Tuesday, November 15, 2016

Call-out culture and the new elect

It is surpassingly odd that so many of us will reprehend a man or woman who exhibits racial animus or a man who makes misogynistic, homophobic, or xenophobic remarks yet remain silent about soldiers who fly across oceans to invade the lands of other peoples to abuse and kill them. Even if we are willing to damn the invasions, the soldiers who do the wet work get a pass. I say this because I was one of those soldiers, and even if I explicitly tell people that I did this or that reprehensible thing, my contrition about it stands me up as some kind of especially virtuous person – part of a ‘progressive’ redemption narrative.

In fact, this very form of witness is highly prized by left-liberals or progressives or whatever they are calling themselves these days, even if they tend to convert that witness back into a narrative of sacrificial service for the apotheosis of The Nation. War veterans who come to oppose war, in my opinion, are doing exactly the right thing, but the practices of contrition, atonement, and witness are transformed by others into a kind of truer-patriotism and employed as an inoculant against accusations directed at left-liberal/progressives/et al that they are not sufficiently patriotic, when – oh the irony – we are actually speaking out against patriotism.

Semioticians who lay out the dyadic Sign-Signified schema or the more triadic and intersubjective Sign-Referent-Interpretant model seem not to note how frequently the interpreter misconstrues the intent of the signifier, substituting his or her own preconceptions however ill-formed.

Don’t get me wrong (get it?). I do not support racist, (hetero)sexist, xenophobic language or actions; and I am glad that so many of us recognize how hurtful and dangerous it is. I do not tolerate it, and neither should anyone else.

On the other hand, I am a Christian. And we have this troublesome notion that we are to ‘love our enemies,’ that when someone has done something wrong and comes back with hat in hand and says “I am sorry,” we forgive. At the very least, this means we forego any revenge, but Jesus wasn’t an ‘at-the-very-least’ kind of teacher. In the Parable of the Prodigal Son, he leads us to believe that it is precisely the contrite sinner who we celebrate. They have been rescued from evil. No matter how bad someone’s crimes, genuine repentance holds the key to a kind of redemption.

In my book, Borderline, which was about the relation between male social power, war, and constructions of masculinity, I said that an attitude of contrition is necessary to prolong the Incarnation for those who repent.

I fail to see how, as Christians called to compassion, we can escape an attitude of constant contrition in sexual matters. Not contrition as a hair shirt, but as sorrow at the brokenness of the world of which we are a part, as repentance (turning around), and as vigilance (stay awake!). Without contrition – accepted as a gift – and without vigilance, we cannot fully acknowledge the hurt, take the hurt seriously, and demonstrate that the hurt can no longer be accepted as the norm. We – men – must stay awake and not fall prey to somnambulance, to the anesthesia of power. (p. 399)

These things occur to me in the flurry of reaction, readjustment, and trepidation many people are experiencing in the wake of the election of Donald Trump to the Presidency of the United States and the corresponding election of Republican majorities in the US House of Representatives and US Senate. Many people are aware to varying degrees that this party, at least since the Nixon era, has become the party of white male supremacy. White male supremacy has been its cultural organizing principle, even though the Republican Party as institution, like its counterpart the Democratic Party as an institution, serve at the pleasure of a ruling economic class.

The panic about Trump set in days before the election when polls indicated Clinton’s conjectural lead in the race was diminishing. But when the grim reality began to set in along about eleven at night on November 8th, cyberspace lit up with grief, terror, and recrimination. As the days pass now, and denial gives way to acceptance (of the fact, not the presumed outcomes), there is a struggle to figure out what to do to resist these outcomes and the recriminations and post-mortems continue. I wrote one myself, cleverly entitled ‘Post-mortem,’ and another slightly pithier one entitled ‘Busted clocks, trade deals, and the Republican rope-dope.’ Dozens of analyses were tendered as to what went wrong, varying of course based on what exactly ‘wrong’ was, and – as seems to be the case on the internet at least – many analysts were so captivated by their own denouements that they felt compelled to attack the conclusions of other post-game commentators, few willing to grant that more than one phenomenon might have contributed to the debacle. Likewise, the what-to-do question has created several internecine battles.

I am reminded and cautioned that Jacques Maritain once remarked, “It is as easy to disentangle these remote causations as to tell at a river’s mouth which waters come from which glaciers and from which tributaries.” I just said that Trump can be traced to Nixon, but he can also be traced to slavery, Christendom, even Babylon.

