by Daniel A. Kaufman


American politics is dead, or at least, it’s so completely fucked that it would be better off dead.  What we call “politics” today, when compared to the genuine article, is a little bit like UFC when compared to boxing.  At some level, everyone knows that beating to a bloody pulp someone who is already down is not sport but a street fight, sans switchblades and baseball bats, and we also all know that what Americans are doing today in the civic arena isn’t politics, but rioting, absent the smashed windows and burning cars. And just as the half-hearted gesture towards rules in UFC reflects our reluctance to admit that we’re terrible people who really do want to watch folks beat and choke each other to death, our ongoing pretense that we’re civically and politically engaged with one another in the project of self-governance indicates that we’re too ashamed to own up to the fact that we actually hate each other and want to drive our opponents into ruin and despair.

Politics, in a civil society, fundamentally relies on arguments and persuasion.  To pass tax cut legislation will require changing the minds of some of the people who don’t want taxes cut.  To take marijuana off of the criminal drug schedule will require persuading some of those who think it should remain there.  To pass open-carry gun laws will involve convincing some who are opposed to people packing heat in Wal-Mart that it’s not such a terrible idea after all.  There is no and never will be a political party or group whose views on everything enjoys majority support and will do so in perpetuity, which means that at some point, in order to get what one wants, one will have to persuade someone who doesn’t want it.

What this means is that activity in which there not only is no effort to persuade, but which renders persuasion impossible is not political activity, as understood in a civil society.  And it seems to me quite clear that neither those active on the contemporary Right, nor those active on the contemporary Left have any interest in persuading one another or doing anything that would facilitate persuasion under any circumstances.  They just want to stick it to their opponents and the semblance of a process, like the rules in UFC, simply shows that they retain enough of a sense of shame to not want to admit it.

Rightist Brutalism

Rightist politics today has nothing to do with conservatism of any variety (or any other coherent ideology, for that matter), so I find myself searching for metaphors.  When I think of contemporary Rightism in the US – and unfortunately in a number of other places as well – I always think of this guy from the last presidential campaign –

— who then makes me think of Brutalist architecture —


— which perfectly captures the horrible spirit of the thing.  The rude ugliness.  The vulgarity.  The sense of besiegement.  The constant inflection of violence across the landscape of issues, whether the infatuation with guns, militarized policing, war, or pitiless deportations.  A pervasive, crude machismo and proud know-nothingism.  Trump is the face of this Brutalist Rightism, which usurped right wing politics in this country with startling speed and ferocity, leaving the principled conservatives bewildered and adrift, even as the craven and unprincipled caved and enabled it.  It is, at its core, rabble politics that when it passes – and such a thing isn’t really sustainable for any significant period of time – will leave those on the right with a terrible, political hangover and an enduring sense of shame that I hope may inspire their return to genuine politics.

Leftist Denunciationism (not a word)

And then there’s the wretched state of contemporary Leftist politics, which has nothing whatsoever to do with liberalism or progressivism as traditionally understood and which seems to me aptly characterized by these two characters:

The endless accusations and name-calling.  The moral preening and posturing.  The never-ending search for new sources of offense and resentment that otherwise might be thought a parody of Nietzschean slave morality.  The Orwellian manipulations of language and breathtaking hypocrisy, commonly manifested in an unprincipled asymmetry of concern.  With a few exceptions, Leftist Denunciationism eschews physical violence in favor of the social, professional, and legal destruction of its opponents (and insufficiently pure allies).  It is simultaneously more dangerous than Rightest Brutalism and less so: more because it has so deeply penetrated our educational and cultural institutions and potentially has a greater capacity to influence public mores through media and popular culture; less, because of its penchant for eating its own and presenting such a sour, unappealing countenance that it has the capacity to drive people into the arms of its enemies.  Unlike Rightist Brutalism, Leftist Denunciationism is not of the rabble but of the intelligentsia and cultural elite, so it is not at all clear that it will inevitably and quickly burn out.  Genuine liberals and progressives will have to fight a bitter internecine war to rid their movement of these toxic people and in that sense, I actually think we might see a quicker return of a healthy right wing politics than of a liberalism and progressivism worthy of anyone’s allegiance or respect.

