Theories of the Forms

(In my last post, I promised to share bits of the writing I've been doing about madness, and have largely failed to live up to that promise. But here's a short version of what will eventually be a far longer essay. Or, a first draft of a short version, of same. There are probably typos and errors and I apologize).


In 1854, at a conference of the Académie de Médecine in Paris, a scuffle broke out between two eminent psychiatrists over the proper name of a new illness. It began with Jules Baillarger, already famous for his innovations in the treatment of depression, rising before the assembly to read his latest paper. He had identified a new madness, he announced. Despite similarities, this disease was not merely a variant of the depressive personality, but a separate and far more severe condition. He called it folie á double forme. The double-form insanity.

The trouble began when Baillarger described the symptoms. Patients of the double-form would experience intense periods of depression, often accompanied by suicidal ideation, he said. But at other times they would take on the character of the lunatic. They would become grandiose, delusional, and violent. Some even suffered paranoid hallucinations. One member of the audience began to feel a little paranoid himself. Jean-Pierre Falret had presented his own paper the year before on precisely the same condition. Baillarger was stealing “his” illness, the circular insanity, folie circulaire.

Both psychiatrists ultimately confessed that the condition they were describing was already well-documented by the time of the conference. But both maintained they had achieved new insight into its causes and consequences. Baillarger maintained that his double-form insanity emerged from an irresolvable conflict between “chained” traumas in the patient’s mind. Falret insisted that the circular insanity presented in unrelated episodes and that each must be treated independently. Baillarger wrote that his illness was incurable, but could be managed. In 1864, Falret published the results of a multiyear study: in fact, the disease resulted, inevitably, in dementia and death. (It is believed now that a number of his patients in fact suffered from neurosyphilis.) The two men were “not without a little vainglory,” wrote one contemporary, and the conflict, at bottom, appeared to be over the naming rights. A double form, or a single circle? Legacies depended on such distinctions.

The true father of this illness didn’t give it a name. But during the reign of Nero, Aretaeus of Cappadocia wrote of patients who were “unreasonably torpid, without any manifest cause”, prone to sorrow and self-doubt, who the next day were in “excellent spirits”, speaking “untaught astronomy, spontaneous philosophy, and poetry truly from the muses.”  They sometimes go openly to the market crowned, as if victors in some contest of skill, wrote Aretaeus. But this was the sign of danger. Soon after, he said, they are suspicious and irritable. They “rend their clothes and kill their keepers and lay violent hands upon themselves.” The disease, he said, is “not unattended with danger to those around.” Wherefore they are affected with madness in various shapes, he says, some run along unrestrainedly and, not knowing how, return again to the same spot. Return again to sorrow, then joy, then suspicion and delusion and rage.

Emil Kraepelin called it manisch-depressives Irresein. The manic depressive psychosis. He distinguished it from démence précoce—schizophrenia—only in that this disease appeared to be episodic. This distinction would stand until the 21st century, when genetic research established that these two diseases were not so different as Kraepelin believed.

Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, first edition, 1952, called it “manic-depressive illness.” They later shortened this to “manic-depression.” In 1980, editors of the third edition renamed the illness “bipolar disorder”, on the recommendation of reformers who believed this name to be less stigmatizing. Now we distinguish between forms: bipolar type one. Like schizophrenia in bursts. Bipolar type two: More common, less severe except for suicides, with “hypomanic” episodes distinguished from pure mania. Bipolar type 3 or cyclothymia. Moodiness. At some point you must wonder what we’ve chosen to pathologize.

Now each type comes with a grab bag of accessories. Bipolar with or without psychotic features. Bipolar of pure mania or hypomania or dysphoric episodes, called “mixed,” and considered the most dangerous kind. Slow cycling. Constant cycling. Intermittent cycling. Rapid cycling. Schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type. From the double-form madness we derived madness in limitless forms, diagnoses built up from appended limbs, more heft than weight, the kind that may take a full line in a spiral notebook to write out no matter how small you make the letters (I’ve tried it), a diagnosis like: schizoaffective disorder of the bipolar type, rapid-cycling, with mixed episodes and associated psychosis. That’s a proper name. That’s what you call it.

That’s the diagnosis I had on file when I checked myself into an emergency room in Chicago, unable to decide whether I wanted to pace or weep or scream or dispense with the endless fastidious medication regimen entirely and return to clarity of my delusions somewhere in the wilderness. When I was discharged, over twenty-four hours later and sedated into the cold of New Year’s Eve’s Day, the release paperwork listed the reason for my visit. Mood problem. That too is as good a name as any for what’s wrong.

Questions and Answers and What's Next in This Space

Happy new year.

The replies to my last post have been strange. They have been kinder than I deserve, which I am on the ambivalent side of grateful for. Some have been angry, of course, which is more what I expected. There have been a lot of questions. I suppose that makes sense—I did say that anyone could reach out with questions and I meant it—and I thought about doing a kind of FAQ round-up, but that felt crass. Instead I'll just talk for a bit. For the most part there have been two main asks: First, what exactly am I diagnosed with? Second, in so many words, do you believe that you’re responsible for your actions? 

