The Demons In Our Discourse
The most sensible thing I’ve read so far about the horrible Pittsburgh shooting was written by Commentary editor John Podhoretz. He points out how foolish it is to blame Donald Trump for this shooting. Based on what we know now, the shooter hated Trump because he thinks Trump is a Jew-lover. Trump said after the shooting that if the synagogue would have had an armed guard, this might not have happened. A number of folks are spiting Trump for this, saying it’s outrageous for him to have said that. Podhoretz responds:
To which the only logical response is: Are you people insane? There are armed guards inside and around synagogues and Jewish institutions all over the place. Jewish day schools have armed guards. Besides which, many of us go to work in buildings with armed guards.
It’s true. My wife used to work for Commentary back in the late 1990s. At the time, the offices were in the American Jewish Committee’s building. Armed guard present. In the late 1990s! It’s horrifying and disgusting that this should be the case anywhere, but this is not new.
Is it a wonderful or healthy thing that this is necessary? No. But the act of saying that it might be a good idea because there are lunatics who might otherwise do terrible things should be unobjectionable. Is what Trump said only bad in the eyes of many who populate the Twitter feed I now only read (I have stopped posting all but article links on the site) because it was Trump who said it? Yes.
Where I won’t let Trump off the hook here is the way in which he does nothing to try to calm the political atmosphere and rather seeks to secure an advantage from the way it roils. He should be better than this, because everyone should, and he’s not, and that’s both sad and bad. He’s just not a good person, and there are times, times like these, when the country would benefit from having a better person as president. The passage in Proverbs from which “the tree of life” derives also features these verses it would do well for the president to reflect upon: “Keep sound wisdom and discretion, so they will be life to your soul, and adornment to your neck./Then you will walk in your way securely/And your foot will not stumble.”
In a time of horror, we should all look to the blessings of wisdom to save us from the moral idiocy into which we can all fall, all too easily.
I think this is true, and important. Trump thrives on keeping everything and everybody wound up. Honestly, I don’t even think it’s a matter of calculation with him. I think this is just what he does naturally. But I also think it’s true that Trump is both a catalyst to this process of cultural disintegration, and a product of it.
Today the NYT reports more on the background of Cesar Sayuc, the suspect in the pipe bombings. The two reports — first here, second here — are seriously worth reading. This guy was pretty clearly mentally ill — his mother had begged him to get treatment — and a colossal loser in life. He seized onto the fringes of Trumpism as a way to feel great again. From the first NYT story, these quotes from a lawyer who once represented the family:
“He had tremendous anger slowly boiling up, and resentment, and felt ‘less than,’” Mr. Lowy said. “He lacked an identity. He created a persona.”
When they first met, Mr. Lowy said, Mr. Sayoc brought in a scrapbook filled with notes and photographs he had collected from wrestlers, bodybuilders and strippers, table scraps from a world that he idolized.
“He comes across like a 15-year-old,” Mr. Lowy said. “He has a total lack of maturity.”
Sayuc — not an angry white man, but an angry Filipino-Italian-American man who fantasized that he was really a Seminole Indian — comes off like a character out of Dostoevsky by way of Jerry Springer. I’m not kidding. It is easy to imagine his mental instability and sense of isolation, humiliation, and eagerness to commit violence finding an outlet in Islamic extremism or Antifa. Based on what we know now, it’s impossible to determine to what extent what he did — if, in fact, he is proved guilty — is the result of insanity, and to what extent it is a philosophical problem.
(Similarly, look at the latest about the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. He was a bland loner living on the margins — except online, where he was a Jew-hating demon.)
This brings to mind a conversation between a couple of characters in the novel A Gentleman In Moscow, which I listened to on the long drive to and from Texas this weekend. The title character, Sasha, worries about a younger character who has become enamored of Bolshevik ideals, in a way that strikes him as dehumanizing. That is, he believes that the power of ideas, and her own innate idealism, is putting her at risk of losing her humanity. Sasha’s interlocutor cautions him to be patient, because this young person is only 18, and didn’t he (Sasha) and his friends say crazy things when they were young and idealistic?
Yes, says Sasha, they closed down cafes talking passionately about their ideals. But they never actually tried to do any of the things they fantasized about. The implication here is that under Bolshevism, radical idealists are in power, and they have the ability to destroy the lives of real people to achieve their utopian schemes. Of course this is exactly what the Bolsheviks did. It’s a kind of ideological possession.
