More Like Bari White

 I had some doubts about whether writing this review was really necessary. After reading How to Fight Anti-Semitism, it was apparent to me that Bari Weiss has nothing original to say. Therefore, how could I say anything useful in response? Does 2020 really need another earnest leftist screed on the theme of ‘anti-Zionism is not antisemitism’?

However, reading the mainstream reviews of this book, I was struck by how many of them criticized How to Fight Anti-Semitism from the right. I was struck, too, by the profiles of Weiss that tried to prove what a nice and bright girl she was. Vanity Fair describes her as looking like “a kindergarten teacher—she’s petite, with hair parted down the middle and pulled back in a low ponytail, big glasses framing a cherubic face.” Meanwhile, criticisms from the left seemed hesitant. So there did seem to be a sort of ‘gap in the literature’: a review that gave this book the thorough trashing it deserves. Bari Weiss’s self-imposed flounce from The New York Times in July 2020 also made me want to examine her writing in detail, and see whether she really was a radical free-thinker being oppressed by the Twitter mobs. Lastly, Corbyn’s recent (as of this writing) suspension from the Labour Party re-raises the questions of anti-Semitism, anti-Zionism, and “the Left.”

More fundamentally, however, I think there is always value in observing how conventional wisdom congeals at a specific point in time into a pundit’s book. How to Fight Anti-Semitism perfectly reflects the thinking of the American intelligentsia (such as it uh, is) in our time. Moreover, it shows the sunniest, most cheerful face of the Islamophobic right.

Weiss, of course, sets herself up as between left and right, criticizing both and bringing both into the light. She takes on that shopworn persona of the liberal intellectual reluctantly telling uncomfortable truths to her fellow cosmopolitans. In the aforementioned Vanity Fair article, Weiss claims that she doesn’t want “to be a warm bath and an ideological safe space for people who we think are our readers.” This persona is, of course, a scam. Bari Weiss is telling herself, and her audience, extremely comfortable things, such as: America is great. Israel is great. Muslims are bad. You don’t need to learn anything at college that makes you uncomfortable. Everything you learned as a little kid is true. Those little thoughts and attitudes you’ve been told are “racist” are not only justified, but are actually brave, bold stances.  

The other issue is that Weiss is clearly just, fundamentally, not a very intelligent woman. Her arguments are derivative; they are cobbled together from 20 years of post-9/11 effusions. She appears to have read nothing new about the Middle East since that 2003-2006 boom in right-wing popular Orientalism. I mean, Fouad Ajami? Ayaan fucking Hirsi Ali? She even repeats the old canard about anti-Zionism being a ‘Soviet plot’ and the PLO being a tool of the Russians, which takes us all the way back to the 1970s and completely delegitimizes the idea that the Third World countries who co-sponsored the “Zionism is racism” UN resolution she hates so much might have come to be hostile to Israel through their own intelligence and experiences with Israeli violence. The only real innovation is the pinkwashing stuff in the book, and even that appears in quite crude a form.  

The basic message of the book is, of course, that ‘right-wing’ and ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism are both equally bad, and, in fact, ‘left-wing’ anti-Semitism is worse, because at least the right-wingers like Israel and hate Muslim migrants. This equivalency starts in the very first few pages, where Weiss notes that, after the massacre at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, “Soon I started getting WhatsApp messages from close friends in Israel, where Shabbat was ending—a strange reversal from the years of the Second Intifada where I would write them: Are you safe?” Now, the Tree of Life massacre was the murder of Jewish people by a right-winger who hated Jews in general and who specifically hated the synagogue for supporting refugees. The Second Intifada was an uprising which, contrary to the general understanding (even on the left), was not simply individual random acts of terror, but was a complex event that was intertwined with popular organizing among Palestinians—a people under military occupation, a people subject to repression, ethnic cleansing, and war for decades. After the Second Intifada, the situation of Palestinians has only continued to deteriorate, with intensified repression in Gaza, the West Bank, and within Israel’s pre-1967 borders. It is, frankly, obscene to compare Palestinian resistance to neo-Nazi violence—not to mention grossly emotionally manipulative.

Insofar as Weiss has a clearly stated political and intellectual framework, it is one of idealism, culturalism, and essentialism. Insofar as she has a political project, it is Americanism. In fact, because much of the debate surrounding the book is about Israel, which is about is unfortunately obscuring Weiss’s dominant political commitment: the United States. Israel is good because it’s like America and America is good because it’s like Israel. The partial assimilation of American Jews in the mid-twentieth century is the high point of Jewish history (“There has not been a period in history since the destruction of the Second Temple by the Romans that has been better for the Jewish people than the past seventy years.”). America was founded on religious tolerance, cleansing it of all the nasty antisemitic hangovers in Europe. All of the good stuff about The West ™ , none of the bad. She extolls “the special nature of America. The United States, with its promise of free speech and religion, with its insistence that all people are created equal, with its tolerance for difference, with its emphasis on shared ideas rather than shared bloodlines, has been, even with all of its ugly flaws, a New Jerusalem for the Jewish people.” This raises a lot of questions: 1) how “ugly” do the flaws have to be for America to stop being acceptable 2) if America is a ‘new Jerusalem’, why does she think we also need the Israeli one and 3) where does all of this cozy patriotism leave the victims of America, from African-Americans to Palestinians to Chileans to the Vietnamese to….you can finish out the list yourself.

At the same time as she repeats hackneyed anti-Muslim myths, she relies on an extremely outdated framework for discussing Jewish history, insisting anti-Semitism is a transhistorical, immutable, almost mystical force. She describes anti-Semitism, in an attempt at poetry, as “that command—the one that had been uttered in a different tongue by Amalek, the villain who stalked the weakest of the ancient Israelites in the desert on their way to the Promised Land; the one that had been echoed by Amalek’s ilk down through the generations; and the one that was now being shouted in mine.” But this overwrought rhetoric provides us with no way of actually understanding anti-Semitism; how it functions; why it gains in strength in certain situations; and how it has been successfully defeated in others.

Furthermore, she equates Nazism with communism, saying that ““By the time the Nazis and the Communists came around, anti-Semitism did not require any religion at all. These secular anti-Semitic movements murdered more Jews than any religious anti-Semites ever had.” The idea of communism as a form of anti-Semitism equivalent to Nazism (!) makes it impossible to understand why the socialist and communist movements were so attractive to European Jewish people in the nineteenth- and twentieth-centuries. And, while there are certainly examples of anti-Semitism in the Eastern bloc, there is flatly  no comparison to the genocidal eliminationist racism of the Nazis. Why did Jews flee from the Nazis into territories controlled by the USSR and the Red Army during World War II? Presumably because Bari Weiss wasn’t around to warn them that there was no difference between the Nazis and the Soviets because the USSR would co-sponsor a ‘problematic’ UN resolution thirty years later.

