What Language Game Are the Defunders Playing?

A photo of police and Barack Obama
AFP / GETTY / THE ATLANTIC

Just when it seemed that we had finally stamped out the fire of “Defund the police” and the endless circular arguments it engendered—What does it mean? How would it work? Is it going to lose Democrats the election?—Barack Obama (of all people) stuck a couple of sticks of dynamite in the embers, and blew everything back up.

In a Snapchat interview, he called the phrase nothing more than a “snappy slogan.” “You lost a big audience the minute you say it, which makes it a lot less likely that you’re actually going to get the changes you want,” Obama said. “The key is deciding, do you want to actually get something done, or do you want to feel good among the people you already agree with?”

Judging from the man about to enter the White House, Democrats, in the main, agree with Obama. Democrats are, embarrassingly enough, a party of moderates who want change and aren’t terribly snappy. But on the far left, attacking Obama has become the means of proving your moral purity and radical convictions. When far-left politics are criticized, the members of the Squad are America’s first responders, and sure enough, they patched through to Twitter, organized a firing line, and started shooting.  

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Ilhan Omar: “We lose people in the hands of police. It’s not a slogan but a policy demand.”

Rashida Tlaib: “Rosa Parks was vilified & attacked for her civil disobedience. She was targeted. It’s hard seeing the same people who uplift her courage, attack the movement for Black Lives that want us to prioritize health, funding of schools & ending poverty, rather than racist police systems.”

Ayanna Pressley: “The murders of generations of unarmed Black folks by police have been horrific. Lives are at stake daily so I’m out of patience with critiques of the language of activists. Whatever a grieving family says is their truth. And I’ll never stop fighting for their justice & healing.”

Alexandria Ocasio Cortez: “The thing that critics of activists don’t get is that they tried playing the ‘polite language’ policy game and all it did was make them easier to ignore.”

Apparently, Obama’s remarks on Snapchat had revealed his indifference to police killings and racist policies, his callousness toward grieving families, and his unwillingness to believe the testimony of the bereaved. He had rejected the Movement for Black Lives, shown his moral and political cowardice, and demonstrated his refusal to “prioritize health” (an especially low blow, considering the many wonderful years of his life that he spent on delivering Obamacare) and to fund schools ($7 billion over eight years). Most monstrous, however, was what he had done to the memory of Rosa Parks, although—perhaps for the best—it was not entirely clear what exactly he had done to it.

In other words, the squad’s response was absurd and had no connection to any commonly agreed upon standard of reality. No one on Earth can possibly believe that Barack Obama doesn’t care about gun violence, racism, or human suffering. What the fight was really about—as both Pressley and AOC observed—was language. Obama was questioning the political expediency of theirs, and they were policing his. He was interested in rhetoric; they were interested in mounting the “You can’t say that” defense.

How has it come to this, to a national conversation on urgent matters being reduced to what Wittgenstein would have called “language games”? How could one man making a simple assertion about realpolitik be so wildly—willfully—misinterpreted? Because when the inside joke of critical theory escaped the English department grad-student lounge and kudzu-ed its way all over campus, it convinced several generations that human experience can be understood only in terms of who is powerful and who is oppressed. It was all fun and games when every undergraduate was unpacking this and deconstructing that, but it upended the way language can be used and understood.

The powerful—say, a former president—can have their words listened to and taken at face value. They want all the free speech they can get. The oppressed are forced to play a very different language game. The reason that so many people interpreted Obama’s comments as an attack was that “Defund the police” is a phrase with shifting meanings.

It’s an expression of profound frustration and sorrow.

It’s a policy proposal from the 1960s, involving redistributing a city’s budget so it has fewer cops and more social services.

It’s a policy demand to be met at once.

It’s a way of locating fellow radicals.

And sometimes it can be taken at face value: a demand to remove all resources and funding from police departments.

This summer, Princeton University President Christopher Eisgruber stumbled into a similar language game, which he did not win. Three hundred professors had demanded that he “openly and publicly acknowledge the way that anti-Black racism, and racism of any stripe, continue to thrive” there and “block the mechanisms that have allowed systemic racism to work, visibly and invisibly, in Princeton’s operations.”

You don’t get what you don’t ask for. Eisgruber sent a letter to the Princeton community affirming the ideas the professors had presented. He admitted that “racism and the damage it does to people of color … persist at Princeton as in our society, sometimes by conscious intention but more often through unexamined assumptions and stereotypes, ignorance or insensitivity, and the systemic legacy of past decisions and policies.” Moreover, “Racist assumptions from the past also remain embedded in structures.”

But no sooner had made his full confession than Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos stood on the deck of one of her fleet of yachts, lifted the spyglass to her eye, and called out, “Land ho!” Once on terra firma, she grabbed Eisgruber by the short hairs. I didn’t know she had it in her.

The Department of Education wrote that given the university’s confession of racism, it was initiating a federal investigation into the matter. This kind of racism, it said, constituted a violation of the Civil Rights Act, and jeopardized the university’s annual grab of millions in federal dollars, because that money is contingent on Princeton not being a racist institution. It wanted a variety of documents, including the evidence that had led Eisgruber to his shocking confession.

Both Eisgruber and DeVos were playing language games, and they knew it. Eisgruber didn’t mean that kind of racism. He meant, you know, the structural kind of racism (which sounds like the very worst form of it), the systemic kind of racism (ditto). All he had meant to do was stamp the Princeton paperwork with the newest language, the way that universities are falling over themselves to confess that they are on unjustly seized Native land—without actually doing anything to return that land to its original owners.

DeVos didn’t believe he was admitting to racism. She understood that Princeton’s confession was meant to garner praise with the smart set, to be seen as evolved, honest, nonfragile. But she made her point and—no doubt this was her intention—infuriated the left in the process.

However comic, the conflict between DeVos and Eisgruber represents the country’s growing impatience with the language games of the left. The country says, “Can we take your words at face value?” And the left says, “Define word.” Naturally, a parade of college presidents raced to defend Eisgruber and Princeton, because they were dying to be the next ones to call their university racist.

Obama says, Do you really want police reform, or do you want only to showcase your ideological purity? The left says, There is no such thing as police reform; if there were, we would have it by now. Obama says, Build the largest possible coalition. The left says, A Black man was sadistically murdered by a white cop, in broad daylight in an American city—the time to build coalitions has passed.

Obama knows the price of getting things donepitch a big tent, lower your sights, and get realistic. The left says no. Obama knows that to get elected to the most powerful positions, you must disown Bill Ayers. But the left cannot accept that AOC will one day have to abandon her squad if she is to fulfill her political destiny.

The argument will never end, because the argument is valuable.

In the Snapchat interview, after commenting on the politics of police reform, Obama promoted the first volume of his memoirs, by all accounts a work of moral rectitude with a scholar’s lucidity, a 700-page project that may eventually run to 1,400 pages.

Meanwhile, across many cities in the United States, violent crime is soaring. In Minneapolis, site of the sadistic killing that the whole world watched, homicides are up, police have quit the force in “droves,” and 911 calls have sometimes gone unanswered. The brunt of this chaos and misery has fallen squarely on the poor neighborhoods. But residents should take heart, because while they may not have safety, they have language, and what else do you need?

“Don’t fall for the fear-driven narratives,” Omar recently tweeted to her city. She is a hero of the language revolution, and she knows that crime is nothing more, or less, than a story.