In truth, the two sides are as similar as they are different.  Beyond their common rejection of politics, both overstate risks and harms beyond all proportion in order to justify their terrible behavior.  They are equally defensive and thin-skinned.  Ruthless,  pitiless, dishonest and heedless of the destruction they cause.  If only the rest of us who are not activist Rightists and Leftists – a substantial majority it should be noted – could summon up the energy and will, we might rid ourselves of these miserable shitheads once and for all.  Banish them together to some deserted island in the middle of the ocean somewhere.  They deserve one another.  That we can’t or won’t, alas, suggests that we deserve them too.





45 responses to “Provocations”

  1. s. wallerstein

    The rightwing guy in the video has been around as long as I can remember, since the 1950’s. He was educated to be that way because the U.S. empire needed willing cannon fodder to fight their wars in Korea, Viet Nam, Panama, Somalia, Iraq, Afghanistan, Syria, etc. His fanatic anti-communism also kept him from demanding basic social democratic measures, which citizens in other developed nations enjoy, such as public healthcare and free or very low-cost university public education. He’s a vulgar version of John Wayne.

    The leftwing women in the video are more recent. They didn’t exist when I was younger. I would say that they are in part the result of the lack of a tradition of genuine leftwing politics in the United States. Given the fanatical anti-communism that existed in the U.S. until the end of the Cold War, no democratic socialist or social democratic party had any chance of success. In many societies the existence of democratic socialist parties means that people on the left receive a political education, which keeps them from being victims of the purist fantasies that these women indulge in: they learn that politics means forming alliances, it means bargaining, it means compromising at times, it means convincing people to vote for you. Since the Democratic Party became just another supporter of the status quo, people on the left were on their own and drifted from one radical fad to another. Without real political education, a little learning is a dangerous thing, as they say.

  2. 1970scholar

    I really like this diagnosis. There is a really Arendtian spirit about it: you seem to saying that there needs to be independent and bounded space for what was always caked the political and the current climate is anti-political, one of the forms of which is a kind of violence masquerading as a political movement or coherent position.

  3. Dan

    Very even handed. Reminds me of lines from an old song about Irish sectarian conflict: “We tried to smooth things over/ But they all began to fight/ And me being strictly neutral/ I bashed everyone in sight.”

    But, seriously, I’m pretty much on board with what you’re saying, especially the point about people giving up on persuasion.

    Current trends are leading many to see economic and military forces as the real drivers of politics, and “civil society” as a slogan-term devoid of substantive content.

  4. Noah Lile-King

    While the Anita Sarkeesian and Milo Stewart clips do not have the kind of verbal formulae expected to succeed if one were attempting to persuade somebody on the Right, the messages in both of these clips nonetheless suggest some degree of underlying ‘persuasive intent.’ If the Sarkeesian and Stewart clips are neither intended (nor successful) in persuading persons on the Right, then the messages are directed (presumably) toward others on the Left who have yet to adopt the same views, or toward those who already hold such views but may perceivably benefit in some way from having those views further inculcated. If the recipients who become persuaded by such video clips (who are presumably other libererals) is generalizable across a broad range of Leftwing discourse, then this would further strengthen your argument that most of the activity on the Left does not persuade those on the Right to any extent worthy of recognition as genuine political activity across party lines.
    While these video clips seem to represent activity on the Left that attempts to, and succeeds in, persuading other liberals about particular issues (e.g., sexism and gender) more than it attempts to, or succeeds in, persuading those on the Right (at least not to a degree that satisfies your definition of constituting genuine/effective political activity across party lines) the question concerning the proportion of discourse on the Left that attempts to, and succeeds in, persuading only other liberals remains unclear. For instance, even if grant that our procedure relies on making intuitive judgments about the persuasive effects of various kinds of Left-Wing political activity on persons affiliated with the Right, we face the perplexing task of quantifying political activity so as to determine whether Left-Wing discourse is preponderantly directed towards, or succeeds in persuading, other liberals compared to those on the Right. Even if we suppose that we can reliably distinguish between political and non-political activity, as well as accurately identify Left-Wing discourse, we will still need to resolve some perplexing methodological questions regarding ontological identity. In order to determine whether the majority of discourse on the Left is directed toward, or actually persuades, more liberals than conservatives, we will need to compare the persuasive difference in the total sum of Left-Wing discourse that intends to persuade (or actually persuades) other liberals as opposed to conservatives. To appreciate one difficulty (among many) that will confront us when trying to seriously evaluate the merits of Kaufman’s thesis, briefly consider the following case:
    Suppose that an author publishes a 300-page book containing Left-Wing political activity which is directed toward, and successfully persuades, more liberals than it does conservatives. Suppose also that in addition to having published a 2,000-word summary of this book as an article in the Atlantic, the author also gives a 50-minute video-recorded presentation of this book at an academic conference, which is later uploaded as an edited 45-minute video Youtube.

