Guru Shit

On Liberties journal and the project of liberal rehab

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“Catharsis . . . is the orgasm of conscience.”
—Leon Wieseltier, Liberties 2

The yard fight over cancel culture reached what you’d call a good stopping point on July 17 of 2020, when J. C. Hallman, writing in Columbia Journal, recalled that the matter had been settled already with U.S. v. Alvarez, a First Amendment case decided by the Supreme Court in 2012:

Alvarez lied about receiving the Congressional Medal of Honor. He was prosecuted under the Stolen Valor Act of 2005, it went to court, and after a protracted battle the Supreme Court ruled that Alvarez’s First Amendment rights had been violated. Lying about receiving military honors was protected speech. (In 2013, the Stolen Valor Law was replaced with a law that made it illegal to lie about receiving military honors with “criminal intent.”)

. . . Alvarez’s bad speech, Kennedy argued [in his majority decision], should not be prohibited because he had already been “ridiculed online.” There was no need for an additional curb on his speech, as “counterspeech” full of “outrage” and “contempt” had revealed Alvarez to be a “phony.” Other “false claimants,” Kennedy went on, would likely befall a “similar fate.”

“And what’s made clear by the Court’s decision,” Hallman further advises, “is that if you’re going to cancel ‘cancel culture’ then you’re going to have to be prepared to do something about free speech, because the Court has already ruled that ‘cancel culture’ serves as an important check on speech in the public sphere, creating serious consequences for those who disseminate lies or spread objectionable views.”

Far from rejecting cancel culture as a pernicious trick, the Court’s liberal majority instead etched it into the pedestal of American civic life. Its adversaries, eight years later, were merely turning this pedestal into a carving board, calling a legal fact of American liberal democracy a perversion of liberal norms, fuming over a cause they didn’t fight for at the right time or in the correct venue.

Far from rejecting cancel culture as a pernicious trick, the Court’s liberal majority instead etched it into the pedestal of American civic life.

Hallman was responding to an open letter drafted by writer Thomas Chatterton Williams, signed by a collective without qualities, and posted at Harpers.org [1] on July 7 of 2020. It is now called “The Harper’s Letter” for that reason. A small classic of bland fanaticism, the Letter lays out in three paragraphs the intellectual analogue of the 2017 Presidential Inaugural Address, a phobic view of democracy under siege from “all sides” by “forces” of “illiberalism” and “censoriousness.” It ties Black Lives Matter and #MeToo to political “coercion,” although without the minor courage needed to print the names of the movements. Published just over two months after the police murder of George Floyd by suffocation, it has the gall to argue that “the lifeblood of a liberal society, is daily becoming more constricted.” It ends with a flash: “We need to preserve the possibility of good-faith disagreement without dire professional consequences. If we won’t defend the very thing on which our work depends, we shouldn’t expect the public or the state to defend it for us.”

You would think the Harper’s signees would know not to expect the public or state to defend their jobs from reputational damage inflicted in good faith, bad faith, or any faith. Their tireless promotion of liberal capitalism should have apprised them of its laws and norms. And who is “we”?

One Billboard in NoHo

The Harper’s Letter was of course nothing but an elaborate advertisement for out-of-the news liberal gurus. These pissed-off burnouts were not prepared to grind through the remaining legal option; they did not have the stuff needed to launch a national campaign for a Constitutional amendment ending cancel culture. The plan instead was to front with a shadow play about illiberal gloom in order to get the word out about the new resistance. All this fuss three months after Bernie Sanders’s primary defeat, and four months before Joe Biden would vanquish half the forces of illiberalism in one unstolen election. Of course they were selling something.

Yascha Mounk, who works at the Johns Hopkins University’s School of Advanced International Studies—you probably know him from the internet—had already, on June 30, launched Persuasion, a website that has so far pushed a liberal nationalist agenda dense with anti-cancellation energy. Elsewhere, Thomas Chatterton Williams joined The American Enterprise Institute and caught the rightward drift at Harper’s, where he now takes turns in the Easy Chair, to my knowledge the first neoconservative “liberal” to do so.

