On Jared Kushner’s New After-School Project, The White House Office of American Innovation

Per the New York Post: “Jared Kushner will be announced Monday as the head of the newly formed White House Office of American Innovation, which is being called a strategic consultant SWAT team meant to make government more efficient.”

Nobody even told me the White House Office of American Innovation was hiring. I have a cover letter all ready to go and everything. 

I initially fixated on that bizarre and somewhat vile metaphor of the innovation “SWAT team.” But apparently the “innovation SWAT team”idea  was actually coined in the Obama administration, making the authoritarian cast of Jared’s new after-school project less Trumpian than it sounds, and more like routine neoliberal governance, in the same league as the “innovation czars” and unaccountable economic advisory boards that are business as usual at state and federal government. And obviously there’s nothing very new about “running the government like a great American company” and valuing “efficiencies” and “nimble power centers” and “flexibilities,” and you know Hillary Clinton would have pursued something that at least sounded similarly awful.

But when the Obama administration pursued these sorts of ideas–pursuing “innovation” through semi-privatization of governance–it gave it a much more convincing technological basis borrowed from Silicon Valley, which was part of its appeal (though not to me, obvs). It was also, to give them credit, almost certainly way more competent. I prefer Jared’s inept project because it looks so nakedly, clumsily ideological; from these early reports there’s barely any pretense of meritocracy or “accountability,” and no particular interest in technology at all. They use the wrong business buzzwords, borrowing from Dad’s building industry background. As Trump said in a statement, the government is beset by “congestion… leading to cost overruns and delays.” And then there’s the odd list of initiatives, headlined by the opioid crisis, which Jared is apparently going to tackle with ideas from other real estate tycoons and investment bankers. The meanness and graft that always lurks closely behind “innovation” discourse in government is just so much more out in the open here. I can’t even say the mask is slipping, because it’s not clear they will try to even wear it.

Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury

My piece defending the activist students at Middlebury College from the wailing mob of pious national journalists working the “free-speech-at-elite-colleges” beat was published at Inside Higher Ed.

From all the talk of campus “civility” to the “freedom of speech” controversies at Yale, Missouri, and elsewhere over the past couple of years, one of the ways conservatives and elite liberals on campus and in the media police campus activism is by invoking a fantasy of the campus as a neutral sanctuary from the world of politics outside. This notion of campuses as sanctuaries from the “real world” only makes sense if you are either 1) connected to real-life campuses mostly through the gauzy haze of Ivy-League nostalgia or 2) cloistered in an elite institution yourself, where it is easier to indulge the fantasy of academia as a leafy idyll, rather than a workplace like every other.

For an example of the second, see what may be the least convincing of the hostile criticisms of the Middlebury activists, by Danielle Allen in the Washington Post. Allen is a classicist who has taught at the University of Chicago and Harvard, and it definitely shows. She laments the pollution of the “sacred groves” of academe–yes, “sacred groves”–by illiberal, angry protesters. The essay hinges on a truly outrageous comparison between Murray and the Little Rock 9 who integrated public schools in Arkansas’ capital city in the aftermath of the Brown ruling. The content of Allen’s comparison is very superficial–she brings it up in the opening paragraph as a hook and then never returns to it. It amounts to the fact that both Murray and the integrationist students faced a “shouting, shoving mob.”

Allen invokes another historical reference, Abraham Lincoln, when she describes his 1862 Morril Act that established land-grant universities, which disseminated her sacred groves across the nation. What she learns from the Morril Act is that “democracies are necessarily contentious but can survive only if they can channel contestation into peaceful forms of behavior.” Now, if you want to make a claim that important democratic social change comes only from reasoned debate, you can go right ahead, but you could certainly choose better analogies than the Civil-War United States and the Civil Rights movement.

What Allen wants from protest, in short, is that it conform to the standards of the classroom. And what this shows is an impoverished understanding of the history and strategy of political protest. It’s a familiar argument over all, though, since some version of this “sacred groves” business is used to discipline every campus movement that manages to unsettle business as usual, as protest must do if it is to avoid becoming a charade. I first encountered this sort of argument during the TA unionization efforts I was involved with an NYU. It’s not an argument that will go away anytime soon, but I’m grateful for the students who don’t buy it.