The first question is easy to answer, and I’m sorry for not being more specific before. All I can say is that one of my greatest desires in life was to never talk openly about my mental health, to confine it to my clinicians and family and partner and a few friends. So I am not very practiced in discussing it and so of course failed to ever actually say what the diagnosis was (or, maybe failed in a half-conscious way). Also, if you learn anything about mental health it’s that these labels are imprecise and constantly in flux, but that being said my current diagnosis is somewhere between "schizoaffective disorder, bipolar type" and bipolar disorder type 1 with dysphoric/mixed episodes and psychotic features. I won’t go on endlessly about what that means, but the short version is that prior to being medication, I oscillated between deep depressions and a joyless mania—a kind that made me paranoid, impulsive, aggressive, and irrational. Sometimes that came with full psychotic episodes. Sometimes it came with auditory hallucinations. For years, it entailed a persistent delusion about my relationship with the Holy Spirit that I still find too embarrassing to talk about too much. Another way to put it: I had cycles of sadness and cycles of madness, like schizophrenia in bursts. The good news, again, is that I am heavily medicated now and have been for years and while the medication is always being adjusted and isn’t perfect, it does control the most extreme ends of things. As far as outlook goes, I am a fairly successful treatment case. (Basically, with this condition, not being dead or in prison are a good baseline for success; having a job is excellent). There are people even with meds who never stop having delusions, or who can never stay on meds because of the side effects. I feel a little cloudy most days--one med I have always believed makes me dumber--and I have spent the last few years taking notes on almost everything because my memory does not work like it used to. I feel nauseous and sore when a dose gets adjusted; if one med amount goes high enough, I've discovered, I have nightmares that sometimes involve shouting in my sleep. But basically I’m fine. Meds have varied over the years, but for what it’s worth, I currently take both a mood stabilizer and an antipsychotic, with sedatives added in as-needed if an episode nonetheless threatens to get bad. I’m OK.

The second question is more complicated. How responsible am I for my actions before I was treated? The truth is that I don’t know. In terms of ethics, in terms of consequences, I am absolutely responsible. Harm done is harm done regardless of cause. If I stole your money, or punched you in the face, or ignored your boundaries, or disappeared when you needed me or went off meds and tweeted something so embarrassing to my employer that it became a minor national news scandal, and my doing one of those things hurt you, then it doesn’t hurt less just because I did it in the bout of indiscriminate manic impulsiveness or psychosis and not in some cold, targeted, and premeditated malice. I really have never properly wanted to hurt anyone in my life, but it doesn't matter. The damage is still done, every bit as much as if I were sane. Beyond that—I don’t know. I am certainly responsible now. The most important thing I can do, ethically, is stay on my meds forever no matter what. If I don’t and I lose it and I hurt someone, then that’s my fault.

 Before my meds? Before the diagnosis? I don’t know. I wish it were easy and I could just plead insanity and have that be that, but it isn’t that simple, and when I think after it too long, I wind up in mental loops. While there is a well-established link between people with my condition (especially the ones who self-medicate with drugs) and all kinds of shittiness and violence and criminality, it’s also true that a lot of mentally ill people—most mentally ill people—are harmless to everyone but, often, themselves. At any rate we aren't meant to talk about that link: it invariably stigmatizes everyone else with one of these conditions. But then, the psychiatric wards are full of people who have stolen and beaten and murdered because of their illnesses. So I don't know. What I mean is that I can’t tell anyone how to think of the ethics of the situation. I’ve hurt a lot of people in a lot of ways. It would be strange to look at that fact and look at the fact that I was (and am) severely mentally ill and pretend those facts have nothing to do with each other. But it would be too easy, I think, to make that fact really exculpatory. I don’t know. What I do know is that with medication, with my psychiatrist, with my psychotherapist, with the lifestyle changes and habits and routines I’ve been developing over the past few years, with all of those things, I am safe to be around. I can even be agreeable sometimes. I get the sense that some people believe that's a great external metric to have--my decency can be guaranteed with pills!-- but then, many people who have done shitty things to people can just learn to be better and that’s that. Without the pharmaceutical industry, I will slow boil back down into psychosis. That will always be true. I don’t know that that’s better or more reassuring than the sincere self-reflection of a mentally typical person. Even a psychopath can make a rational calculation to maximize their outlook through behavioral changes. My brain just wants to feel too much, to lose touch with reality, to act out. I suppose the answer is that I cannot control my own mind, but ethically, these days, I can control whether or not I take the pills in the morning and the pills at night that can control my mind for me. It's more complicated than that, of course, but that's where I'm at.

At any rate, I am accepting the need to talk about this all openly, and I'm realizing that I want to, too. In the sort of classic way, once you start talking about something you’ve avoided talking about, it’s very hard to stop. I’ve started working on a project about all of this, although I don’t quite know the shape of it yet. But I’ve been writing in short bursts, and I think I’m going to publish little bits here as I generate them. They won’t even properly be essays—too first draft, too short, too scattered and incomplete for that—but maybe they’ll help answer some of these questions better than I can answer them right now. Who knows, maybe they’ll be enjoyable to read for some people. Largely it’ll just be for me, on my largely private blog, to have a way to talk to myself.


On What's Going On With Me

Before I get into anything else, and particularly because this isn't brief, I want to acknowledge that there are people who don't care about what I want to say here. I accept that and don't expect anyone who doesn't want to read this to do so. In truth, I’ve largely hesitated to write anything for public consumption for these past months in part because I wasn’t sure if it was the appropriate time to speak, or what made sense to say. My first priority hasn't been turning to the public to do some kind of cynical damage control, or rushing out a contrived, capital-S Statement, but I am sorry that as a result this is so late coming.

Ultimately, I'm writing here now, before the year is out, because I don’t want to give the impression that I refuse to face all of this. I know that there are some people do want to know how I respond to everything and there are many things I do need to reckon with and things I do want to say for those who are interested. I want to be as clear as possible, so I'm going to talk about three things: The list allegations and my professional life, my pre-professional life, and consequences/what I'm going to do going forward. 

