A full list of my publications is available at kaufmanwrites.com.
I’ve seen arguments similar to Mark Lilla’s “The End of Identity Liberalism” from a lot of liberals, and they really, really bother me. I’m going to try and express why I think this is an entirely wrong-headed response to this election. It is, in fact, an example of liberal white fragility, and the liberal “whitelash” to becoming a minority in progressive movements.
Most obviously, Lilla ignores everything else that happened in the course of the primaries and election and makes the liberal defeat entirely an issue of identity politics. The role of the logical fallacy, particularly false equivalency, cannot be understated. But that’s a somewhat separate argument; I mention it here just to say that Lilla seems a bit myopic in where he lays blames for the loss of the election.
More troubling is the fact that for a professor, the author seems to have actually engaged with very few college students. Perhaps that should be unsurprising, he is a successful author and likely teaches very little. In fact, he doesn’t seem to be teaching at all in the fall 2016 or spring 2017 semesters.
Instead he parrots what is essentially a Fox News view of “the state of youngsters,” asserting things about the state of political discourse among millennials that seem to contradicts polls, surveys, the content of social media, and the experience of actually talking to a millennial about politics. This notion that identity politics has displaced educational content is a favorite talking-point among people who see some sort of threat in diversity, and one that is always trotted out without any evidence. It is a claim carried by the ethos of the writer, and made substantive only in that it fits into the writer’s argument that the embrasure of diversity is causing problems.
But I think that Lilla reveals a contradiction in this thought process without even realizing it. When says, “But the fixation on diversity in our schools and in the press has produced a generation of liberals and progressives narcissistically unaware of conditions outside their self-defined groups, and indifferent to the task of reaching out to Americans in every walk of life,” he fails to grasp the way humans come to accept diversity. To wit: we empathize. This has been proven time and again, by numerous studies: Humans accept groups with which they have been given the opportunity to empathize.
The triumph of identity politics among the younger generation has been that millennials, through technology and education, have been allowed to empathize with ever broader groups of people. They are in fact more aware of conditions outside of their groups, which is how they empathize. That young Christians and Republicans generally support gay marriage where their parents do not is one small indication that they empathize with groups outside of their immediate “tribal” group.
The problem with this for men like Mark Lilla, is that the more you empathize with historically marginalized groups, the less you empathize with men like Mark Lilla. White men are the entrenched power group, and the default identity associated with achievement, power, success, intelligence, logic, thoughtfulness, etc. We have maintained this position by guarding it jealously. When people outside of that identity have attempted to join our institutions, we have denied them access more than we have embraced them. We have expended more energy fighting to keep them out than in welcoming them in. We do this, and then call it meritocracy. Our assertion of our own rightness in our actions has been the only justification we have needed for hundreds of years. We are not a group that it is easy to empathize with once one starts empathizing with the groups we have marginalized, or, in some cases, victimized.
As such, identity politics are as much a threat to Lilla’s way of life as they are to a Red-State Trump voter. The world and the disciplines he exists in, and has gained preeminence in, are challenged at their very foundations by a generation of people who believe in knowing the other as opposed to studying the other.
His argument about the fate of transgendered people in Egypt contributing nothing to an understanding of Egypt’s future, aside from being a bald-faced reductio, illustrates Lilla’s myopia. I agree, certainly, that American journalism has become very, very lazy—and worse, that it now designs its headlines and stories for maximum click-bait and social-media impact—but does that mean that reporting on the state of a marginalized group within a foreign country can tell us nothing about that country’s future?
Lilla fails to realize the sea change that is happening in political consciousness. Digital youth live in a world where the boundaries and histories of nation states are impediments to understanding and empathy. They mean that some people—people who these youth understand to be thinking, feeling humans of equal value to themselves—are trapped, subject to the vicissitudes of rulers who hate them, and beyond the help of American youth who feel great empathy for their suffering. Caring about the fate of transgender people in Egypt is an investment in the future of both that country and our own. Of how our relations will play out, and what shape the governments of our nations will take in the future. I would argue it has more impact on the future of Egypt than whether or not Morsi is executed.
It is also incredible to me that he implicitly asserts this empathy does not extend beyond LGBT rights, or similar. The empathy inherent in identity politics impacts positions on international conflict, because of its victims. On refugee rights, human rights, economic aid or sanctions. On working conditions in Shenzhen and in Detroit. On every situation where someone is systemically disadvantaged or victimized. At every turn identity politics asserts that the people are more important than institutions, and so it is threat to institutions. Including the institution of white academia.