Allen writes that “the supreme academic aspiration is to defeat bad arguments with better ones.” I don’t know that I agree, since I’m not one for enumerating virtues, and in any case I prefer to think of college and universities as workplaces first. But in the spirit of the aspiration, here’s my argument.

Continue reading “Bodies on the Gears at Middlebury”

The Pivot to Presidential

Much coverage of Donald Trump’s speech to Congress–which I didn’t watch, I was working–revolved around whether or not he “pivoted” to “presidential,” as the AP’s analysis put it. Just as much coverage made the more reasonable argument that he wasn’t actually “pivoting,” he was only “pirouetting” as the New Yorker‘s John Cassidy wrote. Much of the pre-game punditry focused on disproving in advance the anticipated “pivot” praise.

And in case you were wondering what an average boob in Miami thought about the speech, here’s Rolando Valdes, who’s in sales, who praised Trump, saying “today he acted like a politician.”

Valdes seems to be saying that Trump pivoted from authentic outsider to compromising politician which, incredibly, he means as praise. And Valdes may be just a boob from Miami, but his comment echoes other pundits‘ praise for Trump’s “presidential” demeanor (equalled perhaps by the furious denunciations for the praise for his presidential demeanor) . In Trump’s case, where “presidential” more than ever before means a character one plays on TV, how can a “pivot” be anything other than a “pirouette”–that is, a circular, stationary dance, which goes nowhere, and ends up where it started? (Obviously, the short answer is, “because the capitalist media.” But read on for the longer answer.)

The “pivot” was a mainstay of Very Serious Analysis of the Obama administration (with its pivots to Asia, Cuba, “the economy,” and so on), which may explain its appeal to a class of political analysts who know no other way to discuss national politics except in the style of a never-ending sporting event with clear rules of which they style themselves the referees. Cassidy’s error is in treating “pivoting” and “pirouetting” as substantially different things, as if changing your public messaging or political branding amounts to something more substantial than a showy about-face. But at least he’s skeptical. What’s remarkable overall is that a political figure, like Trump, who people regard as either 1) a thoroughly fabricated TV character, incapable of authentic conviction or 2) a thoroughly authentic guy, who “says what he thinks” could ever be thought capable of a “pivot,” which is used to mean either 1) an authentic shift in one’s ideas and focus, worthy of a statesman or 2) an inauthentic dance, performed for the cameras. If he’s a phony, then all he does is pivot, and who cares; if he’s authentic, then any pivot is a betrayal, immediately exposing him.

While Trump takes the fiction of the public “pivot” to absurd new heights, the contradiction he highlights is inherent in this and many of the keywords for the age of austerity, which celebrate 1) zealous moral commitment (the Way of the Entrepreneur) and yet also 2) an acquiescent flexibility to the demands of the market, a willingness to turn your zealous commitment on a dime as trends demand.

As I wrote in a longer entry on the topic, a person “pivots” by moving right or left while they remain stationary. In basketball, you can’t move your “pivot foot” after you pick up your dribble. A second baseman turns a double play by pivoting from his right to his left without leaving the base. Alternatively, the pivot is, as the OED says, “any physical part on which another part turns”–a tool in the manipulation of some larger object. This is how the word used to be used metaphorically, in political journalism that referred to various countries as strategic “pivots.” Taiwan and Japan, for example, were often described as “pivots” in Cold War Asia. Political parties could also occupy a pivot position, exerting leverage one way or another, as when a 1967 New York Times report on French elections described the Socialists as a pivot between left and right parties. This is more in line with the conventional definition of “pivoting” as stationary movement, which provides leverage for shifting direction one way or another.

Until the late 1990s, “pivots” were mostly found in the sports section. Its recent explosion in political journalism is borrowed from business jargon, where it translates roughly as a “rebranding.” In its political lobbying, the Catholic Church is said to “pivot” from “social issues” to inequality and the environment. Eastern Europe, wroteScreen shot 2015-07-06 at 10.58.09 AM Frank Bruni in 2003, “pivoted” in a secular direction after 1989. In 1999, Bruni–a pioneer of pivotology–used it to refer to political candidates’ practiced, canned redirection of journalists’ questions. “Mr. Hatch can pivot from just about any subject to a pitch for his campaign’s Internet site,” Bruni wrote. Here, one “pivots” from one question to another if you can’t answer the first one. Bruni rightly regards it as insincere, a pirouette. But I suspect many political journalists like the word as much as they do because it calls attention to the rhetorical dancing politicians do to flatter journalists. And as Adam Serwer pointed out on Twitter, the journalistic praise for Trump’s “presidential” bearing last night came largely from the fact that he refrained from insulting journalists.