She continues that “today, when the greatest sins are racism and colonialism, Israel, the Jew among nations, is being demonized as the last bastion of white, racist colonialism—a unique source of evil not just in the region but in the world.” This makes it impossible to actually engage in any kind of political analysis. Actual, verifiable facts about Israel’s racist violence become ‘demonization,’ while anti-racism and anti-colonialism, rather than taking seriously as actual principles people sincerely support, are implied to be trendy fads. 

In a book purportedly about modern forms of anti-Semitism, she engages in blatant apologism for the ever-more-emboldened anti-Semitic regimes in Eastern Europe. She claims, astonishingly, “Jews in countries like Hungary and Poland, which are governed by fascist-adjacent leaders who promote ethnic nationalism, report feeling far safer (by a twenty-point margin) than Jews in countries like France and Germany, countries that have done much more to welcome refugees and migrants.” Let’s remind ourselves of a few facts, shall we? In Poland, where the ruling Law and Justice Party is currently facing massive protests by women against their new anti-abortion law, the current president won in an election in part by campaigning against his opponent’s alleged support of Holocaust reparations to Polish Jews. (The Law and Justice Party also happens, shockingly, to be deeply anti-trans and anti-gay.)  The Orbán-led Fidész government in Hungary is vocally and consistently anti-Semitic, blaming Jews for everything from “communism” to immigration. Meanwhile, thousands of Israeli Jews have moved and continue to move to Berlin in recent years, for a variety of reasons, apparently unaware that they should be afraid of the Muslim hordes.

But for Weiss, the real horror story is France: “the failure of France to protect its people; about the inability to assimilate Muslims; about the lawlessness of the suburbs; about the balkanization of French society; and, most of all, about the lethal power of anti-Jewish hate.” She explains we shouldn’t be surprised at Marie Le Pen’s success, because only she is addressing these Very Real Issues. While she acknowledges Europe has been the historical center of anti-Semitism (it would be hard not to), she both explicitly and implicitly insists throughout the book that the really important anti-Semitism these days derives from Muslim migrants, peoples, and countries. She darkly informs us that “Muslims make up roughly 5 percent of the population of Europe (some 26 million people)”. This is bad, because Muslims are a sinister, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, homophobic force. Also, “this deeply uncomfortable problem is severely underreported,” as if the mainstream press has ever shut the fuck up at any point about what a “problem” Muslim immigrants are.  She finger-wags at “progressive politicians” for “ignor[ing] real social tensions associated with mass immigration,” who “ignore the need for a return to a common culture.” Because there are no “serious liberal answers to these significant questions, the bluntness of authoritarian populists becomes that much more seductive to the average voter.”  In short: she wants to give aid and comfort to the far right, who are rising in power across Europe, the United States, India, and Latin America, while disavowing the full force of their racist rhetoric. You can’t really blame those poor innocent (white) voters, you see, for falling for “populists,” because “the liberals” refuse to ask “the hard questions” about immigration. Framing these as hard questions, of course, removes from Weiss the responsibility to give her answers. Does she want to restrict Muslim immigration to Europe? Does that include the actually existing border violence that leaves refugees to drown in the Mediterranean? How does she feel about the Danish policy of targeted state harassment of what are bluntly called the Muslim “ghettoes”? What about France itself and its police harassment of its Muslim minority, carried out by its allegedly feckless “progressive politicians”? European countries are passing legislation about Muslim migrants all the time. However, because discussing these would force her to confront the reality that these are racist policies in intent and in effect, that yield nothing but further violence toward the Muslim migrants from Europe’s former colonies, she pretends they don’t exist. Endorsing them would require to drop her “nice liberal” façade and face up to what it is she really wants.

Tellingly, one of the articles I linked above notes that Orbán responded to criticism from a local Jewish leader about his Soros-conspiracizing by replying “that Hungarian Jews [should] do more to oppose Muslim immigration to Europe,” and his secretary of state replied to international criticism by saying their party was “funding an institute to research anti-Semitism and combat anti-Israel sentiments among radical leftists and Islamic circles.” “Fighting anti-Semitism” to these people is not about actually opposing prejudice and violence against Jews, as one might naively assume. It is a tool to be used, with varying degrees of cynicism, for suppressing the left and for further harassing Muslim migrants. This topic has been written about ad nauseam in all sorts of lefty outlets (one example; https://www.rs21.org.uk/2020/01/20/reject-the-ten-pledges), so I will restrain myself from ranting about it further.

Despite how much anti-Zionism troubles Weiss, she doesn’t seem to know much about it, or to be interested in learning more. Encountering Joseph Massad at Columbia University blew her mind and she still hasn’t recovered. (She complains that the only book he assigned in his course was Maxine Rodinson’s Israel—A Settler-Colonial State?, making her the only student to ever complain about only having one assigned book in a semester.) I am not sure she has any idea of what anti-Zionism might mean outside of a US university campus. (Maybe I should amend that to an Ivy; I am not sure I even want to give her credit that she’s thought about US state universities; the book certainly gives no sign of it.)

Furthermore, as Chomsky once noted, it is easier to express reactionary ideas concisely, because they have been drilled into people so effectively that they can communicated through catchphrases and references, whereas new, radical ideas have to actually be explained at length. For instance, Weiss refers parenthetically to “the Jewish college student served an eviction notice in her dorm by anti-Zionist activists.” I assume (she doesn’t have citations) that she is referring to this case at Rutgers University, or maybe this case at Harvard. Posting mock eviction notices at dormitories is a common tactic for chapters of Students in Justice in Palestine to raise awareness of the home demolitions of Palestinians. In this case, students filed “bias” reports claiming that the eviction notices were targeted at Jewish students. No evidence has ever been produced that this is the case. In Weiss’s description she invites us to imagine a single Jewish woman targeted by this eviction notices, creating the impression in the unwitting reader’s mind that this was a specific incident that actually happened. The actual evictions of actual people in Palestine are of no concern here. Rather, the imaginary eviction notice is her concern, which she only knows about because some ‘Israel advocacy’ network alerted her to it.  

In short, Weiss has nothing new to say about Zionism. Therefore I will stop trying to say anything new in response, but simply quote at length from Edward Said’s classic essay “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims”:[1]

All the transformative projects for Palestine, including Zionism naturally, have rationalized the eradication of present reality in Palestine with some argument about a ‘higher’ (or better, more worthy, more modern, more fitting: the comparatives are almost infinite) interest, cause, or mission. These ‘higher’ things entitle their proponents not only to claim that the natives of Palestine such as they are, are not worth considering and therefore non-existent but also to claim that the natives of Palestine, and Palestine itself, have been superseded definitively, transformed completely and beyond recall, and this even while those same natives have been demonstrating exactly the opposite.

For Israel and Zionists everywhere the results of Zionist apartheid have been equally disastrous. The Arabs were seen as synonymous with everything degraded, fearsome, irrational, and brutal. Institutions whose humanistic and social (even socialist) inspiration were manifest for Jews—e.g., the Kibbutz, Law of Return, various facilities for the acculturation of immigrants—were precisely, determinedly inhuman for the Arabs. In his body and being, and in the putative emotions and psychology assigned to him, the Arab expressed whatever stood outside, beyond Zionism.

