For years now people have asked me to republish “Planet of Cops,” an essay I wrote and put up on Medium in May of 2017. I pulled it down with almost everything else I could in August of that year after restarting medication for my bipolar disorder. The essay is about how contemporary life has descended into a kind of panoptic horror where we all engage in pitiless mutual surveillance. It’s a favorite of many of my readers, and I am proud of it, particularly in terms of its prose. But I have never wanted to repost it.
Partly this is because I don’t like to look back in my writing - I publish so frequently in part because I want to move past what I’ve already written. But the other reason is that I have very mixed feelings about this essay, as I was profoundly manic when I wrote it. I think if you have that foreknowledge you’ll find it rather obvious while reading it. And this is not a piece of trivia, as the essay intersects with my illness in uncomfortable ways, particularly with the severe paranoid ideation that rises when my mania deepens and which usually prompts the behaviors that lead to hospitalization. This essay sees cop behavior everywhere because cop behavior really is everywhere in our social culture, particularly online, but it also sees that kind of behavior everywhere for the same reason that I have accused friends of being disloyal to me, of attempting to hack my bank account, of putting broken glass in my toothpaste. The observations in these piece are true, I believe, but also partly motivated by serious mental illness. To be clear, I agree with this essay, I stand by the things it says, I admit that I enjoy its bravura writing style very much, and I don’t want its fans to stop sharing it or to feel bad for liking it. But it’s hard for me to read and personally I prefer to move on.
The irony of our vibrant and necessary police reform movement is that it’s happening simultaneously to everyone becoming a cop. I mean everyone — liberal, conservative, radical and reactionary. Blogger, activist, pundit, and writer, obviously, but also teacher, tailor, and candlestick maker. Cops, all of them. Cops everywhere. Everybody a cop.
Conservatives have always been cops, obviously. I mean the literal cops, the professionals, they tend to have a reactionary bent, right. But the people flooding the FCC with complaints about Janet Jackson’s nipple, they’re cops. William Burroughs summarized the whole social conservative movement perfectly as “decent church-going women with their mean, pinched, bitter, evil faces.” People who narc on their neighbors are cops, and people who want to scour test scores to get teachers fired are cops, and people who want to keep an eye on trans people when they go to the bathroom are cops, obviously. Drug test people on food stamps, strip search Muslims at the airport, “let me see your papers please.” Conservatives were born cops, they always have been, they always will.
Milo Yiannopoulos, that pathetic hypocrite who a couple months ago was talking about free speech on campus? He’s a cop, too. The alt-right play up their laughable renegade credentials but when they aren’t calling the literal cops for a SWATting they’re crying to the mods, bitching about unequal enforcement of rules to Twitter, or “turning the tables” by crying for the whatever authority to come rescue them. Just more cops.
Demos firing Matt Bruenig because someone dropped a dime on him to powerful people. The little army of snitches who have written to my employers and tried to divest me of my job. The self-appointed Twitter police — they’re in every subculture of that forum — who constantly start shit, DMing people to berate them for who they follow or whose work they boost, the ones who keep an oppo file on everybody, who try and regulate other people’s friendships. The ones who keep a big file folder of screen grabs, just waiting to play judge and jury. They’re cops.
The woke world is a world of snitches, informants, rats. Go to any space concerned with social justice and what will you find? Endless surveillance. Everybody is to be judged. Everyone is under suspicion. Everything you say is to be scoured, picked over, analyzed for any possible offense. Everyone’s a detective in the Division of Problematics, and they walk the beat 24/7. You search and search for someone Bad doing Bad Things, finding ways to indict writers and artists and ordinary people for something, anything. That movie that got popular? Give me a few hours and 800 words. I’ll get you your indictments. That’s what liberalism is, now — the search for baddies doing bad things, like little offense archaeologists, digging deeper and deeper to find out who’s Good and who’s Bad. I wonder why people run away from establishment progressivism in droves.
