Dear Hillary Clinton, I am Sorry
With Donald Trump’s occupation of the presidency, most analysis of the 2016 presidential race focuses on the coalition of white voters of either a middle or working class and how it is reflective of the dissonance between the relative prosperity of urban centers and the decline of rural areas. While that is certainly a valid and important area of focus, personally when I look back at the 2016 election I can’t help but feel a ting of regret. A guilt directed at the democratic presidential nominee Hillary Rodham Clinton.
I am sure you know the figure well. Hillary Clinton: a Rose Law Firm attorney, a pro bono child advocate, a First Lady, a New York Senator, a Secretary of State, and a two-time presidential candidate. Or as Senator Bernie Sanders, then serving 26 years in congress, would have put it, the “establishment candidate”. Indeed, while the criticism from the right was to be expected, with it ranging from Benghazi conspiracies to outright sexist remarks, the criticism from the left seemed to dominate much of the discourse that election cycle.
Hillary’s rise to national attention in the 1990s came on the heels of the ‘third way’ realignment of the Democratic Party. In the aftermath of the Reagan’s administration and the conservative movement’s injection of skepticism towards the role of government and a preference towards market solutions, the third way sought to recover lost ground by combining a commitment to left-leaning social policies, such as LGBT rights and family planning, with fiscal conservatism as a way of reasserting the Democratic Party nationally by capturing the center.
This is not to suggest that Hillary, especially in recent years, is a strict adherent to this program. In 2016, she ran on a program of free-tuition community colleges and federal investment in infrastructure that would be unthinkable in the 1990s. Yet what consistently informs her in both these examples is a sense of pragmatism, of what the current zeitgeist of political discourse could make possible for left-leaning reforms and modifying proposals to fit that mold.
There is a lot of criticism that can be levied at this approach, namely how it is reactive and ignores the possibility of moving the Overton window to the left with more radical proposals. But rarely did criticism from the left ever acknowledge the context for Hillary Clinton’s evolution as a public servant, one that emerged in the shadow of the largest conservative realignment in recent U.S. history and helped build a national platform for the left to assert itself in this climate.
This, unfortunately, is the source of my regret, of having failed to acknowledge this context. In April 2015, several weeks after Hillary’s announcement of her candidacy, I wrote an article for Ramapo News heavily criticizing Hillary, calling her “no champion” of feminism, LGBT rights, and other causes of the left. Beyond the obvious problematic premise of the article, a straight white man gatekeeping struggles that he lacks an intimate experience with, the evidence I gave back then is what really strikes me with shame. Not that it is necessarily inaccurate, but how it served to put the suffering of people at the hands of major corporations and the ill-effects of U.S. foreign policy on one woman who was only tangential to the issue. I remember how I felt back then, so disillusioned with the U.S. and it’s institutions, so angry at my seeming powerlessness, that I lashed out at the nearest recognizable target I could find. I wasn’t being a critic, I was being a bully. Though, in retrospect, if I could say anything positive about the article it’s that it was ironically prophetic, as it seems that many others had similar feelings and reactions.
I remembered a conversation I had with a friend, one wiser than me and more patient than I deserve, about my feelings on Hillary’s candidacy. She said something that always stuck out to me, that despite the circumstances and system in place instilling disillusionment it was our duty to fight for ours and other rights, even if it only secures incremental progress rather than the massive reconciliation we seek. She was right, cutting through my veil of hopelessness like a knife, so much that I ended up voting for Hillary twice. But in regards to my initial offense, I still need to make amends. So Hillary, if you just so happen to fall down the rabbit hole into this strange corner of the internet I call home, know that you didn’t deserve that level of vitriol and I apologize for participating in it for even a second. I am sorry.
