Basketball, Identitarianism, and the New Cold War
Kemba Walker is having a great year. Following the best season of his young career in 2015–16, Walker is currently well on his way to establishing himself as the best point guard in the NBA’s Eastern Conference. Though he was unfairly excluded from the NBA All-Star game last February, overlooked in favour of the pestiferous and undeserving Kyrie Irving, Walker appeared destined—with this season’s game initially scheduled to take place in Charlotte—to make his All-Star debut in front of a familiar crowd of long-suffering Hornets fans. Walker is, by all accounts, a genuinely good person, and I was pleased that that one of the hardest working and most entertaining players around would finally get to enjoy a special moment amidst the unending misery of playing for Michael Jordan’s vanity project.
But Kemba’s triumph was not to be. On the 23rd of March, the North Carolina General Assembly passed the Public Facilities Privacy and Security Act (also known as HB2, or the “bathroom bill”), requiring bathrooms in government facilities to be used by people based on the gender listed on their birth certificate, and prohibiting local governments from enacting non-discrimination laws. On the 21st of July, the NBA, in response to this new legislation, pulled the 2017 All-Star game from Charlotte. It will now be played in New Orleans.
“Why are you guys obsessed with bathrooms?”
This is a question that economist and renowned Trump-predictor Mark Blyth is frequently asked by his European colleagues. Speaking to students during a Trump-themed talk at Brown University on the 9th of November, Blyth explained that, while it actually is an important civil rights issue, a dispute over whether states should be able to decide who persons are, such bathroom controversies nevertheless appear “ridiculous” to those on the periphery of the debate.
For many pundits, the NBA’s boycott of Charlotte is yet another manifestation of an alarming spectre haunting the contemporary left. Universities, we are told, are rife with petulant and sheltered “millennials” who cannot stand to be challenged by new ideas, retreating instead into vigorously policed echo-chambers where they delight in disinviting and no-platforming respectable intellectuals while demanding trigger warnings and safe spaces to protect their fragile minds.
Yet this is merely a resurrection and rebranding of the long-discredited and rightly-ridiculed notion that political correctness has gone mad. The University of Chicago recently made headlines for a thinly-veiled publicity stunt in which it appealed to the growing sentiment among affluent white kids (their target demographic) that their brave and iconoclastic voices are being stifled by a Stalinesque left which currently exerts a stranglehold over academia.
The resurgence of this narrative has been underway for several years, but the “victory” of Donald Trump earlier this month has breathed new life into its wretched, shambling carcass. In the days that followed, mountains of pre-written articles about “campus culture” were hurriedly tweaked and redeployed in order to explain Trump’s election as CEO of the American Empire.
What I find particularly troubling about this theory is that, while traditionally a refrain of the right, it has in its new form gained considerable currency with the left. In the wake of the revolting spectacle of America’s presidential election, supposedly prescient and thoughtful characters like Jonathan Pie and Slavoj Žižek have offered precisely the same explanation—in precisely the same language—as “edgy,” Arab-hating cretins like Bill Maher and Sam Harris. It’s time to take a step back1.Bill Maher has had an axe to grind with the radical left for some time now. After being invited to give a commencement speech at UC Berkeley in 2014, students who objected to Maher’s general bigotry and bland humour had lobbied enthusiastically to deny him the platform. While they were ultimately unsuccessful, Maher had only narrowly avoided being “silenced” according to the critics of political correctness, as though a rich white dude who hosts a weekly show on HBO about his own opinions could in any way be construed as a marginal or oppressed figure.
The students of UC Berkeley, a once illustrious hive of communism and left wing militancy, were dishonoured by the decision to allow this flaccid, faux-left reprobate to blather on about the dangers of political correctness and urge young people to join the rat race: “It doesn’t make you a rat! This is America.” UC Berkeley counts among its alumni the founding members of the SLA, and Maher’s tedious, self-celebratory bloviating is an insult to the memory of these beloved heroes of freedom and justice.
