On the debate between American Affairs and Dissent
and Summing up Some Feelings about the State of the World
I’ll try to explain what bothered me so much about the debate last Friday night between the editors of Dissent and American Affairs. I’m not going to give a blow-by-blow of the evening but you can read a good one here or watch the whole thing if you’re interested. What I’m after here is why I found the event such a frustrating disappointment.
First a brief tour of what led up to the night in question.
For ten years I’ve been telling friends that I felt myself moving to the left and, at the same time, moving to the right. It was another way of saying that the center had become hollow. To stay there, I would have had to lie and pretend that wasn’t the case.
That was a distressing realization for someone like myself who came of age in late-nineties-end-of-history-individualism and was more interested in ideas about art and the experiences of my own life than in ideology. I came to politics reluctantly only after returning from Iraq in 2007. My sense that something had gone fundamentally wrong in the republic, if not in the modern world, intensified in the aftermath of the financial crash. Clearly a lot of other people felt the same way, more with every year that passes.
Our current crisis is to a considerable degree a delayed reaction to these two events. The disasters of Iraq and the spiralling wars on terror, and the public spectacle of the financial system being rewarded exorbitantly for its failures.
Wars, global markets and democracy itself in the modern era, we were conditioned to understand, had evolved beyond quaint concepts like cause and effect, reason and guilt. Elite opinion rose above such petty considerations and condensed in vaporous clouds that rained down edicts. True, you can’t build much on a cloud, but building is such a pre-knowledge economy thing anyway, and given the success of bubble economies why should clouds be a problem? There are advantages to being in a cloud, a lofty perch and a chance to piss on people without even having to tell them it’s raining.
At the same time: Occupy Wall Street, the Tea Party, Black Lives Matter, sovereign citizens, Gamergate, campus protests. A series of networked insurgencies revolting against interlocked establishments. The old political parties and categories — Democrat, Republican, conservative, liberal — proved themselves incapable of preventing even the worst and became increasingly irrelevant and contemptuous of their own membership. And they went out of their way to prove this, attempting to engineer a choice in 2016 between a Clinton and a Bush.
It wasn’t just politics either. Symbols and signifiers had been getting jumbled for years before they went full kaleidoscopic. Progressives turned against miscegenation, which they called cultural appropriation and a form of oppression. The cultural Left became enforcers of rectitude while elements on the right developed an aesthetics of transgression.
Michael Lind had a good line in an essay last year about the ongoing political realignment: “Like an ebb tide that reveals a reshaped coastline, the culture war remade the parties’ membership and is now receding. In its absence, we are able to see a transformed political landscape.”
With all that in mind, the brief tour of the last decade, you might think I’d be just the sort of person to inhabit Lind’s new landscape. No real party loyalty, disenchanted with the status quo, open to new ideas and new definitions. And If you accepted that premise you might think I’m a model audience member for the debate last week between the dissidents of the left and right, who’d been mapping that new coastline long before the tide pulled back and revealed it to someone like me.
I knew and admired work by people on both sides of the debate. Tim Shenk, a young face on the ‘Old Left’ Dissent team, along with editor Sarah Leonard, caught my attention a few years ago with an excellent piece in The Nation on the post-crash Marxist resurgence. I’ve read American Affairs, represented that night by editors Julius Krein and Gladden Pappin, since the New Right journal launched. Skeptically, I’ll admit, given their alignment with Trump. I lumped them in with the band of conservative gnostics who tried to recast the president’s buffoonery as a cryptic form of strength, his dissoluteness as an occult virtue. Still, I’ve read them with real interest. Their contributing editor is the talented writer James Poulos whom I like and respect. And they’ve run some important work, putting aside for a moment our disagreements, including Pappin’s own essay in the inaugural issue on The Anxieties of Conservatism, an original and insightful account of the populist swells of 2016 and the election of Donald Trump.
So I could note that the beer was cheap enough and the entertainment was free (thanks Verso) and leave it at that. But I’d rather give the panelists the same sort of respect I’d like in their place, which is to take their ideas seriously without imputing more motive than absolutely necessary to explain our disagreements. I think the people on stage that night, or at least the political tendencies they represent, are going to become more important in the near future. It’s because I think their ideas have power, because what they came to argue about is vitally important, that I want to lay out my disagreements.
On the night in question, I’d thrown my back out doing something stupid only an hour before the thing kicked off. I treated it with gin and some old pain pills I’d stored away. So it’s fair to say I showed up with issues of my own but I’m not sure it would have gone any different without the back pain.
