Gun control has long been one of the things I feel least intensely about in terms of issues. The reason is both that I don’t see the point of pushing it in a country where there is sufficient electoral math against it and because I understand why at least some of the gun-affectionate react so strongly when the rest of us demand sensible restrictions. It’s not that the restrictions (licensing, registration, mandatory training, constraint to hunting weapons) are unreasonable outright, but that guns signify culture, and those of us who want guns restrained tend to surround our demands with surplus amounts of performative contempt for the cultural worlds of the people who own guns.

But enough. Enough.

Who are the “special snowflakes” of early 21st Century America, the people whose underwear is too tight, who are too sensitive about everything, who can’t take even the least criticism? No, it’s not some exquisitely tuned 20-year old leftist at a selective private college. It’s the cultural right, the people who curl up into a Rush Limbaugh-endorsed fetal position every time anyone says even the slightest thing that perturbs the preciousness of their world. I get that everyone in all the wide world feels entitled to the integrity of the lifeworld in which they have grown and thrived as human beings. But that entitlement has its limits, and they are at a minimum the classic limits of liberalism: swing your fist if you must, but stop at my nose. In fact, stop well short of it. Right now we have a minority of people in the United States who insist that they can still flail wildly long after they have pummeled everyone else bloody.

If America is not great, it is not for a lack of attention to our sensitive right-wing snowflakes. They said: hands off our guns. Well, we stand now at the moment of the most intense judicial restraint on any attempt to restrict gun ownership and use in the history of this republic. They said: lower our taxes! We are the least taxed liberal democracy on the planet, we are 37 years into a national regime of ceaseless tax reduction. They said: cut the welfare state, get rid of the safety net! The safety net has been cut, the great revolution of the late 19th and early 20th Century in favor of public goods is nearly totally undone. They said: stop teaching our children what we don’t want them to know. Creationism is back in schools, the government is actively hostile to science, it’s ok for the top leaders of this country to endorse historical falsehoods and insist they be taught to the nation’s children. They said: we’re too free to see pornography and get divorced and live together outside of marriage and take drugs. And where is it that pornography is most popular and adultery flourishes and opoids and meth take hold? In Trumplandia, where people apparently need the Nanny State to stop them from doing what they blame on others who do it far less. They said: stop crime at all costs! And thirty years later, they’re still afraid in a country that locks up more of its own people than any other comparable nation, that allows cops to kill black men with impunity.

Basta! Enough! If America needs to be great again, it first needs to stop letting the people who love that slogan have their own way. They’ve been almost entirely in charge during a thirty-year project of degradation and loss. They’ve had their own way most of the time. I remain sensitive to how it feels to think that the world is changing and you didn’t decide to change it. I remain aware that liberals, broadly speaking, might be said to have spoken a language of unseemly triumphalism in the late 1970s and 1980s–often on behalf of and alongside people who had been victimized profoundly by this nation for the previous three centuries, mind you–but seriously, this is small beer.

What is not small is the catastrophe of this historical moment. That a nation with so much possibility, so much hope, so much to give to the future, should be now gripped so tightly by cruelty, fear and triumphal malice is one of the great tragedies of human history to this point. The President exemplifies it, but he is not where it all comes to rest. It comes to rest with the people who at every turn and at every moment bare their lightly bruised flesh and insist, against all common sense, that they bleed from stigmata. Who look to every pointless massacre that they wish to excuse and call for prayer, but turn to every other pointless massacre that they wish to curse and call for suffering.

Peace! Let us turn to all the killing and say enough! Let us turn to all the corruption and say let us demand more of all our leaders, and of ourselves! Let us say of all our riches, surely we can share some larger portion of them and re-knit our safety nets, remake our publics! Let us say to all our trespasses that we forgive them–but in expectation of forgiveness, urgently expected. For the time is very nearly here when all hearts will be hardened, because no forbearance is forever.

Posted in Politics | 10 Comments

Chasing Tails

I appreciate the need to feel optimism, to think this is all coming to an end soon, a good end secured by the remorseless force of law or by the rising of a core of American decency or by radical resistance. I rocket in circles, passing that same point of optimism in my own thoughts every circuit. But I pass other points, too.

One is a point of profound despair. That Trump and all that comes with him is not a momentary slip out of history but instead as much a culmination of the worst of American and global history over the last two centuries, the vengeful sequel to the seeming accomplishments of the civil rights movements of the 1960s and 1970s. This is why I get irritated with radical potshots at pessimistic writers like Ta-Nehisi Coates. To be unwilling to credit the possibility that there *is* no politics that can make permanent some kind of justice and change is to give way to a left-wing version of the Green Lantern Theory of Politics, that it’s only about will, that all we need to do is clap our hands and say that we do believe in progress, we do. Now maybe it’s not so. Maybe this is just a bad moment, or one more barricade to climb, one more movement to organize. But you can’t refuse to face the worst thoughts. They are hauntingly possible.

