If you had to answer the question of why everything is so fucked up in this country right now, you could do worse than pointing at this tweet:
I’m an American in my own home, and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns, Mr. Chairman.
I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want with my guns.
I’m an American and I’ll do whatever I want.
I’ll do whatever I want.
The essence of this tweet is something you expect to hear from toddlers, not members of Congress. One of the most important things we are supposed to learn as we are socialized–by playing with other children, going to school, and learning how our system of government works–is that we can’t do whatever we want, because our actions affect other people. What we do sometimes does things to other people that they don’t want done to them and that we wouldn’t done to us. As we learn what becoming a member of a functioning society entails, we learn not to swing our fist wherever we want because we don’t want it to hit the other fellow’s nose.
So maybe we don’t live in a functioning society anymore. A good portion of us root our identity in the idea that other people and their noses can go fuck themselves, that our freedom to swing our fists wildly with our eyes closed because it makes us feel good is sacred. For those among us who think this way, people who voice complaints about how their noses keep getting smashed are too sensitive, are snowflakes, should be mocked. America doesn’t owe them anything other than the chance to become nose-smashers themselves. Trump is their hero because he could give a rat’s ass about the effects of his actions and just wins wins wins. And Trump, in his red white and blue uniform, is America.
America can’t lose, Trumpist, triumphalist thinking goes, unless un-American Americans hold it back, like (this line of thinking goes) in Vietnam, or in business, or in elections, or in defending itself against the immigrant hordes or the enemies within. If real Americans are just allowed to hang onto their guns and their prejudices and do whatever it takes–and not do things they don’t want to that might help others, like wear masks or allow people to do things they think their religion just can’t tolerate–they’ll win.
Along these lines, if you think that tweet isn’t the answer, try this shirt:
America is flag-draped death heads and guns. America is swinging fists and fuck your noses. America is good guys with guns, lots and lots of guns, all the guns you can eat.
I’m sick to death of people thinking it’s American to do whatever you want. We’ve always had this attitude as one part of who we are, as colonizers and enslavers, bosses and con men, but now it seems like all the strains encouraging selfishness and destroying the impulse to work toward the public good have combined in a toxic stew of America firster, neoliberal individualist, love-it-or-leave-it ignorance and bigotry. Aggression, lack of empathy, and narcissism used to be the hallmarks of a sociopath. Now they’re job qualifications to be a Republican member of congress. Or someone who votes for one.
How do we pull out of this neoliberal tailspin? Is there any righting of the plane? Can humanities professors save us? Why are you laughing? Looking at my notes taken yesterday for a talk I’m writing about the humanities, I see this passage from Wendy Brown’s Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution: “as increased use of casual academic labor, online instruction, and neoliberal governance erodes research-faculty control over curriculums, degrees, and major requirements, the last force within public universities potentially sustaining the ideal of the well-educated citizen, the liberal arts professoriat itself, will be dramatically diminished in both size and power to assert its vision.” As the state defunds higher ed and the culture devalues it, Brown argues, as people stop believing that democracy depends on educated citizens who put the public good over individual freedom, it is becoming harder for those within universities who understand this to save their institutions from becoming the kind of places that are no longer interested in producing that kind of citizen.
The same holds true for institutions and individuals everywhere in America. We are all supposed to be looking for positive ROI, in our workplaces and in our lives. It’s becoming harder and harder to talk or even think about what’s just, about the greater good, about the good at all, when everybody’s competing with everybody else, when everyone and everything is ranked. I’ll argue in my talk for the possibility of working against the economization of everything within higher ed, for the idea that there are things we can do in higher ed that might fight against neoliberal rationality in higher ed and outside of it. I’d be foolish to imagine such efforts could have any effect on people like Greg Steube who think there’s any appropriate response to the mass shootings of May other than finding ways to protect the lives of the people they represent. But if public higher education could be saved as a place where future potential members of Congress and future potential voters could learn alternative ways of thinking, ways that don’t make the very notion of the public good absurd, maybe that could be something. And if others could do whatever they can to affect their own institutions, to show that things don’t have to be this way, that could be something too.