So “pivots,” being essentially media exercises, are inherently superficial and highly personalized forms of accounting for political processes. Observing pivots are also masturbatory exercises in professional self-regard. For a charismatic figure like Trump, all he ever does is “pivot.” And for a certain class of political journalist, who treats the “pivot” as a performance of serious statesmanship, Trump can never authentically “pivot,” and analysis of him amounts to little more than the futile exercise of pointing out his hypocrisy. The point isn’t that Trump’s public statements don’t matter, that they are “distractions” from the Real, etc. Rather, when Trump can be praised for embodying the empty-suit conventions of political seriousness that he is otherwise credited with rebelling against, then these conventions–always empty signifiers, even in more normal times–are plainly defunct as categories of analysis now.

Dance GIF - Find & Share on GIPHY

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 29: Hack/Hacking/Hacker

“Hacking,” according to Evgeny Morozov, is the art of “exploiting existing resources to produce more.” The MIT Tech Model Railroad Club, a student club credited with coining the technophilic meaning of the word, defined a “hack” in its 1959 dictionary as “something done without constructive end,” an “entropy booster.” For the TMRC, hacking is less like cyber-warfare and more like “pranking,” a subversive but not malicious demonstration of intellect and curiosity. Meanwhile, insists the Daily Kos, Russia “hacked the election” by “undermining people’s faith in democracy.” In her book Lifehacker: 88 Tech Tick to Turbocharge Your Day, Gina Trapani writes that a “lifehacker” “uses workarounds and shortcuts to overcome everyday difficulties of the modern worker: an interrupt-driven existence of too much to do and too many distractions to keep you from doing it.”

As other historians of the term like have observed, the meaning of “hack” vacillates between two poles: either mischief or malice, rebellion or authority, the dark side and the light. This duality was apparent in one of the first investigations of “hacking” to appear in the New York Times, in August 1983. In a lengthy interview, Geoffrey Goodfellow, a computer security researcher in a town called Menlo Park, CA, described the hacker this way:

A hacker is someone who programs computers for the sheer fun of it rather than, say, just theorizing about programming. A hacker could be described as a person capable of appreciating the irony and beauty—or as we refer to it, the ‘hack value’—of a program. But another part, unfortunately, is a little bit on the dark side. There is a malcious of inquisitive hacker, or meddler, who would like to discover information by poking around.

The article was illustrated by what may be the first appearance of the stock-photo caricature of the hacker (more on this below): a grinning masked catburglar, cracking a computer depicted as a safe.

Screen Shot 2017-02-13 at 11.24.40 AM.png
“The World of Data Confronts the Joy of Hacking,” The New York Times, Aug. 28, 1983

The verb’s current meaning—to covertly access  a complex technological network, in order to manipulate it for some end unintended by its designer or owner—originates with the telephone. The first “hacks” invaded telephone switchboards, and from there, the word expanded to other kinds of communication networks. If this meaning has any relationship to the other meaning of “hack”–to attack aggressively with a heavy or sharp object– it would seem to be ironic, since the hacker’s dangerous allure comes from his secrecy and ingenuity. The rhyme with “crack”–as in to crack a code–seems important here, though maybe I’m just swayed by that illustration.

Let’s leave the etymology aside and move onto the heavier stuff. Do you with to proceed? If yes, click the video link below.

Continue reading “Keywords for the Age of Austerity 29: Hack/Hacking/Hacker”

Donald Trump and “solidarity”

No president has ever uttered the word “solidarity” in an inaugural address until Trump.

