interesting times

Kanye West and the Question of Freedom

Kanye may be a jackass, but the reaction to his recent antics was still troubling. Photo: Theo Wargo/WireImage

When elites speak of tribalism, we tend to think we’re somehow above it. After all, we have educated minds that have developed the intellectual muscles to resist coarser loyalties, have we not? We value unique individuals over the amorphous group. We like to think we can see complexity and nuance rather than wallowing in coarse Manichean ideas, articulated by demagogues, that divide the world into “us” and “the other.” It’s the unthinking masses who do that. Not us. Unlike them, we are aware of the dangers of this temptation, alert to its irrationality. We resist it.

Except, quite often, we don’t. In fact, in our current culture, it’s precisely the elites who seem to be driving tribal identity and thought, and doubling down on ideological and affectional polarization. In another must-read column, Tom Edsall of the New York Times lays out the academic literature that reveals what is already in front of our noses. Professor Lilliana Mason has a new book that deals with this, Uncivil Agreement. She emailed Edsall: “The more highly educated also tend to be more strongly identified along political lines.” He quoted from her book:

Political knowledge tends to increase the effects of identity as more knowledgeable people have more informational ammunition to counter argue any stories they don’t like

Edsall also pointed to the findings of a 2016 Pew Research Center study:

Much of the growth in ideological consistency has come among better educated adults — including a striking rise in the share who have across-the-board liberal views, which is consistent with the growing share of postgraduates who identify with or lean toward the Democratic Party.”

And so our elite debate has become far less focused on individual issues as such, and the complicated variety of positions, left, right and center, any thinking individual can take. It has become rather an elaborate and sophisticated version of “Which side are you on?” Edsall cites another academic paper backing this up:

An analysis of American National Election Studies data from 1964 to 2012 shows that education is related to decreases in interethnic/interracial prejudice, but also to increases in ideological (liberal vs. conservative) prejudice. This finding could not be explained simply by the greater polarization of the American electorate in the past twenty years.

But even this doesn’t capture the emotional intensity of it all, or the way it compounds over time. Remember how you felt the day after Trump was elected? You aren’t alone:

In their 2015 paper, “Losing Hurts: The Happiness Impact of Partisan Electoral Loss,” the authors found that the grief of Republican partisans after their party lost the presidential election in 2012 was twice that of “respondents with children” immediately after “the Newtown shootings” and “respondents living in Boston” after “the Boston Marathon bombings.”

That’s an intense emotion, and it’s that intensity, it seems to me, that is corroding the norms of liberal democracy. It has been made far, far worse by this president, a figure whose election was both a symptom and a cause of this collective emotional unraveling, where the frontal cortex is so flooded by tribal signals that compromise feels like treason, opponents feel like enemies, and demagogues feel like saviors. Instead of a willingness to disagree and tolerate, there is an impulse to loathe and expel. And this is especially true with people we associate with our own side. Friendly dissidents are no longer interesting or quirky; as the stakes appear to rise, they come to seem dangerous, even contagious. And before we even know it, we live in an atmosphere closer and closer to that of The Crucible, where politics merges into a new kind of religious warfare, dissent becomes heresy, and the response to a blasphemer among us is a righteous, metaphorical burning at the stake.

I think that’s the real context for understanding why magazines and newspapers and websites of opinion are increasingly resistant to ideological diversity within their own universes. It’s why when RedState decided it needed to fire some staffers, only the anti-Trump ones were canned. It’s why a banal neocon like Bret Stephens caused many readers to cancel their subscriptions to the New York Times when he questioned climate change, why Twitter feels like a daily auto-da-fé, why controversial campus speakers need extraordinary security on the few occasions they are invited to speak at universities, why the National Review has found itself shifting from “Never Trump” to almost always “Anti-Anti-Trump,” why some are calling for a purge of conservative voices in elite journalism, and why Bari Weiss deploys the phrase “Intellectual Dark Web” to describe a variety of non-tribal thinkers who have certainly not been silenced, but have definitely been morally anathematized, in the precincts of elite opinion.