Really, at the end of the day, the most unbearable aspect of the book is not Bari Weiss’s claims, or her sloppiness in asserting them, but the ethos she seeks to project. Unlike many Islamophobes who delight in the violence of their rhetoric, Weiss wants to impress us with how tolerant, empathetic, and generally nice she is. As the many profiles of her can attest, she plays up her identity as a nice white bi girl both as an alibi (she’s not a scary cishet white man, how can she be a racist?) and as a novelty (you’d think she’d be an SJW, but she’s not!) (This omits the right-wing responses, such as these genuinely deranged reviews in the NYT and the Spectator about how she is insufficiently fashy.) She’s the kind of person to argue against Muslim immigrants while informing us that “she is lucky enough” to follow a religious tradition that “welcomes the stranger.” She tells us how much she loves walking down the streets of Tel Aviv while pausing to mourn that “[w]atching young Palestinians waiting at checkpoints make me despair.” (Well, Bari, how do you think it makes them feel?)

Weiss claims that the left “is asking [Jews] to make a choice. Are you one of the good guys or one of the bad guys? Do you side with the racists or their victims? Are you part of the coalition of the oppressed or the coalition of the oppressor?” Now, when you think about it, these are perfectly reasonable questions, that everyone, gentile or Jew, woman or man, servant or free, etc., etc. will benefit from asking of themselves. If we truly want to reject “identity politics,” as Weiss purports to be doing, we should base our alliances on who is fighting oppression, to be “always with the oppressed,” as Akiva Orr exhorted, not because they belong to a special identity or because they are morally virtuous, but simply because they are oppressed, and oppression is bad.

Weiss’s writing obscures this very basic question, because of her own identitarian logic. Good: America, Jews, Israel, the West. Bad: Palestinians, Arabs, Muslims. The West can be as “flawed,” as it wants, even towards Jewish people, and she will always side with it against its victims, because, basically, it’s ‘on her team.’ And, no matter how many people @ her on twitter, she’ll always find someone will pay her to ask the “uncomfortable questions” that the powers that be find so very, very comfortable.


[1] Said, Edward W. “Zionism from the Standpoint of Its Victims.” Social Text No. 1 (Winter 1979): 7-58.

‘The Anti-Social Family’

slowly, slowly attempting to push the stone of intellectual engagement back up the hill. in the meantime, here are two related quotes, in regards to certain conversations in the twitterverse on ‘abolishing the family’- one from a socialist-feminist text on the family, one from a highly underrated record of unconscious queer despair. i will here argue this counts as a continuation of pride month. 

“So there is constructed a curious house of cards in which the myth and the reality of the family alternatively provide support for ever more ramshackle and unsatisfactory excrescences, each of which in turn serves to shore up the myth and keep the reality more or less intact. The world around the family is not a pre-existing harsh climate against which the family offers protection and warmth. It is as if the family had drawn comfort and security into itself and left the outside world bereft. As a bastion against a bleak society it has made that society bleak. It is indeed a major agency for caring, but in monopolizing care it has made it harder to undertake other forms of care. It is indeed a unit of sharing, but in demanding sharing within it has made other relations tend to become more mercenary. It is indeed a place of intimacy, but in privileging the intimacy of close kin it has made the outside world cold and friendless, and made it harder to sustain relations of security and trust except with kin. Caring, sharing, and loving would be more widespread if the family did not claim them for its own.”

-michèle barrett and mary mcintosh, ‘the anti-social family’, conclusion to chapter 2

“He had forgotten his sandwiches, and went back to get them.

Gerald and Agnes were locked in each other’s arms.

He only looked for a moment, but the sight burnt into his brain. The man’s grip was the stronger. He had drawn the woman on to his knee, was pressing her, with all his strength, against him. Already her hands slipped off him, and she whispered, “Don’t you hurt-” Her face had no expression. It stared at the intruder and never saw him. Then her lover kissed it, and immediately it shown with mysterious beauty, like some star.

Rickie limped away without the sandwiches, crimson and afraid. He thought, ‘Do such things actually happen?’ and he seemed to be looking down coloured valleys. Brighter they glowed, till gods of pure flame were born in them, and then he was looking at pinnacles of virgin snow. While Mr. Pembroke talked, the riot of fair images increased.

They invaded his being and lit lamps in unsuspected shrines. Their orchestra commenced in that suburban house, where he had to stand aside for the maid to carry in the luncheon. Music flowed past him like a river. He stood at the springs of creation and heard the primeval monotony. Then an obscure instrument gave out a little phrase.

The river continued unheeding. The phrase was repeated and a listener might know it was a fragment of the Tune of tunes. Nobler instruments accepted it, the clarionet protected, the brass encouraged, and it rose to the surface to the whisper of violins. In full unison was Love born, flame of the flame, flushing the dark river beneath him and the virgin snows above. His wings were infinite, his youth eternal; the sun was a jewel on his finger as he passed it in benediction over the world. Creation, no longer monotonous, acclaimed him, in widening melody, in brighter radiances. Was Love a column of fire? Was he a torrent of song? Was he greater than either- the touch of a man on a woman?

It was the merest accident that Rickie had not been disgusted. But this he could not know.

-e. m. forster, ‘the longest journey’

 

 

 

 

Midsommar and the Temptations of Fascism

 

 

[SPOILERS, OBVIOUSLY]

 

Midsommar is about the lure of fascism to the alienated white petty bourgeoisie.

 

The film opens with Dani, a young white female grad student, trapped in a dark, disconnected ‘ordinary’ world. She is agonizing over an ambiguous, disturbing email from her sister, trying (and failing) to get some comfort over the phone from her emotionally distant boyfriend, Christian. Dani’s guilty anxiety about whether or not to take her sister’s threats seriously will be familiar to anyone who has ever watched a loved one have a mental crisis from hundreds of miles away. Dani cannot communicate with her sister or share her trauma; she is haunted by obligations to her sister that are absolutely pressing but impossible to fulfill. Her sister enacts a ritual sacrifice of herself and her parents, filling the house with car exhaust. However, within the context of the ‘modern’ world, this jump into the abyss can only be read as insanity.

 

In opposition to the grim and grab ‘modern’ world, the village of Hårga represents a triumph of Aryan collectivity which is profoundly attractive to Dani. There is no difference; there is no disconnection. Everything proceeds according to a perfect order. The villagers practice an idealized form of agricultural labor. We see women washing dishes, but the act seems symbolic more than anything, since nothing in the movie is ever dirty. We are bombarded with perfect, vivid colors against perfect, vivid white. We don’t see the kind of simple, soul-grinding drudgery that characterizes rural domestic labor—just the production of kitschy folk commodities and quaint foods. (And it is the outside capitalist’s worlds demand for these folk commodities that sustains the village economically, as we learn through Josh’s discussion with the village elder.) They use computers and watch Austin Powers. Contrary to the stereotype of a cult, the Hårga encourage their young people to go outside—not just for a sort of Rumspringa but for a third of their life—and experience the world. They are not an ‘alternative’ to the modern world but dependent on it and perfectly in harmony with it, and their nature-folk-worship only makes sense in the context of the modern world. The villagers of Hårga would be totally alien to actual ancient Swedish peasants.

