Where Does One Begin?
In 2019, Penguin Random House, the largest paperback publisher in the world, published How to Be an Antiracist, a nonfiction book by American University professor, Ibram X. Kendi. In a favorable review for The Guardian, Afua Hirsch described Kendi’s arguments as “brilliantly simple,” noting that while “[the book] is more of a textbook…there is much schooling to be done.” And she is right, given America’s amnesia toward slavery, Native American genocide, Japanese internment, and numerous other depredations — chief among them the mistreatment of minorities and the poor at the hands of the state, as we’ve seen over these past weeks.
However, notwithstanding Hirsch’s praises (and overall favorable acclaim) there is a gnawing idealism endemic to not just Kendi’s arguments, but to the arguments which pervade the pop-nonfiction canon as a whole. As corporate demand for diversity and inclusion consultants grows, so too does the demand for workplace-friendly literature, which provides data- and results-driven content for teams of upwardly mobile workers to ingest, quiz each other on, then forget. In short, when society messes up, we need a team of skilled and efficient leaders to come in and tell our workers why. Of course, they can’t really tell us why, but they can teach us how to See and Hear. But in what way, we must ask, is it convenient for us to See and Hear?
David Harvey, in A Brief History of Neoliberalism, notes that the postmodern condition is defined by an overabundance and deluge of information, which, when it intersects with bureaucracy, geopolitics, and affairs of state, is far too complex for the average person to grasp. The response, then, is to either bury oneself in the local, to develop an oversimplified view of global politics, or to shy away from the world altogether. For those looking for answers in an era of mass confusion, Ezra Klein-style graphs-and-stats quantification seems the attractive route to go. If I want to be healthy, I will let my FitBit count my steps, I will track my calories with MyFitnessPal, and I will cook with the help of HelloFresh. Likewise, If I am a person who is conscious of racism, I will purchase How to Be an Antiracist, nevermind whether or not the answers to the complexities underlying racism can be contained in just one book, or if such answers could even be found within the pages of a book pushed by The New York Times and disseminated by Penguin Random House, the largest general-interest paperback publishing house in the world.
A Contradiction Enters the Arena
Multinational publishing houses are corporations. As such, they are governed by the bottom line. What’s the use in publishing a book that cannot sell, that cannot provide the consumer with a simple, results-driven experience? Other publishers have recognized this trend, too. Consider the following popular book titles written within the past few years: How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the 21st Century, Being Numerous: Essays on Non-fascist Life, So You Want to Talk About Race, Why We’re Polarized, Why You Should Be a Socialist, What Happened. Each addresses a problem; each provides a simple, digestible, streamable answer.
To further understand why problem-solution books like these are foisted onto the public, one must consider the class interests of their architects. Ibram X. Kendi is a professor at American University. He has accrued such institutional accolades as a Guggenheim fellowship, a National Book Award, a “Contributing Writer” title at the Atlantic, and a second-place spot on the New York Times Bestsellers list. To the public, such awards and distinctions appear to be earned indications of artistic merit; in truth, they are merely emblems that signify one’s efficacy in serving power. Kendi’s ideas toward combating racism, reformist tweaks, would ultimately preserve structures and benefit those who are in power.
As Noam Chomsky wrote, “It is the responsibility of intellectuals to speak the truth and to expose lies.” In an advanced capitalist society, however, this is not so easy, as the public intellectual can no longer speak for the people, but only to the people on behalf of the state. As such, to quell racism, Kendi is calling from inside the house — namely for the development of a Department of Anti-racism within the federal government. This department would be “comprised of formally trained experts on racism and no political appointees to investigate private racist policies…and monitor public officials for expressions of racist ideas.” In a world where “the good guys” from The West Wing are the ones who run the government, such a department might work. In reality, any government agency appointed by the Executive Branch is inherently politicized and will thus reproduce the dominant ideology of the time. Take, for example, the ostensibly nonpolitical FCC and its 1949 Fairness Doctrine, which made it explicit that no broadcast media airtime be given to “Communists or Communist viewpoints.” But, on paper, this department was “apolitical.”
Corporate Answers to Social Problems
One might be curious as to why an anti-racist scholar would devote even a breath of political advocacy toward promoting erstwhile 2020 Democratic nominee Elizabeth Warren, knowing full well that she was a Reagan Republican who falsely claimed Native American identity for over thirty years. When Warren dropped out of the race in early March, Kendi tweeted, “Warren was superb…Instead of believing their eyes and seeing her electability, many Americans believed their sexist ideas.” Nevermind her backpedalling on Medicare for All — which would help people of color the most — or the warchest of corporate money that she accumulated, despite her promises not to. In Kendi’s eyes, the sexism of the American people is what led to Warren’s electoral failings, not her lack of progressive bonafides.
