The Age of Kayfabe
the struggle isn't real
Kayfabe is a treasured part of pro wrestling culture. Kayfabe refers to the commitment of everyone involved (the wrestlers, the refs, the announcers, and to a certain degree the fans) to maintaining the shared fiction that pro wrestling matches are unscripted. (Wrestling is real, in the sense that the athletes are taking real punishment and risk really getting hurt, and there is a degree of improvisation, but the outcomes are predetermined.) Kayfabe has had a kind of mythical importance to many in the pro wrestling community: you keep kayfabe no matter what, even in the event of serious injury, out of a sense of sacred commitment. Crucial to understanding kayfabe is that it is not an attempt to deceive the audience. Modern wrestling is in some ways perfectly open about the scripted nature of the matches. Fooling people is not the point. If every fan signed an affidavit saying they knew the outcomes were predetermined the wrestlers would still keep kayfabe, out of commitment to the culture. Kayfabe is a mutually-approved illusion. It is artifice, but it is mutually agreed upon artifice, a consensual fantasy.
Our current political culture is kayfabe.
The illusion that we pretend to believe is that we are in some sort of uniquely politically fertile moment for progressivism and social justice, that we are experiencing a social revolution or “Great Awokening.” Further, we keep kayfabe by acting as if we believe that certain policies like police abolition or abolishing border enforcement (or if you prefer utterly meaningless sloganeering, “abolishing ICE”) are tangibly viable in anything like the near future. I say that these are kayfabe to emphasize my belief that most people who endorse these beliefs are well aware that they are not true, and to underline the sense in which the commitment to unreality is mutual, an expression of a strange kind of social contract. Most thinking adults comprehend the current moment and understand that the hand of establishment power and the influence of social inertia are as strong as ever. (Why would you feel otherwise?) But because people have understandably been moved by recent righteous calls for justice, they feel they must accept the fiction of a new awakening to show solidarity with the victims of injustice. This is emotionally understandable, but strategically counterproductive. And indeed one thing that has defined these new social movements is their relentless commitment to the emotional over the strategic.
I do not share the belief, whether sincerely held or not, that there is a social revolution occurring. I see no reason to believe that we’re facing anything other than a continued trudge through America’s long phase of declining unipolar dominance, decadent neoliberalism, and spiraling social and economic inequality. Nothing of material importance has changed thanks to the current “awakening,” save perhaps more enthusiastic and brutal enforcement of liberal discourse norms in public life. There’s no reason to believe anything will meaningfully change soon. Tomorrow will be much the same as today. I’m very sorry to say.
Living in a culture of political kayfabe is a strange experience. It feels the way that, I imagine, it feels to live under a truly authoritarian government, where you’re constantly having exchanges where everyone involved knows that what they’re saying is bogus but you push right through the cognitive dissonance with a smile on your face. Only you’re not compelled by the fear of torture or imprisonment but of vague-but-intense social dictates, of the crucial priority of appearing to be the right kind of person. So often political conversations today have this dual quality where you feel forced to constantly evaluate what your interlocutor actually believes even as propriety compels you to take seriously what’s coming out of their mouth.
A major negative consequence of our commitment to kayfabe lies in our acceptance of behaviors we would ordinarily never accept, under the theory that this is such a special time, we need to shut up and go along with it. Take our broken discourse, as frequently discussed in “cancel culture” debates. My experience and my intuition tell me that almost everyone in the progressive/left/socialist world knows that our discourse norms and culture are totally fucked up. Trust me: most people in liberal spaces, Black and white, male and female, trans and cis, most certainly including people in academia and media, are well aware that we’ve entered into a bizarre never-ending production of The Crucible we can’t get out of. They’re probably just as sick of Woko Haram as I am.
But they’re either empowered and enriched by this state of affairs, and don’t want the party to end, or they’re holding on for dear life trying not to get their lives ruined for speaking out of turn. Look past self-interest and self-preservation and you’ll find that everybody knows that the way left spaces work now is horribly broken and dysfunctional. The problem is that thinking people who would ordinarily object don’t because they’ve been convinced that this is some sort of special moment pregnant with progressive potential, and that is more important than rights, compassion, or fairness. So we maintain a shared pretense that things are cool the way you go through the motions on an awful date where you’re both aware you’ll never see each other again.
