Growing up


I was an ornery teenager. I remember getting into arguments with my dad at the dinner table about every subject imaginable – from politics to religion to parenting. Family dinners were meant to be bonding time, but they often turned into miserable affairs that left us further apart and isolated. I was mostly to blame. I had recently discovered atheism, and I possessed the unbridled confidence and tactlessness that grips every new convert. I remember reading Carl’s Sagan and Ann Druyan’s book, Pale Blue Dot, and steeping myself in a neoconservative atheist wing of political ideology, centered on figures like Christopher Hitchens. He was so adept with the English language, and used his caustic wit to make mincemeat out of his opponents. I loved his takedown of Mother Teresa (and, to be honest, I still love it). I wanted to be like him, and I certainly tried my best. I was smart enough to be vicious, but not smart enough to wield my viciousness responsibly. (I even remember my dad imploring me to quit Speech and Debate club, which apparently had trained me to be a smart-aleck. In fact, he had the causation backwards: I joined Speech and Debate because I was a smart-aleck.) I was also deeply ignorant of history and philosophy and all of the other “soft” fields that are essential for arriving at an informed judgment. Ultimately, my obnoxious atheism transformed into a softer non-religiousness, the catastrophe in Iraq shattered my nascent neoconservatism, and I developed into the fairly conventional liberal/leftist/social democrat that you know and love today. (And, fortunately, I have a much better relationship with my parents, too.)

Although time has made me mellower, I still often feel the urge to fight and argue, even when socially “inappropriate.”

The social strata I inhabit are filled with people who are ostensibly like-minded. They, too, are appalled by Trump; they, too, believe in gay marriage and rights for transgendered people; and they, too, lament sexism and racism. To a right-winger, these people would be indistinguishable from me, and I wouldn’t blame them for failing to draw finer distinctions.

But many so-called liberals tend to be blind to issues of (their own) class. In other words, they might be social and cultural liberals, but they’re not actually economic liberals. Or, they might be economic liberals when it comes to other people’s money, but not to their own. (I’m not immune to these failings, but I think I’m more self-aware than most.)

These are people who make 6 figures, but who are not willing to take the steps necessary to make the lives of those making 5 figures better. These are people who further entrench the precarious “gig economy” by using services like Uber and Seamless, and who buy the cheapest goods from Amazon instead of supporting local businesses. These are people who forget that the unemployment rate being under 5% doesn’t mean that everything’s coming up roses: the vast majority of jobs that have been created in this decade have been these shitty temp/contracting/gig jobs, and real wages have hardly budged over the last 40 years.

All of this points to the true perversity of the American system of capitalism: by creating such enormous disparities between classes, it engenders jealousy and status anxiety in even those who are well-off. The people making 6 figures pay attention to those making 7 and 8 figures, not to those making 5 figures. The anger that should be directed at the owners of capital is somehow transmuted into this much more feckless emotion – envy – and the effect of envy is to cloud rational thought.

Here’s an example. I recently had a programmer friend of mine tell me that programming was “blue-collar” work. I was puzzled, and asked, “Is that because programmers make (virtual) things and work with their hands?” No, he explained, “Programming is the last middle class job in America.” Apparently, the middle class in America has been hollowed out, and the only remaining socioeconomic classes are the precariat (the schmucks working for Uber who have to survive on tips from this guy) and the ultra-rich. I was unfortunately too dumbfounded to respond on the spot.

Let’s be real here, folks. A programming job (or at least the one that he was doing) isn’t a middle class career, except for extremely tendentious readings of the phrase “middle class”. Let’s remember: the poverty line in the U.S. is roughly $12000. For a married couple with no kids, it’s $16000. The Obamacare subsidies, which extend well into the middle class, cap out at 400% of the poverty level, which is well below the salary of the programmer in question. Or, let’s look at the actual distribution of household income in the U.S. Even in an expensive city like New York, 25% of households earn 100k. 12% earn 150k, and 7% earn 200k. If a brogrammer and his lady-brogrammer are pulling in 100k each, then that’s not the middle class anymore: it’s the upper class. (See this Brad Delong post about “Professor Todd Henderson” for an earlier incident along similar lines.)

The real problem is that being a straight white guy who voted for Clinton is such a low bar that everyone who does so thinks they’re liberal or “woke”. But there’s more to ideology than tribal affiliations or mere votes. You have to examine your own beliefs critically. You have to do some growing up: to move from being the cocksure 13-year-old who thinks he has the world figured out to being the skeptical 15-year old who wonders what the fuck went wrong in Iraq.

