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2016: A Liberal Odyssey

Please stop thinking about tomorrow

In a heart-wrenching letter published in the New York Times, U.S.-born journalist Michael Luo described his family’s recent encounter with the kind of bigoted outburst—culminating with the admonition that Luo’s family should “go back to China”—that, sadly, is quite common for Asian-Americans across the country. Indeed, for many people of varying races, ethnicities, sexualities, genders, and abilities, Luo’s letter trembled with darkly familiar echoes of discrimination, fear, hatred, and intolerance. Soon after, Luo took to Twitter to invite other Asian-Americans to share their experiences with racism using the hashtag #ThisIs2016. What really stood out in the tweeted testimonies was how frequent these experiences seem to be, how familiar they are to so many.

What is also strikingly familiar, though, is the premise of the hashtag #ThisIs2016. This exclamation has become a hallmark of liberal discourse, popping up in conversations, pundit patter, social media rants, and even in the titles of articles themselves (“It’s 2016, And Even the Dictionary Is Full of Sexist Disses,” “It’s 2016: Time for cargo shorts to give up and die,” etc.). You’ll also spot it in tweets from faux-authoritative web portals like Vox—“It’s 2016. Why is anyone still keeping elephants in circuses?”—to Hillary Clinton— “It’s 2016. Women deserve equal pay.” Whether we’re talking about racism, sexism, homophobia, or some other abhorrent trace of backwardness, it’s become customary to pepper our stock responses with this ritual affirmation of what progress should look like at this advanced stage of history.

Everyone seems surprised that, in the year 2016, intolerance still exists, yet flying cars do not. And people’s genuine shock that such dark remnants of our past continue to stain our progressive present exposes their deep faith that “2016” is the bearer of some liberal-minded saving grace: the grace of history and progress that will (or should) just make things better. But I think it’s time we address what 2016 really means: jack shit. And there’s a special poison running through the belief that it means anything more.

From the beginning, Donald Trump’s vision to “Make America Great Again” has peddled a dangerously tunnel-visioned nostalgia while appealing to the anxieties and discomforts of people who find themselves adrift in a crumbling now that no longer cares for or about them like it used to. Many spot-on and necessary critiques have been quick to connect the dots between Trump’s nostalgic wet dream of bygone glory and the kind of racism, xenophobia, misogyny, etc. that’s fueled his campaign from the beginning. Such criticism rightly points out that Trump supporters who yearn for the good old days are, in fact, longing for a time when “the good life” was actually built on the oppressive exclusion of non-whites, women, LGBTQ people, and others. Trump freely includes such excluded “others” in his list of scapegoats for people’s current anxieties, and the past he and his supporters long for is dangerously fetishized as a place where such scapegoats would either lose favor in the dominant culture or be eliminated entirely.

However, in railing against the backward desires that spur the claim on history Trump and his supporters are making, we can often blind ourselves to the fallacies of our own myopic historical vision. That’s how ideology works, after all: we don’t notice how it skews our own perceptions. Like death, it’s always something that afflicts someone else. But, while Trump and many of his supporters may fetishize a past that is deeply retrograde, liberals and progressives have also demonstrated a troubling tendency to fetishize a future that they presume is on their side. There’s something peculiarly telling about this kind of progress fetishism, which has been conscripted as ideology-of-first-resort for Clintonite New Democrats.

While Trump may fetishize a past that is retrograde, liberals and progressives have also demonstrated a troubling tendency to fetishize a future that they presume is on their side.

Whether we’re talking about the sleek glitz of technological advancement or the triumph of the values of liberal humanism, the teleological view of historical progress is counterproductive and potentially dangerous. When we’re stuck in the slow hell of rush-hour traffic, for instance, we may catch ourselves grumpily wondering why the hell we can’t teleport yet. But there’s an implied consumerist asterisk next to the “we.” What we mean is, “why haven’t those eggheads in lab coats figured this stuff out yet so the rest of us can live in the future we were promised?” While imposing on the future a specific trajectory, custom-fitted to what we imagine technological progress is supposed to give us, we also entrust the production of that future to experts who, we assume, want the same things we do. This is hazardously akin to the platitudinous futurism of Clintonism, which has smuggled in technocratic neoliberalism and a globally expansive military-industrial complex under the mantle of progressive wishful thinking.