The List

If you somehow don’t know about the list, you can read in the piece linked here (or just google it, there are a lot of pieces). I’m not going to share the link to the list itself since it was never meant to be made public in the first place and because the vast majority of the people on it haven't dealt with it publicly yet. But the essential premise is that it documents misconduct committed against women in the media sphere, you can find it easily enough, and I’m on it under “Emmet Rensin”. So, in order of severity:

  • That I've engaged in inappropriate communication with women in media while an editor: I believe this refers to my time as a deputy editor at Vox (that is, the only time I have been an editor) when a freelancer I knew through college social circles alleged that my editing and related communication with her was severe to the point of being unprofessional. However—and the result of an investigation by two senior female editors who reviewed all of our communication concurred—there wasn’t a sexual undercurrent. I wasn’t lewd or solicitous (indeed I don't believe a sexual undercurrent was alleged in the first place). I was abrasive. As it happens, the investigation found that I was heavy-handed toward several freelancers, men and women. That isn't something I'm terribly proud of, but it didn't enter into the realm of sexual harassment or abuse of power.

    (Nor, despite what some people online inexplicably seem to have concluded, was this the reason I left Vox, only to have it “covered up” by an excuse where I was “fired” over a riot incitement tweet. First, this took place in January of that year, while the riot tweet affair took place in June. Second, the riot tweet incident resulted in a one week suspension, not my termination. Third, I left Vox as planned at the end of my one year contract in order to go back to school, a month after I came back to work from my suspension. The entire coverup theory is bizarre and untrue. As rocky as it could be sometimes, I really enjoyed my time at Vox and it's unjust to try and tar them for handling this case incorrectly. I still have records of my communication with the freelancer in question. I don’t think the whole internet has a right to them and I'm not trying to win some online fight over this, but if anyone I actually know or some future potential employer wants to see them and judge for themselves, they exist.)


  • That I have retaliated against women in media: I don't know the origin of this allegation, but what I do know is that I have not used a position of power in order to retaliate against the life or career of anyone, including the aforementioned writer, whose piece was published shortly thereafter under the supervision of another editor. I have feuded with many writers in public but I’ve never sought to engage in blacklisting or retribution.


  • That I have committed serious sexual violence against women in media: I don’t know the origin of this allegation either. What I do know is that I have never assaulted a colleague, I’ve never been the subject of a professional complaint of this kind, and I’ve never used a position of power in media or organizing in order to assault anyone.



However, none of the above means I’ve always been a decent person, or that I’ve never seriously hurt or abused anyone, or that I don’t owe anyone an apology. The truth is that while I don't believe I have abused power in my professional life, I was, before that, a genuinely shitty person much of the time. I want to be accountable to that here.

In my teens and early 20s, I was a profoundly unstable guy, one who was capable at times of treating other people extraordinarily poorly. I was mean to people, or I demeaned them, or I insulted them. I stole from them, lied to them, abused them, or was just generally a gross, sometimes scary sack of shit to them, even (especially) my ostensible friends and loved ones. I was erratic and impulsive, paranoid and selfish, usually for reasons that appeared totally inexplicable those those around me. In my early social circles, it was just widely understood that there was something seriously wrong with me and although it would take years for a professional to correctly figure out what, the group intuition was correct. Some of it, no doubt, was just that I sucked. Some of it was common arrogance and entitlement. A lot of it was a serious and ongoing mental illness, consequent substance abuse, and the consequences of my own abuser’s behavior. 

I don’t think this is the right venue to drag out gritty extended stories of my own pain or medical history here,  because I think it would be in this context that would be distracting and pity-seeking, and I’m not after that here. But I want to be honest about where I’ve been at different points in my life, then and now. Like many people, I'm skeptical of vague vows to "do better" made at the point of being accused of some kind of shitty behavior. So I want to be open about where I was earlier in my life and what was going on with me, so that when I talk about what I've done already and what I continue to do to keep myself stable, it make sense.

Until several years ago, I was immensely self-destructive. Beyond drug use and the ordinary stable of risky and frankly bizarre behavior that comes in waves with an illness like mine, I was cyclically out of control, putting myself in situations where I would be and often was injured, stolen from, detained by law enforcement, involuntarily committed to treatment, or otherwise hurt. But more importantly and more seriously, I could be and was impulsively destructive to others, to friends and strangers, men and women: what mattered wasn't who the other person was so much as where I was in a given cycle and how severe it was, if I was merely manic or entirely delusional or psychotic. I wish that it were just one person I treated poorly or one particular genre of predictable shittiness I inflicted, but it wasn't that rational or motivated.  I could be and was unreliable, erratic, inexplicably off-putting, and abusive to people around me in a wide variety of ways--physically, emotionally, financially, socially, verbally--without evident rhyme or reason. During the worst periods, I could become so impulsive, delusional, and paranoid that I could wind up hurting people through action and through inaction, whether I knew them or not, whether they liked me or I liked them or not, whether I'd appeared fine the day before or not, whether I appeared fine again the day after or not. Drugs and my failure to process my own trauma exacerbated and worsened everything, but at the heart of it was a mood disorder and associated psychosis which persisted untreated or misdiagnosed for years, even when I was sober or not actively troubled by own past. That is to say, at the heart of it wasn't some outside drug influence "making" me do anything or someone else's behavior that "made" me some way. It was me and the architecture of my brain.

I don't know how, really, to begin to apologize for so much. I'm sorry for all of it. I am sorry for every kind of harm, large and small, that I inflicted. I'm sorry for the damage--material, emotional, psychological, physical--that I've done to other people.  I’m sorry too that when I did finally start to get my shit together, when I finally found the right professional care and the right medication and the right diagnosis, I usually prioritized my own selfish desire to keep my mental health status relatively private and move on over an effort to reach out and try to make amends to those I’d hurt. I apologized sometimes, usually when confronted, but not enough or to everyone. I should have. Instead, I often just threw everything into a box labeled “bad past” and tried to leave it there, rather than making those who I know now aware that I haven’t always been OK, that remaining OK requires daily maintenance for me. Instead I spent energy trying to avoid being tagged "crazy", even though anyone could tell, tried to minimize how bad it could get, even though people who have to interact with me have a right to know. I'm sorry for that too. I suppose I was embarrassed and afraid of stigma, I still am, but that isn't an excuse either. 

