UPDATE: Please see my version of this post Over There. The short story is, I was wrong and I retract my argument.
My wife got a piece of mail yesterday addressed to “[her name] or current resident” and the return address said, “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon.” The bottom of the envelope had a note that said “From the desk of [Joe Schmoe],” who is Sangamon’s secretary of state. Inside the envelope were a vote-by-mail application, a postage-paid envelope in which to send the application, and a form letter from the Sangamon secretary of state explaining the vote by mail process. At the end of the letter is a postscript:
P.S. No matter who you vote for, voting matters. It’s the backbone of our democracy. Fill out your Vote By Mail application and send it back TODAY! You can apply online or find your early voting site at [Sangamaon]Dems.com/Voting-in-[Sangamon]
While I have mixed feelings about vote by mail, it’s an option open to people in Sangamon and I offer no complaint about it here. And because, as I understand, the state’s secretary of state is charged with voter registration and running the vote by mail service, I find it entirely appropriate that his office sends letters and applications to citizens.
But it’s unseemly, in my opinion, to have this thing paid for by the Democratic party. It’s also unseemly that she was the only one to get the application. While my wife is registered to vote, I don’t know if she’s registered as a Democrat. (If I understand right, in Sangamon, you don’t have to declare an affiliation when you register, but you may if you wish.)
I’m not a registered Democrat. I’m also not particularly friendly to the local Democratic party. Several months ago, a precinct captain was in the neighborhood asking for my signature on a petition for someone to run for Democratic the ward committeeman. I politely explained that I was uncomfortable with the quasi-official “party committeeman” form of governance. Equally politely, he didn’t pursue the matter or harangue me.
It’s possible I was put on the list of “not likely to vote for our person and therefore shouldn’t waste campaign resources on him.” When it comes to things like voter canvassing or who to hit up for donations, that’s a perfectly acceptable way to designate people. But if, as may be the case here, it might determine who receives vote by mail applications “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon.”
Or not. There may be other, mostly innocent or innocuous, things going on. Our landline is registered under my wife’s name, so it’s listed in the phone book under her name. So if that kind of record is gotten by the same pool of information as the phone book, then I can see why the default would be to send the application to her. I also understand that in Big City, the Democratic Party is the main organization and its quasi-official role in governing the city gives it certain responsibilities. So it’s not completely bad that it helps meet operating expenses for public services like vote by mail applications. And Sangamon’s budget is pretty strapped, although I seem to recall similar notices sent to my wife years ago when the budget troubles weren’t quite as bad.
And the envelope was addressed to her “or current resident.” Presumably, I or anyone residing at that address could comfortably open the envelope and get the benefit of access to the application.
But I have a problem with that. I usually won’t open a piece of mail addressed to someone “or current resident” if that someone is not me. I opened this particular piece of mail only because my wife gave me permission. Even if the envelope had been addressed to me, the label “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon” might lead someone to believe it’s just a political flyer or request for a donation. In that case, I’d be disinclined to open such an envelope. Some of that is counterbalanced by the “from the desk of Joe Schmoe” note I mentioned above. And of course, I was curious enough to open the envelope, so I wasn’t deceived.
But if a state service “from the desk of” the state’s secretary of state is being sent out “paid for by the Democratic Party of Sangamon,” that implies something like an official advertisement the party bought from the state, suggesting that for the benefit of paying for this outreach, it receives quasi-official status as the main game in town. This isn’t the most horrible thing ever, but it’s not entirely benign either.
Some terms have a technical meaning and a common meaning, and the common meaning has a “normative slant.” The technicians know how to use the terms in the technical sense. But sometimes the common meaning slips in, in such a way that using the term ends up making two arguments with one word.
If one isn’t careful, using such terms can lead to confusion. Who’s to blame is not always clear. It could be the technician who uses the term or it could be interlocutor who misinterprets or misidentifies the technical meaning.
I have a list of three terms here, in ascending order of how knowledgeable I am about the technical definitions.
Title(s) of technicians. Economist; political scientist.
Technical meaning. The extra amount one is willing to spend to get the next widget. Or, somewhat less technically but still bound up with what technicians mean: the amount of change a given policy will bring about in a given direction.
Common meaning. An amount that is unimportant or trivial.
Normative slant to the common meaning. Mostly neutral, but it can swing either way depending on whether “amount” in question is good or bad.