A Wolf in Sheep’s Clothing: A Survey of the Online Conservative ‘Intellectual’
The blessing of the internet has also proven to be it’s greatest curse. It’s ease of access and ability to host multiple, more obscure perspectives through a variety of platforms has allowed many people of good faith to express themselves and their perspectives in ways previously unavailable to them. But for those of ill faith, the internet poses an opportunity to escape the formal rules regarding sources, styles of presentation, and other such regulation meant to enforce a standard of fair, accurate perspectives in older publications in a brazen attempt to instill their ideology to impressionable ears that pass them by. Case and point, the online conservative ‘intellectual’, represented now-a-days by figures such as Jordan Peterson, Dave Rubin, Ben Shapiro, and others, as well as myriad of organizations and publications that host thinkers of a similar cloth.
Regarding these individuals and publications, their arguments are not where my intrigue lies. Plenty of others have countered Jordan Peterson’s ridiculous claims that lobsters are a good biological analog for human behavior, demolished Ben Shapiro’s essentialist assertions that gender pronouns are linguistically rooted in chromosomes, revealed how Dave Rubin interview style lacks any sort of journalistic integrity, and other such arguments that the conservative ‘intellectual’ ilk produce at a regular basis. I’ll leave the task to those better suited for it than me. What does intrigue me, however, is not the minutiae of their arguments, rather the thrust behind them.
When looking at these conservatives and the arguments that they make, you see a trend of hypocrisy as they give their perspectives on different topics. For example, when discussing gun control on Piers Morgan Tonight, Ben Shapiro feared that “50 to a 100 years from now a tyranny will rise in the United States” and a armed citizenry is necessary to stop it. Ignoring his faulty comparisons to Nazi Germany and blatant fear-mongering, the central tenet he is seemingly trying to convey is that government’s have the potential to become tyrannical, that this tyranny is likely to be enforced by armed forces such as the military and police, and that a similarly armed citizenry is the only means to combat this threat. Contrast that acknowledgement to his remarks during a Young America’s Foundation conference, where he states that police disproportionate presence and violence in predominantly African-American communities is solely due to high crime rates in those communities. Putting aside the argument’s ignorance of the unique historical situation of African-Americans that separate them from other minority populations and how the police’s development has often intersected with this history, a lot early municipal police forces in the south had roots in slave patrols, for instance, note the tenet being promoted here. In this argument, the underlying principle is that the government, as represented by the police, cannot unjustly target a subset of the population without due cause with no acknowledgement of the potential of a government to become tyrannical and begin to commit immoral actions. The underlying tenets behind the two arguments are in contradiction with one another, rendering the speaker, Ben Shapiro, a philosophical hypocrite.
This isn’t an isolated incident, for either Ben or other online conservative ‘intellectuals’. It is instead a common occurrence amongst the stock. For example, Jordan Peterson, in his opposition to bill C-16 which amended the Canadian Human Right’s Act to include trans-people under it’s protections, rooted his concerns in an appeal to an free speech. Yet when Professor Wendy Lee of Bloomsberg University, located in Pennsylvania claimed on twitter that Peterson was a “White Nationalist” and a “Incel Misogynist”, Jordan threaten to sue for libel despite any clear malicious intent as required under U.S. law, revealing a disregard for free speech.
This pattern of behavior indicates a lack of any consistent philosophy underpinning online conservative ‘intellectuals’ political stances. Instead, they seemingly change philosophies per their convenience, like a wolf swapping a sheep’s clothing whenever he needs to blend into a particular flock. Contrast this with conservative’s writing their perspectives in more established mediums, such as New York Times David Brooks and Ross Douthat. I disagree with these commentators on almost everything topic, but at the very least I can be certain of their sincerity, that they are not trying to deliberately mislead and can be pinpointed to a idealogical tradition, whether that be Douthat’s Catholicism or Brook’s Burke-esque thinking. This allows an individual encountering these commentators to hold them to account on both a factual and a idealogical level. They welcome it. With online conservative ‘intellectuals’ though, that level sincerity is non-existent. They seemingly don’t desire the confines of an ideology that they could be held to, much like their disregard for facts. Instead, they are nihilists, only adopting a tenet when it seemingly benefits them and discarding it when it becomes inconvenient towards their goal.
