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Some Aspects of How I Got Here
To the fairly marginal extent to which I have a reputation as a writer, I am perhaps best known as the author of the following passage:
"Let me summarize my feelings toward Asian values: Fuck filial piety. Fuck grade-grubbing. Fuck Ivy League mania. Fuck deference to authority. Fuck humility and hard work. Fuck harmonious relations. Fuck sacrificing for the future. Fuck earnest, striving middle-class servility."
This was of course a provocative statement of my own idiosyncratic personal feelings (those of a self-confessed malcontent, misfit, and Bohemian with only a very tenuous connection to the underlying values and practices thus referenced), readable either in a tone of fury or of languid detachment, rather than guidance to anyone else in the sprawling census category known as "Asian American." The New York Magazine piece in which this passage appeared nonetheless treated the cultural inheritance that immigrants to the United States from Pacific Rim countries bring with them through the lens of the frankly stated personal antipathy with which the piece opened.
The inquiry proceeded from the fact that such practices reliably deliver to Asian Americans the highest average household income of any group in America, but went on to suggest through a series of reported anecdotes that those practices wound up colluding in the maintenance of a ceiling on the progeny of those immigrants that kept them culturally voiceless, internally riven, and on the margins, though in materially comfortable conditions of confinement. The piece whiplashed between tortured self-scrutiny and naked self-aggrandizement; between accusing others of harboring racist stereotypes and scourging the community itself for its deficiencies; held in an unstable mixture of what we may anachronistically call the "proto-woke" and the "proto-anti-woke" at a point where the former was still in its early stages of emergence.
Year Zero is an ongoing inquiry into the ideological fever that overtook the governing and chattering classes of America during the Trump years. Free and paid subscriptions are available. The best way to support my work is by taking out a paid subscription.
It was proto-woke in the sense of interrogating the subtle ways that race impinged on daily life not yet taxonomized by the wider culture or recognized as a harm within it. The cultural work that would dominate the coming decade would of course consist of a reckoning with the simmering resentments of the relatively socially marginal of the sort the piece indulged. Indeed, it was proto-woke enough to be included for several years in a packet of materials that Harvard University sent out to every incoming minority freshman in their effort to raise consciousness about the subtler biases that students encounter.
It was proto-anti-woke in the sense that it ultimately saw the locus of transcendence not in collective activism addressing the racially inflected micro-politics of everyday life, but in the striving after individual distinction as the only pursuit that matters, wherever one begins from, and whatever one encounters along the way. I don't know whether Harvard is still sending this out, but I can't imagine it hasn't been replaced by something more programmatic. It has of course been revalued, along with my other work, by the gatekeepers of progressive consensus -- not altogether wrongly -- as a series of micro-aggressions nested around a massive macro-aggression.
I still think of myself as operating in a liminal (though largely notional) space in which one remains free to address questions of identity and power while rejecting the polarized terms established by woke and anti-woke. And thus I see the work that I did back then, tentatively groping through terrain that would come to be claimed by those with a more exacting agenda, as ongoing in the project I've taken up in my inquiry into Successor Ideology. Here I am investigating how feelings of aggrievement and resentment have been leveraged by a new kind of activist movement deploying novel methods -- the subornation of truth-seeking institutions through the weaponizing of claims of psychic injury in pursuit of broad new regulatory powers over the conduct of daily life -- on behalf of an agenda that I regard as threatening to many of the values I think are essential to co-existence within diversity, to the integrity of truth-seeking, and indeed, to the psychic well-being of those who take up the cause itself, which encourages the very grievances it uses as fuel for its pursuit of power.
In a short essay I published in Harper's Magazine on the subject of the renewal campus protest politics soon after the Christakis affair in 2015, I laid out the contours of the way I saw the issue. I re-read the essay recently because it was included in a new anthology of contemporary American essays edited by Philip Lopate. Upon its arrival in my mailbox a few days ago, I saw that it was the last essay and that these were closing words of the anthology:
"And yet they also gave voice to an aspiration that people of my generation and older, who had grown up more isolated in a whiter America, had not thought could be expressed as a collective demand rather than as an individual wish: that all of us, even the unexceptional, could claim as a matter of right an equal share of existential comfort as those who had never had cause to think of themselves as the other. This still seems to me an impossible wish, and, like all impossible wishes, one that is charged with authoritarian potential. But those of us who have grown inured to life’s quotidian brutalities — the ones we accept for ourselves and the ones we unthinkingly impose on others — should not be surprised that the young have a different sense of the possible than we do, or forget too readily what it was like before we were so inured."
The piece set the table for the problem as I thought it needed to be framed -- and was not being framed in the echo chambers where what I would eventually dub the "Successor Ideology" capturing hegemony. The ideology would instead collude with the polarizing events of the day to install itself within the firmware of American's governing consensus and ruling institutions through a process we will be reconstructing in this Substack, scaling itself up to a degree of power and prominence that no one could have anticipated in 2015. Though I lived through and observed every second of it, I still cannot get over its strangeness.
