Monday, June 18, 2018

Populism or Fascism?

William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy Under Trumpism (2017) and Facing the Planetary... (2017)

In h
is impressive 1944 book, The Great Transformation, Karl Polanyi reviews how a series of Fascist movements erupted in Europe, the United States and elsewhere after the meltdown of market capitalism in 1929 known as the Great Depression. Sure, Italian fascism preceded that collapse, but its virulence increased after the Depression, and it was joined by the vitalization of similar movements. Some succeeded, crushing communism and social democracy, as they introduced a version of corporate capital tied to Fascist governance. Others failed, largely because of democratic movements trending toward social democracy. One lesson from this cross-regional cluster of movements, Polanyi claimed, is that Fascist movements are not simply reducible to the internal dynamics of a single regime.

 Pressures to Fascism flow from a volatile conjunction of internal and external forces. Internal discontents in Germany after its total defeat in World War I were joined to the devastating cross-regional effects of the Great Depression on middle and working classes. German Nazism became the most virulent mode of Fascism, joining intense racial nationalism, antisemitism, attacks on "slavs", Romani, gays, communists and social democrats to initiation of World War II and the utter horror of Death camps. But other Fascist movements also arose in countries such as the United States (Father Coughlin had a radio following of 30 million), Norway, France, England, Sweden, Hungary, Holland, Finland and Japan. The horror of German Nazism, indeed, can distract attention from how the other movements, too, were driven by both internal and external dynamics.
 