This, I think, is what gives special weight to what Podhoretz says about Trump. He implicitly gives people permission to dwell in their humiliation, rage, and paranoia. I think that’s where he lives too. Trump is an incarnation of a certain malign spirit emerging in our culture.
But: what’s especially interesting to me is how so many in the media, and among academics, can only see part of this picture. And their distorted vision ends up both anathematizing non-left-wing discourse, and blinding them to how their own side does the same thing. I’m not offering this as an example of whataboutism. I’m interested in the cultural phenomena driving extremism.
This morning, I heard the NPR morning news host, Lulu Garcia-Navarro, lead into a discussion with two academics about how language use drives extremism. The transcript is not yet available, but listen to the introduction. She ties people who talk about their concerns regarding the migrant caravan to Sayuc and to the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter. The framing was so irritating — and so typical of the media — that I turned the radio off.
I would very much like to know — seriously — if the mainstream media ever examine the extreme way some academics and left-wing thought leaders talk about whites, males, white males, conservative Christians, straight people, and others they consider to be the Other. Consider this language, for example, from a prominent Twitter account:
Dumbass fucking Jews marking up the Internet with their opinions like dogs pissing on fire hydrants.
Oh man, it’s kind of sick how much I enjoy being cruel to young queer Latinas.
1) Black women are bullshit.
2) No one cares about working-class white males
3) You can threaten anyone on the Internet, except cops.
By now some of you will have figured out that these were among many racist, sexist tweets sent out by Sarah Jeong, who was hired earlier this year as an editorial board member of The New York Times. She did not write the tweets as I have rendered them here. In truth, she wrote them all about white men, e.g., “Oh man, it’s kind of sick how much I enjoy being cruel to old white men.”
It is inconceivable that a person who tweeted things like that about anybody other than white men could get a job in the mainstream media, much less at the most powerful media organization in America. I went to NPR.org, typed “Sarah Jeong” into the search engine, and found only one story about Sarah Jeong — from an interview with media reporter David Folkenflik, in which this exchange was part of a discussion about censorship:
KING: Let me pivot to Sarah Jeong. She’s a well-regarded digital journalist. The New York Times hires her as an opinion columnist. Conservative critics kind of dig up these old tweets where she mocks white people and men very, very explicitly. And the Times says, we are standing by her. Why is that?
FOLKENFLIK: Well I think, among other things, the context in which she wrote those tweets are important. In isolation, they are genuinely offensive. They’re offensive about whites – white men in particular, older whites, about the idea of white culture. And yet she was responding to a deluge of misogynist, of anti-women, of racist tweets. And she was doing it in like kind. She says now that she regrets it but that she was rhetorically trying to mimic and mirror the kind of antagonistic things. The Times says, look; we talked about it. We don’t approve it. We’ve made clear that we don’t accept that from our folks. And at the same time, we’re not going to be bullied into not accepting somebody who’s evolved. This is an exceptionally talented journalist about digital issues, as well as a Harvard Law graduate.
Shorter Folkenflik: right-wing nuts made her do it, and besides, she’s one of us — she even went to Harvard!
I don’t mean to isolate NPR here. This kind of discourse is very common in the media, and in academia. Look at this, retweeted by the (liberal!) Evergreen State professor who was driven out of his job by Social Justice Warriors:
How can this still be happening? https://t.co/yjKzgARxMZ
— Bret Weinstein (@BretWeinstein) October 25, 2018
It’s still happening because the authorities controlling this discourse — at Evergreen State in this case — believe that it is permissible.
A reader sends in this snapshot from the streets of Manhattan today:
Though they have the official logo of the New York City Department of Sanitation, they are not official — they’re fake. Still, this is what passes for public discourse in New York City. These images have been picked up by the conservative media sphere and are being widely shared. They are culturally catechetical.
Again, I’m not into whataboutism. I want to strongly object, though, to the distorted picture the mainstream media and institutional cultural figures (e.g., academics) give of the identity politics discourse in this country. Perhaps because of their personal beliefs, and perhaps because condemning “whiteness” etc. is normative within their own cultural bubbles, the media are giving a huge pass to the left when it comes to using language to normalize spite against the Other.