Possibilities for confusion. When people speak of changes “on the margins” or assert that such and such policy will bring about “marginal” changes, they may have in mind the technical meaning. But sometimes they let slip in or leave unaddressed the common meaning. If it’s a somewhat harmful, but in his/her opinion necessary thing technician is advocating, he/she leave themselves open to the charge that he/she is minimizing the harm.
Sometimes, too: The size of the margin–not whether a marginal change will be brought about–is really what is under dispute. Simply pointing out that change (for the better or worse) will occur along some margin does not 1) demonstrate how much the change will be and 2) whether the change is worth it.
Exploitation (Marxist version).
Title(s) of technician(s). Marxist theorist; activist.
Technical meaning. Expropriating the surplus value of a worker to pay the profits of the person to whom the worker sells his or her labor. (Other technicians may have other meaning, but I’m focusing on the Marxist version.)
Common meaning. Somehow compelling someone to do something that they don’t want to do and that harms them.
Normative slant to the common meaning. Bad.
Possibilities for confusion. One sometime activist I knew who was steeped in Marxist theory often used the word “exploitation” to great emotional effect when describing the treatment of workers and the need for a revolution. And yet if you bring up examples of workers being treated well or workers as a whole benefiting from the prevailing economic system, then that same Marxist will fall back on the more technical meaning of “exploitation” and explain what they really meant was that the workers’ surplus value, etc., etc.
Title(s) of technician(s). Historian.
Technical meaning. Representing the phenomenon of change over time. I believe it can represent persistence over time as well. The key point is that change happens (or doesn’t) but it can be explained by people’s decisions or by contingent, unforeseen happenings. This is probably a modern conceit. Historians in earlier times sometimes appealed notions of “forces of history” or “cycles of history” or “spirits of history” (e.g., Zeitgeist, Volksgeist, Ortgeist). I’m not saying my definition is true for all times and places and people, just that it’s the prevailing definition among those who were trained professionally in history and abide by professional history’s norms.
Common meaning. True and factual story of what happened.
Normative slant to the common meaning. Good.
Possibilities for confusion.There are at least two ways we sometimes commingle the technical and common meanings. One is simply using the common meaning when it suits us and then relying on our status (such as it is) of “historian” to claim that it’s truth.
The second is to speak as if merely demonstrating that a given belief or position or attitude is “ahistorical” we have therefore invalidated it. This is wrong, or at least “confusing,” because it assumes that historicality is the only measure by which to judge things. It judges people by the standards of professional historians even if those people did not claim to be abiding by those standards in the first place.
There’s a lot I don’t know about the above terms. I’m least confident with “marginal.” Not being an economist or trained in economics, I suspect I’ve got it wrong on some level. So please correct me.
I feel a little bit more confident about “exploitation” and Marxism. But to be clear I’ve never read Marx to any significant degree, and most of what I “know” comes from reading Marxist-inspired historians and talking with people like my sometime activist acquaintance. And perhaps the “confusion” I talk about is just an anecdatum from my activist acquaintance.
Even with “historical” I might be off despite my training. In my anecdotal observation and experience, historians aren’t usually trained in grad school to examine the assumptions of history. Instead, grad school socializes them into the norms of the profession, and among those norms are the assumptions I mention above. My experience is no exception: I’ve given these assumptions some thought, but haven’t really investigated them systematically.
My takeaway, though, stands. We should beware how we use technical terms. It’s not only that there’s room for confusion, there’s also room for deception or at least lazy argumentation. And while the blame can’t always rest with the technicians, it sometimes can.
Nice guys like to think they’re peculiarly disadvantaged when it comes to love, sex, and dating. And they’re none too fond of the competition, either. But Nice guys aren’t as nice as they think.
I used to think I was a nice guy. I was wrong. I used to think my only shortcoming was social awkwardness. I was wrong again.
My first mistake was not realizing how off-putting “mere” social awkwardness can be. The evidence was right before me. I knew people even more socially awkward than me, and I didn’t like to be around them. If they were socially awkward enough, I might talk about them behind their back, or make fun of them, or not hang out with them. Awkwardness is unfair and difficult to shed. As the song says, “nobody wants to know you now and nobody wants to show you how.” But I was just as guilty of acting against others’ awkwardness as my dating interests were to mine. Why should I have expected more of them than I did of myself?
My second mistake was not realizing I had greater problems than social awkwardness. To be sure, I said and claimed to believe (and probably on some level did believe) all the right things. I believed it’s wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. All of that, I said/claimed to believe/(probably believed) ought to enter into the equation when it comes to such things as love, sex, and dating.