Every time Hillary Clinton and her supporters assert confidently that this is, by God, 2016, they’re reinforcing the idea that liberal progress is an inevitability, that our place in time is proof enough of the placid internal logic of this historical truth. They plant their flag in the wreckage of history and claim it as their own, assuring themselves that the bodies of the past have fallen deliberately in one direction, paving the slow trail to the golden future we currently inhabit. While every political ideology is ultimately selling some idea of “progress,” liberals’ glorification of “2016” drips with a not-so-subtle brand of hubris. Believing the future to be an all-but trademarked branch of the reigning complex of neoliberal governance and humanist tolerance, we see the present not as an opportunity to explore and fight for what could be, but rather as a chance to make good on what should have already happened by now.

This is the crux of the problem. When faced with people like Trump supporters, whose views we may see as stupid, intolerant, and recklessly backward, it’s become perfectly acceptable to rebuke those views simply by shouting “this is 2016!” We see our fellows and their different lifeworlds (dangerously unenlightened as they may be), not as unavoidable elements of a history that is still unfolding, but as irritating roadblocks in the way of a history whose coming is already a foregone conclusion. Buoyed by the grace of “progress,” we posit our liberal values as the open, forward-looking counterweight to conservative retrenchment, which stubbornly clings to outdated traditions and the dismal norms that complement them. But, in fact, our approach is the mirror image of conservatism. Like nostalgic right-wingers who resist the onslaught of a changing cultural sphere by upholding the righteousness of tradition, liberals line the barricades erected around a future whose righteousness speaks for itself.

This trend really emerged with Bill Clinton’s ascent as the walking embodiment of the New Democrats’ messages of a “third way,” which simultaneously promoted social egalitarianism and multiculturalist tolerance while ramping up economic deregulation and punitive crackdowns on crime. Many will remember that the treacly, feel-good melody that served as the soundtrack for Slick Willie’s ’92 campaign was none other than Fleetwood Mac’s “Don’t Stop (Thinking about Tomorrow).” But what kind of tomorrow were we supposed to be thinking about?

With the simultaneous ending of the Cold War, neoconservative philosopher Francis Fukuyama infamously declared this point in time as “the end of history as such.” This, of course, didn’t mean stuff would somehow stop happening, but that we had finally reached “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution [with] the universalization of Western liberal democracy as the final form of human government.” Socialism was the last great rival to the prudent forces of Western self-improvement. From here on out Western liberal democracy was the only game in town. There was no alternative.

But history still teems with ideological cunning, and the little-noted legacy of Fukuyama’s neoconservative broadside is the fact that it was retrofitted to serve as a self-fulfilling prophecy in the collective subconscious of American liberals. The death of socialism brought the great project of liberal self-definition to an abrupt halt, and the first Clinton White House was duly appointed as the emissary of the coming post-ideological golden age. Liberal democracy had secured its right to permanence, and the goal of the future from here on out was to spread the good word. People were encouraged to think of tomorrow not as an open field in which to confront the key unresolved questions of our past, but as a place to uphold and extend the dominance of what had already been achieved.

Moreover, our relationship to the future became deeply and unapologetically personalized. In the ideological atrophy following the West’s world-historical triumph, all that was really required of the neoliberal polis was for individual citizens to get on board, to guide themselves into the light of the age. Our “sacred responsibility” to “posterity,” as Bill remarked in his first inaugural address, amounts to forming a ring around our “ideals,” holding fast to what we already have and ensuring its safe passage into tomorrow. And we defend these ideals, not from any pressing existential threat, but from the outdated, backward-tending labors of those who’ve perversely aligned themselves against progress. At the end of history, challenges from our opponents never really prompt us to look inward; only to fear going backward.

In his second inaugural address, Bill made it clear that the world order the New Democrats would stand for was inseparable from this vision of history: “Prosperity and power, yes, they are important, and we must maintain them. But let us never forget: The greatest progress we have made, and the greatest progress we have yet to make, is in the human heart.” These are the first principles of Clintonite futurism: (1) understanding the unquestionable power of liberal democracy as a settled matter in the grand scheme of history, as something that must simply be “maintained”; (2) positioning oneself and one’s party as the guardians of “the greatest progress we have made,” while re-defining the goal of “the greatest progress we have yet to make” as an irreducibly personal one, a matter that must be settled “in the human heart.”

