Politics and Values

Freddie DeBoer seems to partly have people like me in mind when he complains, as he often does, that people don’t take his profession of left-wing faith at face value. He’s more concerned about these recriminations from the Actual Left, of course. Lots of people, from all over the political spectrum – obviously including the Left – seem to have a lot of trouble disentangling constructive criticism from gratuitous attacks. The same way that Jewish criticism of Israel is sometimes dismissed as the masochistic tendencies of self-hating Jews, a lot of DeBoer’s complaints about the tactics the left chooses are derided as … actually, I’m not all that sure. Insufficiently committed to the Cause? Selling Out? Whatever it is, he seems to get a lot of mileage out of writing about it. Complaints about left-wingers complaining about him complaining about left-wingers are the topic of, at an eyeball guess, at least 1/3 of his recent Medium posts.

After a while, it starts to look like another case of the neighborhood watchman having a suspiciously long record of violent encounters of questionable legality. On the one hand, most of that’s obviously on the criminals. On the other hand, the guy who volunteers for neighborhood watch isn’t usually the guy who makes deescalation training a high priority. If you call out your own side and get a lot of pushback, then sure, that’s mostly because people don’t like being shown they’re wrong. But it might also have something to do with the approach.

The 11 May Politics as Politics essay illustrates a lot of this. It opens with some history: DeBoer used to write a lot about feeling alienated from the atheist movement because he cared a lot less about whether people believed in God than he did whether they could refrain from basing the legal code on their (unproven) beliefs. A lot of us feel like that, and so indeed the vogue has become to sympathize with Christians who complain that Mean Atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris take it too far. The problem, for DeBoer, is that Christians like these complaints too. In fact, some Christians (though surely not many?) apparently take "liking these complaints" as far as mistaking his willingness to tolerate Christians as a sign that he’s on his way to becoming Christian himself. He’s not.

But like those Christians who wanted to see Christianity in me, these secular liberals have failed to understand that the most important question, when it comes to religion, is whether God is real or not. And on that question, they align with the angry atheists, not the decent religious people they’re projecting. That has to come first or the religious question itself has no meaning.

Quite right. But putting it just this way confuses the issue a bit. The ontological issue of whether God exists is separable enough from the practical issue of how to coexist with religious people that there’s actually nothing lost by siding against Sam Harris and Richard Dawkins. Sure, if we’re discussing whether God exists, then I’m more in Sam Harris’ corner than Jimmy Carter’s. But this is relevant to absolutely nothing, because if we’re discussing whether God exists, Sam Harris is still one of the last people I want to invite to the table. He has nothing to contribute. He’s not a particularly insightful man. He has nothing new or intersting to say about atheism – or much of anything – nor does he have much persuasive ability. His MO is mostly just to antagonize and then run away. And hey – cherry on top – he’s possibly a bit of a fraud to boot. As far as I can tell, Sam Harris is good for one extremely popular but not particularly useful thing: rallying the troops. If you, as an atheist, want to just sit there and feel really superior to people for half an hour, you could do worse than dusting off one of his YouTube diatribes. But this is of course a terrible use of any serious person’s time. So even though I acknowledge the point, I’m really not sure when the fact that me and Sam Harris are on the same team about whether God exists would be relevant to my life.

Now, nothing in the quoted passage actually takes issue with any of that. It does, however, imply that liberals drawing a moral equivalence between Harris (and people like him) and the Religious Right need to stop and get some perspective. And to be sure, they do. But how much? DeBoer’s not wrong that militant atheists haven’t done nearly as much political damage in the United States as militant Christians. But I’m also not sure that’s really the point. I get why he’s irritated: there’s something about equating Sam Harris and Pat Robertson that provides cover for Pat Robertson. As long as the focus is on someone being less tolerant than them, The Christian Right’ll never feel the need to be tolerant – sort of the same way that white people from super-segregated Detroit or Boston can pretend those places have no racial problems by comparing themselves to Atlanta. But let’s go ahead and keep this real: a world in which Sam Harris gets to make all the laws isn’t going to be any more tolerant of our Muslim citizens than a world in which Pat Robertson gets to make all the laws. It might arguably be even worse. The argument that Sam Harris deserves more cover than Pat Robertson is based here only on the power imbalance – which is to say it is an entirely political point. Harris’ atheism is therefore mostly incidental, and the question of whose side we’re on when we’re talking about whether God exists is a wholly separate question.

