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Selective Skepticism and the Nihilism of Bullshit Politics
Understanding the new conservatism.
Every week I highlight three newsletters that are worth your time.
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1. Eyes on the Right
My friend Damon Linker has started a newsletter which is absolutely crucial: An ongoing, deep set of observations on what is happening to conservatism. I’ve already subscribed. You should, too.
The first two entries are about Glenn Greenwald and Steve Bannon and what makes this project stand out is that Damon isn’t just scoring points. He’s unpacking and making sense of what is going on beneath the surface with these people.
For instance, in the Greenwald piece the moment Damon said “selective skepticism,” a lightbulb went off in my head and everything about Greenwald made sense:
Greenwald is a vivid case study in the deleterious intellectual and moral consequences of selective skepticism. . . .
Appalled by the way the Bush administration waged the War on Terror, Greenwald adopted a position of intense skepticism about its policies and the way it justified them. And about everyone who served in the administration. And everyone in the media who acted as a cheerleader for those policies, or who even publicized administration claims with insufficient skepticism.
That has served Greenwald well as a journalist. It’s good to be skeptical of government policies and official justifications of them. It’s good to criticize media outlets that get too cozy with power. It’s good to hold authorities to account when things go badly or embarrassing mistakes get covered up. Greenwald has done all of that—with Bush-era Republicans, and with center-left Democrats who supported the Iraq War and signed off on the administration’s national security policies (as well as with Bolsonaro’s government and the politicized prosecution of Lula in Brazil).
The problem is that Greenwald’s skepticism is applied selectively. Anyone who had anything to do with the Bush administration, anyone who was once insufficiently skeptical of it (including many Democrats), and any media company that has hired or given a megaphone to administration staffers or one-time defenders now works under a cloud of absolute and permanent suspicion in Greenwald’s mind—while anyone who shares that suspicion of Bush-era Republicans, center-left Democrats, and mainstream media outlets gets treated as a trusted ally in pursuit of the truth.
I don’t see any other way to account for the fact that Greenwald spent almost the entirety of the Trump administration eviscerating center-left Democrats and journalists for pushing the story of Russian collusion in the 2016 election, about which he was thoroughly (and sometimes justifiedly) skeptical, and yet had very little critical to say about the rampant corruption, incompetence, and insurrectionary lies of the 45th president and his political and media enablers.
Or why Greenwald now mixes intense and sometimes reasonable skepticism of Biden administration statements about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and the Ukrainian government’s own propaganda with credulous takes about the war that tend to align with what Vladimir Putin and Russian apologists say about the origins of the conflict.
Or why he would continually apply severe (and occasionally well-earned) skepticism to Rachel Maddow and MSNBC over their news coverage and analysis while the right-wing fear-mongering, demagoguery, and agitprop of Tucker Carlson and Fox News are allowed to slide.
Again and again, Greenwald applies intense skepticism to a finite list of political and journalistic enemies while applying none at all to those with whom he shares antipathies. The enemies of his enemies are his friends, and friends apparently get an automatic pass.
If this were just a personal peccadillo, it might not be worth noting (even in a subscription newsletter). But it’s actually an especially vivid example of a much broader and quite pernicious trend.
Yes! All of this makes absolute sense! And Damon goes on to examine how this disease of selective skepticism is spreading.
In his piece on Steve Bannon, Damon gets to the heart of what drives the man:
Non-radical, “ordinary” politics can be a pretty prosaic affair, as different parties compete for the chance to make incremental changes hemmed in by public opinion, which acts as a fixed limitation on the possible.
But radical politics is different. It’s a form of idealism, in the sense that it imagines a very different future and motivates people to bring it into existence by telling a compelling story about the possibility of remaking the world of the given. Communism was born through this kind of process, and to this day the most ambitious and self-aware people on the left are keenly aware that it’s sometimes possible to conjure a new public that’s eager to bring forth a whole new reality and future order of things.
Bannon grasps this, too, which is why he once half-trollingly referred to himself as a Leninist. He understands the possibility of remaking the world. But to what ends? There things become obscure.
Bannon knows what he hates. Liberals. Progressives. The left. China. But what’s the alternative? It can’t be anything that resembles the Republican Party of the past, because he hates that, too. What then? He can’t really say. In place of a vision of a better world, he offers only negation. His “ideal” future is one of leveling destruction—like the skyscrapers collapsing, one after another, in the final scene of the movie Fight Club. What comes after the skyline has been reduced to rubble, Bannon hasn’t a clue. All he knows is that he wants to be the one to place and detonate the TNT. . . .
Those of us who devoted ourselves to making sense of the Trump administration frequently struggled to nail down precisely what was so unnerving about his presidency. Was it the policies he pursued that were unusual for a Republican president? Or his furious combativeness? Or the corruption that swirled around him and his family? All of those things were troubling, and some were terrible.
But far worse and more dangerous was the bullshit.
It began before Trump launched his presidential campaign, with the “birther” conspiracy about Barack Obama. It leapt to prominence early in his presidency, when, a day after his inauguration, Trump insisted before a throng of employees and reporters at CIA headquarters that the crowd gathered the previous day on the Washington Mall was the largest ever for such an event, despite photographic evidence definitively proving otherwise. . . .
The ultimate consequence of spreading BS far and wide is a gradually rising tide of chaos—epistemic, moral, and political. Hannah Arendt rightly saw it as preparing the way for totalitarianism in general and fascism in particular.
I’m not calling Bannon an outright fascist. His positive vision is too indeterminate to be pinned down with any precise ideological label. Yet it’s also undeniable that one potential outcome of the politics of bullshit could be a revolution or coup in which a strongman (perhaps along with a cadre of needy, self-deluded morons) seize power amidst intentionally cultivated confusion about just what the hell is going on.