And one other point in the whirling spiral of my own thoughts is less about where this is going and how it will all turn out in the end. All I feel on opening up the news or social media is just humiliation, pure and simple. I’ve said before that Trump is a kind of desecration of everything I’ve valued and everything I do at work and in life. I don’t feel disagreement with him, which is what I would have said about almost any conservative (or liberal or leftist) with whom I have disagreed up to this moment. It’s not merely that it is pointless to imagine a “debate” with what Trump says. What he says is not even an idea or belief with which I must reckon and answer. It’s just a rude violence, a kind of pissing on the face of the country. That he speaks for my country, my people, my culture, that he dares to claim that he’s representing a country whose history he soils with every filthy tweet, is something I abominate in my deepest heart.

When my own mental circuit comes round another quarter of its rotation, I know again that there’s an America out there that stands behind him–easily or uneasily, proudly or with inner shame, I don’t know–and I know I need to find my way to understanding them and living with them and thinking about what might make for peace between us all. But somewhere on the way, I’m going to need at least some of them to recognize what they did to all of us in 2016. They didn’t elect a leader of a nation. They elected vengeance and cruelty, they elected bullying and cowardice. They broke faith with democracy and justice and fairness. They stopped believing they had any responsibility to anyone and anything besides personal gratification. They stopped doing the work of citizens and neighbors. I don’t care what you think has been done to you, or what you fear. I don’t care what you think you’re losing or have lost. In any human vision of moral life, in all of them, to answer insult or loss thus is to commit evil. The burden on us, whenever–if ever–this comes to an end, will be not to respond in kind. And yet, if power passes around again, all I know is I want an end to this accursed cycle, whatever it takes.

Posted in Politics | 5 Comments

On Harvard and Admission

Longer comment tomorrow, if I have time; and maybe also on the debate over the essay “The Case of Colonialism”. But in the interim, a quick thought on Harvard not admitting a promising student.


Considering that Harvard is in extremely dire financial circumstances, and that none of its faculty have the protection of tenure, I can well understand the fear of what Fox News, an outlet well-respected and beloved of professors and educated people everywhere, might say. Courage to do the right thing is a luxury when you’re really up against those kinds of very difficult constraints. Now if I had tenure and was working for the wealthiest university on the planet and none of my colleagues gave a fig what Fox News thinks and I worked on African-American history and specifically extolled the courage of abolitionists, well then, I might think differently! But let’s be fair.

Posted in Academia | 1 Comment

Game of Rewrites

As we arrive at the end of the penultimate season of Game of Thrones, much of the credit given to its showrunners for significant improvements to Martin’s original draft of the story has to be qualified by the revelation that when they’re not working from his rewrites, they do a terrible job. With the one exception of the “Loot Train Battle”, this season has been about as much fun as watching slides from a good friend’s vacation. Sure, there’s some pretty locations, sure there’s some gifted images here and there in the show and sure, it’s great to see our friends having a great time in an interesting place. There is, however, no actual story. We, the slide watchers, have very little context for some of what we’re seeing. “Hey, that’s where Jenny almost fell off the cliff! Too bad I didn’t get a picture of that.” “Hey, that’s the restaurant we ate at that had the most amazing tuna crudo, but I didn’t get a picture of it.”

Aaron Bady brilliantly sums up how bleakly bad the direction of this season has become.

You might say: but they have to finish it up! They can’t possibly go for another six seasons at the same pace! Or you could be like the director of episode six, Alan Taylor, and say “Oh, who cares about distance and plausibility, you guys all love the show no matter what.”

I felt compelled after watching episode six to draft a completely plausible rewrite that would: a) fit in the same number of episodes; b) be no more expensive than what was on screen; c) require no one to act like an idiot or to do things that are wildly implausible.

So here we go.

This is to me the most important kind of “textual poaching”, basically how fans demonstrate a kind of ghostwriting of the main text. Not the extensions of fan-fiction or shipping, but a sober critical re-examination of how another text was possible even given the material limitations on its production.


Last season: After the Battle of the Bastards, Sansa flat out tells Jon Snow that she thinks she should be the Lady of Winterfell and he should be her general. The bannermen unfortunately screw it up and proclaim Jon Snow King of the North. He tries to appoint Sansa instead but they won’t have it. Sansa begins to brood and plot on how to become Queen, believing Jon is simply too much of a fuck up as a political leader. (Davos tells her about the events at Castle Black.) A minor adjustment, but an important one.

Episodes 1-3:

Arya kills the Freys. She visits Hot Pie while trying to decide what she’s going to do next, and hears about the current events at Winterfell, resolves to go there.

Daenerys lands at Dragonstone. She very sensibly moves her Dothraki and Unsullied primarily to the mainland and has them range threateningly towards the southeastern edges of King’s Landing. Her Tyrell and Dornish allies insist she immediately assault King’s Landing. Tyrion and Varys point out casualties and genocide and all that. The Tyrells and Dornish, annoyed, say that they’ll siege KL from the west, and when they’re in place, she’ll close the trap to the east.

They question Tyrion’s reliability and loyalty and demand that he prove he’s safe by sacking Casterly Rock. He agrees rather enthusiastically–he’s always hated the place anyway. DT and Tyrion agree to send some Unsullied fast march. Tyrion cautions against sending Tyrell and Dornish forces via ship, because “there’s an enemy fleet out there, we think”. Ellaria and Yara ignore him–what a twerp.

