Judith Butler, Nonviolence, and Mass Incarceration

Herd immunity is hardly a conspiracy to define some lives as more expendable than others – it’s simply the epidemiological reality that as a high proportion of a population gains antibodies to, say, a virus, incidence of new infection will go down, as there are fewer actively infected persons (thanks to widespread immunity) shedding virus – thus reducing exposure to those still vulnerable.

Butler’s mistake here isn’t entirely innocent. It points to a paranoid style intrinsic to identity politics, with which her work has long been richly, if paradoxically, intertwined.

Granted, Butler offers here a fine sermon on our mutual dependency and the boomerang of political violence. But do her often useful contributions as a public intellectual come in spite of her commitments?

Does it sharpen or confuse analysis when she invokes over and over race and ethnicity, queerness, feminism (“very strongly nonviolent” she says in a recent New Yorker interview), along with these terms’ inevitable antipode, “straight white men”?

Butler’s categorical fetishisms might seem odd for a theorist who rocketed to fame through the counter-intuitive claim that, for people, gender is a performative construct – as somehow it isn’t for bonobos or willow trees. Hers was a Frankensteinish chimera of two dead mindsets – creationism’s conceit of human uniqueness and B.F. Skinner’s behaviorism. Are ethology and evolution and anthropology really silent on sex and gender?

Insisting materialism didn’t matter, Butler managed to pull off a zombie intellectual apocalypse. She ignored rival accounts, larger bodies of evidence, or cross-disciplinary standards of empirical adequacy. In what was indeed quite a performance, she helped put the stamp of leftish approval on the magickal irrealism now pandemic across the political spectrum.

Even if Butler got pushback from feminists or gays who see gender or lovemaps as more ontologically deep-seated than discursively conjured, the criticisms never really stuck to her teflon persona.

That’s because her theory of performative identity – while absurd for explaining gender or erotics – fit perfectly feminism and LGBTQ as identity movements, as petty nationalisms – nationalism being, of course, a confection, accreting in young hearts & minds by so many performative renditions of national anthems and pledges of allegiance under the watchful classroom gaze of so many benevolent founding fathers.

While there’s now some pushback among progressives for how broader goals were hijacked by identity movements – how Hillary Clinton’s waving of rainbow flags served as red flag to the deplorables’ china-shop bulls – the critique has much further to go.

Identity movements are opportunistic nationalisms that, once advancing beyond core legitimate claims, have tended to become voracious imperialists and parasites on the common good. Check out Blackagendareport.com for the perfidy of, say, the Congressional Black Caucus. Or consider how AIDS activism decayed into a wholly-owned subsidiary of Big Pharma, leaving few obstacles in the way of the corporate driven opioid death mill. And scholars such as Marie Gottshalk and John Clegg & Adaner Usmani  show how racism is a poor corrective lens for seeing clearly America’s carceral state.

You don’t have to question abortion like a Nat Hentoff to wonder how non-violent feminism has been. Just consider Aya Gruber’s The Feminist War on Crime: The Unexpected Role of Women’s Liberation in Mass Incarceration. Feminist theoretical claims denying any distinction between symbol and act may have failed to put a fatwa on Debbie Does Dallas, but they have put tens of thousands of men in prison, often for decades, for crimes on the order of possessing Japanese anime or dirty fiction. Feminist victimology spawned Satanic ritual abuse and recovered memory scams – endorsed by the movement’s leading figures without any of the consequences faced by men accused of intrinsically unproveable fondles from decades past. The political fetish of positive identities – as surely as what goes up must come down – creates vacuums where negative ones flash into being, Aryan to Roma or Jew. Thus has been justified the wholesale deprivation of civil rights of some one million Americans on offender registries, to the invidious delight of LGBTQ, Inc. Anthropology shows homosexuality to be overwhelmingly age-structured – a trend so dyed-in-wool that Walt Whitman and Oscar Wilde and Alan Turing would today be tarred as “pedophiles” – a term Butler makes clear in her New Yorker interview she wants to defend the Aryanesque purity of LGBTQ against.

Almost as if agent provocateurs, the identity movements have savaged institutions and traditions – whether equality before the law (see hate crimes statutes) or the Church or Boy Scouts – that, however flawed, evince universalist ideals, take people roughly as they are and where they’re at, and can at least be called on to answer when they fall short, as M.L. King did so powerfully. Butler’s highlighting how we depend and mutually implicate each other are welcome thoughts. But her beating the undead horse of identity politics isn’t going to carry us further along to materializing those ideals.

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