If I say “cancel culture,” normies indeed don’t know what I’m talking about, because they are healthy, adjusted people with a decent set of priorities who value their own time and lives too much to get caught up in all of this horseshit. But if I say “cancel culture” in front of a bunch of politics-obsessed professional-class shitlibs they will pretend to not know what I’m talking about. They’ll put on a rich fucking show. They do an impression of Cletus from The Simpsons and go “cancel culture?!? Hyuck hyuck what’re that? I’m not knowing cancel culture, I’m just a simple country lad!” These are people who have read more about cancel culture in thinkpieces than I read about any topic in a year. But pretending you don’t know what cancel culture is happens to be a key part of the performance, a naked in-group signifier, so they pretend. The “I don’t know what cancel culture is” bullshit performance is kayfabe at its most infuriating. I know you know what cancel culture is because you’re currently using it to demonstrate your culture positioning by pretending you don’t know what it is. You fucking simpleton.
People say and do weird shit and it’s all wrong but you just pretend like it isn’t. Who wants to be the one caught making waves? When you’re in a group of people and someone engages in something patently ridiculous - when, for example, someone says “AAVE” in an ordinary social situation with no academic or political reason to use jargon, even though everyone there knows the phrase “the way Black people talk” is more elegant, useful, and true - and the moment passes and there’s this inability to look each other in the eye, when everybody starts studying their drink and clearing their throat, that’s life under kayfabe.
Getting to this is not normal. It’s not a healthy state of affairs. It can only happen when people come to believe that self-preservation requires pretending things are OK.
The sudden rise (and sudden death) of “Defund the Police” was, to me, one of the most uncanny political moments of my life. You had a slogan which implied something radical and which, at first, meant something radical. Then the slogan quickly spread from those who had been using it for years to the entire activist class. From the activist class it spread to the liberal media. Then it began to take over some think tanks, foundations, schools, and other institutions. From there it began to ensnare a small but influential group of partisan politicians, until finally it crossed the leftist blood-brain barrier and became a rare but real corporate position. Like so much of our political moment there was a profound sense of consensual delusion about this. Anyone who understood the basic material priorities of many of these institutions and people should have known that this could never have been a meaningful commitment; policing was central to the system that maintained their grasp on power. But then this is the whole game, right? They knew backing Defund the Police was risk-free because there is just about zero chance of large-scale significant reduction in police resources in this country, and market analysts say #BLM is very hot right now. So why not say something that you don’t believe and that nobody believes you believe?
It is at this point that people say that “defund” does not mean “abolish,” which is true, and Defund the Police indeed does not mean “abolish the police.” Defund the police means nothing, now, though I’m sure that the people who started using it had noble intentions. At this point it’s a floating signifier, an empty slogan that people rallied around with zero understanding of what semantic content it could possibly contain. If it’s meant to be a radical demand, why use the vocabulary of an actuary? If it’s meant to mean a meaningful but strategic drawdown of resources, why use it interchangeably with “abolish”? I cannot imagine a more comprehensive failure of basic political messaging than Defund the Police. Amateur hour from beginning to end.
I take the political concept of alternatives to policing seriously, in the same way I take many political ideas seriously that are not likely achievable in my lifetime. I know there are deeply serious people who are profoundly committed to these principles and who have thought them through responsibly. I appreciate their work and become better informed from what they say. But their ideas did not reign last year. A faddish embrace of a thoughtless caricature of police abolition reigned, pushed with maximum aggression and minimal introspection by the shock troops of contemporary progressive ideas, overeducated white people with more sarcasm than sense.
Policing will not end tomorrow or next month or next year. And whoever you are, reading this, you are well aware of that fact. The odds of police abolition in any substantial portion of this country are nil. Indeed, I would say that the likelihood of meaningful reduction in policing in any large region of this country, whether measured by patrolling or funding or manpower, is small. Individual cities may reduce their police forces by a substantial fraction, and I suspect that they will not suddenly devolve into Mega-City One as a result. (Though I can’t say initial data in this regard is encouraging.) I hope we learn important lessons about intelligent and effective police reform and more sensible resource allocation from those places. But the vast majority of cities will not meaningfully change their policing budgets, due to both the legitimate lack of political will for such a thing - including in communities of color - and broken municipal politics with bad incentives.
I think real, meaningful, comprehensive police reform is possible, reform that increases police accountability, balances municipal budgets in a slightly more sane direction, and reduces police violence against everyone, with disproportionate benefits for Black people. And eventually I think the relationship between police and poor communities can be improved, principally through the harm reduction of keeping the police at arm’s length. In the long run we do have to think about more radical alternatives because there’s inherent violence in the cop-community relationship. But to get there you have to think carefully and to think carefully you have to live in reality.
