Mayor Pete, he ain’t it for me. But he deserved better today.
Mayor Pete’s brand of neoliberal Democratic Party wonkishness? We’ve tried it, and while some real progress has been made, specifically for the already-advantaged — the white, upper-class-raised gay men such as myself and Mr. Buttigieg — most of the rest slid further and further behind.
The Affordable Care Act, Obamacare, pulled tens of millions of people out of uninsured status, which is progress, but it failed to pull tens of millions more out of their extant health-bill-driven poverty, even bankruptcy. Fundamentally, it — like just about any ostensibly liberal policy program — fails to reckon with private-sector failures that have robbed lives and livelihoods to the extravagant benefit of a tiny few.
Buttigieg hews to an Obama-esque view of positive momentum, of building piecemeal a better world. It’s not the worst worldview (there’s plenty of competition for that right now), but it’s not one I can share in fully.
I see the cascading crises of climate change, as New Orleans braces for another “unprecedented” disaster this weekend; the mounting student debt fiasco that bears uncanny resemblance to the mortgage lending practices that nearly crippled the global economy just over a decade ago; the sweeping — not creeping — authoritarianization of vast swaths of the human race under klepocratic governments. I see crises of the moment that demand radical transformation, not stepwise palliatives.
My earlier responses to the second Democratic Primary debate night hint at these views, but I will make them explicit before turning to the provoking piece published earlier today in The New Republic, penned by Dale Peck. As the inimitable Benjamin Dreyer put it so well on Twitter, “Friends don’t let friends read Dale Peck.” I’ve done my best to cull it to something you can stomach, friends.
It’s poor form to not link to another’s work when addressing it, so it’s here. [Update 7/12/2019,10:00 p.m.: It appears The New Republic removed the piece, explaining in a statement it was a failed “satire.” Which is utter bullshit. Don’t worry, much of it is quoted generously below.] But let me aver that the detritus over at The New Republic would help no one see or understand Mayor Pete or his place in our world any better than a sledgehammer to the temple. Given the choice, with hindsight and having now read Peck fully twice, I’d pick the hammer every time.
Queen Bees and Gore Vidal Wannabes
I imagine Peck as someone who fancies himself a post-Reagan Gore Vidal, that great literary iconoclast and public intellectual (whatever that might still mean in 2019).
Vidal was openly gay (he used different terminology) from the middle of the twentieth century onward, not exactly the most-welcoming era. His first novel, The City and the Pillar (published in 1948), featured a same-sex romance at its core and (Vidal claims) led to the author’s blacklisting by the New York Times for decades. He spent much of his life in Europe, where his work — and his salacious personal habits — found greater acceptance. Dozens of nonfiction books, plays, screenplays and novels comprised his prodigious output over his long life. Vidal died at the age of 86 in 2012.
Famed for his many feuds, Vidal, in his own words, was “at heart a propagandist, a tremendous hater, a tiresome nag, complacently positive that there is no human problem that could not be solved if people would simply do as I advise,” as he was quoted posthumously by Jay Parini in The Guardian nearly four years ago. (An excellent, fascinating read in itself.)
My copy of Gore Vidal’s monumental essay collection, United States: 1952–1992, has been annotated to death, littered with notes and exclamation points, and flagged with yellow and pink sticky notes accumulated over the years. It’s an extraordinary body of work.
Yet United States also comes with an endless stream of insults directed at everyone from W. Somerset Maugham (a writer, playwright and frequent punching bag) to the “professional commentators,” those cultural critics — such as Dale Peck, perhaps even Mr. Vidal himself — who “with grave authority make analyses which the briefest interval often declares invalid.”
Then there are the “hacks of academe” (as a graduate student myself, guilty?). In a Times Literary Supplement piece a full 12 years older than I, Vidal shreds the literary academic models of “the novel” with glee, at least the model which my generation, sadly, was taught: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Rubbish and overly rigid.
Vidal delighted in knocking the elites down a few pegs, but was himself a paragon of privilege. He hardly tried to hide this; indeed, his connections were the lifeblood of much of his writing and many of his (lightly) fictionalized creations. Jacqueline Kennedy and Vidal had the same stepfather (though through separate re-marriages), Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr.; Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was one of the earliest U.S. Senators from Oklahoma, and his entire upbringing in Northwest Washington, D.C., featured a who’s-who of political elites. He knew everybody.
But Vidal was shrewd, and his greatest targets for feuds — writers like Truman Capote and political commentators like the arch-conservative founder of the Federalist Society, William F. Buckley, Jr. — were deserving of his scorn. He knew them well, over many years, and sparred with them publicly and privately on all manner of shared interests and expertise.
Vidal’s greatest critique of America was one which has outlived him and proven fairly prescient. The decadent empire of America would fail, as it (he believed, for dubious reasons) already had, on moral grounds, as well through financial, economic and political decay. If one source has informed my growing radical turn in my own politics, it is that specific articulation offered by Vidal above most else: the empire that believes it’s a republic, but runs like an increasingly dysfunctional cartel.
Which brings me back to Dale Peck, our would-be iconoclast.