What is their goal then? What is the wolf hiding underneath the coat of a sheep? I can’t say I know for certain, I never personally interacted with these people after all. Though if I were to speculate, I would identify that wolf as resentment. Resentment for LGBT people asserting themselves and challenging sexual and gender norms. Resentment for women and minorities increasing power in society. Resentment for the left’s challenges to capitalism and the classes that benefit from it. That’s all there is, resentment and the rhetoric that expresses it and instills it in others. Taking a page from Mussolini, these ‘intellectuals’ adopt overtly contradictory philosophical positions because ideology is only a means to power. This approach can be described in many ways, from blatantly dishonest to eerily ur-fascist. Though my preferred way of regarding it is this: pathetic!
Who Wears the Yellow Vest?
Romantic images have always seemed to circulate in the imaginations of Americans when they think towards Paris. Not just for the promise of a good meal, or a getaway with a lover, but on noble political struggle. An assurance that the mistreated underclasses can rise up to rid themselves of an aloof king and craft a better world. But looking at the recent ‘Gilets Jaunes’ or ‘Yellow Vest’ protests to the Macron Administration disrupts the fantasy. Not just in terms of violence, such as the 100 people injured in the desecration of the Arc de Triomphe as reported by the New York Times, though that is of some note. What is devastating however is the absence of a coherent idealogical through-line, a clear and consistent set of demands that the romance necessitates. In it’s place is simply a collective rage.
Looking towards the beginnings of these protests reveals the lack of organization. The New York Times reports that the movement can be traced back to a petition calling for a reduction started by cosmetic business owner Priscilla Ludosky that was later given attention by truck driver Eric Drouet who went on to garner a car rally cum protest on Nov. 17. But that just the Times. Meanwhile, CNN reports that the protests originated from motor mechanic Ghislain Coutard, who’s viral video encouraged people to wear the yellow vests mandated by the state for drivers to wear in the event of an accident in protest to the hike in gas taxes, along with identifying other instigators. This isn’t a case of one report being right while the other wrong, rather it highlights the contemporary nature of the yellow vest movement. Rather than emerging from a labor union or political party, the protests have emerged spontaneously across France; emblematic of the role social media played in fueling this zeitgeist of backlash.
The people shrouded by this zeitgeist are cut from a similar cloth. Men and women, mostly from rural areas, who are rich enough to escape the poverty line and subsequently welfare protections yet poor enough to feel the impact the raised fuel taxes have on their bottom line. Without a reliable public transport, these people are reliant on automobiles everyday. “We are really struggling” says Thomas, a gamekeeper, to France 24 “the people on 1,000-1,200 euros; once we pay the bills there is nothing left.”
So in the face of this predicament, the yellow vest movement has taken to streets and with it the movement’s lack of focus, in both tactics and demands, has come into view. Most protestors have been peaceful, with one anonymous women handing out flowers to the police as a sign of her pacifism. “I’m not here to fight” she said to The New York Times “I’m here for justice”. Others have been more violent: torching cars, assaulting officers, vandalizing shops and monuments. Speaking to French 24, Virginia, a nurse, called the violence an unfortunate necessity. “If it had just been us” Virginia said “than we’ve just been tear gassed and gone in twenty minutes and everybody would have forgotten about us.” “It’s hard to say, but the fact that there were vandals meant that we were noticed.”
The demands to lack a coherent through-line beyond an end to the fuel tax and the resignation of President Macron. Some desire the ISF, a solidarity tax on assets in excess of 1,300,000 euros that targeted the wealthy, to be reinstated following its repeal in 2017. Others, such as Clement, a contractor, spoke to France 24 about anxieties regarding a loss of social connections as small businesses are pushed out of the market by larger chains. Elements of fascism have cropped up, with Maxime Nicolle spreading falsehoods such as that Macron is preparing to sign a United Nations agreement to allow 480 million more immigrants into Europe along with other conspiracies regarding globalism and the deep state.