To be completely clear: neither my illness nor any of its consequences exonerates me for being awful at any point. I’m still culpable and I don’t offer any of it as some reason to dismiss the pain I've caused people. It's particularly important to me to say explicitly that in talking about this, I don’t want to stigmatize the mentally ill and to be frank, that's another reason I hesitated to write anything. So let me emphasize that nobody should take this to mean that mentally ill people are unusually dangerous. If anything, we are more likely to be the victims of abuse than the perpetrators; I've been both. So I can only speak for my own case and nobody else's when I say that beyond the cycles of instability that come with my particular disorder, I went through years of incorrect diagnoses (some truly outlandish), consequent failures of treatment, self-medication, recovery and relapses, and that I dealt with all of it in the worst and most destructive ways possible.  I didn't know how to deal with my own shit. I didn't want to deal with my own shit. So that shit became pain for people around me who didn't deserve it.  The good news is that a few years ago, about a decade after my first contact with the mental health care industry, I finally got the right diagnosis and began the search for the right meds. These days I have therapy, learned coping mechanisms, and (after some trial and error) a regimen of the right, powerful medication. But I didn't before, and I hurt people, and I'm responsible for that.

This is all particularly shameful when so many people dealing with mental illness and addiction and trauma have managed to deal with them without hurting anyone. Most people with these issues never hurt anyone at all. That wasn’t me. The best I can say is that thanks to years of work, I've come closer and closer to leading a largely ordinary life. I can still be a jerk sometimes—point in case, two years ago I could be a jerk editor and a few months ago I was still getting into petty (and, often, out-of-proportion) fights with people online, as most of you no doubt know. I can still be insensitive and abrasive and socially off-putting sometimes, but at the very least, it is all within the realm of basic sanity now. I'm not a dangerous jerk anymore.

More specifically, I haven't had a cycle or episode so severe that I required law enforcement or medical intervention in years. I haven't taken a hard drug in years. I haven't been subject to inpatient treatment or any other kind of institutionalization in years. I haven't been subject to those things for so long because treatment, frustrating and slow as it can be, has been working. My moods are within stable boundaries. I don't suffer from psychosis anymore. I don't have severe delusions anymore. So long as I remain on medication, I shouldn't have any of those things again. I'm not promising--all of a sudden exposed after a career of unrepentant predatory abuse-- to “get help” in some vague way, or pleading previously untreated madness that I promise to get fixed ASAP, totally sorry now because I got caught after exploiting my power and status for years—new leaf forthcoming! It didn’t take a public crisis in order to convince me to get serious about my treatment and myself. That doesn't mean some magic switch got flipped a few years back and I got all better--mental health care doesn't work like that--but I’m fortunate that over the past several years, I've become a better and more stable person than I was before. I'm fortunate that there's a treatment course that works for me. There isn't  for everyone, and not everyone who needs treatment has access to those medical resources. I've been extraordinarily lucky in that way.

But of course that's all small comfort to the people I’ve hurt. While I'm grateful to be able to say that I'm doing better than I was, that doesn't make the past OK, or ameliorate the pain of the people I've mistreated or abused. My improvement doesn't do anything for them. So once again, I’m unequivocally sorry for all the harm I caused over those years. Nobody deserved to deal with my instability and shittiness.  Nothing that was going on with me makes my treatment of anyone less painful or less real. I'm responsible for all that pain, and I'm sorry.

I'm also sorry to my friends and my partner, not for any "embarrassment" or whatever the hell people keep saying in these things, but because as a result of my behavior, they've now been forced to deal with the real pain and confusion and betrayal of reckoning with my past, which they did nothing to deserve. My parents deserve a double apology on this front: both for the pain I've brought into their lives now, and for the manifold harms I inflicted on them as a young man, which were, if not the worst, certainly the most extensive of all. Please, of course, don't attack or go after anybody who knows me or is my friend or my loved one—they don’t deserve that either, and no matter what they aren't responsible for me. Similarly, please don't attack anybody denouncing me or attacking me over this--you aren't doing me a favor. I wish that were obvious but given how I’ve seen people treated in similar situations, and how I've seen some of them treated already, it feels worth reiterating. 

What Happens Next

For the most part, of course, I don’t know and it isn't entirely up to me. But I do want to give as clear a picture as I can of the consequences all of this has entailed for me over the past few months, as well as the steps I'll be taking going forward. 

1. Naturally and most critically for the future, I'm continuing with my psychiatric treatment, addiction recovery, and medication regimen. I’m grateful to be well down that path already. But it can be too easy sometimes, especially after a few relatively good years, to believe that you’re out of the woods. I don't want to forget that going back to square one is just a relapse or dereliction of treatment away. Despite everything, I want to remember that the years since I got on the right treatment course have occasioned the first time that I ever really had any stability in my life and was ever able to do anything but flit around between half-baked ambitions, debilitating depression, and cycles of self-destruction.  I don't ever want to throw my stability away, for my sake, but more importantly for the sake of others and their safety. 

2. I'd like to engage in some process of restorative justice, or at least to apologize to everybody I've hurt. I've apologized here, of course, but there's a difference between an apology trying to cover so much and apologies made personally and directly. However, I don’t want to start unilaterally sending out direct apologies and thereby impose myself and my guilt on people who would rather never hear from me, nor, if I am being honest, do I think I have a complete memory of every person I ought to apologize to. But for anyone who does want to talk, I'm here. Even if I haven't hurt you, I'm happy  to speak to you or answer your questions or just listen to you, now or in the future.