Peck’s book of criticism, Hatchet Jobs, nods in Vidal’s direction — but his writing of late sadly seems to omit Vidal’s crisp wit and irony. Rather, Peck welds torrents of words together in strung-out similes and contradictory moods, no less in what I’ll call — kindly — his critique of Mayor Pete. His “problem.”
Peck’s latest hatchet job begins in 1992, a not-quite nostalgic look back to a rebuffed suitor who tracked the writer around the Lower East Side, not taking the hint. (Vidal was well-known for being sexually … prolific, let’s say. So virile, all these literary types!)
As all writers did in the early 1990s, Peck carried a hardcopy of “the completed manuscript of [his] first novel Martin and John.” (An “astonishing first novel,” the Times would write the following year, to Peck’s credit.) A “large fellow” runs after Peck as he moves between bars. Thus, we meet our heart-eyed interloper with “pleated khakis” during the “era of the ACT UP clone — Doc Martens, Levi’s tight or baggy, and activist T-shirts,” which Peck “had embraced fully.”
The pleated meddler (Garfield, or “Gar”) is a square, you see, and Peck wants nothing to do with him. Peck, “as politely” as he could, tries to rebuff him first, then again. (But, kindly, Peck chose to repress his interior monologue: “not only did he look like a potato, he dressed, talked, and ran like a potato.” Well, no thanks!)
A dweeb, in other words. You can probably see where this is going already, so I’ll spare the French quote sprinkled into the original piece and jump ahead.
The Rising Action
Gar will not be deterred, finding the younger Peck simply ravishing, in that rakish, Lower East Side circa early 90s way. At the second bar, after pointless conversation, Gar makes his move (again):
Finally he said he had to leave. He asked for my number. I remember Patrick laughing in his face, but maybe that’s just because I wanted to laugh in his face. I was like, Are you serious? And he was like, We have so much in common, we should get to know each other better!
(Here, I cannot omit Peck making the point that he had “more in common” with a “pedophile” at a Chicago bus station he’d met while traveling as “a white teenager from rural Kansas,” one “who was about 50, black, and urban” — whatever “urban” means. Does the Goldwater Rule apply to novelist-critics? If so, it should be rescinded for this anecdote alone.)
Gar tries one last time:
He asked what he would have to do to get me to go out with him. Without thinking, I said, Take a good look at yourself and your world, reject everything in it, and then get back to me.
What does any of this have to do with aspiring Democratic Party Candidate Mayor Pete? Well, Peck’s “telling you this because it’s what popped into [his] head when [he] tried to pin down [his] distaste for Pete Buttigieg,” or “Mary Pete,” as our dear author goes on to call him for the remainder of the piece. (It’s apparently — and I assume apocryphally — a Facebook-survey answer to the “gay equivalent of [an] Uncle Tom.”)
Unlike Gar, though, Peck and Pete “have a lot in common, but at a certain point [they] came to a fork in the road and [Peck] took the one less traveled” (Frost! Literary!).
Don’t get me wrong; I agree with many of Peck’s critiques of Mayor Pete. I agree that Buttigieg has failed to examine the benefits of his “white male privilege” and his awkward savior complex as someone who “can make life better for all those people who are not like him.” (Check: while my post-debate roundup concluded he came off well, Buttigieg’s success owed mostly to Biden’s fully terrible showing — the two candidates with the most baggage vis-à-vis issues of race, it was predictable the elder senator would plunge further).
I also agree that Buttigieg, much like Gillibrand and other named centrist Democrats, has a fundamentally flawed understanding of just how noxious capitalism has proven, especially in the last few decades. While he and others believe in “healthy capitalism,” Peck has a point: it’s “a bit like saying you believe in ‘healthy cancer’: Yeah, you can (usually) treat it, but wouldn’t you rather be cured?”
From here, Peck traces the Buttigieg biography: precocious polyglot goes to Harvard, then becomes a Rhodes Scholar, then serves (conspicuously well after 9/11 itself) in warzones abroad, then returns to paradigmatic-corporate-evil-gig at McKinsey, then — finally — starts his meteoric, preordained rise through the political ranks. Fin.
Only here does Peck finally ratchet up the pressure effusively. “In Buttigieg’s version of American history,” Peck writes,
the progressive ideals in the First, Thirteenth, and Nineteenth Amendments, in the Civil Rights Act and Roe v. Wade and marriage equality, are the only authentically American ideas, whereas slavery and Jim Crow and border security and defense of marriage campaigns and heartbeat laws are nothing but aberrations, glitches in the code rather than yin to liberalism’s yang
The lie of American exceptionalism, in other words, is one which Mayor Pete — and Harris, and Klobuchar, and Gillibrand, and many others — has at least pretended to swallow, if not adopt earnestly. Of course Buttigieg believes in the promises of American exceptionalism; for him, unlike a vast majority, that promise was kept.
From his pseudo-acceptance of responsibility for the racist misconduct among South Bend’s police officers to his waffling positions on Medicare-for-All and student loan forgiveness, it’s more of the same from Pete as from any mainstream Democrat. I get it.