In reply to series of questions posed by David Samuels at Tablet Magazine, I sketched out the barest contours of this counter-narrative of the second half of the second decade of the 21st century, which in my view is the true one that history will vindicate, but that for now lives on a series of Substacks.
I am reproducing it in full here:
The Trump presidency radicalized America’s governing and chattering classes, who saw in his election the fulfillment of one of the dark possibilities of democracy—that the people would elect a demagogue intent on bending the arc of history backward—and felt themselves summoned to act as guardians of the Republic righting the course of that arc. We were in a state of exception that it was both their warrant and their duty to decide.
The standards and practices that marked our professional classes as elites deserving of our trust in ordinary times (impartiality, procedural correctness) were no longer applicable. In a time of “literal white nationalists in the White House” putting “babies in cages,” these protocols would in practice end up colluding with an existential danger. Departures from those practices become not just excusable but a moral imperative. Thus was undertaken a principled abandonment of scrupulousness in reporting, proportionality in judging, and the neutral application of rules once held to be constitutive of professional authority, all in favor of a politics of emergency. The new politics demanded loyalty and unanimity in an effort to defeat the usurper at any cost. The loss of proportionality in judging and scrupulousness in reporting created an echo chamber in which the bulk of the governing and chattering classes confirmed and exacerbated self-generated fantasies and fears of foreign subversion and fascists on the march.
Did you know that Russians hacked our electrical grid? Did you know that Trump was connected to a server communicating with Russians? Did you know that Russians were paying bounties for dead American soldiers in Afghanistan? Get his taxes—the answers are there. When The New York Times eventually got ahold of them and parenthetically noted, amidst a cloud of dire innuendo concerning profits and losses of his real estate business, that no evidence existed in them pointing to any ties to Russia, the narrative was already too well entrenched to dislodge.
The Russia hysteria served a psychological function for those at a loss as to how the country they led had slipped from their grasp. It allowed them to offload the blame for the serial failures through which they rendered themselves beatable by a carnival barker onto the machinations of a foreign power. It allowed them to indulge fantasies of the president’s imminent replacement. It helped media companies reverse a downward spiral and restore themselves to profitability as they turned all of public life into a mutually profitable kayfabe with the object of their obsession.
But when the campaign of leaks and innuendo failed to dislodge Trump from power, the horizontally integrated pieces of the newly assembled anti-Trump messaging complex needed to pivot. They sought a new basis for maintaining the ongoing state of emergency, and they found an out-of-the-box solution in the form of “anti-racist” doctrines elaborated in obscure corners of academia and the activist industrial complex but increasingly circulated by online publications through the 2010s. The executive editor of The New York Times, Dean Baquet, made this point explicitly in a town hall meeting:
“We built our newsroom to cover one story, and we did it truly well. Now we have to regroup, and shift resources and emphasis to take on a different story... It is a story that requires deep investigation into people who peddle hatred, but it is also a story that requires imaginative use of all our muscles to write about race and class in a deeper way than we have in years. In the coming weeks, we’ll be assigning some new people to politics who can offer different ways of looking at the world. We’ll also ask reporters to write more deeply about the country, race, and other divisions. I really want your help in navigating this story.”
Later in that meeting, an unnamed staffer responded to Baquet to challenge the paper to become even more expansive in its coverage of racism—indeed, to begin to treat it as the foundation of every subject:
“Hello, I have another question about racism. I’m wondering to what extent you think that the fact of racism and white supremacy being sort of the foundation of this country should play into our reporting. Just because it feels to me like it should be a starting point, you know? Like these conversations about what is racist, what isn’t racist. I just feel like racism is in everything. It should be considered in our science reporting, in our culture reporting, in our national reporting. And so, to me, it’s less about the individual instances of racism, and sort of how we’re thinking about racism and white supremacy as the foundation of all of the systems in the country. And I think particularly as we are launching a 1619 Project, I feel like that’s going to open us up to even more criticism from people who are like, “OK, well you’re saying this, and you’re producing this big project about this. But are you guys actually considering this in your daily reporting?”
In these two comments we see the coalescence of the new sensibility that now pervades the official pronouncements of all American institutions, and we see where it came from. The failure of the campaign seeking to treat Trump as an aberration in an arc of history otherwise headed toward the millennium led to the embrace of an analysis framing him as the latest manifestation of an all-pervading, transhistorical phenomenon at the “foundation of all of the systems in the country.”
Monomania of this sort is of course the end of the journalistic endeavor as such (since journalism seeks to tell us the contingent particulars of what happened rather than reaffirm a daily catechism containing all the answers) and its replacements by a priestly vocation. In search of a new warrant to rule, the various organs of the horizontally integrated governing class moved as one to undergo a process of mutual co-optation. Now the corporations and national security agencies genuflect as one toward the idols and mystagogues of the new faith, together comprising what I have termed “the Successor Regime.”