    In such a case, how are we to determine the number of quantifiable units for this instance of political activity? At mere glance, one might argue that this case contains 4 distinct entities: (1) the 300-page book, (2) the 2,000-word Atlantic article, (3) the academic presentation, and (4) the edited Youtube video of the academic presentation. But perhaps this is incorrect, for somebody could also argue that there is only one entity here (i.e., the 300-page book) because purported entities 2,3, and 4 are all derivative in their content from entity (1), caused by (1), or share an ontological dependence for their existence on (1).
    While I am not claiming that your argument does not capture my intuitions about the broken political situation in which we find ourselves, I think that we ought to exercise caution and not draw conclusions too hastily. While I am perhaps as equally bewildered as you about the seemingly counterproductive activities on the Left that present themselves as ‘genuine political activity’ I think we need to reexamine both the intended audience, as well as the actual recipients of various forms of Left-Wing speech. Take for example, the analysis of socioeconomic inequality in the United States as the function of White Privilege or White Supremacy. My intuition here is that a respectable portion of those on the Left might think that such an analysis is disseminated with the intention of persuading not only other liberals, but also conservatives. One reason to think that this analysis might be regarded by some on the Left as a bipartisan political activity (intended to persuade) is because the analysis is thought to evoke an epiphanic experience in which whites ‘come to terms’ with their own whiteness, and thereby become persuaded. If this is true, such would be a counterexample to the view that Left-Wing political activity does not attempt to persuade conservatives. Instead, it seems like your frustration may lie not in the intention to persuade per se, but in a failure for the Left to realize that its attempts to persuade conservatives on particular issues are ineffective. My intuition is that the analysis of socioeconomic inequality as White Privilege pisses off many whites (both affluent and working class) who want to feel meritocratic about their achievements. My other intuition is that the analysis of socioeconomic inequality as White Supremacy becomes so diluted by the time it reaches the mainstream that the equivocation surrounding the ‘redefined’ term makes it sounds morally accusatory toward whites. Hopefully this example makes clear the distinction I think we ought to recognize concerning the difference between the intention of a political speech act versus the persuasive effect of a political speech act. Even if we grant that the White Privilege or White Supremacy analysis of socioeconomic inequality in the U.S. is correct, such analyses ought only to leave the Ivory Tower and enter political activity when they can persuade a greater portion of the electorate (whatever that means). Instead, I think that political activity on the Left would have far better success in persuading those on the Right if it were to focus on the correcting for the excesses of capitalism by focusing on improving the material conditions of the poor and working class (which cuts across lines of race, gender, identity, etc.).

  5. Peter Moss

    And this article is precisely part of the problem. Those two video clips were taken out of context.

    In the first, Anita Sarkeesian is confessing how obnoxious she became when she first learned about systems and systemic attitudes towards women, minorities and the LGBTQ community, seeing misogyny, racism and homophobia everywhere. By saying this, she was implying that not “everything is sexist, everything is racist, everything is homophobic”, and that she had to learn nuance and to pick her battles. That 6 second quote is intended as self criticism, not professed belief.

    Original video: 32:15

    The second clip with Milo Stewart is less obvious but still slightly mistaken for what that 13 second clip makes it out to be. Milo is talikng about implicit bias in everyone, a well documented and understood phenomenon. However, Milo didn’t do her/him self any favors by invoking ‘white people’. It’s not a very well presented video, but watching it with an open mind, its intended meaning is still discernible. I don’t agree with Milo’s acceptance of the concept of microaggressions.