Read faithfully, most of DeBoer’s recent "the Left needs to get its shit together" columns are fairly described as calling out the Socialist analogue of Sam Harris fans. He’s complaining about the people who identify with Socialism mostly for radical chic virtue signalling than out of real commitment to the Cause – the people who spend all of their time on show and none of it either contributing to political theory and strategy or doing the hard work of expanding the Socialist power base by volunteering and organizing. But that just sort of begs the obvious question how helpful these diatribes themselves have been at solving these issues.

For one thing, DeBoer seems completely oblivious to the fact that a lot of his left-wing critics have the same complaint about him that he just advanced about Sam Harris nay-sayers on the left. True, he’s never gone as far as to actually say that left-wing campus radicals are just as bad as fascists, but there’s no doubt that a lot of people read his essays as providing cover for conservatives. DeBoer himself makes this point implicitly when he notes that conservatives frequently misunderstand what he’s up to:

Because [a recent essay of mine] criticized the left, as my work often does, some leftists derided it, as they often do. And they said, as they often do, that I was on my way to becoming a conservative. Because that piece criticized the left, as my work often does, some conservatives praised it, as they often do. And they said, as they often do, that I was on my way to becoming a conservative.

But this is wrong.

No doubt it’s wrong. But if a lot of people, both left and right, not just once but repeatedly see your work as providing cover for the right, then at some point that’s ipso facto what it’s doing, and it’s up to you to recognize that and change tactics.

There’s also the question of what DeBoer has done for Socialism lately. Apparently, he does a lot of volunteer work, so that absolves him of the charge of being a radical chic hanger-on. But the question of what these essays have done for Socialism lately doesn’t have as easy an answer.

Unlike a lot of Freddie’s conservative readers, I’m not going to play the deceptive game of pretending I want a strong and effective Left. To some degree I do – but mostly as a bulwark to help us shore up constitutional liberties during the Trump years1. I have no interest in a strong Socialist Left, since as a Classical Liberal, I have no problem identifying Socialism as the enemy. It’s a dyscivic, destructive and inhuman system that should’ve been buried with Lenin in the unmarked grave he surely deserved. Like one of the commenters, if I’m honest with myself, I largely read DeBoer for the schadenfreude.

But I’m also not an ideologue, and I see the value in everyone having real input into the system they live under, and so to the extent Socialism becomes a political force again, I want real dialogue and compromise with Socialists. DeBoer could do something useful by providing that. That is, having baited me by validating that exactly those aspects of leftist political culture that I find ridiculous and self-destructive are seen by at least some bona fide leftists the same way, I wouldn’t mind him then switching to some lectures on "Why Socialism?" But he never does that. Having bought my attention, he mostly just notes his policy preferences and then complains that left-wingers don’t believe he’s sincere. To the extent he defends Socialism these days, it’s mostly a gruff exhortation to "do the reading," or a flippant and dismissive insistence that his support for it is because "Socialism is correct"2. Pretty unhelpful stuff.

There are a lot of questions about Socialism that could use some answers. Is North Korea socialist? Is Cuba? Is Venezuela? If they are, what went wrong, and how do we know for sure we can avoid that the next time we want to repeat this experiment that always seems to get the same horrifying results? If they’re not, then why do they perceive themselves as Socialist? Do you admit they all started out sincerely trying to build Socialism – or at least that there were sincere Socialists involved in all three projects? Why are there so many No True Scotsman Socialist governments and no actual Scotsmen?