I was reminded of all of this when watching the infamous appearance of Milo Yiannopoulos on Bill Maher’s show. To be honest, I felt icky even doing so, since the point of this whole escapade was to drive clicks to Maher and attention to Milo. (Hopefully, my watching the video enables you not to.)

The interview was predictably awful. On one side there was an incorrigibly hateful troll with a shit-eating grin on his face. On the other side there was an incorrigibly smug asshole with a shit-eating grin on his face. (I’ll let you decide which is which.)

Maher spent most of the interview tossing softballs at Milo. (One representative example: “The one area where I’m a little concerned is where you go after people individually” Really, Bill? Comparing Leslie Jones to an ape and calling her “barely literate” makes you “a little concerned”? In fact, Maher seemed more exercised about Milo’s Catholicism than about all of his poisonous invective.)

He spent the rest slobbering all over Milo for his defense of “free speech”. The flipside of this discussion was, of course, a joint attack on liberals for being too sensitive and for not understanding “humor” and “jokes”. Sadly, it was left to Larry Wilmore (who knows a thing or two about jokes) to stand up to Milo, since Maher had seemingly forgotten to bring his balls to work that day.

Here’s what really bothers me about all of this. One can perhaps forgive someone like Jimmy Fallon for his easygoing, conflict-free interviews with right-wing assholes, since conflict isn’t really in his nature. But Maher styles himself as a provocateur. He thinks he’s biting and witty and politically incorrect and daring, willing to explore all of the hot-button issues using language that mealy-mouthed liberals would never dare to use.

But it’s all a sham. Maher is a craven circle-jerker just like Fallon. He courts controversy and positions himself as a stalwart defender of free speech in order to get ratings. But he’s not actually going to use his soapbox to speak truth to power, unless “truth to power” means slandering 1 billion Muslims who live half a world away, instead of the one gaping asshole who sat 5 feet away from him. For all of the hemming and hawing about the epidemic of political correctness and the collapse of free speech (thanks, Obama!), it’s clear that certain types of free speech will always be suppressed: trolls like Maher will never attack trolls like Milo, because they like to punch down, not up.

Jeremy Scahill, a journalist whom I admire, decided not to appear on Maher’s show after Milo’s appearance was announced. Here’s Maher’s statement (this was issued before the actual show itself):

My comments on Islam have never veered into vitriol. Liberals will continue to lose elections as long as they follow the example of people like Mr. Scahill who’s [sic] views veer into fantasy and away from bedrock liberal principles like equality of women, respect for minorities, separation of religion and state, and free speech. If Mr. Yiannopoulos is indeed the monster Scahill claims – and he might be – nothing could serve the liberal cause better than having him exposed on Friday night.

Setting aside the ludicrous notion that Bill Maher knows anything about winning elections (or even about liberalism), what’s even more risible is the idea that he thought he would “expose” Milo on Friday. How’d that work out?

At this point, I know what you’re thinking. “Dude, you always get me down with your hopeless and cynical posts; can’t we talk about something positive for a change?”

Ok, let’s. Read this profile of San Antonio Spurs coach Gregg Popovich. Read about he’s fostered his “natural curiosity” over the years, by sparring with debate partners even more knowledgeable than he is. Read about how he has unfailingly spoken up for justice and equality, even at the cost of alienating friends. Read about how he supported Colin Kaepernick’s protests when so many white leaders in sports (owners, coaches, etc.) were attacking Kaepernick. And read about how he entered public activism, tentatively at first, but full-throatedly when he saw American democracy at risk.

The article closes with this passage, talking about Popovich’s long-time friend, Hank Egan:

He’d ask questions and test boundaries and argue until Egan told him to go away. He’d do so for a while, but then the team would be on a bus or a plane, headed on a road trip to some new and interesting land, and the kid would slide into the row next to Egan.

The coach would roll his eyes but let him talk, about Vietnam or the coaches’ game plan or whatever else was on his mind, Egan occasionally entertained but mostly wondering when the day would come that the argumentative kid would grow out of this.

The author of the profile wryly notes that argumentativeness is a trait associated with kids, and that “growing up” seems to entail abandoning all of that. But we need adults to argue, whether it’s about something as trivial as what middle class means, or about something as important as political correctness and free speech. Who is the true grownup? The one who sits meekly, hoping to gather clicks on Youtube and ratings on Nielsen, while a right-wing cretin proceeds to troll his audience? Or the one who realizes that if we don’t stand up to the trolls and their “jokes” now, there won’t be any “free speech” to defend in the future?


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