But in practice I objectified women without realizing–or more honestly, without admitting to myself–that I was doing it. More important, I also had and have anger issues and control issues. I won’t go into them here. My point is that those qualities were potentially creepy and definitely not “nice.” On the one hand, they can be chalked off to youth and inexperience. But on the other hand I had work to do and as long as I believed I was a nice guy that wasn’t going to happen.
At the same time that the work wasn’t happening because I still thought I was a nice guy, one convenient foil for my frustrations was the “bro dude,” although I’m not sure I’ve ever used that exact term and probably didn’t even encountered it until about a year ago. The bro dude is a jerk. He’s crass, rude, and a bit of a slob….but women love him. He comes out ahead but doesn’t deserve it while the nice guy finishes last.
But just as I was mistaken about myself, I was mistaken about “bro dudes,” too.
My definition of “bro dude” was too broad. Pretty much anyone I didn’t like and who had a girlfriend qualified. And “anyone I didn’t like” often meant “anyone I perceived as competition.”
Bro dudes weren’t as boorish as I believed them to be. They evidently had something to offer the women who dated them. While women, like all people, sometimes make poor relationship choices, it’s wrong to assume women aren’t capable of living their own lives and making their own choices. That assumption is inherent in anti-bro-dude’ism.
And boorishness isn’t all bad. Maybe some of the behaviors I called boorish were just ways to be oneself and maybe some ways of me being myself seem boorish to others. What’s more: Some behaviors I used to think were boorish were probably just the guy being willing to be honest with his emotions.
As an aside but not really an aside, boorishness–and being a “bro dude”–is often mistaken for stupidity. The “they’re stupid” trope by itself is best kept at a distance. Nice guys love to imagine themselves as smart, but delicate flowers that need and deserve special treatment because of their alleged intelligence. They rarely stop to admit they may not be as smart, talented, or sensitive as they think they are. They even more rarely stop to think about the implications behind giving more intelligent people special treatment. There’s an important sense in which “smart people should be given more respect (because they’re smart)” is equivalent to “strong people should be given more respect (because they’re strong).”
I guess my moral is “if you feel you’re being especially oppressed because of how good you are, maybe you’re not either oppressed or good.” “Bro dudes” aren’t to blame. They might not even really be “bro dudes.”
Now, my parting caveats and CYA concessions. I’ve overgeneralized. I admit it.
Yes, there probably really are guys who have a lot to offer and aren’t as appreciated as they should be. There are definitely guys who are too controlling of their partners, and some are even more than just “too controlling.” More likely, most men fall between those extremes, having something to offer but also having a full range of weaknesses and faults.
And yes, I still believe it’s wrong to objectify women, that gender discrimination is real, that sexual harassment happens, and that in most environments women disproportionately fear for their safety more than men do. And I still believe all of that needs to be taken into account when it comes to love, sex, and dating.
And yes, I’m a straight, white, cisgender, upper-middle class, American….you get the picture.
Finally, I don’t want to deny anyone’s feelings of loneliness or awkwardness. It’s legitimate to feel sad or distressed or frustrated. I think it’s also understandable that such feelings sometimes translate into categorical bitterness against entire groups of people. And while we must draw a line between acceptable and unacceptable ways of expressing those feelings, it is usually be a good thing to withhold judgment and listen first.
I’ve been pretty upfront that I believe the American Revolution was unjust. Not 100% unjust. I concede some very good things that might not have happened, did happen or happened more quickly because of the Revolution. I also don’t claim that but for the Revolution, we would be right now sipping Molson’s and complaining about wait times and doctor shortages imposed by our single-payer system but being grateful that it’s not as bad as the National Health Service. But I believe the war was unjust enough that if I were around back then and had the same sensibilities as today and had the courage of my convictions, I would have opposed it.
That’s not a particularly brave or shocking thing to say in 2016. I don’t fear tar and feathering, which was by the way a really, really horrific practice and not the comical thing it used to sound like to me. I’m not going to lose my property be and forced into exile or shunned.
But my position takes some people aback, even my liberal and leftist friends. Some of my very liberal friends who in other contexts threaten to move to Canada get offended when I say the war was unjust. #notallleftistsorliberals , of course. I know a Trotskyist whose take on the Revolution is probably “something something bourgeois elites something something.” And there’s always the Howardzinnians, but even they claim the Revolution itself was just but that it was counter-revolutioned. (Actually, I’ve never read Zinn, so I don’t know exactly what he argues.)
