Lain Rejects, then Accepts, then Reneges on Terms of MHI’s Podcast Invitation

 
Last week, after an attack on Marxist-Humanist Initiative (MHI) instigated by Marxist entertainer Doug Lain, the organization invited him to be interviewed on a podcast to discuss his differences with MHI and his behavior. In response, Lain rejected the invitation, then accepted it, and then attempted retroactively to change the terms of the agreement.

In an April 4 Facebook post, Lain accused MHI of “acting inconsistently.” He provided no evidence or argument. He merely leveled the charge and invited his entourage to speculate about the cause of the alleged inconsistency.

None of the entourage asked Lain to back up his allegation with evidence or argument. They either took it or faith or embrace the “post-truth” ethos for which facts don’t matter. Instead, they called members and supporters of MHI “assholes” and “marginal personalities,” alleged that we are “mentally caged by orthodoxy” and not “smart,” and compared us to flies attracted to “shit.” C Derick Varn, Lain’s sidekick, proclaimed—again, without providing any evidence or argument—that we “are as guilty as those they critique of the things they critique.”

Lain did not invite us to respond to this attack. He even failed to inform us that it had taken place. 

The fact that Lain and Varn saw no need to back up their allegations, and were not asked by others to back them up, is very revealing of the “post-truth” horror show we are currently suffering through. The garbage on Lain’s Facebook page is not reasoned discourse. Its goal is not to get to the truth.[1] It is not even speech in the proper sense of the term.

Instead, it is an attack that employs words as weapons. It is “performative”; no less than in the case of Donald Trump, the purpose of the vicious and false utterances is to assert dominance and show that one can get away with humiliating one’s opponents. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo calls it “dominance politics.”

In response to this attack, MHI invited Lain to be interviewed on a podcast of ours, to discuss his disagreements with our editorial opposing Trump and Trumpism and his behavior. We assured him that “we will extend to you the same degree of fairness, collegiality, courtesy, and accuracy that you extended to us” when he recently interviewed representatives of MHI.

Lain’s two-word reply was “No thanks.” He later alleged that he didn’t think it was a real invitation, because MHI supposedly does not “have a podcast.” However, while we do not currently conduct a podcast series, the term podcast can refer to an individual podcast; and that is what Lain was invited to participate in. The real issue, as we will discuss below, is that Lain does not wish to engage with MHI in situations that he doesn’t control or stand to benefit from.

However, once we made the invitation public, Lain seemed concerned to protect his brand’s image. “Oh, well … if you’re going to call me out in public about it then I just have to accept, right?,” he wrote. “I’ll be available for an interview in early May.”

But then he realized that he had tried to correct a mistake by making a second one. Apparently afraid that he is not up to debating us under conditions that he does not control, Lain acted quickly to correct the second mistake by making a third one.

The day after he accepted the podcast invitation, Lain suddenly tried to impose new conditions on the interview: “here are my terms: I would like to include C Derick Varn in the conversation in order to have a sympathetic individual involved on my side. Also, I would like for there to be only one representative from the MHI involved. Finally, … I would like three uninterrupted minutes at the start.”

Whether or not this was a conscious ploy to make us rescind the podcast invitation, Lain must have known that the inclusion of Varn is absolutely unacceptable on moral grounds. Varn is a “left” McCarthyite who succeeded in “outing” a member of MHI, despite the organization’s vigorous efforts to keep the individual’s affiliation confidential.[2] He also publicly makes accusations against the organization, and people associated with it, in places where we do not have the opportunity to defend ourselves, and even fails to inform us that he has done so. The incident described earlier in this article is by no means the only one.

Nor does Lain need a “sympathetic individual” to help him out. We reassure him that we will extend to him the same degree of fairness, collegiality, courtesy, and accuracy that he extended to us when he recently interviewed representatives of MHI. Any problem with that, Mr. Lain?

Our invitation to participate in the podcast interview—under the original, unvarnished, terms–remains in effect.