Williams later joined with spiritual editor Leon Wieseltier, a recovering prestige magazine guru and self-redeemed Iraq War hawk. Wieseltier has lost it all more than once, the first time when Chris Hughes bought and cybered The New Republic (Wieseltier left himself), and later when “several women” accused him of inappropriate sexual behavior. This torpedoed Wieseltier’s dream of starting a liberal magazine, called Idea, with money from the Emerson Collective, a for-profit organization founded by Laurene Powell Jobs.

Liberties, orphan heir to Idea, is the new project, a next best chance. Wieseltier did not sign Thomas Chatterton Williams’s Letter, but he did, presumably, find someone else’s money. The magazine’s stated aim, very much in the spirit of the Letter, is to “rehabilitate liberalism,” implying its intemperateness, and to halt “the Robespierrian haste with which people’s heads were chopped off before they could say a word.” That’s why his journal, like Persuasion, uses a name that very loudly trolls the #MeToo movement.

Wastin’ Away Again

Liberties hit newsstands in December of 2020; by then no one was buying magazines on newsstands. America was in the dead eye of Covid-19. Liberalism was on its way back into power, though Donald Trump was in the midst of his months-long bid to throw out the election results. The summer had cooled, and it was a bad time to persuade former New York Review of Books writers to purchase stock in ending cancel culture.

This was instead the moment for a new and bold liberal Idea written in a soporific language of guru aphorisms that somehow gather, like a fog, into interminable essays filled with vaguely moral considerations of race, war, corruption, transgression, Covid, international relations, and saucy old movies. This slow-motion bacchanal would be led by the Symposiarch himself. Wieseltier, across his own four essays, rehabilitates liberalism with a pearl-string of schizoid apothegms: “At sea is our new sea.” “Apocalypse is not an analysis, it is the death of analysis.” “Tenacity is what patience looks like in the middle of a struggle.” “We should welcome each person we meet as a small blow against blindness.” “Every view is a view from somewhere.” “Truth in America is a refugee, an undocumented immigrant.” “We will gag on our roots.” “Sometimes there is good company in the wilderness.” “To curse liberalism is to curse the future.” “If hope and history ever rhyme, in accordance with the poet’s wishes, it will be a soft rhyme, a weak rhyme, a half-rhyme.” “An apocalyptic is a man in extreme pain.” “Error is a form of innocence.” “But not even two jugs are identical, if they were made by human hands, and if you think they are identical then you have no eye for jugs.” 

Which is to say that Wieseltier has been holed up with his friends at Latitude Margaritaville, churning out four volumes of thick crayola-colored journals filled with this goop. It’s also crammed with dissident poetry, typographical errors, and the slow-liquid musings of many-titled professors. These crazy assholes have published 104 contributions of essays and poems, numbering over 1,400 pages. No one seems to be editing; no one seems to be fact-checking; no one cares. They are a 501(c)(3), but financial filings are not yet available for Liberties and there is no publicly available information about its funding.

You Must Change Your Lifeworld

Leave nothing twisted, Liberties is not going soft on the left, just slow, coming at us with the “Three I’s of the Guru”: incrementalism, interventionism, and inescapability. And because it is the least guruish essay in the whole journal, James Wolcott’s “Futilitarianism, or To the York Street Station,” is the safest way to learn this fact. A brisk propaganda supercut of histrionic left-wing reactions to Bernie Sanders’s primary loss, Wolcott’s piece just as briskly becomes a standard-issue hit on “left political savants,” or people who until recently worked at bookstores. And Jacobin magazine. [2]

Wolcott, a Catholic liberal, has a harsh gripe with an online left that would cancel the sainted Joe Biden. These “defiant dead-enders associated with Jacobin, who, when not rumor-mongering about Biden’s purported crumbling health, cognitive decline, incipient dementia, and basement mold” are trying to ruin it for him. Worse, they “attempted to kite Tara Reade’s tenuous charges of sexual harassment and assault at the hands of Biden into a full-scale Harvey Weinstein horror show.” Wolcott’s Idea here is that the left has no solutions and so practices a politics-by-cancellation; the truth, of course, is that going negative—though maybe not as dark as Wolcott imagines—was what Sanders should have done in the primary rather than move, as asked, to the mail room. Still, I doubt Wolcott would have gone full counterspeech himself if he had some premonition of the solutions his colleagues at Liberties would offer.

