South Bend, Indiana, Mayor Pete Buttigieg. / Image via Instagram.
A Tremendous Hater
Mayor Pete, he ain’t it for me. But he deserves better than what he got from yesterday’s (since-deleted) Dale Peck essay in The New Republic.
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—for example, the white, upper-class-raised gay men such as myself and Mr. Buttigieg—many among the rest have slid further and further behind.
The Affordable Care Act, better known as Obamacare, pulled tens of millions of people out of uninsured status, which is progress. But it utterly failed to pull tens of millions more from their existing, healthcare cost-driven poverty, even bankruptcy. Fundamentally, it—like just about any ostensibly liberal policy program passed in generations—failed to reckon with private-sector failures that have destroyed lives and livelihoods to the extravagant benefit of a tiny few. (In the healthcare-sector context alone, the disparities are staggering, with executives at top insurance and pharmaceutical firms earning tens of millions in annual compensation.)
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. The only way I can write for a living, let alone do so in New York City, is the privilege and access I have from the accident of my birth into a specific family at a specific time. That reflects a structural problem in dire need of radical redress, not fiddling with marginal tax rates alone.
The stakes are dire in a global sense, too. They truly cannot be overstated and they profoundly inform my worldview.
Crisis feels like the overriding mood of 2019: 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 my views, but I will make them explicit before turning to the provoking piece published yesterday in The New Republic, by author and critic 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 the original writing to something digestible, friends, I promise.)
It’s poor form to not link to another’s work when addressing it, but The New Republic removed the piece, explaining in a statement to inquiring journalists it was a fumbled “satire.” (This is the most generous possible reading of it.)
Don’t worry, though, much of it is quoted generously below. But let me aver that the detritus previously published 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 read Peck fully twice, I’d choose the hammer.
Queen Bees and Gore Vidal Wannabes
I imagine Peck as someone who fancies himself a post-Reagan Gore Vidal, a literary iconoclast and one of the last truly celebrity-level public intellectuals we’ve had in America.
Vidal lived as an openly gay man (though he used different terminology, asserting there are only “homosexual acts” and “heterosexual acts”). He lived openly in what was not exactly the most-welcoming era, from the late 1940s onward. His first novel, The City and the Pillar, was published in 1948 and featured a same-sex romance at its core. Vidal claims the book led to his being blacklisted for decades to come by the New York Times and others. He spent much of his adult life in Europe, where his work—and his evidently salacious personal habits—found greater acceptance. Dozens of nonfiction books, plays, screenplays and novels comprised his prodigious output over his long life. Vidal died in 2012 at the age of 86.
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 (!), flagged with yellow and pink sticky notes accumulated over years. It’s an extraordinary body of criticism.
Photo Credit: Andy Carr
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 an assortment of “professional commentators,” cultural and literary 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, this label provokes a little anxiety.) In a Times Literary Supplement piece published a dozen years before my birth, Vidal shreds the literary academic models of “the novel” gleefully, at least “the model” which my generation, sadly, learned: exposition, rising action, climax, falling action and resolution. Rubbish, overly rigid.
Vidal delighted in knocking elites down a few pegs, but he was 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 (through separate re-marriages), Hugh D. Auchincloss, Jr.; Vidal’s grandfather, Thomas Pryor Gore, was a U.S. Senator from Oklahoma shortly after Oklahoma joined the union; and his entire upbringing in Northwest Washington, D.C., featured a who’s-who of political elites. He knew everybody — and everybody’s gossip.
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 very well and over many years, and he sparred with them both publicly and privately on all manner of shared interests and areas of expertise.
Perhaps Vidal’s greatest critique of America, and one which has outlived him and proven most prescient, is his view of American empire. He foresaw that our decadent empire would collapse gradually, through generations-long financial, economic and political decay. If one source has informed my radical political turn, it is that specific perspective Vidal championed indefatigably: the empire that believes it’s a republic, but runs itself 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, or even Peck’s own earlier verve. Rather, he 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” with Mr. Buttigieg.
Peck’s recent 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.
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 literary 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 this interior monologue: “not only did he look like a potato, he dressed, talked, and ran like a potato.” Well, no thanks!)
Gar was a dweeb, in other words. You can probably see where this is going already, so I’ll spare the French quote from 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):
(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. There’s far more to unpack than I could ever hope to do on my own here.)
Gar tries one last time:
What does any of this have to do with 2020 Democratic Party Candidate hopeful, 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 Peck goes on to call him for the remainder of the piece. (It’s apparently—and one must assume apocryphally—a Facebook-survey answer to the “gay equivalent of [an] Uncle Tom.” Charming.)
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. For instance, I agree Buttigieg has failed to examine the benefits of his “white male privilege” and failed to interrogate his awkward savior complex, as someone promising he “can make life better for all those people who are not like him.” Check and check. While my post-debate roundup concluded Buttigieg came off fairly well, his success owed mostly to Biden’s terrible showing — among the two candidates with the most baggage vis-à-vis race, it was predictable the elder senator would plunge further and distract from the Mayor’s shortcomings.
