Assistant Professor of English, University of Michigan-Flint. I research and teach rhetoric, technology, and writing.
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The President of Blank Sucking Nullity

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Any attempt at psychologizing Trump should begin and end here: he is a blank sucking void of vanity and appetite.
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betajames
19 hours ago
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my writing advice

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Given that I’ve written a book about reading, and a book about thinking, maybe I should write a book about writing? I don’t think so. Writing has always seemed to me such a strange act, and one that can be pursued in so many different ways, that it’s extremely difficult to make useful generalizations about it. If you were to read all the Paris Review interviews with writers, I bet the primary lesson to take away from the whole experience would be: Writers are different — different from one another.

But insofar as I do have any general advice for writers, it boils down to this:

  1. Find the time of day when you do your best thinking — when your intellectual energy is at its highest — and set that time aside for writing. (If that’s impossible because of work or other responsibilities, then find the best time that’s available to you.) Then preserve that time. Be flexible and generous all the other hours of the day, but be rigid and ruthless about your writing time.
  2. Write to think. Don’t try to know where you’re going before you start writing, but write to find out what you think, or find the story you need to tell. Never expect that a particular time-unit of writing will produce a given number of publishable words. You must learn to think of your writing time as a period of discovery, in which you find out what you think, or what images and rhythms tend to emerge from your mind, or where a story seems to want to go. If you focus on discovery, then something worth sharing with others will emerge, in its own way and on its own schedule. But that’s not the kind of thing that can be forced. Allow yourself the freedom to explore.

Of course, these rules can be, and by some should be, broken. Anthony Trollope’s time for writing was determined by his work day at the Post Office — he had to get the writing in before heading off for work — and in order to get the most out of the limited time he had, he always thought out, in the hours after work, what he would write the next morning. But I think most people who want to write will benefit from following the two suggestions I make above.

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betajames
19 hours ago
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Democratic gubernatorial town hall in Flint: No policies to address lead poisoning disaster

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The event was a stage-managed exercise in political evasion.
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betajames
2 days ago
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The rot in our public discourse is neoliberalism’s fault

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Whenever I picture talking to my Republican parents about Trump, I always anticipate an “I know you are but what am I”-style response. Obama was narcissistic, too. Democrats have supported racism in the past. You only think that because you rely on biased liberal media. Etc., etc., etc. It’s exhausting and almost impossible to break through, and it’s hardly limited to my parents — conservative media has cultivated those rhetorical habits for literally decades at this point.

It’s worth pausing to consider the sheer moral nihilism of this rhetorical stance. On the surface, it seems logically contradictory — if both sides are equally bad (to a stunningly consistent degree, on every single issue!), then what possible basis is there for choosing one over the other at all? How is such a view compatible with passionate, lockstep support of one of the equally bad sides? This common sense view misses the real dynamic at play, though. False equivalency turns partisan identification into a sheer act of will, inaccessible to reason. Both sides are equally bad, and yet we support different sides — so it must be that we support those sides simply because we support those sides.

And hence no one is in a position to judge, because everyone is an arbitrary ideologue nihilistically rooting for their team. If there is a shade of difference to be discerned, it’s that conservatives are “at least honest” about the nature of their identification. In other words, everyone’s political stance is structured exactly like conservatism, but liberals won’t admit it to themselves because they are seeking out some illusory social prestige through “virtue signalling.” After all, no one can really care about people outside their own group — once again, everyone is secretly a conservative underneath it all.

From the other side, liberals are addicted to hypocrisy attacks and other demonstrations that their opponents are stupid, uncouth, or otherwise disqualified from consideration. This may initially seem more intellectually promising, insofar as it makes use of something like logic, but even on its own terms, this strategy doesn’t make sense. Would more consistent racism be better?

As with the conservative version, the liberal rhetorical stance presupposes that everyone is a liberal, but the conservatives are just not as good at it or something. And it is every bit as much a defense mechanism. If we stay on the purely formal level of judging the structure of their discourse, then we don’t have to actually confront their ideas — which would open up the possibility of real, principled conflict. This is the true nightmare of the liberal position: that we would somehow discover that white supremacists are behaving perfectly “rationally” given their initial premises, that the formal safeguards of logical consistency and public deliberation are not enough to guarantee automatically “good” results.