    Original video with post-reaction comments:

    Like it or not, these two “characters” as you call them, are indeed part of contemporary leftist politics, even as traditionally understood. They are simply the outgrowth of progressive ideas around equality, and the result of historic marginalization. Nevertheless, they are on the fringe, just as the alt-right are on the fringe of rightist politics (though more mainstream now that Trump is in office).

    If you want a politics based on persuasion, facts, and honest debate, learn not to quote mine on youtube, lest you run afoul of confirmation bias.

  6. Bunsen Burner

    This is one of the things that struck me as my worked my way through some of the literature in one of your previous posts on trans issues. I think what we are seeing is a genuine split between people that want to live in quite different worlds. This is why concepts such as logic, fact, evidence and so on are worthless now. These people don’t care what you think in your world over there, they want the world to be a different way. They want a world where people think exactly the same way they do, have identical values, where even facts and logic are subjugated to validate only their opinions. I am not an optimist about this eventually passing. There seem to me too many institutional and technological forces at work reinforcing this behaviour.

  7. Sarkeesian has made a career of this sort of thing, regardless of her whatever hand waving at “nuance” she’d like to engage in, and while Stewart has “retracted” the role she plays in the discourse has not changed much at all. Anyone familiar with the sort of discourse I am talking about knows that it has become ubiquitous within activist leftist circles.

    Provocations are just that, and the clips were chosen in part because of their ridiculousness. (And brevity.) The full Stewart video is over 13 minutes long and isn’t any less ridiculous if you watch it in its entirety. Regardless they are just illustrations of a very pervasive kind of discourse on the Left, not scientific evidence. The bro-douchebag video is also cherry picked and ridiculous, but is intended to serve the same function.

  8. The sort of thing I am talking about suffers from an embarrassment of riches. You can swap out the Anita Sarkeesian video for this one, if you like.

    There is an indefinite supply of such mad stuff.

  9. There is an indefinite supply of such mad stuff.


  10. Noah: It is my view that the sort of activism I’m associating with Leftist Denunciationism alienates members of its own coalition. So, not only does it not persuade anyone on the Right, it makes the Left smaller, by chasing away moderate progressives and classical liberals.

  11. s. wallerstein

    Not only does it chase away moderates and classic liberals, it also chases away Marxists (for example, Brian Leiter) and non-Marxist social democrats (who appear very radical in terms of traditional U.S. mainstream politics). I would imagine that it would alienate someone like Chomsky too.

  12. Funny you should mention that. I am doing a dialogue with Leiter on BlogginHeads next week, and one of the topics is going to be the Marxist critique of Identity Politics.

    In my view, a lot of it is not even properly called “progressive.”

  13. s. wallerstein

    I’m looking forward to your dialogue with Leiter. I’m a big fan of his, both his work on Nietzsche and Marx as well as his criticism of current “leftwing” identity politics in the U.S. Leiter has cojones.

  14. Dan,
    I thought i would discuss how a lot of this developed out of the ’60s (itself, as cultural phenomenon, reaction to the ’50s), but it occurred to me on reflection that the problems go far deeper historically than we like to believe.

    In an effort to win over southern votes, the Founders effectively institutionalized slavery into the Constitution by way of apportioning percentages of the population, for electoral purposes, and counting slaves as, effectively, less than human. The Founders apparently felt this to be a rational if temporary resolution that could be unraveled rationally later on…. They were wrong. The rhetoric surrounding slavery (pro and con) began taking on more and more of a religious determination, thus re-introducing religious rhetoric – with all its irrationalism and is fervency and passion – into political discourse, which the ounders had hoped to avoid.. This finally entered into law via the Dred Scott decision, denying Africans any true humanity (and including at least one opinion that stated outright that the Bible superseded the Constitution in race matters). The fierce faith driven apocalyptic call to war from John Brown thrilled even those horrified by his violence, and became legend; Lincoln’s rational arguments against slavery, based on the principle of free labor, have been largely forgotten, and he himself was aware that he rode into office on a wave of sentiment. The successful suppression of the Confederacy brought the US back together as a nation – but left us completely fragmented as a culture. This fragmentation has only increased over time, and feeds into, and is fed by, emotions and intuitions, some of which are poorly articulated except in the rawest of expressions, most of which are grounded only in beliefs asserted to need no ground themselves.