One article by Fordham University Professor Charles Camosy, entitled ‘Trump won because college-educated Americans are out of touch,’ noted that racism could not be a totalizing explanation for Trump’s victory, given that twenty-nine percent of Latin@s voted Trump, and nor could lack of formal education explain it, because many racial minorities with no college education voted against Trump, while many college-educated whites voted for him. I’ll take issue with Dr. Camosy that (1) Latin@s are homogeneous and that (2) an oppressed minority voting for a racist candidate does not rule out racism. But that is not what I want to emphasize about Dr. Camosy’s article. He made a remark that stands apart from the post-election analysis that has some bearing here. He said:
As a college professor, I know that there are many ways in which college graduates simply know more about the world than those who do not have such degrees. This is especially true – with some exceptions, of course – when it comes to “hard facts” learned in science, history and sociology courses.
But I also know that that those with college degrees – again, with some significant exceptions – don’t necessarily know philosophy or theology. And they have especially paltry knowledge about the foundational role that different philosophical or theological claims play in public thought compared with what is common to college campuses. In my experience, many professors and college students don’t even realize that their views on political issues rely on a particular philosophical or theological stance.

So now I come to the crux of this post, because this doesn’t just apply to academics, it applies to most of us, including political activists. This is why we so often say perfectly contradictory things without realizing it.

One of those contradictions that is circulating through the swarming post-election buzz is a kind of post-Puritan perversion of the notion of ‘the elect.’  It was Weber in his theses on the correspondence between Protestantism and capitalism who showed how the notion of predestination paradoxically translated into a kind of Pelagian, pull-yourself-up-by-the-bootstraps heresy. If people believed every human being was predestined to be one of God’s elect at birth, then success (counted as a virtue) was sought after as evidence to oneself and others that you were numbered among those most fortunate.

The personalization of faith occurred as churches sought power, and the personalization of politics occurred as postmodern constructivism – the Cartesian mirror image of objectivist modernity – shifted ontological sovereignty from modernity’s object to postmodernity’s subject. As ecofeminist Maria Mies said, “Same dualism, new garb.”

I refer readers now to another article by Liel Leibovitz, entitled ‘What to Do About Trump: The Same Thing My Grandfather Did in 1930s Vienna.’ Long story short, he outlined three principles:

(1) “Treat every poisoned word as a promise. When a bigoted blusterer tells you he intends to force members of a religious minority to register with the authorities—much like those friends and family of Siegfried’s who stayed behind were forced to do before their horizon grew darker—believe him.”

(2) “You should treat people like adults, which means respecting them enough to demand that they understand the consequences of their actions. Explaining away or excusing the actions of others isn’t your job.”

(3) “Refuse to accept what’s going on as the new normal. Not now, not ever.”

I am sympathetic with (1) and (3). Point (2) about holding folks responsible to “understand” - sounds good on paper, but the assumption that some or even most people have been formed with that capacity is simply wrong. This is just another version of the “personal responsibility” fallacy.

Think for a moment about the people you meet or observe every day, apart from close acquaintances but including all the characters in your family, and you cannot seriously tell me that they “understand the consequences of their actions,” especially political actions, because across the political spectrum, not only do most of us lack the interpretive frameworks to understand the consequences of politics, and not only do most of us engage in completely magical thinking about socio-political economy, culture, and guiding philosophies, none of us has the capacity, including the purported leaders of the world, to grasp the shifting complexities of the recursive dynamics between ecology, personhood, and culture. You don’t even know what your neighbors are doing a quarter mile up the street. 

That "personal responsibility fallacy" is a kind of modern Weberian paradox. Philosophically, it is grounded in the liberal abstract individual (someone who is simultaneously everywhere and nowhere), the one who carries ‘choice’ and ‘responsibility’ around absent any culture that forms them; the either-or of 'free will' versus determinism, alongside the mistaken belief that everyone shares a conceptual framework for these so-called choices (Republican-Democrat, Coke-Pepsi) and has the capacity to work things out the way we think they ought to. In the face of the obvious reality that we don't.

This personal-responsibility perspective leaves no space beyond our self-congratulatory condemnations of the bad racists, xenophobes, etc., for redemptions, no space for confession, atonement, or forgiveness. We cannot love our enemies, love the Hell out of them. The bigot, the mean man, the prodigal son, the soldier... We no longer have the gift of grace. This is what is poisonous in a culture of calling-out that tries to make you complicit when you point out that the hatred was learned (and can be unlearned). It is a lefty version of the righty appeal to 'personal responsibility' for single mothers and so forth.

