Whenever I hear big political news I reflexively reach for my phone to check Twitter. I scroll down in the timeline to whenever the news—Thatcher is dead, an Excel error gave us austerity—first hit, and then scroll back up to watch the gradual emergence of right-thinking opinion among the left-liberal writers who make up my feed. I don’t turn to Twitter to learn about the event, but to see how “we” feel about it. Through a series of tweets and retweets (some sincere endorsements, some meant to display the enemy in all his cravenness), a consensus gradually emerges, and after reaching the top and refreshing I can put my phone back in my pocket, happy to have a ready-made opinion to wield.
To get one’s news in such a highly mediated fashion is clearly dangerous. The ersatz dialogue which occurs on Twitter can give the misleading impression that all opposing opinions have been given a fair hearing, and thus that the dominant opinion at the end of the day must be the inherently superior one. No need to weigh the various arguments yourself, Twitter already did the work for you. Touted for its promotion of decentralized and democratic dialogue, Twitter more often enables the rapid formulation and dissemination of orthodox opinion. At the same time, if you maintain a bit of critical distance, watching the construction of conventional wisdom on Twitter can teach you plenty. You can see which arguments trump others, which positions are taken to be unassailable, what affect works best. Taken as a whole, it’s an unprecedented wealth of sociological data.
Observing Twitter in this way, one quickly notes that an addiction to outrage seems to afflict writers across the political spectrum. Opponents are castigated for being insufficiently scandalized by the atrocity of the hour, and authors of offending posts are roundly demonized and ridiculed. Silver linings are rarely sought in bad news, common ground with adversaries seldom found. The right is arguably more reliant on this Manichaean rhetoric, but the left has a strong habit too. As opinion crystallizes on Twitter, posters become increasingly uncompromising, attracted to whichever position most strongly attributes moral purity to their own side and depravity to the other. Meanwhile, anyone who would criticize an outraged writer’s moralistic tone risks appearing too callous or naïve to realize the enormity of the crime at hand—whether it’s Obama’s visit to an Amazon warehouse or a university’s experimentation with MOOCs. Outrage may look like moral bravery but, on Twitter at least, it is safe as can be.
As an example, let’s consider the Internet left’s response to the Rana Plaza disaster in Bangladesh—or more accurately, the Internet left’s response to Matt Yglesias’s response to the Rana Plaza disaster. Yglesias is a frequent target of leftist outrage, which he intentionally courts and seems to relish. Within hours of the building collapse, Yglesias wrote a post on his Slate blog entitled “Different Places Have Different Safety Rules and That’s OK,” in which he argued that Bangladesh’s lower workplace-safety standards are justifiable considering the country’s reliance on cheap labor. Yglesias intended his post somewhat narrowly, as an argument against uniform international safety standards, but, quite rightly, it was interpreted in the broader context of the unfolding tragedy and quickly denounced for its gross insensitivity.
Yglesias’s post was glib and tone-deaf, but the gleefully venomous response to it was absurd. Suddenly, the issue was not the disaster in Bangladesh—a true outrage if there ever was one—but Yglesias’s apologia. “Does Matthew Yglesias Enjoy Murder?” asked the writer formerly known as Mobute Sese Seko in the title of a much-circulated piece. A crowd-funding page was set up to raise the money for Yglesias’s one-way airfare to Dhaka. As the fatalities mounted in the following days, Yglesias was repeatedly taunted with tweets like “Reminder: the Rana Plaza building collapse death toll is over 800 and you still look like a sack of mayonnaise.” Yglesias eventually apologized—rather ungraciously—but he continued to receive more scorn from Twitter’s left than more culpable figures like, say, Sohel Rana and the fashion executives whose clothes the Rana Plaza workers died making.
The paroxysm of outrage distracted many leftist writers from the real issue, and caused them to miss an opportunity to say something about a world in which such disasters are just a cost of doing business. Those writers could have responded to what Yglesias actually wrote—it would have been easy enough to dispense with his arguments. They could have foregone the moralizing and instead argued for the global labor standards that Yglesias was dismissing. Instead, Twitter’s left wing opted for shaming the outsider and elevating themselves. Forget how blithe and ill-considered Yglesias’s position was—at least he set forth a political argument. By expressing only outrage, his critics risked nothing, but they also gained nothing, aside from Yglesias’s reluctant retraction.