Still, maybe it’s best to start with the description given by First Things’ literary editor Matthew Schmitz, who was in the audience. A self-described “anti-abortion socialist Roman Catholic,” he recorded these impressions:
Not even these relatively radical and adventurous thinkers are able to escape the shirts-and-skins dynamic of American politics. Leonard begins her remarks by saying, “It’s not polite to call someone else’s journal a crypto-white nationalist project, but…” Shenk insists that whatever agreements Dissent and American Affairs might have on political economy, “the culture wars aren’t over.” Neither bothers to say where and why they disagree with Krein and Pappin on economics, something that might help clarify the cultural differences as well.
In response to this broadside, Krein disavows any interest in a racially defined nationalism. For him, the nation is a matter of adoption rather than birth.This is not exactly Nazism made new. If anything, Krein’s nationalism sounds too modest and procedural to compete with the moral urgencies and market demands of globalism.
As the scrum goes on, it becomes clear that along with a difference in opinion there is a difference in tone. Krein and Pappin seem to be trying on new ideas, searching out unmapped terrain—more doubters of the old religion than founders of a new sect. Shenk and Leonard, meanwhile, speak with the serenity of well-trained Thomists.
Schmitz’s account gives you the problem in a nutshell. The left pandered while the right was coy. I have my feelings about pandering being a mortal sin already on the record. On coyness, I’d say it may have its place but it’s sure as hell not at a debate.
The effect of it all was that if you took the speakers literally, you’d have come away with a distorted picture of reality and, I’d wager, an inaccurate impression of their own views. For much of the night in what was supposed to be a clash of ideas, the real meaning was in the subtext. There’s an old Yiddish expression for this game of words where the truth is both more and less than what’s presented. Bullshit.
First, Dissent. To hear Leonard and Schenk talk about their slice of the Left you’d have thought it was already so powerful and scientifically certain in its premises, that it need only wait for inevitable demographic shifts and time to carry it to power. Sort of an incredible position to take when the nearest thing you have to a victory is a close loss in the nomination process. Sure the DSA has grown at an impressive clip post-election, but Bernie’s success notwithstanding it’s the Republicans who actually hold the political power right now.
Part of what put the right back in the White House was Trump’s ideological promiscuity. He couldn’t have cared less if he sometimes sounded indistinguishable from a Democrat and that attitude helped him win the election. Clearly the American Affairs team, proud populists, took that lesson to heart. Because it was the right wing debaters, the side actually in power in this country, continually reaching out for a recognition of common interests and getting snubbed by the Dissent editors.
A principled refusal to compromise is one thing, as when Leonard responded to a question from Schmitz about how far the Left could move towards someone like himself, an economically socialist anti-abortion conservative. She said it should be open to him as long as those views remained a matter of conscience and weren’t imposed on the party platform. That makes perfect sense to me—too much compromise is a mark of incoherence and venality. But the overall impression I got was that when it came to disagreements with “the right” there were only matters of principle, which made any compromise impossible and put even the appearance of agreement off limits.
“As someone who considers myself a leftist,” one audience member said during the Q&A, “I did feel sometimes a little bit uncomfortable with the only calls for building broad solidarity coming from the right.”
What the questioner was getting at I think, was Shenk and Leonard’s refusal to even acknowledge any conflict between identity politics and the formation of broad class-based coalitions. An especially notable omission given how commonly this issue comes up in intra-left debate.
At various points both Dissent editors dismissed concern over political correctness and campus radicalism as petty preoccupations of the right. This at the same moment, while “the Left turned on its own” that videos of the Evergreen college protests were going viral. Broadcast—forget about just on cable TV—in millions of youtube clips that are played, refracted, remixed and replayed to a vast audience of Americans who are still, as Shenk rightly noted, deeply invested in the culture war.
There’s a common response to the concerns I’ve laid out. It argues that the Evergreen protests, rhetorical excesses aside, don’t have any real impact and that focusing on them only distracts from systemic forms of oppression. But this misses the point because if Shenk and I are right that the culture war is still raging, the power of these spectacles is in their propaganda value. A lot of people, potential leftists and people of color among them, don’t want to see racial polarization get worse in this country. Some recoil, others seethe, at the demonization of “Whiteness” and “Maleness” that’s become de rigeur at universities and in parts of the media. I’d wager that a lot of people who want to live together in a multiethnic democracy, just like Shenk spoke about, feel that some of what’s done in the name of anti-racism isn’t serving that cause.
It turns out that once you condone and normalize forms of collective guilt and racial original sin you can’t keep them from spreading. It doesn’t matter how many graduate seminars you hold, how many diversity consultants you hire, how many “dear white men” explainers you roll out. It doesn’t even matter if you don’t really mean it and you’re only denouncing those white cis males because it’s a form of social currency among your rich white friends. Once you start to traffic in blood myths you can’t keep them quarantined and they will poison your multiethnic democracy.