Why bother harping on this? Even if you concede that the Revolution was an unjust war, there are other unjust wars the US has engaged in, usually wars more unjust, and certainly more recently, than that unfortunate escapade. And the Revolutionary War was a really long time ago. The scars have been healed. If celebrating it brings some people comfort, then why be “that guy” who gripes about it? If the founding document that allegedly justifies that war inspires or at least provides ideological cover for causes I support, then why diss it?
One reason why I bother: It’s the founding moment of the story we tell ourselves as a nation. There’s a holiday dedicated to celebrating it. I like my days off as much as anyone, and I feel fortunate to have a job that gives me July 4 as a paid holiday. But I’m not too keen on celebrating the type of political activism that gang of criminals in Boston engaged in and that gang of more polite apologists in Philadelphia “ennobled” with their declaration.
However, I can’t hide that I get a certain contrarian thrill from saying I oppose the Revolution. I agree with Kevin Vallier when he warns against the “contrarian trap.” I think contrarianism, as contrarianism, is a bad thing.
I end on “however, maybe I’m being merely contrarian” and not on “I think I’m right” because I don’t know whether I’m being contrarian or not and it’s best not to think too highly of oneself. But I do believe that war was unjust and we shouldn’t celebrate it.
Mostly because I’m ignorant of the nuts and bolts, I’ve pretty much avoided the debates about whether transgender students should be allowed to use the bathroom of their choosing. My position is roughly the same as Thoreau’s over at High Clearing.
However, what little commentary I’ve read seems to leave an important point unaddressed. In my experience, schools are unforgiving when it comes to respecting students’ privacy. In my middle school, no provision was made by our gym class for those students who would have preferred not to shower in a room full of other naked boys. The gym teachers (there were 2 gym teachers who taught one class0 actually made it into some sort of right of passage, something we all had to do as a step to manhood. At least that’s how I interpreted their attitudes.
In high school, the school for whatever reason ordered the doors to all the bathroom stalls in the boys rooms to be dismantled so that if someone had to do “sitting-down business,” they had to do it in full view of others. As in the middle school shower example,
It was rumored that school policy in each case treated the girls better. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that for the girls’ gym classes, my middle school allowed the students to have their own shower stalls. I had heard (but didn’t know and still don’t know if it’s true) that my high school permitted girls to have bathroom stall doors. If those rumors are true, then I think that’s inexcusable sexism, not that girls should have to suffer the same as boys, but that boys shouldn’t be especially targeted.
Despite my hyper-modesty, I was able to do the middle-school showering with no problem. But in keeping with my hyper-modesty, the “no doors on bathroom stalls” policy really, really bothered me. When you gotta go, you gotta go, except when you’re too afraid to, then you can’t, but you still gotta. And well, nobody’s gonna be sympathetic.
My anecdote is just that, an anecdote. I’m sure some schools handle things better and some, worse. And maybe at a systematic level, most schools handle these things better. Or maybe I’m just hypersensitive. I realize it’s asking a lot to suggest the world needs to change to accommodate my special neuroses.
But the debate over transgender privileges needs to take privacy seriously. I’m actually optimistic that the debate can lead to greater respect for students’ privacy, if only because any workable compromise or solution on the issue may include offering things like private clothes-changing stalls, private shower stalls, and doors on bathroom stalls.
I have to be a little skeptical of Emmett Rensin’s essay on “The Smug Style in American Liberalism” because it captures almost exactly how I feel. I’m tempted to offer some pithy quote and say “read the whole thing.” But that’s boring. Instead, I’ll offer three counterpoints to his piece. Rensin attributes too much power to the style. Rensin’s evidence is dangerously anecdotal. Rensins does not sufficiently acknowledge competing “smug styles.”
Since the end of World War II and especially since the 1960s, liberals in the United States have increasingly adopted what Rensin calls a “smug style” that turns off people who might otherwise be inclined to support liberals’ programs. This smug style is found when liberals insist they know better than those who might disagree with them on any number of issues or policies. This “knowing better” specifically targets the white working class, according to Rensin. Disagreement with putatively liberal policies stems at best from an undue attachment to less important concerns like “guns and religion” and at worst from base motivations like racism or sexism.
Counterpoint No. 1: Too much power to the style.
