Confessions & Conciliations
Everything you never wanted to know about this hack's history
A very long time ago
I was academically seduced by my beautiful, charming, and insanely intelligent Politics professor. I was a collegiate wanderer, fresh back from a three-month cross-country drive and a handful of experiences in Los Angeles that made me truly question what kind of person I thought I was capable of being.
It was the era of the Junior Bush presidency, the legitimately lovable scamp from a Scion family whose Pater Primus was deeply involved in American intelligence in the late 20th-century, and whose same paternal connections to defense and logistics interests meant that finding action after action to engage in globally without having to actually call it 'war' was a primary priority for his top advisers (who, not coincidentally, had also been business partners and political colleagues with his father).
9/11 was still freshly behind us. We were already engaging in Afghanistan, but Iraq's narrative was still being built, and it would take Americans another 6 months to re-swallow the pill they thought they took (but shit out intact) in 1991. I was born after Volcker and Reagan took the hard road to stomp out late-70s inflation, but politically, I came of age between the Clinton and Bush eras.
Like most other Democrats of the time, I was bored to tears by Gore and his lack of any actual platform of his own, but this boredom was baked into the plan for Clinton's presidency by his wife, ultimately his best advisor and--in terms of political guile--his better by a magnitude. Gore was selected for his congressional reach and his total inability to upstage a personality like Clinton's, not for his ability to succeed the throne. In fact, Hillary's move to Senate directly following her tenure as First Lady made a Republican successor to her husband all the more advantageous to her ambitions. In 2004, 8, or 12, entering a national ticket as Senator from NY--one of the Oval Office's pole positions--it would be easier to unseat a direct political opponent than it would to negotiate a path through a winning party in a period of clear domination.
I saw most of this, and even so...grimaced at the Nader voters. The green party was a vote of no confidence, not a vote for a man. If you were excited about voting green to finally say 'fuck off' to both major parties, I could see the point, but people were legitimately excited about the man. Nader.
You can laugh at the poor, twice-duped Bernie bros as you like, but imagine being excited about Nader. It makes you remember that this is the end of the 90s, around the time when the weed started getting REALLY, REALLY strong. This is when a gram of beesters was a great night for you and some friends.
Anyway, we listened to Rage. We wore our ironic world-trade sourced mass-produced Ché shirts. We knew that both parties were garbage. I wasn't quite old enough to vote, but I was looking for a Gore win. Did we really want a baby-boomer-era John Quincy Adams variant with all the booksmarts sucked out of him? Did we want a Benji Harrison who, instead of having a grandfather who was a war hero, had a father who was sketchier than twin J. Edgar Hoovers with a desk-drawer full of Ketamine? I'd prefer a bore, and I pleaded with Nader voters this way:
If you're going to vote for a loser anyway, vote for a loser you actually believe in.
When it came to a legal battle, the outcome was clear. Bush was going to be the president when my draft card became legal tender for young bodies. He was going to be President when I voted for the first Presidential, in 2004.
Was I still impressionable in the early 2000s? Sure. But I thought I knew a few things about myself.
- I opposed American imperialism.
- I supported a broad and generous interpretation of the Bill of Rights, independent of party politics.
- I distrusted the Corporation but was also wary of the naiveté that businesses should 'have a conscience'.
- I opposed campaign finance reform. If we're stupid enough to vote for who we see on TV the most, we're not smart enough to host a democracy, because the Demos is already braindead.
I didn't really eat my words on that last one...I simply admitted the possibility. If money and fame had already made us so oblivious to the effect we have with our most important decisions about the Republic, we were well on our way down the slope. (Hey, and here we are!)
Back then, I carefully painted myself a liberal. I certainly wasn't a liberal in terms of economics or self-defense, but the foreign policy issues and the fact that President Bush had talked about "Free Speech Zones" made me a liberal at face value so long as you didn't bring up very specific talking points. Lifestyle questions? Liberal. Education? Liberal. Global cooperation stance? Liberal. Environment? Liberal. Back then, Republicans would happily call me a bleeding heart, and they'd be right.
So, 2002. Did I mention I was in love with my Politics professor? I talked to her after class once a week. I was absolutely NOT a ladies' man in my late teens, as anyone who attended with me could tell you. I was a scruffy dork who never used conditioner and wore awful clothes on purpose, which is kind of a shame when you consider my striking blue eyes and just...tremendous 6'5" frame.
Well, hey, I capitalized on that when it mattered. STILL...
We talked about things we agreed on, things we disagreed on, made some points to each other, and she would give me these reading lists based on where we really lined up and where we disagreed. You should read some more Mill, you'd love him, She told me. Try Bentham, too. On animal ethics: Jeremy Bentham and Peter Singer will convince you!