The world gives us no shortage of things to be outraged about, and in the right context outrage can be politically useful as well as morally appropriate. But outrage can also be reactive and unreasoned, and too often it leads us astray. It is understandable that the left, in its prolonged weakness, has come to rely on such defensive rhetoric. Over the past four decades, as unions were busted, wealth redistributed upwards, and Iraq invaded—all with electoral sanction—the American left has had little to enjoy besides the sense of righteous camaraderie which outrage can provide. But if the left has any ambitions for the twenty-first century—if it hopes to bring about good, not just decry evil—it must kick its outrage habit.
One recent episode illustrates how reactionary outrage can misguide and harm us, how it can cause us to marginalize ourselves and undermine our political goals. The resounding condemnation of Zero Dark Thirty by the left-liberal establishment was not an inconsequential, Twitter-confined tumult like the Yglesias affair. The scope and effectiveness of the campaign against the film were truly impressive. Zero Dark Thirty was released to considerable anticipation and widespread critical acclaim, only to be rejected with unanimous outrage in the court of respectable political opinion. At the Oscars, after enduring two months of attacks, the movie mustered just a single Sound Editing award, which was almost more insulting than being shut out entirely.
Glenn Greenwald, a writer who has built his career on left-libertarian outrage, led the charge against ZDT, condemning it—by his own admission—before he even saw the film. Greenwald didn’t think he needed to wait for the movie to be released. He agreed with Andrew Sullivan, who wrote that “the mere facts about the movie, as reported by many viewers, do not require a review. They demand a rebuttal.” Those “facts” concern ZDT’s alleged misrepresentation of the role of torture in the hunt for Osama bin Laden. Zero Dark Thirty suggests that it did play a role, and for Greenwald and many others that meant ipso facto that the film glorifies torture. Accordingly, ZDT was painted as propaganda. The Green Berets for the War on Terror, and all respectable people quickly took their distance. The film may be artfully made, said the critics, but it is morally repugnant. The usually restrained Chris Hayes accused the filmmakers of “colluding with evil.” In the Guardian, Naomi Wolf compared the director, Kathryn Bigelow, to Leni Riefenstahl. Outrage became obligatory, attentive engagement with the film was deemed unnecessary, and florid, moralizing takedowns masqueraded as reviews.
What troubled ZDT’s critics was the prospect that the film would convince Americans that torture led directly to bin Laden’s death, and thus that torture is an indispensable part of the American security strategy. Critics of Bush’s interrogation policies pointed out for years that the argument against torture should not be based on the claim that it never works—such an argument concedes too much, and is almost certainly incorrect. Yet the critics of ZDT invariably reverted to the instrumental case against torture in their reviews of the film. They repeatedly insisted that torture did not contribute in any way to locating bin Laden, as if admitting that it did would scuttle their case. As Richard Beck noted in the Los Angeles Review of Books, this is shaky ground to stand on. It is impossibly naïve to believe that although the CIA may have been systematically torturing terror detainees for years, not one of those interrogations produced anything of relevance to the hunt for bin Laden. Leon Panetta, CIA director at the time of the bin Laden operation and no apologist for Bush’s enhanced interrogation policies, told Agence France-Presse after seeing ZDT that “[T]here’s no question that some of the intelligence gathered was a result of some of these methods.”
The factual case against ZDT is therefore not as strong as its critics assert. But even if torture made only a minor contribution to the locating of bin Laden, would the critics really have preferred Bigelow to leave the CIA’s torture program out of the film entirely? ZDT’s focus is on the hunt for bin Laden, but it is also the first major film to grapple with the War on Terror in its full chronological and geographical expanse—to leave out the torture which all acknowledge became routine would have been to whitewash history.
