Saturday, January 24, 2015

Make Friends with the personal - not the political

Moloch by Karl-Ludwig Poggemann is licensed CC BY 2.0.

When I first ran across Slate's moralist harangue against Friends yesterday, my initial thought was, "Ah, this is obvious clickbait - pick something relatively non-offensive, choose a contrarian position against it, then let the clicks of outrage flow in". It looked like a classic toxoplasma, an intentional summoning of Moloch himself - intentional enough, in fact, that I assumed everyone else would see through it for what it was and let it silently die into obscurity.

I was wrong.

In my defense, I travel frequently in libertarian circles, where this sort of thing is such a predominant business plan of several notorious bloggers that even sympathetic libertarians are getting sick and tired of it, so what seemed obvious to me might be less so to others. Even so, I didn't seriously expect the idea that Friends needed some sort of moral and political deconstruction to actually receive anything resembling widespread support. And yet, there were so many bloggers that pursued this line of reasoning that this was the most "positive" conclusion that Salon could finish its roundup with:
As Vulture’s Margaret Lyons wrote in her “Stay Tuned” TV advice column, in response to a reader expressing discomfort with the show’s homophobia: “You can still love ‘Friends,’ but why would you want to love it like you did before? Love it the way you see it now, with the things you know now and the values you have now. I love ‘Friends,’ but I do not love its body or queer politics. Those things can be true at the same time.”
Indeed they can, assuming all entertainment and life experiences must be filtered through a political or ideological lens. That, however, is a very bad idea - and a very old one.


For whatever reason, I've been on a Soviet history reading kick lately. More recently, this has included Red Plenty, which came to my attention via Scott Alexander, and my current read, Anne Applebaum's Gulag: A History. One recurring theme of these books was how thoroughly the Soviet state and its ideology inserted itself into daily life, from scientific discovery to entertainment and beyond. See, from the Soviet Union's perspective, the New Soviet Man had to be consciously crafted - all bourgeois attitudes and mannerisms had to be cast out and replaced with a more socialist attitude. According to Soviet dogma, though they didn't quite phrase it quite this succinctly, the personal was political - as Trotsky put it, "You may not be interested in the dialectic, but the dialectic is interested in you." In order for the New Soviet Man to overcome his selfish, bourgeois habits, he needed to be reeducated so that he may better serve his fellow man according to his ability without requiring more than his need. To that end, artistic expression was closely proscribed - so closely, in fact, that the CIA secretly sponsored abstract art to undermine the Soviet government. Soviet biology, meanwhile, had been thoroughly destroyed by Lysenkoism, which asserted, among other things, that plants behaved according to communist principles and that genetics (a rather dangerous concept for an ideology that requires people to be perfectly malleable like clay) was a "bourgeois" concept meant to undermine the revolution. Soviet plays and shows had to express uplifting, socialist attitudes, as did Soviet music. This concept was adopted by other Soviet-aligned regimes - Kim Jong-Il famously wrote about opera, cinema, music, and architecture, focusing on how to best align these disciplines within the greater socialist project.

In short, everything - everything - had to advance the cause of communism and the revolution. Everything must show more concern for society, as defined by communism, than for the individual. Nothing could be enjoyed solely on its merits; everything must be enjoyed solely in the context of how it might better improve society.


The Soviets and their Communist allies weren't the only ones, of course. Just before Friends came out, former Vice-President Dan Quayle famously blasted Murphy Brown because it failed to display sufficient concern for society:
It doesn’t help matters when prime time TV has Murphy Brown – a character who supposedly epitomizes today’s intelligent, highly paid, professional woman – mocking the importance of a father, by bearing a child alone, and calling it just another “lifestyle choice.”

I know it is not fashionable to talk about moral values, but we need to do it. Even though our cultural leaders in Hollywood, network TV, the national newspapers routinely jeer at them, I think that most of us in this room know that some things are good, and other things are wrong. Now it’s time to make the discussion public.
This wasn't a new theme. In 1985, Tipper Gore, former wife of former Vice-President Al Gore, co-founded the Parents Music Resource Center, which wished to provide greater control to parents over music that wasn't sufficiently deferential to the concerns of society. To that end, the PMRC staged a Senate hearing, during which American government officials grilled various artists that were deemed "objectionable" by the PMRC about the content of their music. This led one targeted artist, Frank Zappa, to give a spirited defense of individual expression against the concerns of society. I encourage you to stop right now and read the whole thing, but if you're feeling impatient, here's the start of it:
The First thing I would like to do, because I know there is some foreign press involved here and they might not understand what the issue is about, one of the things the issue is about is the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it is short and I would like to read it so they will understand. It says:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise thereof, or abridging the freedom of speech or of the press or the right of the people peaceably to assemble and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