But Peck is far from done.
Between a bromide about Buttigieg’s sexual habits ripped straight from the Daily Caller (“The only thing that distinguishes [him] is what he does with his dick [and possibly his ass, although I get a definite top-by-default vibe from him, which is to say that I bet he thinks about getting fucked but he’s too uptight to do it]”) and the been-in-New-York-too-long shaming of those who remain in the closet (“He’s been out for, what, all of four years, and if I understand the narrative, he married the first guy he dated”), Peck flies off the rails in (predictable) self-loathing, internalized homophobia hellfire.
And that’s exactly what it is, it seems — some sort of projection (?) onto Buttigieg that The New Republic’s editors (hello?) might have considered flagging before hitting “publish.” If Peck’s problem with Buttigieg is his white bread, entitled lack of understanding — much less embracing — solidarity qua the spectrum of LGBTQ+ people, people of color and other groups at dire risk from America’s nativist-authoritarian turn, the language of “Mary Pete” and bland, passé superficiality about Gar or about Pete’s penchant for khakis is hardly a revolutionary call.
As Daniel Summers put it after the piece was published earlier today: “Nobody, not one single one of us, has standing to adjudicate the queerness of any other.” To do so in such a grotesque way and for so little practicable purpose is abhorrent — both for the writer and for the editor(s).
There’s no falling action to Peck’s piece (he must’ve been educated in the 1980s, as it was around the time that literary types began collapsing the last two stages into one). But I’ll otherwise leave that subject to Peck, the legitimate expert among the two of us. I’m just a lawyer and a political scientist, so I’ll stick to what I know at the end — the politics and the policies, with which Peck and I — like Peck and Pete — seem to share much in common.
The grimmest issue with Peck’s odd diatribe — one I hear so often, even now, in 2019 — is the false equivalence: the simplistic equivocation when comparing a center-left Democrat like Buttigieg and a violently racist, xenophobic demagogue like Trump, or much of the contemporary, ever further-right national GOP, for the matter (see below).
Democrats historically have failed on many issues: their lack of vision in their campaign platforms now is at best irritating; their inability to reckon with the profound changes in society or the generational effects of a Trump for civil society and the public sphere at large is unnerving. While House Speaker Nancy Pelosi chides her progressive wing, she’s relentlessly coddled right-leaning Democrats whose futures are not exactly promising, all the while leaders, including Pelosi, have squandered their Article I powers — their Article I responsibilities.
Yet the bare reality remains: American conservatism, no matter the selected critiques of Democrats above, has charged ever further rightward and into dangerous territory, with structural advantages at play which incentivize further extremism, and to an extent unlike any but the most fringe parties anywhere else in the industrialized world. That is the threat to overcome in a two-party American electoral system, not a dweeby, khaki-wearing wonk — a mere obstacle, not a one-man wrecking ball.
Sahil Chinoy, writing in the New York Times and providing a remarkable data visualization, reproduced as a still shot below, showed just how enormous the left-right gap has grown in American politics and how this gap compares to other cases. Democrats are hardly the equivalent of European socialist parties; they’re even more-centrist than Britain’s anemic Labour, which itself has moved left again only recently, and with plenty of baggage, under leader Jeremy Corbyn. Both Democrats and Labour though remain comfortably left of the “median” party across all nominally democratic states in Europe and North America. They’re center-left, quintessentially.
Image: Sahil Chinov, New York Times, June 2019
The GOP, meanwhile, is far, far to the right of the median, closer to neo-fascist groups like the Dutch Party for Freedom (which Geert Wilders brought to international infamy) and the AfD, or Alternative for Germany, than to, say, Sweden’s Moderate Party, or even Britain’s still-bonkers Conservative Party. Until their nihilistic about-face in the last few years, bear in mind, the GOP was the only conservative party anywhere in the industrialized world to reject the consensus of anthropogenic climate change (and the GOP still hasn’t come around on this fully, to say the least).
Democrats and the left more generally must be held to the highest possible standards and their failings deserve equally frank condemnation. This much is true. But the forest and the trees must not be confused here when the stakes could hardly be higher.
Even if Buttigieg’s warmed-over rebrand of American liberalism ain’t for me, even if I don’t see it getting us out of the multiple overlapping catastrophes that are unfolding all around us, and I don’t, there are more or less useful tacks to choose in charting our collective direction. Taking ungracious (and hypocritical) pot-shots at a candidate polling in single digits instead of focusing energy on elevating candidates above the somehow-still-a-frontrunner, Joe Biden, and ultimately preparing any nominee to take on Trump, is the worst use of our energy. It’s self-defeating.
Pete ain’t for me, as I said. But if he somehow wins the nomination, would I vote for him anyway? Certainly. The demerits of South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg are infinitesimal compared to the grotesquerie that is the Trump era.
As Gore Vidal might put it, Peck’s hatchet job — however stridently un-academic — is no different from any other hack of academe. Leave him to wither — and damn The New Republic’s controversy bait to a hell worse than the one we live in.