Now, I’m guessing DeBoer’s response to that would be to tell me to fuck off, he’s not talking to me, he’s not here to answer my questions, he’s talking to his comrades and trying to make them into something effective. The goal, as he never gets tired of saying, is to Win for Socialism. But I’m not sure how this accomplishes that, or even what the point of accomplishing it in this way would be. The people DeBoer’s ostensibly addressing with these essays seem really unlikely to change. Orthodox Marxism has no interest in changing them for exactly that reason. Any student of Marx, both in Original and Extra Crispy Improved(tm) Sociology version, will come away with the reading that it’s very much an identity politics of class. The same way I’m told I can’t really undestand what it’s like to be asked to use the men’s room with a penis attached to a woman’s body unless I actually am a woman with a genetically incorrect penis, the Bourgeoisie, in Orthodox Marxism, can’t really understand the plight of the working class, because it’s not similarly alienated from its labor. It’s one thing to sit and speculate what alienation feels like; to really want to do something about it, to the point of overthrowing the government and starting over with a new system, it has to be something you don’t have the luxury of escaping. All of which implies that convincing Bobos via an essay to take more of an active interest is unlikely to be very effective. The people DeBoer is addressing are, if he’s honest, the new upper class. They’re the beneficiaries – maybe not the main beneficiaries (presumably that’s still people like Warren Buffet and Bill Gates), but definitely significant beneficiaries – of the current system. And Socialism to them is mostly something they do for personal validation. They’re not the droids DeBoer’s looking for. And even if they were, his track record so far doesn’t inspire a lot of confidence that this strategy of Being Better than People and Writing it Down is going to succeed in the end. More to the point, though, it’s not clear what succeeding in this way really buys him. To put it bluntly, Socialism isn’t this kind of thing. It’s not something you achieve by reason and votes and volunteerism. It is an expressly coercive philosophy. When DeBoer writes defensive things like this:

But civil liberties have been a part of left identity since before those leftists were born.

the response is almost a reflex: no they haven’t, not really. Or, if you insist, then sure, they’ve been a part but never the main part. Civil Liberties for the hard Left have always been just a means to an end. At the very best, they’re secondary to The Struggle, something we’ll get around to later, when all our goals are achieved. This is in fact the main reason those of us who think Socialism is crap don’t like it – beacuse its conception of rights is always collective and contingent, rather than individual and inviolate.

I have asked leftists over and over again: what is the actual principle that underlies your feelings on free speech on campus? What are the rules? Who is allowed to say what and when?

I have to wonder whether he realizes how bourgeois that sounds? Actual principle? What Socialist has ever cared? The "actual principle" is power, and consistency and predictability are very much not on the agenda. We’ve seen this trick before. Freedom of speech, freedom to criticize, must absolutely be protected, but "free speech" in a bourgeois society is a legal fiction because your freedom to express yourself is always subject to money – who will pay you, who will publish, who will advertise, etc. – and the only way to "free the press" from the tyranny of money is to put it in the hands of the workers, and the workers have an absolute right to freedom of association, which means the freedom to reject participation by people who disagree with them. The right to criticise is sacrosanct, but more often than not the use it’s put to in any individual instance is "outed" as a bourgeois weakening of party resolve. Hey, I’m doing nothing here but paraphrasing Lenin.

It’s not that you can’t find Socialist quotes defending freedom of speech in terms we liberals approve, it’s that if you read past the cherry-picked quote and into the context in which it was uttered, defense of individual free speech is always somehow beside the point. To put it in modern campus terms: yes, it’s important, but if you’re letting a little quarrel about free speech distract you you’re doing it wrong. I have no real way of knowing whether Lenin would side with Freddie or the campus Bobos, but my honest guess would be neither: he would surely recognize campus activist preoccuptaion with crass opportunist entertainers like Milo Yiannopoulos for the distraction it is and agree with Freddie that student activists need to STFU and GBTW. But I’d be really shocked if that went as far as saying they also needed to lay out any kind of objective principle about who gets heckled off campus and who doesn’t. That "principle" is always Power – who has it, who gets to use it?