3. Beyond the inevitable social consequences of lost friends, broken trust, anger, and isolation that I've accepted, I'm accepting profound changes to my professional life. I know that accountability, at least for me, should include repercussions in the loss of professional power and income, even when the shitty behavior occurred outside the professional realm. So, first, while I enjoyed magazine editing both as a craft and for the relative financial stability that came with it (and had planned to make it the backbone of any financially secure future), I think it’s clear that I shouldn’t be one for the foreseeable future. Other people who have not been even rude to writers deserve those positions more than I do, and can be trusted with the responsibility of overseeing others more than I can.

Similarly, I’ve stepped back from all of my political work, including having resigned my position as co-chair of my local DSA back in October. Like editing, organizing has been something I've found deeply fulfilling (if not exactly a source of any financial stability) and I'd looked forward to years of work in that area. But it would naive to think that any organization’s work wouldn’t be potentially derailed by my presence, or to expect that fellow organizers indulge me when my presence might make them uncomfortable or impede their mission. No worthy political organization deserves that. Political leadership requires meeting an unusually high bar of personal integrity in order to succeed, and having not met that bar in my pre-political life, I don't have any right to ask for positions of organizing responsibility or power. I accept the end of that part of my life.

Finally, I’m not contributing to any publications as a writer right now. The only publication where I had any kind of standing paid gig understandably ended our relationship over all of this, a decision I accepted without resistance. I haven’t accepted new commissions from any other publication in months and haven't pitched anywhere else in months. In practical terms, this means the loss of all income outside my student stipend (i.e. almost all of it) as well as an obvious end to any career momentum I had going. I don’t tell you in order to solicit sympathy, but to give a clear account of the consequences that have come with this, since very little of this--the changes to my media life, to my political life, to my social life, to my financial life, etc.--involve big public announcements you can see without me telling you. But the consequences have been extensive and profound, as they should be.

I don’t want to pretend that I don’t want to write publicly again. Of course I do, and saying otherwise would be transparent bullshit. But I don’t know what any future published work will look like, or when I'll come back to it; at the very least, writing is one of the few lines of work that doesn't entail any official power over anybody, which is probably best for everyone. But it will be a good long while at least before I begin to think about it at all. We'll see. For now, I'm just a student and a friend to the friends I have.

I know all of this is a lot, but even at what already feels like too great a length, friends and peers will have questions and conversations they want to have. I'm off public-facing social media right now and probably indefinitely, but anyone who wants to reach out can reach me via email or the submission form on this site or by phone, if you have my number.


Some Brief Thoughts on Political Violence

I take an absolutist line on violence: It is categorically immoral. It is immoral in war. It is immoral in criminal justice. It is immoral in conflict resolution and ethical calculus and in the name of political expediency. It is immoral under circumstances most would consider justified: Although I would likely kill in self-defense, I do not conflate the understandable with the good. I would do so because I am selfish and imperfect.

This sometimes puts me at odds with other members of the left, who may question the strategic wisdom of any violence against the modern state, but who do not in principle oppose it. They may regret it. They may seek to limit it. But as it is difficult to imagine any kind of revolution without at least some bloodshed, many accept political violence as permissible under certain circumstances, a kind of necessary evil. I do not. That isn’t to say I have a solution to the problem of political violence. I only have a moral conviction, one that comes before any political thinking at all.

I have been thinking about the problem of violence this week as I read Peter McPhee’s 2012 biography of Robespierre, “A Revolutionary Life”. I’ve read a lot about Robespierre. He interests me in part because he is perhaps the most notorious example of a man seduced by the expediency of political violence, and seduced despite his earlier and evidently sincere opposition to bloodshed. “I have demanded the abolition of the death penalty at your Constituent Assembly, and am not to blame if the first principles of reason appeared to you moral and political heresies… the death penalty is in general a crime, unjustifiable by the indestructible principles of nature,” he said, but in the same breath that went on to proclaim that “Louis must die so that the nation may live”.

Robespierre claimed the execution of Louis was a special circumstance. “You ask for an exception to the death penalty for him alone who could legitimize it?” appears in the same speech. But within a year, his conviction that in all other cases “society may always protect itself by other means, making those culpable powerless to harm it” was gone. The Terror followed.

The reasons for Robespierre’s descent into violence have been analyzed ceaselessly since the moment of his own execution. He was paranoid, he was a psychopath, he was never really against violence, he was never really in control of the Revolution: take your pick. I don’t propose to review the theories here. But McPhee’s biography focuses more than most on Robespierre’s childhood and young adulthood, as well as the summer of 1789. Reading it, I noticed something instructive in Robespierre’s response to the first casualties of the Revolution that illuminates something interesting about political violence.

On July 14th, 1789, Parisian peasants stormed the Bastille fortress. The Bastille’s governor, the Marquis de Launay, ordered his troops to open fire, killing roughly 100 Parisians. After the Bastille was captured, Launay was murdered in retribution, along with Jacques de Flesselles. McPhee gives us the aftermath:

“Sporadic cases of collective killing did not cease with the taking of the Bastille….On the 20th, the Marquis de Lally-Tollendal, one of the noble deputies for Paris, proposed disseminating a proclamation authorizing municipalities to form militias composed only of those certain to be reliable if confront with unrest. Robespierre leapt to his feet: ‘What has happened in this riot in Paris? General freedom, little blood spilt, a few heads chopped off, of course, but they were the heads of guilty people.’

“Robespierre was one of those who understood what the Revolution might entail,” McPhee goes one, “It was not that he was flippant about violence: he had a horror of the taking of life. Such was his conviction of the justice of the people’s cause against entrenched oppression, however, that he was prepared to accept that some individuals particularly detested for their own violence would be targets of retribution.”

