On the SOTU

Here’s my take on the SOTU at Aljazeera America. Excerpt:

Obama brought upon himself the circumstances requiring such a constrained, insipid speech. The scandal of his IRS targeting tea-party activists suggested that his administration was either corrupt or mismanaged. Had he honored his campaign pledge to restore the civil liberties eroded in George W. Bush’s war on terror, Edward Snowden would not have had evidence of the NSA’s massive violations of the Fourth Amendment to leak. The Afghanistan surge was an ultimately ineffective face-saving operation that sent more than 1,000 Cory Remburgs to early graves — an operation that his then–secretary of defense openly doubts he really believed in. Finally, the catastrophically inept rollout of the Affordable Care Act has sown doubt in the electorate about Obama’s honesty and competence to govern.

What This Guy Says about Inequality Will Make You Stand Up and Cheer (or Puke)

I’m tired of arguing about inequality. It’s frustrating. It’s unproductive. Nobody is really interested in the analytical arbitrariness and moral insidiousness of measuring intra-national economic inequality. Nobody is really interested in the fact that multiple mechanisms–some good, same bad, some neutral–can produce the same level of measured inequality, rendering the level of inequality, taken in isolation, completely useless as a barometer of social or economic justice. Nobody really cares. Because many different combinations of causes can produce the same level of inequality, it’s not so clear that high inequality, as such, can reliably cause anything. The consequences of inequality depend on the mechanisms driving inequality. Nobody cares.

I tend to be misunderstood when I say that this or that argument about inequality is terrible. (Poor me!) Will just doesn’t want to raise taxes on rich people! Will just doesn’t like redistribution! But I don’t really care about tax rates on rich people. If the optimal tax had higher top rates, I’d want higher top rates. And I do like redistribution, but it’s got to be effective. Everything’s in the design. “Let’s raise taxes on rich people because that’s the most efficient and fair way to fund this very effective, humane, and fair transfer scheme” is a way better argument–like, unfathomably better–than “Let’s raise taxes on rich people because inequality is too high.” I find it completely vexing that this is not obvious, but clearly it isn’t. Left-leaning folks are very attached to arguing for many of their favorite policies in terms of economic equality, despite the fact that they could argue for the same policies in terms that are at once more cogent and more broadly persuasive.

Anyway, let me just say that if someone points out that the anti-inequality argument for X is terrible, that doesn’t mean he or she opposes X. He or she might be frustrated that you’re screwing up chances of achieving X by making terrible arguments.

I’m tired of this dialectic… Inequality caused states to cut education budgets! No, the recession did. But inequality caused the recession! No, an incomprehensible combination of housing policy, banking policy, financial regulation, normal cyclical adjustments, and yadda yadda caused the recession. But inequality caused ALL THOSE THINGS. How so? It enabled rich people to co-opt every aspect of policymaking and bend it to their whims. Rich people wanted to lose billions crashing the economy? Well, they didn’t MEAN to. Lots of these policies had bipartisan support, expert and popular. Look, states could have cut things other than education/unemployment insurance/nutritional assistance/etc, but they didn’t because Republicans. So democratic bodies are screwing over the poor, and not inequality? No! The Koch Brothers made them do it! Are “inequality” and “the Koch Brothers” equivalent in your mind? Yes!

There are very smart people who think like this. I don’t know what to say to them. Doesn’t matter. I’m too tired to say it anyway and nobody cares.

Now that that’s out of my system, onto the SOTU. I’m Mr Blue at DiA.

The Best Things in Life are W.E.I.R.D.

Trying to finish a novel-opening assignment for Boz, so this has to be quick…

This piece on libertarianism by the sociologist Claude Fischer is really quite powerful. Taken by itself, Fischer’s point that the libertarian attenuation of liberal individualism is a not very sound, and really quite peculiar, picture of human nature is less compelling than it may seem. More promising is the observation that the rise of the powerful central state is responsible for a huge reduction in violence and war, and that, empirically, all the best places on Earth have large, powerful states.