A couple things stick out to me, one of which I evolved into (my short honeymoon with Utilitarianism), and the other in which my attempts to engage conclusions like Singer's brought me to a different place of understanding regarding animal rights. I was no longer my old self, yet I also didn't fully agree with Singer. I admired his tactics, specifically his excellence in logical rigidity, but through my admission of a few of his social points regarding humankind, some part of my conclusion set was now closer to Singer, while another part ended up further away.
The 'things' in more detail:
1. Basic Utilitarianism; "The greatest good for the most people."
Counter: Utilitarianism taken with rigidity is a grounds to build fascism. But what isn't, am I right? To be honest, I came to find a strange soulessness of the "Utility" concept as the ontological root of a way of thinking. It's a good framework for the grounds by which to support an intervening action on behalf of a human or group of people, but it is not a system by which to seek the framework of the morality itself.
2. [the immorality of] “a prejudice or attitude of bias in favor of the interests of members of one's own species and against those of members of other species".
Counter: Nature must consume nature to thrive, and one is required to employ 'speciesist' thinking in order to make planetary stewardship a human domain. Thus: Humans are necessarily earth's stewards for the good of humanity, not for the human-ideation and abstract personification of earth-in-the-moment. Ultimately, what is truly healthy for humanity (if we consider and correct the ways in which we taint our bodies, water and soil) will inevitably be healthy for earth, and while we can't speak for what a 4 billion-year-old earth with 1 billion years of life considers 'healthy', we can speak for what we consider healthy. Our stewardship should ideally aim at preserving the earth for the enjoyment, health, knowledge, (and eventual preservation and advancement) of humanity, not for the misguided, impossible and ultimately self-centered wish to preserve the planet as it is in the snapshot of one's own geologically microscopic cognizance.
I read Mill. I thought he was sharp. On Liberty changed my life, and I'll pass my annotated copy on to my son so that he can someday counter-annotate it and call me out as a barbarian. I read his father, James Mill--a very physical-thinking pragmatist and a grounded departure from Hume. I often found myself in company with but also bored by the elder Mill, Hartley, and Locke, though they brought me into contact with Voltaire, who both delighted and disgusted me, and Bentham, who has likely made the strongest case for the rights of animals in two-and-a-half centuries. (Singer is more clever and modern--but Bentham does his best to speak to the soul in the way only an abolitionist of that era can know how. In the real world, I've always believed that Singer's gotcha's win less converts than a speaker like Bentham striking to the heart of emotional sympathy using a rational framework.)
That last parenthetical will be on the test. Be prepared to respond to it in 2-3 typed, double-spaced pages.
I read Marx. I didn't find anything about the heavy industrialization era man that I particularly disagreed with, though I was never part of that generation nor lifestyle. Among all my jobs, I cherished physical labor far more than temperature controlled offices and paperwork. Does this mean I'm insane for enjoying mass production without an inherent need to have some direct value connection with the work I perform outside of my currency? Or could it be that the alienation of a 'liberal arts' position like print production is even further alienating than the positions of its blue-collar counterparts?
For Marx, if a pimp is a pimp, what means of obtaining currency should be more alienating than others, excepting only the landowning farmer or the artisan--who literally pour themselves into their work and own the fruits of their labor to trade, sell, or enrich themselves? Is a paper-pusher more or less alienated than a bottling line operator or a coal miner? He's safer, bodily, but is he healthier spiritually?
It is in exactly this, though, that Marx, through no fault of his own as we reach back 170 years, fails to describe the service economy we've become. People who cling to his ideation of alienation without generously reinterpreting and owning their own understanding of its applicability into our post-industrial world are just quoting Marx to quote Marx.
And seriously, how come no one ever quotes Engels?
Because you have to get beyond the poser class. You have you be deep-in to see one of those people who read about the earliest industrial unrests and truly soak themselves in the social experience to which Marx and Engels were responding--the cultural shifts they were watching at play. These are socialists whose ideals are solid and sound, people who would actually be worth watching in a debate with any modern corporate apologist running around in American media today. This class of socialist actually has a mind and can respond to inquiry. This class of socialist has a critical faculty far above what used to pass as the commie cultural-elitist, the type of dudes who really dug deep into the vanguard papers, thought Lenin did everything right and would drop flowers on Trotsky's grave every week if they could.