 It is pertinent to see how the deregulated precursors to more recent versions of neoliberalism ushered in the Great Depression. But market ideologues soon pretended, with Hayek taking the lead, that it is Keynesian policies that place society on “the road to serfdom”. Polanyi was amused by Hayek’s denial of marketeer responsibility for the Great Depression. He therefore felt confident that Hayekism would never return to a position of prominence in western democracies. He was ohhh so wrong on that last point. But his recognition of general sources of the first wave of Fascist movements and our recent experience do suggest that the cross-regional victories of neoliberalism, with its drives to periodic crisis, austerity programs, and attacks on worker security, readily establish preconditions for Fascistic eruptions.
 Today, you might say, new dislocations have emerged to challenge several democracies. The escalation of refugee pressures has been deployed to incite racism in several countries. Job insecurities and stagnating wages, generated by the hegemony of neoliberal regimes and the decline of labor movements, exacerbate these pressures. The droughts in Syria, the Sub-Sahara, and Latin America, linked in part to galloping climate change, already help to spawn civil wars and the flows of desperate refugees. They also pull American constituencies, drawn to the myth of a golden age when coal, oil, gas, massive highway projects, and automobility were kings, to leaders who blame their troubles on immigration, racial integration, trade agreements, and ethnic pluralization. These constituencies become susceptible to false promises to return to a manufacturing era that gave them entitlements. Such developments vary significantly across regimes, of course, but variations are discernible in the United States, the UK, Poland, Italy, Hungary and Turkey. A series of local surges with cross-regional affinities. A new version of the world Polanyi charted for the 1930s.
What needs close attention today, however, is how several authoritative analyses replace the old designation of Fascist movements with that of “Populist” movements. The label Polanyi used to review multiple movements in the 1930s is now refused by many critics. Take, to cite merely one example, the new book by Levitsky and Ziblatt on How Democracies Die. “Populists are antiestablishment politicians—figures claiming to represent the voices of the people, wage war on what they depict as a corrupt and conspiratorial elite. Populists tend to deny the legitimacy of established parties…And they promise to bury the elite and return power to the people.” (p. 22)
 Levitsky and Ziblatt do capture aspects of the current crisis in democracy, attending to how the movements they decry undermine democratic norms. And they certainly realize that democracies can die. But they underplay the deeper sources of that erosion and focus too much on how party reform can restore “guardrails” of democratic governance. What, speaking more generally, is deficient about accounts couched as critiques of Populism?
  First, the reduction of the new movements to Populism tends to cover Left Populism and Right Populism under the same umbrella. That encourages the call for establishment guardrails to foreclose both movements from the Left and Right. But it can be argued--I do argue--that a focus on guardrails alone reproduces the conditions that created the crisis in the first place. It under plays how radical actions within universities, corporations, localities, and the state challenged ordinary party politics as it extended the pluralization of civic culture. And it ignores how the market fundamentalism of the neoliberal Right and the pluralizing politics of the cultural Left—while each resisted the other--caught many members of the white working and middle classes in a bind between them. That bind increased their job insecurities, produced wage stagnation, made it more difficult to send their kids to college in an economy where a high school education is not enough, and made them highly vulnerable to the debt and underwater mortgages spawned by neoliberal meltdowns. The bind even encouraged some within the liberal Left to characterize this constituency in disparaging terms it would find to be outrageous if they were applied to Blacks, women, Jews, Mexicans, Muslims or others. Think of the words white trash, hillbillies, and crackers for starters. The binds in which they are caught primed the “deplorables” to listen to the voices of aspirational Fascism.
Second--a related point--while deriding "populist" rhetoric on the Right, generic antipopulists also tend to deflate egalitarian, pluralizing and democratic rhetorical practices desperately needed to counteract the rhetoric of aspirational fascism today. Antipopulists sometimes act as if they want rule by democratic elites to be almost as automatic--once the election is over--as neoliberals pretend markets are when they are left free to rumble. Such an elective affinity between lovers of regular party rule and lovers of untrammeled markets is not too surprising; the two parties had already arranged a rocky marriage contract. What is urgently needed today, however, are democratic activists with rhetorical powers to both activate several minorities and inspire the higher angels of a larger faction of the white working and middle classes. The dispersed working class in fact has become a minority itself today. The leaders must call for radical changes that draw these constituencies closer together, rather than exacerbating divisions between them. More about that soon. They will do so in ways that repeatedly expose the Big Lie Scenarios of aspirational Fascism as they ground their own inspirations in evidence based claims. Think of the differences here between William Barber and Donald Trump. And, on another register, the differences between Hillary Clinton and Barber, with the former too crippled by her own neoliberalism to address real class issues of the day.