Thus, in order to honour the struggle of UC Berkley students, we at 66th Take invited notorious UC Berkeley alum Patty Hearst to give an alternative commencement speech more befitting the occasion. This is what she had to say:
On the 18th of November the New York Times published an opinion piece by Harvard-educated humanities professor Mark Lilla titled The End of Identity Liberalism, a fairly typical example of what I’m talking about.
“It is a truism that America has become a more diverse country,” Lilla, a ghoulish, middle-aged white man, begins his article. “It is also a beautiful thing to watch. Visitors from other countries, particularly those having trouble incorporating different ethnic groups and faiths, are amazed that we manage to pull it off. Not perfectly, of course, but certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. It’s an extraordinary success story.” An extraordinary success story; certainly better than any European or Asian nation today. I beg to differ.
After conflating advocates of identity politics with members of the Ku Klux Klan, Lilla arrives at his central thesis: “We need a post-identity liberalism.” But for what? I’m all for strategic essentialism under the right circumstances—it is true that we must “at some point constitute a material threat to power.” But Lilla would deploy such a strategy not to galvanise any kind of radical change; rather, Lilla urges his readers to abandon identity politics in order that they might elect a Hillary Clinton instead of a Donald Trump. Better yet, Lilla’s “post-identity liberal press” would magically circumvent Ronald Reagan’s elimination of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 and Bill Clinton’s signing of the Telecommunications Act in 1996 in order to “take seriously its responsibility to educate Americans about the major forces shaping world politics.” Do they not teach political economy at Harvard?
Lilla concludes his article by offering us a glimpse of what a shared American identity could look like. If you suspect it might look like a white, male establishment figure of dubious moral character, congratulations! Franklin D. Roosevelt, the man responsible for the gratuitous firebombing of Tokyo that resulted in the deaths of over 100,000 civilians, is Lilla’s unsurprising choice for a post-identity totem that will help Americans of all backgrounds focus on what they share (presumably an unrelenting hunger for war and death).
Lilla is fairly typical of political correctness detractors within academia: an unremarkable bore who speaks with improper authority on subjects beyond his field, and who, like Tory MP Charles Walker, whines that he no longer understands the rules with a nauseating mix of confusion and entitlement that only one thoroughly accustomed to determining and perpetuating “the rules” could muster. Lilla genuinely appears to believe that Rust Belt voters cared—or had even heard—about the obscurantist bickering of a few student unions, and that it was the threat of this PC tyranny that had informed their decisions on election day. Lilla believes this because he, like the rest of America’s liberal establishment, lives in a parallel dimension in which he spends all day counting his money and smelling his own farts.
But opponents of political correctness can be found outside the academy as well. Lionel Shriver, for example, is an unfairly censored internationally syndicated writer who, when she isn’t authoring novels, spends her time castigating hypersensitive millennials for their inability to tolerate her dangerous ideas. After giving an ill-conceived and poorly-received speech at a writers’ festival in Brisbane earlier this year (during which a few bored and annoyed audience members walked out), Shriver did what any rational person would do: complain publicly in the New York Times. Shriver is so staggeringly lacking in self-awareness that she writes of a “race…to see who can be more righteous and aggrieved” in a meltdown that stemmed solely from her own inability to accept polite criticism. Shriver is evidently so accustomed to being universally praised that an audience member publicly critiquing her speech feels to her like “real censorship” imposed by the “shrill tyranny of the left.”
After warning that the “weaponized sensitivity” of the left will “push [voters] toward Donald Trump,” Shriver brags about her willingness to “defend the right of neo-Nazis to march down Main Street,” as though to tolerate Nazi ideology is virtuous. It’s an easy boast to make so long as “neo-Nazis” remain an abstract and unthreatening rhetorical device, but now that they’re actually starting to crawl out of the woodwork one wonders whether Shriver really would in fact be willing to defend the right of neo-Nazis to, say, organise conferences in Washington. As long as they’re not identitarian millennials, I suppose.
It is in fact the likes of Shriver and Lilla who cannot handle robust debate and who retreat into their own echo chambers when challenged by the earnest and engaged students of today. Is it really the responsibility of hard-working and engaged students familiar with contemporary discourses to indulge pseudo-intellectual pundits, to invite them into their universities and listen attentively as they drivel on, taking care not to ask questions or offer criticisms out of concern for the visiting speaker’s fragile ego?
