Tuesday, November 1, 2016

2016: A Liberal Odyssey

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

~ Walter Benjamin - Angel of History

In a heart-wrenching letter published in the New York Times, U.S.-born journalist Michael Luo described his family’s recent encounter with the kind of bigoted outburst—culminating with the admonition that Luo’s family should “go back to China”—that, sadly, is quite common for Asian-Americans across the country. Indeed, for many people of varying races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and abilities, Luo’s letter trembled with darkly familiar echoes of discrimination, fear, hatred, and intolerance. Soon after, Luo took to Twitter to invite other Asian-Americans to share their experiences with racism using the hashtag #ThisIs2016. What really stood out in the tweeted testimonies was how frequent these experiences seem to be, how familiar they are to so many.

What is also strikingly familiar, though, is the premise of the hashtag #ThisIs2016. This exclamation has become a hallmark of liberal discourse, popping up in conversations, pundit patter, social media rants, and even in the titles of articles themselves (“It’s 2016, And Even the Dictionary Is Full of Sexist Disses,” “It’s 2016: Time for cargo shorts to give up and die,” etc.). You’ll also spot it in tweets from faux-authoritative web portals like Vox—“It’s 2016. Why is anyone still keeping elephants in circuses?”—to Hillary Clinton— “It’s 2016. Women deserve equal pay.” Whether we’re talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, or some other abhorrent trace of backwardness, it’s become customary to pepper our stock responses with this ritual affirmation of what progress should look like at this advanced stage of history.

Everyone seems surprised that, in the year 2016, intolerance still exists, yet flying cars do not. And people’s genuine shock that such dark remnants of our past continue to stain our progressive present exposes their deep faith that “2016” is the bearer of some liberal-minded saving grace: the grace of history and progress that will (or should) just make things better. But I think it’s time we address what 2016 really means: jack shit. And there’s a special poison running through the belief that it means anything more.

From the beginning, Donald Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again” has peddled a dangerously tunnel-visioned nostalgia while appealing to the anxieties and discomforts of people who find themselves adrift in a crumbling now that no longer cares for or about them like it used to. Many spot-on and necessary critiques have been quick to connect the dots between Trump’s nostalgic wet dream of bygone glory and the kind of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. that’s fueled his campaign from the beginning. Such criticism rightly points out that Trump supporters who yearn for the good old days are, in fact, longing for a time when “the good life” was actually built on the oppressive exclusion of non-whites, women, LGBTQ people, and others. Trump freely includes such excluded “others” in his list of scapegoats for people’s current anxieties, and the past he and his supporters long for is dangerously fetishized as a place where such scapegoats would either lose favor in the dominant culture or be eliminated entirely.

However, in railing against the backward desires that spur the claim on history Trump and his supporters are making, we can often blind ourselves to the fallacies of our own myopic historical vision. That’s how ideology works, after all: we don’t notice how it skews our own perceptions. Like death, it’s always something that afflicts someone else. But, while Trump and many of his supporters may fetishize a past that is deeply retrograde, liberals and progressives have also demonstrated a troubling tendency to fetishize a future that they presume is on their side. There’s something peculiarly telling about this kind of progress fetishism, which has been conscripted as ideology-of-first-resort for Clintonite New Democrats.

Whether we’re talking about the sleek glitz of technological advancement or the triumph of the values of liberal humanism, the teleological view of historical progress is counterproductive and potentially dangerous. When we’re stuck in the slow hell of rush-hour traffic, for instance, we may catch ourselves grumpily wondering why the hell we can’t teleport yet. But there’s an implied consumerist asterisk next to the “we.” What we mean is, “why haven’t those eggheads in lab coats figured this stuff out yet so the rest of us can live in the future we were promised?” While imposing on the future a specific trajectory, custom-fitted to what we imagine technological progress is supposed to give us, we also entrust the production of that future to experts who, we assume, want the same things we do. This is hazardously akin to the platitudinous futurism of Clintonism, which has smuggled in technocratic neoliberalism and a globally expansive military-industrial complex under the mantle of progressive wishful thinking. (...)

In 2016, liberal values enjoy a relatively dominant place in popular culture—from the Modern Family melting pot to the Hillary Clinton campaign’s multicultural basket of deployables. The world reflected back to us through various media is one that has generally accepted the familiar values of equality, tolerance, respect for difference, a very low-grade critique of corporate greed, etc. The culture wars are over, and we on the leftish side of things have reportedly “won”. . . which is probably why the rise of Trump was so shocking for many.

But Trumpism, among many other deviations from the scripted finale to history, didn’t come from nowhere, and it won’t just go away. One of the direst products of the 2016 election has been the stubborn refusal of liberals and progressives to reevaluate our unspoken presumption that the cultural ubiquity of our “shared liberal values” meant that there was no longer any need to defend or redefine those values. Trumpism should alert liberals that there is, and always will be, infinitely more work to do. Instead, it has only assured liberals of their infinite righteousness in comparison, confirming their conviction that something must be fundamentally outdated “in the hearts” of this “other side” whose followers have chosen to stand on the “wrong side of history.”

Our bizarre obsession with being on the “right side of history” has become another weapon of the “smug style” in American liberalism. Liberal smugness involves more than condescendingly talking down to others who don’t “get it,” reducing the complicated tissue of their souls to the ignominious personal traits of racism, misogyny, etc. Liberal smugness is a posture that permits us to simply take our own righteousness for granted—to the point that we don’t even see the need to defend our positions. Rather than confront the darker sides of our own beliefs, or face head-on the counterclaims on history that other political actors are making, we remain cocooned in our social echo chambers filled with people who already agree with us. We also find affirmation in the broader echo chamber of popular culture, whose dominance further reassures us of the wrongness of the beliefs of others. This is 2016; look around you. Stay woke.

To be on the right side of anything is, as everyone knows, a matter of perspective. In reserving the vanguard spot in the historical drama for ourselves, we’re confidently presuming to know what the perspective of posterity will be. But the more obnoxious aspect of this concern for “being on the right side of history” is its promotion of a singularly self-involved relationship with history itself. History is no longer the people’s furnace of cultural creation and political invention, producing a future whose shape has not yet been hammered out. Rather, in this rigidly schematized vision, history is reduced to the role of set template—divided down the middle with a “right” and “wrong” side for us to choose from—that will bear witness to and validate our personal choice. Is this not just a kind of eschatology? Are we in heaven yet?

by Maximillian Alvarez, The Baffler |  Read more:
Image: NY Post, Paul Klee Angelus Novus