We don’t understand the philosophical and-or theological antecedents of our own thought, and so we amalgamate all kinds of contradictory views. The same person who refuses to acknowledge that racism, for example, is learned in a process of lifelong formation and consolidated in the person by the social forces that construct that person, will demand that we take cultural formation into account for the victims of racism. We know damn well that Clarence Thomas is suffering from internalized racism, that crime among oppressed nationalities is an outcome of being forced into underground economies, that Hillary Clinton ‘feminism’ is the product of our naturalization of American exceptionalism, but we refuse to accept that our “enemies” are also products of cultural formation that were and are only partially under the individual’s control or within that person’s capacity to understand.

Those of us who are at least familiar with the idea of virtue ethics know that this free-will/determinism dichotomy completely misses the point. Of course, there is such a thing as personal responsibility, but it has to be learned through practices situated within one’s culture. One is not born with the virtues of justice, temperance, prudence, courage, faith, hope, or charity. They require models and masters, patience and practice.

Opinion pieces are already circulating that castigate anyone who tries to describe the extra-personal social forces that create and exacerbate the kinds of hatred (yes, but also social structures and history!) that contributed to the election of Trump and the Republican political trifecta. And in many cases, unbeknownst to those who engage in this culture of calling-out (yes, it is important to name these things) that are motivated by the desire to present one’s own bona fides as the superior moral being and a way to demonstrate to oneself and everyone else that “I am one of the elect.”

While many may not share my Christian convictions, that all of us are fallen, all subject to the temptations of pride and power, that all of us need forgiveness now and again, and that redemption is always still possible, a gift on offer to anyone willing to repent, atone, and adopt an attitude of contrition... apart  from all that, there are other practical, political concerns here.

Right now, there are substantial numbers of people – especially white people blinded by privilege, indoctrinated by prejudice, and surrounded by others who both police and reinforce their beliefs and actions – who are part of our political opposition. Is the solution ultimately to suppress them by force, assuming that is even possible? No. They have to be changed. There are many ways to do that, and some will be changed by their own experience. Before the Russian Revolution (and I am not advocating Bolshevism), the same peasants who overthrew the government in 1917 were throwing their hats in the air months earlier to celebrate the great adventure ahead, fighting Germans for Mother Russia. Their grim experience of the war changed them. I can assure you that many of those who voted for Trump will soon be damaged by the vandalism and sheer stupidity of the incoming government. I lived in North Carolina for many years, where we saw former Klansmen become sincere and energetic anti-racists. Let me point out again, for more than two decades, I was an instrument of the bloodiest foreign policies of the United States. There was a time when I would have put a bullet in your head on an unquestioned command.

Politics should, with enough humility to admit we can’t know everything, be based on some sort of systematic understanding of as many social forces as possible that bear on the current situation and point to how that situation is likely to evolve. A friend wrote me yesterday, “I am hearing high profile activists calling for everyone to be totally clear that this election was only about racism.  Anyone saying anything else, even that racism has been fueled by economic uncertainty, is being called out on FB and Twitter for sounding ‘conciliatory.’  Anyone naming that we need interracial populism is being shuffled into one or another giant movement...  functioning to silence and shame people trying to point out the complications.”

This is, again, understandable, given the legitimate anxiety about recent developments, but ill-considered and ultimately divisive.

White male supremacy is a key problem here, but it is intersected with capitalism, militarism, consumerism, our actual technologies, and a culture of simulacra. It is not simply a personal moral failing, but a structural reality with roots going far back into history and embedded in our institutions.

I have even heard lefty-boys who make remarks like, “Trump was elected by in-breeders,” suggesting that the person writing this drivel is – aha! – from superior genetic stock, one of the elect.

This self-righteous call-out-culture-of-the-elect has even infected the first glimmerings of resistance to the government-elect.  Within one day of Trump’s victory, people began adopting a practice that had been employed in the United Kingdom during the Brexit campaign. A tremendous upsurge of violent xenophobia was directed at immigrants throughout Great Britain, and British opponents of this xenophobia began wearing safety pins visibly on their clothing as a sign to immigrants that they opposed that xenophobia and that they would stand by them if attacked. It gave immigrants an easy way to identify potential allies, and it was extremely effective at reducing violence and reassuring those who were at risk.

In the United States, people have begun wearing the pins (as I do everywhere I go now, including to surgery yesterday) for the same reason. It says, I am your ally if you are a person of color, an immigrant, a woman, LGBT, Jewish, et al. If you are a target of the proto-fascist alt-right, I will stand by you.

Almost immediately, a Huffingtonpost writer, Christopher Keelty, a white male non-profit fundraiser from Boston, wrote an article entitled, “Dear White People, YourSafety Pins Are Embarrassing.” (I suggest that white people never entitle their own articles “Dear White People”.) I have seldom seen an article with more fallacies and self-righteous nonsense packed into so little space, and the comments that he received were overwhelmingly WTF. A white guy lecturing others, in ways that made no sense, about white privilege! Seriously?