It’s the same game the liberal-left has played for years now, alternating between dismissing PC hysteria as just the kids acting out and defending attacks on free expression as a plank of revolutionary politics. They’ve effectively ceded any stake in civil liberties not just to bourgeois liberals like Jonathan Chait, but to right wing populists like Tucker Carlson. Some of what’s driving this—and now I’m talking about a general attitude on the left, not Shenk and Leonard specifically—is that it’s better to let “the right” claim values that are sacrosanct to millions of Americans, many Bernie supporters among them, than to be on the same side as Tucker Carlson.
Watch out if Carlson ever takes a public stand against kitten bludgeoning, it’s going to put some people in a very awkward position.
(…Keep that hand-waving attitude in mind when we come a bit later to how American Affairs deals with the white nationalists of the alt right.)
It seems likely that Leonard and Shenk would disagree with a lot of of what I’m saying but they know that this is something leftists are debating amongst themselves. To acknowledge that, though, would have risked exposing an overlap between their views and those to their right.
The Dissent folks had their moments. Leonard’s right that the conflation of working class with white working class, a staple of election coverage, is short-sighted and biased. Shenk’s certainly right that American Affairs suffers for its refusal to deal with Trump’s white identity politics. He goes further with that than I would, casting it as the determining factor in the election, but he’s right that it’s a significant force in the right’s new populism that needs to be confronted.
[correction: I got this wrong. Shenk does not characterize racism as the determining factor in the election and in his opening statement said, “of course, racism alone isn’t enough to win an election.” Here are his full opening remarks from the debate. Read his response to this piece here.]
So much for the left.
Next up, Krein and Pappin take the stage looking nearly indistinguishable in plaid jackets and boyish side parts from a couple’a young Tucker Carlsons…and just as the crowd takes that image in they launch into an improvisation of Artaud. Krein douses the audience in pig’s blood, not a drop spilled on his penny loafers. Pappin, shotgun in hand, recites a formalist ode to the glory of the proletariat then he lights the poem on fire and takes aim at the crowd.
Ok, not quite that. But a performance.
Because if you took Krein and Pappin at their word you’d have to conclude that the principle concern of America’s new nationalist intellectuals is class solidarity and legal citizenship. What does that mean exactly, especially after they come out citing Baudrillard? I was there all night and I’m still not sure.
“To the American Affairs guys” one audience member asked, “you were using the word ‘working class solidarity’ and I’m really curious what you actually mean by that.”
To the questioner, the editors gave vague, airy answers. Krein mentioned ‘consciousness’ in his, evoking the Marxist idea of “class consciousness.” That might have been a coincidence but in context came off like another chance to show that they, the new populist right, were more anti-neoliberal and more materialist in their concerns than the lefties could ever imagine.
The real question for me was whether they meant something closer to Joel Kotkin’s concerns about income inequality corroding democracy or Marine Le Pen’s right-wing statist appeal to the working class with its fascist and racist overtones.
Krein and Pappin went out of their way to disassociate themselves not only from ethno and white nationalism but from anything resembling, as Schmitz puts it, “the chthonic forces of blood and soil.” No surprise then that Krein dismissed the alt right as something marginal and unimportant.
Which leaves the question, which I put to them at the debate: If not race or ethnicity or romantic nationalism, what is the force that will keep the civic and legal procedures undergirding this renewed nationalism from coming apart as happened not very long ago, to the last version of civic nationalism in this country?
What, I was asking, will hold the laws and procedures together? Laws and procedures, they answered.
So I was left, as were other people in the audience, with a sense that something was off. That some key missing element in their beliefs was either being suppressed or avoided. Because if you really believe that Baudrillard was onto something, as Pappin said, and as I’ve noted myself, then you’ve got to think that we’re in bad shape here, that there is a rot that goes deep.
The problem was that Krein and Pappin wanted to have it both ways. To present themselves as radical nationalists and then dodge the history of radical nationalism. Press them on the content of their radicalism and they retreated into the kind of anodyne prescriptions you could hear from any cog in the administrative state. It’s true that they had reason to think the crowd was looking for signs of incipient fascism in anything they said but no one forced them to be there. If you’re trying to build a new politics to save the republic it’s not too much to ask that you show some candor in front of a polite, if hostile crowd, in a downtown Brooklyn loft.
Part of the appeal of American Affairs is the openness to new ideas, regardless of ideological provenance, and that is genuine and admirable. It’s not all flourishes either. You can see there’s depth to it when, in one example, Pappin cites the recently deceased leftist historian Judy Stein on the financialization of the economy.
But that openness also needs to be dealt with honestly. At one point Pappin suggested that if we’re not going to enforce the laws of the nation state seriously we ought to just abolish it. When the crowd cheered he asked, “when’s the last time you heard somebody on the right state that?” The answer is that I hear this sort of thing all the time from the alt right.
