Yes, I Am Blaming Neoliberalism for the Florida School Shooting

The term “neoliberalism” has become super popular in the past couple of years, so I suppose a backlash against its heavy use was inevitable. Many months back, Jonathan Chait wrote a piece for NYMag bemoaning its prevalence as the left’s favorite insult. Then, of course, there was Cornel West “calling out” Ta-Nehisi Coates as “representing the neoliberal face of black activism,” which some found problematic and lead Vox (whom I, as a disclaimer, consider to be neoliberal shills) to repost Mike Konczal’s explanation for the term’s importance. Other defenders of the term had snarkier takes, and I would go ahead and include myself in this.

So I guess you can say it’s a term that I like and will continue to use as often as possible, even when 99% of the rest of my ingroup is looking in another direction. Case in point, the recent school shooting in Parkwood, Florida, or spree killings in general for that matter. It’s become an unspoken assumption that when people say we need to “do something” to stop these mass shootings, they mean that what we need to do is ban guns. A few people might chime in about mental health, but mostly it’s about guns, and while I’m all for a ban, the fact of the matter is that almost two dozen school children being massacred at Sandy Hook in 2012 did not move the needle an inch on this. In fact, as the shootings continue and the body count rises, one can even argue that we have regressed with the Republican surge into control of the Senate. That tells me that banning guns is not a useful tactic, at least for now.

So where exactly does that leave us? Like many, I feel pretty helpless when I hear about a horrific mass killing, and like many others I no longer consider that anything can be done to stop them. So when a fellow alumni from my therapeutic boarding high school posed the question on our Facebook group, I felt inspired to tackle the issue seriously. Here is what he wrote:

“I went to four different high schools and had many days when I was pissed off at a teacher or fellow student, but never thought that I was going to come in the next day and shoot everyone. I was in college when Columbine happened and thought this is so tragic, but despite how awful it was, it felt isolated. Are you aware how many school shootings happened in 2017 leading into 2018? Kids shouldn’t be afraid to go to school. Something needs to change.”

Though Columbine might have been a kind of landmark moment for schools specifically, spree killings have been going on for much longer. In the mid-’80s, workplace shootings became incredibly common, and remain so today. One of the most famous of these, the Edmond post office shooting of 1986, was the first of several USPS workplace massacres that inspired the infamous phrase “going postal.” The motives for many of these attacks were chalked up to poor working conditions as a result of then-President Reagan’s reforms to semi-privatize the government department. Since then the incidence of spree killings—at work, school or anywhere else—has risen exponentially. This points to a clear correlation with the rise of both major political parties adapting neoliberalism as their main economic philosophy.

To clarify the term—in case you didn’t read all of my links above, don’t feel like Googling, and pay zero attention to modern day political discourse (lucky you)—when I say “neoliberal,” I am referring to the dogmatic adherence to free markets as a means toward dealing with all of society’s problems. This would mean implementing ideas such as privatization, austerity, deregulation, free trade, and reductions in government spending in order to increase the role of the private sector in the economy and society. As a more derogatory synonym, some like to use the term “late capitalism,” seeing that it mostly refers to a period—from the 1970s to the current day—that constitutes the hopeful final stage of our current economic structure. I say hopeful because the results of these policies are seen today in burgeoning economic inequality along with increasing cultural anxiety and hostility. It’s lead us to an environment where mass shootings are common and merely one of the many symptoms of this sick capitalist ideology.

Of course, neoliberalism has been in effect for a long time now (little known fact: it started with Jimmy Carter, not Reagan, who merely accelerated the practice as Republicans tend to do), so why the sudden increase in the number of shootings with high fatalities? It’s kind of cliché, but I would point to the election of Trump. Not that he specifically is the reason, rather, his popularity is a manifestation of cultural anxiety and economic inequality. People see somebody acting in what used to be considered inappropriate and anti-social manners and yet he holds the most distinguished position in the country and possibly the world. They view this as kind of a “permission slip,” perhaps subconsciously, to act out their own angry impulses in the worst possible ways.