A recent Jacobin piece by Samuel Farber lays this all out pretty clearly. Socialism doesn’t really have a theory of free speech, Farber freely admits at the outset, nor much of a history of defending such a right. The question’s always been sort of beside the point. So, with no better option, it should adopt the liberal defense of an individual right to expression – but for mostly tactical reasons (it’s what most people seem to support, so contradicting it is bad optics) – and modify it where necessary. That means campus hecklers should not, as it happens, shut down speeches by people like Charles Murray and Arthur Jensen, since these people operate in a world of discourse and can simply be publicly refuted. BUT – and you knew this was coming – there’s no need to get crazy with this stuff! Like all Socialist "rights," this one has a big ol’ asterisk, in that you have it so long as you’re in the right class of people. Larry Summers, unlike Charles Murray, doesn’t merit a rational refutation, because he is – or was at the time of the big controversy – President of a prominent university.

As an economist, Summers has no credible expertise on gender difference. Further, the protests against his remarks did not imperil his academic freedom as a professor in economics, but rather his position of power as university president. From the protesters’ perspective, Summers had used his position against the interests of women. Contrary to what Garton Ash implies, this had nothing to do with freedom of expression, but rather with an expression of power.

Of course, Summers was doing nothing like "us[ing] his position against the interests of women," this is simply a lie. And he doesn’t need to "[have] credible expertise on gender difference" to successfully outline a broadly-supported and well-documented hypothesis. And all this very much is something to do with freedom of expression in that the issue at stake was whether certain topics should be off the table completely in the discussion of gender imbalance in academia. In true Socialist form, for Farber a "right" is yours until you’re in an oppressor class, and what topics are on the table is a licensing issue. Which basically means students can heckle whomever they like, because we can always find a way to reclassify people.

DeBoer’s never going to get an answer to his question about by what principle Socialists choose which speakers to allow to speak in public, and that’s because it isn’t really a Socialist question. The "principle" is just the bully principle: we pick on anyone we disapprove of who can credibly be described as having power.

If the point of these essays is supposed to be to help Socialism "win," it’s worth asking what winning looks like. Presumably it means collective ownership of the means of production, since that’s what Socialism is traditionally all about. But if that’s the case it’s not really clear to me that taking the ecumenical approach is the way to go. Collective ownership of the means of production is a pretty radical notion, and radical social changes are rarely the kind of thing you put to a popular vote. DeBoer is certainly correct that volunteering, organizing, and generally doing the hard work of maintaining engaged interest-based political organizations is more effective than the kind of feel-good grandstanding most campus activists are in to. But absent a massive shift in either public opinion or economic conditions, that’s not going to get you collective ownership of the means of production – which is to say, it isn’t going to help Socialism "win." It might make the world better for people, though – and that’s certainly worthwhile. But here’s the big question: what happens when We Libertarians want to help You Socialists, say, abolish the death penalty? Or help monitor the legal system, so that shitty prosecutors don’t abuse their authority to bully people into taking plea bargains for crimes they didn’t commit? Will you work with us? Or do you not want our help since the ultimate objective is to build up the Socialist power base?

It’s never been clear to me what DeBoer’s answer to that question is. But there’s no doubt there’s a tradeoff. Forming alliances with your class enemies only leads to Socialism if you someday sell us down the river. Otherwise, we’re right there beside you, working with you on some individual policy goals but diluting the power base you need to actually assume collective ownership of the means of production.

