Here Comes Ted Cruz’s Third-Party Candidacy

Cruz has indicated that even if he loses the nomination, he’s going to be a general election candidate. After all, why wouldn’t he?

To many, Ted Cruz’s recent announcement of Carly Fiorina as his running mate seemed puzzling in the extreme. Why would someone select a Vice Presidential nominee when they haven’t yet won the nomination? Why would they do this when, according to all the numbers, they’re about to lose that nomination badly? Do people who lose get running mates? What could be the purpose of such an act?

Certainly, there were explanations for why Cruz would select Fiorina in particular as a running mate. Cruz would like to capitalize on Donald Trump’s unpopularity with women, and blunt the significance of Hillary Clinton’s gender in the general election. Right-leaning women could vote for Cruz over Clinton, confident that voting for a conservative did not entail having to hurt the national advancement of female politicians.

But while there are plausible political reasons for having Fiorina as a Vice Presidential nominee, these explanations fail to answer the fundamental question, which is what a campaign that has just lost the Republican nomination is doing taking a step that is only relevant for general election candidates.

Make no mistake: Cruz has lost. He’s been mathematically eliminated from winning the nomination outright. His delegate gap against Trump is vast; Trump already has 81% of the delegates he needs to reach the nomination. Thanks to his recent devastating sweep of the Northeastern states, Trump can even afford major losses and still reach the nomination. Cruz needs many more delegates than there are delegates available. When it comes to the Republican nomination, Cruz is toast. (The prediction markets have his chances of being nominated at slightly this side of bupkis.)

So why has Cruz just unveiled a new logo and announced a running mate? Pundits have professed themselves baffled; after all, even if Fiorina could pick off some female Republicans here and there, and help somewhat with California, the dynamics of the race will remain fundamentally unchanged. The consensus seems to be that this is an act of desperation by Cruz, a Hail Mary pass with zero chance of success. Jim Newell of Slate confidently announced that he expects “pulling a Cruz” to become a synonym for delusional political gambles. After all, Newell says, this move is “unfathomable.”

But Ted Cruz, while he may be Lucifer in the flesh, is not a total strategic dunce. His intelligence may frequently be overpraised, but the likelihood is small that Cruz has simply made some wild flailing maneuver of no conceivable purpose. It may be satisfying for those of us who detest Cruz to think he has suddenly lost his mind, and that we can all point and laugh at his desperation. But in writing the Fiorina selection off as the irrational spasm of a campaign in its death throes, we may be wishfully overlooking a far more sensible explanation for the act: Cruz has simply announced his intention to run in the general election, Republican nomination or not.

For some reason, Cruz’s behavior hasn’t been interpreted this way, perhaps because the idea of him continuing to run after losing the nomination is somehow inconceivable. But when the situation is examined carefully, it makes perfect sense for Cruz to run as an independent. It serves Cruz’s aspirations and fits with his character, and more importantly, carries no real downsides.

First, there is no reason for Cruz not to continue to run. The main reason why a losing primary candidate wouldn’t run as an independent in the general election is party unity: an independent splits the party’s votes, thereby damaging its chances. This is why Bernie Sanders is very unlikely to run in the general election if Hillary Clinton gets the Democratic nomination. Whatever the internal differences in a primary may be, they can be set aside when a party needs to come together to win the office.

In Cruz’s case, however, there’s no reason for him to care at all about damaging the Republican nominee’s chances. First, the Republican nominee is going to be Donald Trump, who isn’t really a Republican at all, and who conservatives have been urgently trying to stop. Second, Cruz has zero loyalty to the Republican Party itself, whose leaders detest him and whom he detests equally in turn.

In fact, Cruz doesn’t even really care about “Republican” as a label to begin with. This fact becomes starkly evident in his autobiography, in which he spends page after page distancing himself from the party, proudly proclaiming his willingness to stand with conservative principles and the American people against “the duplicity of the Republican establishment.” Cruz has never shown the slightest interest cultivating good relations with the party, and it’s unlikely that he would now set aside his personal ambitions so that he could help get a president with an “R” after his name. It’s not as if Cruz’s relationship with Republicans could get much worse, or as if hurting Trump does damage to the conservative cause.