What’s ironic about this is that Trump campaigned for president on a message of economic populism: reigning in big banks while pushing protectionism and working class jobs at home. His actual governing policies, though, have been neoliberal accelerationism on steroids. In her book “No Is Not Enough,” Naomi Klein wrote:

“The goal is all-out war on the public sphere and the public interest, whether in the form of anti-pollution regulations or programs for the hungry; substituted in their place will be unfettered power and freedom for corporations.

Trump’s base doesn’t seem to notice his economic oppression against them, but his divisive rhetoric has stuck. As material conditions get worse for the so called “working class,” more people are left with nothing to lose and thus we can probably expect more and more of these deadly shooting incidents, among other kinds of violence.

How does this relate to schools? Well, the cultural tyranny of the workplace has now trickled down to education. Those well-off enough can ship their kids to private/charter schools and avoid the worst of it, in the process bleeding much needed funds from everybody else. It’s classic privatization and deregulation, which leaves little room for a quality learning environment. You get bigger classes with more overworked teachers getting paid less. These negative working conditions adversely affect how teachers and administrators treat students, which in turn affects how students treat each other. Spoiler: nobody’s treating anybody any better. You wind up with a situation where somebody can make threats, be known to stockpile guns at home, and yet come into a school and kill 17 people because nobody had the time or energy to do something to try and stop it. Call it neoliberalism or late capitalism, what we are seeing here is a sick ideology at its terminal end state.

So, what’s the solution? Ban guns? Sure, though good luck fighting the NRA’s deep pockets and the Republicans who have harnessed the hate energy of single-issue voters to keep AR-15s in wide, readily-available circulation. It’s worth noting that the drive for people to keep themselves armed is a response to the cultural and economic unrest they feel. This keeps large portions of the population very active politically on defending the second amendment. On top of that, deregulation is a feature of neoliberalism rather than a bug. In this pro-business environment, the firearms industry by default has a significant head start on fighting any possible restriction on the availability of their product. All this is to say nothing of crypto-fascist psychopaths like Cody Wilson who wants to make sure any asshole who bought enough bitcoin early enough to cash out and get access to a 3D printer can instantly manufacture their own portable lightweight death machine.

So if we can’t ban guns, how about better mental health coverage? Great! Except the ACA barely suffices for a good number of our most desperate citizens. It doesn’t suffice at all if you fall in the wrong income bracket and/or live in a state with a GOP government that won’t accept the Medicaid expansion. Meanwhile, Trump’s administration is in the process of doing everything it can to sabotage what’s left of Obamacare and defund Medicare. These are systems that serve a limited portion of the population in oftentimes barely adequate ways, and now they are under attack. Yet even somebody who has a good private health plan through their employment doesn’t escape the anxiety of losing mental health care; after all, you can always be fired for any reason as most jobs are at-will in a neoliberal system.

On top of all of this is the stigma of mental health issues, which can prevent one from getting the help they need in the rare case it’s even available. This stigma of course being yet another poisonous symptom of the neoliberal cultural doctrine that demands perfectionism and hyper-competitiveness at all times. Someday, perhaps we will implement a policy of Medicare-for-All that includes comprehensive mental health coverage. People are working on this as we speak, and it’s an important step in addressing the ills that neoliberalism brings us, spree killings just being one. If we are ever truly going to put an end to these horrors, we will need a greater shift to the economic left, and by “greater,” I mean a hard 180 degree turn from what we’ve been doing for the past several decades. We need to cut our losses and admit that free markets are not the answer to filling the vast majority of our basic needs.

If we start by improving the material conditions of working people, we can then hope—pray even—that it bleeds down into the culture and makes us all less anxious, kinder, and more compassionate toward one another. We eschew hyper-competitiveness in favor of cooperation in our daily dealings with the social world. While these are all good ideas in theory and certainly should be pursued, we must realize the task before us is daunting and maybe even impossible. There are formidable obstacles in the path of any significant left wing economic reform, even beyond the deep-pocketed neoliberal establishment machine.