    We often regard ourselves as children of the Enlightenment, which had such an impact n the Founders. But we are also the bastard offspring of slavery. Slavery created a social reality that resonates still today, not simply directly in race relations, but in the religious and political fragmentations and their continuing antagonisms.

    When does American politics stabilize into a norm including discursive reasoning and the respect this necessity? Only in periods of economic crisis. When the breadlines lengthen down the street, all suddenly American. (This was also true of war, but the structures and strategies of our current military machine and increasing distrust of that machine now mitigate against this.)

    My unpleasant point being, that what you rightfully argue should be the political norm, may, arguably, prove the exception. Events leading up to the Civil War, and its lingering aftermath, may be the true paradigm of American politics. I don’t think we will ever have such another war, and I don’t think on reflection most people want this as an achievable reality. Unfortunately, I do believe, there many – many – people who wish for it, day-dream it, long for it, as a ‘final solution’ to a fragmentation that is probably irreparable.

  15. Just like the stock market, there are times when economists claim the economy is solid yet the stock market goes down and of course the opposite is true. What you talk about in your article is more indicative of a reality disconnect in our reported politics which has become fodder for the news business which is more interested in turning issues into media entertainment for profit, hence the sensationilization created for every minor and major issue. Truth is both the right and left have won major gains yet the glass half full mentality feeds both sides into the encampment and wreck which the media exploits.

    You can say the roots of the right extreme which is characterized by white working class self reliant individuals who believe everyone has a chance to succeed is rooted in the post war era when the working class flourished in an age of modest mechanization and economic isolation that enhanced the growth of the labor force. A reality which is no longer there. The roots of the left likewise were fed by the post war economy which had an economic abundance to support the growth of the liberal educated class which previously was a small minority. Likewise the growth of the media in the 60’s and its ability to expose racial injustice, the Vietnam War etc. has grown into the internet which can expose a wider myriad of issues and also inflame outrage to unheard levels. The oversimplified view from the right that you can solve anything with hard work vs the left view that you can solve anything with the right law and policy is still an underlying emotion. Hence the right is inflamed by the left pinkos who want to pass all type of limiting laws and the left is inflamed by the right wing bigotracisthaters etc.

    Although as an academic you may be attuned to the underlying philosophies of these two “sides”, Trump’s business background taught him that the media persona of politicians had very little to do with his private dealings with them. Combine this with his media knowledge and all of that insider gossip he absorbs and you can see why he behaves the way he does.

    Trump’s underlying ideology was that the political world we perceive through the media is just a form of window dressing on reality. Those shitheads you want to ban to some island are in fact the main players in this farce.

  16. When I read these descriptions, and they seem apt, I have the feeling that these two extremes are neither Right nor Left and do not deserve that label any more. Maybe there should be a Centrist movement, perhaps eventually a 3rd US party, which re-values civility and pragmatism and eschews ideology, a home for moderates of all stripes who prefer to get things done via the agency of discussion, the politics you grieve the loss of.

  17. s.wallerstein

    The leftwing women in the video are more recent. They didn’t exist when I was younger.

    More likely you never heard of them because there was no internet.

    I recall clearly in the early 80’s being told that I was rapist even if I had never raped anyone and being told that rape was the method that all men used to control all women. The ‘all white people are racist’ has also been around for a long tim.

    The difference today is that just that we have social media to amplify them, but that people with actual power take them seriously.

    If people can destroy careers in this way then that is a problem. If they had no actual power to harm anyone then they could safely be ignored, the way we used to.

  18. Peter Moss

    Sampling bias. Don’t mistake what you see on youtube for ‘the left’ in general. It’s not ‘pervasive’. I can find an equally endless supply of traditional leftist views on youtube as well.