The main reason to be skeptical that Cruz will run in the general election is that he would have little chance of winning. He wouldn’t be on the ballot in a number of states, and Cruz’s narrow base of hardcore conservatives are hardly sufficient to give him any shot at success. If Ted Cruz is a man who hungers for political power and victory, this sure doesn’t seem the way to go about it.

But this kind of thinking both misunderstands the nature of Cruz’s motivations and ignores the long-term benefits of the strategy. First, despite appearances, Cruz is not necessarily concerned with the pursuit of immediate political gain. A man who wants to become a traditional power broker does not begin his Senate carer by pissing off every one of his natural allies. A Senator does not gain political influence by alienating himself from his colleagues so much that they not only refuse to work with him, but joke about murdering him. Ted Cruz has intentionally avoided the pursuit of traditional political dominance in the Senate. He is a kamikaze conservative, perfectly willing to destroy opportunities for favor and influence; the government shutdown saga demonstrated definitively that Ted Cruz is a man who does not have any qualms about undertaking doomed efforts if they suit him.

This may, of course, be because Ted Cruz will sacrifice strategic goals for ideological purity. But there is another sense in which Cruz’s actions make long-term political sense. He won’t win the Presidency as an independent, it’s true. But he wouldn’t have won it as a Republican, either. And an independent candidacy puts Cruz in a very comfortable position: as the Republican party collapses, having nominated Trump, Cruz can position himself as the man who stood up for traditional conservative principles while the Republicans ran around with their heads cut off. This is, in fact, precisely how Cruz has positioned himself since arriving in the Senate: as the independent outsider who remained faithful to the conservative creed even as the Republican Party betrayed it. Cruz will get to stand on a debate stage next to Clinton and Trump and claim to speak for the American right, “ensuring a meaningful conservative alternative” in the race. He may even believe that his running will mitigate some of the damage done to conservatives in congressional races by having Trump as the face of the right.

An independent run presents an excellent opportunity for Cruz to seize the mantle of American conservatism from the Republican establishment that he hates. It would bolster Cruz’s national status, and set him up as exactly what he wants to be: the recognized leader of the American right wing.

From Cruz’s perspective, there is no downside whatsoever to continuing to run even after losing the Republican nomination. Bear in mind what the alternative for Cruz is here: to sacrifice the spotlight, to gracefully cede the race and watch Clinton/Trump from the sidelines. To go away quietly. Does this fit with his character? Why would he do it, anyway? Why wouldn’t he run as an independent? If all goes well, a new conservative movement will rise from the ashes of the Republican Party, with Ted Cruz as its head. As the party itself falls apart, Cruz will establish himself as the de facto national spokesman American conservatism. Given the option to either do that or withdraw, who would withdraw?

With some appealing potential advantages, and zero real disadvantages, the choice seems clear, and announcing Fiorina suddenly makes perfect sense. Ted Cruz may be running in the general election, nomination or not.

My Police State Vacation

A tour through the lighter side of the sometimes brutal U.S.-allied nation…

In the customs line at Tashkent International Airport, a digital screen positioned above the X-ray machine informs visitors to Uzbekistan of items that are prohibited in the interest of peace and security. Narcotics are first, followed by materials encouraging religious extremism, fundamentalism, or separatism. When I recently visited the Central Asian nation, memorably referred to by pizza magnate and former Republican presidential hopeful Herman Cain as “Ubeki-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan,” I was carrying none of the above.

I was, however, slightly concerned that my profession itself might not be on the list of state-approved activities—as suggested, perhaps, by the fact that said state plays host to the world’s two longest imprisoned journalists.