Again: Read the whole thing. Because once you do the connection between nihilism and bullshit—and why those two modes of operation are a threat to democracy—becomes clear.
I hope you’ll subscribe to Damon’s project. It’s a valuable contribution to understanding the world.
2. Uncertain Futures
To be honest, I know nothing about this newsletter by Anton Stjepan Cebalo except that this essay which introduces the term “quantum politics”:
[W]e have come to expect some chaos or, at least, more unpredictability than usual. Our bias to normalcy, that we enjoyed since the 1990s, has been shaken. Today’s historicity can maybe best be summed up as a mixture of shock, surrealism and bewilderment. . . .
Someone who has taken the future’s erratic prospects as particularly worrisome is former Armenian President Armen Sarkissian. He spoke about it candidly at the 2020 Munich Security Conference: it was becoming increasingly difficult to predict social outcomes with any certainty. Social systems are so complexly entangled today, it is making them more chaotic. A trained physicist specializing in computer modeling, Sarkissian is no stranger to randomness within systems. It is from this vantage point that he calls today’s social sphere ‘quantum-like.’
The quantum-like element that Sarkissian was describing is the public, made up of individuals who are bouncing around multi-directionally within a convoluted system of interrelations and nested groups. Politics, in our digital century, has thus been transformed. Its unpredictability, buttressed by technology and the infosphere, is one of the main drivers of history today.
Obviously, this idea is hitting all of my erogenous zones.
Quantum theory deals with the ‘world of the very small.’ One of the most main takeaways of this world is that, on the subatomic level, one cannot ascertain where the quantum entity is and where it is going at the same time. If you try to apply deterministic and continuous frameworks, you will not grasp it. Obviously, quantum mechanics do not influence historical forces directly. Still, as a metaphor, it can be a useful means of understanding our current social environment.
In social processes, the “world of the very small” is individuals who are connected by a networked web of relations. The complex chain of interactions is unknowable, but nonetheless produce large-scale effects. These individuals seldom know what their end point is. Their main drive seems to be motivated by dissatisfaction in most cases. It is the ‘energy” that jolts everything when it reaches critical mass. . . .
Quantum-like politics is about sudden swarms, made possible by the infosphere.
There follows a long historical digression, which isn’t terribly compelling, before Cebalo gets to the nub:
[W]e still live in a world of geopolitics. The difference today, however, is that this realm is also being augmented from below, by the ‘world of the very small.’ The emergence of this quantum-like realm forms an entirely new terrain, which exists both inside and outside traditional geopolitical concerns.
I don’t know what I think about his thesis—you can discuss it in the comments. But it’s interesting and worth examining.
3. Bald Faced Truth
John Canzano writes about the Oregon State baseball team. As always with baseball, it isn’t really about baseball:
Mitch Canham’s Oregon State baseball team woke Monday, running on fumes. His Beavers faced elimination, stared down a sobering end to the season and punched it straight in the nose.
Three OSU home runs.
Ace pitcher Cooper Hjerpe summoned to pitch two innings as a closer.
The Beavers won 7-6, beating Vanderbilt. The No. 3-seed advanced to the Super Regional, where it will host Auburn. But all I could think about was Canham in the dugout and the strength it took all those years ago when he was just a kid.
Canham’s father served in the Navy. His younger brother, Dustin, was a Marine and his older brother, John, was in the Army. He even had an uncle who was a paratrooper nicknamed “Skull.” The former Beavers’ catcher talked about his family in 2007 when I covered him as a then-college kid in Omaha.
He spoke then about his mother, Kim, too.
She began using drugs when he was in elementary school. His parents divorced. Life got hard. Canham was just a freshman in college when his mother was discovered dead in her apartment in Spokane.
“Heroin and methamphetamine,” the autopsy read.
She was 40.
It was difficult for Oregon State to lose on Sunday to Vanderbilt and have to come back for a do-or-die Monday game. The Beavers pitching staff was worn out. The end of the season crept closer. The Commodores had a deep and dangerous lineup and good pitching. The television coverage in the last couple of days kept cutting to the now 37-year old Canham in the OSU dugout.
He looked unfazed.
The Beavers aren’t the most gifted team in college baseball. But they’re opportunistic, resilient and tough — a lot like Canham. They’re Jake Dukart, who grew up rooting for OSU as a kid and scored two runs on Monday. They’re Matthew Gretler, who hit the go-ahead home run in the seventh inning. And they’re Hjerpe, a dominant starter summoned like Randy Johnson to get the final six outs in a must-win game. . . .
In 2007 in Omaha, Pat Casey said of Canham, his star catcher and leader: “If the enemy’s coming over the hill, I want him pretty close.”
The Beavers beat North Carolina in that College World Series final and dogpiled on the field. I was there to write about it. Canham was smack in the middle of every important scene that weekend — the hugs, the heroics, and a wonderful pile of OSU exuberance after the final out.
Canham emerged as the go-to interview for media members that unforgettable week in Omaha. He spoke candidly about the death of his mother. The catcher confessed that he felt lost and blamed himself after her death. To cope, he wrote songs, played baseball and leaned on his teammates.
Canham is such an easy guy to pull for.
After college, Canham spent the next eight seasons riding buses in the minor leagues. He played for 12 different teams, in places such as San Antonio, Memphis and Harrisburg, Pa. He never made the big leagues, but never lost the joy either.
When Canham was named head coach at Oregon State in 2019 he told me, “I love this game.”
It loved him back on Monday.
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