That is for reference. 
These are my personal observations and opinions. They are addressed to the PMRC [Parents’ Music Resource Centre] as well as this committee. I speak on behalf of no group or professional organization. 
The PMRC proposal is an ill-conceived piece of nonsense which fails to deliver any real benefits to children, infringes the civil liberties of people who are not children, and promises to keep the courts busy for years, dealing with the interpretational and enforcemental problems inherent in the proposal’s design. 
It is my understanding that, in law, First Amendment Issues are decided with a preference for the least restrictive alternative. In this context, the PMRC’s demands are the equivalent of treating dandruff by decapitation.
Zappa then proceeds to explain not only why the PMRC's proposal is wholly inappropriate to a culture that ostensibly prizes freedom of expression, but also how the proposal actually obscures a hidden issue - a proposed tax on blank tapes, which was proposed by the recording industry to discourage copying of music while simultaneously serving as a handout to politically connected music companies. Whether the politicians of the time were opportunistically using the "cover fire" generated by the PMRC's proposals to sneak in a measure for their friends or whether the politicians themselves actually consciously generated the "cover fire" is certainly open to debate; whichever way it happened, though, it was crystal clear that the call for censorship had far less to do with any concerns for society and far more to do with the concerns of particular politically connected individuals.

This, it should go without saying, mirrored the experience in every other country that insisted that all speech is political and must be controlled accordingly.


Again, however, this isn't a new idea. Even by the time of the October Revolution, European civilization had hundreds of years of experience with treating the personal as political. As the French Revolution spiraled out of control, the Reign of Terror left no corner of society untouched. The French people were stripped of their religion and even their calendar. Even by then, however, this was still old hat. Puritans famously banned several forms of entertainment on the grounds that such pleasures interfered with their ideological struggle against sin, and personal enjoyment of such pleasures lacked sufficient concern for society - "idle hands are the Devil's playthings" and all that.

Speaking of "idle hands", who came up with that saying? Why, it was St. Jerome in the 4th century.

What's old is new again.

As Mark Twain once said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it does rhyme."


Interestingly, though you wouldn't know it by reading that Salon article today, quite a few people on the left are starting to realize that politicizing the personal really isn't a good idea. Fredrik deBoer noted a few months back that this tactic is a two-edged sword (emphasis added by yours truly):
I’ve really been genuinely disturbed by #GamerGate. Obviously, some of that is just the threats and harassment of women online. But it’s also disturbing how successful they’ve been in pressuring advertisers, and in getting parts of the media to credulously accept much of their narrative. To me, it’s indicative of the problems that come about when there’s no limit to how much we politicize the personal.

We on the left have argued for ages that “the personal is political.” We’ve told people that they should look for political resonance in every aspect of their personal lives, in order to see the hand of various oppressions at play in microcosm. And we’ve incentivized that behavior in the way we always do, by treating the deployment of that kind of argument as a trump card against those who you’re arguing with. We have this magic words theory of argument where if you deploy certain terms like “tone policing,” the expectation is that you’ve won the argument and the other side has to stop arguing immediately. But those tactics don’t occur in a vacuum. Campus conservatives, for example, have succeeded in so many of their provocations because they have very deftly adopted the tactics and vocabulary of the academic left and employed them for their own purposes. And now we’re seeing the same thing from the GamerGate crew: this isn’t a fashion or hobby for me, it’s an identity. Your criticisms aren’t criticisms, they’re bullying. I’m not being blamed for bad behavior, I’m being oppressed.
And by two-edged sword, I mean a giant sinkhole that swallows all who dare stare into it:
Argument is like all other human behaviors: subject to conditioning through reward and punishment. And we’ve created these incentives on the left: always politicize; always escalate; always ridicule. We’re living with the consequences of those tendencies now. Unfortunately, I don’t know how we build a new left discourse, given that the two current modes of left-wing expression appear to be a) showily condescending ridicule and b) utter fury. I mean you can guess what the response by some will be to this essay: deBoer doesn’t think racism is real, he doesn’t think sexism is real, he wants people to just get over it when they’re the victims of sexism and racism. None of that is true. I write about the structural racism of our society constantly. I believe that we’re still a deeply, inherently sexist culture. (For example, you may have heard of #GamerGate.) And I absolutely believe that there are tons of daily encounters that demonstrate these problems, and that the victims of them should feel comfortable speaking out.