Euron ambushes them. The Unsullied take Casterly but they’re under attack from the sea–and they’ve got no artillery because the castle’s been stripped. Cersei and Jamie wipe out the Tyrells. DT despairs–are there no good allies for her in this shitty place?

Jon Snow, meantime, broods about zombies and sends *Davos* south to beg for the Dragon Queen’s help. To Sansa’s frustration, Jon Snow won’t talk much with his bannermen or give inspirational speeches–she has to do all the politicking. There are bannermen who are beginning to doubt–they don’t believe in the zombie thing, they think somebody’s got to solve the food thing.

Arya returns. She’s a bit disconcerted to find Sansa more or less in charge. Jon welcomes her but is plainly distracted and disconnected.

Sam’s plot as-is, including the magical Mormont cure, which is delivered by the end of Ep 3.

Episode 4:

Loot Train. Mormont arrives at Dragonstone and there is much rejoicing. Davos arrives and DT and Tyrion wonder if they have a two-front battle on their hands or an even better alliance than they had before. But he wants help with zombies! This is stupid! Daenerys finally agrees: she won’t go herself with her dragons, because who knows what the dangerous Cersei Lannister might do. She says: ok, I will send my very best friendzone Jorah Mormont north to investigate. If he says: there are zombies! Yow! Then I come with dragons.

Davos says: ok, I will come back too–but first I want to go fetch a kid from KL that I know, and I’ll smuggle a message to Jamie Lannister written by Tyrion telling them to surrender, put ’em off guard, right? Jamie Lannister receives the letter. Qyburn later steals it from him and shows it to Cersei.

Sam leaves the Citadel.

Sansa decides to have a disloyal bannerman punished harshly when he is heard openly speaking against the Starks. (Littlefinger put him up to it.) Arya witnesses the punishment without seeing the original provocation and becomes convinced that Sansa is damaged and is endangering the Starks.

Episode 5

Guess who’s coming to dinner? The Hound, Beric and Thoros show up at Winterfell. Sansa and Brienne do not trust them, throw them in jail. Arya is conflicted. But spying around she begins to discover what is making the bannermen restless: it’s Littlefinger. She consults with Sansa and hears the truth about what happened in Episode 4. She and Sansa ponder what to do–they can’t displace Jon or act completely independently of his nominal authority! But Jon won’t talk, he’s still obsessing about the zombies.

Davos, Jorah and Gendry show up. They decide to go to Castle Black with Hound, Beric, Thoros to show Jorah some zombies. Jon insists he has to come. Sansa is worried–does she have the authority to hold off the restlessness, esp. if Littlefinger is up to no good? But the Knights of the Vale are especially uncertain in their loyalty, and she needs them.

Jon and Company leave for Castle Black.

Bran returns about two hours after they leave and does all the weird stuff about seeing his sister’s trauma, etc. Littlefinger gives him the dagger and gets freaked out.

In meantime, Dany roasts the Tarlys and Tyrion is of many minds.

Cersei and Jamie have a conversation about a baby and loyalty.

Episode 6

They get to Castle Black. There’s a guy dying of cholera. Dolorous Edd says, wait a day to see a zombie. Jorah sees a zombie and says, fine, let’s send the raven to DT. The horn blows. There’s a giant army of a million zombies at the gate. They change the message to the raven, HELP NOW.

DT comes north with three dragons–Jorah says! And yeah, zombies are real, she roasts them, and then, bam! the Night King wounds but doesn’t kill Viserion.

The Magnificent Seven go out the gate in a doomed attempt to save the wounded dragon by keeping the zombies off of it. Much battle, DT is freaked out and just stays perched on the wall in terror. But after Thoros dies and some redshirts she sees that Viserion is going to die no matter what. She risks it and goes in with Drogon to choppa them out. They all get on the dragon–including dumbfuck Jon Snow–and the Night King gets ready for his second kill of the day. Then Benjen shows up and does the heroic last stand thing and distracts him. DT and the Magnificent Six escape intact on Drogon. They fly to Winterfell to confer.

When they arrive, the castle has erupted into unrest because Littlefinger has made his big play–he’s trying to force Sansa to marry him and to overthrow Jon. Littlefinger didn’t really plan on two dragons arriving, though.

Episode 7

Cold open: Arya takes out Littlefinger. Sansa and Li’l Mormont talk the bannermen down. Jon bends the knee to DT, DT appoints Sansa Queen of the North and asks Jon to come with her south as her chief general. They do goo-goo eyes at each other and then sneak away that night to consummate their relationship.

Ravens arrive: Euron has landed Iron Islanders at Casterly Rock to kill the Unsullied, Cersei is burning all the crops of the Reach and the Riverlands to force everyone to surrender. DT decides she has to go south and try to convince Cersei to sign a truce, and to bring Jon Snow with her. Jon surprises everyone when he leaps on Rhaegon and is able to ride him. Suddenly, Bran rolls into the courtyard to explain the real story and suddenly Sam and Gilly show up to say, “Yeah, that’s it man, it turns out Jon is a Targ.” Jon and DT look at each other and realize that they are nephew and aunt.