The dynamic here is deeply tribal. It’s an atmosphere in which the individual is always subordinate to the group, in which the “I” is allowed only when licensed by the “we.” Hence the somewhat hysterical reaction, for example, to Kanye West’s recent rhetorical antics. I’m not here to defend West. He may be a musical genius (I’m in no way qualified to judge) but he is certainly a jackass, and saying something like “slavery was a choice” is so foul and absurd it’s self-negating. I don’t blame anyone for taking him down a few notches, as Ta-Nehisi Coates just did in memorable fashion in The Atlantic. He had it coming. You could almost say he asked for it.

But still. And yet. There was something about the reaction that just didn’t sit right with me, something too easy, too dismissive of an individual artist’s right to say whatever he wants, to be accountable to no one but himself. It had a smack of raw tribalism to it, of collective disciplining, of the group owning the individual, and exacting its revenge for difference. I find myself instinctually siding with the independent artist in these cases, perhaps because I’ve had to fight for my own individuality apart from my own various identities, most of my life. It wasn’t easy being the first openly gay editor of anything in Washington when I was in my 20s. But it was harder still to be someone not defined entirely by my group, to be a dissident within it, a pariah to many, even an oxymoron, because of my politics or my faith.

I had to make some space to be me, and no one else, at a time in gay history when solidarity was sorely required and manifestly justified. But I hung on, refusing to allow categories to define me, until I had defined them, and reassured myself that the ground I had cleared was a place where other outliers could now gather. I never believed that the gay rights movement was about liberating people to be gay; I believed it was about liberating people to be themselves, in all their complexity and uniqueness. I believed in an identity politics that would aim to leave identity behind, to achieve a citizenship without qualification. I’m not whining about this experience, just explaining why I tend to side reflexively with the individual when he is told he isn’t legit by the group. In that intimidating atmosphere, I’m with the dissenter, the loner, and the outlier. I’m with the undocumented, the dude who has had his group credentials taken away.

And so I bristle at Ta-Nehisi’s view that West cannot be a truly black musician and a Trump admirer, based on the logic that the gift of black music “can never wholly belong to a singular artist, free of expectation and scrutiny, because the gift is no more solely theirs than the suffering that produced it … What Kanye West seeks is what Michael Jackson sought — liberation from the dictates of that we.”

I bristle because, of course, Coates is not merely subjecting West to “expectation and scrutiny” which should apply to anyone and to which no one should object; he is subjecting West to anathematization, to expulsion from the ranks. In fact, Coates reserves the worst adjective he can think of to describe West, the most othering and damning binary word he can muster: white. Just as a Puritan would suddenly exclaim that a heretic has been taken over by the Devil and must be expelled, so Coates denounces West for seeking something called “white freedom”:

… freedom without consequence, freedom without criticism, freedom to be proud and ignorant; freedom to profit off a people in one moment and abandon them in the next; a Stand Your Ground freedom, freedom without responsibility, without hard memory; a Monticello without slavery, a Confederate freedom, the freedom of John C. Calhoun, not the freedom of Harriet Tubman, which calls you to risk your own; not the freedom of Nat Turner, which calls you to give even more, but a conqueror’s freedom, freedom of the strong built on antipathy or indifference to the weak, the freedom of rape buttons, pussy grabbers, and fuck you anyway, bitch; freedom of oil and invisible wars, the freedom of suburbs drawn with red lines, the white freedom of Calabasas.

Ta-Nehisi’s essay has sat with me these past few days, as a kind of coda to the place we now find ourselves in. Leave aside the fact that the passage above essentializes and generalizes “whiteness” as close to evil, a sentiment that applied to any other ethnicity would be immediately recognizable as raw bigotry. Leave aside its emotional authenticity and rhetorical dazzle. Notice rather that the surrender of the individual to the we is absolute. That “we” he writes of doesn’t merely influence or inform or shape the individual artist; it “dictates” to him. And it’s at that point that I’d want to draw the line. Because it’s an important line, and without it, a liberal society is close to impossible.