Speaking from my own perspective, I personally choose incremental progress over ideological purity too. It would be one thing if the current system were unbearably horrible, but it isn’t. It’s a basically workable arrangement with some serious, but patchable, flaws. I’d rather make a difference in people’s lives than actively heighten the contradictions3 . But that’s the point, isn’t it? If you’re choosing the rational, persuasive approach, you’re basically giving up on "winning," at least over the single-generation horizon. What you’re aligning with instead – and I think it’s a noble thing – is to acknowledge that your enemies are human, that as fellow citizens they have as much a right to determine the course the polity takes as you do, and, if you practice epistemic humility, to admit that they may even be right about some things. That won’t get you to Galt’s Gulch or to Red Square – at least, not any time soon.

This may well be the issue of our time. We seem to be in a place right now where epistemic humility is not just abandoned but actively opposed. People these days are Right, even when they know (or should know) they’re not; tribal allegiance trumps even basic adherence to principle. These days, we have to fight our political battles in three dimensions. It’s not enough to occupy territory on the ideological plane, it’s also important to be open and rational while doing it. I said earlier that I read DeBoer for the schadenfreude, but that’s not entirely true. I read him also because I sometimes think I’m seeing someone on the left who thinks this way too. But that amounts to holding certain political values – framework values, if you will – outside of your immediate ideological commitment, and to date I really don’t know whether he does. He seems to, but really meaning it would mean putting an asterisk next to doing what you do "to win," admitting that some victories are Pyrrhic.

Or, to bring this back around, it would mean admitting that Sam Harris’ atheism might not be the only consideration in determining whether I’m on his side in any given religious debate. No, I’m not a Christian, but there are plenty of Christians I trust more than I trust Sam Harris, and there are plenty of Christians I have more to learn from than I have to learn from Sam Harris. Atheism is right and Christianity is wrong on the facts. But there are an awful lot of Christians who are better people than an awful lot of atheists, and retaining the ability to see that is crucial.

DeBoer’s often an interesting read because he doesn’t have a consistent approach to this separability question. Sometimes, he argues that at the end of the day, since Harris is an atheist like him, he’s ultimately on Harris’ side, at least on questions of religion, and that you should always punch into the church rather than out, to adapt a popular meme. He and other atheists are obligated to never imply to anyone that Harris might be as objectionable, in his way, as Pat Robertson, because that just lends comfort to the enemy. But then he turns around and is shocked – Shocked! – to find out that people on the left expect him not to "punch left" in public, because doing that while they’re busy trying to No Platform a "fascist" is – what else? – lending comfort to the enemy. But mostly I think these essays are an exercise in avoiding saying something that really needs to be said.

What I have been asking for, for years, is a politics that is a politics. I understand that movement building means crafting an identity and I understand that marketing is a part of politics. But the core, the foundation, has to be ideas, for us more than anyone else.

As opposed to what? A Socialist who isn’t grounded in Socialist ideas isn’t a Socialist. If you don’t have a politics that is a politics, then you don’t have a politics. All of this is just so much tail chasing. It’s a way to keep pretending that the campus activists he likes so much to complain about are on his team. But phrasing it like this makes it clear he knows they’re not.

I mean sure, Sam Harris is an atheist, and I’m an atheist, and so on some very narrow questions, we’re on the same side. Campus activists identify Socialist, and Freddie DeBoer identifies Socialist, so on the narrow question of whether there should be public ownership of the means of production, they’re on the same side. But the point about Sam Harris is that I neither need nor want him for anything. What does Freddie DeBoer need or want campus activists for? Priorities can’t always be strictly ranked, and sometimes winning on one question is worse than losing on several others. Public ownership of the means of production may be your central goal, but is this the public you want doing the owning?

Eventually DeBoer’s going to have to admit that it isn’t, that "winning" for Socialism can’t be a priority until there are better Socialists. He came very close to doing so yesterday, but we’re not quite there yet.

