Help Me Name This Thing, Send Me Questions, And A Reader Has Some Smart Thoughts On "Feel-Bad Liberalism"
Do NOT force me to go with "The Singalarity"
It’s a cold, rainy morning here in Brooklyn, but I am warmed by the fact that it is Championship Sunday in the NFL, and tonight my New England Patriots [loses 10 subscribers] will be making their eighth-straight appearance in the AFC Championship game [loses 13 subscribers]. They’re playing the Kansas City Chiefs, who are led by the shockingly spectacular young quarterback Patrick Mahomes and who are slightly favored. But I’m sure we all agree that Tom [loses 17 subscribers] Brady [loses 19 subscribers], a figure America loves [loses 28 subscribers] the same way it loves, say, the concept of patriotism itself, will find a way to pull it off, and that the entire nation will be joining together tonight to cheer the Patriots on as one [loses 218 subscribers].
It is probably too early in our parasocial relationship for me to admit something so personal, so embarrassing, but: I am dangerously close to simply naming this newsletter “Singal-Minded” and moving on. There are some benefits to this name: It is straightforward, it more or less describes what the newsletter will be, it doesn’t pen me in, subject-matter-wise, and it is just unclever enough that it will garner a few pity-subscriptions: Wow, based on what he named his newsletter this guy needs all the help he can get. I feel bad for him!
I also think it passes the ever-important Homer Simpson And His Friends Start A Barbershop Quartet Test:
Skinner: Only one question remains, gentlemen. What do we call ourselves?
Nigel: How about, "Handsome Homer Simpson Plus Three?"
Barney: I like it!
Apu: Wait, I do not.
Skinner: Er, um, we need a name that's witty at first, but that seems less funny each time you hear it.
Apu: How about, "The Be Sharps?"
(Everyone laughs loud at first, then less, then the laughter tapers off)
But I’m not yet decided on this, and I’d like to give readers a chance to chime in. If you have any ideas for what I should call this thing, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org with “newsletter name idea” in the subject line. Maybe I’ll pick the one that cracks me up the most and award whoever comes up with it a To Be Announced Prize Of Actual Tangible Value (a TBAPOATV). If someone suggests a name that actually dislodges Singal-Minded — or the other frontrunners, such as The Singalarity, Singal And Somewhat Okay With It, Singal And Swinging, etc.* — then there will definitely be a TBAPOATV.
(*I promise I am not actually considering any of these three)
Also, I want to make a regular habit of answering reader questions, so send some my way. This was something I should have mentioned yesterday, but over the years I have gotten some very smart and thoughtful emails from readers, and I love the idea of regularly featuring and responding to such notes in this newsletter. It can be a question about a social-science subject I’ve covered, about my work in particular, or about anything else that seems newsletter-relevant. Just put “question from a reader” or “QFAR” in the subject line. I’ll probably only consider responding to questions from actual subscribers, rather than drop-in web-readers — a signal that I value my subscribers and want to provide them with enviable perks like the chance to do my job for me by producing content ideas. Suffice it to say I’m quite open to answering civil emails that say things like Here is why I think you are quite wrong about X, as long as X has nothing to do with Tom Brady.
MILESTONE: My first newsletter-error. After publishing my inaugural post yesterday, I smugly believed myself to have avoided any errors. Alas, I was tripped up by a missing I — the most important word of all! — in a sentence that originally started, “This strikes me as the sort of thing that would make for a good edition of this newsletter: a deep-dive that’s a bit too wonky for a genuine-interest article in most of the outlets in which publish [sic]…”
That [sic] will haunt me forever — this was my one shot at perfection. (On the web, it has been fixed, and no I will not be calling attention to my minor errors in the future.)
I haven’t made any permanent decisions about formatting, layout, etc. I’m just going to wing it for awhile. Ideas and feedback are welcome.
Letter from a Reader: Why Feel-Bad Liberalism is a Problem
Last weekend I tweeted out some larval thoughts about what I call “feel-bad liberalism,” or a style of liberalism that seems mostly concerned with expanding the list of things left-of-center people should feel bad or guilty about, often in ways that (I would argue) are much less tangibly connected to improving the world and addressing injustice than certain people claim them to be, and/or which rely on rather radical notions of politics or language that have little purchase in the real world. A good example is the claim that you shouldn’t use the term “space colony,” because “colony” can also refer to colonialist endeavors, which led to untold suffering and death.
In an email, reader Bridget sent in what I think are some really sharp thoughts on why this concept is worth worrying about:
One of my frustrations with FBL is that I think it distracts people from actual real-world policies we should protest and want our elected officials to change and has them obsessed with abstract, amorphous and sometimes subjective enemies like sexism, racism, etc. Those concepts are important, but you can't actually fight "racism" — you can fight housing inequality, inequality in access to good education, bad police training, and cruel immigration laws by enacting specific policies or mobilizing communities to take certain actions, but to do that you need to have relationships and rapport with people and why would someone want to have a relationship with you if you're obsessed with talking about how much they suck for minor infractions against subcultures they don't understand and have never had the opportunity to get to know in a positive way? I want to become involved in political activism, but it's hard to figure out how to do so effectively, and the toxic atmosphere around a lot of these communities makes me very nervous. I was planning to join the Democratic Socialists of America after I get a stable job and a better handle on my life, but the circular firing squad and pursuing insane fantasy policies that normal people hate (like completely abolishing the police) might scare me away. [tiny edits for style]
I think Bridget captures the stakes here quite nicely. Anyone who argues that yes, FBL is a problem, is likely going to be hit with two immediate counterarguments: 1) they are cherrypicking from random, radical blog posts and articles; and 2) really, they’re just upset people are talking about racism and other forms of oppression more and more assertively than they used to, which they find threatening.