The commune goes on and on about how connected they are with nature; but of course, they aren’t, particularly. Nothing about their violence is “natural”, in the sense of proceeding unmediated from the Forces of Nature; it is profoundly. Their practices around sex and death are profoundly odd. They resemble some real social practices, but they could not possibly sustain a real village commune for centuries. Everyone is tripping balls, constantly; you need mushrooms to get yourself through this existence, it doesn’t proceed according to the ‘natural’ human life cycle, such as it is.

Thus, the figure of Josh, the black anthropologist, is incredibly important. The movie carefully primes us with the familiar horror stereotype: the ugly Americans who charge into the ‘indigenous’ community and get what’s coming to them. The scene with Josh is so obviously telegraphed: the elders tell him about a sacred book he can’t see; of course he breaks in and looks at it anyway; of course they come and kill him and we think, Of Course, you Idiot, you broke into the Thing You Never Were Meant To See and paid the Price. But rather than see this as another revenge-by-the-natives-against-the-arrogant-anthropologist, we need to take race in the movie seriously.

Josh represents an indissoluble threat to their way of life, their imagined unbroken Aryan paganism. I’m sure Josh, if he were real, as a serious scholar of midsummer rituals, could tell us that the Hårga are based on nineteenth-century European understandings of paganism, suffused with racist ideas and having little to do with actual peasant communities. (The elder at the beginning of the movie is entirely nonplussed when Josh compares one of their beliefs to the practices of a group in India.) The script for the movie carefully notes the poster of James George Frazer, author of The Golden Bough, a key basis for this kind of ‘scholarship,’ in Josh’s apartment. The camera also lingers on a book called The Secret Nazi Language of the Elder Uthark, reminding us of new-age fascism reinterpretations of paganism. (Extra thanks to a commenter on reddit for pointing out, which I did not know, that the poster at the beginning of the movie reads ‘Vote Free North. Stop mass immigration to Hålsingland.’) The imagined Aryan homeland must be maintained. They represent a colonial, imperialist fantasy of migration: their children can go out and conquer the world; they bring back only who they chose to, people who can be sexually exploited and killed as soon as they serve no other purpose.

The overwhelming fear of analysis, comparison, and a critical eye from the Global South prevents the villagers from understanding or accepting Josh—they can only kill him. The framing of the ‘arrogant anthropologist invading the native community’, a horror trope based on the actual historical racism of anthropology, blinds us to what is actually happening on screen. The murder of Josh represents the pervasive fear of ‘the academy,’ ‘SJWs,’ all those clever minority professors plotting white genocide in their ivory towers, whose rational exegesis threatens the mass delusions on which white petty-bourgeois fascism depends.

Similarly, the interpersonal dynamics of Christian and Dani’s toxic relationship blind us to the wider gender violence the cult asks her to accept. There’s been a lot said on “neoliberal identity politics,” much of it crap, but I think the film offers a useful example of a certain form of it—how you can use accepted tropes (accepted because they reflect reality) of certain kinds of stereotyped ‘bro’ behavior to lure the audience’s attention toward this and away from the wider violence going on all around you. It also represents the fantasy of complementarianism, which can be found in conservative religious writing but also misbegotten feminist writing which got away from a correct critique of the antimonies of white bourgeois feminism and ‘agency’ into reactionary nonsense. The women here have Power, they have equal status and in fact sexually exploit men, not the other way around. (I’ve avoided singling out Aster because, first, The Director Is Dead and what matters is what’s on film and, second, I don’t know/necessarily want to know his actual intentions, but I do find it annoying he sees this as a Clever Subversion of Horror Tropes when literally one of the most ancient stories around is that of the man trapped by the sexually predatory sorceress.) Their work, as I mentioned before, consists mostly of the sort of care and cultural production people tend to find value in, away from dirt and drudgery. The perfect—white—female community, in which everyone immediately feels your pain and is there to support you. The fulfillment of the pain (and it’s very, very real pain) of the white female bourgeois subject, who is a Queen of her own private fairy tale all along.

The village runs along the ritual sacrifice of the elderly and the outsider (and it is No Accident that the first to die are the POC Simon and Connie). Those who no longer have a concrete use can be ejected, as can those from the outside. Not just sacrifice, but total consumption by fire, and in a building specially designed for that purpose, after paralyzing the victims with various chemicals. This ritual purging is done for the emotional well-being of the villagers. But if the village is an idyll, from whence the extreme emotional angst that must be purged? Is this simply the Human Condition, Human Nature? Or is the central irony that the villagers do not understand that it is the village that causes the problems for them that it then solves? At the end of the film, he villagers Ulf and Ingemar willingly sacrifice themselves, but as the flames billow, we see at the end the pure terror in their eyes. They have realized, too late, that to sacrifice yourself for the Nation means nothing at all.

 

(But how was the movie, Elizabeth? It was good but I didn’t like it as much as Hereditary).

Pride Month, Part I: Angels in America

 

I’ve watched Angels in America at least twice before (although never on stage). I will say, on a third viewing, it still absolutely lives up to the hype. Go right out and watch it now if you haven’t yet. It’ll be better use of six hours than dragging yourself through Netflix.

 

For my money, the most precise, fully realized character is Louis Ironson, the gay Jewish word processor (back when ‘word processors’ were human beings) at the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. Louis is one of the best fictional representations of US liberalism I’ve ever seen. Precisely because both Kushner and the play itself are quite aware of the dilemmas of US liberalism but unable to break out of it, Louis emerges as the embodiment of the key themes of the play.

It is Louis’s abandonment of his lover, Prior, due to Prior’s AIDS diagnosis that undergirds the structure of the entire play. Act One introduces the probability that Louis will chose to leave rather than deal with the reality of caring for his lover through to his death, and Act One ends with Louis finally resolving to leave Prior. Act Two finally resolves with Prior and Louis reaching a rapprochement (through not really a reconciliation). Louis’s abandonment of Prior is the emotional trauma at the heart of the play, forming the basis for both how we view the closeted lawyer Joe Pitt’s abandonment of his wife Harper and how we view God’s abandonment of humanity as the play shifts into its supernatural aspects.

Louis running away from Prior is shown as a character flaw, if quite a human one. However, it also flows from his politics in ways that are not fully appreciated. Louis’s fundamental characteristic, as his not-really-friend Belize tells him, is that he is “ambivalent about everything.” Louis has deep anxiety about the law and fear of judgment. It is an eternal ambiguity, not radical or deconstructive, but destructive.