The Washington Post has made a handy tool that allows you to do word searches for every presidential inaugural address. Trump’s use of the phrase “American carnage” has garnered the most attention, for a foreboding pessimism, out of place in a genre given to platitudes and triumphalism. Trump’s address was the first to use the word “carnage,” unsurprisingly. Also not a surprise: Trump was also the first to use the word “sad,” when he lamented that the U.S. has “subsidized the armies of other countries while allowing for the very sad depletion of our military.”

But Trump’s speech was not all gloom and doom: the most, well, sad linguistic fact of his inaugural address is that no president has ever said the word “solidarity” until Trump. He said, “we must speak our minds openly, debate our disagreements honestly, but always pursue solidarity. When America is united, America is totally unstoppable.” Neither Grant, who might have used the word to describe the struggle against the Confederacy, nor Franklin Roosevelt, who might have appropriated it from the labor movement, ever used the word itself. Of course, the word has been sullied for presidential politics by its longstanding association with labor and socialism. But are Trump and his speechwriters reclaiming it for themselves?

Not successfully, one hopes. “Solidarity,” of course, doesn’t mean what Trump thinks it means. I’d define it this way: as struggle across lines of filial identity like language, nationality, or race, through which one seeks mutual (and not just common) advantage against shared enemies. Trump knows about summoning enemies. His rallies seemed to offer something that the image below, from the English socialist illustrator Walter Crane, also captures: solidarity as a feeling, of delight, of unity, or fraternity and sorority, of rage. What Trump doesn’t know anything about is the sacrifice solidarity also demands. It requires one to give up some loyalty in the service of some other, ultimately greater one,

Walter Crane, “International Solidarity of Labour,” 1897

as in socialist internationalism’s disavowal of the nationalism, the dominant motif of Trump’s inaugural address, or anti-colonial revolutionaries’ alliances across boundary lines of nationality, religion, or language. It also requires the tactical flexibility to unite with people politically unlike oneself.

Marx and Engels’ elegant formulation makes a pair: first the enemy, and then the redemptive victory against it. “The proletarians have nothing to lose but their chains,” the Manifesto reads. “They have a world to win.” For all its militarism and its phantom enemies, Trump’s campaign and his new presidency also offered a redemptive version of unity, one which his opponent’s campaign–“I’m With Her” was the slogan, you will recall–never managed. Trump makes a good enemy–but we will need a vision of solidarity to beat his in fact and in feeling.

Keywords for the Age of Austerity 28: Alternative

“Alternative” broadens the space of acceptable politics by insisting that no politics, or facts, are condemnable.

Don’t be so overly dramatic about it, Chuck. You’re saying it’s a falsehood…Sean Spicer, our press secretary, gave alternative facts to that.

–Kellyanne Conway, Meet the Press, January 22, 2017

What, then, remains to be argued? Is it that slavery is not divine; that God did not establish it; that our doctors of divinity are mistaken? …Who can reason on such a proposition? They that can, may; I cannot. The time for such argument is past.

–Frederick Douglass, “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”

Yesterday on Meet the Press, Kellyanne Conway invoked “alternative facts” in defense of a Trump spokesman’s plainly false and easily disproved claim that the President’s inauguration was the largest in history. Meanwhile, the “alt-right” enjoys its triumphs in the wake of the Inauguration of a bigoted oligarch friendly to their core passions: white nationalism, hostility to immigrants, and unbridled capitalism. “Alternative” is having a little moment.

The “alt” abbreviation might have its origins in the Internet culture of the late 1980s, when “alt.” was used by members of usenet forums to group enthusiasts of marginal subcultures into discussion forums–a medium which was itself a marginal subculture. Like “alternative” in general, “alt.” quickly became a brand, as terms like alt-country (sometimes spelled alt.country) and alt-metal proliferated, first as insurgent challenges to a mainstream style, and then a mere version of the same. And thus “alt.,” once rebellious and weird, became defanged and innocuous. It could also be a euphemism: terms like “alt-ac” (alt-academic) have remade scholarly unemployment into just another opportunity.

By the time I was a teenager in the 1990s, “alternative” was a fully dirty word, a corporate brand for popular music that hid behind certain emblems of rebellion (Doc Martens, flannels, etc). “Alternative” was particularly distasteful because it was fake—the unpredictable militancy of punk churned into the branded posturing of “alternative.”