For the most part, Rensin is discussing a style and not a substance. It’s not so much what liberals advocate as it is how they go about it. “I am not suggesting,” he says, that liberals “compromise their issues for the sake of playing nice.” He’s more concerned about the role smugness plays in alienating potential allies.
Still he hints that smugness leads to the adoption of harmful policies. He claims that “open disdain for the people they [liberals] say they want to help has led them to stop helping those people, too.” However, he doesn’t elaborate on what this means on a practical level.
I therefore wonder if he–and I–perhaps assign too much power to the “smug” style as a style. Even though I can think of specific policies–even policies I support like Obamacare–that in some ways hurt workers, at some point we have to leave off pointing out smugness and engage in accounting for why and how those policies are harmful.
Counterpoint No. 2: Rensin’s evidence is of necessity anecdotal.
With a couple exceptions, Rensin wisely eschews psychoanalyzing liberals’ latte-drinking inner demons. He focuses instead on what liberals say or what is said in favor of causes liberals presumably support. His examples are many, taken from Facebook and Twitter feeds, excerpts from Jon Stewart’s Daily Show, and other venues.
All to the good for his argument. But the anecdotal nature of his evidence limits what he–and we–can say about liberals’ smug style. First, there’s the problem that what is smug for me may not be smug for ye. Sometimes a joke is just a joke and a barb is just a barb. (And for the record while I can’t stand Stewart’s schtick, I really enjoyed watching the Colbert Report, which is even more unrelenting in its critique of a certain brand of American conservatism.)
More important, we see what some people say on Facebook, but not how those same people interact with others in real life. We see what Stewart does and guess to whom his jokes are meant to appeal, but we don’t see the other things the audience laughs at or how they act when they’re not consuming his brand of entertainment.
Rensin’s argument almost has to be anecdotal. It’s not wrong for being anecdotal. And it’s hard in any systematic way to get at what he’s trying to get at. But we–especially those of us inclined to agree with him–should beware of how far we’re taking the evidence.
Counterpoint no. 3: Other styles compete with liberals’ “smugness.”
Early in the essay, Rensin says, “Of course, there is a smug style in every political movement: elitism among every ideology believing itself in possession of the solutions to society’s ills.” But he mostly lets that recognition drop right there. He quickly redirects the reader to liberal smugness: “few movements have let the smug tendency so corrupt them, or make so tenuous its case against its enemies” as American liberalism.
But let’s dwell a little more on the “smug style in every political movement: elitism among every ideology….”
There’s a libertarian smugness, often called glibness or glibertarianism. While I’m not a libertarian, one libertarian-lite policy I have endorsed is a good example of this. I once advanced the opinion that when considering wages and hours regulations (but not health and safety regulations), I prefer the policy that creates more jobs, if bad ones, to the policy that creates fewer jobs, if better paying ones. While I insist I adopted that position out of sincere concern for people less fortunate than me, I can certainly see how someone who works at or near minimum wage would see my position as smug or glib. At any rate, I’m not going to offer my opinion, especially when it’s unsolicited, to the many service workers I encounter. And if I did offer the opinion, I would be inclined to do so apologetically and in the spirit that I don’t really know what their life is like.
Adherents to non-libertarian conservatism can exhibit “styles” that approach something we can call smugness.
Two examples. One: We’ve all heard the “hate the sin, love the sinner” aphorism. On one level it’s offered, I submit, sincerely, in the belief that we all sin and fall short of the glory and that persistence in sin is detrimental to one’s well-being, perhaps more akin to a sickness deserving compassion than to a crime deserving sanction. But alas, as a slogan it has often accompanied attempts to promote “gay conversion therapy” or to deny the right to same sex marriage.
Two: We don’t have to go back too far to remember that voicing skepticism about the 2003 Iraq invasion signaled to some people that one was at best naive or worse, less than patriotic or supported terrorism. The opponents to the war gave their (sometimes inexcusable) tit to the neo-cons’ tat, but that element from the pro-war side was real, too.
Do religious posturing against gays and pro-war patriotism-baiting count as “smugness”? I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s a brand of “knowing better” and dismissing dissenting views similar to the smug style Rensin describes.
But seriously, “read the whole thing.”
As I said above, I agree with Rensin. I don’t do so grudgingly, but gladly. He’s got it right. He uses evidence and logic to come to a conclusion that works for me and that I was inclined to accept in the first place. Therefore on one level, you might read this long post merely as an exercise in finding holes in another person’s argument. And frankly, Rensin could not have addressed my points and still written something readable.