Well, in the “Defund the Police” debate eventually reality intervened. The lunatic, don’t-ask-any-questions period of early summer 2020 started to loosen its grip on what you were allowed to say thanks in large measure to the upcoming presidential election, one represented (as all elections are) as uniquely important. With Donald Trump proving surprisingly resilient in the electoral math, the broad left of center started to fret about THE OPTICS, and the funding apparatus of progressivism that helped drive #BLM’s marketing pulled back. The Democrats had selected too-cool-to-be-woke-Joe-Biden and his interests came first. See, an organization like Planned Parenthood could release an overwrought pro-Defund statement (despite that topic having nothing to do with their actual purview) because nobody in their donor base was going to object. But once people within the Dem establishment started to get cold feet it was over; the party controls the orgs that hand out the grant funding that manipulates the prorganizers who bring the movement back under control, and that’s how you get that very weird, sudden turn from “Defund or you’re racist” to “Defund? Oooh, hmmm, sheesh, that’s a toughie, can we talk diversity pledges?” we got last year. Support for defunding was lustily advocated until, suddenly, the wind changed and it wasn’t. When nothing’s real, no commitment is authentic, certainly not to an idea, a slogan.
Living under kayfabe makes you yearn for plainspoken communication, for letting the mask fall. The professed inability of progressives to understand why woke-skeptical publications like this one keep succeeding financially is itself a slice of kayfabe. They know people are paying for Substacks and podcasts and subscribing to YouTubes and Patreons because it’s exhausting to constantly spend all of your time pretending things that don’t make sense make sense, pretending that you believe things you don’t to avoid the social consequences of telling the truth.
When you’re someone who spent the past several decades arguing that the American university system is not hostile to conservative students, that it doesn’t try to force extremely contentious leftist views onto students, and then you watch this video, how do you react? I think many people, most people, even most people committed to the BLM cause, see that video and wince. That is not how we get there. Browbeating 20 year olds for not parroting your politics back at you is not how racial justice gets advanced. But if you’re caught in this moment, how do you object? Acknowledge that, yes, in fact, it is now plainly the case that many professors see it as their job to forcefully insist on the truth of deeply controversial claims to their students, berating them until they acquiesce? Well that would be an unpleasant conversation with the other parents when you pick up your kid from Montessori school. So you just choose not to see, or keep you mouth shut, or speak in a way that maintains the illusion.
I mean there is the absurdity of what she’s saying to contend with - the now fairly common view that policing was literally invented in the antebellum South purely to enforce slavery, because in ancient Rome if someone came in your house and stole your stuff you’d just be like “oh damn, that sucks.” Is there a relationship between modern policing and slavery? Of course. Does the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow infect modern policing at every point? Sure. Should we make political and policy decisions that recognize that historical influence on policing, especially given the racist reality of policing right now? Yes. But what good does it do anyone to pretend that the concept of “the police” is 250 years old? Why on earth would we get the correct shit we do believe tangled up with this bizarre shit we don’t believe? (The professor in that video does not herself honestly believe the police were invented to support African slavery in 18th and 19th century America.) Because this utterly ahistorical idea is being promulgated by people who claim to speak from a position of justice, we are forced to assign seriousness to it that it hasn’t earned, seriousness that it could never deserve. Because we live in a world of mutual delusion. Because of kayfabe.
What are the material consequences of this supposed social revolution, the actual brick and mortar change that has occurred in regards to racial justice, feminism, LGBTQ rights, disability advocacy, and so on? What has actually changed? Nothing but discourse. Nothing but Goldman Sachs diversity statements and university websites. Nothing but Robin Diangelo and Ibram Kendi’s bank accounts. Nothing but slogans and signs and symbols. You may remember that a comprehensive national police reform bill was seen as the minimal first step in transforming our country’s relationship to race. But even the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act, already considered watered down by many activists, seems unlikely to pass. Does that speak to a racial reckoning, or to the fact that one is not happening? The world spins on and injustice grinds along and people speak of a great awakening and no one can answer basic questions about what the goals are or how many of them have been achieved. Look, progress is possible and in many arenas slowly happening. I do believe in the possibility of revolutionary political change, and I agree with those who say that justice can’t wait. But you can say that all you please. The world doesn’t have to care. And pretending change is happening when it’s not just makes our job harder.
And the fact that some will wrinkle their noses about this piece and its arguments, go about their days of progressive performance art, and pretend they don’t believe every word they just read? That’s kayfabe, my friend. That’s kayfabe. And we’re trapped in it, all of us, you and I. You know it’s all bullshit. Will you keep the code anyway? I’m willing to bet that the answer is yes.