I think Fischer might connect the dots a little better. The best places on Earth are also the W.E.I.R.D.-est–Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, Democratic. That’s why the crack on extreme liberal individualism has so little force. It would seem that the W.E.I.R.D-er the better! If libertarianism is an ideology of next-level W.E.I.R.D.-ness, that may not be so bad.

The better point, I think, is that W.E.I.R.D.-ness and a certain kind of powerful central state go hand-in-hand–that liberal individualism and the liberal-ish nation-state co-evolved. This is Hegel, people! A Hegelized version of libertarianism might say, “Sure. But the apotheosis of history is the withering away of the state.” I think the better inference leads to the mundane liberal conclusion that liberal individualism, liberal rights, and the high quality of life they produce are best sustained by a certain kind of powerful central state.

None of this is to say that things wouldn’t be better if things got W.E.I.R.D.-er still. The sort of W.E.I.R.D., powerful, central state under which people seem to flourish best might do even better by their citizens were they to integrate certain libertarian insights into their institutions and their governance. I think this is true! But it doesn’t leave you anywhere even close to the minimal state. It leaves you with a fresh flavor of so-called “neoliberalism,” which, despite all the vague grumping about it, is uncontroversially the best humans have ever done.

Alice Munro and Margaret Atwood Chat

Intrinsically worthwhile.

Munro asks, “Has anybody ever written a book that was really good with people who are nice all the time, or even part of the time?” Atwood doesn’t think so.

Munro on the hate mail of her early days: “I didn’t understand that you read books in order to feel that the world is better than it is. And so I was offending without really understanding it for quite a while.” But folks came around.

My heart aches for my Canadian grandmother.

Old School Blogging

Every time I’ve been hacked and had to take the blog offline, it felt a little like an amputation. A blog is a sort of history of one’s mind, like a diary or a journal, but it’s public and that makes a huge difference. I think the public existence of my blog stabilizes my sense of self. The idea that the self is an “illusion” tends to be grounded on the false assumption that if the self is anything at all, it must be a stable inward personal quiddity available to introspection. But of course there is no such thing. The Zen masters are right. There is nothing in there, and the deeper you look the less you find. The self is more like a URL. It’s an address in a web of obligation and social expectation. According to my my idiosyncratic adaptionist just-so story, a self is an app of the organism “designed” to play iterated cooperative games, and we desire a sense of stable identity because a stable identity keeps us in therepeated games that pay. (Also those that don’t. The self can be a trap.) Expectation, reputation, obligation–these are what make the self coalesce, and the more locked in those expectation and obligations become, the more solid the self feels. There’s nothing wrong with blogging for money, but the terms of social exchange are queered a little by the cash nexus. A personal blog, a blog that is really your own, and not a channel of the The Daily Beast or Forbes or The Washington Post or what have you, is an iterated game with the purity of non-commercial social intercourse. The difference between hanging out and getting paid to hang out. Anyway, in old-school blogging, you put things out there, broadcast bits of your mind. You just give it away and in return maybe you get some attention, which is nice, and some gratitude, which is even nicer. The real return, though, is in the conclusions people draw about you based on what you have said, about what what you have said says about you, about what it means relative to what you used to say. People form expectations about you. They start to imagine a character of you, start to write a little story about you. Some of this is validating, some is irritating, and some is downright hateful. In any case it all contributes to self-definition, helps the blogger locate and comprehend himself as a node in the social world. We all lost something when the first-gen blogs and bloggers got bought up. Or, at any rate, those bloggers lost something. I’m proud of us all, but there’s also something ruinous about our success, such as it is. We left the garden behind. A guy’s got to eat. I mostly stopped blogging for myself because I thought I couldn’t afford to give it away. But I miss the personal gift economy of the original blogosphere, I miss the self it helped me make, and I want at least a little of it back.