Beto O'Rourke and Veronica Escobar Lead March on Tent City
 Third, democracy does not consist merely of representation through open elections, compromises between governing elites, and consensus on guardrails. Representative democracy stands in creative tension with its indispensable double: creative social movements to open up new possibilities in the domains of worker entitlement, ethnic diversity, religious plurality, income egalitarianism, climate action, and gender diversity. The fact that some constituencies on that list have made precarious advances over the last few decades, while the working class has faced declining entitlements and growing insecurities, means that this second dimension of democracy must be widened again. Critics of generic "Populism" do not appreciate sufficiently the need for such social movements. Their one-dimensional definition of representative democracy—often joined to softness on a neoliberalism that demeans social movements even more belligerently—depreciates citizen activism as an essential ingredient of democracy. Such a combination of elite guardrails and softness on neoliberalism, however, promises to reproduce the condition the elites purport to fight against. That, indeed, is how we got here.
 Fourth, while the democratic Left might hope to win a Presidential election with an inspiring candidate, it cannot create large enough Congressional majorities unless it makes substantial inroads into the large fly-over zones between the two coasts. This, too, means that a larger segment of the dispersed white working class must be drawn again into its orbit. Entrenchment by the radical Right in small towns and rural districts--joined to a ruthless ideology and extreme gerrymandering--shows how the politics of stalemate deepens when a Democrat wins the White House. The politics of gridlock, however, is precisely the politics that attracts aggrieved low information voters to listen to definitive, ruthless incitement from authoritarian leaders. A cascade process is set into motion here. 
 Fifth, while ideologues of aspirational Fascism stoke white nationalism, a territorial Wall, fossil fuels, racism, and stories of a climate hoax to return to a golden 1950s era when an old manufacturing regime prevailed--it is nonetheless insufficient to use the language of racism and misogyny to oppose them. Those practices certainly must be identified and rooted out, and it is important to emphasize how the 1950s brought McCarthyism. But, it is now clear: in order to surmount racism and misogyny you must also support general policies to render the infrastructure of consumption more inclusive, to make public college tuition free, to protect low and middle income people from retrograde bankruptcy proceedings after a meltdown, to improve the legal power of labor unions, to reverse finance laws that allow the rich to steal elections, to build a sustainable power grid, to support universal health care, to protect worker retirements after a company closes, and to reduce the income discrepancy between the highest and lowest paid workers in each firm. Several of these proposals would provide more working and middle class people in many subject positions with better jobs and living conditions. But such proposals fall into categories that some pundits place under the label of Left Populism. Neglect or repudiation of such programs incites temptations by caught many in the binds described to tolerate or succumb to aspirational Fascism.
 Is it really wise to define virulent movements on the Right as carriers of aspirational Fascism? One reason it is wise to do so is that it allows us to draw selectively from energies conservative democrats and neoliberals now sink into a vague muddle called Populism. The change in labels additionally underlines how serious the danger from the Right is today. Aspirational Fascists already use Big Lies every day, conspire with hostile foreign powers to rig elections, make vicious attacks on the media as “enemies of the people”, instill racism, engage in minority voter suppression, advance militarism, threaten wars, assert the President to be a Sovereign above the law, strive to turn the Justice Department into a tool of elite gangsterism, make thinly denied appeals to vigilante groups, use the Presidency as a corrupt vehicle for a family business, demand unquestioning support from the courts, and support local police violence. They are already Fascist in both achievement and ambition.
GOP Nominee for Virginia Senate Seat Corey Stewart
What would they do if they succeeded even more on several fronts? They would become more oppressive yet in their use of the IRS, racism, intimidation of the media, corruption of courts, use of Reichstag temptations to mobilize the base, voter suppression, militarism, support of vigilantism, alliances with local police, and infiltration of the academy. They would define all adversaries to be "enemies of the people", as they winnow down what counts as "the people". They would transfigure democratic institutions into mechanisms of oppressive rule. They would deploy the separation of powers as a cover more than be restrained by it. What looked like a Populist movement to proponents of one dimensional democracy before it seized power would surface as Fascism if it consolidated power.