One of the most chilling moments of my life came back in the year 2000, when I visited Yad Vashem, Israel’s Holocaust memorial. The museum there was hosting an exhibition about how the German media prepared the German people for the Holocaust. It was deeply shocking to see how, as far back as the teens, German media began talking about Jews as if they were parasites. It was minor at first, but it steadily built. By the time Hitler arrived, full of hatred for Jews, Germany was ready for him.
The point is that language — especially public language — really does matter, because it frames what we are allowed to talk about publicly, and to think about. The academics interviewed on NPR today aren’t wrong about that. We can see what the discourse on the right does, or can do. The media, though, rarely if ever examine themselves, and the normative discourse among liberals. Here’s a minor but telling example: an October 15 Washington Post feature about a new Netflix cooking show. Check out this graf:
To put it bluntly: Most travel food shows are about white male discovery. And most home cooking shows are about white female domesticity. Nosrat gently rejects all of that.
Really? Maybe Samin Nosrat “gently” rejects all of that because it didn’t occur to her to think of her cooking documentary series as a political statement. Maybe she thinks of things in the way that normal people do.
The reporter, Maura Judkis, is a white female in her early 30s from the East Coast, daughter of a photographer and an art professor — who studied as George Washington University and USC — two coastal liberal colleges — and who just could not keep herself from bringing identity politics into a feature about a cooking show hosted by a female chef of Iranian heritage. I’m eager to watch this show, but I’m eager to watch it in spite of the fact that the (white) Washington Post reporter frames the program as a blow against White People Hegemony.
Is the chef (and TV host’s) ethnic background important here? Maybe so. What gets to me is the knee-jerk framing of the phenomenon in terms of racial and gender identity. One reason I loved the late Anthony Bourdain’s food travel show so much is that he introduced his viewers to very different cultures, sympathetically. So many people raved about his West Virginia episode — rightly so! — because Bourdain was up front in the show about how the right-wing working-class white people of West Virginia were his opposites in just about every way. But he wanted to learn about them with the same humanity that he showed to people from cultures halfway around the world.
But I suppose to Maura Judkis, Bourdain’s beautiful, complex body of work is about “white male discovery.”
To hell with that.
Last year, I did a series of posts on the violent, racist radicalism of a black professor at Texas A&M. The Chronicle of Higher Education did a big story about it positing the professor as the victim of a white conservative journalist — this, even though the black philosopher was openly and repeatedly engaging in anti-white, even violently anti-white, rhetoric in his published work and podcast interviews. But that’s normal in the higher education world. This kind of thing happens all the time, but it’s invisible to the mainstream media.
I must say, though, that the radicalism of right-wing discourse is often invisible, or at least its poisonous nature is not as visible, to us conservatives — in part because we are so focused on left-wing outrages. I’m writing this from a coffee shop where, as I was coming in, I ran into a friend, a retired professor who is a conservative, and one of the most gracious gentlemen you could ever hope to meet. A few months back, he had to drop out of a discussion group he was a part of — all of them white conservative male retirees. The way the others in the group (all hardcore pro-Trump people) talked about people Not Like Themselves alienated this man. Even though he broadly shared their political views, he was disgusted by their stridency and inhumanity.
I have to admit that whenever I hear a certain kind of conservative Trump supporter get started talking, I walk away, even if I think they have something of a point. Maybe I should not just withdraw, but instead start challenging them. Mostly I don’t want to get into an argument with a hothead, but if people like me don’t start speaking out, and letting these hotheads know that I’m a conservative, but I reject their rhetoric, and find it harmful, aren’t we part of the problem? How can I expect reasonable liberals to police the extremists among themselves if I’m not willing to do the same when I’m confronted with it?
I wish some mainstream journalists would give a serious, critical look at the terms and categories of left-wing discourse, and ask how that is expanding the Overton window towards extremist identity politics.
A media — right-wing and left-wing both — and politicians, and academics, who double down on identity politics while blaming the Other Side for doubling down on identity politics are preparing this country for something evil. Once it starts, it’s going to be very, very hard to stop.
(Note to readers: if you want to post something in the comments section that engages in knee-jerk, simplistic “but they did it first!” or “but they are worse than we are,” I’m going to send it straight to the trash.)
UPDATE: I’m shutting down comments here. I don’t have the time to edit them carefully, and frankly, I don’t have a clear idea where the line should be in governing discourse on this thread.