Cultural unrest has given rise to a fascistic and extreme far right in America—most recently having taken the name of the “alt-right”—which insidiously enough has begun to promote left wing economics as a carrot to their traditionalist cultural stick. Their core values of divisive racism, sexism and ethno-nationalism, however, are completely at odds with meaningful leftist economic reform. It should come as no surprise to anybody that as the news trickles out about the Parkland shooter, we discover he had trained with a white supremacist group while also expressing misogynist and antisemitic views. Such hateful ideas are incredibly common in the alt-right, which of course has lead to violence time and time again: Isla Vista, Charlottesville, the Portland MAX stabbings, etc. This “movement” needs to be fought and exterminated before they can grow large enough to worm their way far enough into the popular conscience to the point that they can have influence.

Of course, saying the alt-right is bad and should be fought is not exactly a controversial take, but each group with oppressive or divisive ideas adds up as an additional obstacle. As fringe extremists continue to fester in the culture, you also have the traditional hard right libertarians—the Tea Party, the Kochs, the Mercers, etc.—whose deep pockets ensure they will be a force to be reckoned with, no matter how unappealing their ideas are to the vast majority of American citizens.

Make no mistake: the hard right is a formidable opponent with many layers, against whom we are fighting a battle against each faction as part of a larger war. Not a physical war, of course, and thank god for that: we are outgunned badly and would be slaughtered by the military and/or militia. Rather, we are fighting a war against an idea, in this case, the idea that more free market neoliberalism is what’s best for us all as individuals. Reality doesn’t seem to be working out that way and each mass spree killing is a massive alarm going off, telling us not just that we need to ban guns, but also that we have to fight to dismantle American capitalism as it stands and put something that benefits the vast majority of our citizens’ interests in its place.

Framing the Violence Narrative

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In the past few months the term “fake news” has come into the mainstream in a major way. A cursory definition based on its usage would have you believe it’s just an updated synonym for the old standby “propaganda,” but is this true? Yes and no. Our full assimilation into the information age has drastically transformed the way propaganda functions. Whereas in the past it was possible to withhold information and only present your preferred narrative, the current climate invites everybody to share all their information for the express purpose of cutting it all down and putting it on the same playing field. The idea is to put it in people’s heads that no information is reliable, no matter the source. Once this has occurred you have successfully discredited rigorous investigative journalism based on truth and fact. It’s suddenly no more credible than the .com ramblings of some kook in his rural Texas basement or perhaps more foreboding, the media apparatus of the state (i.e. @realDonaldTrump). This has long been a part of Vladimir Putin’s playbook where the cardinal rule is that in order to get people to believe in something, you first have to get them to believe in nothing.

To simplify (TL:DR in modern web speak);

Pre-information age propaganda = limiting access to information

Post-information age propaganda = discrediting all information (ie, fake news)

If information isn’t credible, framing and emotional narrative rise to the forefront of importance. What you say is less important than how you say it and the cognitive effect it has on the person you are speaking to. This is why Democrats lose election after election in spite of superior policy – Republicans know how to appeal to emotion while Democrats don’t think they have to play that game. We’re seeing how this plays out in reality, and it’s not pretty. The latest activity on this matter is the development of the “violence narrative” –  an attempt to take the riotous activity of the anarchist group Black Bloc and associate it with the entire left-wing, liberal worldview. I will explain this soon but I want to start with a more obvious example of an expert in post-information age propaganda. I don’t mean Donald Trump (though he does qualify) but another media figure who has been compared to a more verbose version of Trump. That being cartoonist Scott Adams, of Dilbert fame.

This is the first paragraph of an article he recently wrote on climate change;

Before I start, let me say as clearly as possible that I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change. If science says something is true – according to most scientists, and consistent with the scientific method – I accept their verdict.