Liberal Legitimacy and the Least Bad Hegemon

Maybe the least unreasonable argument for the security state’s relatively unchecked discretion is that it is necessary to maintain a relatively liberal global order. America’s international spy-craft and diplomacy may not exactly square with civics-class ideas about the legitimating function of democratic oversight, and to that extent the American security state more or less constantly violates basic liberal ideals. But that’s okay, because it’s all in the name of liberal ideals! Making the world safe for democracy is a serious business and we cannot risk bungling it by subjecting the very important hush-hush gambits of the spooks to overzealous democratic scrutiny. The globe spins in anarchy! The competitive lawlessness of the international order practically ensures that the pragmatic Machiavels of the American security state will be frustrated with the consistent domestic application of the ideals they have sworn to uphold. What good are those shiny ideals if we’re all dead or, worse, forced to speak Chinese and use Baidu?

This is a queer sort of consequentialism that claims to be a form of liberalism by making liberalism the thing it’s trying to maximize. And the logic of consequentialism is a logic of trade-offs. If you need to sacrifice three units of liberalism domestically to secure twelve units of liberalism abroad, well, you’d better do it! Or if you’re a parochial nationalist, if you need to sacrifice three units of liberalism domestically now to maximize expected domestic liberalism threatened by nefarious foreign forces, well, you’d better do it! What kind of liberal is willing to threaten the quantity of liberalism, foreign and/or domestic, by stringent adherence to liberal demands of legitimating democratic oversight?

Sorry, it doesn’t work this way. Either you believe in the liberal-democratic theory of political legitimacy or you don’t. If you do, the state either meets liberal-democratic procedural requirements and acts legitimately, or it doesn’t and acts lawlessly, criminally. If you don’t, you should just admit it!

You’re free to favor welfare and gay marriage and free health-care while rejecting fundamental liberal ideas about what separates the state from a vast criminal enterprise. The problem is that there aren’t any other remotely plausible ideas about what might separate a state from a criminal enterprise. But maybe you’re a hard-headed utilitarian realist who believes that states are bound to act as vast criminal concerns, but that the better, smarter states maximize the efficiency of the criminal side of things by branching out into all sort of less evidently criminal lines of business that keep their victims/subjects/citizens safe, healthy, and fairly well satisfied with their lot. And it’s pretty obviously best for everybody if one or several of the nice-ish criminal states suppress the less nice criminal enterprises, political or otherwise, through whatever means, criminal or otherwise, are deemed necessary. Because the efficacy of nice-ish criminal states depends so much on the goodwill of their victims/subjects/citizens, it’s best if all the geopolitical nasty business can be done in a way that doesn’t upset the folks at home. Anything that would upset the people obviously needs to be a secret. And if some smug jackass employed on the criminal side of things shoots off his mouth, imperiling the popular goodwill that helps the nice-ish criminals do what they need to do keep the less-nice competition down? Well that guy isn’t helping anybody but the bad (worse) guys! Maybe you think all that. But that’s not remotely liberalism, is it?

The least awful sounding version of this Global Sicilianism is what I think of as the “least-bad hegemon theory.” America is the least-bad hegemon because it’s liberal_ish_, in the sense that it violates liberal rights relatively less than most other states, and in that queer liberalism-maximizing sense that it keeps the world more liberal than it would be under the alternative hegemons. But being the least-bad hegemon, or the most liberal, or best-for-liberalism hegemon, is not a way of qualifying as a non-criminal enterprise. Again, either the state exercises its power legitimately, having fully satisfied the standard democratic procedural requirements necessary for the protection of its citizens’ basic rights, or it doesn’t.

My sense is that many of those who vigorously resist substantive, legitimating public deliberation over the policies of the spooks do think that America’s status as the least-bad hegemon confers legitimacy on secret, dubiously vetted policies–maybe even confers super-legitimacy on undemocratic secret tactics, if they’re really, really necessary. For these folks, civics-class American ideals are somehow both an impediment to maintaining America’s strategic edge and the point of it. We get to violate our ideals because we’re superior for having them. Hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue, and all that.

