Saturday, March 28, 2015

radical darkness

The more accurate one's analysis of political power, the more likely it is to be ignored, ridiculed (triggering ingroup heuristics), drowned out by volume, rearranged in straw, etc. A naturalistically scrutable selection process insulates establishment politics from intellectual threats, which is exactly why these ideas are so delusional, so easily picked apart, like a pop star's self-image. Power has an entourage. Or, switching it up, over there, there's an enormous continent where dodo birds run wild, and into each other; over here are a bunch of rad-intellectual wolves virtually feasting, feeling satisfied for moments, then empty inside. 

Being the top of the food chain, more predator than prey (on the intellectual level only of course), the radicalness of the rad intellectual is rarely challenged. Since there are better ways of dealing with it, see above, it's rarely understood in the first place. Would be a misappropriation of resources. Unpreyed-upon dodo birds thus become more feeble and powerful by way of the same process. The triggering of non-intellectual (non-cognitive-dissonance-based) heuristics, the ability to win the symbolic war, or however you want to describe the way propaganda and apologetics work, is efficient, allowing the dodo birds to prosper. It does leave them quite defenseless, though, which makes attacking them all the more frustrating.

At the same time, there are aspects of radness that rarely get questioned. I'm thinking mainly of the guiding intuitions that make rads an ingroup in the first place. This person escaped the darkness of the rad left, then went after it on its own merits, making four criticisms:
First, dogmatism. One way to define the difference between a regular belief and a sacred belief is that people who hold sacred beliefs think it is morally wrong for anyone to question those beliefs. If someone does question those beliefs, they’re not just being stupid or even depraved, they’re actively doing violence. They might as well be kicking a puppy. When people hold sacred beliefs, there is no disagreement without animosity. In this mindset, people who disagreed with my views weren’t just wrong, they were awful people. I watched what people said closely, scanning for objectionable content. Any infraction reflected badly on your character, and too many might put you on my blacklist. Calling them ‘sacred beliefs’ is a nice way to put it. What I mean to say is that they are dogmas. 
Yes, this is a problem. Rads need personal lives but they're surrounded by machine cogs in denial. Rad politics says almost everyone you know, including your mom, is the problem. OK, and you're kind of the problem too. Ouch. The whiter, maler, heteroer, Americaner you are, the more of a problem you are. Only selling points that come to mind are a clean conscience and a chance to virtually feast on dodo birds. But I imagine rads are tormented by conscience more than most, and also, complicity is unavoidable. And the dodo bird feast just isolates you. This though, is not a case against radicalism, just an observation that it's not a great deal. I don't see any support for the author's implication that the dogma is baseless and clung to in the face of contravening evidence.  
[Second,] Thinking this way quickly divides the world into an ingroup and an outgroup — believers and heathens, the righteous and the wrong-teous. “I hate being around un-rad people,” a friend once texted me, infuriated with their liberal roommates. Members of the ingroup are held to the same stringent standards. Every minor heresy inches you further away from the group. People are reluctant to say that anything is too radical for fear of being been seen as too un-radical. Conversely, showing your devotion to the cause earns you respect. Groupthink becomes the modus operandi. When I was part of groups like this, everyone was on exactly the same page about a suspiciously large range of issues. Internal disagreement was rare. The insular community served as an incubator of extreme, irrational views.
I've said much of this before. The ingroup is blind to its ingroup failings. Radicals can become dodo birds, too. Rads, in the end, are humans blind to their own blindness like everyone else, but hopefully slightly less so, having dismissed so many manifest absurdities. Radness itself is essentially a claim to have everything inside the frame. Everyone else is down on earth, at best in an airplane. Rads claim the view from outerspace. But you can't actually be outside. And where is the view of the viewer? That part is "irrational." Unavoidably so. I don't see how it's more irrational than the author's post-radical view. And the argument against extremity always turns out to be, in my experience, semantic blather. Mozart was extremely good at writing music. Extremely common denominator-ey as well. Far as I know, there's nothing to the argument that "extreme" is bad, as such.
[Third,] High on their own supply, activists in these organizing circles end up developing a crusader mentality: an extreme self-righteousness based on the conviction that they are doing the secular equivalent of God’s work. It isn’t about ego or elevating oneself. In fact, the activists I knew and I tended to denigrate ourselves more than anything. It wasn’t about us, it was about the desperately needed work we were doing, it was about the people we were trying to help. The danger of the crusader mentality is that it turns the world in a battle between good and evil. Actions that would otherwise seem extreme and crazy become natural and expected. I didn’t think twice about doing a lot of things I would never do today.
Oh, it's about ego and elevating oneself. How else are you gonna have an ingroup? But yeah, in the sense intended, a kind of selflessness, what I've called Extensive Norm. Yes to the battle between good and evil. Only need to read the highly esteemed Arthur Silber. I don't like it but don't see a way around it other than to be aware of the absurdity of one's own position.
There is a lot to admire about the activists I befriended. They have only the best intentions. They are selfless and dedicated to doing what they think is right, even at great personal sacrifice. Sadly, in this case their conscience has betrayed them. My conscience betrayed me. It was only when I finally gave myself permission to be selfish, after months and months of grinding on despite being horribly burnt out, that I eventually achieved the critical distance to rethink my political beliefs.
I'm no activist but yes, the guilt. Kind of glad someone made it out. Jealous, even.
[Fourth,] Anti-intellectualism is a pill I swallowed, but it got caught in my throat, and that would eventually save me. It comes in a few forms. Activists in these circles often express disdain for theory because they take theoretical issues to be idle sudoku puzzles far removed from the real issues on the ground. This is what led one friend of mine to say, in anger and disbelief, “People’s lives aren’t some theoretical issue!” That same person also declared allegiance to a large number of theories about people’s lives, which reveals something important. Almost everything we do depends on one theoretical belief or another, which range from simple to complex and from implicit to explicit. A theoretical issue is just a general or fundamental question about something that we find important enough to think about. Theoretical issues include ethical issues, issues of political philosophy, and issues about the ontological status of gender, race, and disability. Ultimately, it’s hard to draw a clear line between theorizing and thinking in general. Disdain for thinking is ludicrous, and no one would ever express it if they knew that’s what they were doing.
Maybe the author knew some people like this but it feels like a strawman. My own take on political intellectualism is that it's complicated because it's apologetics, a distraction selected for by the political ecosystem. It's stupidly complicated. The answers to human political problems are actually quite simple. If you don't want kids in Gaza to die in their homes, don't bomb them, etc. If someone's explaining their super-complicated theory about how to touch your toes, and they can't do it while you can, the smart thing to do is to ignore their intellectualism.
Specifically on the radical leftist side of things, one problem created by this anti-theoretical bent is a lot of rhetoric and bluster, a lot of passionate railing against the world or some aspect of it, without a clear, detailed, concrete alternative. There was a common excuse for this. As an activist friend wrote in an email, “The present organization of society fatally impairs our ability to imagine meaningful alternatives. As such, constructive proposals will simply end up reproducing present relations.” This claim is couched in theoretical language, but it is a rationale for not theorizing about political alternatives. For a long time I accepted this rationale. Then I realized that mere opposition to the status quo wasn’t enough to distinguish us from nihilists. In the software industry, a hyped-up piece of software that never actually gets released is called “vapourware.” We should be wary of political vapourware. If somebody’s alternative to the status quo is nothing, or at least nothing very specific, then what are they even talking about? They are hawking political vapourware, giving a “sales pitch” for something that doesn’t even exist.
This one's complicated and there's a good point in there about why radness tends toward darkness. It's also a bit of a red herring. An asteroid approaches earth. Someone says, accurately, "we're all gonna die." Another cries "What good are you?! Your words are nothing but vapourware!". If it's true it's true, not that it's true true, i.e., essentially true. Just true in the normal, everyday sense. Need to keep the descriptive what-it-is separate from the normative how-I'd-like-it-to-be. But then, other good point hinted at in there, what good does it do, to the extent the metaphor applies, to talk incessantly about the inevitable asteroid (though it bears mentioning that the human catastrophe is more of the already-been-happening-for-milennia than the approaching variety)? It's reasonable to suggest that it only makes sense to talk about a terrible situation if there's some hope of strategizing around it. Delusion has its perks, not that the author, and this is no small thing, is making the argument for delusion. It's hard to sell it to yourself if you call it that, yes?