This is the third paragraph;

“So when I say I agree with the scientific consensus on climate change, I’m endorsing the scientific consensus for the same reason I endorsed Hillary Clinton for the first part of the election – as a strategy to protect myself. I endorse the scientific consensus on climate change to protect my career and reputation. To do otherwise would be dumb, at least in my situation.”

What have here is a massive contradiction, but one stated with authority and conviction, not unlike the way President Trump plows through his own non-truths. The first thing Scott Adams wants you to know is that he accepts climate change is a real thing. It’s the first sentence in his article on the topic, so therefore it must be really really true. A professional like Mr. Adams would not dare deny the work of science when he himself is just a cultural media figure. Therefore it should come as a shock when two paragraphs later he states that the only reason he accepts the science on climate change is to protect his reputation. In other words he is saying that he doesn’t accept the scientific consensus on climate change but he wants to confuse the reader into thinking he does so that he has more credibility. He’s giving you the runaround, like the narcissist he strives to be.

If we want to take Adams at his word in that he cares about his reputation and career (and this seems reasonable given that narcissists usually do care about this stuff)  I’d posit that he has an anti-climate change agenda. Despite his claims, that’s more beneficial to him personally and professionally at this point seeing he’s become a bit of a right wing media darling in a similar vein as Mike Rowe. As the article continues Adams goes to great lengths to disguise himself as being balanced, saying hyperbolic things like “this is the only place you’ll see both sides of the issue!” That isn’t to say he doesn’t make good or interesting points but that’s always been the hallmark of good propaganda, no matter what era it comes from. It always knows just where and when to sprinkle in just enough truth to lend itself credibility.

On surface level Adams seems to be writing about the difficulty in figuring out the truth behind climate change. In the era of fake news however only suckers read things surface level. Look not at content or facts but framing and intent. Then you might see that this piece is designed not to bring people closer to truthful concepts but rather to fan the flames of debate in order to increase his popularity with his new niche audience. He is playing into the recent right wing promotion of information chaos, which in turn helps to discredit the order and limits imposed by science (liberally biased, naturally). This helps push the right’s anti-climate change agenda which they need in order to pull back all those pesky regulations that prevent enterprising American capitalists from exploiting the environment for profit er… um… I mean creating bountiful high paying jobs for the working class.

When analyzing fake news  what one says often has less importance than when they say it – timing is everything. Just like you never get a second chance at a first impression, the first statement one makes tends to be the most revealing. Adams first statement was that he accepted climate change, though he carefully omitted his reasons for this until later. He dropped in a very mainstream point of view to set the frame that he was a credible guy. Compare this tactic to one used in numerous conservative responses to the recent punching of Richard Spencer on the day of Trump’s inauguration. This article by John Nolte of conservative news blog “Daily Wire” is a perfect example, though interestingly it’s a little bit trickier than what you get from a so called “master persuader” like Scott Adams. There’s some build up, starting with the first paragraph;

“Okay, fine, somewhere in my Twitter stream you will find a joke about my not being too terribly upset over this creep Richard Spencer getting sucker-punched on TV last week. My tweet was a joke, though, and I am clearly on record, time and time again, speaking out against violence and the encouraging/excusing of violence. Also, I am not The New York Times.”

Nolte is humanizing himself by letting us all know that yeah, he felt none too bad to see physical violence enacted against the self proclaimed leader of the “alt-right” (which is now synonymous with white supremacy). He goes as far as to call the guy a creep, just to make sure we all know that Mr. Nolte in no way approves of the viewpoints of Mr. Spencer. He also clarifies the he’s very much anti-violence in any way, shape or form (he was just joking, after all!), thus further laying down the frame that he’s a decent guy with good values. What follows is an overly elaborate and hypothetical construction of Spencer as an actual Nazi. Hypothetical because in reality Nolte wants to enforce the notion that really the guy is just an unpleasant kook and nowhere on the level of actual Hitler. This is down to downplay the danger people like Spencer represent to society and in particular minorities. This is summed up in his fourth “paragraph” (just one sentence, for potency I guess);

“For argument’s sake, I am ready to stipulate that Richard Spencer is one sick and twisted piece of racist garbage.”