In the first half the twentieth century, there was this idea that cumbrous liberal democracy couldn’t possibly compete with the streamlined authoritarian state. It’s my impression that the secret American security apparatus has its roots in this era, and an in this idea–that we can’t afford to let the unpredictable dithering whims of democratic opinion interfere with the cold Machiavellian executive decisiveness required to maintain America’s place in the global order. What’s interesting to me is that we so rarely even consider whether this institutionalized subversion of democracy is really necessary to to remain the least bad hegemon. Kruschev didn’t actually bury us, after all, and that’s not because the CIA was so wicked smart. It might even be the case that thoroughgoing liberal democracy is not actually inconsistent with global supremacy. Anyway, it’s amazing that the liberal principles of legitimate state power upon which America was founded seem to so many of us so obviously unworkable that we don’t even begin to take seriously the possibility that American power could survive the consistent application of American civics-class ideals.

Liberalism, Libertarianism, and the Illiberal Security State

Henry Farrell’s thorough levelling of Sean Wilentz’s charge against Snowden, Assange, Greenwald and their ilk–that they are driven by a suspiciously libertarian animosity to the liberal state–put me in mind of a thought that’s been rattling around my noggin for a while, which is this: the actually-existing, so-called liberal state is impossible to justify on the mundane liberal terms most intellectuals claim to accept. But this is generally overlooked, and I blame libertarianism. Not really. I blame confused liberals. Libertarianism has only antagonized them into confusion.

Libertarianism, as it’s generally taught and understood, isn’t a philosophy of government so much as an argument against the possibility of legitimate government. Libertarians tend to reject standard justifications of political authority. Liberals, who wish to defend the possibility of a legitimate state, have become accustomed to rebutting such libertarian arguments. Of course, it’s crazily illogical to reason that the actually existing state is justified on liberal terms just because the libertarian critique of the state is false, and a legitimate liberal state is possible. That’s really silly. Yet I feel like I’m running into this sort of reasoning all the time. There’s something about the libertarian-liberal dialectic that leads liberals to confuse the identification of the illegitimate, illiberal practices of the actually-existing state with the libertarian argument against the very possibility of legitimate state.

I guess it’s not so hard to see what that something might be. The existence of unacceptably illiberal practices of actual “liberal” states raises a perfectly good question about whether it is realistic to expect states to refrain from these practices, or whether there’s something in the basic logic of the state that tends inevitably toward the abuse of power. Simply admitting that this is a good question seems to play rhetorically into the hands of libertarians, something the champions of the possibility of the good state are loath to do.

But liberals ought to be able to stand their ground better than this. It is a little puzzling to me how seldom one hears liberals argue that standard policies of state secrecy, as they are actually implemented, run afoul of standard democratic theories of legitimacy in a very straightforward way. Or maybe it’s not so puzzling.

Liberals and socialists often accuse libertarians, not without justice, of acting as unwitting apologists for plutocracy. Many free-marketeers do have a bad habit of confusing our unjustifiably rigged political economy with a very different laissez faire ideal, and their defenses of the actually-existing “free enterprise system” really do redound to the benefit of those the system is rigged to enrich. Likewise, liberals do have a bad habit of confusing actual, nominally liberal states with a very different liberal ideal, and their defenses of the actual “liberal state” do tend to redound to the benefit of the insidiously illiberal segments of the state that cannot be justified or accounted for on almost any standard liberal theory of legitimacy. The point being that too many “liberals” are really conservative apologists for the status quo political order, just as too many “libertarians” are really conservative apologists for the status quo economic order.