Perhaps Robespierre’s acceptance of these murders was merely expedient: what could he do to oppose them without taking the side of the nobles? Without risking his own head? Perhaps his whole history was an exercise in this excuse: the people wanted blood, and he couldn’t deny it to them if he tried.  But I cannot help noticing how much Robespierre’s rationalization, particularly in its early, raw, unpracticed form, is tied up in the notion of individual culpability: the exceptional cases against whom violence was justified. Some individuals, particularly detested. One king, whose very life was uniquely contrary to the Revolution. Particular bastards. The ones who were really asking for it.

Robespierre’s belief in individual autonomy shouldn’t surprise us. He was a product of the Enlightenment. The sovereignty, and thus the virtue and the culpability of the individual is so fundamental to that intellectual movement that it is likely the only thing many people remember about it from high school.

But Marxism and its intellectual heirs reject this notion: People are not autonomous. They do not behave rationally, or freely. There are no wholly culpable autonomous actors, only the expressions of culpable systems. The violence of capitalism, for example, is not the violence of particularly corrupt individuals but the inevitable product of a material structure. Some individuals may resist or relish their role, may err on the side of restraint or of excess, but their choices are not truly their own. One can imagine a Bastille Governor who did not order his troops to slaughter peasants, but this only reflects the routine imperfection of all systems. Such a choice would be an aberration: the historical force of the Ancien Regime was designed to open fire.

It has always seemed to me that collective theories of politics would therefore resist political violence. It is easy enough to justify the occasional murder of an actor if you believe his crimes begin and end with his own choices. But if entire classes are the engine of any political crime, then a politics that justifies the killing of those responsible does not end with an execution. It ends with a holocaust. I have always hoped that this inevitability would make collectivists wary of political violence, the ends of its logic too horrifying and too clear. But history contradicts my hope. When the left has seized power, it has always found kulaks to liquidate, great leaps to take forward. It has taken precisely the nightmare that arises from Robespierre’s excuse and applied it on a grand scale. Of course no individual is wholly responsible for its crimes, it says. That’s why we have to liquidate all the kulaks.

 I have never known what to do about this problem. I do not know now. The history of left violence has driven many away from the movement, persuaded that mass murder is its inevitable consequence. I do not believe that. I do not know what I would do if I did: I can no more abandon my moral duty to the material equality of all people than I can my nonviolence. But I do know that the Left has not yet resolved this tension. It has not yet explored how revolutionary change may be implemented without violence because it has not yet accepted that anything short of an absolute prohibition on bloodshed will inevitably give way to slaughter. It carries on imagining that next time will be different, next time we’ll be restrained and good and only do the very strictly necessary killing but stop short of the gulags. It imagines this because it is what every revolutionary imagines, and every revolutionary is wrong.

It is not a matter of simply saying “We will not be violent”. The arguable necessity of force in revolutionary change is not only a matter of bad morals: it is a real problem to be solved, and I do not know how to solve it. I don’t know how to reconcile the demands of radical redistribution with the moral imperative of peace. I do not know how to safeguard against the temptations of expediency.

The question may seem silly right now. The Left has barely any power! We’re nowhere near a place where this matter must be resolved. But that is precisely why the Left must reckon with the question of violence now, while it still feels faintly ridiculous. The hardest parts of moral life are not worked out in the moments they’re immediate. Urgent questions tempt easy solutions. We’ve seen those before. They have every time made a mockery of the very goodness the Left seeks to bring about. I don’t want to see them again.

"Fact Finding" with Jonathan Chait

My greatest frustration in the week since The Smug Style in American Liberalism was published has been how “the smug style”, as I define it, has been conflated with “smugness”, the general trait. This has led to an incessant objection: “But aren’t a lot of conservative figures smug?”

Setting aside that I say explicitly yes, there are elements of this style in most political movements, the question is beside the point. Of course individual conservatives are smug. Of course elements of conservative argument might be characterized as “smug”. But I did not argue that liberals are uniquely “smug”, or even that the trouble is general “smugness” amongst liberals. I argued that liberalism is animated by something I call “The Smug Style”.

That style has a few key elements. It believes the following things to be true:

  1. Political conflict is not moral conflict. It is reducible to differences in information and intelligence.
  2.  Liberals have a monopoly on correct information.
  3.  Liberalism has no ideology. It is only the rational response to the correct information it possesses.
  4.  The trouble with conservatives, therefore, is that they are either too stupid or too stubborn to accept the correct information, and act accordingly.

Or, as I put it in the essay:

The studies, about Daily Show viewers and better-sized amygdalae, are knowing. It is the smug style's first premise: a politics defined by a command of the Correct Facts and signaled by an allegiance to the Correct Culture. A politics that is just the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts. A politics that insists it has no ideology at all, only facts. No moral convictions, only charts, the kind that keep them from "imposing their morals" like the bad guys do.

I go on to argue that the Smug Style's premises are untrue. Politics is about competing moral visions. Liberalism does possess an ideology: like all political movements, ideology is how it determines its goals. The trouble with conservatives isn’t that they’re stupid, it’s that their moral vision is wrong (so, for that matter, is liberalism’s). A consequence of the Smug Style is that liberals fail to understand the world (by incorrectly ascribing political conflict to information and rational asymmetries ), and fail to understand themselves (by incorrectly maintaining that they have no prior moral commitments). These misapprehensions have combined with a number of historical forces in order to produce a liberal elite that does not prioritize the needs of the poor and justifies it on the basis that poor people’s petulant stupidity merits their abandonment.