The far right’s current investment in “alternative” is partly euphemistic, partly a brand name, and partly an appropriation of another successful style. First coined by Richard Spencer, the now well-known racist intellectual,“alt-right” is a euphemism and a successful brand name for white nationalism. The term also appropriates multiculturalist identity politics by setting up “white” as simply an alternative embattled racial identity, entitled to the same privileges and rights to separation that, he claims, now belong only to “minority” groups. In an article published by Spencer’s Radix journal, he and another white-supremacist, F. Roger Devlin, summed up the alt-right’s views on race  by first disavowing racial supremacy. (Or so they claim: they concede that Africans may, in fact, be great sprinters.) Devlin and Spenser go on, citing as empirical “fact” an evolutionary preference for racial separation:

It it is almost exclusively White people who are being asked today not to prefer their own race to others. Blacks, Mexicans, Jews, and others are allowed—indeed, encouraged—to form exclusive organizations and pursue their particular interests. Only Whites are denounced as “racist” if they do this.

Alternative on the far right is meant to suggest “tolerance,” a moral and political relativism that the right in other contexts would denounce. There is no alternative, Margaret Thatcher famously said, insisting on a singular, universal history and future. In embracing the rhetoric of endless alternatives, the alt-right says, in effect, It’s just my opinion, don’t I have a right to it? My race isn’t superior to yours, it’s just fundamentally different. It’s important that the “alt-right” defines itself negatively (as an alternative to something), thereby evading any solid ground and shifting their position depending on the circumstance.

Spenser has elsewhere described his politics as “white identity politics.” This is what’s “alt” about the “alt-right,” Christopher Caldwell wrote in the New York Times: its appropriation of a relativist multiculturalism vocabulary for an agonistic politics of racism. But treating the alt-right as the novelty they claim to be overlooks the fact that “alternative,” as it has since the 1990s, remains fundamentally a bullshit term. “Alternative,” from the alt-right to “alternative facts,” is a mass-market rebranding of an older, somewhat more marginal bigotry. So the use of “alternative” aims to populate the flabby middle ground of liberal political discourse with enough doubt and noise to obscure and deflect the very deliberate militancy of the far right.

So, on to “alternative facts,” the dishonesty of which is obvious. Conway’s chiding of Chuck Todd on Meet the Press—“don’t be so dramatic, Chuck”—was an attempt to occupy the space of anodyne reasonableness that Spenser and his “National Policy Institute” also strive for. This has been also been a rhetorical space held down as well as anyone by Meet the Press itself, with its “on the one hand, on the other” style of inside-the-Beltway equivalence. On the one hand, says Conway, the crowds in 2009 were large. Others insist they were larger. Who can ultimately say?

Obviously, the answer has to be “any honest person.” But this is unfortunately besides the point. Like Spenser, Conway and her boss are militants who see politics as a battle, and who use “dialogue”and facts only for rhetorical effect—hence Trump’s radical-sounding inaugural address, which was devoid of the usual platitudes about national unity and cooperation. Conway, like Spenser, counts shrewdly on the openings that a liberal political sphere, generally hostile to open conflict, leaves open. The phrase “alternative facts” may be stupid, and it may be clumsy, but it may also accomplish its desired effect, which is discrediting the news media as a partisan institution it purports to be–and therefore discrediting from the beginning any criticisms it might make of Trump. As Masha Gessen wrote recently in the New York Times, “arguing about facts is, in fact, the ultimate distraction.”

As Merriam-Webster points out, there are no alternatives to facts that aren’t lies: facts are supposed to be the solid ground, upon which no dishonest “alternative” can rest. “Alternative,” the way the right uses it, is intended to broaden the space of acceptable politics by insisting that no politics, or facts, are condemnable. Spenser’s essays are peppered with endless statistics about Black criminality: for the reasons Douglass says above, it’s insulting to argue with them. It’s also fruitless to argue with Trumpism’s “alternative facts” (not that one shouldn’t try): the crowd at Obama’s inauguration was obviously larger, the sky plainly bluer. But Trump and his people clearly understand that the only fact that practically matters is who is winning.

Alternative facts can’t be debated; they can only be defeated. To put it another, blunter way: you can either debate Richard Spenser’s alternative facts, or you can do the following. Only one of these options can silence him.