Here’s what I wrote last year in an essay for Tablet on the paleo conservative intellectual Paul Gottfried and the birth of the alt right:
French Nouvelle Droite philosophers and other European “identitarians” informed a new ideological style that embraced ethno-nationalism but rejected purity tests and drew openly from leftist writers like Antonio Gramsci.
And here’s something I wrote in January for Politico:
[The alt right] rejects the primacy of the free market, a cornerstone of right-wing politics in America over the past century. Instead, the alt-right favors blending conservative social policy with a strong welfare state, the same position taken by the National Front in France.
Pappin’s ‘hey who says we need the nation state’ casual interrogation of foundations, his disinterest in traditional political categories and familiarity with European critical theory are all qualities that align more with the alt right than with traditional American conservatives. The difference is that in the alt right it’s clear what holds their concept of politics together: racism, white identity, ethno-nationalism or some combination of the same.
Given all the premises they share, either the white nationalists of the alt right are American Affairs’ secret allies or they are the competition. Dismissing them as marginal figures and figments of the opposition’s imagination as the left does with its problematic radicals won’t make them go away. If it did they wouldn’t be here to begin with.
I said I wouldn’t impute motive but I’m now feeling like I’ve done a fair deal of it. I do have another insight into the motives of the American Affairs. A person close to the journal said, “part of what was going on was probably dancing around religion.” That’s certainly plausible, and an understandable apprehension given the presumed secularism of the crowd. But it doesn’t really matter. Whether it’s a cross up your sleeve or a knife, people see you hiding something up there they think you’re a sneak. That is not a feeling that attracts people to new ideas.
I had the chance to take a free class on J.S. Mills’ “On Liberty” earlier this year taught by Norman Finkelstein at the Brooklyn Public Library. There’s a section we discussed that I think applies here on why it is never right to suppress a truly held belief:
If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchanging error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of truth, produced by its collision with error.
If religion is the foundation for the new communitarianism the American Affairs editors alluded to, that would be important to know. If it’s federalism then they should say that and accept the risk of seeming less radical and closer to the old conservative establishment. It might not have won any immediate converts but it would have clarified the choices that confront us. Who knows what collisions would have gone off in people’s minds after they left the debate.
George Orwell, who knew a thing or two about a thing or two, had this to say in the Summer of ‘41.
The energy that actually shapes the world springs from emotions—racial pride, leader-worship, religious belief, love of war—which liberal intellectuals mechanically write off as anachronisms, and which they have usually destroyed so completely in themselves as to have lost all power of action.
Orwell was giving an explanation for why Britain’s progressives like H.G. Wells had missed the rise of Hitler. It was because they wrote him off as absurd, a ridiculous character with his little mustache, clueless about the affairs of the modern world. It was beneath people like Wells to worry about Hitler. They thought that only what they deemed important mattered. The world doesn’t run on seriousness. Donald Trump obviously isn’t Hitler but he isn’t exactly serious either.
Now, to wrap this up I better not be coy myself.
I don’t think the country can survive the way it’s going. That doesn’t mean it will fall apart tomorrow. But if society continues to balkanize—now with more street fighting—if the Federal government keeps expanding its power while failing at its most basic duties, as Amazon, Google and the like keep moving towards quasi omniscient information monopolies that add wealth at the top while shrinking jobs, wages and the middle class….well, I don’t know exactly, and I don’t counsel despair, but it doesn’t end well.
A politics that’s inclusive, multi-ethnic, pluralist, federalist, preserves universal healthcare, preserves the liberty of individuals and their right to make their own choices without trying to legislate cultural attitudes, that defends civil liberties, demands equality of opportunity, curbs and regulates speculative finance, recognizes that markets are not value neutral or sacrosanct and encourages economic policy to improve the material well being of Americans without returning to reactionary nativism or neo-mercantilism, that ends wars that can’t be won and doesn’t start new ones without a clear threat or national interest that can be expressed in terms of political outcomes and for which people above the rank of sergeant will be held accountable—I’d get behind all of that and I could care less what it’s called.
We need a modus vivendi in this country, not ultimate solutions. Whether we can get even that without more radical upheavals, I don’t know.
Michael Lind who crafted the ebb tide metaphor I started with is now an advisor to American Affairs and has the lead story in their new issue. In his essay on the future of American politics he wrote that the election only revealed what was already there, a reshaped coast hidden beneath the sea.
What forms the coastline? The waves that crash. The tide pulled by the moon. The plates shifting beneath the earth’s surface. Forces that we see and feel directly and others that we can’t.
The world is being reshaped right now by a series of concurrent, concentric revolts in technology, politics, philosophy and metaphysics. Solving the political revolt may dampen the spark of the others, but if one really goes off it’s possible they all do.
Like I said, the stakes are high. So say what you mean.