Jane Mayer of the New Yorker, one of the best writers on Bush-era interrogation and detainment policy, made the common complaint that Zero Dark Thirty “sidestep[s] the political and ethical debate” that the torture program provoked, and describes the film as “a police procedural, devoid of moral context.” Comparing ZDT unfavorably to Lincoln, she wrote that “if [Bigelow] were making a film about slavery in antebellum America, it seems, the story would focus on whether the cotton crops were successful.” Mayer suggests that Bigelow could have provided the allegedly lacking moral context by depicting the internal debates on the legality and morality of torture that took place in the Pentagon and Justice Department. Never mind that this would have changed the focus of the film entirely, while also risking preachiness—is it really necessary that viewers be led by the hand through the moral case against torture? Can’t they supply the moral context for themselves?
Furthermore, it is hardly the case, as critics like Dissent’s Brian Morton have claimed, that ZDT suggests torture is “virtually the only reliable means of gathering information from prisoners.” The first major disclosure from a detainee is obtained by disorienting him with lies and plying him with food, after days of torture have failed. Vital information is also gained through bribery and surveillance. Regardless, it is foolish to judge the film solely on its portrayal of the efficacy of torture. Despite the monomania of the critics, the film asks a bigger question than whether or not torture is a useful interrogation technique.
Many of the film’s subtleties were overlooked by critics whose views were jaundiced by outrage, but no scene has been more willfully misunderstood than the last. In the film’s final moments, after bin Laden has been killed, Maya, the CIA agent at the center of the story, boards a plane to take her away from Pakistan. The pilot asks her, “Where do you want to go?” These are the last words spoken in the movie. Maya says nothing, and after a moment she begins to cry. Having obsessively pursued a single goal for nearly a decade, she is unable to say what she wants next. The scene could be criticized as heavy-handed had it not been so widely misinterpreted. Matt Taibbi refuses to see any “regret or ambivalence” in Maya’s quiet weeping, telling anyone who does so that they are just reading it in. “The posters don’t say ‘WE SOLD OUR SOULS TO GET HIM,’” Taibbi writes, “they read, ‘THE GREATEST MANHUNT IN HISTORY.’” Morton, in his review, asks a series of sarcastic rhetorical questions as to why Maya might be crying, then concludes: “Who knows? The movie gives us no clue about why she’s crying, but it seems very deep.” These two capable reviewers have let their outrage turn them into philistines, displaying their refusal to think seriously about the film as a badge of honor. They write as if we should take our cues on how to interpret a film from the promotional posters, as if it’s unreasonable to ask the audience to grapple with the complexity of a character’s emotions.
There is, of course, relief in Maya’s tears, but there is no sense of triumph—the movie never gives us a moment of fist-pumping celebration, certainly not in this final scene where a lonely, neurotic woman bursts into tears after being asked such an apparently simple question. To me, Maya’s reaction betrays a sense of purposelessness as the project to which she has dedicated years of her life comes to a close. That the filmmakers chose to end on such an emotionally ambivalent note suggests that they did not want the audience to leave the theater high-fiving one another, filled with unalloyed pride for those rough men standing ready to torture and maim those who would harm us. The film doesn’t end with exultation—it ends with a reminder of “the desolate, empty nature of revenge,” as Michael Wood put it in the London Review of Books. I think that the filmmakers wanted viewers, jarred by the film’s purposeful anticlimax, to ask themselves the questions that the critics insisted the film was ducking, namely: Was it worth it? Were the crimes we committed, the wars, the paranoia, the militarization of civilian life, the international animosity, a fitting price to pay for the vindication we felt when that one man was shot dead in front of screaming women and children?
Popular Oscar-nominated films that ask such important questions do not come around very often. ZDT could have been a jumping-off point for a discussion of how the War on Terror has transformed our national life, but that opportunity was squandered for the pleasure of righteous outrage. ZDT’s detractors knew when watching the film that the death of bin Laden was not worth the brutality that the film depicts, but they could not imagine that the larger American audience would be sophisticated enough to think so critically. If, as the critics insist the film tells us, torture got bin Laden, then surely the American audience will be unable to resist the conclusion that torture is justified. As Beck wrote, the critics “imagine that ‘real Americans’ were being made tools of power through one of their most important social rites: moviegoing.” Rather than engaging with those real Americans as intellectual and moral equals, the critics chose to embrace their own self-imposed alienation from the body politic, relishing the sense of moral superiority which their manufactured outrage produced.
