberals cannot help thinking of history as a story of redemption. That is why they cannot help seeing Putin and Xi Jinping, Orbán and Salvini as reverting to the past. A future that contains hyper-modern tsars, technocratic emperors and intelligent demagogues is unthinkable. So facts are ignored or denied, and truth sacrificed for the sake of securing a consoling meaning in events. While post-truth populism has become one of the clichés of the age, a more defining feature of our time is the rise of post-truth liberalism.

It would be foolish to expect liberals to admit that their faith has been falsified. They would have to accept that they do not understand the present—an impossible demand, when they have seen themselves for so long as the intellectual vanguard of humankind. Whether secular or religious, myths are not refuted. Instead they fade and vanish from the scene, together with the people who embody them. 

Gray’s point here converges nicely with my essay “Wokeness and Myth on Campus.” 

Karma Police, arrest … well, pretty much everybody 

The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.

Planet of Cops – Freddie deBoer. (Freddie notes the omnipresent conservative cops too.) I’d suggest one slight correction, and I think it’s consistent with what Freddie says elsewhere in the essay: It’s not so much about finding out who’s Good and who’s Bad, but rather finding out who’s Bad and who has not yet been demonstrated to be Bad. Sooner or later everyone commits thoughtcrime and has to pay for it. This is the opposite of the Caucus-Race in Alice in Wonderland: there “All have won and all must have prizes”; on social media all have sinned and all must be punished.