We already inhabit the era of aspirational Fascism, then. It is unwise to assume that the separation of powers and elite protection of old guardrails will suffice to defeat that movement. It may do so, but it is unwise to count on it alone without large doses of citizen activism. It is more wise to recall how a set of neoliberal Republicans-- so recently proud of free trade deals, originalist judges, the “rational” market, tax cuts for the rich, and dog whistles over overt racism--have slunk either into silence or toward ebullient Trumpism. The differences between them and Trump have been squeezed by complementary desires to mobilize a governing assemblage composed of rich donors, leading financial elites, white evangelicals, the white working and middle classes, Big Lie Scenarios, minority voter suppression, a territorial Wall, and a Fascist leader exempt from criticism, judicial action or legislative review. We live during a moment when a new crisis is apt to place democracy even more severely at risk. Citizens who love democracy may soon have to take to the streets, twitter mobilizations, town halls, and phone banks to force accountability from leaders who seek to evade it.
I am aware that a faction on the Left contends that democracy forms a thin varnish on top of capitalism. They exaggerate. Democracy and capitalism do chafe against each other; neoliberal capitalism places democracy under severe pressure; and a neoliberal/evangelical resonance machine places it under extreme pressure, as I diagnosed in Capitalism and Christianity, American Style in 2008. But, as Theodore Adorno found, after the “veneer” had been ripped off Weimar democracy, democracy had in fact been closer to a skin than to a veneer. Tearing it off created a bloody mess. The crisis of capitalism and democracy, in that instance, ushered in Fascism, when many communists had thought it would open the door to Communism. Capitalism with democracy provides footholds and handholds at many sites from which significant change can sometimes be pursued, including radical changes in the growth imperatives that both shape capitalism and threaten the future during the Anthropocene. Late modern capitalism without democracy, on the other hand, becomes Fascism. This is so because extra repression is needed to stifle constituencies accustomed to democratic citizenship. Such repression would find expression in numerous institutions--from localities, schools, churches, police departments, and corporations to governing state institutions of the day. It is thus unwise to wait for democracy to collapse in the hope of installing a new Kingdom of Heaven. That lesson has been taught before; aspirational Fascism teaches it again.
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Saturday, June 9, 2018

What’s in a Hashtag?: Terms for Tweeting in Alliance

Alyson Cole is a professor of Political Science, Women’s & Gender Studies, and American Studies at Queens College and the Graduate Center, CUNY. She is the author of The Cult of True Victimhood, and most recently, “Precarious Politics: Anzaldúa's Reparative Reworking.” Alyson co-edits philoSOPHIA: A Journal of Continental Feminism.

Sumru Atuk is a completing her doctorate -- “The Politics of Femicide: ‘Woman’ Making and Women Killing in Turkey,” supported by grants from the Mellon Foundation and AAUW -- in Political Science and Women’s & Gender Studies at the Graduate Center, CUNY. Sumru and Alyson are collaborating on an article about the promise and limits of #MeToo politics.
For those who remember Clarence Thomas’s hearings before the Senate Judiciary Committee -- a televised drama that made “sexual harassment” a household word -- #MeToo felt, at first, like bad deja vu. Betty Friedan argued that women need to name sexism in order to overcome it, but the current digital protest publicizes a problem named long ago. Unlike those 1991 hearings, which focused in excruciating detail on two protagonists, Thomas and Anita Hill, #MeToo lays bare the appalling scale and frequency of women’s daily encounters with men who sexually harass and whose sexual harassment, in violation of the law, is often widely known and tolerated.

Is #MeToo the cresting of a new wave of feminism, a final reckoning with patriarchy? Or is it a perversion of the achievements of the women’s movement? Those who worry it is the latter see a McCarthyism in drag that demands the sacrifice of “good men” (Senator Al Franken and Congressman John Conyers, for example), while reviving Victorian sensibilities about female fragility; a regression into the “victim feminism” of the past when women rebuffed the joys of sex, renegotiated the terms of consent, and incited a sex panic. Critics want to retain a line between a sociable pat on the back and a threat, a disappointing date and an assault; they seek a more nuanced understanding of romantic overtures and a less nuanced understanding of sexual violation. For them, #MeToo’s trial by Twitter enacts a double infraction: criminalizing “locker room talk,” while trivializing rape.