Just then, everyone senses that something strange has just happened–the winter wind blows insanely, there’s a bizarre light in the skies, and an odd howling noise. Turns out the Night King just used zombie Viserion to destroy the Wall. Castle Black is a ruin.

Jon and DT tell Sansa: you hold out as long as you can. We’ll be back with the biggest army we can get and two dragons. Sansa, Arya, Sam, Beric, etc., get ready for a big last stand. The Hound asks to go south–“I hear my brother is still around, the cunt.”


Posted in Popular Culture, Sheer Raw Geekery | 1 Comment

When In Truth Did We Win Anything?

Progress is dead.

In the same sense that Nietzsche spoke of the death of God, only to be habitually misunderstood by the same kinds of people that misunderstand Einstein saying that God does not play dice with the universe. The question Nietzsche had was how it might be possible to retain some consistent vision of values or ethics in the absence of a belief in God as the unquestioned authority over such values. The whole point was to find some deeper, more robust way to sustain those values.

So what “progress” is it that has died? The kind that people–primarily white, educated and liberal people–told themselves had already been accomplished and would inevitably continue to be accomplished. Progress as slightly smug self-congratulation is dead. Progress as the accomplished work of an earlier generation of almost mythical heroes is dead. Progress as irreversible is dead.

The aspirational content of progress is not, any more than ethics and morality were dead with “God”. We just have to find a deeper way to work for those aspirations and to never assume that they are final, finished work if they appear, however briefly, to be an animating part of our public institutions and civic lives.

So what does this mean as a revision of the more smug style of telling the history of the modern world? It does not mean that we must tell the opposite history: that the last two centuries have been a never-ending catastrophe of anti-progress, that nothing has ever changed, that a nightmare that began in 1492 has continued uninterrupted and undifferentiated ever since. That is the same kind of nihilism that Nietzsche was desperate to avoid as the concept of God lost its status as the secure guarantor of moral claims.

We have no grounds for complaining about the failures of our present if we did not somewhere develop an understanding of what a better world would be like. That understanding has risen out of experience and experiment, out of actions taken and institutions remade. It has been and remains real. If we tell ourselves that nothing has ever changed, we are also telling ourselves, whether we mean to or not, that nothing ever can change.

The weariness that is settling over most of us–even people who long have been bowed under by the weary awareness that the promise of progress has never been fulfilled–is because we now know that anything that does change can be changed back again. Slavery was abolished, but it can be resurrected. In corners and shadows in our world, it has been. One form or another of legal racism has been edited out of the laws, but it either marches on regardless of the law or the law falls into the hands of people who would perpetuate racism. One group of people arises who reject injustice, but another group finds their way to injustice and they baptize themselves in its foul pools. There are no procedures or rules or systems that prevent the renewal of social evil. There is no philosophy or belief which is self-proving and secure against its half-hearted adoption by insincere and doubtful adherents.

Trying to figure out what in the human past is so thoroughly past that it will never come again is a fool’s errand. Trying to think of the past as an atavism that erupts somehow into a present full of progress is equally foolish. We don’t carry a terrible past inside of us like a parasite. We make new futures of terror and beauty from what we have been, but also from what we are. There’s always a new way to be terrible. The torch-bearers of Charlottesville are not mocking ghosts who can only briefly haunt the living. They are terrible children, familiar fathers, the man next door, the face behind the counter or the voice on the phone. New and urgent, but also known burdens, the rock that we sisyphi push up the hill and that veers to crush some of us–always the same some–reliably and repeatedly on its way back down.

Progress is not a machine programmed to arrive at a predestined utopia. It is not an arc that bends towards justice like the rain falling to the force of gravity. It is a twisting road we must walk in a never-ending maze of twisting roads. We walk it because we ought to, not because we’ve been given assurances of getting to the other side.

Posted in Politics, Production of History | 10 Comments

Recipe for Coalition: 1. Add Recognition, At Least Half a Cup.

David Atkins at Washington Monthly has a point about what progressives, Democrats and anyone else who is dismayed by the current political situation in the United States has to do.

It’s entirely possible that at a grassroots level in many parts of the country, the advice is unnecessary because it’s long since been taken. It’s hard for me and maybe many to tell whether online sniping between pundits, Twitter feeds, Tumblr blogs and so on has anything at all to do with how most people live and inhabit their political choices.

Assuming for a moment that there’s either some resemblance between the tensions expressed in the public sphere and those felt on the ground, or that the public sphere has the potential to eventually impose its discourse on others, then there is a basic understanding of coalition politics that is being entirely sidestepped by many people. I’ve complained before about a version of this point, that the discourse about “allies” in identity politics doesn’t really recognize what an alliance is. You don’t expect allies to be identical to your own party or movement–and you only are interested in allies when you have to be, because there’s no other way to realize your own political aspirations.

In the context of the current debate, if we can call it that, between mainstream Democrats and left progressives, well, the problem is that both sides (or maybe there’s more than two) tend to think that “alliance” or “coalition” means, “I’m going to tell the other guys all the ways in which they suck, I’m going to accuse them of being racists/sexists/corporate shills/almost Republicans/cowards/delusional and then I’m going to demand that they join the coalition, which means shutting up and obeying everything we tell them to do.”

