inauguration day, 20 january 2017, university of washington, seattle
To my right, hundreds of people herd together behind a barricade, sprawling across the western flank of Red Square. Men and women, mostly young, white, fashionable and collegiate. Aside from the placards and ‘Make America Great Again’ baseball caps, they’re indistinguishable at a glance from shoppers at any of the nation’s great upscale shopping malls. A more urbane set than one imagines lining up to hear one of the country’s most infamous misogynist, islamophobe, ethno-nationalists. Yet more chic, right-wing journalist and self-professed internet “supervillain” Milo Yiannopolous will later appear to this eager public with bleached hair, aviator sunglasses, and a gaudy mohair cardigan—giving new resonance to the phrase ‘hipster racism’. But then, white nationalism itself is back in vogue this year.
To my left (of course) a second crowd herds symmetrically across the barrier that bisects the red brick quadrangle. Men and women, white people and people of colour, mostly young, and perhaps a little scruffier on average than their counterparts on the right. Many dressed in black to be harder to single out and arrest. They’ll blockade the auditorium tonight; only half of the ticket-holders will get in. Many wear masks to guard against ‘doxing’ by roving right-wing agitators, who’ll film counter-protesters and identify them on the web for anonymous hordes of right-wing trolls. (The masks weren’t enough, but more on that below.) These counter-protesters number in the dozens, for now. But hundreds of reinforcements will soon break away from the J20 inaugural demonstrations downtown and make the hour-long march to campus to make their stand against Yiannopolous. The scene is both jubilant and surreal as hundreds of boots and banners swarm up the streets and stairs to breech the campus.
‘No Trump. No KKK. No fascist USA’, they’ll chant. Across the barricades, one man’s sign retorts, ‘Reject the fascism of the Left’. Strange that both parties can agree that ‘fascism’ is a bad thing, but not on what it is or whom it describes.
On the right, chants are raised. ‘Build the wall. Build the wall.’
On the left, ‘He’s racist. He’s sexist. He doesn’t represent us.”
On the right, more chillingly, ‘Trump. Trump. Trump.’
On the left, ‘Whose lives matter? Black lives matter!’ ‘Whose lives matter? Trans lives matter!’ And so on.
On the right, ‘Blue lives matter! Blue lives Matter!’ A row of police shuffle uneasily between the two mobs and the auditorium but give no indication of whether they identify with the ‘blue lives’ in question.
the appearance of a conversation
Superficially, this has the appearance of a conversation. But one without any pretense of persuasion, understanding, or shared vocabulary. At best, the two crowds agree on a few signifiers—the word ‘fascism’, for example—but not what they signify. More often, they talk right past each other.
The theorist Jürgen Habermas believed that liberal democratic societies were distinguished from other political systems by autonomous public spheres composed of rational debate and intellectual exchange among fellow citizens. (Habermas was imagining the early modern coffee house.) And this idealised exchange of ideas is still the cornerstone for the theory of change behind many a civil, sanctioned protest. But there is no evidence of such rational debate here in Red Square. This is no marketplace of ideas. Few people are trying to reach across the aisle (or the barricade).
To the contrary, a visceral enthusiasm often maintains the gulf between them. One Trump-voter I’d stumbled across earlier, for example, ventured over to eavesdrop on a nearby argument. When I gave him some backstory—it was a typical liberal-conservative conflict—he grinned rudely and said, pointedly, ‘good’, before darting back into the crowd, perhaps emulating Yiannopoulos’enthusiasm for baiting ‘liberals’. By the same token, I found myself chiding a young socialist for calling a complete stranger from across the barricades an ‘asshole’ on the strength of a glancing impression. Sheepishly, mischievously, he replied that the antagonism itself was edifying.
Such edifying antagonism is nothing new. But in this ‘post-truth’ moment, after the most divisive US election in living memory, it holds new currency. It is a sign of the times, for example, that a provocateur like Yiannopoulos has risen to such sudden infamy. It is almost certainly by design that he scheduled an appearance here, at the largest university in one of the country’s most left-leaning cities, on Inauguration Day. We are all being trolled. And not only by Yiannopoulos, for that matter, but by Trump and a groundswell of others inspired by their tactics.
Indeed, trolling—both online and in person—seems to be playing an increasingly central role in political speech in the post-truth era. Functionally, the quintessential troll represents the antithesis of rational public debate. They make no overture towards understanding or persuasion, much like our jeering comrades across the barricades. How, then, do we understand their political terrain? Here, silhouetted in the emergency floodlights of Red Square, our ad-hoc agora looks more like a sporting arena than a political forum. The electric crowd bears more of a resemblance to an incipient soccer riot than a polite debate. People will be hurt tonight. What, precisely, are we accomplishing?
an argument I can’t win
For my part, I’m having an argument I can’t win. My twenty-something white interlocutor isn’t interested in critical reasoning. He says as much himself. I’ve called out some dangerously broad generalisations he’s making about the Black Lives Matter movement (he calls it ‘violent’ and ‘hate speech’ on the basis of a few anecdotes). I draw the analogy for him: the Ku Klux Klan endorsed Trump, but he wouldn’t generalise that all Trump’s voters were bigots, would he? He agrees completely, except for one thing: The Left started it, he insists. They make too many generalisations about the Right. So he’s obliged to do it to them, too.