Amidst all the celebration and consternation over #MeToo, one aspect has been overlooked: the sign under which this activism (however it might be characterized or assessed) is taking place. There have been other digital campaigns, such as #WhatWereYouWearing, #SurvivorPrivilege, and #WhyWomenDontReport. But #MeToo is different. And this difference begins with the hashtag itself, rather than the celebrities who became its early public face. To truly appreciate the politics that #MeToo empowers, we need to understand the political grammar of the sign.
Naming the problem is only a first step, as the magnitude and tolerability of sexual violence demonstrate. Equally important is the language those challenging the problem employ to classify themselves. As Simone de Beauvoir instructed, women will remain the subjugated second sex until they learn to say “We” regarding their gender. Feminists have struggled to define what sort of social group “women” constitute, what feminist solidarity entails, and whether feminism can exist without presuming fundamental commonalities among individuals differently situated with respect to race, class, and nationality. #MeToo provides a generative alternative to articulate these collective claims without ignoring the disparate distribution of precarity and privilege among those assembled under the sign. It allows individuals to join together and recognize their “endless variety and monotonous similarity,” to borrow Gayle Rubin’s artful formulation of women’s manifold oppressions.

Hashtags are typically constructed by merging words, but conjoining ‘Me’ and ‘Too’ creates a potent new compound. ‘Me’ upholds individuality, while sidestepping the possessive ‘My,’ the reflexive ‘Myself,’ and the more frequent ‘I.’ In English, ‘Me’ rarely occurs alone in a sentence; it is more commonly used in conjunction with another subject pronoun, especially to establish a relationship. ‘Me’ thus anticipates others, a potential ‘Us.’ It issues an invitation that is not just solipsistic.
 The designation ‘Me’ certainly carries some cultural baggage, especially since Tom Wolfe’s scathing critique of the “Me Generation,” bemoaning a shift from the social activism that defined the 1960s to an atomized individualism, a problematic turning inward he observed in the 1970s. This is where the second term in the hashtag, ‘Too,’ becomes decisive by dislodging the ‘Me’ from Wolf’s tarring, and thereby helping to fulfill the promise already within the otherwise maligned ‘Me.’
‘Too’ signals more than one, a plurality prefigured by another (with whom the ‘Me’ expresses alliance) and invites more “Mes’ to join in. ‘Too’ also homophonically gestures to ‘Two’ and ‘To,’ a trebling of meaning that further destabilizes the singular personal pronoun and simultaneously evokes an imperative form -- the ‘To’ of whatever verb (still to be determined) might follow. Fused with ‘Me’, ‘Too’ creates a plural name that resonates with Luce Irigaray’s conception of a distinctly feminized “more than one.
Expressed through a digital medium, individuals need not detail personal incidents or even what motivates them to retweet. (#MeToo is not the virtual version of Take Back the Night.) The mutual designation is not presumed beforehand; it is achieved. The achievement is indirect; a building of collectivity based not on shared experiences, but on experiential similarity discovered by speaking up with others, what Mlambo-Ngouko terms “accumulated experiences.” ‘Too’ amplifies the plurality of the multiple ‘Mes’, shifting the personal pronoun from “this happened to me” to an assertion of “count me in.”
 Opponents and proponents (such as those who soon declared #TimesUp) are eager to see the digital activism either dissolve or evolve into more conventional forms of politics. In their impatient call for “real” action, they neglect the important political work #MeToo already performs. #MeToo not only raises feminist consciousness, it also raises the possibility of political solidarity among individuals who may never be in one another’s shoes. The workplace harassment a Latina domestic worker endures is not interchangeable with what a Wall Street trader may face. Yet #MeToo created the context for the Campesina women to support Hollywood actresses. The sign invites such solidarities. It summons individuals to say, “Yes, that happened to me too. Not in the exactly same way, but I understand and will stand with you.”
The malleable and horizontal solidarity #MeToo nurtures is similar to what Judith Butler terms “thinking in alliance.” What we might categorize as “tweeting in alliance” requires only a mutual cause, not a shared identity or a common experience. #MeToo thus circumvents the tensions that plagued previous feminist formulations and practices, when different perspectives were ignored or disregarded and voices silenced in the effort to construct a unified account of “women.” There is no universal and ahistorical patriarchy, only the extraordinary resonance of #MeToo.
 Since this digital campaign began, individuals from around the world joined in tweeting #MeToo in different languages, chipping away at long established hierarchical divides between the so-called liberated women of the “West” and the oppressed women of the “Rest,” without adhering to some homogenized account of sexual violence. In China, emojis were used (#RiceBunny) to retain the powerful compound of ‘Me’ and ‘Too’, while defying censorship. When said aloud the words for “rice bunny” are pronounced “mi tu,” a homophone that cleverly evades detection, and emphasizes the importance of #MeToo as a sign.
Many suggest that #MeToo is a flash in the pan, or more precisely in cyberspace, or that it will provoke a backlash. But even beyond measures specific to Twitter, #MeToo has already had a remarkable impact, catalyzing the passage of new legislation in several states (Illinois, California, Oregon, Rhode Island, New York), and propelling the resignation of some egregious offenders. Catherine MacKinnon, the architect of sexual harassment law in the United States, credits #MeToo with achieving more in a matter of months than decades of courtroom challenges. As importantly, and more enduringly, the hashtag offers new terms to join feminists together in their fight against gender discrimination in all its forms.

