Reformism and Bad Faith (and Desire)

by Ed Kazarian

The other night, my local NPR outlet broadcast an episode of Fresh Air where Terry Gross was interviewing some hack from The Marshall Project, a completely astroturfed ‘nonprofit news organization covering the US criminal justice system.’ It’s not really a mystery how of all the people – hell, all the local to Philadelphia people – who Terry could have interviewed to speak to questions of police violence in the present moment, she instead ran with this utterly sold out nonentity.  Fresh Air is, in times like this, The New Yorker of the radio: it is here to tell us what the correct view is, the correct sentiment, the appropriate way to feel about this.

(I’m cribbing this last, half remembered, from a brilliant piece on The New Yorker that I once read, but cannot now find.)

But anyway, it was in exactly this vein that the conversation advanced to the point where Terry plaintively asks her guest — I really never caught his name, and cannot be bothered to go look it up — whether there are any models for how police can deal with protests ‘without clubbing people,’ ‘without tear gassing people,’ etc.  ‘Dear expert,’ who’s really a journalist and so, in many ways, the opposite of an expert, but somehow as the subject being interviewed, now occupies the place of the expert – the sujet supposé savoir, or something – ‘please tell our audience, are there models?’


To put this is vastly more polite terms than I did last night on Facebook, let’s just say that this, dear reader, is the ideological moment in all of this: asking for models for how police can avoid doing things that are 100% within their voluntary control avoid doing.

Leaving aside the way that this also feels like the logical endpoint of the press’s habitual discussion of police violence in the passive voice, wherein the police never shoot people, but their weapons discharge and people are struck by however many dozens of bullets that no one shot at them, it seems important to talk about how how there is a particular hesitation at work here in that is central to maintaining the reformist posture in general, at least with respect to the various components of the repressive state apparatus in the US.

It works like this.

Either a) you think these actions are involuntary, and so that the police are completely out of control or b) you acknowledge that the police are doing these things deliberately, that these are the actions of self-directed agents.  But in either case, the request for models is utterly pointless. And yet, instead of following either line of reasoning to its conclusion – which is that the police must go – the conversation is directed, via the appeal to ‘experts,’ via the search a particularly specious kind of procedural model, into this bad faith bait and switch between two half-formed thoughts. It is an almost perfect example of what Barthes called ‘myth,’ a moment where the instituted, the decided, is presented as natural and inevitable.

And in this case, the reformer gets what they really want, the ability to keep affirming the existence of this institution in which they are clearly far more invested than they are in any of the things they claim to value, that seem to animate the plaintive tone of the interviewer’s request to the expert to help her see, things like human life, human rights, or just generally anything at all but the repressive state apparatus.

It would help if people could admit to themselves and others how much they are invested in this thing, if only because if they did, they might be in a position to stop pretending that the it makes some inevitable, necessary kind of sense.

More to the point, it would help if we’d start interrogating just why so many people find things like the abolition of police or prisons to be ‘unimaginable.’ They are not, in fact, logical impossibilities. There is nothing remotely incoherent about thinking of societies without such institutions. Moreover, there is nothing about different political and social orders, or significant historical change, that is really beyond our imaginations. Hell, we have whole flourishing genres of literature, film, and television devoted to imagining all kinds of variations on exactly these sorts of things. But suddenly, we’re supposed to believe that it’s impossible to even imagine a couple of institutional changes?

I think, in other words, that we need to interrogate the role of desire here. What is it that many of us want, and want so badly that they refuse to even imagine something else?