But on another level, I do think those of us most eager to find a “smug style” among American liberals need to consider why the very smugsters we criticize might take exception. The goal isn’t only to win, to see our side through to its notion of the good and the just. It’s also to understand and live with each other because in my view that is part of the good and the just as well.
The American Republic will end someday. That isn’t a particularly novel or edgy observation. It’s quite banal. “Greece fell, Rome fell….” (China hasn’t fallen yet, but its longest lasting dynasties seem to have a shelf-life of “only” a few centuries, so maybe that counts.)
For me the question is when, not whether, the Republic will fall. I don’t know if a Trump presidency will bring about the fall, but it might. Or it might set the Republic on the course toward its fall. Maybe Trump would do it with a bang so loud we’ll know it’s happening.
Or his election will be one more step in legitimizing a “church and king” faction that perhaps has always been latent in American political politics.
Legitimization is not a yes or no proposition. It happens by degrees and in stages. A formal nomination by a major party can legitimize this faction even if the nominee will never win. I’m not the first to make the comparison, but while here was no way Jean-Marie LePen was going to win the French presidency in 2002, getting to the runoff gave him and his constituency a big boost. If that analogy holds for Trump, then his presumptive nomination is a bad thing indeed.
But maybe t the Republic has already fallen. This “church and king” faction–well, maybe it’s not a faction, maybe it’s a “style” of politics–certainly had its antecedents. Maybe the deal was sealed at some point. Maybe Wickard v. Filburn. Maybe Korematsu. Maybe the Cold War national security state and military industrial complex. Maybe the Espionage, Sedition, and PATRIOT Acts (or maybe the Alien and Sedition Acts). Maybe the milling factionalism in our politics and the thousand pinpricks into civil society and individual privacy and democratic governance that might very well be the inevitable consequence of what some call “modernity.”
I once attended a presentation by a professor on Augustus and the end of the Roman Republic. According to him, when Augustus seized and consolidated his power, he did so on the fiction that Rome was still a Republic. Romans still spoke as if they lived in whatever had passed for a Republic ca. c.e. 0. But they also knew who was calling the shots. It was only in retrospect that people saw his reign as the beginning of something new.
Trump is no Augustus. Or at least I don’t think so. I don’t fear or dread Trump as much as the #NeverTrump people seem to. If his nomination–and possible election–augur ill for us, it’s one step of a process that depends on decisions we have already made and on decisions we will make in the future.
John Winthrop believed inequality is a problem. In 1630, on board the ship Arbella, he made the case in the sermon “Model of Christian Charity.” Whatever one thinks of his purported explanation for why inequality exists or of his ideas for coping with the problem, he warns that the problem is real.
God, Winthrop says, has “so disposed of the condition of mankind, as in all times some must be rich, some poor, some high and eminent in power and dignity; others mean and in submission.” Among the reasons Winthrop cites:
[God] might have the more occasion to manifest the work of his Spirit: first upon the wicked in moderating and restraining them, so that the rich and mighty should not eat up the poor, nor the poor and despised rise up against and shake off their yoke. Secondly, in the regenerate, in exercising His graces in them, as in the great ones, their love, mercy, gentleness, temperance etc., and in the poor and inferior sort, their faith, patience, obedience etc.
That’s only one part of the sermon, but I’m going to dwell on it. I read it as saying social inequalities are justified because they’re “God’s will.”
But justified or not, inequality is a problem, Winthrop seems to also be saying. Whatever good he can see coming from inequality, its existence is a warning as well as a opportunity for providence to do what providence does. The rich could eat up the poor. The poor could rise up against the rich.
Our sensibilities here are not necessarily what we might think they are. About the poor rising up to “shake off their yoke,” we probably entertain the possibility that the uprising is or can be a good thing. Or we might be quick to point out that what Winthrop might call “rising up” is more an assertion of rights, or an attempt to survive, than anything nefarious. Still, I don’t know how far most of us would go to endorse the uprising or the collateral damage that might ensue.
To make it more personal, I’d resent it if someone mugged me even if I grant they did so only because they really needed the money or because they are a bread thief. Not that all redistribution or “rising up” is comparable to a mugging. But if ending someone else’s poverty requires me to surrender even a small portion of my wealth or occasions an inconvenience to me of some sort, and even if I agree that the redistribution is right and just, it can still hurt in the short term. (For what it’s worth, a goodly amount of so-called “liberal” reform in the US usually sold on the claim that only the very rich will be inconvenienced. See Obama’s 2008 promise to raise taxes only on those who earn more than $250,000.)