Fortunately, not being Uzbek myself meant I’d be spared the rehabilitative services the government reserves for its in-house opposition. Even among torture-states, Uzbekistan has achieved some impressive levels of brutality. Treatments have ranged from having suspected dissidents boiled to death to freezing them in icy cells to simple “asphyxiation with a gas mask,” as the U.S. State Department noted in 2001, shortly before it appointed Uzbekistan one of its key BFFs in the War on Terror.

But I wasn’t in Uzbekistan for journalistic purposes; I would not be investigating its various unbecoming practices, such as the forced labor in its cotton fields or its forced sterilization of women. Nor, curious as I may have been, did I intend to look into the story of permanent president Islam Karimov’s daughter Gulnara, a Harvard University alumna whose career as a diplomat-cum-pop diva-cum-fashion designer-cum-racketeer has for the moment ended in house arrest.

Instead, my itinerary centered around viewing pretty monuments and drinking cheap vodka, and I didn’t want this disrupted by any official misreading of my intentions. For that reason I had exercised borderline paranoia when applying for my letter of invitation (LOI) from the Uzbek Ministry of Foreign Affairs back in August—a document that would supposedly facilitate my acquisition of an Uzbek visa. Required to provide a letter from my employer as part of the LOI application process, I tasked my mother with fabricating a temporary identity for me as a client services and marketing liaison in the innocuous business of rental property management in Spain. (Having failed to adequately rehearse this exotic new title, I subsequently went with the deer-in-headlights option whenever any Uzbek asked what my job was.)

Armed with my LOI, I proceeded to the consulate general of Uzbekistan in Istanbul early one morning in September to collect my visa. I had parked myself in the south of Turkey for a few weeks in between trips to Iran and Lebanon and had arranged to fly to Istanbul for only a single day. I began to lose hope when calls to the consulate in the days preceding my flight produced this information: the office was in the middle of relocating, but nobody could recall the new address.

Luckily, a last-minute intervention by a Turkish friend resolved the matter—until I handed over my paperwork at the new Istanbul office and was told I could retrieve the visa in two days. Thus commenced a five-hour period of pathetic and hyperventilated entreaties to the consular staff, who eventually took pity on me and sent me on my way, 160-dollar visa in tow.

When I finally arrived to Tashkent on October 20, I cleared customs without issue. My cab driver, although charging me possibly half the average monthly Uzbek salary to transport me to my hotel, kindly did me the favor of exchanging my dollars for me at the black market rate, which at the time was more than twice the official one. He parked on the side of the road, disappeared into an alley, and reappeared with a black plastic bag teeming with 5,000-som notes, each of them the equivalent of less than a dollar on the black market.

My hotel had the appearance of a cheerier version of a Soviet concrete block (until the sun stopped shining), and a sign in the lobby courteously informed guests that we were subject not only to continuous video surveillance, but audio, as well. Reassured, I headed out to explore the wide, tree-lined boulevards of the Uzbek capital and quickly learned a valuable local survival tip: Never assume that pedestrian walk signals and traffic lights are coordinated.

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At a busy outdoor market, I bought a giant slab of onion bread from a woman with a wheelbarrow and gleefully set about calculating how many billions more slabs of onion bread my bag of som would buy. I made a note to purchase ceramics and sequined leggings with zippers on them prior to departing the country. I visited numerous parks and squares, among them one dedicated to the Mongol conqueror Tamerlane, whose claims to fame include having been born in the fourteenth century in territory that is now Uzbekistan and having casually engaged in mass decapitations. Tamerlane’s prominent spot in the center of Tashkent had previously been occupied by a statue of Karl Marx, who was ousted during the de-Sovietization campaign.

The Tashkent metro system, meanwhile, was an attraction unto itself, with each station boasting its own unique décor. The styles ranged from elegant to discothequey to, for example, the Kosmonavtlar station, the walls of which featured large renderings of cosmonauts in space gear against a backdrop of decreasing shades of blue.