An infographic (shown above) that was uploaded by the France Bleu radio conglomerate, shows an abbreviated list of demands by members of the yellow vest movement. What this reveals is a mixture of genuine concerns coupled with contradictions and conspiratorial thinking. There is a call to respect international treaties and agreements, yet a demand to withdraw from NATO and the EU. A call for a greater state investment in low-income housing and re-nationalization, yet a demand to restrain the income tax burden to only a maximum of 25 percent. All coming packaged with references to right-wing conspiracies such as globalism, a culling of immigration, and a call for a chokehold to be placed on news media and the courts. It’s no wonder that pundits on both sides of the political aisle have used the yellow vest movement as a prop to embellish their rhetoric with comfort. And given how popular the far right has been in France and the rest of Europe this decade, Macron himself faced a challenge in the fascistic Marine Le Pen the last presidential election, the movement would likely be pushed further to the right if Macron’s administration were to rupture.
Who are the yellow vests? Individually they are men and women, but collectively they embody a rage, an anxious ghost hovering over liberal capitalist democracies. That the forces of capital have excessive dominion over society as communities are disrupted, austerity is implemented, and the divide in wealth grows greater and more concentrated. But rage is just a feeling, it can channeled in multiple directions. An insistence that there is an elite that are undoing French civilization can easily be contorted to ominously rhyme with the classic forms of French right-wing nationalism, including indigenous anti-semitism. Protest and popular passions are inevitable and important in any society, but they are not always the best place to govern from, especially when the collective rage isn’t channeled in a clear direction. The romance of righteous revolution is alluring, but it hides the fragility of liberal institutions and the hungry right-wing ghouls lying in wait to take power. The governed need to recall this, the governing even more so.
The Death of John McCain: How we Talk about Legacy
John McCain is dead. A war hero, a bastion of decency, a maverick. A war monger, a rude old man, a toe-the-line conservative. McCain has been attributed these epitaphs many times, by groups with varying political persuasions. And to be frank, I suspect that the last three descriptors I ascribed to the recently departed might have offended a great many of you. And understandably so. With the public mourning and his body lying in state for the purposes of national ritual, there is no denying McCain as an icon. An icon whose’s legacy is, shall we say, being cemented rather uncritically. And is that craft, the making of legacy, that makes this present moment very interesting for us as a people. How do we shape a legacy in the making?
I won’t spend too many words on the life and times of John McCain, as others have done so to great length. Suffice to say, it’s complicated. Yes, McCain has been known to cross the political divide to support bipartisan efforts such as his co-authorship of the 2005 Secure America and Orderly Immigration Act with the late Ted Kennedy, which would have established a guest worker program and path to citizenship to migrants that conservatives loathed. Yet this effort, like many of his others, failed and what is left are positions that fall in line with conservative dogma, such as his support for Arizona’s notorious SB 1070 “Papers Please” legislation, which gave Arizona police the power to detain anyone they suspected of dubious immigration status, which corresponded closely with his senatorial primary race. It’s this confusing dichotomy that runs through McCain’s life. He may have supported the Indian Gaming and Regulatory Act of 1988 which helped indigenous people’s, including Arizona’s Navajo tribe, establish what would become the main economic driver for these societies, yet nevertheless would force them to relocate from Oak Flats and Big Mountain to satisfy industrial mining interests. And while he had reservations about torture, as evidenced by him speaking out against the U.S. partaking in it at Abu Ghraib, he stilled remained a staunch advocate of U.S. military intervention in the Middle East and beyond. If I can summarize my feelings towards the recently departed, as limited by the para-social relationship I have to the man, McCain was an exemplar of the tendencies of liberal conservatism, for better and for worst. He was rhetorically committed to liberal values, but would often make exceptions and compromises in an seemingly pragmatic effort to remain on the good graces of capitalist interests, his neoconservative allies in Congress, and his personal ambitions. Exceptions that would often hurt others, both here and afar.