I also agree Buttigieg, much like Gillibrand and other centrist Democrats Peck name checks, has a fundamentally flawed understanding of just how noxious capitalism has proven, especially over the last few decades. While Buttigieg 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 familiar Buttigieg—excuse me, Mary Pete—biography. A precocious polyglot goes to Harvard, then becomes a Rhodes Scholar, then serves (conspicuously well after 9/11) in war-zones 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 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, those promises were kept.
From his pseudo-acceptance of responsibility for racist misconduct by 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 that.
But Peck is far from done.
There’s the grotesque bromide about Buttigieg’s sexual habits, reading as though it were ripped straight from the Daily Caller or some other alt-right media darling (“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 then, immediately following, there is the been-in-New-York-too-long shaming of those who remain in the closet into adulthood (“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 a full (by this point easily predictable) internalized-homophobia-laden meltdown.
And that’s exactly what it is, it seems — some sort of projection (?) onto Buttigieg that The New Republic’s editors (hi, guys?) might have considered flagging before hitting “publish.” If Peck’s problem with Buttigieg is his white-bread entitled lack of understanding—much less the lack of embracing—solidarity with the entire spectrum of the LGBTQ+ community, with people of color and other groups at dire risk amid America’s sharply nativist-authoritarian turn, so be it. That is . valid. But the the language of “Mary Pete” and the bland, passé superficiality about 1990s-era Gar or about Pete’s penchant for khakis hardly constitute a revolutionary call. They’re bits of teenaged gay bitchiness parading around as though they constituted political analysis. Talk about tired clichés.
As Daniel Summers put it after the piece was published yesterday: “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 (must be the afterglow of the 1980s, when all those literary types began collapsing the last two stages of “the novel” into one). But I’ll otherwise leave that subject to Peck, the legitimate literary expert among the two of us. I’m just a JD 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’s backgrounds—seem to share much in common.
The grimmest issue with Peck’s odd diatribe—and 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, enabled or openly embraced at every turn by the increasingly further-right contemporary Republican Party.
Democrats historically have failed on many issues, often repeatedly. Their lack of vision in their campaign platforms even now is irritating at best. Their inability to reckon with profound changes to a rupturing American society wrought by the Trump presidency is unnerving. As House Speaker Nancy Pelosi has chided the progressive wings of the Democratic Party, she also has coddled right-leaning Democrats relentlessly, those whose futures are not exactly promising. These failures continue apace all the while ostensible Democratic leaders, including Pelosi, have squandered their Article I powers — their Article I responsibility to exercise oversight of the executive, their obligation to investigate a criminal presidency without precedent.
Yet the bare reality remains: American conservatism, no matter those (non-exhaustive) critiques of Democrats above, has charged ever further rightward and into dangerous territory, with structural advantages at play that incentivize even greater extremism. The current Republican Party has shifted boldly toward the far-right fringe to an extent unlike any but the most-extremist parties anywhere else in the industrialized world. That is the threat which must be overcome in our two-party electoral system, not a dweeby, khaki-wearing wonk who’s generally polling only in the single digits anyway.
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 national contexts. Democrats are hardly the equivalent of Europe’s socialist parties; they’re even more centrist than Britain’s anemic Labour Party, which itself has moved left again only recently (and with plenty of baggage) under leader Jeremy Corbyn. Both Democrats and Labour, however, remain comfortably left of the hypothetical “median party” across all parties in the at-least-nominally democratic states of Europe and North America. They’re center-left, quintessentially:
Image Credit: Sahil Chinov, The New York Times, June 2019
The GOP, meanwhile, is far, far to the right of the median party — closer to neo-fascist groups like the Dutch Party for Freedom (which Geert Wilders brought to international infamy) or the AfD (Alternative for Germany) than to, say, Sweden’s Moderate Party or even Britain’s still-bonkers Conservative Party. Until a nihilistic about-face over the last few years, bear in mind, the GOP was the only conservative major party anywhere in the industrialized world to reject the scientific consensus on 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 as those of any other political actor or group. That’s in everyone’s best interests. But the forest and the trees must not be confused here when the stakes could hardly be higher.
Even if Mayor Pete Buttigieg’s warmed-over retread of American liberalism ain’t for me, and even if I don’t see his proposals getting us out of the multiple overlapping catastrophes that are unfolding all around us—and I do not—there are more or less useful tacks to choose in charting our collective direction forward. (Dissent Magazine, just days ago, posted one such view from the left offering a much more practical and far less nihilistic analysis of both Mayor Pete and Millennial leftism generally.) The worst use of the left’s energy, though, would be gracelessly taking hypocritical pot-shots at a low-polling candidate rather than challenging, say, former Vice President Joe Biden, or ultimately preparing any nominee to take on Trump.
Pete ain’t for me. But if he somehow wins the nomination, would I vote for him anyway? Barring something unfathomable, yes, obviously. The demerits of South Bend, Indiana’s Mayor Pete Buttigieg are meaningful, absolutely, but they cannot be compared credibly to the unique grotesquerie of the Trump era. Only a “hack of academe” would claim otherwise.
This essay is the opinion of one of the contributing writers of Instinct Magazine and may not reflect the opinion of other writers or the magazine.
It was adapted from an earlier essay published to Medium on July 12.