My excursions on the subway brought me into contact with a mainstay of the Uzbek landscape: the police. Generally positioned at both the street entrance to each subway stop and at the turnstiles underground, they looked in bags, waved metal detectors, and never failed to request my passport as well as the slip of paper from the hotel certifying that my presence in the country had been registered with the Ministry of Internal Affairs. The novelty of this process wore off after the first several instances. On a certain occasion the slip was deemed insufficient and one of three police officers present went off to phone the hotel while the other two endeavored to establish, in pidgin English, why a woman of my age had not yet reproduced. On the subway platforms, station guards resembling flight attendants thwarted my attempt to photograph the cosmonauts.

Following two nights in Tashkent I took the train to the ancient Silk Road gem of Samarkand, less than four hours away. In my second-class seat next to an old woman with an oversized bottle of soda and an apple that she diligently polished and gave to me, I learned that A) it was possible to half-communicate with many Uzbeks in Turkish, and B) there are people in this world with tattooed unibrows.

My bed and breakfast in Samarkand was located a stone’s throw from the mausoleum of Tamerlane, at which I spent much time staring as though on some pleasant hallucinogen. The rest of the town elicited the same effect. I won’t feign any intimacy with the architectural lexicon, but I can tell you there were mosques, domes, glazed tiles, mosaics, and lots of blue and turquoise. My early-morning solo tour of Registan Square—an otherworldly complex of madrassas and courtyards to which I gained off-hours access via a bribe to the policeman on duty—was interrupted only when that same policeman accosted me in a corner and asked me to exchange dollars for him.

A bit outside the city were the remains of the observatory built by the fifteenth-century ruler-astronomer Ulugbek. At the accompanying museum was a photograph of schoolchildren visiting the place, with a quote from Islam Karimov helpfully translated into English: “Our children should be more stronger, better educated, wiser and certainly more happy than we are.” Indeed, Karimov’s own contributions to the youth happiness quotient in Uzbekistan are second to none; what kid wouldn’t love to participate in slave labor during the annual cotton harvest? (Granted, international pressure has reportedly caused the Uzbek regime to curtail its practice of dispatching of children into the cotton fields. They’re still available for work in other fields, but the cotton mobilization now mainly targets doctors, teachers, older students, and other people who clearly have nothing else to do with their time.)

At Samarkand’s Siab Bazaar, I acquired three different kinds of almonds plus one of the more ingenious inventions of our time: an entirely plastic mini-corkscrew gifted to me by the proprietor of a liquor shop who was apparently moved by my disproportionate reaction to it. I felt guilty at having cost him this little treasure—a godsend for anyone trying to open duty free wine in an airport bathroom—before realizing that every bottle of wine was sold with a mini-corkscrew attached.

Negotiating in Turkish, I obtained a bottle of vodka for four dollars (one of the pricier options) and a bottle of Uzbek wine for a dollar and a half, which the man assured me was not sweet (it was). The wine and corkscrew came with me on my excursion to the local cemetery, where photographic reproductions of the deceased were emblazoned on tombstones of varying shapes and sizes. Female workers with buckets of water cleaned the graves and chatted, Uzbek visitors strolled about in sparkly two-piece sets, and I pondered what everyone in Uzbekistan must have done prior to the invention of the sequin.

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The graveyard turned out to be more expansive than I thought, and three-fourths of a bottle of wine later—politely concealed in a water bottle—I was lost. Fortunately, as there was still one-fourth remaining, there was no cause for alarm.

When I eventually extricated myself, I visited the Shah-i-Zinda necropolis, a strip of exquisite mausoleums abutting the graveyard where the list of rules in English warned that it was a “sin” to beg the saints for forgiveness during the visit, to make a sacrifice, or to leave money on the tombs. The last of these rules, at least, had been wantonly violated, and a man made periodic rounds to collect the accumulated bills.