Yet with the flood of obituaries and eulogies from journalists, politicians of both parties, and personal friends, that more honest assessment is being masked. His largely conservative voting record being obscured in favor of a focus on his bipartisan efforts; his consistent militarism and the accompanying fallout of said actions veiled by a focus on his civility. That is the image, the legacy that is being shaped. A legacy not just for a passive remembrance, but to actively shape the public imagination.
Who is legacy for? Is it purely for the dead, a mere record of their past deeds? If that was entirely the case, I would doubt these ghosts would still be popping up in our present conversations as often. Take Martin Luther King. To anyone who has studied him, his writings, his actions, and the culture’s reaction to him and the rest of the civil rights movement, knows of his radicalism, his stances against white centrism, and the negative reactions he received for his acts of civil disobedience and the overall gains of the civil rights movement. Yet these truths about the man are often ignored whenever a Black Lives Matter or National Anthem protest rolls around. When Martin Luther King is evoked in these moments, it’s often to cast the contemporary protests as uncivil, as spitting in the face of his memory; whether it be a protest on the street or kneeling on the field. In these scenarios, MLK’s legacy of civil disobedience is twisted to help shape the moving goalposts protestors of racial disparities have to aim for if they desire majority support.
My point in this brief aside is to introduce you to the idea that legacy is less a record of the dead, and more a tool for the living. A tool that helps shape the public zeitgeist to the interests of the sociological majority and the institutions that largely represent them. From my observations of John McCain’s funeral and the statements made in this moment of public mourning, the beginnings of crafting legacy as a tool seems to be happening once again.
Various media outlets have focused on the subtle digs at Trump that have appeared through-out the funeral proceedings by Meghan McCain, Barack Obama, and more. Indeed, with the focus on McCain’s public feud with Trump as of late and the president unsurprising tone-deaf actions in response to the famed politician’s death, such an emphasis is expected. Though such rebukes might indicate what direction McCain’s legacy will take in the immediate future. Trump and the gang of ghouls that ascended with him are emblematic of the rise of the illiberal elements of the Republican Party, figures who have little regard for liberal values, save for when they can be used to push forward their agenda, and openly align themselves with white supremacy, patriarchy, classism, and other strict interpretations of the social hierarchies of our liberal society. The alt-right in other words. By focusing on how McCain’s legacy symbolically counters this rising storm, men and women from both parties hope to restore the liberal conservatism that McCain exemplified. A tendency that, while reliant on the after mentioned illiberal elements as a method to drum up support, was never completely consumed by them in rhetoric or values.
Some might say that this is a good thing, a way to counter Trump and his base. I disagree! Trump certainly is unique specimen of cockroach, and the alt-right is a blight I rather see snuffed out. But I feel the position I described ignores the failings of liberal conservatism. Ever since it’s rise in the 1980s, liberal conservatism has saw the rise of neoliberal capitalism and the erosion of many of the gains for women and people of color in the 1960s and 70s; developments that I consider largely responsible for many of the present disparities we in the world today (their also topics I hope to make future posts about so forgive my lack of detail here). Reviving such an ideology is counter-productive in finding the solutions to the problems we face in the present.
Rather than using legacy as a tool of idealogical warfare, I propose equating legacy to lesson. What we, the living, owe the dead is not to view them as either angels or demons, but rather to craft their legacy to be as close to the truth as we can. This way we can learn of them, their successes, their failures, to craft a better present for ourselves and a even greater future for our posterity. Some might say that such efforts are best left to a more convenient season, to let the dead be buried and the wounds of loss to heal. I am sympathetic to this, particularly for those who were close to the man, but given the crucial moment this represents in terms of legacy formation, I chose to stand firm. We owe the dead the truth so the living may avoid the sins of the past and enjoy the hope of the future.