First I: Incrementalism

Wolcott’s incrementalist posturing appears practically macho next to the economic proposals of Nicholas Lemann—the Joseph Pulitzer II and Edith Pulitzer Moore Professor of Journalism and Dean Emeritus of the Faculty of Journalism at the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Writing in the second issue of Liberties, Lemann concedes that “the current economic discontent is a revolt against a designed system that took shape with the general assent of elite liberal and conservative intellectuals . . . [who] were more closely focused on other issues to pay close attention to the details.” His remedy for this widespread discontent—especially in light of recent news that the Senate just passed a trillion-dollar infrastructure bill—is wild:

I am proposing a great remaking of the political economy as a primary task over the next generation. At this moment the most useful next step in that project is not to produce a specific policy agenda, but instead to outline an approach to politics that could create widespread popular support for the larger project.

The same power and light can be found in “Honey and Poison: On Corruption” by Matthew Stephenson, the Eli Goldston Professor of Law at Harvard, who wants everyone to understand what he’s not saying: “This is not to say that corruption can ever be defeated. The temptations to use one’s entrusted power for private advantage, or to use one’s wealth and influence to improperly influence public decisions, are just too strong.” As far as unsolicited confessions go, this is pretty strange, but it gets stranger if you consider that despite the corruptive urge that overwhelms the unscrupulous everyman, “a series of small victories, which may not seem by themselves to do much to change the fundamentals of a corrupt system, can add up to something bigger and more transformational.”

The Harper’s Letter was of course nothing but an elaborate advertisement for out-of-the news liberal gurus.

Predictably, Liberties saves the realest transformational visions for climate change. Michael Ignatieff’s “Liberalism in the Anthropocene” reads like the little magazine version of a David Lean epic on TCM. Fittingly, it’s here where Liberties begins to reveal itself as a QVC-level sales pitch, premised on affect and presentation rather than on meaningful ideas. Channeling the dark liberal energy of the Harper’s Letter, Ignatieff summons the bogeyman of “terrible fear.” “We fear our own powers and their consequences; we fear our world ending, going dark in environmental collapse and plague, followed by that old evil stand-by, barbarism.” But, ever true to the guru, Ignatieff promises salvation from “barbarism” not with socialism, or even an austere technocratic agenda, but with a “complex story of how we became lords and masters of nature.” The essay ends with a landscape shot: “We must be unafraid to confront the dark side of progress now, but without losing faith in the human campaign to make life better. This is the conviction that we need to save our planet and ourselves.”

No one wants to get called a futilitarian, but I don’t feel much mastery over the earth these days. And if I ever could lord it over nature, I absolutely would not take the approach Ignatieff recommends:

Dissolving a big problem into little steps is the essence of a liberal politics. Radical environmentalists like to scorn gradualism and incrementalism, but working with incentives and markets, liberal gradualism is on the cusp of transforming Western energy systems. Look around at all those windmills and all those solar panels. Look at the way renewables are competing with fossil fuels on price. This is how regulated markets can work.

It gets worse and more deluded: “All these small gestures certainly have ‘big number effects’ when millions of strangers, uncoordinated, all join their little efforts to our own.” Oh, man, they sure don’t. No serious person believes that a package of windmills and magically conjoined liberal individualists is going to reset the Gulf Stream; it will not even be possible, according to reporting done by the Bazarovs at the New York Times, to limit warming beyond 2050 without “aggressive, rapid and widespread emissions cuts, beginning now.”

Second I: Intervention

One trait that separates the guru from the cult leader is his cool personality. He favors lightly perceptible shifts from deep narrative concern to promises of better days, often encouraging a commitment to goalposts that move. To remind you he was a normal guy before his adherence to the method, or just to break the ice, he’ll sometimes add a little confession.

No one wants to get called a futilitarian twice, but I don’t feel much mastery over the earth these days.