If anyone wants to make the point about working together in a helpful way that actually leads to a coalition, here’s how to start: through a generous acknowledgement of the legitimate grievances and helpful contributions of the faction or group that you do not identify with. You outline the sustaining terms and common ground for a coalition. You bracket off the issues that your side is prepared to push off to the margins and identify some of the issues that you believe the other factions will have to push off to the margins. You figure out strategically which seats or offices the other side(s) has the best chance to win, and which seats and offices your side has the best chance to win, and you offer to support all of those races equally. You acknowledge the cases where the other faction has a far better candidate in basic terms (say, in the last Pennsylvania Senate race, John Fetterman was simply a more charismatic, engaging, interesting candidate by far than Katie McGinty, period–she had no chance to beat a very beatable opponent) and you agree that you’ll try to acknowledge that kind of difference when you see it and go with the winning chance regardless.

You parsimoniously identify the two or three essential issues where candidates and spokespeople from any faction just have to satisfy you; you hope the other guys do the same.

And so on. It’s time to stop saying, “We have to work together, you whiny BernieBro crazy purist impractical nonsense faux-socialist millennial brats!” and “We have to work together, you corporate stooge neoliberal basically-Republican money-chasing scumbags!” In those cases, just skip the “have to work together” part, since it really means, “You must bend the knee to us and submit in every way”.

That, by the way, is the privilege of every political actor, from individuals all the way up to movements: to insist that they want it all, exactly as they want it. But you know what, that means one more thing: you have the power, or a plan for having the power, to make those unyielding demands meaningful. If you have the power or a plan for having the power, stop talking *to* the political factions you intend to compel or coerce into submission to your own agenda. If that’s the way it is, stop whining about Kamala Harris or Cory Booker to the mainstream Democratic Party, because you do not expect them to care. If that’s the way it is, stop whining to Sanders supporters about how they’re sexist or immature or unrealistic, because you do not expect them to listen.

Right now I don’t think that either mainstream Democrats or Sanders-aligned progressives have a plan for compelling or coercing their opposing faction, and neither do they have an awareness of the necessity of coalition and the necessary requirements for coalition. As far as I can tell, the plan on both sides is “We’ll lose again! And lose even more seats in state legislatures and Congress! And then you’ll be sorry! Then you’ll listen!”

The Tea Party had a plan that actually worked for compelling the mainstream Republican Party to obey them. I think maybe even some in the Tea Party are now regretting that. In an earlier era, the mainstream Republican Party from 1968-2000 had a plan for giving the ancestors of the Tea Party enough of what they wanted to keep them happy and in coalition. Thinking of that kind is more or less absent among Democrats, progressives and radicals. More’s the pity.

Posted in Politics | 13 Comments

On Confederate Counterfactuals

For some years, I’ve taught a course on counterfactual history. Unlike many scholarly historians, I find counterfactual history useful for a variety of reasons.

For one, I accept the argument that a number of its proponents have made that all arguments about historical causality are at least implicitly counterfactual, and that those claims can often be made more effectively if the counterfactuals are explored more explicitly. For the same reason, I think all claims about the contingent nature of historical events and about human agency in history require at least some acknowledgement of counterfactual possibilities.

I also think there are some humanists who’ve done an important job of asking about the emotional and philosophical meanings of certainty in history, about why we’re sure that certain key events or long-term narratives are inevitable or necessary. Often our need to see certain things as highly deterministic is less derived from evidence or analysis and more by a sense of our contemporary politics or values, that to acknowledge certain contingencies or uncertainties in the past is to make something in the present more fragile than we wish it to be.

I also just think counterfactuals are interesting and enjoyable and that is sufficient justification for pursuing them. I’m glad to turn E.H. Carr’s famous denunciation of the counterfactual as a “parlour game” on its head and see that as an endorsement. Counterfactuals and historical fiction both challenge the limits of historical scholarship and force historians to recognize that there are other ways of knowing, imagining and making use of the past that may require other practices of imagination and interpretation than the traditional approach favored by historians since the late 19th Century.

That said, the striking thing about actual counterfactual writing is not its imaginative character but instead how cramped and fetishized much of it is. A vast percentage of it, both by fiction writers and by scholars who’ve taken a stab at it, concerns a small handful of famous battles, a small handful of famous white male leaders, and a smattering of familiar and very Eurocentric events. Niall Ferguson, in his introduction to the anthology Virtual History, seems to think that this narrowness of focus is one of the things that recommends counterfactuals as a scholarly exercise. (He makes a fairly tortured argument that counterfactual writing is a salutary poke in the eye to Marxist-inflected social history and must concentrate on a small subset of historical actors where we have explicit evidence that they consciously contemplated several courses of action before undertaking one of them.)