We are not at all confident that this invitation will be accepted, because (as we mentioned earlier) Lain does not wish to engage with MHI in situations that he doesn’t control or stand to benefit from. He first informed us that he disagreed with our August editorial opposing Trump and Trumpism shortly after the U.S. election in November. We asked what the nature of his disagreements were. In response, he sent us a 1300-word document that vaguely tilted in the direction of white nationalism, but said nothing about the editorial.[3], [4]

Three of us then spoke to him on Skype to try to find out what his disagreements were. He kept resorting to formulations like “It could be read as …” (translation: Varn (and maybe others) in his entourage misrepresent it as ….). After a lot of that, plus a good deal of hemming and hawing on Lain’s part, he finally managed to disagree with the editorial’s reference to “Trump’s class bias”! Go figure.

During the next couple of months, MHI and individuals in it kept trying to get Lain to express his disagreements with the editorial and to debate them with us. These efforts all failed. He kept promising to lay out his disagreements, but still has not done so. We doubt that he has any disagreements with what we actually wrote, even now. Clearly, our implacable opposition to Trump and Trumpism put him ill at ease, but that’s a different matter.

Part of the problem is that Lain neither understands nor wishes to understand our philosophy and politics, so he is ill-equipped to deal with what we actually say and write. So he sets up strawmen and knocks them down. But another part of the problem is that he evidently has a compulsion to control debate and force it to be on terrain he feels comfortable with. Hence he keeps his attacks on us well-hidden—or at least on a Facebook page which he controls, and on which his entourage and their degraded norms have free rein—while assiduously avoiding discussion of the text of our editorial with MHI members and supporters in MHI fora.

 
We have little doubt that we will be criticized for forcefully defending ourselves against unsubstantiated allegations and the slander and innuendo that is leveled behind our backs. Those criticisms will come from people who do not have our interests at heart.

We have little doubt that we will be told that “tone matters.” If that were the case, Donald J. (“they’re rapists,” “grab ‘em by the pussy,” “nasty woman,” Lyin’ Ted,” “Miss Piggy,” etc.) Trump would not now be in a position to endanger the well-being of billions of people. And if one really thinks that tone matters, how about solidarizing with us to combat the people responsible for the despicable invective hurled against us behind our backs?!

We also have little doubt that we will be told that we’re our own worst enemy, that our vigorous self-defense puts off people who would otherwise be attracted to us. But we are not Marxist entertainers. So why should we ingratiate ourselves with people who will “like” what we say and write, but who will refuse to ally with us when the chips are down?  


[1] By “truth,” we mean actual truth, not “alternative facts” that resonate with one’s audience despite their falsity, not politically expedient positions, and not usefulness. We stand with Marx, who denounced capitalism’s degradation of the status of truth as follows: “In France and in England the bourgeoisie had conquered political power. Thenceforth, the class struggle, practically as well as theoretically, took on more and more outspoken and threatening forms. It sounded the knell of scientific bourgeois economy. It was thenceforth no longer a question, whether this theorem or that was true, but whether it was useful to capital or harmful, expedient or inexpedient, politically dangerous or not. In place of disinterested inquirers, there were hired prize fighters; in place of genuine scientific research, the bad conscience and the evil intent of apologetic.”

 

[2] If Varn or Lain dispute this, documentation will be provided. Otherwise, it will not be provided, since we much prefer to try to safeguard the anonymity of the individual who was outed.

 

[3] [Footnote added on April 26, 2017:] MHI asked Lain for permission to upload this document and post a link to it here, in order to support our claims and to allow readers to decide for themselves, but he refused to grant permission. However, a reader has brought to our attention an April 21 public Facebook post by Lain that contains a substantially identical document. We invite readers to decide for themselves whether it says anything about our August editorial and whether it vaguely tilts in the direction of white nationalism. If Lain wishes to contest our characterization of the document in the comments section below this article, we will be happy to approve such a comment.

 

[4] [Footnote added on April 29, 2017:] Yesterday, Lain sent us an e-mail message containing an implied threat of legal action against MHI. In response to this threat, we have changed the link in footnote 3; it now takes one to his post, rather than a screenshot of it. We originally linked to the screenshot in order not to disclose Lain’s political associations, which his post disclose, but which the screenshot blacked out.

Comments

3 Comments on "Lain Rejects, then Accepts, then Reneges on Terms of MHI’s Podcast Invitation"

  1. MHI on Sat, 29th Apr 2017 1:12 pm 

    The following comment on the above article was posted on MHI’s Facebook page. Since we don’t want comments there (but seem unable to prevent them from being posted), we invited the author to post the comment here. He didn’t do so, so we finally deleted the comment and are re-posting here without including his name.