Most of us probably agree that the rich eating up the poor is a bad thing, for certain values of “eating.” (I don’t really want to do it, but (sigh) I guess I have to offer this link.) But I’m not so sure we don’t do it. Most of us who adhere to a given political orientation–liberal, conservative, libertarian, for example–concur that feeding off the poor is bad. We may differ in assessing how the poor are fed off of, who is to blame, and how to end the feeding. But most of them–most of us–at least claim to agree that it’s bad.
Still, we’ve got ours and intend to keep it. Very few of us are going to engage in a life dedicated to fixing those things. Even fewer will withdraw from society to avoid all complicity in the feeding, not that such withdrawal would be easy or helpful. Maybe we can endorse a “first do no harm” strategy: don’t actively do anything to make things worse but try to fix things when we can and when it’s convenient. That’s probably the best we can hope for unless we want to be (non-fallen) angels, and I don’t want to be an angel.
But, you might object, Winthrop’s inequality is a zero sum game. It ignores that we can increase the size of the pie so everybody gets more even if some get even more than others. You might be right. I for one am a bigger believer than I used to be that material wealth can be increased for all and that we should pause before assuming the fact of inequality is automatically a problem. The “inequality symposium” Over There a few years ago drove that point home for me. And maybe material wealth is conducive to moral or humanitarian or spiritual (or whatever you want to call it). Such seems to be one of Deirdre McCloskey’s arguments in Bourgeois Virtues. (I think. I’m only 100 pages into and am a bit unclear on what exactly she’s arguing.)
While important, that objection doesn’t address Winthrop’s point. As long as there’s inequality, some will have more than others. Those who lack will be tempted to envy and to deny the humanity of those who have. How often have I heard of a real hardship suffered by someone much better off than me and yet mocked the person because after all, they had more? I don’ t know, but I can think of at least one example (the context is a discussion of Anne Romney’s convention speech in 2012 where she disclosed she suffered from MS and had suffered from breast cancer.)
Those who have will be tempted to abuse their gifts against their weaker or less provisioned neighbors. As someone who enjoys almost the full complement of special advantages (formerly known as “privileges”) that make living in this country so much easier, I have doubtlessly engaged in enough careless or casual cruelty toward others who do not share my good fortune. If I chose to bore you with specific examples, they would probably just sound like good old fashioned white liberal guilt. Nevertheless, it’s true.
I was going to end with an admonition to question our own envy against those who have what we lack and to exercise restraint and compassion when dealing with those who lack what we have. Noble sentiments. But I suppose most people hold them anyway and my harangues probably just sound preachy.
I’ll leave you instead with this. Less inequality is probably better than more if only because it tempers the temptations to vengeance and casual cruelty. But I suspect we can never end it altogether, and I’m not sure we ought to if we could. And I agree with Wintrhop. It is a real problem.
In a recent post at the Blinded Trials sub-blog Over There, Tod Kelly offers his thoughts about what he calls “online people.”
Online People are men and women (but mostly men) who spend a significant amount of their work and personal time interacting with others online. As in the real world, some get along with people they disagree with better than others, but regardless, those disagreements greatly shape their online persona. Which is to say that while most people in the real world define and group themselves by what they are, Online People generally define and group themselves by what they are not. To take myself as an example: In the real world I am a father, a husband, a brother, a person lucky enough to be surrounded by scores of amazing friends, a Portlander, a writer and risk manger, etc. As an Online Person, however, I am someone who is not a movement conservative, not an ideologue, not a knee-jerk hack baiting for clicks, not a SJW, etc.
There are some apparent inconsistencies in his overall post. But it’s always easy to disagree and to find inconsistencies in what someone else has written. If it weren’t, all graduate history programs would evaporate immediately. And Tod is not trying to assert an a priori TRUTH about how the world must always and forever work. He states upfront that “Online People…are a figment of my imagination based on my own personal anecdotal experience.”
The best approach, I think, is to take his post as a hypothesis and to examine the ways and situations in which his hypothesis works and doesn’t work, and then to offer some thoughts on whether what the hypothesis describes is a good or bad thing.