“I should confess immediately that I supported the Iraq War,” Wieseltier writes in Liberties 3. “When I realized that the assumption behind the invasion was wrong, that the dictator in Baghdad was bluffing his way to his own destruction, I promptly retracted my support, but I did so in a way that did not please the anti-wars.” This is feeble—not strictly because of the Iraq War’s incalculable historical harm, unsalvageable by liberal moralism—but because it’s one of the big reasons certain liberals quit listening to Wieseltier to begin with. Here’s a guy who would roll foreign policy back to 2003, when the neocons had a hotline to Tacitus. This is a man who feels deeply that his relevance depends on a coming war.

He does not, in Liberties, get much war footing from his friends. Edward Luttwak, a nutzoid military futurist, high-minded former President Trump supporter, and entertainingly cut-rate Paul Virilio, merely shrugs on China, about which he says “the fate of China lies in Chinese hands.” Eli Lake is just as blithe on Iran and Russia: “The best outcome for countries such as Iran, China, and Russia is for its own citizens to reclaim their historical agency and take back their societies and their governments from their oppressors.” The cause is not entirely lost, though. The interventionist war agenda awaits the right circumstances:

But when moments arise that reveal fissures and weaknesses in the tyrant’s regime, when there are indigenous democratic forces that are gaining ground, America must intensify and assist them. . . . When opportunities for democratic change emerge in the world, the wiser strategy is to support the transition and not save the dictator.

“Again,” Lake says, lifting his eyebrow, “this is not a license to invade countries or foment military coups.”

Third I: Inescapability (Universalism)

This brings us to the dark, sick heart of Liberties, which premises its slow colonialism on a suitably gnomic idea of truth and morality. “This is a matter of both strategy,” Lake writes, “and morality.” Wieseltier, for his part, waves his hands at war crimes:

Don’t I know about the innocent blood spilled in the just wars? What about the interventions that went wrong? What about the infringements of sovereignty, that most hallowed of Westphalian principles? And the cocky way I am using that word “good”—good according to whom? These are fine and urgent questions.

Since you’re asking, we can cover them now: You’ve written in these pages about the mass death in Syria resulting from the wars you’ve supported, so you know that much. But you can’t use words like “innocent” and “just” until you answer your final question. Good according to whom? Whose morality permits the spilling of the innocent blood, justifies the war, comprises the infringed-upon sovereignty?

Liberties needs an updated theory of liberal universal morality if it’s going to satisfy its incrementalist war lust, not so much a common Idea but an Idea of commonality, one that will mobilize future Americans against a future ideological enemy, which could include anyone in any country who does not believe in the Idea, or just doesn’t care about it, or has never heard of it, doesn’t understand the language in which it was expressed, or was never asked. Wieseltier’s intellectual opponent here is the dead American philosopher Richard Rorty, whose “relativist” children “are everywhere” destroying the foundations of Truth by way of real mean tweets and spectacularly gratuitous acts of cancellation. These are the selfsame children of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo that the Harper’s Letter was too timid to name.

The guru act reaches its climax here with Thomas Chatterton Williams, guest-starring as Liberties’ Stephen Miller, who arrives to serve up a novel theory of universalism with his “Notes on Assimilation.” His tone has chilled considerably since the hot summer of 2020, and he’s rounded out his method. “What we need is an unpejorative understanding of assimilation that views it simply as a means of experiencing the capaciousness of the world.” All he’s doing here is reverting to the first order definition of “assimilation” as a process of taking in information; he’s trying to enstrange the word assimilation, stripping it of its racial and colonial history, making it fun to say again. “Assimilation is a welcoming impulse, an expression of nothing more sinister than curiosity.”

Assimilation is not an impulse but a process—the process Thomas Chatterton Williams is attempting to set in motion. By conflating two ideas of assimilation, he wants you to believe that the act of identification itself—thinking of yourself as black or as white trash—is what’s preventing you from achieving universal handholding. By learning to disidentify from the thing you identify with, you’ll take a baby step toward rejecting consensus and, paradoxically, joining the organic liberal whole. Every Westerner will disagree in a nice way. No one will get canceled unduly. We’ll know who the enemies are: the identitarians.