One thing we have learned from the Wikileaks and Snowden controversies is that the defense of the illiberal activities of the actually-existing state cuts across superficial partisan lines, and that the dominant political philosophy of both American parties is a venerable ideology of realpolitik imperial supremacy that deploys the rhetoric of liberalism as pacifying propaganda and recasts the completely mundane application of basic liberal-democratic principles–the kind at work in the activities of Wikileaks and Snowden–as irresponsibly adolescent, anarchical, and even libertarian (eww!) challenges to the very idea of the liberal state. “Liberal” apologists for the actually-existing criminal state spook actual liberals from the practice of actual liberalism by insinuating darkly that any doubts about the liberal legitimacy of the security state probably make you a loathsome, possibly racist Paultard. In any case, that’s the thrust of Wilentz’s TNR piece.

However, the fact is, mundane liberalism is flatly incompatible with the security state as we know it. That anyone spurred to action against the illiberal security state by the democratic jusificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has come to seem a little “libertarian,” and may even therefore confess some personal “libertarian” sympathies, suggests to me a problem with “liberalism” as it is embodied in actual political discourse and practice. It suggests that liberalism is effectively a corrupt form of statist institutional conservatism, and that the democratic justificatory ethos of mundane liberalism has somehow survived within the ethos of “libertarianism,” even if, as an explicit doctrinal matter, libertarians are generally hostile to the ideas of democracy and the legitimate liberal state. It’s nice that libertarians have kept liberalism alive, but it would be even nicer if it were possible for liberals to espouse liberalism without therefore being confused for libertarians.

Narrative Persona in Nonfiction

In the narratology literature, there is a debate about the utility of Wayne Booth’s idea of the “implied author.” The implied author is supposed to be a sort of construction of the author created by the inferences readers make about the choices manifest in the text. The implied author is neither the flesh-and-blood author of the text, nor the narrator of the story or essay, but a kind of spectral intermediate figure.

Now, some critics of the idea of the implied author admit that it does sort of makes sense if we’re talking about a text that is produced collaboratively. If several writers successfully coordinate on an authorial sensibility in order to write a stylistically unified text together, readers will sense a single intelligence behind it. That unified intelligence might be understood as the implied author. But if the implied author makes sense when thinking about teams of authors, then it makes sense when thinking about solo authors as well. The unity of the self is a product of cooperation between distinct stages of a person over time, and novels typically take good long while to write. If readers sense a single intelligence behind a novel, that’s a matter of successful intra-personal coordination not really so different from the inter-personal coordination of successful collaborators. One does tend to feel simpatico with one’s own past selves–there is a certain natural chemistry that makes helps maintain unity of voice. But that’s by no means guaranteed. Desk drawers and hard drives are littered the world over with novels aborted due to irreconcilable artistic differences between separate phases of a putatively single self.

As it has developed “nonfiction,” as a genre is a cue to readers about how to construct the author’s relationship to the narrator. In nonfiction, the distinction between the narrator and implied author typically collapses. In fiction we don’t as a matter of convention infer that the sensibility of the narrator is the sensibility of the author, only that the author is the sort of person interested in this sort of narrator. In nonfiction, however, we read straight from the narrator to the implied author–the narrator is the implied author–but this is naive, and the naivete of conflating the nonfiction narrator with the implied author has little to do with most extant controversies over TRUTH in nonfiction. I think it has more to do with naivete over the very idea of persona/personality and its relationship to authorship as a form of performance.

Focusing on performance, I think, helps us keep from getting unduly metaphysical about the nature of personal identity. Think about live-action “nonfiction” performers–people who perform as themselves, under their own in-real-life names. Comedians are great examples.

Comedians spend a lot of time and effort perfecting their “shtick”–their stage persona, the “character” they do in their set. But there’s often a large space between this performed public persona and the private person. Louis CK, the TV show, is a show about this, among other things. It is a show about what it would be be like were Louis CK’s stage persona an actual person in the world. But a fun part of the show is that while the “offstage” Louis of the show is actually the fictionalized onstage persona of the actual Louis CK–we never do get to see IRL Louis, a guy who stars in a show about his sadsack stage persona. Yet we are shown Sarah Silverman and Chris Rock playing themselves in a way that points to the complicated gaps and continuities between their private personalities and stage personas.

