“If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.”
– Abraham Maslow
Three years ago, after taking a trip to Russia to study its Revolution and pay my respects to Dostoyevsky, I wrote an op-ed here titled Good News: Texas Isn’t Russia, and Never Will Be. I’d like to revisit that thought, because it turns out I was wrong. Keep in mind that Glasstire covers all of Texas, most thoroughly its largest metropolitan areas with the biggest art scenes. I see some very chilling Soviet-syle traits rolling through our collective art and creative scenes in these bigger cities, where the most progressive (and “progressive”) people live and work.
Let me back up a bit.
Here are some traits we associate with very young children: lack of emotional regulation; an inability to understand that someone can say “no” to them and it does not make that someone a monster (in psychology it’s called “splitting” or binary thinking); a need for attention and approval now; testing the limits of tantrums to get adults and other children to fold to their demands. Empathy isn’t quite available to them yet at this age, because empathy does not live in the toddler brain of me, me, me. And most kids grow out of it.
People who have Cluster B personality disorders — Borderline, Narcissism, Histrionic and Antisocial — actually never grow out of the emotional cesspool that keeps them in this headspace, where no one else exists outside of what they can do for them. For a Cluster B person, other people are merely tools. Despite their age or status in the world, Cluster B people are still toddlers. It leads to behaviors that, in the adult world, would be considered pathological. Their interpersonal relationships are fraught, to say the least.
We had one of these assholes, the orange one, in charge of the country up until pretty recently. People who are familiar with Cluster B personality disorders clocked that man well before his election to office. He’s an outsized and grandiose example amongst this Cluster B cohort; many Cluster B people are highly intelligent, charming, and seemingly fully functional… until they don’t seem so great after all.
We have them in our families, at school, at work. They were our ill-advised best friends in middle school or our cubicle mate at the office. And they are awful: manipulative, aggressive, relentless — and one of their most effective tools is playing victim. Their paranoia about their place in the world eats at them. Luckily, they are probably only about one percent of the population.
But, unfortunately, they are overrepresented in community leadership roles, and in the communal influencer-type spheres of social media (and increasingly, in real life). They are power-hungry, and again, they need a tremendous amount of attention and validation. They may attach themselves to a cause, including causes that tout compassion or justice as the goal, if it will get them some of that juicy, juicy attention. But the politics are always beside the point. They hitch up to what works.
And the traits associated with Cluster B can start to metastasize to whole sectors of a community, or to a whole society. The seduction of identifying as a victim is huge right now — it’s where the power actually is. There are people playing victim on both the right and the left of the political spectrum. It’s a vicious kind of tail-eating snake, in that each side can yell about being victimized by the other ad nauseam.
I won’t play both sides here. I know that the biggest threat to our democracy is a mounting fascism coming from the right. I am a catastrophist these days, and I’m pretty sure the next few elections will spell the end of democracy in this country. But America as we know could be over no matter what, I believe, because even if far-left progressives get their way instead — with Cluster B types leading the charge — democracy is just as over. Free speech and free expression is over, and due process is over. The ability to see your neighbor as a good person is over.
The utopia that the ultra-left agitates for (not just equal rights, but equal outcomes)… well, all I can respond to that with is: take a look at the 20th century, and tell me how all those revolutions played out. Most of them stemmed from a progressive belief system — the kind that casts everyone as either oppressed or oppressor (just like today), the kind that calls for a dismantling and reordering of real or perceived power structures. And millions and millions died as a result. The forces that caused this destruction, the underlying pathology of the whole project, were solidly and disastrously Cluster B. It’s happening again. It’s happening in our art scenes across Texas.
How bad is it, and how did we get here?
It is here, and in the “art world,” or in various art “scenes” in Texas, and of course beyond. In recent months, I’ve watched some of my artist and art-worker friends and acquaintances have their work maligned, censored, or eradicated, by progressives — they’ve had their reputations damaged by these Cluster Bs and their minions — hammers bashing nails. The artists who’ve been put through this ringer could be anyone, and includes artists of color and queer artists. Cluster B mission creep is real. No one is safe. Sometimes, it may be that these artists they go after are seen as not orthodox enough — they are not making work that functions as the new propaganda where identity and tribal politics is the only form deemed “worthy” by the hammers. Sometimes the work is orthodox, but the hammers need to hit a lot of nails to feel alive, and they will move the goalpost to make sure they can get their targets. And let’s be real: artists get jealous of other artists. Art “activists” can be jealous of anyone getting the attention they want for themselves. I spot serial bullies in our scenes, causing the same kinds of conflicts and damage for different people, again and again. This current political environment is their playground.
That’s just it: What makes it especially galling, and frightening, is that it’s so easy for these disingenuous “progressive” thought leaders to rope in others to their “cause” — people who are, understandably, terrified of the growing threat of the fascist right, people who are exhausted and feel guilty all the time, people who want to help, who want to make the world a safer and more inclusive place. People who are, frankly, scared of being deemed “insufficiently supportive” and attacked for it (social exile equals a kind of death). These people, mere extras in the Cluster B drama, would be called “useful idiots” by Vladimir Lenin. They take on the paranoia and self-righteousness of their Cluster B leaders. They don’t even know they’re doing it (but goddamn, it must seem great to go from feeling “powerless” to — wham! — being able to destroy another person’s career or reputation via a few social media posts or a single petition).
There’s a reason it’s gotten this bad, and that freedom of expression is the first thing to get tossed out, and for artists to be some of the earliest casualties in these revolutions. In modern and contemporary times, artists have been free thinkers who make transcendent things, and trust their audiences in the exchange of ideas. In the new orthodoxy, free-thinking artists are dangerous. The way it plays out in 2021 is this: the explosion of art by formerly marginalized artists, which is not only a good thing but a great thing, a necessary thing, has developed more recently into something really strange, that reads as both policed and self-policing. I know plenty of artists who are not making work for the public now, or making work at all. They have a reason for that. Especially when they see their peers getting thrown under the bus at the first audience “complaint,” sometimes even abandoned by the left-leaning non-profit institutions that commission the work. I never thought I would see this in my lifetime. I mean, back when I was an undergrad, we railed against Jerry Falwell’s Moral Majority.
Speaking of college, I’m not just full-time here at Glasstire; I’m in grad school full-time as well. I’d be leaving out an important part of this story if I didn’t mention just how much this hammer/nail rot owes its existence to post-modernist, post-structuralist, post-Marxist theory, a philosophical bent that’s been taught as a central tenet in humanities departments at universities since the 1980s. I guess we could blame Foucault, the kiddie-fucker philosopher who made everything about power — who has it, who does not — and the legion of academic theorists who followed him into the depths of a moral relativism that assumes the worst intentions of our fellow humans — and by now, in current form, undermines any sense of shared meaning or shared reality. There are now three generations of highly educated people out in the world who have taken up positions at all levels in our progressive institutions, who fully believe the oppressor/oppressed narrative… about everything. Bad-faith readings of other people’s intentions are built into this thinking. Victim status is built into it. That is the point.
What a way to live. What a way to see the world. How nihilistic.
How Cluster B.