One reason I think it’s worth pushing counterfactuals more generally is to ask what counterfactuals written outside of that cramped space might look like, and why we might be reluctant in some cases to undertake them. If I try to write a counterfactual analysis of the “scramble for Africa” of the late 19th Century, I immediately confront some pretty serious conceptual, political and intellectual challenges. If I confine my counterfactual to Bismarck or Cecil Rhodes or Joseph Chamberlain or David Livingstone, I’m just reproducing the old Eurocentric narratives that claim that the conquest of sub-Saharan Africa was just a kind of epiphenomenal side-effect of European history decided upon by famous male leaders. If I try to write a counterfactual where African agency produces a different substantive overall outcome, I’m in danger of “blaming the victims”, of imagining that Africans could have stopped colonialism if they’d only done something other than what they did. (And if I try to do that, I’m also up against serious limits to plausibility and accuracy, since there really doesn’t seem to have been an overall possibility of a different outcome from collective or sustained action by Africans, just variations in local outcomes.) If I argue that colonialism was completely deterministic and inevitable and no counterfactuals are possible, I put in jeopardy a whole series of nested assumptions about the moral responsibility of imperial leaders and European nations. But these all seem like valuable conversations to have, and if asking about counterfactuals as a possibility helps push them forward, good.

The other way to think about the cramped space that most counterfactuals live in is to ask why they’re so uncreatively confined to a narrow range of conjectures about what-might-have-been. So let’s take one of the two stock counterfactuals, namely, “What if the South had won the Civil War?”, which the producers of Game of Thrones have announced will be the basis of the next series they will produce. This has not surprisingly and to my mind completely justifiably produced a lot of dismayed chatter on social media.

Partly it’s because Benioff and Weiss don’t by their own admission have much knowledge about this extremely crowded field of counterfactual writing. “I read a book by Shelby Foote” does not inspire confidence. If nothing else, I’d tell them to hire some researchers stat so that they don’t end up being sued by one of about thirty authors for pretty much rehashing an existing might-have-been story. Maybe they should even option one or more of those stories: Bring the Jubilee might work pretty well. (But please god, not that awful goddamn Harry Turtledove book.)

The deeper problem is that for a subject that receives this much attention, the range of counterfactuals is narrowly confined to essentially nostalgic takes on the antebellum South, to the point of being a kind of odd side branch of Lost Cause thinking. There are exceptions, but not many. They’re also generally obsessed with battlefield analysis, Gettsyburg in particular, and Pickett’s Charge even more particularly.

If you really thought about it, here’s some other counterfactuals about the Civil War that are at least as plausible as the more typical, “The South wins and either becomes a racist nightmare dystopia that dominates the North or it becomes a genteel civilization that eventually slowly emancipates the slaves and makes racial peace”.

1. The North imposes a genuinely tough and unforgiving form of military occupation and sees Reconstruction through more thoroughly until it’s finished, resulting in an America with more racial justice and with a South that is fully reintegrated into the Union, more along the lines of post-1950 Germany or Japan. Nobody writes that one up, but it’s not completely without plausibility, nor is it without appeal. (Counterfactual fiction has a somewhat understandable aversion to writing about outcomes that were far better than the real world because of the loss of dramatic potential, but there are good examples of engaging stories that follow that path.)

2. A US where slave revolts became widespread after Harper’s Ferry (or at some earlier moment), leading to an overall collapse of public order in some slave states and subsequent federal intervention, eventually leading to emancipation without a Civil War.

3. A US where the South secedes and the North decides to let them secede but also overthrows Dred Scott, encourages fugitive slaves, and closes the border to the South and prevents westward movement. The South becomes an impoverished shithole banana republic and in the early 20th Century begs for readmission to the Union.

4. A South that is permitted to secede that then wages war on Cuba, Puerto Rico, Central America and Mexico to try and secure more territory for slavery and eventually loses in a series of border conflicts, including the re-annexation of most of Texas.

5. A South which successfully sues for favorable peace after Gettysburg only to fall to a socialist revolution in the early 20th Century due to an alliance between slaves, freedmen, small landholders and industrial laborers against the old plantation class.

See, the thing you discover is that whether you’re doing fiction or you’re trying to make a careful counterfactual argument that is somewhat scholarly in nature, almost all “The South and the Civil War” counterfactuals are captive to the Lost Cause and are deeply solicitious of Southern white manhood–of the need to compliment the honor and dignity of Confederate soldiers, the legitimacy of the Confederate cause, to treat the Civil War as a noble conflict between brothers, and so on. But there are so many other stories that could be told–or conjectures that could be made. (And have been made, at least by some scholars of Reconstruction.)

So if Benioff and Weiss keep going with this, I really urge them to leave Shelby Foote behind. If they really must do this, try something else that’s really provocative for a change. I think a series where an independent South is a horrific failed state or a series where Reconstruction is genuinely harsh to good ends also would get people talking, and for once, the provocations would be aimed in a different direction than they habitually are.