  19. I already addressed this point in my reply. There is no sampling bias. The videos were not given as evidence.

  20. s. wallerstein

    Robin Herbert,

    I’m a lot older than you imagine. I wasn’t young in the 80’s, I was in my 40’s. When I speak of being young, I refer to the 1950’s or to the early 60’s. The rightwing patriotic thug in the YouTube link was a common figure in the 1950’s, but no one back then said that all men are rapists or that all white people are racists (the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King and the NAACP welcomed participants from progressive white people). The only feminist writer that was around in the 50’s or early 60’s was Simone de Beauvoir and as you know, she is a serious philosopher and social critic who would never make a stupid generalization like saying that all men are rapists.

  21. S. Wallerstein: I doubt his counterpart in 1950 would have shouted “I just fucked your whole family with my big cock!” as the gentleman in the video does.

  22. s.wallerstein

    I’m a lot older than you imagine. I wasn’t young in the 80’s, I was in my 40’s.

    You didn’t say how much younger. 40 years ago doesn’t seem ‘recent’ to most of us.

  23. Zac

    I’m sympathetic to Moss here. The screeching dude-bro is beyond the pale in a way that Stewart and Sarkeesian aren’t. They’re persuadable, or at least trying to engage in a debate, however little you may think of their arguments. But that’s how argument works. You don’t always get what you want, but at least you get something. Dude-bro isn’t playing that game. He’s playing caveman politics. He’s playing threats of violence. S & S are closer to any number of people on the right who fall into political cliches, but are nevertheless playing the game of giving and defending reasons, and I don’t see that leveling them with dude-bro is at all helpful to the overall conversation, honestly. If you want to dissuade people against ressentiment and push them towards bridging ideological divides, you would make a better example not to take little snippets of people’s discourse (one of them who looks barely beyond a child) and holding them up as shame-inducing posterboards. What are the genuine and understandable precedents of what they say? Is there any common ground between you and them? What are the qualifications you think they aren’t giving due consideration? What are the ways you would try to persuade them if you were sitting across from them? Would you bear down on them with gritted teeth? Would you tell them that they were of a piece with some guy threatening to fuck dudes up and fuck their wives? It’s not enough to just be in between two arbitrarily extremes to be a “moderate” in these days. It takes a deep commitment to sifting our resentments and our reasons and carefully balancing them against whatever person or discourse (or non-discourse, as the case may be) we happen to be engaging with.

  24. If you noticed, I did indicate that difference in my characterization of the two. I explicitly said that the Leftist Denunciationists are not rabble.

  25. There was no leveling. I presented them as bad politics in their own individual ways.

  26. While the Anita Sarkeesian and Milo Stewart clips do not have the kind of verbal formulae expected to succeed if one were attempting to persuade somebody on the Right, the messages in both of these clips nonetheless suggest some degree of underlying ‘persuasive intent.’

    The point of a YouTube video is not to persuade, it is to get lots and lots of watch hours and subscribers.

  27. Right. Persuasive intent. Calling people you don’t know racists, sexists, and transphobes. Very persuasive.

  28. s. wallerstein

    Dan K.,

    In 1950 the gentleman in question would have no need to shout obscenities because almost the whole country believed that the United States was the leader of the free world, the greatest and freest country ever, a model for humanity, etc. Those who questioned those beliefs were silent out of fear of McCarthyism. So said gentleman did not face the frustrating experience of having his cherished patriotic dogma publicly questioned.

  29. As I said, the point of YouTube videos is rarely to persuade, it is to get watch hours and subscribers.

    Nevertheless Martin Luther King called lots of people he didn’t know racists and is generally considered to have been very persuasive. Depends how you do it.

  30. We’ve had this argument before and I’m not having it again.

  31. s. wallerstein

    Sure, Martin Luther King called people “racists”. He called people “racists” who attacked civil rights marches with vicious dogs, who did not let African-Americans enter restaurants or universities, who refused to rent housing to African-Americans, etc., as any rational person would. When he was assassinated, King was organizing a poor people’s campaign, one which would united black and white poor people against a socio-economic system which oppressed and exploited all of them: he did not blame the entire plight of African-Americans on the non-fact that all whites are racists.

    I actively participated for several years, 1963, 1964 and 1965, in CORE, Congress on Racial Equality, a civil rights organization and was even arrested once in a demonstration. Never never never did the African-Americans in the organization make me feel that, as a white person, I was behaving as a racist towards them, even though I was young, often thoughtless and undoubtedly guilty of countless instances of minor unconscious or implicit bias, which the African-Americans undoubtedly perceived, but didn’t consider worthy of comment.