It is natural that, after the traumas of the Bush years, the left is easily piqued by anything that suggests approval of torture, or that expresses support for our belligerent post-9/11 foreign policy. But the reception of Zero Dark Thirty revealed that the left’s outrage reflex is overdeveloped, causing us to miss political opportunities and mistake friends for foes. Instead of engaging ZDT and its vast audience, we drew in our ranks as if under attack and congratulated ourselves for our elevated sensibilities while implicitly condemning the unfeeling multitude who shored up the status quo by remaining silent. If the left maintains this clannish, defensive posture, it will be difficult to bring about the political changes we desire. The politics of outrage is devoid of transformative potential because it is necessarily reactive—if we start a political conversation with outrage, then we have started it on the enemy’s turf. Even Reagan, a master of backlash politics during his tenure as governor of California, realized that he had to strike a gentler, more aspirational pose in order to successfully advance a national political agenda. Outrage may be useful for marshaling the true believers, but the fellow travelers who make up the bulk of any movement must be won over with sweeter stuff. The Twitter-enabled spasms of leftist outrage over the latest neoliberal plot are not aimed at winning converts by stirring the consciences of those outside the fold. Rather, their reward is the satisfaction that comes with identifying oneself as one of the initiated, someone who recognizes certain pieties and reacts appropriately when they have been violated.
But the left’s politics of outrage is not only ineffective as a rhetorical tactic—it fundamentally misrepresents issues of great importance. Look again at the response to Zero Dark Thirty. Brian Morton ended his Dissent review by stating that “of all the ways in which our political culture has changed since 9/11, the widespread acceptance of torture may be the most profound.” This is a bizarre claim. First, though support for torture has gone up since 9/11, the most recent and widely cited poll still shows that a majority of Americans oppose practices such as waterboarding and the chaining of naked prisoners. Second, President Obama’s executive order of January 22nd, 2009 explicitly banned such practices, which suggests that the supposed pro-torture transformation of our political culture may be a bit overstated. Here, outrage needlessly marginalizes the leftist critic, who could count large numbers of Americans—including the President!—among his allies if he wished.
Outrage can also cause us to misrepresent or mythologize the past. Morton, for instance, claims that before 9/11, our alleged toleration of torture would have been unthinkable. “We were a people who didn’t torture—whether or not this has ever been completely true, it was a bedrock element of our idea of ourselves.” As Samuel Moyn pointed out in a magnificent essay on the politics of torture in The Nation, this story of regression doesn’t match the historical record. Moyn tells us that torture’s current status as an unspeakable taboo is actually quite recent, tracing its origins to the international human rights movement, which gained steam following the end of decolonization in the early 1970s. Throughout the early twentieth century, and for centuries before, colonial Western powers (the French in Algeria, the British in Malaya, and yes, the United States in the Philippines) were torturing their subjects with hardly a twinge of guilt. Only when newly independent native rulers began to practice the interrogation techniques they had learned while fighting in colonial armies did Westerners enshrine torture as the most unspeakable of moral horrors. And even after Amnesty International got going, as Morton clearly knows, torturers operated with American support throughout the Seventies and Eighties in the Cold War’s post-colonial hotspots.
Neglecting this sordid history, and projecting one’s own ideals backwards onto a supposedly more virtuous past, leads to a politics of stifling moralism. There is no pre-lapsarian state that our government could return to if only we shame it into doing so. As Mark Fisher, citing Wendy Brown, pointed out in a recent blog post for Verso, the rhetoric of outrage suggests that the state is a sort of “momentarily misguided parent” rather than “a codification of various dominant social powers.” The democratic nation-state has never lived up to its legitimating ideology of egalitarian liberalism. Simply pointing out this perennial inconsistency is not helpful. The state has always operated under the influence of those with a vested interest in the injustice of contemporary social arrangements—concessions have been won only with great effort and at great expense. To think otherwise is to misunderstand the historical role of the left as well as the contemporary political scene. Our project is not a defensive, juridical one—it requires constructive, political action. If we want a world without torture, indefinite detainment and assassination, we have to build it.