Ultimately, this notion that identity politics and/or political correctness (the two are apparently interchangeable) has gone too far and pushed the American electorate to nominate Donald Trump is simply the means by which America’s faux-progressive liberal establishment has attempted to admonish the radical left for its own pathetic failures. Sam Harris may try to pin the blame on out-of-control identitarianism, but it is he, the archetypal liberal interventionist and staunch guardian of the status quo, who has been exposed as a fraud. Harris endorsed Hillary Clinton over Bernie Sanders (his main criticism of Clinton being that that she is not Islamophobic enough!) because he simply cannot imagine a future divorced from neoliberal capitalism and American imperialism. Speaking of which…
An additional and perhaps even more poisonous narrative that has gained traction in recent months concerns alleged Russian interference in US politics. The Kremlin has apparently harnessed new and powerful political technology to fuck the minds not only of its Russian subjects but also of innocent Americans! Adam Curtis’ new film Hypernormalisation has taken this narrative and run with it. Curtis (who, it should be noted, does not identify as a “leftist” and is “very suspicious of the left”) cites Peter Pomerantsev as his source on the nature of Putin’s postmodern dictatorship.
Unfortunately, Pomerantsev is an opportunistic lobbyist and covert neocon with close ties to the dubious Washington-based think tank the Foreign Policy Initiative (formerly the Project for the New American Century, the coalition of loathsome, bloated warmongers responsible for George W. Bush’s foreign policy). Pomerantsev’s sole job is to produce propaganda that portrays Putin’s Russia as a uniquely dangerous threat to the West, and to do so as pretentiously as possible so as to entice the discerning liberal intellectual. Yet Adam Curtis, a self-styled “journalist” concerned with “real life,” ate it all up while narrating—presumably with a straight face—his latest film about false narratives. Great job, you imbecile.
In addition to being guilty of the very charge he levels at the Kremlin, Pomerantsev’s media analysis could do with some work. By postulating a hypodermic model of media effects (in which ideological messages are “injected” into the audience simply by virtue of being disseminated), Pomerantsev reveals himself to be out of step with the very field in which he claims expertise. In the 1960s, British cultural studies swept aside the Frankfurt School’s notion of a passive and manipulated audience, conceiving instead of an active audience that creates meaning and the popular. In other words, Pomerantsev’s account of the media and its effects is decades out of date.
This New Cold War narrative, in which Russia manipulated the 2016 American presidential election with its avant-garde propaganda machinery, is yet another red herring intended to deflect criticisms of the Democratic Party establishment and its unending parade of corruption scandals while furthering the interests of the FPI for good measure. The American political establishment does not require the Kremlin’s assistance to derail democracy.
Donald Trump is obviously not an ideal president, but his opponent, the uniquely qualified corrupt Hillary Clinton, a war-obsessed, incoherent, corporate-sponsored monster hated by all but the richest Americans, was not a real alternative. As Žižek has pointed out several times, as bad as Trump’s presidency will no doubt be, a Clinton presidency would have been worse still because it would have resulted in political inertia. The post-election protests we’ve seen would not have approached this scale had Clinton won; America would instead have breathed a sigh of relief and carried on as though nothing had happened. If “the true loser is the liberal elite,” then some sort of victory can surely be salvaged from this mess.
I don’t care for any theories about global Trumpism, not because I’m blind to the effects of neoliberal capitalism, but because they presume a popularity that Donald Trump simply doesn’t possess. He was the most loathed presidential candidate in recorded history according to Gallup, and he lost the popular vote in a year when nearly half of American voters abstained, failing to attract the millions of voters who couldn’t bring themselves to endorse Clinton. He has been awarded the presidency not because America’s flyover states are irredeemable hotbeds of racism and misogyny (and to say this is not to romanticise the American working class), but because America’s distinctly undemocratic Electoral College intervened to deliver this festering toilet bowl of a country the president it so richly deserves: a vulgar game show host.
Until next time, keep your ass down and be bad.
1 This was an unintentional Kemba Walker reference that I didn’t even notice until proofreading.