  32. Of course King didn’t call everyone racist. That’s why I don’t have these idiotic conversations. It’s just arguing for the sake of arguing. Like a nervous tic or something.

  33. Zac

    Hey Dan,

    I don’t think you were leveling them across the board. I think you were leveling them on the issue of persuasion. That was at the heart of your argument and my post. In your words: “Politics, in a civil society, fundamentally relies on arguments and persuasion”. And yet, in putting these people up as the twin poles of anti-politics (dude-bro and S&S), you’re paving over the actual persuasive landscape and misconstruing them.

    In Sarkeesian’s case, you’ve even quoted her in a misleading way. In context, she’s actually actually quoting her younger self in a purposefully hyperbolic way and calling herself obnoxious at the time for calling out bias in everything instead of learning to pick her battles. If she did the same to you, wouldn’t that alienate you? Wouldn’t that be an immense and needless impediment to dialogue? Wouldn’t come off as a person in search of offense (i.e. one of the many offenses you list)?

    You may disagree with S&S on some deep ideological issues, feeling that bias isn’t as widespread as they claim, and you may feel that they’re failing the rhetorical game on key points, but to call them “shitheads” and demand that “Genuine liberals and progressives will have to fight a bitter internecine war to rid their movement of these toxic people” is running into deep pot-kettle territory. How does this not fall into the name-calling and moral preening you decry elsewhere?

    Now I know you obviously mean a rhetorical war, but clearly not one in which you feel any particular obligation to persuade them or people in their ambit. You have, as you’ve accused them of doing, put them beyond an ideological pale, exiled them from the realm of rational debate and demanded a scorched-earth denunciation of them. They aren’t persons per se, but a type, and whatever ways they’ve trafficked in that type have ruined them beyond repair. I mean, hey, I’m doing this in a way with dude-bro. Deciding who does or doesn’t deserve to be part of the overton window is always a part of political discourse. But in two cases we have people trying to make arguments, however shitty you may consider them. In the other, there’s no argument at all. Maybe you think the risks and harm they put forward don’t justify their means. Maybe you think the risks and harm you put forward justifies your means. All open to debate, I’m afraid.

    I like your essays (political, philosophical or otherwise) and I think you’re an astute and insightful person, but I don’t think this essay does you or the topic justice. If you want to make an argument for politics as argument and persuasion, then as a public intellectual it’s up to you to show us what arguments and persuasion, at their best, look like.

  34. Provocations are not supposed to do what you describe here. They are essentially rants; heavily rhetorical and somewhat hyperbolic. They are all like that. I don’t do them very often. Only when the mood strikes.

  35. Also, Sarkeesian has not improved at all really. It doesn’t matter which clip you pull. I chose this one because it’s so short. But she’s pretty much pulling the same scam she has built her so called career on

  36. As for the rest I’m afraid I just profoundly disagree. I think the identity politics crowd are terrible and do think they are equally to blame for ruining our politics. Sorry, but there it is.

  37. Zac

    Fair enough if you want to rant, but a rant that falls into itself and unintentionally becomes what it’s about is just a different creature, more a Demonstration than a Provocation. But I’ll leave it that.

  38. That’s your view. Obviously many other readers saw it differently, and most are liberals themselves, as I am.

    It’s all good! It would be strange if we agreed on everything.

  39. Of course King didn’t call everyone racist.

    Perhaps you can point to where anyone ever suggested that he did?

    I certainly didn’t. You said

    Right. Persuasive intent. Calling people you don’t know racists, sexists, and transphobes. Very persuasive.

    And I pointed out that King and others have been very persuasive calling other people racist.

  40. I worked next to a Texan Republican voters for a couple of years right up to just before the last US election. I think he is more typical as the face of Trump voters. He spoke articulately, calmly and passionately about his distaste for Hilary Clinton and the reasons for this. If he voted for Trump then it would have been as the lesser of two evils. He was certainly nothing like the man saying made in effing America.

    Trump had a decisive victory but it was due to a very small change in voting patterns. Trump lost votes in those swing states compared with the last Presidential elections, but Clinton lost more.