I read about the PWR BTTM accusations. They’re disturbing. I take them seriously. But these guys have had their careers erased overnight, and the idea that we have any responsibility to give them the chance to defend themselves is treated like you took part in their alleged crimes. You simply cannot say, in polite society, “basic fairness requires us to avoid a rush to judgment and to give people the right to respond to accusations.” To do so gets you lumped in with the criminals. Like a friend of mine said, “the only acceptable reaction to an accusation is enthusiastic and unqualified acceptance.” I don’t know how people can simultaneously talk about prison abolition and restoring the idea of forgiveness to literal criminal justice and at the same time turn the entire social world into a kangaroo court system. Like I wrote once, we can’t simultaneously be a movement based on rehabilitation and restorative justice AND a viciously judgmental moral aristocracy. You know who thinks everybody’s guilty until proven innocent? Cops. You know who thinks people don’t deserve the right to defend themselves? Cops. You know who says those who defend basic fairness and due process are as bad as criminals themselves? Cops.
A cop culture is one where a mob forces a company to patch its game because the treatment of video game parrots is somehow deficient. Do you buy that narrative at all? Do you think any single human being is so fucking daft as to believe that lots of children are going to be inspired by Minecraft to feed their real parrots real chocolate chip cookies? Or do people like being cops? Do they like being in a position to make demands? Do they like lazily threatening people, “nice company you have here… wouldn’t want it to get embroiled in some controversy”? People are alienated and worn down and hopeless, and so they see their opportunity to finally be the one pulling over somebody else’s car, lazily tapping the glass with their flashlights. “I’m the one in charge now,” he thinks, as he sends an email to somebody’s boss over a Facebook status he doesn’t like.
You know who weren’t cops? All the radicals and queers and artists and dreamers that were there while I grew up, my mom and dad’s old friends from New York and the wider bohemian world, the actors and the drag queens and the dilettantes and the ex junkies and the current junkies, the kind of queer people who wouldn’t get caught dead getting married, the people who actually made the “old New York” of the myth into what it was. They were smart and they were funny and they were tougher than I can imagine and they were possessed of an existential commitment to the idea that life is complicated and so we shouldn’t be quick to judge. They were tolerant, in the true sense, even while they were tireless advocates for actual justice. They knew that genuinely progressive, left-wing people had to embody a rejection of the old moralisms. They weren’t religious but they embraced Christian forgiveness more than any people I’ve ever known. They were the kind to say to newcomers at AA meetings, “I don’t care who you are or what you’ve done, you’re welcome here.” Most of them are dead now, from AIDs or cancer or drugs or just living life. I miss them so fucking much. I miss when we were the cool ones, the implacable ones, the ones too principled to judge.
Now we’re Rudy Giuliani, trying to get offensive art pulled off the walls. Now we’re the book burners. Now we’re the censors. Now we attack the ACLU for defending free speech. Now we screech about community morals. Now we’re the prison camp screws. That’s us. Me, I could never be one of the good ones. Never. I can never live up to that ideal. I know I’m not good enough. I know when the judgment day comes, I go down. And so I decline. You can decline, too. You can say, “I decline the opportunity to be a cop.” But people are scared. Because they think, probably correctly, that if they aren’t a cop, they’ll end up a criminal. Well, I have no choice. I am not one of the goodies.
The idea of the panopticon is one of the most tired and clichéd bits of theory talk you’ll find, one that reliably makes its way into every undergraduate paper and TV recap. It’s also wrong. See, the panopticon says we all get watched all the time, but there’s still a division between the guards and the prisoners. There’s still people who do the watching separate from the watched. And that’s not real life. No, in real life we’re all guards and prisoners at the same time. We are all informants on each other. Contemporary political culture is an autoimmune disorder. Do you enjoy living like this? Are you not exhausted? Don’t you want to break out? Or are you happy here, content to judge and judge and judge and never stop judging? Then congrats. Welcome to the nation of finks, planet of cops. Enjoy. Enjoy. Enjoy.