One of the things identity politics has wrought is that those to whom it matters are singularly bad at the schizophrenic compartmentalization that has allowed generations of people to look at the horrors of the world and tsk-tsk and go about their day. Especially when in the course of the day they benefit directly, in one way or another, from those horrors. Lilla seems to think that empathy won’t create a political moment with implications for every aspect of global politics and economics. I think he’s as threatened as any Trump supporter, and responding with a dismissiveness that does him no favors.
Young people do feel they have a duty, and they do stay informed. Just because the thing they see as their duty is not what he would prescribe for them does not make him somehow inherently wiser or more right.
[Update: I thought I’d include some resources for finding places to volunteer:
- Volunteermatch.org is pretty much a one-stop shop for finding local opportunities.
- Jezebel published a list of excellent national organizations that need money or volunteers.
- Showing Up for Racial Justice (SURJ) isn’t going to be on these sorts of lists, but it’s work that desperately needs doing.
- The Union of Concerned Scientists is the sort of reason- and fact-based action organization we need more than ever, now.
I’d also like to encourage you to share any worthy organizations in the comments.]
According to the Google Translate app, the translated title is “Coins, a Desire.”
I am honored that someone thought my words were worth translating, and that someone took the time to draw this bad-ass art for it.
If you don’t live in China, and you haven’t read it yet, the original story is still available for free over at Lightspeed!
I write this on the day we commemorate the signing of a document that states, “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Upon this foundation we built a country. A country that now operates on the legal basis that there is a monetary value to life, one which limits the liability of those forces that would deny us that supposedly unalienable right.
The recent supreme court decision Michigan v. Environmental Protection Agency holds that, “It is not rational, never mind ‘appropriate,’ to impose billions of dollars in economic costs in return for a few dollars in health or environmental benefits.”
So there we have it, human life, an unalienable right, is of a lesser value than the cost of retrofitting aging power plants. The land on which we live, and from which we live, the land of our liberty, and land where we seek happiness, is of a lesser value than the profit margins of an entity that has no life, that has no expectation of liberty, and can feel no happiness.
There is, to my mind, a simple solution, and it lies in the law. We need to legally recognize that the value of human life is immeasurable, and that the value of the planet that allows us to live is likewise immeasurable. We need a law in place that recognizes this simple truth, and which states that any cost-benefit or monetary argument should have no standing in any court of law when it is balanced against a human life.
To say that we might not live in a country where we may live, live with liberty, and live to pursue happiness, because it costs too much to allow us these things, is more than un-American, it is anti-American, it is a crushing blow, or perhaps more accurately an evisceration, of both the words and the spirit on which this place was founded.
No one has ever asked me where I get my ideas from, or if I’m worried I’ll run out of ideas. But if anyone ever cared to ask, I’d say, “from paying attention,” and, “no, because if I pay attention for five minutes an idea will present itself.”
Case in point (because I’m writing other shit, so I don’t want to tease this one out into a proper story right now) as follows.
Ingredient the first: the rebirth of feudalism. The rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer, and the middle class is disappearing. At some point, it stands to reason, the rich will consolidate the entirety of all the money. Seriously, something like half of the bottom 90% of Americans doesn’t actually possess money. They have so much debt that they live in a perpetual state of net loss.
No, I won’t post a source. You have the fucking internet, so why have you not been paying attention? Besides, this is a world-building thought experiment, so all I really need for a source is “shit I remember reading at some point.”
Also, the rich own politics. They’re nicer about it than when the also basically policed the land they owned as well, but they make the laws. Anyone who’s paying attention knows this.
But, family fortunes tend to be lost after a handful of generations. At some point I read something that said most had been lost after three generations.
This means that our dynastic overlords have an expiry date. Which means that the resources they’ve accumulated will be up for grabs in every hundred years or so. But only the already rich can grab them, because poor people don’t fucking get rich, because, jesus, a million things. The deck is stacked.
So we have rich families rising and falling in fortune, scheming and conniving to usurp each other.
Okay, ingredient the second: Emojis are replacing language, and some of them cost money. There was a NYT article recently about how emojis are causing problems with writing and reading skills. No, I’m not linking it, you have fucking Google.
Maybe it was an NPR article?