The whole screed was exactly the kind of I’m-more-revolutionary-than-thou self-righteousness never fails to divide and discourage any politics of resistance. Calling-out just to hear himself call-out.
We are wearing these in our town, black, white, and Latin@ are wearing pins, and people are thanking us because they are afraid. But more importantly, this kind of belittling of small actions discourages and insults the people who may be for the first time dipping their toe into activism, and those people for whom this is, for many reasons, the most and best they can do right now. I know an 80-year-old nun who is wearing it, and she probably wouldn’t be able to do long marches or place herself between a violent perpetrator and a victim (though she might try, she’s pretty brave). 

Everyone in the struggle ahead is not going to be stood up as a soldier In Keelty’s army, but if we want to ensure we stay as small and weak as possible, the best way is to humiliate those who are just starting, just trying to find their courage. This article says “I am the real man, down with the Real Revolution (TM),” and he is embodying the reason the left in the US has always succeeded in marginalizing itself.

The elect.

 He wrote, “We don’t get to make ourselves feel better by putting on safety pins and self-designating ourselves as allies.”

But, of course, that isn’t anyone’s motivation that I know, and my own reply, as one with many family members (including multiracial children and grandkids) in the gunsights of these dangerous reactionaries, is “You don’t get to make yourself feel better by belittling your allies and potential allies. The danger is the other way.” What I really wanted to say to this arrogant young man who has plumbed the motivations of every white person who is not as evolved as him is, “Hey Christopher, take a flying f#$% at a rolling donut.” We'll take any kind of help we can get. We want to grow the resistance, not build a wall of self-righteous purity around it.

What he failed to realize, in constructing this false dichotomy between wearing the pins and taking “real action” (which is, for him, making a sign that says Black Lives Matter, as if people couldn’t do both at the same time) is how he reinscribing a very gendered dualism. 

The safety pin campaign is ‘symbolism’ (ick ick), not ‘ACTION’ (hoorah!), and these are somehow mutually exclusive. It is just a rehash of the old gendered trope that MEN are INSTRUMENTAL while ((women)) are ((expressive)). Maps right onto a bunch of other fallacious dualisms, each of which also has gendered origins (CULTURE-nature, MIND-body, RATIONAL-emotional). In the Huffpo article, this young white man seems unaware of that genealogy, as well as the fact that a ‘symbolic’ gesture like the safety pin is, as we said, not mutually exclusive of other forms of action. In fact, it can direct those who feel endangered to the very people who are likely to help. 

Given that Keelty has enough education and experience to understand this, his claims that my friend, for example, the 80-year-old nun, is “embarrassing,” cannot be the motivated by some logic. The only thing I can figure out that motivates him is the desire to put someone else down who is doing no harm (and may be reassuring someone in danger) because he needs to build himself up at their expense as proof of his oh-so-revolutionary bona fides. He is one of the elect, our natural leader; and this is exactly the wrong time for these elect to be riding the brakes.

It’s going to be a long four years.


  1. Run for President. You've got it all. A Christian, former military... understanding of political structures. Charismatic, a good speaker. You name it. RUN.

    How about the Socialist Equality Party... they need help.

  2. I couldn't be elected dog catcher, and I couldn't subject my family to the kind of unwelcome scrutiny that comes with public office. But thanks for the vote of confidence.

    Oh, and I can't swear an oath to "protect and defend the Constitution." (-:


    1. you'd be okay with a presidential advisory post, perhaps.

  3. I've no doubt that you would make a great dog catcher, if you so choose. It's a necessary task for humans and animals.
    I didn't know about the pins, but I always have a white rose, inside and out, in remembrance of Sophie Scholl.
    May I presume that you are aware that Veterans for Peace were kicked out of the Las Vegas Veterans Day parade?
    Lastly, whatever your surgery was, I hope it was successful!
    Fondly, Viv

  4. Mr. Goff,

    Thank you for this post, and your other works. I read Full Spectrum Disorder in '03/'04 when I had my mosquito wings, and found the message to be insightful and compelling, even then. I stayed in, but as I advanced within the ranks, eventually working in several places you did, I came to understand your perspective even better, and grew increasingly agitated with the state of the system. Now that I am no longer involved with the gov, I am re-reading your earlier writing and this blog with a more grounded view. I hope you don't mind my saying that it is helping me gain some perspective, some of which I am trying to pass on to others as I am able. If you have any recommended excerpts about your journey to find your current stability post-military which you think might help some of us from your old community who are seeking an alternative view, I'd appreciate you highlighting them.