     

    The Comment

    Although I only know Lain via his internet presence, I generally think these past two “press releases” reflect pretty poorly on MHI as a whole. I understand that MHI feels wronged by the podcast and I totally understand how it could take issue with some of Lain’s choices, especially with editing. With that being said, I would say a lot of people who listen to Zero books are capable of both enjoying Lain’s perspective and agreeing with your organization’s sentiments. It’s a pretty thoughtful audience to begin with that understands nuance, so walking away like you wrongly lost a debate is not really the correct approach for that kind of situation. I think a lot of us view Trump as a somewhat unique threat and wish to oppose him in any way necessary, but the fact that your two public posts on social media in April have been entirely dedicated to this squabble really diminishes the confidence of those of us who are seeking thoughtful ways of organizing for the future. If you want to regain what feels like lost value, publish more articles with strong insight, strategy, or analysis for the future, don’t get wrapped up in ego-driven and problematic stunts like this. A podcast would potentially be a great outlet for MHI, but the fact that it seems like you’re only toying with the idea out of spite for Lain/Zero Books feels very shortsighted and slightly insulting to those of us who would actually welcome another thoughtful leftist podcast with a differing perspective.

    These past two posts are actually pretty big letdowns for someone like me, because I feel like I’m actively searching for organizations that embody a forward thinking awareness about current threats as well as positioning for future action on some level. I hate to fall back on such a business-minded institution as public relations, but this is really some PR 101 stuff that could easily be avoided. Regroup and pick yourselves up, because this battle is ridiculously microcosmic and it reflects poorly on the already divided left.

  2. Andrew Kliman on Sat, 29th Apr 2017 1:16 pm 

    The commenter (immediately above) writes, “These past two posts are actually pretty big letdowns for someone like me …. I hate to fall back on such a business-minded institution as public relations, but this is really some PR 101 stuff that could easily be avoided.”

    I think the conclusion of the article has “responded” to this in advance:

    We also have little doubt that we will be told that we’re our own worst enemy, that our vigorous self-defense puts off people who would otherwise be attracted to us. But we are not Marxist entertainers. So why should we ingratiate ourselves with people who will ‘like’ what we say and write, but who will refuse to ally with us when the chips are down?

    The commenter presumably read and understood this paragraph, and by “apologizing” for invoking public relations he in fact seems to refer to it. So why is he telling MHI that its actions aren’t good public relations?

    Generally, when one wants something from someone else, one does one of two things. Either one argues that it’s in their interest to provide it. Or one offers to provide something in return.

    But the commenter doesn’t appeal to what’s in the interests of MHI. He shows no concern whatever for MHI or its interests. He just complains that its actions aren’t in his interests–“diminishes the confidence of those of us,” “shortsighted and slightly insulting to those of us,” “pretty big letdowns for someone like me.” As the article also notes, “We have little doubt that we will be criticized for forcefully defending ourselves against unsubstantiated allegations and the slander and innuendo that is leveled behind our backs. Those criticisms will come from people who do not have our interests at heart.

    It’s as if the commenter thinks that satisfying “consumers” is its own reward. It’s not.

    Nor does the commenter offer anything in return for what he wants from MHI. He wants “more articles with strong insight, strategy, or analysis for the future.” He wants MHI to put on a podcast series for the benefit of “those of us.” But since he cares only about what MHI can do for “those of us,” he doesn’t bother to reflect on the fact that MHI is a small organization with extremely limited resources. If he offered something in return—say, 10 hours a month of his work, or $20,000—that would help to alleviate the problem of limited resources and make a podcast series feasible. If he offered to help fight those responsible for the vicious attack on MHI, the point of which is to “assert dominance and show that one can get away with humiliating one’s opponents,” that would likewise help to alleviate the problem of limited resources and make it possible to provide more of the kinds of articles that “those of us” want.

    But he doesn’t even mention these vicious attacks, much less show the slightest bit of solidarity with MHI. And even where he does seem willing to concede (in a namby-pamby way) that injustice has been done—“I understand that MHI feels wronged by the podcast and I totally understand how it could take issue with some of Lain’s choices, especially with editing,” this falls far short of lifting even a pinky finger to help attain justice in this matter. It’s all about what MHI can do for “those of us,” not vice-versa.