When justifying to himself his decision to leave Prior, he tells Prior he hates the law because “all that matters is the verdict,” gabbling on that the law “should be the question and shape of a life, its total complexity gathered, arranged and considered, which matters in the end, not some stamp of salvation or damnation which disperses all complexity in some unsatisfying little decision.” Prior, knowing what Louis is really saying, responds, “I like this; very zen; it’s … reassuringly incomprehensible and useless. We who are about to die thank you.” Louis’s sin (and he and the play both view it on some level as a sin in the real sense) is, interestingly, justified in thoroughly liberal terms. His is the classic liberal critique of harsh right-wing jurisprudence: that life is too nuanced to be decided in a court room, that it is unjust to squash all the possible complexities into a singular narrative. In fact, this is the reigning view of much of current academia, which takes the reality that oppression denies the reality of the oppressed and concludes from this that the real problem is that there was a narrative at all. Louis isn’t wrong, exactly. But he is, as Prior says, “useless” in the face of real need.

One of the characteristics of contemporary US liberalism is a wallowing in ambivalence, mistaking this for wisdom and maturity. This has often been remarked on, to the extent that “nuance” has become a punchline. It is the inability to decide which side you are on, an overpowering fear of conclusions which would then require actions, actions one is not willing to take.

This form of thought allows all critiques, viewpoints, and ideologies to coexist, without one gaining supremacy over another discursively. It is precisely by this mechanism that the true workings of American power are obscured. At the end of the play, Prior, Louis, Belize, and Joe’s mother Hannah are all joined together in a heated but basically friendly argument. Louis’s last words are a confused mess in which he, characteristically, both rejects religious forms of ‘Zionism’, declares himself an ‘advocate of the Palestinian cause,’ and insists that Israel giving up the Golan Heights and the West Bank would be ‘a bridge too far.’[1] Prior then addresses the audience directly, asking us to tune out the argument and focus on the sacred, universal gift of life which he bestows upon us.

As David Savran argues in his analysis of the play,

a kind of dissensus (of which liberal pluralism is the contemporary avatar) has been the hallmark of the very idea of America – and American literature – from the very beginning. In this most American of ideologies an almost incomparably wide range of opinions, beliefs, and cultural positions are finally absorbed into a fantasy of a utopian nation in which anything and everything is possible, in which the millennium is simultaneously at hand and indefinitely deferred. Moreover, the nation is imagined as the geographical representation of that utopia, which is both everywhere and nowhere. For, as Berlant explains, “the contradiction between the ‘nowhere’ of utopia and the ‘everywhere’ of the nation [is] dissolved by the American recasting of the ‘political’ into the terms of providential ideality, ‘”one nation under God.”’ Under the sign of ‘one’ all contradictions are subsumed, all races and religions united, all politics theologized.”

Louis’s conversation with Belize, referenced earlier, is also quite relevant here. Louis responds to Belize’s accusation of racism by insisting ‘most black people are anti-Semitic’, referring to the then-current incident of Jesse Jackson calling New York ‘Hymietown.’ This reflects a decades-long history of using the specter of black anti-Semitism to separate black and Jewish people politically—a tactic which has made a roaring comeback in the past few years. Belize then points out Louis donated to Jesse Jackson; Louis says his check bounced, which is what prompts Belize’s statement that “All your checks bounce; you’ve ambivalent about everything.”

Louis is not ignorant. He insists he doesn’t “want to speak from a position of privilege” when Belize contradicts him, although he doesn’t really understand what Belize is saying. His liberalism has red tints sometimes, like when he calls Gorbachev “the greatest political thinker since Lenin” or claims to think “the world, …. will change for the better with struggle,” as “a person who has this neo-Hegelian positivist sense of constant historical progress toward happiness or perfection or something.” He only manages to finish saying the Kaddish for a dead Roy Cohn in one scene through the assistance of a ghostly Ethel Rosenberg; but is totally unaware of her presence and sees this recitation as his own personal achievement. This suggests how certain forms and parts of Marxism can congeal with liberalism while diluting any kind of real radicalism—and here it’s hard not to see Tony Kushner himself, who can passionately read and translate and genuinely understand Bertolt Brecht, and yet be an equally passionate fan of Obama and write a movie like Munich.

Louis’s ambivalence is not simply a character trait; it is representative not just of liberalism, but of a certain kind of liberalism in a certain kind of place and time, the liberalism of the American intelligentsia, in late ‘80s New York. I don’t mean to imply that liberalism was good at some point and then lost its way, but rather that real shifts in what liberalism was occurred. Liberalism provided no assistance or solidarity to gay people in the outbreak of the AIDS epidemic. Instead, both frightened and attracted by the sweep of neoliberalism, liberalism fell into the arms of conservatism, as Louis is attracted, despite himself, to Joe Pitt.

In fact, it is Joe, the conservative Mormon in the grip of the Reagan Revolution, who speaks for embracing the imperfections and complexities of the world and of personal freedom outside of the law: “You believe the world is perfectible and so you find it always unsatisfying. You have to reconcile yourself to the world’s unperfectibility by being thoroughly in the world but not of it. … The rhythm of history is conservative. You have to accept that. And accept as rightfully yours the happiness that comes your way.” (In the stage directions, though not in the miniseries, this conversation occurs as Joe is jerking Louis off, further emphasizing the seductive nature of conservative ideology to Louis.) In the language of Adam Smith[2] and the invisible hand, he tells Louis he shouldn’t feel guilty for abandoning his lover, because you have to be cruel to be kind and the good derives from self-interest, not charity. Liberation from the law, which had seemed (and usually really was) a left-wing cause, becomes instead liberation from ties to others, to the oppressed, and for pursuit of one’s own personal profit.

This is, however, also the scene where Louis first begins to seriously pull away from Joe. Louis is genuinely disgusted when he learns Joe is the protégé of Roy Cohn and finally rejects him, to which Joe reacts violently (“Like a sex scene in an Ayn Rand novel, huh,” Louis says bitterly). This is important because liberalism in the US, contrary to some basically correct but one-sided left-wing critiques, is not simply conservatism in disguise. It truly does hate the right-wing (and is hated back), it recoils in disgust from the truth of America, but this disgust leads to nothing. (But, you say, Louis does go back to Prior in the end. Patience, I’ll get there.)

Angels in America is obsessed with movement and change. The reactionary Angel demands humanity stop moving. Prior finally rejects this in the climax of the play, exhorting us to move. Louis is someone who can’t move anywhere, or rather, can’t stop moving but not to anywhere, a movement that is meaningless.

Louis’s later reunion with Prior is not quite a reconciliation or a forgiving, but there is a rapprochement, representing gay America’s rapprochement with America itself, a suppression of the realities of the AIDS crisis.

Who, then, is Prior? Belize and Ethel represent the radical ‘outsides’ of America, Joe and Roy represent American conservatism (in its flamboyant, corrupt and its repressed, religious forms). (Harper and Joe’s mother, despite their importance to the play, somewhat fall out here and relate to politics only obliquely—Harper can’t be bothered to care, has only an emotional/mystical intuition of environmental catastrophe and Joe’s mother, while a devout Mormon, does not see her religious and gender politics as interacting with state politics in the way that Joe does. Which probably shows some kind of gender problems deep in the structure of the play, but I’m too fatigued to think about that right now.)