It’s always a question of values, and a question of what is important. If Christians mistake DeBoer’s tolerance for him being on his way to Christianity, then because they think of tolerance as a primarily Christian value. If conservatives mistake DeBoer’s defense of civil discourse for him being on his way to Conservatism, then because they think of civility as a primarily conservative value. It’s true enough that DeBoer is neither Conservative nor Christian nor remotely on his way to being either. But it’s also true that some of his stated and defended values are not narrowly Socialist, and that matters.

DeBoer essays are interesting almost more for what they don’t say than what they do. When readers, left and otherwise, tell DeBoer he isn’t really a Socialist, they’re speaking imprecisely, as drive-by commenters will do. It isn’t that he’s not really a Socialist. If he identifies as one and consistently advocates socialist policies and volunteers for organizations that promote a socialist agenda, then he is one, and we in the peanut gallery don’t get to tell him he’s not. But there’s fire behind this smoke all the same. Not all of the people "misinterpreting" DeBoer are socialist identitarians, and not all of them can be dismissed as trolls and morons. There’s something to read between those lines, and people have a sense of what it is, even if they haven’t articulated it yet. In a lot of essays, DeBoer waxes nostalgic about the left-wing community he grew up in. Maybe it’s impertinent to speculate about a stranger’s motives, but my money says that’s the problem. There was a time in his life when he had the luxury of being an identitarian, because his values aligned perfectly with those of people in his immediate circle, and there was no reason to think the label didn’t describe all of it. But then he grew up, moved away, and the world changes, and not all of those values turn out to be strictly Socialist. Some of them are universal, even apolitical. To the extent they’re "socialist," they’re only secondarily so, and a lot of them – like rational discourse and tolerance and even caring – turn out to be not particularly important to today’s Socialist standard-bearers. If they were specifically Socialist values, there would be no problem: DeBoer could credibly denounce them as inauthentic for having unsocialist ideas, point to the relevant texts, and go about with his reputation intact. But the truth is they’re not, and the same way Sam Harris can be an atheist and a bigot all at the same time, there’s really nothing inherently anti-socialist about mob censorship.
Now, It’s a lot easier with atheism, because there’s no expectation that atheists will be anything other than people who don’t believe in God. Since I was personally raised Christian and still identify cutlurally with Christianity, there’s not that much at stake for me where atheist bogeymen are involved. But I think there’s a lot at stake for DeBoer. The "Socialist" label is – ironically perhaps, for someone who so frequently insists he’s not an identitarian – a huge part of DeBoer’s identity, and so when it get publically identified with values he doesn’t share, that’s a real problem.

But OK, if I were consistent I would stop reading these essays. Yes, they’re been gratifying, but they’re also not really a good use of my time. It’s entertaining watching internecine struggle on the left, but ultimately nothing’s going to come of this until DeBoer – or someone like him – is ready to come out and call campus activists the bad guys, and it’s not clear he ever will. An actually useful thing for someone on the left to do would be to admit, publically, that this isn’t a new problem, that Socialism has a real tendency to produce Red Guards, and that Antifa is just the latest incarnation. A useful thing to do would be to try to work out why that is, and maybe work out a way to prevent it. But I get why they don’t, and that’s because I can’t see that "a way to prevent it" is going to happen until Socialists make a real commitment to certain liberal values. Not in the hedging, half-committed way they normally defend free speech, I mean a real commitment – a clear "if you’re heckling people off campus, you’re a fascist and we hate you" commitment. To save Socialism, you have to burn it down.

  1. So far, I don’t see much evidence that President Trump is substantially worse on that front than President Obama was, but I am pleased that the fact that he comes with an "R" label means a lot of left liberals are willing to play watchdog again.

  2. An actual quote from a recent Facebook thread, by the way. Yeah, he can be that juvenile.

  3. That’s not as antithetical to Libertarianism as it sounds. Their version leads to the Revolution and the Dictatorship of the Proletariat; our version is people seasteading, or decamping to Galt’s Gulch.

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