In his next “paragraph” (again, one sentence) he drops the true bombshell, already hinted at in paragraph one;

“Nevertheless, in its attempt to normalize and excuse and rationalize any kind of political violence against anyone, even a Nazi, The New York Times is more a Nazi than Spencer.”

Though not as direct as Adams, the tactic Nolte uses is essentially the same. Adams emphatically stated that he believed in climate change but then quickly made that belief subordinate to another point about the fuzziness of truth and unreliability of science. Nolte emphatically states that he despises Spencer and goes as far to paint a picture of him as an honest to god Nazi before revealing his true target – the NYTimes and by proxy, the liberal left. From one of the final paragraphs in his piece;

“This push for and encouragement and normalizing of violence among the left and our national media, is no joke. It’s been going on for years, in Ferguson, in Baltimore, from the Obama White House, and within the institutional left.”

Let’s overlook the fact that a death from a purely ideological left wing terrorist attack hasn’t occurred on American soil since 1981. During that same time period since then there have been numerous deaths associated with domestic right wing terrorism in multiple attacks. That’s merely a side point to the fact that right-wing motivated violence is more likely to be state sponsored than left-wing violence which tends to come in the form of civil disobedience that generally spares harming  individuals in favor of property destruction. This paradigm works very well for the right because state sponsored violence is not only legal but far more brutal and effective than anything pesky civil disobedience can muster up. The military and police have wide latitude to do what they want and not face legal repercussions, for better or worse (some may argue they need that latitude to perform a tough thankless job, but that’s another topic).

State sponsored violence however doesn’t have to come from an organized and sanctioned group.  It can also be self-defense, and thus legal (ie Trayvon Martin). This point is reinforced by the creepy way Nolte’s article ends;

“Buy guns, America. You need to be able to defend yourselves and your loved ones.”

So just like Adams wrote an article denouncing climate change disguised as an article about the fuzzy nature of truth, Nolte has written an article essentially endorsing violence disguised as an article about how the left should be villainized because they endorse violence. Left is right. Up is down, something something 1984. It’s all very confusing and intellectually draining to try and follow. What’s not confusing is how Nolte comes very close to advocating the murder of political opponents by planting the seed in people’s minds that if you don’t kill the leftist first than the leftist might… um, sucker punch you in the face.

What we have seen happen here is an example of the right wing media writing about political violence in a way that falsely frames it as purely a leftist phenomenon. Were this just some rambling kook on a right wing dumping ground then this wouldn’t be much of a problem but sadly these things don’t stay so neatly contained. The extensive media coverage of the riots at UC  Berkeley in response to a talk by Milo Yiannopoulos handed the right wing media a golden opportunity for a more concentrated effort to paint the left as violent and threatening and possibly even something worth countering with violent force of your own, if necessary. This narrative has been created and framed independently of the facts, which in the case of both Berkeley and the Spencer punching still seem rather fuzzy, lost in the tides of information and “fake news”.

There is no doubt that violence is occurring in America in 2017 but who is really being harmed? Rather than accept right wing narratives at surface level, people need to be asking deeper questions. Is the broken window at Wells Fargo bank in downtown Berkeley really more egregious than the thousands of sick and disabled people who could die with the repeal of the ACA? Is Spencer taking a sucker punch more disconcerting than the fear minorities live in thanks to the spread of his ideas? To me the answers here are obvious but perhaps the kind of violence I’m talking about is too esoteric to play well on CNN. On a logical level I think most of us know where the most harm is being committed but thanks to their expertise at controlling narratives, the right wing has put the emotional view front and center and are using it for political gain. Luckily enough their act is not a hard one to replicate, and the facts being on your side makes for a more definitive tie breaker than a Mike Pence trip to the Senate. It’s time the left learned how to beat the Breitbart’s and Daily Wire’s of the world at their own game.