Same for rappers. Eminem is a great example. People are fascinated with Kanye West because he refuses to mark a discontinuity between his private and performative persona. When rock stars make up names–Ziggy Stardust, Sasha Fierce–they signal a discontinuity in persona. But what about those, like Kanye, who won’t? Do we believe we’re in touch with the “real” guy beneath the performance because the real guy and the persona share a name? We don’t.

Okay. Well, writing is a form of performance. And writers do this, too, just like comedians and rappers–they create personae, and these personae write, which is to say, perform books. The sensibility of a book is the sensibility of the IRL writer’s authorial persona. That’s what an “implied author” is–a performed persona of the author. Young writers spend a lot of time talking about discovering their “voice.” In the semi-therapeutic lore of the academic creative-writing community, this is a matter of self-discovery. Maybe it is. But it’s actually more interesting than that. I’d say it’s more a matter of self-invention–of creating an authorial persona that enables effective performance. It’s just like a stand-up experimenting with and finally arriving at a version of herself that connects with, that “clicks” with, audiences. Odds are, this isn’t going to be who you really are. It’s going to be a character you made up out of pieces of yourself and people you know and characters in movies and writers you like. You may come to think this persona is who you really are–especially if you have some success with it. But it’s not. You aren’t really anyone, exactly.

That’s why settling on an authorial persons is so hard. Actual people rarely have the kind of coherence of personality that is necessary for an effectively forceful individual performance. As Irving Goffman taught us, in everyday life, self-presentation varies according the sorts of situations and roles we find ourselves inhabiting. Our strategies of self-presentation–our various everyday personae–don’t naturally add up to anything with stability or integrity. “Finding a voice” as a writer is a matter of settling on a strategy of self-presentation that works as performance. This is as true for the memoirist or newspaper columnist as it is for the novelist.

Indeed, because of the naive convention of collapsing the space between the nonfiction narrator and the implied author, authorial persona is in some ways more important for the nonfiction writer than for the fiction writer. A writer working within the conventional genre expectations of contemporary nonfiction is faced with the unfortunate fact that characterization of the first-person nonfiction narrator is understood as the characterization of the authorial persona. So the nonfiction author must be prepared to integrate into her authorial persona her characterization of her narrator, and vice versa. A nonfiction author who wishes to take some creative liberties in constructing the sensibility of her narrator is, in effect, constructing a stage persona shading toward the Sasha Fierce/Ziggy Stardust end of the spectrum. But the naive conventions of contemporary nonfiction don’t allow for this sort of separation between the IRL writerly person and her authorial persona–or for any sophistication at all, really, about strategies of authorial self-presentation. And that’s why Tom Wolfe actually wears ridiculous white suits.

To give a nonfiction narrator a name distinct from the author–to announce that this true story will be narrated by Sasha Fierce or Slim Shady–would be to acknowledge the inherently performative aspect of authorship, to acknowledge the ever-present gap between authorial persona and the author of that persona. It would tell the reader what the reader already knows when reading fiction: that the authors create narrators; that narrative is art and not confessional free-association. But this is not to be done. Nonfiction in our moment is marked not by a demand for truth or facts–the terms of the D’Agata wars notwithstanding–but by a neo-Romantic obsession with sincerity, with the elimination of irony, with emotional truth unfiltered by the calculating guile of performance. Our reality hunger is sated in no small part by a strange insistence that the nonfiction narrator be the implied and actual author. And this amounts to an insistence that nonfiction authors pretend not to have a refined and practiced authorial persona by performing one consistent with the prevailing but necessarily temporary conventions of naturalism in literary self-presentation.