I understand that the freedom enjoyed by a member of an unreflective majority is easier than the freedom of someone in a small minority, and nowhere in America is that truer than in the world of black and white. I understand that much better for having read so much of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s work. I even feel something similar in a different way as a gay man in a straight world, where the general culture is not designed for me, and the architecture of a full civic life was once denied me. But that my own freedom was harder to achieve doesn’t make it any less precious, or sacrosanct. I’d argue it actually makes it more vivid, more real, than it might be for someone who never questioned it. And I am never going to concede it to “straightness,” the way Coates does to “whiteness.”

As an individual, I seek my own freedom, period. Being gay is integral to who I am, but it doesn’t define who I am. There is no gay freedom or straight freedom, no black freedom or white freedom; merely freedom, a common dream, a universalizing, individual experience. “Liberation from the dictates of the we” is everyone’s birthright in America, and it is particularly so for anyone in the creative fields of music or writing. A free artist owes nothing to anyone, especially his own tribe. And if you take the space away from him to be exactly what he wants to be, in all his contradictions and complexity, you are eradicating something critical to a free and healthy society. You are devouring the individual in favor of the mob. You are reducing a kaleidoscope to black and white.

And notice that in Ta-Nehisi’s essay, two concepts — freedom and music — that have long been seen as universal, transcending class or race or gender or any form of identity toward an idea of the eternally human or even divine — are emphatically tribalized and brought decisively down to earth. Freedom, in this worldview, does not and cannot unite Americans of all races; neither can music. Because there is no category of simply human freedom possible in America, now or ever. There is only tribe. And the struggle against the other tribe. And this will never end.

And that, of course, is one of the most dangerous aspects of our elite political polarization: It maps onto the even-deeper tribalism of race, in an age when racial diversity is radically increasing, and when the racial balance of power is shifting under our feet. That makes political tribalism even less resolvable and even more combustible. It makes a liberal politics that rests on a common good close to impossible. It makes a liberal discourse not only unachievable but increasingly, in the hearts and minds of our very elites, immoral. The promise of Obama — the integrating, reasoned, moderate promise of incremental progress — has become the depraved and toxic zero-sum culture of Trump. Empowered and turbocharged by the mob dynamics of social media, we have all become enmeshed in it.

This is too bleak a vision for me, too hopeless a scenario not to resist it, fight against it, and hold that small sliver of ground still left for the individual and the universal over the tribal and here-and-now. Maybe an underlying source of my disagreement with Coates is that being in the black minority is far more constrictive and difficult than being in the gay one. Gays are less visible a target and freer of the pull of history. Or maybe it is because of my underlying Christianity, and its promise of universal redemption, where there is neither man nor woman, Greek nor Jew, black nor white, gay nor straight, but just one communion, to which everyone is invited. Maybe it’s that I am an immigrant, still prone to delusions about the place I chose because it opened up the world for me, while Ta-Nehisi knows far more deeply what America has been and still truly is. And maybe that’s why I haven’t given up on America, as Ta-Nehisi has, why I still view this country as one that can transcend its tribes rather than be forever in their thrall. His atheism makes hope so much harder and the wheel of history so much less forgiving.

But then I remember a different time — and it wasn’t so long ago. A friend reminded me of this bloggy exchange Ta-Nehisi and I had in 2009, on the very subject of identity politics and its claims. We clearly disagreed, deeply. But there was a civility about it, an actual generosity of spirit, that transcended the boundaries of race and background. We both come from extremely different places, countries, life experiences, loyalties. But a conversation in the same pages was still possible, writer to writer, human to human, as part of the same American idea. It was a debate in which I think we both listened to each other, in which I changed my mind a bit, and where neither of us denied each other’s good faith or human worth.

It’s only a decade ago, but it feels like aeons now. The Atlantic was crammed with ideological opposites then, jostling together in the same office, and our engagement with each other and our readerships was a crackling and productive one. There was much more of that back then, before Twitter swallowed blogging, before identity politics became completely nonnegotiable, before we degenerated into these tribal swarms of snark and loathing. I think of it now as a distant island, appearing now and then, as the waves go up and down. The riptide of tribalism can capture us all in the end, until we drown in it.

