how to know if you’re scott, and why you should keep posting things
So I’m reading James T. Kloppenberg’s magisterial (and very, very long) Toward Democracy for a long overdue book review. One of his central arguments is that democracy requires certain kinds of virtues that, paradoxically, democracy can also help to destroy. Which gets me thinking about this skit:
On balance, last night’s SNL was good but not groundbreaking. Louis CK is always solid and I laughed a lot at his opening monologue, but there were no amazing insights this time around: he talked about race again, but not in a way his fans haven’t heard before. Baldwin-as-Trump is getting old, even though Baldwin double-dipping as Trump and O’Reilly is pretty impressive (I’m entirely willing to admit that maybe it’s just that Trump-as-president is getting old. I’m ready for the joke to be over). But there were two skits especially worth seeing, both off-set productions: the first was, as Matthew Dessem wrote at Slate, a “strong finish” to the “conversation” about that terrible Pepsi ad (you know, the one where we can all just get along if a famous reality star gives a cop a Pepsi). But the other skit, also getting some media buzz, is “Thank you, Scott,” in which singers thank a self-righteous couch potato for his social media posts. If you’re like me (and lots of other folks apparently), the skit stung a little bit. It’s funny cuz it’s true!
Except it’s not necessarily true. At least, not exactly. The skit seems to imply that the only meaningful way to participate in politics is direct democracy. Now of course going to protests, door knocking for campaigns, attending community meetings: all of that matters! A lot! But so, in fact, does conversation. Habermas and Arendt got a lot wrong in their (admittedly distinct) commitments to the public realm, but a big piece for both of them is doing just what folks like Scott (or, you know, blog writers and blog readers) might well be doing. I made a commitment to teach Arendt in my theory course for exactly this reason. To risk taking a line from a terrible Pepsi commercial—the “conversation” does in fact matter. In fact, these kinds of conversations are just as important as direct democracy, because they provide the opportunity to change your mind without having already invested in a previous commitment. Democracy works precisely because it’s members are willing to be corrected, to recognize better arguments or flaws in their own thinking. That kind of conversation is much harder when you’re at a protest, or even when you’re in a city council meeting or what have you, because you’re probably already there with a concrete agenda and it’ll be harder to dissuade you from it.
Of course power and misrecognition are big pieces of this story, things about which folks like Habermas and Arendt are often stunningly naive. (Look at Arendt on race, for example). But just because conversations can be handled in better or worse ways doesn’t mean we don’t still need them. And we need them in a spirit of willing self-correction and relative humility with an awareness that the conversation is itself a constitutive internal (rather than external) good.
This is where both Pepsi and Scott get it wrong. Because Pepsi (obviously) doesn’t actually care about “the conversation.” They care about selling Pepsi. And Scott cares about selling Scott. He wants to be seen by his social media followers as virtuous, on the right side of history, whichever history that may be. Scott is the worst kind of Goffmanian character: the above link was to MacIntyre, and I’m on drawing MacIntyre’s critique of Goffman from the beginning of After Virtue here. Such a character cannot meaningfully participate in democratic politics, at least not in a way that isn’t depressingly cynical and ultimately self-defeating. It’s no longer about ideas or arguments anymore, let alone harder slogs like justice, equality, and liberty: it’s just about looking good to get something (Pepsi sales, esteem, etc.). Even the sorts of sympathy or pity the more “realist” Scottish Enlightenment types thought would save us are gone. All we have is its veneer.
As Kloppenberg, and in different ways, Andrew Perrin and Nina Eliasoph, describe, there are forces within the history of capitalist democracy that move from the need to internalize virtue towards only the desire to look like we care. This is an old story of course—told most famously by Hirschman—but it’s worth acknowledging how a certain way of thinking about citizens as self-interested, profit-maximizing individuals forces exactly this false dichotomy between slacktivists and the true citizens in the streets.
Of course, I think it’d be great if more people participated in direct democracy. But it’d also be great if more people really did think of our civic life as a series of ongoing public conversations, for which social media is actually an excellent venue. Posting an article doesn’t make you a “Scott” but posting an article as a means of showing how great you are does. The point of posting an article should always be to open the door to a conversation, a conversation with people different from you who might well change your mind. That should be coupled with explicit participation in other forms of government and civil society too of course. But that doesn’t mean the conversation isn’t important in and of itself. Thank you Scott? Maybe not. But thank you to those of you who do care about maintaining a public sphere. The conversation does, in fact, exist. And it’s not just there to sell Pepsi (or ourselves).