Bridget’s email points to one real reason FBL might be a problem: It enervates people. It gives them the message that unless they are close to perfect when it comes to what they believe and how they express themselves on a wide range of ever-shifting, frequently confusing and campus-radicalism-infused issues, they will be judged unworthy to participate fully in progressive or leftist politics. Imagine if a political community took seriously the claim, linked to above, that to use the term “space colony” is to “erase the stories of and violence against the people of color who lived and ranched” in the New World when the Europeans arrived. Imagine if language were policed that vigilantly. Would anything ever get done?
Actually, there’s little need for hypothetical questions here: I bet most of my readers have encountered, online or in real life, actual communities that do police one another’s thoughts and language this obsessively. Are the people in these communities, on average, happy or sad? Do they become, on average, more or less fulfilled as a result of their involvement with the communities in question? And are these communities, on average, more likely to accomplish tangible political goals, or to melt down into unrecognizable blobs from the heat produced by all those circular firing squads?
If you don’t believe me that these dynamics could pose a problem for leftists and progressives, at least familiarize yourself with what the experts who study why social movements succeed or fail have to say. In the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election, I had the opportunity to interview some of them for an article on New York’s website. The conversations were fascinating — and, in retrospect, they often fit in exactly with what Bridget is talking about here.
This is a somewhat long excerpt, but I think it’s worth reading, because the academics I quote express these arguments more compellingly, and from a base of more first-hand research knowledge, than I ever could. I’ll bold for emphasis what I view as the key points:
The other big reason organizers should refrain from focusing too much on Trump — or partisanship more generally — has to do with social networks. Here the work of Ziad Munson, a sociologist at Lehigh University, is important. Ziad studies why people join and become increasingly active in social movements — he’s spent countless hours interviewing and researching the motives anti-abortion activists, tea partiers, and members of terrorist groups. One of the key things he’s found, over and over and over, is that people often get involved in movements without having particularly strong ideological commitments to them.
Take the anti-abortion activists who were the subject of Munson’s book The Making of Pro-life Activists: How Social Mobilization Works. “I went back and I tried to determine what were their beliefs about abortion the first time they were involved in some kind of pro-life activity,” whether a protest in front of a clinic, the March for Life, or whatever else, he explained. “At that moment, only half of them would have considered themselves pro-life.” Moreover, a quarter “would have openly said they were pro-choice.” So why do they get involved? Someone asks them to. In one instance, for example, a woman’s eventually intense, long-term involvement in anti-abortion causes began simply because her doctor, whom she respected a great deal, asked her to come to an event. Prior to that, it just wasn’t something she had thought of.
Now, imagine if this woman, or the other half of the activists Munson had interviewed who didn’t identify as anti-abortion, had been told at the outset that they were only welcome if they had certain preexisting beliefs about abortion. It very likely would have prevented them from becoming effective members of the movement. That’s a lesson Munson thinks today’s organizers should keep in mind: The more your movement broadcasts ideological demands, the more you drain the pool of potential members. There also appears to be a tendency, among lefty protesters, to bundle together all sorts of disparate causes — Black Lives Matter is paired with climate justice is paired with freeing Palestine, and so on. From the point of view of a potential newcomer, it can be daunting. “There’s this strong tendency in these protest groups to want to be ideologically pure,” said [Michael Heaney, a University of Michigan political sociologist]. “They’re much more concerned that they say their own piece and that they believe that they are right — that’s more important to them than actually achieving policy changes.”
Munson took that critique even further. “This has historically been one of the differences between the left and the right,” he said, “and it’s one of the things the left can learn from the right. What my research has found is that the right has far fewer ideological purity tests for activism than the left does. So they’re taking all comers and they’re converting people in action. Just come, and just do it. By contrast, there’s a whole language you need to know from some of the left groups — your ability to be involved often depends on already having a healthy résumé of doing other lefty things. I think that that basically makes it a kind of echo chamber, and it doesn’t allow you to bring in new blood.” The right, he said, has historically been more inclusive. “The anti-abortion folks are the ones that I know the best, but the right, they set up internships and they have summer programs and they organize these campaigns, and anyone who shows up they just take. And you’ll either be turned off and leave or you’ll become one of them.”
Now, none of this proves that everything about my (still quite larval) FBL argument is correct, or that FBL is a genuinely novel concept rather than a microwaving of oft-previously-stated concerns about psychologically toxic activism/slacktivism and callout culture. I still have a lot more thinking and discussing to do before I can write this up as a full-blown essay I can stand behind, and tomorrow I’m actually supposed to get a beer with another journalist who is going to try to convince me that I shouldn’t write the essay at all (he’s smart and I’ll at least hear him out).
But in the meantime, I’m less concerned with convincing people to agree with my specific FBL label and diagnosis than in spurring a broader recognition that progressive and leftist movements at least sometimes ignore, or operate in direct opposition to, basic and trivially true aspects of human psychology: People are more likely to want to be part of a movement if they sense they are welcome, if that movement makes them feel good and useful, and if they sense they are helping work toward a tangible goal that is within reach.
You probably won’t have any luck convincing me that these statements are false. On plenty of the other specifics, though, I could be wrong. If I have readers who are FBL skeptics, I’d like to hear from you.