    Likely the vast majority of people just voted the way they did in the last election.

    Extreme voices get amplified by social media and an increasingly polarised media, a more thorough look is needed before we can really know what is going on.

  41. This talk about Martin Luther King reminds me of what my first thoughts were here.

    A lot of this rhetoric on the right developed in the fifties (McCarthyism, John Birch Society); on the left, a lot of it developed during the ‘Cultural Revolution’ of the late sixties, early seventies.

    MLK used ‘racist’ to refer to those who were actively, openly racists, eg. segregationists. I have heard his “I have a dream speech” many times, and I believe him – a society in which color did not define us was his ideal. I have also read his writings, and those of Malcom X, after his return from pilgrimage, during which he realized that Islam was a raceless religion (it’s most winning attribute), and became a Moslem, rather than a “Black Muslim.” The Civil Rights Movement I signed on to, as .s. wallerstein remarks, was about bringing people together.

    By the late 60s dialectical politics had infested the left, and as we entered the 70s, we began to hear more and more that the difference between White and Black was so great, that Whites were just naturally racist. By the early 80s Afrocentrism was getting introduced into the Academy with its relativistic revision of fundamentals of historical knowledge. On the streets, Black communities began to encircle their wagons around churches, in a positive way; or gangs in a negative way. White business interests were perfectly happy with this arrangement. An ‘ethnically pure’ African American community is an easily targeted market. But it meant the end of the Civil Rights Movement.

    The Black Lives Matter movement is important in two ways – first, police have been trained for some 30 years in lethal force response to confrontation with suspects. This has to change, regardless of who those suspects are. I understand that this was developed as response to shootings of police officers in deadly confrontations; But there are alternatives to emptying your clip in response to the slightest gesture of the suspect. Along these same lines, ethnic profiling also needs to be revisited and revamped.

    More importantly, the Black Lives Matter movement is giving us an opportunity to revisit what it is we really want from ethnic relations in this country – it could possibly revitalize the Civil Rights Movement as a coming-together of different ethnic groups, rather than yet another fragmentation. This is especially important in the era of the first openly racist President we’ve had since the 1920s.

    But I am a pessimist. Such a coming-together requires hard work, dialogue, activism. Sitting around feeling special and ‘”they” will never understand me” is very easy, and sounds great with the right rhythm track.

  42. Zac


    Trump won, but I wouldn’t say that he had a decisive victory. He lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, came into office with one of the lowest approval ratings in recent memory, and would’ve lost the electoral college but for 75,000 votes across three rust-belt states (that’s an above-average football stadium of people). That’s incredibly tenuous.

  43. Electorally his victory was decisive and that’s all that matters in the US system.

  44. Zac

    Trump won, but I wouldn’t say that he had a decisive victory. He lost the popular vote by almost 3 million, came into office with one of the lowest approval ratings in recent memory, and would’ve lost the electoral college but for 75,000 votes across three rust-belt states (that’s an above-average football stadium of people). That’s incredibly tenuous.

    I already pointed out how slim his victory was in those states and I already pointed out that Trump won them by not turning off as many voters as Clinton did.

    Not only is it an above-average football stadium of people, but more relevantly it is also an average congregation of a mega church in those states and there are lots of mega churches in those states and they are organising already for the mid terms. And these mega churches are only a small proportion of the evangelicals and Catholics in those states who saw the opportunity in 2016 to change the political landscape of the USA not for 4 years or 8 years (they probably don’t like Trump any more than most of us do), but for generations to come, which is of course what happened this week. Another SCOTUS vacancy coming up soon.

  45. […] Politics, in a civil society, fundamentally relies on arguments and persuasion. To pass tax cut legislation will require changing the minds of some of the people who don’t want taxes cut. To take marijuana off of the criminal drug schedule will require persuading some of those who think it should remain there. To pass open-carry gun laws will involve convincing some who are opposed to people packing heat in Wal-Mart that it’s not such a terrible idea after all. There is no and never will be a political party or group whose views on everything enjoys majority support and will do so in perpetuity, which means that at some point, in order to get what one wants, one will have to persuade someone who doesn’t want it. […]