This came up earlier today in an exchange I had with Jonathan Chait, one in which Chait explicitly defended the four premises I named above. I respect him for it: Jonathan Chait doesn’t play with typical liberal defensiveness. He doesn’t pretend the Left’s goals are ideal but not realistic. He doesn't think much of ideology at all. He believes liberal technocracy is the only way to govern, and he’s willing to defend that belief frankly. It’s admirable.

In order to clarify his position, Chait sent me his own 2005 New Republic essay “Fact Finders”. That essay, he said, would make clear his position on ideological politics and the merits of liberalism.

Chait’s essay is worth reading in full. I regret enormously that I did not find it while I was writing Smug Style, because it is that style’s Platonic Form.

Chait begins with a thought experiment: Imagine God descended from on high, and demonstrated irrefutably that all conservative beliefs about economics are true. Chait says that while this would surprise him, he would only have one rational course of action: He would immediately accept these new facts about the world and act accordingly.

But, he goes on, imagine the same scenario in reverse:

God appears in order to affirm liberal precepts: Current tax levels barely affect economic incentives, social programs provide tremendous economic security at modest cost to growth, and most regulations achieve their intended effects without producing undue distortions. Would economic conservatives likewise abandon their views? Some certainly would, but a great many would not. Economic conservatism, unlike liberalism, would survive having all its empirical underpinnings knocked out from beneath it.

He goes on to explain why:

And not because conservatives are necessarily more stubborn. (Indeed, on an individual level, liberals may well be just as stubborn as conservatives.) Rather, conservatism, unlike liberalism, overlays a deeper set of philosophical principles.

The contrast between economic liberalism and economic conservatism, then, ultimately lies not only in different values or preferences but in different epistemologies. Liberalism is a more deeply pragmatic governing philosophy--more open to change, more receptive to empiricism, and ultimately better at producing policies that improve the human condition--than conservatism. 

In other words, Liberalism isn’t an ideology, it’s just an adherence to Good Facts.

In other words, what’s wrong with conservatism is that it has a moral philosophy. Not that its moral philosophy is wrong.

In other words, liberals have a monopoly on reason.

Liberalism, according to Chait, has no ideology. Only a desire to use data in order to produce “beneficial outcomes”. How do we know what outcomes are good? Unanswered. Irrelevant.

In practice liberalism’s commitment is to capitalism (but nicer!). Its moral question is “How can we grow GDP, but in a way that isn’t quite so brutal as the conservative plan?”. I believe that these are not especially good moral goals, but the more immediate frustration is that liberals by and large do not want to admit that they are moral goals. Just the results of Good Facts in a vacuum.  

This, at bottom, is the trouble with The Smug Style. If you do not admit that you have ideological commitments, you will be blind to the harm caused by those commitments. If you believe the trouble with others is that they don’t share your dedication to Facts, you will tend to believe they are either willfully ignorant or stupid. You will fail to defeat your ideological enemies. Worse: you will fail to understand the nature of the battle itself. Chait's essay shows us not only the fundamental nature of the smug style, but also its consequences.

It is not a coincidence that Chait's account of liberalism as a non-ideological fact finding mission quickly becomes a defense of welfare reform. "Clinton also recognized the failure of welfare, previously a cherished liberal goal, to accomplish its stated purpose, and he enacted a sweeping overhaul," he writes, "Many liberals complained, but the main objections centered around the details--certain punitive provision and the lack of adequate job-creation measures--not the concept of welfare reform."

Such is the consequence of Good Facts before good morals. Who cares that welfare reform devastated the poor? The numbers added up! What will the facts justify next? Who knows! Who the fuck even cares? What I tried to demonstrate by a dozen examples, Chait achieves in one essay: A liberalism that rejects prior moral commitments, that just "follows the facts" where they lead, will rapidly become a liberalism that punishes poor people.

Chait’s essay is instructive. If you’ve had trouble understanding the difference between “smugness” and “The Smug Style”, I would encourage you to read it. It is the clearest articulation I have ever seen of The Smug Style, and, to Chait's credit, an admirable attempt to defend it.

What do we mean when we say "elites"?

Jamelle Bouie has a critique of my Vox essay  out in Slate. I think Bouie is operating in good faith and makes several good points, even if I think his case is ultimately misguided. I responded to it a bit on Twitter, but I wanted to provide a more organized response to his argument for reference.

Bouie appears to have two major objections: (1) He argues that my essay elides the role that racial animus played in the break between the white working class and the liberal coalition. (2) He believes I’ve mistaken a relatively small, elite cohort within liberalism—essentially, the educated, the coastal, the professional, the media—for the whole of liberalism.

Race and Realignment

On the first point, Bouie is correct. Racial animus that had threatened to destroy the liberal coalition as far back as the early twentieth century was a major driver of the realignment that culminated between the late 1960s and the early 1980s.

It’s worth noting that this isn’t something I deny in my own piece. In fact, I’d go further and say that the racial tantrum which drove realignment wasn’t limited to the working class. Among the most critical errors in the history of the American labor movement, the racially motivated defection of union leadership to Nixon in 1968 surely ranks near the top. Subsequently exploited and encouraged by the GOP, racism has continued to animate reactionary populism, from Reagan’s “young buck”, through the reaction to the Barack Obama presidency, and now in the Trump movement.

That I didn’t explicitly address this my piece is a fair critique by Bouie, but I don’t believe it fundamentally undermines my point. The fact that the white working class embraced and continues to embrace racial resentment does not actually constitute a good reason to deny them economic justice. It isn’t a reason to insist that they’re idiots or hicks. The possibility that these people can be persuaded to abandon racist attitudes is only frustrated by the fact that they have very few other things to hold on to. At any rate, it isn't dispossessed workers who perpetuate systems of racial inequality. Elites do. No matter what bigoted attitudes they possess, the working class lacks the power to shape society.