    But MHI isn’t a service organization that exists to benefit its audience, and it isn’t a group of entertainers, “Marxist” or otherwise. Attracting people who will “like” what we say and write, but who will refuse to ally with us when the chips are down, is not what we need and not how we should measure success. MHI was founded by people who “vowed that never again would we allow decades of hard work … to be destroyed by cliques and by members who sought to make the organization serve their individual purposes rather than the tasks of Marxist-Humanism itself” (http://www.marxisthumanistinitiative.org/philosophyorganization/why-a-new-organization).

    And what applies to members who seek to make the organization serve their individual purposes also applies to non-members.

  3. Tom Jeannot on Sun, 30th Apr 2017 5:03 pm 

    I can see why it would be difficult for an outsider or extern to see why MHI’s controversy with Douglas Lain should be taken seriously. However, for a precedent, Kliman has written persuasively on the Vogt Affair in With Sober Senses (see “Marx’s Struggle against Defamation: A 150th Anniversary Tribute to Herr Vogt,” December 29, 2010). Then again, such “affairs” can easily be taken for obsessions directed against persons, more properly belonging to the social psychology of group dynamics than to theory and philosophy. All one has to do is take a quick historical tour of the pathological factionalism and sectarianism of revolutionary organizations hitching their wagon to Marx, characteristically invoking proper names and then turning nasty. These are often enough bad interpersonal relations all dressed up in world-historical garb. Why make a cause célèbre or public spectacle out of an “A-said, B-said” scenario? Seriously, who cares?
    What can look like a bitterly interpersonal quarrel, lovers breaking up behind closed doors in bedrooms, can sometimes, however, be in self-transcending potency to the act of a higher viewpoint. I think of another example in the Kliman-Moseley debate featured here, now monograph-length, that might have seemed to be a matter of taking things too personally to begin with but which blossomed into a brilliant exchange and an in-depth investigation into the question whether “value-form theory” is “all value-form, no value-substance” (in thirteen parts, under “Miscellaneous”). Kliman is a pit bull, perhaps with the like notoriety. But the crucial question is what he sinks his teeth into. He is ardently committed to the view that there are knowable, objective truths that the human intellect is capable of affirming in reflective judgment, according to rigorous methods of scientific investigation. To put it bluntly, his is the opposite of a “standpoint epistemology.” His “standpoint,” therefore, is “Hegelian” rather than “Kantian,” in the sense that it overcomes the pervasive Kantian agnosticism, which I’ll just assert without argument saturates a characteristically bourgeois horizon (including the horizon of “postmodernism,” if such a word is even serviceable anymore). By contrast, like Antonio Gramsci and Raya Dunayevskaya within the Marxian intellectual tradition, and like Bernard Lonergan outside it, by way of affirming an absolute subject, Kliman also affirms a heuristic notion of absolute objectivity (which Hegel demonstrated and Marx appropriated). Speaking only for myself, the very best paper to read on this subject is Dunayevskaya’s “Hegel’s Absolute as New Beginning” (included in The Power of Negativity, pp. 177-190).
    It is precisely in this spirit that Kliman is unwaveringly fair to his opponents. As a matter of principle, he always provides his interlocutor with the opportunity to respond in whatever depth and detail a person cares to muster. It can indeed be a dreary, wearying exercise, but on the other hand “there is no royal road to science.” So an invitation has been extended to Douglas Lain. I believe Lain already knows he won’t be shouted down. I think he also already knows that Kliman will ruthlessly dog his every step.
    I know nothing of the backstory other than its presentation in With Sober Senses and Lain’s Facebook page. I’m not entirely sure I haven’t wasted my time in reading up to speed, but the heart of the matter seems to be something all of us need to think about thoroughly and consequentially; namely, this issue of “white working-class support” for Trump or the infiltration of Trumpism into the class-consciousness of a percentage of white workers (using the classical terminology without wanting to set off a powder keg: I only mean that a class-conscious thinking subject resonates with the Communist Manifesto). How would one engage these people intellectually and politically? Prognoses are diagnosis-dependent. The short version is that any explanation of the U.S. presidential election of 2016 that left off the term “white” would be an incomplete, truncated, mutilated, and distorted explanation. The remedy is to take as one’s point of departure American Civilization on Trial: Black Masses as Vanguard.