I found these deep-in socialists, I always enjoyed speaking with them. Socially, (pun?) I would say that I didn't disagree with most of the assessments I heard about the state of human education or politic...but discussion of a theoretical transition always brought us to the same impasses. They always had a tremendous certainty about how easily-centralized things could be, which made me suspicious. Centralization was, to me, the ultimate in banal fascism. The easiest way to give the population no alternatives if things should go wrong--even if under a golden generation, such a system runs flawlessly.
I had socialist friends, I munched on socialist theory, but in the end, I was the edgy kind of douche who hung the old hammer and sickle against red on his wall just to bait people into questions.
"Are you into communism?"
'No, I'm into people remembering what they thought they asked for, and what they ended up getting instead.'
Damn, what a clever dude I was. Can you believe I wasn't swimming in blow jobs? My positions didn't really win me a lot of close new-left friends, as you can imagine...but they would still appreciate my willingness to either inflame or discourage any uptight righty who happened to be around (as they were the people I preferred to test at the time). Plenty of democratic-liberals and moderates were fine with seeing the banner and never asking questions one way or the other. One can imagine being on the receiving end of a long a socialist diatribe before and not wanting to bring up anything that might spark another.
In all honesty, Soviet history interests me terribly, and I adore a lot of the film and art from that era because so much of it speaks to artists having to speak about things which cannot be said. It involves carefully skating a perfectly etched path around so many ideas so carefully, because these contents or themes are forbidden. As a Soviet artist, you had to navigate the minds of those who patronize your very artistry so that you can, in turn, show the world your gifts for the glory of the Soviet society DESPITE all of its pressing limitations upon the expression of your voice--in any medium.
The best of them, perhaps, never considered themselves to be limited. That's all the more frightening, to me.
Returning to the point, I appreciate a socialist who has done their reading, someone I can truly meet minds with. I feel the same way about a Buckley-era conservative. I try to imagine conversations that a proud Leninist might have had with an invited American academic after the Bolsheviks took power, speaking and disagreeing in their conclusions, entreated to a living debate of ideas and observations on human nature. I try to imagine the polite barbs of the 17th and 18th century Dutch, Scots and Englishmen who I find my heart close to (in a way that makes my soul bored of reading them). I try to keep the spirit of the gruesome or hilarious trades of retort between German or French thinkers in the same era of rapid industrialization and growing access to literacy and technology.
We all spoke together once. We tried to out-engage each other's minds. To epiphanize and convert the other. We could sit on couches and debate and insult, drinking spirits and smoking cloves and joints. Yell. Shout. And remain friends. Maybe some of us still can, but it seems like there were so many more of us back then.
Am I imagining it? I would walk into a debate fearlessly and walk back out 15 minutes later having had my ass handed to me by someone whose points I really hadn't considered in my own thinking the way they themselves construe them--with good faith. I always felt like a horse's ass right after (sorry, Peter), but in the coming weeks and months--if you were a reasonable person--you would incorporate these new, nagging thoughts into your framework and try to come to terms with the differences, just as Hegel had done with Feuerbach two centuries before.
And behold, the internet
My first chambers of discourse were AOL chat rooms. It should be embarrassing to say that with a straight face these days, but given the nature and depth of most key players in the Twitterati, I can be proud of my early indoctrination into the importance of typing speed and correct spelling. In the Clinton era, if I was anything at all--I was left of Clinton himself. I questioned his tiny actions in Iraq as I would question the large ones of his successor.
Most of my early time, however, was spent on God. As a Catholic school boy who was never baptized, yet educated in the faith beyond most of the taciturn Catholic set, I had a set of tools and discourses which most of what I will call 'practicing atheists' are loathe to use in their own debates with the faithful: meet them with their own talking points--not those of a skeptic.
an ancient socratic concern, 2000 years hence
I left tumblr in 2010. I could see the writing on the wall, and the years to follow were going to be constraint after constraint, filter after filter. As shareholders and venture capital firms and angel investors demanded results, social media companies were quick to meet state and advertiser demands about the content allowed on the platform, making the erosion of the editorial/advertising curtain complete on news sites, and turning social media D- and C-level officers into pearl-clutching ninnies who were more concerned with their Sunnyvale Mortgage payments than they were about maintaining the freedom of speech that made their platforms possible in the first place. Which is fair. Business is business.
For the news sites, the FCC would make minimal demands about clarifying editorial vs. advertising, but at that point, it didn't really matter. People were camped into whatever tribe they fit, and--as opposed to the era of the counterculture and the Nixonian era that followed it, where you would read your opponents' materials so that you could dismantle them thought by thought in public--they only read their own tribe's sources. This idea of the 'toxicity of bad ideas' and the hands-off doctrine that would make rational debate dangerous would only get worse.