In my last piece, “The Work of Revelations” on the diminishing returns of info-spectacles, I mentioned the liberal-radical split on the power of information:
The notion that information alone has transformative power is the cornerstone of establishment left thinking. It stems from liberal enlightenment ideals that configure history as a linear progression—embodied in the apocryphal quote about the moral arc of the universe. It goes one way, and that’s forwards towards progress.
There’s a more controversial theory that information isn’t inherently good. Even revelatory information—stuff the powerful don’t want you to know—ostensibly in the service of a progressive goal, can be used for right-wing ends if it obscures or moderates a more radical prescription. If information is getting used to co-opt a more radical course of action, then that project is reactionary.
In order to keep a long piece from being even longer, I left a lot out, but I wanted to mention a perfectly evocative exchange in an interview last month between scholar/broadcaster Jared Ball and media theorist Sut Jhally. The interview is a wide-ranging discussion about race and class in media, which at one point touches on Michelle Alexander’s vaunted book on Mass Incarceration called New New Jim Crow. In 2012, Ball’s website i Mix What i Like! published one of the best leftist critiques of Alexander’s book, titled “Why Some Like The New Jim Crow So Much” by Greg Thomas.
Thomas follows many threads in interrogating Alexander’s almost-universally acclaimed project. He starts by identifying the book’s audience, about whom Alexander is coy, as “a provincial white and middle-class audience for whom any anti-racist talk that is too Black or too radical is an abomination.” With this foundation, Thomas identifies how the book whitewashes American history, accedes to the state’s conception of criminality, avoids open challenges to white supremacy in favor of its own “colorblind” language, and “cites everything but traditions of Black political and even academic radicalism.” For Thomas, the latter is the most pernicious aspect of the book; the way it totally erases the entire history of militant anti-racism. Whatever else it does, Alexander’s book steers audiences away from an entire generation of black liberatory visionaries with an unambiguous solution to white supremacy–anti-capitalist revolution.
Given that bipartisan support for the War on Drugs is collapsing, it seems like something new is coming. Alexander herself writes about how the groundwork for new systems of racist social control were being laid as the old systems seemed to be collapsing, so this is exactly when activists should be most vigilant against co-optation. Particularly given that full-throated support for drug prohibition and police reform is also coming from right-wing ideologues like Radley Balko, a fervent supporter of stand-your-ground laws and privatizing the justice system, or Tom Tancredo, one of America’s most racist politicians (and an advocate for bringing back poll taxes).
Ball asks Jhally about Thomas’ critique in their interview (~16.00). “Her work is in some ways a step back,” he says, pointing out that Alexander even walks back from activists and scholars preceding her who called Mass Incarceration the new slavery. Maybe reflecting Ball’s activist past and Jhally’s life in academia, the latter comes down firmly for the power of revelatory information. “I always want to see how arguments move forward, and what is it you can do to move a conversation forward, it may not be where you want to end up, but in this instance, what do you need to do to get white Americans to look at the prison system and be absolutely outraged? And Michelle Alexander has done that brilliantly by this argument that she’s making, and it may not be where you want to end up, but it’s moving the culture forward, and the discussion forward.”
Here, Jhally clearly articulates the perception of a linear historic progression. Never mind that numerous studies show that huge numbers of whites are more sympathetic to state violence and private discrimination when it’s shown to harm black Americans. In his formulation, the conversation (and arguments, culture, discussion, etc.) either moves forward or it does not. What Thomas and Ball argue is that information needn’t necessarily move “us” forward–it can maneuver the conversation any number of unproductive directions, it can derail it, or it can move it backwards. It can even reverse hard-fought gains while looking like progress.
Jhally of all people has few illusions about how our perception of the world is formed. He frequently says that the primary lesson of his own pedagogy is that the world is the way it is because it’s been consciously made this way, and that marketers, advertisers, and PR flaks “have to spend billions of dollars every day to convince us” that our reality is natural. He frequently compares letting one’s children watch TV to abandoning them to a child molester. Jhally is one of the most strident and perceptive critics of the engines of social perception; that even he believes in the inherently good transformative power of information speaks to the purchase this idea enjoys on the left.