It’s novel only because Thomas Chatterton Williams cooked it up after cancel culture got invented. Its salient feature is the promise that asking “How white am I not?” will thrust you into the universal sublime. Individual acts of disidentification might be meaningful to an individual person, but by definition they don’t amount to “collective,” or, much less, “universal” politics. The supporters of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo were not protesting solely because they were themselves murdered by police or sexually harassed or raped, they weren’t “identifying” with a rigid thing. It wasn’t about individual association at all. Politics happens because of collective disagreement, not individualist disidentification; the names of the movements are declarations of equality. And the left is where the debate about these “urgent questions” is treated most seriously and most persuasively, by writers like Jacques Rancière and Asad Haider, who argue that the only universalism that matters is collective emancipation.

Thomas Chatterton Williams’s obsession with magical identity rejection goes back a long way. It reads like a trauma he revisits in order to relearn a most valuable lesson. In Self-Portrait in Black and White, a self-help memoir that guides readers through the process (assimilation) of “unlearning race,” he disidentifies with the person he was just a few minutes earlier:

The nurses whisked away my child, the doctor saw to my wife, and I was left to wander the empty corridor until I found the men’s room, where I shut myself and wept like all the other newborns on the floor. I mean newborn literally. Along with the litany of universal realizations—of new and daunting responsibilities, of advancing age—I was aware, too, however vaguely, that whatever personal identity I had previously inhabited, I had now crossed into something new and different.

Dang. After his wife does the hard work of birthing their child, Williams finds himself “literally” reborn as a baby with an incrementally different, revolutionary new identity. “I had now crossed into something new and different.” Where to? We’re all interested to hear about this noumenal world of liberal universal vibes; unfortunately, not all of us have or want new babies. What is it like in there?

You have to buy his first book to find out. In Losing My Cool, Williams goes back to the cave where he met his philosophical dad, Plato. It’s here that he discovers a world without cancellation or fixed identities. It’s the universe of the Forms and the Idea, and the cost of entrance into this piecemeal assimilatory bliss is overcoming the temptation to listen to rap music:

The way philosophy worked, it occurred to me at some point, was the exact opposite of the way the black, hip-hop-driven culture operated. Whereas the latter dealt strictly with the surfaces of things—possessions, poses, appearances, reactions—the former was nothing but the penetration of facades. The more I read in philosophy, the more I felt like that escaped slave from Plato’s cave. I had been mistaking shadows for reality all along. The fact that this was such a sophomoric, clichéd revelation to come to in light of all my father’s efforts to expose me to learning only illustrates the degree to which hip-hop culture—that invisible glue that stuck me with RaShawn—had placed a barrier between me and even the most universal aspects of intellectual life.

Inasmuch as it expresses anything, this passage shows Williams’s early conversion to the cause of explicating exploitation to the exploited. In this Platonic view, the philosopher’s job is to peer beneath the depths or above the fray, beyond the shadows, into the sun. His enlightenment is shareable; indeed, the others depend on the philosopher’s explanation of concepts because they’re too busy listening to Freddie Gibbs, looking at shadows. Luckily for Liberties you can still sell horseshit like this in the marketplace of ideas. It’s as easy as coaxing math from a slave.

 

[1] It was later published in a print edition of Harper’s magazine.

[2] Wolcott curates his kill list well enough. The Baffler even gets a nod as the “futilitarians” of the title, though, unforgivably, he also claims we’re a quarterly. “But The Baffler offers mostly confirmation of the system’s machinations,” he writes, “the latest horrors executed in fine needlepoint, no exit from the miasma.” I’d restrict my edits here to replacing “mostly” with “detailed” and “the miasma” with “politics.”

Jonathon Sturgeon is editor in chief of The Baffler. He was previously senior editor of the magazine, deputy editor of artnet News, literary editor at Flavorwire, and senior editor at The American Reader. He has contributed essays on literature, visual art, cinema, and politics to the Guardian, Frieze, ArtNews, and The Paris Review, among other outlets.

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