Haspel’s Lack of Accountability

I watched most of the hearings this week on the nomination of Gina Haspel to be director of the CIA. You can forget, I think, that this was potentially a rare moment in American public life, a moment when we could actually, finally, hold someone in power accountable for the war crimes of the past, and someone really responsible, someone directly in the line of command. But as I watched the proceedings, I could almost feel that opportunity slipping away.

The old euphemisms — “enhanced interrogation techniques” — were hauled out, as if they weren’t now absurd on their face. Haspel was asked whether torture in the abstract works and said no; but she refused to concede that she had authorized torture herself; she dodged the question of whether she believed that the torture she was directly complicit in was even immoral; she exhibited no remorse — just regret that torture had drawn attention away from the good work the CIA was simultaneously doing. She even refused to make a distinction between the decent intelligence we managed to get via conventional interrogation and the cavalcade of lies that torture produced.

Haspel could have expressed some sense of the gravity of this issue; she could have owned the crimes, while pledging never to repeat them. Nominated to work under a president who has demanded personal loyalty of his appointees, even in the FBI and Justice Department, and who has championed even worse forms of torture than Haspel presided over, she could have emphatically insisted that she would refuse an illegal and immoral order in the future, even if she did no such thing in the past.

But she wouldn’t and couldn’t. We found out nothing new about her role — whether she personally supervised torture, whether she even advocated for it, whether she witnessed it firsthand, or ever resisted it as many others did in the grisly gulags the U.S. set up across the world. She pretended that the absolute legal restriction on the use of torture at any time in any place for any reason was unknown to her. She insisted that her moral compass was strong, when of course the plain facts of the matter reveal it to be nonexistent. She gave them not an inch.

If a public servant in a liberal democracy cannot state without reservation that torture is immoral, then she shouldn’t be confirmed in any position of authority. If there is no bright line here, there are no lines anywhere. I listened and watched her impassive expression closely as she went through the motions of minimal accountability. I only wish Hannah Arendt were around to describe it.

Pro-Trump Evangelicals’ Limits

What happens if it turns out that it wasn’t RNC honcho Elliott Broidy who paid Playboy playmate Shera Bechard $1.6 million to keep quiet about an affair that eventually led to an abortion? What happens if we find out it was Trump?

Stormy Daniels’s lawyer, Michael Avenatti, was the first person to insinuate this possibility on cable television. But the full case for this scenario is laid out in these pages in pellucid and rigorous detail by Paul Campos. What’s gripping about the piece is that Campos’s account really does present a “narrative in which the behavior of all of the primary parties in this matter — Trump, Cohen, Broidy, and Bechard — is fundamentally consistent with their well-documented personal histories, unlike the story reported by the media.” Broidy’s past and his behavior when confronted with this scandal do indeed seem somewhat bizarre. I’d usually be skeptical of a conspiracy theory — until you begin to absorb the multiple layers of deception and cover-up, recklessness and chaos that Trump has engaged in his whole life.

But what intrigues me is whether this would actually be enough to get the religious right to abandon their cult-leader. The pro-Trump evangelicals have already staked out a position: Nothing in Trump’s personal character or history matters compared with his advancement more generally of a Christianist agenda in the federal government and especially the judiciary. And if that’s truly the standard, if evangelical Christians have absolutely no interest in the fact that Trump is a serial liar, adulterer, and philanderer, then surely an abortion in his wake wouldn’t matter either.

I think of it as a litmus test for their tribalism. Some small part of me would love to believe that this indeed would be a deal-breaker, that even though Trump has boasted he could shoot someone dead on Fifth Avenue and face no political repercussions from his base, maybe the killing of an unborn child could shake what’s left of American evangelicalism out of its trance.

And then I snap out of it. They’d weigh one abortion against the millions of others sustained by the Roe regime, and give Trump yet another Mulligan. Once you’ve turned Christianity into a mere instrument for wielding political power over others, the logic becomes entirely utilitarian. There is, in many ways, no going back now. It is simply a matter of how great the moral cost of the entire, grisly transaction will be.

See you next Friday.

Kanye’s Comments Were Troubling. But So Was the Response.