And this brings me to the title of this post: where did this dynamic come from? I think we can point the finger at neoliberalism. After the inital triumph of neoliberalism, the window for serious, principled political dispute rapidly closed — all the most important questions about how the economy and political order should be structured had been answered. At that point, politics really did become a question of arbitrary identification based on tribal loyalties, stylistic preferences, “virtue signalling,” etc. And now that the neoliberal order is breaking down and we really do need to find some way to hash out serious differences and make collective decisions about how our society is going to look, we find that a generation of neoliberal anti-politics has left those muscles completely atrophied.

This is why the younger generation is leading the way, because they are the only ones who haven’t yet had a chance to get worn down to the nub of “I know you are but what am I” or knee-jerk hypocrisy attacks. And it’s also why both the US and UK left have been led by members of an older generation — they remember a time before neoliberal zombification, and they heroically stood their ground against it. But in the vast middle swath that currently holds power and is in a position to maintain it for the foreseeable future, there has been a terminal brain drain that leaves them incapable of solving real problems.


Filed under: neoliberalism, politics of the absurd



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betajames
3 days ago
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Calling a Fascist a Fascist

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This is a guest post by Lisa L. Miller, Professor of Political Science at Rutgers University

In the movie Denial, which recounts the story of the libel lawsuit filed by disgraced historian David Irving against Emory University Professor Deborah Lipstadt, who labeled Irving a Holocaust denier, Professor Lipstadt is surprised to learn that the legal team hired by the book’s publisher does not intend to defend her claims by proving that the Holocaust did, in fact, happen. Rather, they aimed to show that David Irving deliberately misused, manipulated and lied about historical evidence in order to promote his own ideological and racist ideas. The reason for this decision, offered by solicitor Anthony Julius in the film, is that getting into a war of evidence with someone who denies reality for ideological purposes, plays right into his hands. It opens a debate about a subject on which all the evidence is on one side, and provides an opportunity for Irving to pick apart the experiences and lives of the traumatized.

I have been reminded of this film many times in the past few months, but never more so than last week-end when President Trump refused to draw a sharp line between white supremacists/neo-Nazis, and the people protesting them. Now, decent-minded people are consumed with trying to prove that there is no “alt-left” comparable to the racists on the right, that the fascists incited violence, and that they are different in kind from the anti-racists protesting them.

The temptation to argue with the peddlers of hatred is great. How can we let stand the false equivalency between those promoting fascism and those opposing it? Surely we must prove the truth.

Perhaps. But getting into a war of evidence may simply provide opportunities for the forces of fascism to normalize and mainstream their views. It introduces and legitimates the idea that there is even a debate worth having.

A different approach would be to ask: What is the history of these groups, what is their purpose? What ideology is served by the deliberate falsifying of historical and contemporary facts? What do these groups want?

The evidence certainly suggests that Donald Trump is, at a minimum, a racist sympathizer. He single-handedly used his wealth and fame to perpetuate the lie – wholly racist in nature – that President Obama was not born in the United States. He has declared his intention to deport millions of law-abiding Muslims, ban immigration of Muslims, and has called Mexican immigrants drug dealers and rapists. He openly accepted the support of avowed white supremacists during his campaign and has done virtually nothing to distance himself from these groups and their political aims since.

The neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups that marched in Charlottesville are similarly transparent in their purpose. They believe in the supremacy of white European Christians over, well, everyone else. In particular, they want to eliminate Jews and Blacks from their communities, and are also deeply hostile towards Latinos, Muslims, LGBTQ folks, feminists (perhaps women, generally), Catholics, and many others. There is no mystery here. They are hateful and dangerous groups whose aim is dominance.

Rather than get drawn into an argument with the inevitable “whataboutery,” perhaps we repeat again, and again, and again, for however long it takes, that these groups are violent authoritarian thugs, that they celebrate a past filled with genocide and brutality against groups they despise, and that they tell endless lies. They lie about Jewish people, they lie about the Confederacy, they lie about their own superiority. They lie about women, about gays, and about Catholics. They invent falsehoods about any group or individual that challenges their hierarchical worldview. We should be asking, loudly and frequently, what reason is there to give these groups, their members, or their leaders any credibility whatsoever?