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Wednesday, May 16, 2018

Fake News and “Postmodernism”: The Fake Equation



William E. Connolly
Author, Aspirational Fascism: The Struggle for Multifaceted Democracy under Trumpism

Everybody knows the first, fast moving story. During the 2017 electoral campaign in the United States a series of blogs spread Fake News, fake items about a candidate or party designed either to convince the base that they had committed horrible deeds or to counter evidence based assertions about Trump with one manufactured out of thin air to sow doubt and cloud the credibility of the first claim. These smears, many emanating from Russia and Cambridge Analytica, often finding expression in facebook, ran in tandem with endless repetitions of the Big Lie Scenario by Donald Trump. The latter are designed to create a media reality that would allow the aspirational fascist to reshape actuality until it slides close to the lies being spread. The fast moving situation points toward a probable crisis in which Trump, having prepped the base with lies about a Mueller hoax, fires or severely restricts Mueller, most Congressional Republicans stand by passively as the others cheer him on, and the fall into a kind of fascism distinctive to America depends upon whether a mass of citizens place militant pressure upon the regime. I wrote about those emergent dangers in a short booklet that came out in late 2017.
    This post explores a side light of this overall issue, perhaps important to the academy. Since neither Fake News nor Big Lies is based on solid evidence, some pundits, think tanks and academics have asserted that postmodernism or social constructivism launched the fake news parade. They did so by saying that there are no pure facts, that facts are soaked in prior interpretations. They had thus already undermined confidence in inquiry governed by simple facts. One essay from the Hoover Institute entitled “Fake News: Postmodernism By Another Name”, takes this tack. A Guardian article quotes Daniel Dennett, the deterministic philosopher of species evolution, to say a similar thing.[i] Some of my colleagues have asserted it.
     Often the Duke University scandal is invoked in these pieces, an instance a few years ago when Duke Lacrosse players were punished for a rape that did not occur. That example may resonate in these circles because it lumps together postmodernism with a demand for “political correctness” that are rather at odds with it, perhaps because both supporters of political correctness and constructivism tend to identify with the political Left in a broad sense of that term.
    The first thing to say about this equation, of course, is to remind people that Fake News and the Big Lie Scenario preceded the advent of postmodernism. A second thing is to attend to differences in affective tone and purpose that inform the two practices. Fascists assert Big Lies dogmatically and rancorously to smear opponents and to gain authoritarian power so that only the ruler’s word becomes legitimate; postmodernists--who often deny our ability to reduce competing metaphysical interpretations to one candidate alone--typically probe alternative interpretations to open a plurality of views for wider consideration. This fundamental difference between one ethos of dogmatism and another of presumptive generosity is, of course, not noted by accusers. Perhaps because one party making the charge holds an ethos of presumptive generosity in utter contempt. And because those positivists who seek to pin the blame for fake news on postmodernists often themselves fail to note how differences in ethos or sensibility make a difference to both public culture and political inquiry.
    I do not identify as a postmodernist of social constructivist, though I have been called one on occasion by people whose list of theoretical alternative is confined to two or three slots. It is essential to resist the insertion of Fake News, Big Lies and authoritarian dogmatism into democratic processes. It is also important, however, not to allow the responses to such an accusatory culture to return automatic hegemony in the academy to positivist notions of fact, explanation, and objectivity that have been subjected to severe critique for a few generations. If positivism (and its surrogates) is to make a comeback it must not be based on a fictive equation between postmodernism and Fake News. So let’s proceed.
    Some facts are well supported by evidence from several perspectives. You don't allow either Fascists or wide eyed constructivists--if any constructivists are indeed that wild--to say that all facts are equally ghostly, subjective or "fake". It is a fact that the United States invaded Iraq; it is also a fact that Iraq did not have weapons of mass destruction before that horrendous invasion, despite what the Bush gang asserted. It is also a fact that a glucose reading of over 180 for a long period of time is apt to foster severe health problems. Three well supported facts.
    At a higher level of complexity, someone might insist either that the sun rotates around the earth or that the classical Newtonian theory fits the way of the world in itself. In the first case a well-rounded theory grounded in evidence of multiple sorts can be invoked to correct that insistence, even though unaided perception does support it. In the second instance, tests guided by quantum theory and newer instruments unavailable to Newton can be summoned. They involve, first, electrons forming wave patterns that collide (the two slit experiment) and, second, observations of a simultaneous change between two previously entangled particles now separated by millions of miles (entanglement or nonlocality). Together quantum theory and the tests linked to it correct Newtonian theory.
    To be objective in these latter instances means to conform to the most refined theory available in relation to tests that deploy sophisticated instruments. Thus to call C02 induced climate change a Chinese Hoax without advancing sophisticated evidence to overturn the evidence based consensus among climate scientists is to propagate Fake News.
    This complexity does mean, however, that what was objective at one time, say Newtonian theory, may become less so at a later date through the combination of a paradigm shift in theory, new powers of perception, tests with newly refined instruments, and unexpected changes in natural processes themselves. The emergence of new theories and tests, as Lorraine Daston and Peter Galliston emphasize in Objectivity (Zone Books, 2007) does not reduce objectivity to subjective opinion. It is a mistake to say that the sun revolves around earth, as Spinoza knew when he corrected the common sense of his day grounded in a conjunction between everyday experience and Christian theology.
    But what counts as objective may shift, if and as a new theory joined to new events, refined instruments and tests points to anomalies in a previous theory somehow resolved in this one. Such a shift involves an array of complex exchanges, theoretical formulations, and refined modes of observation, as has been occurring now in the debates between genocentrism, epigenesis and symbiogenesis in biology. Amidst these exchanges, however, partially shared standards of factuality and objectivity can be invoked that exceed radically the evidence free assertions embodied in Fake News and Big Lie Scenarios.
   Let’s now move to more complex and contestable terrain, the terrain, perhaps, think tank drones have in mind when they hold constructivism responsible for a culture of Fake News. The figures to be invoked now would not call themselves constructivists or postmodernists. They are speculative philosophers who respect the traditions of science and cultural studies as they also strive to challenge classical notions of explanation in them in this or that way. According to Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze, some facts are both real and simmer with potentialities to become other than they are. Such facts are more than themselves. A genetic mutation may harbor diverse potentialities of gestation; one rather than others may find expression when it resonates with the specificity of an unfolding embryo. Or a student may place one or two far hazy ideas into competition with a dominant political theory. One of the former may then become consolidated out of that simmering facticity, as it drives others into obscurity. No Fake News here, but a process of emergence that renders facticity complex.
     It is unwise to cling so strongly to flat notions of facticity and objectivity that you rule out automatically the onto-intuition that real uncertainty and real creativity periodically arise in the world. This is precisely the territory that Alfred North Whitehead and Gilles Deleuze explore, while retaining commitment to evidence based inquiry in the senses adumbrated above. Do positivist drives to equate Fake News with postmodernism seek to rule this latter possibility out before it has been subjected to live experimentation?
    Consider, then, Whitehead’s notion of “the scars of the past”. Often enough, Whitehead says, two partially unformed potentialities may simmer in an evolutionary process or the thinking of an individual or group. One becomes consolidated out of the mix (decoherence). However, the partially formed fork on the way that was not taken may fester again in a fecund future situation that calls it up again. He says “a feeling bears on itself the scars of its birth; it retains the impress of what might have been but is not. It is for this reason that what an actual entity has {in the past} avoided as a datum for feeling may be an important part of its equipment.” (Whitehead, Process and Reality, 226-227)
    So, you fell for this potential lover over that one; or you supported one claim to a right over another potentiality that was simmering in a cloudy way. The festering fork Not Taken continues to subsist as a nodule of arrested thought-imbued energies. A new situation may activate that incipience again. In something like the way a new event can activate an old, slumbering memory. What is roused now, though, is a previous pluripotentiality rather than a consolidated memory; (many neuroscientists now think that memory recall involves subliminal reconstructions of the past). Out of subliminal movements back and forth between unconsolidated elements of the past and a new situation of uncertainty a creative formation may emerge. A new work of art may be shaped. A new responsiveness to plants may arise. Or a new sensibility of nontheistic gratitude may be staked out, lodged in between atheistic coldness and theological devotion. It is too much to say that you intended the new result from scratch. If a clean intention had preceded the result there would be no creativity in the event. It also may be too little to say that it just emerged from nowhere by chance. For no creativity would be in play in that either.