Prior is much harder to slot in. He has very little character apart from suffering from AIDS, his bitterness over AIDS and his abandonment by Louis, a bemused fear of the Angel, and a gay affect/camp. He is ‘featureless’ (that is, he is rich, white, and male), thus can stand in for all gay men who died of AIDS. He must literally come down from above to heal, he represents the possible messianic potential of ‘America’. He, unlike Louis, has an unproblematic and loving relationship with Belize. He is the real ‘angel,’ the messenger who ushers in a new age. He is the imaginary mediator who must exist for US liberalism to make sense.

Maybe predictably, it is the conservative political fixer and real-life villain Roy Cohn who has the sharpest view of what power in America really is. judging from YouTube comments, most people read Roy Cohn’s “Roy Cohn is a heterosexual man, Henry, who fucks around with guys” as ‘denial’ or ‘mental gymnastics’, incorrectly seeing this as a denial of Roy’s true identity. They miss the point that Kushner is making through Cohn here: that we, like Cohn’s doctor, think words “mean what they seem to mean,” that they identify something’s essence rather than its power, what Cohn throughout the play calls “clout.” Labels are “where an individual fit[s] in the food chain,” they are relational statements. Cohn is quite right to say it is not “hypocrisy” or “sophistry” to say that he is not a gay man.

Similarly, in his conversation with Belize, Cohn spews a bunch of racist rhetoric but then insists “These racist guys, simpletons, I never had any use for them—too rigid. You want to keep your eye on where the most powerful enemy really is.” The point is not the simplistic one it might be, that Cohn uses racism for political power but is not personally racist, that, as Louis argues earlier to Belize, that “racists just try to use race.” Rather, it’s that Cohn is racist, including in the “merely” personal ways, but understands that racism is a power relationship, which he can use to antagonize and bully to get his way (as he does with Belize later). Race is not some real thing that should motivate you, as it motivates those “racist simpletons.” Cohn’s concern for racism is explicitly how racial categories allow the operation of American power, as when he tells Belize that unlike Jews “you people had Jesus so the reds never got to you. I admire that.”

It is Louis’s fear of the body, as he explicitly discusses, which causes him to leave Prior. Describing himself in the third person, he says “maybe that person can’t, um, incorporate sickness into his sense of how things are supposed to go. Maybe vomit … and sores and disease … really frighten him, maybe … he isn’t so good with death.” Similarly, Roy Cohn complains “Americans have no use for the sick…. It’s just no country for the infirm.” Liberalism starts to stumble when it realizes its autonomous, free, unencumbered individuals don’t actually exist.

The best defense of Louis is, of course, that the hardship of caring for a lover dying of AIDS should not fall on just one person. Sarah Schulman rejects the play on this point, because it doesn’t show a politically engaged community of gay men, in a criticism that, I think, really misses both the real achievements of and real problems with the play. For one, I think Schulman’s account of unity in the face of the AIDS crisis is a little idealized; two, the point of the play is to show the consequences of the absence of care, in a way that thus makes the case for its importance; and, three, more to the point of this essay, the characters in the play are representations of currents within American society as much as they are individual gay men living in New York. (Which I am all for by the way: more allegories, fewer “three-dimensional characters.” Otherwise we are cutting ourselves off from the full possibilities and capacities of art as a form.)

So in the end, I don’t think we can judge Louis Ironson, the character in Angels in America, too harshly. No one person can take on the role of guiding another person through a nasty death.[3] But what about gay liberalism, as a political project? And, for all the sturm und drang around homonationalism and assimilation, how do we create a real, concrete alternative? Is the problem that liberalism can accommodate queerness, or that it can’t? Can we get beyond simply bemoaning the existence of gay/queer liberalism to building a genuine queer socialist movement? I hope the next books I discuss here will help me think through these questions.

Works cited:

Angels in America. Directed by Mike Nichols. Written by Tony Kushner. HBO, December 2003.

Kushner, Tony. Angels in America: A Gay Fantasia on National Themes. New York: Theatre Communications Group, Inc., 2013.

Savran, David. “Ambivalence, Utopia, and a Queer Sort of Materialism: How Angels in America Reconstructs the Nation.” Theatre Journal 47.2 (1995): 207-227.

[1] Kushner, for his part, reveals his own limited imagination when Belize, positioned as part of black radical thought, chooses to advocate only for a Palestinian Bantustan in the West Bank, Gaza, and the Golan Heights.

[2] I am perfectly aware of the revisionist readings of Adam Smith claiming he was actually a prescient critic of capitalism and can be reclaimed for the left and I do not agree with them, so don’t @ me about it.

[3] Nor do I want to turn to some exhortation to care for each other, rather than fighting for a world where health care doesn’t depend on personal aid. Nor do I want to suggest the sick cannot fight and care for themselves.

pride month reading project

This June, I will be focusing on reading and watching queer media. I mean ‘queer media’ in a broad sense – works with queerness as a central theme, works by queer authors, works with cultural significance to queer people. I’ve realized recently that reading too many books by ‘great’ straight male authors is hurting my sense of self. It’s disorienting (I know, I know, I’m sorry) to be constantly surrounded by straight culture. I’m also frustrated at how so many demands for ‘representation’ amount to demands where the social and historical reality of queerness is suppressed, or for demands to slot queer characters into cookie-cutter Marvel narratives. I don’t think queer teens need ’empowering’ or ‘reassuring’ media, but media that speaks to their actual reality and needs. I’m interested in defending queer narratives of struggle, tragedy, and loss.

I plan to post an update every Friday (so, the 7th, 14th, 21st, and 28th), with a list of queer works I’ve consumed, a brief paragraph about each, and more in-depth analysis on works that interest/move/anger me. I hope you’ll follow along and find something useful in my writing.

messy

 

messy: has a word about dirt and grime ever been so sanitizing? messy is one of those words that is used to suppress the existence of the phenomenon it purports to describe. it goes along with words like complexity and nuance (the latter of which the Cool Kids have turned against these days).

 

you’ve read hundreds of passages on messy, complex, flawed[1], glorious reality, probably. it’s a highly cliché sort of passage that people somehow always think is saying something unique. by use of the word messy, one can avoid talking about the actual mess. it generates a consoling, fuzzy feeling of embracing the evils of the world without actually facing them. mess is no big deal – nothing permanent – easy to undo, potentially totally fixable. it’s not like dirt, which brings disease and shame, and which you can never quite get rid of.

 

now dirty does operate in the same way, sometimes (“getting your hands dirty”), but even then it retains some more of its real content, has a slightly harsher, darker connotation than getting messy.

 

As Louis (one of the finest metaphors for American liberalism in fiction)[2] explains in Angels in America, “Messy, not dirty. That’s an important distinction. It’s dust, not dirt, chemical-slash-mineral, not organic.”[3]

 

a messy reality is a reality which seems bad but is in fact safe, solvable, and even sort of quirky and cozy. to speak of reality as messy means to deny the real horrors of the world.