How is such cynicism, fecklessness, and facile analysis tolerated in academia? Well, Kendi, like many writers who gear their work toward as vast and affluent an audience as possible, is less a public intellectual, more a promotional intellectual, an entrepreneur, whose focus is foremost on building a brand. Brands are fixtures in our world: they permeate our air and embed themselves into our subconscious. Our homes, our bumper stickers, the signs on our lawns: all relegated to the realm of the branded commodity. Brands can also serve as a cudgel against a radical, class-based politics. Why question the need for systemic change when you can buy fair-trade coffee, shop at B Corps, recycle, or wear Che Guevara t-shirts? If change can happen through consumption habits, why need to be a part of any movement at all?
As it turns out, Bernie Sanders was, on paper, the most anti-racist Democratic candidate in the race; however, openly supporting a politician outside of the conservative-liberal binary would constitute a political move, and would thus disrupt the agreeable nature of Kendi’s brand, which, like all brands, bends toward comfortable, inclusive centrism. Elizabeth Warren, a promotional intellectual brand herself, was the overwhelming pick among the gilded literati (other ardent online support came from novelist Joyce Carol Oates, memoirist Roxane Gay, poets Amber Tamblyn and Saeed Jones, and Philip Atiba Goff, co-founder of the Center for Policing Equity); Warren’s “I have a plan for that” twist on “Hope and Change” and her identity as a woman were enough for moral-minded liberal media types to rally behind — regardless of the class interests she serves. (Even writers at Current Affairs and The Baffler assumed, for far too long, that she and Bernie were in the same camp.) However, if one were to scrutinize these plans, her voting record, and her major donors, one could deduce that, under a Warren presidency, nothing fundamental would change. In such a way, to support her was not a political move, but a branding exercise.
But isn’t it all just a branding exercise? One could put forth the argument that, because the social has been so overrun by corporations, there is no political world, only the world that the ruling class has created in its image, and literature or academia, of course, can only exist within that world. As corporate lobbying efforts have destroyed the ability of the liberal class to act as a needed stop valve on the excesses of capitalism, so too has corporate influence within the publishing world enabled the impotence of intellectuals, publications, and institutions.
The Public Intellectual®
In early 2019, radical theorist Judith Butler was found to have donated to “Kamala Harris For the People”. Poetry magazine is largely funded with big pharma money. The CIA, whose news service, noted by historian Michael Parenti, “is the biggest in the world” and whose budget “is larger than those of all the three major wire services put together,” is responsible for pushing the overtranslation of Foucault to serve as a buffer against Marxism within the universities, as well as for funneling money into the famed Iowa Writers’ Workshop. Milkweed Editions, a nonprofit literary publisher and purveyor of “independent literature,” awards an annual $10,000 Ballard Spahr prize for poetry. Ballard Spahr, it turns out, is a law firm which offers “union avoidance” services; they are perhaps most infamously known as the firm which the University of Pittsburgh paid $240,000, over three fiscal years, to assist in the crushing of their graduate student union.
The will of the people will always be at odds with the ruling elite, who need to prove that the system, which doesn’t work, is working. As such, the capitalist class must infiltrate culture, making sure that its tastemakers are believably credentialed, their art and writing ideologically safe. Likewise, the public cannot lose faith in the corporations who rule them, nor the brands who speak on their behalf. Corporate America needs the Ibram X. Kendis of the world, who have faith in the reformation of an unjust justice system; it needs scholar Philip Atiba Goff to reassure people that racism, under capitalism, is a solvable problem; and it needs Cornell University to offer a Diversity and Inclusion certificate program. These rational, consumable solutions to the contradictions of capitalism, pedaled by corporations and branded intellectuals, will never be enough, and are of course absurd, but could change ever come from changing one’s consumption habits?
The corporate state is bound to prop up these types of intellectuals, who will always and inevitably toll the death knell for the populist left. As legal theorist Carl Shmitt wrote, the essence of the political is recognized in the friend-enemy distinction — if you are not fully for the liberation of people from systems which keep them down, you are against them. If only the elite class of academics and writers, with their advanced degrees and accumulated wisdom, could liberate us from a doomed airship of an economic system. Unfortunately, they weren’t put in power to do so. Thus, it is vital, going forward, to understand whom future public intellectuals serve, which interests they represent, and why certain viewpoints are championed by certain institutions. Ibram X. Kendi might believe everything he says about eradicating racism, and that’s fine, but on whose behalf is he making his argument? As with cold calls, corporate scholarship must be approached with the same set of questions: Why are you calling me? What do you want?