    What happens, Whitehead speculates, is that a previous fork not taken now resonates awkwardly with a new situation until a new possibility is ushered into the world out of the encounter. The new entity might be a new concept to be explored further in relation to others, a new work of art, a new political strategy, a new faith, or a proposal to add a new right to the roster of consolidated rights. Of course, the new event may overwhelm a thinker too, wiping out the promise of creativity in ways Whitehead may not emphasize enough.
    Whitehead’s theory of how creativity unfolds contains speculative dimensions. Not everyone will buy it, particularly those deeply invested in the prior ontology that everything actually in the world now must in principle be explicable all the way down. But his exploration is susceptible to a mix of philosophical explorations and living experiments. After absorbing it, for instance, you may find yourself attending more closely than heretofore to that uncanny threshold through which new ideas periodically bubble into life. Or you may ponder anew the intuition many people share that we do sometimes participate in real creativity.

     This speculative philosophy breaks simultaneously with positivist notions of simple facticity, postmodern resistance to metaphysical speculation, and the pursuits of Fake News, Big Lies, and mass manipulation inspiring aspirational fascism. It sustains together a certain respect for factuality, appreciation of objectivity, real creativity, and the role of speculation in thought. 
     A credible case can be made that sometimes something new emerges out of resonances back and forth between a cloudy fork from the past that was not taken and a current encounter. Such a speculative philosophy can be contested, of course. Nonetheless, the case for real creativity it sustains speaks to the artistic and aesthetic dimensions of life without either reducing everything to mere subjective constitution or flattening objectivity into the barren worlds of positivism and rational choice theory. All three of the latter traditions fail to appreciate the complexity and wonder of the world.

[i] See Victor Hansen, Fake News or Postmodernism by Another Name. http://www.hoover.org/research/fake-news-postmodernism-another-name

And Chen, “Is Postmodernism Responsible for Fake News?” https://www.philosophytalk.org/blog/postmodernism-blame-post-truth


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Wednesday, March 28, 2018

"Entirely Consensual"? Stormy Daniels’ #MeToo moment


Bonnie Honig
Brown University 

“A guy walked up on me and said to me, ‘Leave Trump alone. Forget the story,’” Stormy Daniels told Anderson Cooper on 60 Minutes Sunday night. It was 2011 and she was in a parking lot. Her baby daughter was in the car seat and she was on her way to the gym. The man then “leaned around and looked at my daughter and said, ‘That’s a beautiful little girl. It’d be a shame if something happened to her mom.’” The threat worked: Daniels was “rattled.”

The scene is straight out of one of those movies where nothing good happens to women in parking lots and the words “It’d be a shame if …” are downright terrifying. It is quite credible that such a threat would stay with a person and shape their decisions for a long time to come.
 Five years later, when Daniels signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement, and then some statements denying she had ever had sex with Trump, there was no explicit threat of physical violence, but Daniels was again intimidated. “The exact sentence used was, ‘They can make your life hell in many different ways,’” she told Cooper.
 Regarding these two experiences, Daniels is willing to say she was afraid and felt she had no choice. Why then does she offer such a different account of the events that took place in the room in Lake Tahoe in 2006, where, by her own account, she felt pressured to have sex with Trump and also felt she had no choice?
 It was her own fault, she says: “I realized exactly what I'd gotten myself into. And I was like, "Ugh, here we go." (LAUGH) And I just felt like maybe-- (LAUGH) it was sort of-- I had it coming for making a bad decision for going to someone's room alone and I just heard the voice in my head, "well, you put yourself in a bad situation and bad things happen, so you deserve this."”

The bad thing was sex with Trump. The voice in her head that told her she deserved it? That was her #MeToo moment.

She had gone to have dinner with a wealthy, powerful man, hoping to get ahead. She was not attracted to him. When she went to the bathroom, he moved from the dining table to the bedroom. When she returned, she found him “perched” on the bed. His body language was clear. She even imitated it during the interview, miming with her body the open torso of male expectation.
Anderson Cooper: Did you view it as “this is a potential opportunity. I'm gonna see where it goes?"

Stormy Daniels: I thought of it as a business deal.

  Trump had lured Daniels with Weinstein-style promises. At dinner, she says, he said: "Got an idea, honeybunch. Would you ever consider going on and-- and being a contestant?" On Celebrity Apprentice, he meant. “And I laughed and-- and said, "NBC's never gonna let, you know, an adult film star be on.” On the contrary, he reassured her: "That's why I want you. You're gonna shock a lotta people, you're smart and they won't know what to expect.’" He knew what he expected, though.
Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.
 

Stormy Daniels: Yes.

She says she didn’t want to; but she did it of her own volition, she insists. Thus, Daniels rejects the #MeToo label. She does not want to be a victim. She was not raped, she says, and she does not want to undo the valid claims of the women she calls the “true victims” - women in the #MeToo movement who were raped or coerced. Her concern for the other women is laudable. But it misses the point: the offenses against women charted by #MeToo range from outright sexual violence to coercion to pressure to quid pro quo.