 

[1] Flawed: an even worse word than messy.

[2] Essay on this forthcoming, possibly.

[3] Angels in America: Perestroika, Act One, Scene 6.

intifada!

I don’t really have time to produce new content for this blog until the semester is over, so I will be using this to collect all the halfway decent writing I’ve done in one place. This is an editorial from The Daily Texan on November 9, 2015, after Texans for Israel accused the Palestine Solidarity Committee at UT of supporting terrorism and violence for using the phrase “Long Live the Intifada!” 

Texans for Israel is clearly excited to condemn the Palestinian Solidarity Committee-UT for “condoning” violence. But we have nothing to hide or be ashamed of. Israel was founded on the ethnic cleansing of Palestinians and can only perpetuate itself through continual oppression of the native population. Palestinians have the right to resistcolonialism, occupation and aparthied by any means necessary.

As the scholar Ilan Pappe has shown, Zionist forces expelled about 1 million Palestinians in 1948 and even more in 1967 when Israel seized East Jerusalem and the West Bank. Moreover, as Patrick Wolfe has stated, “invasion is a structure, not an event” insofar as Israel must perpetually struggle against the native population it seeks to displace. This occurs through “silent transfer,” in which Israel expels “small numbers of people on a weekly basis” through demolishing homes, denying construction permits, revoking residency rights, etc.

Furthermore, as many legal scholars have demonstrated, Israel is beyond a settler-colonial state. It also represents an apartheid regime under international law. This includes spatial segregation, denial of the freedom of movement, an ID system, differing legal regimes on the basis of identity, etc.

Meanwhile, attacks by “well-armed, well-organised and ideologically driven” Israeli settlers against Palestinians and their lands are a constant reality of life, of which the firebombing of the Dawabsheh family home this summer is only one horrifying example. These settlers’ express aim is to expropriate Palestinian land, but only Palestinians in the West Bank are subject to military courts with a near-100% conviction rate.

Thus, Palestinian youth have revolted, rejecting both “military occupation and an ineffectual Palestinian leadership.” Israel has responded with mob violence and extrajudicial killings, including the lynching of the Eritrean asylum-seeker Haftom Zarhum. In the recent uprisings, from mid-September to Oct. 31, 69 Palestinians were killed and almost 7,400 injured, compared to 8 Israelis killed and 115 injured.

This is not to say Palestinians are in the right simply because they are weaker but to induce a sense of reality about who is terrorizing whom. If one wants to condemn violence, one should start with Israel, which, two summers ago, unleashed a brutal onslaught against Gaza, slaughtering over 2,200 Palestinians, 500 of whom were children. As TFI directly calls for people to materially support the IDF, the institution responsible for this carnage, we find any moralizing about violence from TFI to be hollow.

Moreover, one cannot equate the violence of the oppressor and the oppressed. As Lina Alsaafin argues, “[o]ppressed people do not and should not have to explain their oppression to their oppressors, nor tailor their resistance to the comfort of the oppressors and their supporters.” And, as we saw in the divestment campaign last spring, even an extremely moderate call to divest from specific companies profiting from human rights abuses in the Occupied Territories is fiercely resisted. Any form of Palestinian resistance, no matter how nonviolent, is rejected outright. Palestinians deserve liberation and justice, not lectures on moral failings. And so — long live the intifada!

fascism and anti-fascism at the bus stop

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I took this picture yesterday at 2:34 p.m. at one of the bus stops on campus. The big sticker at the top is a sticker from the fascist group Patriot Front, which someone scraped off. (You can still discern the red-white-and-blue pattern.) Beneath it, someone pasted a ‘Champaign-Urbana – Always Antifascist’ sticker.* Turning Point USA tried to cover this sticker with one of their ‘Socialism Sucks’ stickers. It’s quite telling that TPUSA’s reaction to seeing a sticker denouncing fascism and white nationalism is to respond ‘socialism sucks’, when the original sticker (although based on a DSA design) doesn’t mention socialism at all, and that TPUSA feels itself implicated in a denunciation of white supremacy. Someone then apparently attempted to remove the ‘Socialism Sucks’ sticker, or possibly both stickers at once, or possibly the TPUSA person tried to remove the antifascist sticker and then someone came back to try to remove the TPUSA sticker. I wonder how much of this is legible to random passersby, and how they interpret it.

 

*I helped put up some of these stickers about a month ago, but not this one.

How I don’t write

I feel feverish. My brain feels like it’s overheating, short-circuiting.

I imagine what I would think if my words were written by someone else and I read them. Portentous, try-hard, banal, bad.

I can’t stand the thought of writing something someone else might not be impressed with. Narcissistic? Yes, I know that, but that doesn’t make me feel anything less.

As long as the words stay inside my head, they are full, flexible, expansive, expanding. Once they’re typed then bam! the wave-function collapses and you’re stuck with one series of words, one which will always be imperfect. But then, you can move the words in the word document around and around forever, in an endless series of imperfect sentences.

I write something I like, and then I am terrified by the thought I am unconsciously plagiarizing it from somewhere and anxiously search my memory.

I scroll through a cluster of bad words on Facebook. I feel guilty for not doing my work, angry with myself for wasting time on something that isn’t even enjoyable, and afraid that I will write something just as bad.

Writing, even in its most prosaic forms, forces you to show parts of yourself. Writing means shaving off little bits of skin and bone and giving them up to whoever asks, even people you don’t particularly like or trust.

Why do we write, unconsciously? Because we want there to be something that remains after we die. And what if that thing is bad? Then our lives were bad and worthless. Narcissistic? Again, yes.

I laugh when I grade bad student papers and wince at poor arguments, but ultimately I feel sad and a little guilty, because we are all so bad at teaching. We can’t train students to obsessively count grade points and equate memorization with learning for 13 years and then expect them to emerge as college freshmen bursting with “critical thinking.”

The possibility of accomplishment and relief taunts me. The idea that I will accomplish one day, maybe, possibly, only reminds that I right now I am not accomplishing anything. If I will get better someday then right now I am dysfunctional. Then I start to feel nauseous.

I am terrified of asserting myself, personally or politically, because people can talk about ‘living your truth’ all they want, but that sort of real honesty rarely ends well, and I am terrified of being annihilated by someone whose truth requires the destruction of mine.

Hillary Clinton’s Memoir is Bad

I am posting here my review of Hillary Clinton’s book “What Happened” that was originally published on Socialist Worker on September 22, 2017. I am obviously not thrilled with the last paragraph at this particular moment. But as a historian, I have always been irritated at interpreters who try to wrench communist writers’ “universal” or “valuable” lessons out of their “problematic” devotions to certain parties, while ignoring that these documents can only be understood from the contexts in which they emerged. Also in the interest of honesty.  Also also because socialist organizing is still good. I have, however, edited out some of the revisions the SW editors made. There’s no real difference in politics or content; they were just weird, unmotivated stylistic changes. 