Moreover, Bouie goes too far by treating racial animus as the sole driver of realignment. In conversation, he told me that he didn’t think the causes of white working class defection were “that complicated”, and specifically claimed that race will get you “90% of the way there”. Even if we limit ourselves to issues where liberals were right and the reactionary working class was wrong, the 10% of explanation Bouie admits might not be racial must somehow include feminism, the sexual revolution, popular culture, and the anti-war movement, to say nothing of real economic decline. That’s a lot to squeeze into a mere tenth of our causes.

Still: I ought to have devoted a section of my piece to addressing the causes of realignment, rather that beginning with the fact of working class defection and focusing on the ways in which liberals have helped perpetuate it.  That said, I don’t think liberal smugness—“These rubes are just ignorant backward hicks who deserve their fate”—is taking a nuanced view of history either.


Do Elites Matter? 

The second of Bouie’s arguments—that elite liberals in media, on twitter, etc. don’t really matter as much as I think—is a lot less defensible.

First: Bouie cites viewership numbers for The Daily Show and other metrics of elite liberal cultural reach to argue that not many people actually consume smug content. He writes:

Maybe this represents an important liberal constituency—an integral part of the Democratic Party. Or maybe it’s a minor and unrepresentative group of affluent people, likely clustered in a few major cities like New York City and Los Angeles. You can say the same for liberal users on Twitter (just a small minority of people use Twitter to talk about politics) and Gawker readers and perhaps even people who write for websites like Vox and Slate.

This is bafflingly beside the point. It reminds me more than anything of Jon Stewart’s perennial insistence that he was “just a comedian”. Sure. But people, (and vitally, people with power) do learn their politics from you.

The elite are, by definition, a rather small slice of the population, and arguing that their absolute size means that they are not particularly important seems to ignore their capacity to drive the national political conversation. Bouie attempts to address this, conceding that smugness “influences” the conversation but doesn’t “constitute” it. (In fact, he says this of The Daily Show specifically. Throughout his piece, Bouie pushes back against the total effect of smug by arguing against the capacity of any given part of it to wield great power.)  He writes: “Rensin has mistaken this segment of national political dialogue for something that actually drives political activity”

But on this point he appears basically mistaken. The opinions, preferences, priorities and culture of elites do, in fact, have a massive outsize influence on policy. The fact that they merely “influence” but do not literally constitute the whole of “the conversation” elides the fact that they influence it quite a bit. Surely Bouie believes that elite media has some influence—otherwise, why expend so much energy writing in it? That this influence has resulted in the further abandonment of the working class is plain to anybody who has watched the past thirty years of Democratic Party priorities.

Are the majority of Americans watching The Daily Show and reading Twitter and taking their cues accordingly? No. But the people who make their policy and write their media do, and they decide which issues get attention, and which don’t.

Bouie might argue that the choices are not “total” influence or “no” influence. I agree. But I believe elite circles have enough influence that they may be held accountable for the role they play in American policy. For Bouie’s argument to make sense—for him to maintain that it’s a mistake to devote time to a long critique of elite liberal attitudes toward the working class because those attitudes doesn’t have much power—you must believe the opposite. You must, at least, think that whatever influence it does have is vanishingly small.

The truth is I do not believe that Bouie actually thinks the attitudes and influence of cloistered elites are too narrow to matter much. It is liberal consensus that the way in which minorities and women are shut out of and variously disrespected by elite culture has had a materially harmful effect on them. No doubt Bouie agrees, and so do I: when elites don't take you seriously, even in their private culture, it hurts you. It makes it harder to wield power. It makes your issues take a back seat to whatever elites do deem important. If they’re actively insulting you too, it’s even worse: they are giving their permission for others to do the same. Media attitudes and elite influence matter.

But not, evidently, in the case of the working class. You could argue that reactionary working class whites deserve to be shut out and scorned in a way that others do not. But that is not the same thing as saying that being shut out and disrespected doesn’t have much effect.

A Sick Burn

Finally, Bouie ends his piece with a burn somebody was bound to attempt. He writes:

This is blinkered. And the result is an essay that doesn’t criticize “liberalism” so much as it positions Rensin against other members of his cultural cohort. It’s what you might write if you’ve mistaken the consumption habits and shibboleths of your tribe for a politics that drives one of two major political parties in a democracy of over 300 million people, if you’re convinced of your own centrality to the currents in American history. I can think of a word for that.

In other words: But aren’t you being smug?

My essay defines “the smug style” very precisely. It does not mean “having an opinion” or “arguing forcefully” or even “believing your politics are right”. The smug style is about how a large segment of elite liberal culture has come to believe that political differences and political arguments are errors, in the strict sense. That they are ultimately reducible to differences in knowledge (and therefore differences in intelligence). It has accordingly developed an entire culture of tribal signals and jokes predicated on reinforcing this dogma.

The consequence is that elite liberal concerns have been blinded to a whole host of economic issues. It has made liberals worse at combatting reactionary forces. If you believe the main problem is that your opponents are dumb hicks, you do not understand them well enough to fight them, much less persuade them. For example: The smug style made it impossible for liberals to take Trump seriously until very late in the game. It has made a large part of their response to him counter-productive. Even if Trump is defeated, this pattern will continue.

So no. Inasmuch as I do not believe the problem with my political opponents is that they’re just ignorant and not very bright, I am not actually the one being smug. I believe my political opponents—be they reactionaries or meritocratic liberals—are on the other side of a moral battle, one that can’t be won by way of ridicule.

As it happens, the actual meaning of the smug style and what it has done to liberalism (which is to say the actual thrust of my argument) gets no mention by Bouie. That’s fine. He doesn’t have to engage with it. Why bother, if elite culture doesn’t really amount to much to begin with? If the rubes started it and asked for it and continue to be vile about it? Well, maybe they did. So what?