His hypothesis does not describe a peculiarly “online” phenomenon. I find it hard to look at any political movement, large or small, in American history whose membership did not somehow define themselves by what they are not. Sometimes the negative self-definition was subtle and co-mingled with much positive self-identification. See 1890s Populism. Sometimes the negative outpaced the positive. See the Popular Front of the 1930s. Sometimes it wasn’t so much a question of identity, but of policy, and being opposed to a policy as a policy can actually mean being for a different policy. See Abolitionism.
Still, I take Tod not to say that the internet causes negative self-definition. Instead, I take him to be saying one or both of two things. First, the internet and online communities are somehow more conducive to negative self-definition. Second, whether or not the internet is inherently more conducive to this way of self-identifying, online communities as a fact tend to self-identify negatively more than in-person communities.
If I read his hypothesis correctly, I think it’s at least even money that he’s right. If he is right, I think I have one way of demonstrating how and why it is correct. I offer a hypothesis of my own. I refer you to a distinction between what I call the “hot seat” and the “cheap seat.”
In the blogosphere, the “hot seat” is the position occupied by the author of a post or an article or a column. The “cheap seat” is occupied by the commenter, who usually enjoys pseudonymity and always enjoys the luxury of not having just created something that is now subject to critical examination.
I’ve found that writing posts–being in the hot seat–makes me feel vulnerable. I put an argument out there and it’s subject to review and comment. Even a friendly comment and one that agrees with me can feel like a disagreement, and a comment that disagrees with even just a portion of what I write can feel like an attack, no matter how well-reasoned or how politely put it is. I know better, but it still feels that way. While there are exceptions–e.g., if it’s about something I don’t feel strongly about–my inclination is to defend whatever point I was making as if I were defending myself.
In the cheap seat, however, I as a commenter often feel free to single out a portion of what someone else says in their post and critique or praise it. Well, it’s almost always a critique and not praise. Or if neither praise or critique, it’s a tangent. And tangents are usually hard to read as anything other than a critique or disagreement. I’m saying “critique” and not “criticism.” All criticisms are critiques, but not all critiques are criticism. Sometimes a critique is a qualification, or another way of agreeing, or an elaboration, or a suggestion.
There are variations on that theme. Sometimes people gang up on a commenter and that commenter is now in the hot seat. Sometimes a blog author will make a “comment rescue” that doesn’t rescue a comment so much as it uses the author’s bully pulpit to criticize what the commenter said. Sometimes, to quote Gandalf, we just have to ‘fess up that there’s such a thing as malice and revenge.
I’m suggesting that this on some level might be others’ experience, too. Perhaps not everyone’s experience, but most people’s. Perhaps not fully consciously, but at some, maybe visceral, level.
This hot seat and cheap seat distinction isn’t all there is. It doesn’t explain how and why some commenters tend to, for lack of a better word, “ally” with other commenters or continually criticize certain others not only for what they say but for how critcizer feels personally about the other. Both things I have been guilty of, by the way.
But if this distinction doesn’t explain everything, it might explain something. A blog moderately to heavily trafficked with comments–even ones like Over There, with its very liberal guest posting policy–evinces in any given thread this distinction between the person who has put themselves out there and the people who choose to comment. I think this is somehow related to the perception–and perhaps the reality–of “Online People” who define themselves by what they are not.
Megan McArdle gets at what bothers me about attempts to move toward a “cashless” society. For all the advantages of going cashless, she says, a fully cashless society gives too much power to the government.
Consider the online gamblers who lost their money in overseas operations when the government froze their accounts. Now, what they were doing was indisputably illegal in these here United States, and I am not claiming that they were somehow deeply wronged. But consider how immense the power that was conferred upon the government by the electronic payments system; at a word, your money could simply vanish.
Now consider what might happen if the government made a mistake. When I was just starting out as a journalist, the State of New York swooped down and seized all the money out of one of my bank accounts. It turned out — much later, after a series of telephone calls — that they had lost my tax return for the year that I had resided in both Illinois and New York, discovered income on my federal tax return that had not appeared on my New York State tax return, sent some letters to that effect to an old address I hadn’t lived at for some time, and neatly lifted all the money out of my bank. It took months to get it back.
I didn’t starve, merely fretted. In our world of cash, friends and family can help out someone in a situation like that. In a cashless society, the government might intercept any transaction in which someone tried to lend money to the accused.
She’s not saying necessarily that we shouldn’t go cashless, just that we need to decide how to face this new power that cashlessness gives to the state.