Posted in Academia, Production of History | 25 Comments

A Matter of Perspective

If you were going to strip away the layered sociocultural histories that surround opinions like “colleges are bad for America” or “bring back coal jobs”, you would have some baseline economic truth that you’d think would reorder those opinions.

a) Coal doesn’t employ that many people and wouldn’t even if it grew by 100% or more. And it only employs them in a narrow geographic range of places, and the product of that labor is only narrowly important to the overall energy infrastructure of the country. And if coal continues to be extracted at roughly the level it is extracted (or more), it’s likely going to be extracted increasingly through highly mechanized strategies that dispense with most human labor.

b) If you were looking for an economic sector that employs a lot of people evenly across most of the country that’s actually in serious and accelerating economic trouble, you’d probably take note of conventional retail jobs, especially in big-box and department stores. It’s not just the jobs here that matter, but the tax revenues to almost all municipalities and the consequences of abandoned or dramatically underutilized retail buildings.

c) If you were looking for one of America’s major remaining economic strengths in a global economy, you’d doubtless focus on higher education. Many families with economic resources in other countries continue to want to send their children here for advanced education, and many American families continue to have a massive range of excellent choices from community colleges to public research universities to expensive private 4-year institutions. A college education of any kind continues to deliver major benefits to graduates in the current economy, even if those have become more precarious and even if social mobility *into* college educations has become more constrained.

d) If you were looking for areas of economic opportunity that might be distributed nationwide rather than constrained to a precious few geographic regions, you’d probably be looking at skilled manufacturing (often requiring a college education), programming and other tech-sector work, health care work, teaching (at all levels), energy sector work besides coal and oil (including fracking but also wind/solar), climate change adaptation manufacturing (everything from flood control to mold removal to new styles of construction).


But we don’t get to strip away the layered sociocultural histories. So put them back into play. What makes these four points something that are so easily obscured, ignored or skewed by partisan discourses? It’s not just fake news and propaganda that’s responsible.

Fundamentally, coal is a stand-in for a much wider range of jobs, livelihoods, community circumstances, life experiences, worldviews. It’s everywhere that towns were built around a single industry, and everyone who was willing to work hard and suffer in difficult and exploitative labor for a life in return for having roots, feeling solidarity in locality, staying put. In the longer history of things, single industry towns have always been marking time to their inevitable ends, maybe even before the modern capitalist world system took shape. The bitterness of that is that their residents often are attracted to the seeming promise of a kind of simplicity of permanence, a stepping-out from the flowing motion of people and goods and ways of life. So yes, people know that coal’s gone, and as is always the case with moral economy, the vision of what people believed they once had only gets sharper and brighter and more simplistic as it disappears–and more desperately desired. And it gets easier as desire hones to a fine point to find scapegoats to blame: the politicians, the city folks, the young, the eggheads, the blacks and Mexicans.

The jobs that people really are losing? They weren’t good jobs to begin with, they weren’t what defined a community’s sense of self (nobody thinks of themselves as part of that town or small city that has that street with the Best Buy and the Circuit City and the Kohls and the Target on it). So no one feels anything other than the ordinary desperation of joblessness in a jobless world when the Target or the Sears closes up.

The jobs that people really are gaining? Well, in towns where the college or university employs people (as they do, all over the country), at least some of those jobs are complicatedly disdained *within* the college or university even as they provide salary and benefits to their workers–so maybe it’s easy to feel both attachment to the employment and annoyance at the institution all at once. And colleges and universities have hardly been great employers of late for their faculties, for the most part, as adjunctification has intensified. And the costs of educating children in higher ed are high, with the outcomes more tenuous feeling. So loyalty and affection is frayed even before the talk shows get to work.

More to the point, those jobs that are the heart of the economy to come? Most people on the other side, on the economy that was, believe, with some justification, that there is no program of retraining or education that will make that economy to come available to them. Technocrats like to imagine they are standing in a place of invisible neutrality when they look over the facts and lay out the best choices. But those choices look very different depending on where you stand. You can’t tell the story of these four facts about the economy dispassionately without already being someone who is on the right side (for now) of the history they embody.

Posted in Academia, Politics | 5 Comments

Trump As Desecration

I still regret to some extent that at the beginning of Swarthmore College’s Aydelotte Foundation (before it received its current name) we decided that a good initial test of the ability to have conversations across and within disciplines was best suited to a shared college-wide reading of Jonathan Haidt’s flawed book The Righteous Mind. I would rather have found a book that didn’t frustrate and irritate most of the participants.

I don’t regret the conversations, though. And the odd thing is that I keep coming back to the book with new complaints against its claims, so it did help me actually rethink and refocus some of how I observe and imagine political life.

Haidt argues that liberal political dispositions, which he views (like other political dispositions) as substantially subconscious and intuitive, are unresponsive to blasphemy or sacrilege, that liberals do not cross-wire deep emotional responses connected to disgust or repulsion to politics, do not have strong notions about the sacred and the profane as a part of their subconscious script for reading the public sphere and political events.

My colleague and friend Ben Berger pointed out during one of our discussions that this observation seemed fundamentally wrong to him–that people can hold things sacred that are not designated as religious, and that many liberals held other kinds of institutions, texts, and manners as ‘sacred’ in the same deep-seated, pre-conscious, emotionally intense way, perhaps without even knowing that they do. Ben observed that Haidt might be missing that because many liberals and leftists did not feel deeply trespassed against in this way in their own favored institutional and social worlds, and usually looked upon a public sphere that largely aligned with their vision of civic propriety and ritual.