Last summer my husband and I spent five days in Berlin, a city that brings the rise of fascism into sharp focus. Walking through the Topography of Terror – the museum detailing the emergence of Hitler and the Nazi party that now occupies the land where the SS headquarters once stood – then standing by the remains of the wall that separated East and West Berlin for nearly three decades, and finally, touring the Stasi Museum, housed in the former command offices of the East German Secret Police, the parallels between the tactics of authoritarians in both contexts are clear. The communists in Germany in the 1930s and 40s, having been hunted down, imprisoned, shamed, and sometimes executed by the National Socialist Party, apparently learned their lessons all to well. When their turn came, they deployed intrusive, damaging and frequently lethal methods to maintain control of power.

The Nazis and the East German Stasi shared contempt for the rule of law, for political competition in all forms, and, most horrifically, for any persons or groups who they deemed undesirable or a threat to their ideological or racial purity. On their way to total domination of Germany politics, the Nazi Party outlawed opposition parties, and then shamed, persecuted and executed Jews, gays, labor unions, gypsies, communists, the disabled, and Slavs. Their greatest atrocity, of course, was the slaughter of millions of Europe’s Jews, but their brutality knew few bounds. They burned books, imprisoned journalists, publicly humiliated women who had relations with the ‘non-pure,’ and deported tens of thousands of people. For their part, the East German Stasi ferreted out any potential chinks in the communist ideological armor by spying on youth, journalists, religious leaders, among many others, and justifying the murder of opponents it deemed ‘enemies of the people,’ which, as with the Nazis, meant anyone who disagreed with them.

It is worth noting, as well, that women played subservient roles in Nazi Germany, as essentially guardians of the race, and the upper ranks of the East German Stasi were completely devoid of women, despite communist rhetoric of gender equality. The women’s bathroom that was built in the Stasi Headquarters was eventually removed because there simply were no women at the highest levels of the East German Secret Police to use it.

And violence, or the threat of violence, was a pervasive part of Nazi and Stasi rule. Preparation for military excellence was a central feature of Hitler Youth. Twenty years later, East German children visited theme parks with tiny tanks as carousel seats, and learned rifle training at school. The underlying theme in both contexts was the need to be prepared, always prepared, for attack, for infiltration or invasion by the ever-present enemies of ‘the people’ (the pure Germans, the committed communists). That not every individual associated with the Nazi party or East German authorities supported or engaged in violent attacks is largely irrelevant because violence is at the core of any authoritarian political agenda.

Last week-end, the alt-right put its sympathy for these views on display for the nation and the whole world. They came to Charlottesville proudly waving Nazi symbols, confederate flags, white power slogans and signs, helmets, shields, sticks, guns, and they came carrying torches – a menacing display that is so deeply, and obviously, reminiscent of the Klan’s domestic terrorism. They chanted angry and vile slogans that were then made real in the murder of Heather Heyer, and the brutal beating of a black man.

Contempt for women from President Trump has been on vivid display since the Access Hollywood tape went public, and has parallels in the alt-right movement, some segments of which use harassment, threats and violent imagery to terrorize women in public spaces they deem male-only. The alt-right protestors who descended on Charlottesville were overwhelmingly male.

While Europe watched and waited in the 1930s, the Nazis were busy dismantling any political, social, or economic institution that might be able to challenge them and labeling any group opposed to them as dangerous. After the war, the East German Stasi quietly built an infrastructure of spying and propaganda based on a similar premise – that some groups threaten the racially and/or ideologically unified Volksgemeinschaft for whom the nation-state is really intended.

We, by contrast, have the luxury of hindsight, and the moral weight of history. We must do more than never forget. We must consciously and relentlessly remind everyone who these people are, what these groups stand for, and why they are so keen to normalize and mainstream their presence. They are not mainstream and this is not normal. No fascism on our watch.

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betajames
5 days ago
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The Trickle-Up Theory Of White Nationalist Thought

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Neo-Nazis, white supremacists and other demonstrators encircle counterprotesters at the base of a statue of Thomas Jefferson on the University of Virginia campus in Charlottesville, Va., on Friday.

Dressed up as academic reasoning, racist tropes pushed by white identity advocates become more palatable, allowing those ideas to move from the fringes of debate to the political mainstream.

(Image credit: NurPhoto/Getty Images)

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betajames
5 days ago
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