    But Kliman and Lain can speak for themselves. They need only to determine a venue and some ground rules that would be scrupulously fair and dedicated only to the discovery, through dialectic, of the proper concretion of the notion (i.e., the absolute idea, the unity of the practical idea of the good with the theoretical idea of the true). A matter such as this is prima facie a world-historical matter.
    In choosing to write about this at all, poorly or well, I decided for sure that I’d fly at an elevation of thirty thousand feet, having no knowledge whatsoever of the backstory or the facts as they are on the ground. However, rather than merely urge Lain to accept Kliman’s invitation, feeling confident that Lain would have his “three minutes” of uninterrupted speech, I would like to overuse the prefix “meta” in order to take up a meta-level meditation on the living organizational legacy of the life and thought of Dunayevskaya. We know the reasons why she broke with James, how she “broke through to the absolute” in her “Letters” of 1953, and then founded News & Letters Committees in 1955. On MHI’s Homepage, a reader will find an allusion to “the collapse of previous Marxist-Humanist organizations” in 2009. Needless to say, the parties involved have their own versions of “what actually happened.” For myself, I should confess only that I did not join MHI because I never formally resigned from a previous organization. Sticking to websites only, it isn’t a secret that three organizations lay claim to Dunayevskaya’s legacy and claim to be properly “Marxist-Humanist,” more or less by way of exclusion. (And incidentally, to prevent possible misunderstanding, I do not mean this as a criticism of MHI’s “philosophy/organization” page.)
    In my opinion—knowing what an “opinion” is and therefore hastening to add “for what it’s worth”—each claimant has a strength the others miss. News & Letters Committees has kept the newspaper Dunayevskaya started in print. The International Marxist-Humanist Organization has achieved academic respectability inside universities on account of the high intellectual quality of its books and publications in theory and philosophy. But neither organization holds a candle to the critique of political economy that MHI produces. In particular, it remains worthwhile for me to understand the temporal single-system interpretation of value theory, which goes to the heart of the vitally important matter of “reclaiming Marx’s Capital.” Whole new vistas open up from this vantage point.
    Integrating or concrescing these three organizational dimensions into a unified whole has proven itself not to be a “cult of personality” but an integral way of coming to grips with human social reality across the levels in the systematic and comprehensive way of Dunayevskaya’s own achievement. So perhaps there is irony here (although I’m from the American west and it’s held that some of us out here don’t really understand irony). Marx writes in the Grundrisse that “The concrete is concrete because it is the concentration of many determinations, hence unity of the diverse.” Of course, the key to this is “praxis,” which many “Marxists” misunderstand but which no one understands more superbly than Dunayevskaya herself.
    Finally, all three organizations assign themselves the task of developing the “dialectics of organization and philosophy” where Dunayevskaya left off three decades ago this year. The dialectics of organization and philosophy is obviously an unfinished task, but it is essential to grasp a hold of as a method of reversal of what Lonergan calls “the longer cycle of decline.” Thinking not on the level of personality conflicts but on the level of the times, where for Hegel “philosophy” is its time in thought, we all know that this moment of crisis bears the personal signature of the 45th President of the United States. If racism saturates the social body in the way we affirm it does, then there’s no clearer signature than Trump’s and therefore no giving quarter to Trumpism. I have yet to discover what nuance I’m missing by categorically affirming MHI’s editorial line on “The Extraordinary Dangers of Trump and Trumpism.”
    I take it for granted there’s some interpersonal nastiness in the backstory, as is predictably the case in any “A said, B said” scenario. But I respect Douglas Lain and once closely followed his podcast, “Diet Soap.” As one regular reader of With Sober Senses, I would “like” nothing better than to elevate this exchange to the level of the Leibnizian-Kantian “tribunal of reason,” which Hegel took up on the way to his own higher viewpoint. I take it that in principle this can be done, we can survive the “disillusionment” necessary to the sobriety of sense, and what is at issue can be projected onto the stage where it properly belongs.







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