Yet the left cannot afford to limit itself to such clear-cut moral issues. The left’s taste for outrage encourages a minimalist politics which, as a result of a triage of an almost unlimited supply of atrocities, seeks to curb only the most willful and obvious abuses of power. As the possibility of transforming society has receded, the left has contented itself with condemning the worst aspects of the present system. Moyn tells this story of shrunken ambitions in his Nation essay. During the Reagan years, as the Old and New Lefts fell into disarray, writers like Judith Shklar, Richard Rorty and Elaine Scarry crafted a new, more modest program for American liberalism—not to establish an empire of liberty or build a Great Society, but simply to minimize suffering and cruelty. This brass-tacks utilitarianism might have felt refreshingly pragmatic coming after the bombast and empty theorizing that characterized the campus left of the 1970s, but it cannot anchor a political movement. It does not explain what causes suffering in our society, and it does not help us to envision a less cruel world. It gives its adherents no practical political orientation—just the command to do no harm.
This contentless ideology underwrites the reactive moralism on display in the response to Zero Dark Thirty. Lacking a robust sense of historical purpose, the American left only feels sure of itself when it stands in opposition to obvious atrocities like torture. The passion devoted to these moral issues makes up for a loss of conviction on other fronts. But we shouldn’t let our defeats discourage us so thoroughly. As Moyn says, we cannot “allow the worst that our governments have done to continue to distract us from the task of imagining and enacting the best we can make them do after the emergency is over.” We have to give our political imaginations more freedom than the politics of outrage will allow.
But a revived utopianism will amount to nothing if the left doesn’t change the way it relates to the American people. The most troubling aspect of the response to Zero Dark Thirty was the deep distrust of average Americans exhibited by the film’s detractors. Convinced that the film would dupe the American public into supporting torture just as it was duped into supporting the invasion of Iraq ten years before, the critics sought to discredit the film before it could corrupt its credulous audience. Moviegoers were treated as wayward children unable to make their own judgments.
The critics assumed that there was a moral gulf between themselves and the average viewer of Zero Dark Thirty, who would no doubt be all too susceptible to the violent jingoism the film was supposedly peddling. They imagined the theaters filled with members of the “silent majority,” constitutionally conservative people always willing to support our country’s military adventures in the name of national honor. The Republicans have been winning elections while invoking the support of these “real” Americans since 1968, so it is understandable that some on the left have come to believe that our country must be inherently right wing after all. Embittered by the repeated betrayals of the American electorate, many on the left have ceded populism to the right and have grown comfortable with their marginal political position, their sense of purity making up for an absence of influence.
Such parochialism is harmful and unnecessary, especially when a window of opportunity seems to be opening for the left. The culture wars are subsiding, and demographic trends are in our favor. The right has run out of external enemies to accuse us of appeasing. The Communists are gone, and the “Islamofascists” will not replace them. The specter of “actually existing socialism” no longer haunts us. Economic inequality is once again seen as an injustice, one that hundreds of thousands will take to the streets to protest. In the years of austerity ahead, the left will find a receptive audience in the underemployed, overworked and indebted. If we pay attention to the problems that affect these “real” Americans, try to explain the origins of those problems and put forward a vision of a better society, we might be able to develop a new left populism. Instead of conceiving of ourselves as the conscience of a morally blind nation, we could start to see ourselves as a political movement, capable of building ideologically diverse coalitions and implementing progressive policies.
If the left wants to be a political force in the not-too-distant future it has to learn to see allies, not adversaries, in the American people. If we want to give their disaffection political expression, we have to learn to speak with confidence. Pedantic moralizing won’t mobilize Americans. Listening to them might. People are ready for something new—and if the left doesn’t give it to them, others will.