Not incidentally, these principles helped Bill Clinton train liberal America’s eyes so tightly and so personally on the future that he could practically whistle Dixie while killing welfare, signing NAFTA, and putting the prison-industrial complex on steroids. These same principles have also made it possible for liberals today to claim without hesitation that a vote for Hillary is a vote that will prove to posterity that they are on the “right side of history” (a claim whose clarity is usually amplified by news of whatever Trump’s latest sleazy, bigoted outburst or defiant repudiation of history’s logic happens to be). It’s still greater testimony to the cunning absoluteness of these principles that the Clintons could successfully merge them with Reagan and Bush Sr.’s dishonest rhetoric of individualist uplift, institutionalized in the Clinton Foundation’s armada of microloans and cheaply produced laptops.  

“Why not think about times to come,” Fleetwood Mac suggest, “and not about the things that you’ve done?” Such is the inevitable, popular logic of an elite-guided liberal consciousness that sees the darkest sides of the New Democratic order—if they are perceived at all—as the mere, if unfortunate, “maintenance” of a system for which, at the end of history, there is no alternative. Such is the logic that’s made it possible for Hillary and the Democrats to avoid answering for their most damning qualities by riding the wave of our disdain for Trump and our progressive fetish for the historical defense: “Let’s send Donald Trump a message in November: We’re not going back.” Such logic reminds liberals that their job is to personally embody, and to safeguard in their hearts, the corresponding social and cultural values that testify to their preordained spot at the summit of progress. And to prove it by voting for Hillary.

We will dependably base our biggest political choices on our future-focused need to have our place on the right side of history confirmed.

When our historical terrain has effectively focused most of our political energies to differentiating ourselves from the not-woke-enough opponents of progress, we can lose all critical introspection. We can uncritically pass over the fact that, say, liberal multiculturalism can end up being really racist, tolerance of queer sexualities can end up repackaging biologically determinist languages of eugenics, and so on. Moreover, as the rise of the New Democrats has made crystal clear (from Bill and Hillary to Obama), we will dependably base our biggest political choices on our future-focused need to have our place on the right side of history confirmed. So what if that means more drone strikes, deportations, mass incarceration of minorities, destructive free trade agreements, corporate concessions, and financial deregulation? It’s messy “maintaining” history, after all.

Don’t stop thinking about tomorrow. Don’t stop. It’ll soon be here. And only then will we realize what we could have done to prevent it.

In 2016, liberal values enjoy a relatively dominant place in popular culture—from the Modern Family melting pot to the Hillary Clinton campaign’s multicultural basket of deployables. The world reflected back to us through various media is one that has generally accepted the familiar values of equality, tolerance, respect for difference, a very low-grade critique of corporate greed, etc. The culture wars are over, and we on the leftish side of things have reportedly “won”. . . which is probably why the rise of Trump was so shocking for many.

But Trumpism, among many other deviations from the scripted finale to history, didn’t come from nowhere, and it won’t just go away. One of the direst products of the 2016 election has been the stubborn refusal of liberals and progressives to reevaluate our unspoken presumption that the cultural ubiquity of our “shared liberal values” meant that there was no longer any need to defend or redefine those values. Trumpism should alert liberals that there is, and always will be, infinitely more work to do. Instead, it has only assured liberals of their infinite righteousness in comparison, confirming their conviction that something must be fundamentally outdated “in the hearts” of this “other side” whose followers have chosen to stand on the “wrong side of history.”

Our bizarre obsession with being on the “right side of history” has become another weapon of the “smug style” in American liberalism. Liberal smugness involves more than condescendingly talking down to others who don’t “get it,” reducing the complicated tissue of their souls to the ignominious personal traits of racism, misogyny, etc. Liberal smugness is a posture that permits us to simply take our own righteousness for granted—to the point that we don’t even see the need to defend our positions. Rather than confront the darker sides of our own beliefs, or face head-on the counterclaims on history that other political actors are making, we remain cocooned in our social echo chambers filled with people who already agree with us. We also find affirmation in the broader echo chamber of popular culture, whose dominance further reassures us of the wrongness of the beliefs of others. This is 2016; look around you. Stay woke.

