After the Asshole Apocalypse

August 28, 2018

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When American author Edmund White finally published his much-anticipated biography of Jean Genet in 1993, not all of his peers were impressed. Playwright and activist Larry Kramer, for one, wanted to know: at the height of a global AIDS crisis what was White doing, spending seven years in Paris writing about a decadent, bohemian artist/outlaw while gay men by the thousands were dying in the prime of their lives? During a plague, was it not the duty of all gay writers to dedicate the full force of their intellectual powers—every fibre of their being—to stopping AIDS?

In one sense, this objection was crudely dogmatic: by implying that White had moral obligations to the tribe that superseded individual aspirations, Kramer reinforced an essentializing cliché of gay men as being defined by our sexuality. I recall getting similar treatment, later in the Nineties, from a fellow queer Vancouver author who sneered at me for writing a book about the boreal forest when there were so many gay subjects worthy of attention. It has likely been kryptonite for my odds of landing an agent, but I have always eschewed specialty and carry my catholicity of interests, my versatility in subject matter, as a badge of honour. The aesthete in me cannot help but crinkle his nose at Kramer’s prescriptive politics.

And yet: the motivation behind his badgering of White, this idea of fiddling while Rome burns, cannot help but resonate. At defining moments in our history, writers should be willing to stand up and be counted. By “our” history, I’m referring to that of Western liberal democracies; by “defining moments,” I mean when a period of relative stability—functioning government, a guaranteed social safety net, universality of human rights, et cetera—is interrupted by reactionary forces that threaten to undermine or destroy these things. During such times, artists and intellectuals come under pressure to secure our place on the right side of history—not merely confirm our nose for the zeitgeist—by pointing a way out of the mess. (By the way: in fairness to White, Kramer’s fellow New Yorker did assist in founding a French HIV/AIDS organization while living in Paris, and had earlier been a founder of New York’s Gay Men’s Health Crisis.)

As a cultural Catholic atheist still subject to pangs of social guilt, I confess to being moved by this argument. If one is a writer, then one must have ideas worth sharing, an opinion or two, about the world outside her front door. And so, during this period I like to call the Asshole Apocalypse—the scourge of white male bigotry, privileged entitlement and anti-intellectualism that has polluted the Western public sphere since Brexit, typified by the elections of Donald Trump in the U.S. and Doug Ford in Ontario, and coinciding with the nationalist sabre-rattling and puppet mastery of Vladimir Putin, the legitimizing of dictators, the denial of truth, the vilification of free press, and the celebrity of psychologist Jordan Peterson—that shrill, hectoring voice of Larry Kramer has been assaulting my conscience: what have you, Daniel Gawthrop, been doing to contribute to public discourse about the hell in a handbasket we’re clearly headed towards? And the answer is: sweet bugger all.

Forgive me, Larry, for I have sinned: it’s been nearly a year since my last blog entry. During this period my social media presence, apart from infrequent personal posts, can best be described as “lurk & like.” I have my reasons—a full-time job that got busy, a first novel that’s taking longer than expected to finish, and, more recently, a dying father. But those are excuses. The main reason I’ve shut up has been the daily bombardment—both in social and mainstream media—of idiotic statements and actions by public figures, mutual bullying by citizens who refuse to listen to each other, and mind-numbing “fake news” that has dumbed down the body politic to a seemingly irreversible degree. To be sure, the public sphere was already poisoned with such things before 2016. But since then, the madness has accelerated to the point where it’s hard to know where to begin, much less how to keep up with all the train wrecks out there. So I’ve left it to the full-time punditry, the journos and public intellectuals who do this sort of thing for a living, to make sense of it all.