In other words, he’s not interested in empiricism. Instead, he’s adopted a politics of strategic, willful misrecognition. This seems important for a few reasons. First, it indicates that for him—in this context, at least—politics has nothing to do with understanding or persuasion beyond his own like-minded sphere. Second, he is willing to embrace mis-understandings, particularly insofar as they circulate and are made meaningful within that sphere. (For example, the claims above are lifted wholesale from Yiannopoulos’ schtick.) Third, to him this seems like a strategically defensive posture.
It might be useful to think about this in Nancy Fraser’s terms. In her model, there is more to Habermas’ public sphere than simply civil discourse. It is shaped by what she calls ‘subaltern counterpublics’—smaller, less heterogeneous spheres of relatively autonomous political discourse (like feminism or the ‘alt-right’) that compete for public recognition and legitimation under the state. That US politics is composed of competing counterpublics goes part of the way towards explaining why participants might stubbornly value their own shared misunderstandings over more accurate or critical engagements with others. It also begins to explain why a defensive posture might seem necessary in the first place, and why it might emphasise conflict over understanding.
This, in itself, isn’t new. What seems distinctive to the United States right now—or at least newly acute—are the implications of this post-truth moment in which journalism is dismissed as fake or as an ‘opposition party’, ‘alternative facts’ are circulated, and information is largely mediated by our digital echo chambers. In this landscape, counterpublics may become increasingly insular and therefore increasingly independent of larger publics for recognition. Yet they still compete for legitimation from the institutions of the state. (This is precisely the counterpower achieved by white ethno-nationalists in the last election. Despite constituting a minority with little support among the mainstream press or traditional conservatives, they have achieved significant influence over the Republican Party and the presidency.)
the attention economy
Such counterpublics compete with each other for recognition on their existential bedrock, political and cultural discourse. In this terrain, success often amounts, simply, to claiming space for one’s own narrative. On Red Square tonight, for example, innovative counterprotesters have taken that thought very literally indeed, projecting the slogans ‘Hate harms everyone’ ‘Hate won’t divide us’, and ‘An injury to one is an injury to all’ in enormous, luminous block letters across the blockaded auditorium. But beyond material space, memes, music, news articles, advertisements and all manner of other interventions can all claim space within what Jonathan Beller calls the ‘attention economy’.
And where they cannot claim space, they may instead deny space to competitors’ narratives—whether through misrecognition, derailing, drowning them out, blockading their events or even defaming them and constraining their physical mobility. In other words: by trolling. Yiannopoulos and his audience have succeeded at this with galling skill. Despite their masks and black hoodies, for example, tomorrow two of my fellow instructors will wake up to find their names, classes, and parents’ addresses published on the web, along with slurs, threats, and defamation. Not surprisingly, those singled out are a queer man and a woman of colour from a majority Muslim country.
Neither are such threats purely discursive. Fights will break out. And one counterdemonstrator will be shot in the stomach before the night is over by one of Yiannopoulos’s audience—while the victim aimed to deescalate an existing confrontation, according to several friends who knew him. The shooter will later turn himself in and be released, claiming to have fired in self-defence. It’s possible he believes this. After all, as we saw earlier, these misrecognitions are often fundamentally defensive. And surely enough, in the fashion of bullies everywhere, Yiannopoulos has repeatedly accused ‘the Left’ of disingenuous pacifism and preemptive violence. (This, despite de-escalation training by protesters, and the gun brought by Yiannopolous’ audience.)
convictions seem beside the point
In all these ways agitators claim space for their narrative at the expense of another. And so, here on Red Square, whether we make a plausible argument to anyone but ourselves has become a trifle. It remains important that we show up, chant, carry signs, and claim space in whatever ways possible. Not because, like Atticus Finch, we believe courage means doing the right thing regardless of the outcome. Nor, even, because we believe rational debate, empathy, and understanding are valuable in their own right. I do believe these things. But those convictions seem beside the point here.
Perhaps, in that sense, we are all trolls now. That is the crisis of political speech on our hands. How will it define our politics? Tonight, the square will clear. A gunshot wound will heal slowly in intensive care. Yiannopolous will be paid handsomely. Tomorrow a gun enthusiast will walk free. And we will march in the millions. We will occupy the airports next, in solidarity with detained refugees. And after that we will see. How we imagine the political now will matter for a long time to come.
(This essay appeared in the February 2017 edition of Arena Magazine.)