Anyway, emojis are replacing language, and some of them cost money. So if some people are very rich, and some people are very poor, it stands to reason that some people will have access to more emojis, and others will have access to fewer emojis.
Remember, if you don’t own the emoji pack, you can’t even read them on your device. All of the emojis you don’t own show up as placeholder symbols. So some people will essentially have access to more language. They will be able to communicate more ideas, and more complex ideas, because they can afford to own that language. The poor will literally have their ability to communicate and, even crazier, think abstractly and critically limited because they just can’t buy the “words.”
I mean, did you read that article about how “blue” wasn’t a concept for a long damn time? How there just wasn’t a word for it, so people probably didn’t even see it? William S Burroughs talked a lot about how language forms thought, and so have quite a few other critics. So what words would the rich keep to themselves? What thoughts do they not want the people below them thinking?
Bam, there’s a fucking world. I wouldn’t even make the main characters super poor; the rich need a consumer class, they’d just prefer it was a consumer class that didn’t have any real resources but credit. Of course, that consumer class can’t afford the more complex language, or they have “better” things on which to spend their debt, but they still have a handful more abstract concepts than the properly poor. The real key to making the story work is choosing what words and concepts the rich keep to themselves, and how lacking those words and concepts influences the way the debt-class thinks and talks.
Throw in a bildungsroman, or a prince-and-the-pauper, or a wrong-side-of-the-tracks romance, or a visitor-from-another-place (like, a place that doesn’t use emojis), or, hell, even a fucking roman à clef about struggling to be a writer, and you’ve got yourself a god damn story.
My newest short story, “Things You Can Buy for a Penny,” went free to read on the inimitable Lightspeed Magazine website this week. It’s a story about the man who lives in the well, and the people who come to him with pennies to buy wishes. Apparently, people liked it.
The way this story opens up like a matryoshka doll is just one aspect of its charm. I’m also a huge fan of the wet gentleman and the fairy tale feel of all the elements here.
I like this narrative. Although the tale is simple, there’s wit and freshness in the telling, as well as a neat twist at the end…It’s also a good example of the sort of story that isn’t soft fantasy, the magic being not only unambiguous but central to the tale; how the characters deal with the magic is what the story is about.
While Martha Burns at Tangent was a bit more ambivalent:
How much one enjoys the story is, in part, a product of how much one enjoys this sort of [fairy-tale] meta-mockery. It can be read as funny, clever, or as a reminder that fairy tales are generally retold these days with a wink-wink…I, personally, can never quite decide whether I like this or it is too clever for me and this story teetered on the edge.
But in the end she recommended it “for its fast pace and light tone.”
**UPDATE** Hey! This little tale also made Lady Business’s Short Fiction Favorites for the period, and SFRevu called it a “perfect little story.” Basically, publishing “Things You Can Buy for a Penny” made the first half of my year.
I’m really thankful for all of the positive feedback my little yarn has received, and I am exceptionally thankful to Lightspeed and it’s wonderful editorial staff. I recommend you check out each of the reviewers, because they all recommended other amazing stories along with mine. I also recommend you take a look at what Lightspeed is up to these days, and think about supporting them with your own pennies. They didn’t win a Hugo last year for nothing.
Natanya Pulley, gifted writer and teacher extraordinaire, in a moment of what can only be described as incredible folly, perhaps after stripping a good deal of paint in an unventilated room, decided to give her Creative Writing students two of my stories, “Coping with Common Garden Pests,” and, “Each Terrible Wall.” I am incredibly honored that she did so, even as I feel I should buy her a fan for her paint booth.
Her class came up with some questions for me based on those stories. What follows are my answers, available in a public forum with a built-in commenting tool so that if her students have any further questions, or would just like to ridicule me anonymously from the relative safety of the internet, they can engage at their leisure.
If anyone else cares to read or comment, they too are welcome…too. Too’s a funny word, isn’t it? Too. Tooooooo.
Ahem, anyway, I hope I will not prove a staggering disappointment to anyone. Read the rest of this entry »
The Collagist is one of those truly amazing journals, and one I’ve been submitting to for years now. After several lovely rejections from the current and previous editors, I am ecstatic to say that The Collagist finally said yes!
So head on over and read what is another amazing issue that is only slightly let down by this one story about, like, giant sensory organs where walls should be? Or something?
Anyway, you should definitely check out Issue Sixty Six of The Collagist.