Last October, I took most of the month off to work on my novel. I also took a break from Facebook. On my return, I soon grew weary of all the bad behaviour on my news feed. In my absence, serial sex abuser Harvey Weinstein had been exposed, inspiring the #MeToo movement. This was great—until courageous women sharing their stories got swarmed by agitated men who decried political correctness while insisting they weren’t misogynists. In the aftermath of Charlottesville, an increase in public incidents of racism in both the U.S. and Canada led to a spike in Facebook shares of videos capturing such incidents: confrontations in which angry whites can be seen telling fellow citizens of colour to “go back where you came from.” Please share this video to shame this racist, the posters pleaded (and the next one…and the next one…). Other posts exposed homophobes, religious zealots, neo-Nazis, and sundry other unfortunates earnestly exposing their own knuckle-dragging stupidity. Or Russian bots manipulating public opinion. Or scam artists hacking our accounts to rob or blackmail us. Still other posts devolved into bitter, internecine squabbles about pipelines, Israel/Palestine, police presence at Pride parades, or statues of John A. MacDonald. Entrenched positions became, well, more entrenched.

Was I just getting old? Or was I finally cottoning on to Facebook’s limitations as a tool for progressive change, all too glaring in the wake of Cambridge Analytica? Given our increasingly short attention spans, what difference was all this posting and commenting making, anyway? I was also finding it harder to stomach the tone of debate. There seemed to be more shouting and summary dismissals than before. I was most dismayed by the number of intelligent people on the liberal centre or progressive left—the territory I inhabit—who demeaned themselves with tit-for-tat name-calling, cheap shots, or ad hominem attacks that invalidated their argument, ended all pretense of civilized debate, or both. Often, I could see how they ended up going there—some of their opponents were such offensive bigots I was tempted to weigh in myself—but I knew this was a vortex to be avoided.

Before November 8, 2016, I was convinced my thoughts on current affairs might still be of interest to others, at least to any extent that argument can be useful. But the U.S. and Ontario elections, among other events, have destroyed my belief in rational debate as a decisive factor in determining political outcomes. I hope to regain that belief some day, but for now I’m still haunted by the only thing I ever wrote about The Donald, just before voting day: a triumphalist take-down of his uncultured ignorance, of the fact he not only didn’t read books but was proud of being a non-reader. Of all the candidate’s uncountable flaws, I was convinced that Trump’s intellectual vacancy and chest-thumping, browbeating philistinism—his complete indifference to self-education and personal development through book learning and philosophical inquiry—would prove the ultimate deal-breaker in his bid for the presidency. Ha! As the man himself might have Tweeted, with trademark hyperbole: I have never been more wrong about anything in my entire life.

It is long past time to get over 2016. Rational debate might seem like it’s gone the way of the dodo, but resistance is on the rise. Perhaps the Manafort/Cohen convictions will eventually lead to Trump’s undoing, despite none of the hundreds of other outrages and atrocities to date having been enough to tip the scales. In Canada, perhaps British Columbians will pass a referendum this fall to introduce proportional representation, a voting system that would have saved Ontario from Doug Ford. But while we wait for these things to happen, the world outside is still spinning. And today’s world is a scary place where minorities are under constant attack and the social gains we spent more than half a century fighting to achieve are up for grabs. And so, with the requisite intellectual reboot complete, here endeth my silence with a few thoughts on how we might recover from the Asshole Apocalypse:

1. Recognize that we, too, can be The Asshole.The great coming out party for white male bigots that began in earnest with Brexit and the Trump campaign was shocking to liberals and progressives. But instead of challenging those racist, misogynistic and homo/transphobic views at the source, we have too often drawn from Hillary Clinton’s “basket of deplorables” script to lump all bigots together as a single bloc of citizens that campaign pollsters like to regard as Lost Causes. Rather than doing the hard work of learning why so many people are willing to vote for repugnant candidates against their own self-interest, we’ve indulged in a kind of smug political snobbery about our own moral superiority, writing off Trump/Ford/Farage/LePen supporters as not worth engaging. This is not how elections are won. They’re won by persuasion. We all have people in our lives who don’t vote like we do but, with enough exposure to good argument, could be convinced to change their mind. If we want progressive candidates to win, then we need to be having more of those conversations—and the conversations need to be respectful. Of course it’s hard work, trying to convince people to unlearn their own bad ideas without sounding condescending. But it’s the only choice we’ve got.

