The reaction to this affair has been extremely polarized. People on both sides seem pretty certain that they are right. Either people are outraged by the racism, or they are outraged that a technical conference would dare to ban somebody for their racism. Doesn՚t seem to be a whole lot of middle ground.
But my own reaction is ambiguous, torn, waffling between two sets of incompatible values. This is interesting to me (although I՚m not sure it is interesting to anybody else, but nobody is forcing you to read this). I find it much more interesting to write about my uncertainties than my certainties.
David Nolen is one of the people most outraged. He՚s a major figure in the Clojure community, and also happens to be black, and he reacted to Moldbug՚s racism in the strongest possible terms, invoking powerfully charged images of racial oppression:
1) Pretend you are black like me.
2) Read some Moldbug.
3) Look at a bunch of lynching photos.
I՚ve thought Moldbug՚s stuff was pretty outrageous, but never really took it seriously enough to become personally offended or threatened. I was willing to debate him over it rather than pushing it away in horror. But I don՚t feel like I have any right to tell Nolen how he should feel about it.
I tried to imagine how I՚d react to race-hatred that was aimed more at me personally. What if a Nazi was going to give a talk on his exciting new programming language? Would I boycott the talk, or the conference? Would I demand the conference organizers shun this individual? I՚m not really sure. I think a lot would depend on the surrounding political climate. One weirdo anti-semite might be a joke to be laughed off, but if there are enough of them to constitute a political force, then the situation demands a political response.
This issue is very parallel to the Trump-related issues I was discussing in the previous post. This idea that there is a space of discourse in which anything goes, and is radically separated from the realm of action is a fine fiction, but a flimsy one.
My earlier post made one point that is still valid, and I haven՚t seen made elsewhere: that Moldbug as an anti-liberal has no grounds for complaint. That doesn՚t invalidate anybody else՚s concerns however.
This episode has caused a lot of bad feelings but I have an oddly positive take of it, from an oddly (for me) conservative point of view. Maybe it՚s a good thing that there are still some ideas that cause outrage, that will get you banned from polite society, that will cause good people to shun you. Boundaries are important. Turns out even in the advanced stages of late capitalism, there are codes of behavior. This is a good thing. Everybody knows liberalism doesn't extend freedom to infinity, but nobody knows what the boundaries are, so episodes like this are an instance of how we are in the process of figuring that out.
Donald Trump has managed to create an aura of violence and threatened violence around his campaign events. Everyone is getting alarmed by this, but I detect an element of bad faith in that reaction, because violence always lurks under the surface of politics. It՚s not beanbag, it՚s a competition for power, in this case for the right to be the most powerful single individual in the world, commander of the most powerful military force in world history, etc. We often manage to have such competitions peacefully, using just words and elections, but that seems rather exceptional in broad history of human society. Trump is ripping apart the fragile structures of liberal governance, which is a truly bad thing, but I am not overly surprised at their fragility.
Here՚s Rachel Maddow documenting Trump՚s ramp-up of violent language:
And here՚s an alarmingly titled but otherwise perfectly sober and accurate piece from Josh Marshall on the inevitable consequences: Someone Will Die.
It՚s interesting to see the varied leftish opinions about the Trump rally in Chicago that got canceled due to purported threats of violence (still isn't clear exactly what those threats were or who was making them). And by “interesting” I mean my own thoughts are not that clear. My natural first reaction is kind of the ACLU I-will-defend-to-the-death-your-right-to-say-stupid-and-repulsive-shit, a stance ably and politely represented on that page by Murc, who writes:
I kind of feel like it should be possible to simultaneously hold the opinion “Trump is running the fascist playbook, it’s appalling, and we should all be ashamed and angry” as well as “when someone takes the time to book out a venue and follow all appropriate laws and regulations, that should be respected and they should be allowed to do their thing.”
Judging by the rest of the thread, this is an unpopular opinion, but I’m gonna just come right out and say that merely being a fascist doesn’t mean the rules don’t apply to you. When Trumps brownshirts force some liberal rallies to be cancelled because they storm the place and raise a ruckus, rendering it unsafe (when, not if; that’s going to happen) we’ll all be outraged, and correctly so.
Against him, almost everyone else in the discussion.
I՚m torn myself. I value freedom of speech, but I don՚t really believe in some kind of absolute distinction between speech and action. You see this boundary blurred all the time in politics, that is what a demonstration or rally is after all, speech that is also a display of force. The debate about money in politics also blurs the line. So yes, I am a good liberal who believes in freedom of speech but I also believe it՚s a useful fiction – but that utility is limited, there are situations where it breaks down.
A liberal society is one that allows multiple points of view to exist and compete for power, which creates a paradox – at some point, there must be a practical limit to how far can it go it tolerating and accomodating its enemies. Given that there are all sorts of illiberal political forces out there, including the numerious variations of religious fundamentalism, racism, and toxic nationalism, how do you design a society where their illiberality can continue to live in private enclaves without being a threat to the order of the greater community?
The ACLU՚s defense of the Nazis right to march through Skokie back in the late 70s is paradigmatic for me (I grew up right next door in Evanston). Sure, let՚s allow a few pathetic and repellent adherents of a dead ideological enemy to parade around and get people angry at them. They pose no real threat, it is actually a sign of strength of the liberal order if you can let this sort of thing happen without forceful interference.
But at some point fascism stops being a fringe of harmess nuts and become a real threat. And somewhere along that line it becomes not just permitted, but almost obligatatory to oppose it, and not just with words, but with actions.
Has Donald Trump՚s quasi-fascist rhetoric crossed the line? Obviously he has no problem threatening the use of violence on protestors; does that justify violent tactics on their part?
In pure moral calculus, well sure. There is no earthly way in which you can pretend it is not Trump who has been constantly opening up the door to violence. That puts the responsibility for it squarely on his repulsive orange head.
In strategic terms it is almost certainly a mistake. The only conceivable consequences of violence at a Trump rally, whoever starts it, is increased support for him from the same febrile quarters it comes from now. It՚s the nature of the beast, and that is barely a metaphor. If there are really people so wishy-washy that they are undecided between Trump and a Democrat, which way do you think they will turn if it looks like society is in the throes of violent disintegration? Which side of this battle has more heavily armed lunatics?
So I hope that left protestors will use non-violent practices. But I can՚t condemn them if they don՚t. I՚m not a pacifist, some fights are worth fighting and this most certainly is one of them.
[ Bernie Sanders visiting the Woody Guthrie Museum ]