I’m not opposed per se to Haidt’s insistence that some of our political affiliations and reactions stem from deeper, non-conscious cognitive predispositions: I just think he woefully mismaps those findings to real politics, to history, to institutions, and so on. I think Ben’s point now seems deeply confirmed. Why are so many of us feeling deep distress each day, sometimes over what seem like relatively trivial or incidental information (like Trump pushing aside heads of state?) Because Trump is sacrilege.

Trump is the Piss Christ of liberals and leftists. His every breath is a bb-gun shot through a cathedral window, bacon on the doorstep of a mosque, the explosion of an ancient Buddha statue. He offends against the notion that merit and hard work will be rewarded. Against the idea that leadership and knowledge are necessary partners. Against deep assumptions about the dignity of self-control. Against a feeling that leaders should at least pretend to be more dedicated to their institutions and missions than themselves. Against the feeling that consequential decisions should be performed as consequential. Against the feeling that a man should be ashamed of sexual predation and assault if caught on tape exalting it. Against the sense that anyone who writes or speaks in the public sphere is both responsible for what they’ve said and should have to reconcile what they’ve said in the past with what they’re doing in the present. These are emotional commitments before they are things we would defend as substantive, reasoned propositions. They’re interwoven into how many of us inhabit social class and working life, but sometimes spill over both class and work to connect us with unlike people who nevertheless have similar expectations about leaders and public figures.

Even when we intellectually understand that our sense of the sacred in civic and public life may be dysfunctionally entangled in stifling technocratic arrogance or neoliberal visions of governmentality, even when we believe ourselves to be open to a more carnivalesque or improvisational mode of public leadership, we still have very deep feelings about what’s proper and improper, righteous and demonic, sanitary and repellant. And Trump is violating every intuition, every deep reservoir of feeling we have about how one ought to be a man, a leader, a symbol of our national identity. We are not distracted when we respond to those feelings. In fact, we might be better off to articulate our responses as feelings, as intense and profound and utterly righteous feelings.

Posted in Politics | 17 Comments

Helpful Hints for Skeptics

I suppose I knew in some way that there were people whose primary self-identification was “skeptic”, and even that there were people who saw themselves as part of the “skeptic community”. But it’s been interesting to encounter the kinds of conversations that self-identified members of the skeptic community have been having with one another, and especially the self-congratulatory chortling of some such over something like the lame “hoax” of gender studies.

Skepticism is really just a broad property of many forms of intellectual inquiry and a generalized way to be in the world. Most scholars are in some respect or another skeptics, or they employ skepticism as a rhetorical mode and as a motivation for their research. Lots of writers, public figures, and so on at least partake of skepticism in some fashion. I’m a bit depressed that people who identify so thoroughly with skepticism that they see that as their primary community and regard the word as a personal identifier don’t seem to be very good at being skeptical.

So a bit of advice for anyone who aspires to not just use skepticism as a tool but to be a skeptic through-and-through.

1) Read Montaigne. Be Montaigne. He’s the role model for skepticism. And take note of his defining statement: What do I know? If you haven’t read Montaigne, you’re missing out.

2) Regard everything you think you know as provisional. Be sure of nothing. When you wake up in the morning, decide to argue that what you were sure of yesterday must be wrong. Just to see what shakes loose when you do it.

3) Never, ever, think your shit doesn’t stink. If you’re spending most of your time attacking others, regarding other people as untrue or unscientific or unrational who need to have your withering skeptical gaze upon them, you’re not a skeptic. Skepticism is first and last introspective. You are the best focus of your own skepticism. Skepticism that is relentlessly other-directed is just assholery with a self-flattering label. Skepticism requires humility.

4) Always doubt your first impulses. Always regard your initial feelings as suspect.

5) Always read past the headline. Always read the fine print. Always read the details. Never be easy to manipulate.

6) Never subcontract your skepticism. “Skeptical community” is in that sense already a mistake. No one else’s skepticism can substitute for your own. Yes, no person is an island, and yes, you too stand on the shoulders of giants. But when it comes to thinking a problem through from as many perspectives as possible, when it comes to asking the unasked questions, every skeptic has to stand on their own two feet.

7) Never give yourself excuses. If you don’t have the time to think something through, to explore it, to look at all the perspectives possible, to ask the counter-intuitive questions, then fine: you don’t have the time. Don’t decide that you already know all the answers without having to do any of the work. Don’t start flapping your gums about the results of your skepticism if you never did the work of thinking skeptically about something.

8) Never be obsessive in your interest in a single domain or argument. If you have something that is so precious to you that you can’t afford to subject it to skepticism, if you have an idee fixe, if you’re on a crusade, you’re not a skeptic.

9) Never resist changing sides. Always be willing to walk a mile in other shoes. Skepticism should be mobile. If you have a white whale you’re chasing, you’re not a good skeptic. A good skeptic should be chasing Ahab as often as the other way round–and sometimes should just be carving scrimshaw and watching while the whale and the captain chase each other.

10) Be curious. A skeptic is a wanderer. If you’re using skepticism as a reason not to read something, not to think about something, not to learn something new, you’re not a good skeptic.

Posted in Academia, Generalist's Work, Oath for Experts | 5 Comments