Did Daniels comply because she worried about what might happen if she didn’t? Did she not want to risk making a scene? Or losing out on a job she wanted, that he had said she was right for? Many women will recognize the #MeToo calculation. It is easier to relent to the known than to refuse and court the unknown: his anger, his disappointment, perhaps his vengeance. Women who make those calculations also seek to own their choices, constrained as they are, so that they will not be seen as “victims.” Nobody wants to be a victim.
 A Washington Post article about Daniels puts her in the context of powerful women in the adult film industry. Daniels is impressive, unblinking in the media spotlight, and self-possessed. But that doesn’t mean she could— until now — totally burn the standard script of misogyny, nor does it mean she had the power fully to rewrite her role in it. The #MeToo movement calls attention to the scripts that are foisted upon us while we nonetheless assume we are responsible for them: the ones that oblige and then silence women, while falsely promising all sorts of opportunities or rewards.
 We need not call her a victim, nor a survivor, in order to see that the power that had earlier that evening allowed Daniels to playfully spank this man out of his self-regard was momentary and had in any case been granted to her as a noblesse oblige. In patriarchy, women with spunk are allowed to spank men who enjoy the temporary release from having to be powerful ALL the time. For the men, it is just role-play. The women are sometimes left rattled.
 Does it matter that Daniels was in that hotel room hoping to advance her career? Yes, it matters, but not in a way that leads to her undoing. How many men have had dinner with potential employers -- seeking professional advancement -- without fear of such extortion?
  Daniels says she KNEW Trump wasn’t going to deliver on his promises. She was way too savvy to fall for that, she says. But she lets her hope show for a second and anyone moved by #MeToo should be moved by this too. Trump later called to say he “’just wanted to give [her] a quick update, we had a meeting, it went great… [and] they're totally into the idea." He was suggesting she would get her shot on his show. Her response, she says, “was like ‘mhmm,’” and she adds: “that part I never believed.” But when Anderson Cooper asks: “Did you still get the sense that he was kind of dangling it in front of you…To keep you interested, to keep you coming back?” Daniels replies: “Of course, of course. I mean, I'm not blind. But at the same time, maybe it'll work out, you know?”
 Her cynical knowingness (“I mean, I'm not blind”), which makes her NOT a victim, does not quite extinguish the still faintly hopeful optimism (“maybe it'll work out, you know?”) that makes her if not a victim then perhaps a casualty of the misogyny we all live with. If she thought she deserved what she was getting that night, it was not simply because she had made the bad call to go for dinner “to someone's room alone.” It is surely because she allowed herself to go to that dinner hopeful; hopeful that she could get into a more respectable and better-paid line of work, out of pornography and into the Celebrity Apprentice (that 50 shades of upward mobility that can make quite a difference). The offense was not that Daniels went to a powerful man’s hotel room. It was that she did so because she did not want to accept her place in the world, because she hoped for more. And rather than her abusing his desire, he abused hers as he used the illusion of consent to maneuver her onto a casting couch for a role that did not exist and never would.
  When Daniels says “I was not a victim. I've never said I was a victim,” she may be thinking of her second meeting with Trump. A year later she was in a similar position, this time in Trump’s Beverly Hill Hotel bungalow, and she flipped the script: when Trump approached her for sex, 4 hours after she arrived, she said: "Well, before, you know, can we talk about what's the development?" And he was like, "I'm almost there. I'll have an answer for you next week." And I was like, "Okay, cool. Well-- I guess call me next week." And I just took my purse and left.” Fool me once, shame on you…as the saying goes. Fool me twice? Nah. 
   Alyssa Rosenberg rightly notes in the Washington Post that “as a cultural milestone, the most radical thing Cooper did was refuse to treat [Daniels] as if she was irresponsible or immoral, or as if she were less than credible simply because of what she does for a living.” He did not shame her or suggest her job – which is legal – made her less credible.

But he did miss one big opportunity when asking her about that first meeting with Trump in Tahoe:

Anderson Cooper: And you had sex with him.
Stormy Daniels: Yes.
Anderson Cooper: You were 27, he was 60. Were you physically attracted to him?
Stormy Daniels: No.
Anderson Cooper: Not at all?
Stormy Daniels: No.
Anderson Cooper: Did you want to have sex with him?
Stormy Daniels: No. But I didn't-- I didn't say no. I'm not a victim, I'm not--
Anderson Cooper: It was entirely consensual.
Stormy Daniels: Oh, yes, yes.


“It was entirely consensual” is a sentence that bears little connection to the event described. And Daniels’ “Oh, yes, yes” is a clue that should not be overlooked: it literally doubles down on her insistence she is not a victim, while sounding the trite refrain of faked orgasms heard round the world.
 *First Published at Politics/Letters
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