To be on the right side of anything is, as everyone knows, a matter of perspective. In reserving the vanguard spot in the historical drama for ourselves, we’re confidently presuming to know what the perspective of posterity will be. But the more obnoxious aspect of this concern for “being on the right side of history” is its promotion of a singularly self-involved relationship with history itself. History is no longer the people’s furnace of cultural creation and political invention, producing a future whose shape has not yet been hammered out. Rather, in this rigidly schematized vision, history is reduced to the role of set template—divided down the middle with a “right” and “wrong” side for us to choose from—that will bear witness to and validate our personal choice. Is this not just a kind of eschatology? Are we in heaven yet?

Moreover, we’re openly proclaiming our greater, selfish concern for having our righteousness recognized, even if it comes at the expense of diminishing the same noble social values we support. Increasing our social capital (even in death) by declaring our place on the “right side of history,” aligning ourselves with values whose goodness we believe to be teleologically foreordained, cheapens the bloody struggles over said values in the past and the sacrifices that will be required of us to renew them for the future. We’re deluding ourselves to think that the battle will ever be won for good—or that it’s been settled in the progress-trademarked year of our Lord 2016.

Of course, our motivations aren’t entirely self-serving. We still genuinely believe our liberal values are just, good, and “right”; the problem is that we feel the time for defending their righteousness has passed. We bear no responsibility ourselves for defending and improving them. History has already done that. Our function in “historic” junctures (as interested parties describe every election cycle) is just to make sure our hearts are in the “right place,” to ensure the salvation of our beautiful souls in the eyes of posterity. Like the pursuit of getting into heaven, being on the right side of history may necessarily involve you doing good works for other people, but the payoff is still entirely personal. History will reward (i.e., remember) you for being on the “right side,” but you can’t save others who don’t make the same choice.

Something truly sinister happens, though, when having our spot on the right side of history affirmed becomes the organizing principle of our politics at the expense of so much else. Our roles as political agents become so narrowly and personally defined that we turn into social justice warriors who are blind to (or, worse, complicit in) the assembly of neoliberal war machines beneath our feet by our technocratic guardians. Fetishizing liberal progress as an inevitability, reducing our political terrain to the schematic, self-saving choice between a “right” and “wrong” side, fundamentally reshapes our connection to history itself. It takes history as a collective and unending movement into the dark reaches of the future and explodes it into “a thousand points of light” above our heads, giving us the chance as enlightened individuals to simply look up, bask in the glow, and say “oooooohhh.”

Staring into the maw of fascism’s rise, the German philosopher Walter Benjamin wrote one of his most famous and cryptic pieces, “On the Concept of History.” In it, he describes the great and terrible truth embodied by Paul Klee’s painting “Angelus Novus”(New Angel), immortalized in Benjamin’s characterization as “how one imagines the angel of history”:

His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The Angel would like to stay, awaken the dead and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. The storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress.

The helpless and grieving Angel wants more than anything to pick up the pieces that have been laid at his feet, to have more time to sort through it and rectify it, to heal the still-open wounds of humanity. But the Angel is forcibly pulled forward by the storm called “progress,” which never stops thinking about tomorrow. Fascism was defeated, but “progress” takes many forms; the storm keeps raging and the past keeps hurting.

This is 2016. And we’ve captured the Angel of history, clipped its wings, and put it on display in the great hall of liberal progress. It remains unable to reach back to the wreckage and make it whole, but we celebrate it nonetheless. It continues to weep while we raise perennial toasts to its heroic collaboration with civilization’s enlightened protectors.

Listen. Certain liberal values must, indeed, be fought for. What’s missing, though, is the fighting spirit. What’s missing is an understanding of history as a never-ending contest, whose virtues must be won and whose horrors must be confronted every single day. This is the lived material of non-schematized history, and it can never be simply entrusted to the technocratic “maintenance” of elites. In 2016, no one should be surprised to see racism or any other abhorrent trait that runs counter to our progressive ideals, nor should they expect history will just flush these traits away on its own. The forces of tolerance and justice are as weak and vulnerable today as ever, always flickering, always on the verge of being stamped out. And that should be all the more reason for us to be ceaselessly critical and endlessly demanding of the people who claim to be their bearers.