2. There are right-wingers, and there are “fascists”. Know the difference. The white supremacists who’ve crawled out from their rocks in recent years comprise a miniscule percentage of the voting public. Since their putrid agenda becomes obvious within seconds of hearing them speak or reading their pamphlets, no intelligent person would waste time engaging with them. If, on the other hand, it’s impossible to ignore them (because, say, they’ve secured a permit for a meeting hall or public demonstration), then the next best response is to ridicule them. Fascists and neo-Nazis tend to retreat or disappear when humiliated, especially by peaceful protests that refuse to take their bait. That’s easy enough to grasp. What’s harder for some Lefties to keep in mind is that not everyone who opposes immigration is a white supremacist. Unlike true fascists, whose hatred is deep, ideological and unmovable, the soft racist you encounter at the supermarket is someone whose bigotry is more circumstantial: it’s easy for him to “other” entire races if he doesn’t know any of their members personally. But introduce him to a Syrian refugee who cheers for the same hockey team—oh, and by the way, could fix his kid’s bike for the cost of a meal—and voila! The door to empathy and understanding opens up. There are many Republican and Conservative voters like the supermarket racist. We need to turn more of them around.

3. The left needs some fresh ideas—or better ways of selling the old ones. Some argue that the problem is ideological: that, once in power, our social democratic leaders are too quick to hop on the neo-liberal bandwagon. Well, there is that. But perhaps it wouldn’t happen—or we wouldn’t be fielding so many weathervane, policy-by-poll-watching candidates—if only we could do a better job of articulating our goals. We’ve been hearing it for years from communication gurus like George Lakoff: the reason right-wingers have taken over so much of the political landscape is that they have “reframed” the way we talk about bread-and-butter issues. The left have been dropping the ball on this for decades. Our leaders and their spin-doctors have to start doing a better job of framing our political language and “asks” around deep-seated values, positions and actions that once made democratic socialism so broadly appealing. You know, things like being good neighbours, caring for others, “having each other’s back,” etc. We all know the progressive laundry list: affordable housing, good jobs, a living wage, public health care and education, small business investment, responsible stewardship of the environment, equality for women and minorities, and bold immigration policy that’s good for the economy and builds more diverse and inclusive societies. But until we can find a way to make these issues as sexy as conservatives make law and order, too many voters will keep on casting their ballots based on their fears. That’s what conservatives are best at exploiting.

4. Our political leaders of the future need to toughen up and prioritize. I don’t like the term “snowflake” any more than Millennials do. It’s patronizing, it trivializes actual suffering, and it reveals less about the target than about the person saying it. But I get where it comes from. Consider, for a moment, that Millennials are now the vanguard of identity politics: the ones most often carrying the flame for gender and culture as organizing principles around which to build social movements. These movements are important, and I’ve been part of them (LGBTQ). But when such movements place single-issue candidacies or campaigns above all other issues, they start to draw oxygen from the larger electoral prize we’re supposed to be keeping our eye on. Want to talk about intersectionality? Call out Jordan Peterson as an Angry White Male? Deconstruct Hollywood films for cultural appropriation? Fine. Do all of these things. But don’t forget to also fight for affordable housing, better long-term care options for seniors, and all of those other things that most people think about before they mark an ‘x’ on their election ballot.

5. Change how we vote, then get the vote out. As said earlier, a proportional representation system would have prevented Rob Ford’s brother from becoming Ontario’s premier. And yet, in B.C. where a referendum on our electoral system will be held this fall, P.R. opponents such as political consultant Bill Tieleman would have us believe that prop rep would allow far right parties to make in-roads into our parliamentary system. He cites Austria and the Netherlands—federal jurisdictions and political cultures in no way comparable to B.C.’s—as examples…In Ottawa, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau could be in trouble, thanks in part to a broken promise about holding a federal P.R. referendum (other policy flip-flops, such as support for pipelines, haven’t helped him either)…The critical fight is in the upcoming U.S. mid-terms. The Democrats not only have to elect a new star candidate, New York’s democratic socialist Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. They also have to elect more kick-ass progressives from the Bernie Sanders mould, and take both houses of Congress. Then, for the next two years, they need to unite around a new program based on progressive principles (see #3), not to mention a presidential candidate who can articulate that program while convincing enough “deplorables” (but don’t call them that!) to vote Democrat. But hey, no pressure, right?

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