Readers of SW will probably not be shocked to learn that this book is bad. So why bother with a review? The answer is that, while books like this aren’t exactly intellectual achievements, they do provide a useful window into how the ruling class thinks about us.

Much of the book is boring in a thoroughly banal way: Hillary met a voter on the campaign trail that inspired her! Hillary has a list of wonkish policies! Hillary loves her family! There are the inevitable references to Hillbilly Elegy, self-care, and Hamilton.  In fact, the book sounds like Clinton (or her interns, rather) read a bunch of thinkpieces from Vox and Slate, put them through a blender, sprinkled in some quotes from fridge magnets, and frosted the whole thing with some cloying Methodist piety.

If you’re wondering if Clinton takes responsibility for anything in this book, she does: she takes responsibility for being too smart and too good for the rest of us. She ‘confesses’ that her “instinctive response is to talk about how we can fix things,” but people were simply too angry to listen. In one passage, she describes throngs of women coming up to her to do penance after the election: “On one occasion, an older woman dragged her adult daughter by the arm to come talk to me and ordered her to apologize for not voting—which she did, head bowed in contrition. I wanted to stare right in her eyes and say, ‘You didn’t vote? How could you not vote?! You abdicated your responsibility as a citizen at the worst possible time! And now you want me to make you feel better?’ Of course, I didn’t say any of that.” Of course, Hillary was too classy to scold her to her face: she chose to do it in a book released to the national public, instead. She even bizarrely wonders whether her (token) efforts to help Flint after the water crisis lost her white voters in Michigan, but magnanimously explains “that’s not what it was about for me” because there were “real live kids” to help. Truly, not since Nelson Mandela (whom she namedrops no less than three times) has someone been so willing to sacrifice themselves in the anti-racist struggle.  

In fact, this emphasis on her ostensible devotion on dealing with “real live” issues suffuses the book.  She accuses Bernie Sanders of “thunder[ing] on at every event about the sins of “the millionaires and billionaires,” while she “was more focused on offering practical solutions that would address real problems and make life better for people,” as if “millionaires and billionaires” didn’t create the “real problems” working-class people face in their everyday lives. Instead, Clinton offers a patchwork of policies: a higher minimum wage (but not too high!), further fixes to Obamacare, proposals to give businesses more money in the vague hope they might create jobs someday, even a program to simply encourage people to move out of economically struggling towns (and she wonders why she lost in the rust belt!) By “practical solutions,” she doesn’t actually mean solutions that work. She means solutions that are “practical” for the ruling class, that cause them minimal inconvenience and forestall radical change.

While of course Clinton would never say that in those words, she is quite explicit about her hatred of radicalism. She recounts her reaction to the 1968 police attacks on protestors at the Democratic National Convention: she worried “the antiwar movement was causing a backlash that would help elect Richard Nixon and prolong the war.” Never mind that the 1968 protests occurred precisely because the DNC elected a pro-war candidate, Hubert Humphrey: the most important thing was getting a Democrat into office at all costs.  

No, she says that “[i]nstead of waiting for a revolution, the kind of change this girl needed was … ‘a strong and slow boring of hard boards.’” The entire history of socialists and radicals doing precisely that kind of hard, slow work in building the labor movement, the antiwar movement, the civil rights movement, and the women’s movement whose legacies she seeks to appropriate is ignored.

Furthermore, she complains about protestors affiliated with Black Lives Matter disrupting her talks because they wanted her to take responsibility for supporting the 1994 crime bill that helped created mass incarceration. She goes on to defend both the crime bill as a “tough compromise,” and throws in a defense of her husband’s destruction of welfare for good measure. This sums up Clinton’s “practical solutions”: policies that devastate black and working-class communities. She scolds the protestors for not “engag[ing] constructively,” unlike the “leaders” she met with who back neoliberal education reforms that tear apart black and Latino working-class schools.

The chapter “Turning Mourning into a Movement” highlights this insincerity and condescension. She seeks to impress her readers with how much she listened to family members of victims of police violence and how deeply she felt their grief, then goes on to assure us that “I feel strongly about this: the vast majority of police officers are honorable, brave public servants who put their lives on the line every day to protect others.” She then turns the whole issue into a discussion of gun control, ignoring that the Black Lives Matter movement started to protest precisely those murderers who are armed and funded by the state.

One of the most insidious things about the book is the way Clinton appropriates the struggles of ordinary people in order to try to convince us that her interests are the same as ours. She complains about emotional labor, a concept originally meant to explain the experiences of female service workers. However, for Clinton it is a problem for “women CEOs” and “women heads of state” who might have to serve coffee at a meeting, not for the women who stand on their feet serving coffee every day and don’t earn six-figure salaries. And she credits female politicians’ experience in this “emotional labor” for allowing them to form better coalitions in Congress than their male counterparts. The nature of these coalitions, however, is left unspecified: should we celebrate Congress voting to drop bombs or deport immigrants because they were brokered by women?

Hillary also succeeds in what might seem like the impossible task of attacking Trump—from the right! She indulges fully in paranoia about Russia, comparing the United States to a body whose immune system has been weakened: “Now that the Russians have infected us and seen how weak our defenses are, they’ll keep at it. . . . Their ultimate goal is to undermine—perhaps even destroy—Western democracy itself.” In order to protect our precious bodily fluids, “we need to get tough with Putin,” by increasing US intervention in Syria and Ukraine and bolstering NATO. (No appeals to “emotional labor” here!) She warns that Trump will not “face this threat head-on” and begs us not to dismiss her discussion of Russia “as me trying to shift blame for my loss in 2016.” In a way, she’s right—while she is trying to shift the blame for her loss, she’s also trying to present herself to the rest of the ruling class as the best manager of US imperialism. She presents herself as the defender of the American-led order as a whole, which “defended universal human rights, defied totalitarianism, and delivered unprecedented peace, prosperity, and freedom.” This neglects the millions killed by the US in the Middle East, Latin America, Asia, Africa, Europe, and the U.S. itself over the course of the twentieth century—but perhaps we can assume Chileans or Palestinians or Vietnamese had it coming for not engaging constructively.  

Along with the cops, the military, and the intelligence agencies, Clinton finds much in common with the politicians on the “other side”. She gushes about how warm and comforting George W. Bush was during the inauguration. She finds inspiration in Theodore Roosevelt, the white supremacist and imperialist, whom she praises as “a shrewd politician who managed to fend off the demands of angry populists on his left, who wanted to go even further toward Socialism, and conservatives on his right, who would have let the robber barons amass even more wealth and power.” Clinton clearly sees herself in this mode, bragging about her “defense of the American system of free enterprise” in the Iowa primaries. However, if anything socialists should be heartened by these passages—prominent U.S. politicians now feel the need to openly attack socialism, rather than simply ignore it.

Let me close with one good piece of advice Clinton writes in this book: “Find an organization that’s doing work you believe in. … If it doesn’t exist, build it.” Like nothing else, the bankruptcy of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party as a whole in the face of the horrors of the Trump era proves the need for our own, working-class organizations. So fight the right, build the left, join the socialists!