But/and/or well, if the asteroid is inevitable, hold me accountable for any futile, self-aggrandizing proselytistic tendencies I may have but consider that there may also be value in grieving and shouting at the asteroid, though admittedly, some of us would do well to talk ourselves into a bit more delusion. Or, and this is tough for me personally, into a kind of posthumous personal optimism. IOZ, bleak forecast and all, at least presented himself as having mastered this. Kevin Carson gets by with a rosier, though still perfectly rad, forecast. On the other hand, to dismiss radical analysis because it makes you sad (strawman denial time -- this is not the author's stated reason, though it's implied as a reason and is arguably the reason) is, again, somewhat enviable, but also, perhaps, necessarily delusional.


d.mantis said...

The left is obsessed with the ingroup. Ingroups within ingroups that themselves are fringe from a larger left ingroup. Its nothing but boundary setting.

Oh sure, the message often comes from someone that relates a wonderful tale of a gradual maturing process leading to more nuanced understandings of issues and how they are now more "complex". Yet, in most cases it simply is thinly veiled cover to someone that is now getting a paycheck by a broader and more well-funded ingroup than the last.

It's all relative in the end anyway. This person has moved beyond the seeming naivety of radness yet has fallen into the boundaries allowed by "acceptable behavior" that are just as rife with group-think and dogma. The only real difference is employment prospects.

I mean, if we are talking about real issues of life and death for marginalized people, the "acceptable behavior" crowd doesn't exactly have a great track record. The machine keeps grinding us all into pulp even though "moar better democrats!".

I don't know. I could just be an asshole.

Devin Lenda said...

Yeah, all great points. I think good "dogma" is along the lines of "this is an apple, I'm pretty damn sure of it, I'm going to proceed like it's an apple until proven otherwise." No grand metaphysical or ethical claims about the apple necessary, just want to eat it. The author implies that strong belief is biased/irrational/mistaken but it's the right call if someone's trying to tell you the apple is an orange.