I just also think that we have to be able to say “you know, I don’t think that your particular political critique here is correct” without being accused of failing to oppose racism and sexism in general. And I think that we have to recognize that, by treating claims of oppression as immediate conversation winners, without the expectation that people actually have to defend and support those claims with evidence, we make the appropriation of these techniques that we’re seeing with GamerGate inevitable.
History has shown time and again what happens when you politicize the personal. When all personal action becomes a political statement, any personal action might command a political response. At best, this might involve a bit of hand wringing and calls for better "standards" and "taste". At worst, the ultimate embodiment of the political - the state - exercises its muscles, its guns, and its soldiers and provides the ultimate political response.

This still doesn't stop people from trying. It never will.


What really concerns me about the attempted politicization of Friends - beyond the raw ad-driven avarice that's powering it and which, by commenting on it, I'm contributing to - is that at least the Puritans and Tipper Gore and Dan Quayle were fighting for a fairly constant set of well known rules. Oh sure, there are some variations and oddities here and there in terms of interpretation and how naively literally we should interpret the Bible, but at least nobody's adding new chapters to the Bible on the fly (well, almost nobody). The basic rules that the Pilgrims and Tipper and Dan were fighting for are more or less the same, though they might disagree individually on degree - choose activities that glorify God and family and shun just about everything else. They're not rules I agree with - I'm an atheist, personally - but they are rules, they are written down, more or less, and just about everybody in our cultural corner is generally familiar with them. Granted, they're rules that are almost explicitly designed to guarantee that you'll be guilty of something - just looking at someone and experiencing some sort of sexual attraction is technically a sin, after all, and if you're still full but keep eating, well, that's one too - but they're there. The rules being applied to Friends, however, are nowhere near that constant. Take Chandler's homophobia, for example. The show established pretty thoroughly that Chandler was an insecure loser (he worked in data entry, had troubles dating, and so on) that used sarcasm and humor as a defense mechanism and had various attitudes that you would expect from someone with some deep-seated insecurities about his position in the world. Of course he was homophobic - that was the joke. He was so insecure about his own ability to find love that he took it out on pretty much everyone else - fat people, homosexuals, his father, sometimes even his friends. That's why it was okay to laugh at him - he was clearly written to be a flawed, insecure, occasionally horrible human being that we could all relate to from time to time and poke fun of. He was a younger, hipper, somewhat less reactionary Archie Bunker. By laughing at him, we were laughing at our worst. It's the same reason Homer Simpson and Peter Griffin are funny. It's why people laugh at Stan Marsh.

But that's no longer enough. 

It was in the '90s, when Friends came out - even in that dark, almost medieval age of misogyny, trans-erasure, and structural racism, it was pretty clear that homophobia was the product of a reactionary, insecure mind, one that deserved derisive laughter and jest. However, just as the Puritans slowly turned the ratchet, then quickly; just as the Jacobins slowly turned the ratchet, then quickly; just as the Bolsheviks slowly turned the ratchet, then quickly; just as Mao's followers and their like in Cambodia and Vietnam slowly turned the ratchet, then quickly - now it is time to quickly turn the ratchet on the heretics and to truly identify and weed out the faithful, the followers of whatever Revolution we're celebrating and pushing today. To do so, we must cast away the past - if we do not, people might actually learn something from it, and we can't have that. We must continue to change what's acceptable. Homophobia is no longer a laughing matter since it is proof of dissent, and dissent is most certainly no laughing matter. Transphobia must be redefined from "fearing trans-gendered people" to "speaking openly of vaginas". We must fight the patriarchy until it becomes clear that fighting the patriarchy no longer suitably identifies the truly faithful, at which point we shall fight the kyriarchy. We shall demand that businesses advertise to the revolution, then, once they start doing so, tell them that the revolution is not for sale and how dare they co-opt our cause.

Humor is potentially subversive and subtle, so of course it must be crushed. Socialist realism abhors subtlety. Subtlety breeds variation and dissent. Can't have that.


Before anyone gets the wrong idea, conservatives shouldn't pat themselves on the back too hard right now. You had your turn - oh, believe me, you had your turn. America knows what happens when you get to call the cultural shots:

An illustrative Dune quote rendered by Calvin & Muad'Dib
Believe me, given the choice between arguing with a few semi-obscure left wing giblet-heads on the Internet and dealing with what happens when you get the keys... look, we're a long, long, long way from getting from "Let's politicize Friends for ad revenue!" to "Let's send anyone who finds Friends acceptable to a kolkhoz in Manitoba!" We are not near far enough from 90% of the legislation, attempted or ratified, that you've thrown at this country through the years. America fought long and hard to actually take "freedom of speech" seriously - don't think for a moment that we've forgotten how hard you fought us every step of the way.

With that, I think I'm done here for the moment.

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