After Samarkand it was back on the train to Bukhara, the next Silk Road outpost, where I engaged in similar architectural gawking and ended up at the impromptu birthday party of a Tajik Uzbek named Sharif, who called me “Beeline” and couldn’t figure out why I was named after a Russian mobile phone company. The encounter began on the rundown patio of a small restaurant not far from Bukhara’s massive fortress, where Sharif and companions invited me to join their table for tea and a snack. The snack evolved into fish and shashlik—skewered meat—and what was meant to be one bottle of birthday vodka quickly multiplied into four, while the number of vodka drinkers remained the same (three). I was assisted in my attempt to initiate an impromptu dance party on the patio by Sharif’s taxi driver friend, who blasted tunes like “In The Army Now” from his cab. He used that same cab to cart me back to my hotel when by 5 p.m. I had become largely unresponsive to environmental stimuli.

Had I wanted to continue my Silk Road tour, I would have proceeded west toward the Kyzylkum desert and the city of Khiva. Instead, I took a seven-hour train ride back to Tashkent and then a seven-hour shared taxi ride further east to the city of Andijan in the Ferghana Valley, near the border with Kyrgyzstan. As I was the only female in the car, I got the front seat; this was unfortunate for the man in the back, whose incessant snacking while on winding mountain passes resulted in our having to make several vomit breaks. Other stops took place at government checkpoints, where my passport and I were hauled out for inspection, and at roadside shacks selling warm bread, balls of tooth-shatteringly hard cheese, and other crucial survival items.

I also became acquainted with Uzbek gas station etiquette, whereby all passengers alight from the vehicle outside the station entrance and are retrieved at the exit. After noting the presence of enormous methane gas cylinders in the trunks of cars, I wondered if the routine was simply meant to minimize collateral damage in the event of an explosion.

Unlike Samarkand and Bukhara, Andijan is known for its more recent history—and one incident in particular. In 2005, Uzbek security forces in Babur Square opened fire on demonstrators, the vast majority of them unarmed, who were protesting general injustice and specifically the arrest of 23 local businessmen on charges of Islamic extremism. The death count, according to the government, was 187. According to others,  it was up to a thousand. Since then, the state has changed its mind and made it clear that the Andijan massacre was Something That Didn’t Happen.

I arrived at my hotel, the Vella Elegant, to find that it was smack in front of a square organized around a fountain and a horse-mounted statue of Babur, the founder of the Mughal dynasty who, like Tamerlane, had catapulted into the realm of Uzbek stardom following the Soviet collapse. This was clearly Babur Square, I told myself, and I set about having deep and ironic thoughts re: the Uzbek wedding parties now being happily photographed in front of the fountain.

After I had inspected the square from every angle, I went to the bread market, overdosed on its wares, and explored a street teeming with shops specializing in U.S. Green Card application photos. At a bookstore I found posters of a semi-smiling President Karimov and posters teaching children the English words for professions like “driver” and “militarian.” I walked more than an hour to the old part of town and was force-fed more bread along the way by someone overjoyed to hear I was American.

Back at my hotel, I conducted a brave investigation into internet censorship: I googled the words “Andijan massacre.” To my surprise, I wasn’t Tasered by some unseen force and was instead able to open every link I clicked—including one that led to pictures of Babur Square, which, as it turned out, was not the square in front of the Vella Elegant, although it contained the very same horse-mounted statue..

I got in a cab and asked to be taken to the real Babur Square, which was now sans Babur statue. Some wild gesticulations by the cab driver and a phone call to his English-speaking friend confirmed my suspicions: the monument had been moved sometime after 2005.

While in Andijan I learned that U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry was also in Uzbekistan, having descended upon Samarkand for meetings with Karimov and the foreign ministers of the five Central Asian states. A Reuters article described one scene:

“As security men starting ushering reporters out of the room, one American reporter shouted a question to Karimov about the U.S. State Department’s own scathing critique of his human rights record. Karimov ignored the query. Kerry began responding but the reporter was pushed out of the room before he finished.”

The State Department has indeed proven itself most adept at typing up scathing critiques of the Uzbek government’s “endemic” corruption and reliance on torture, arbitrary arrests, and other varieties of freedom-quashing behavior (publicly insulting the president, for example, can get you up to five years behind bars). But in person, the U.S. approach is rather more schizophrenic. A 2005 New York Times dispatch—incidentally published 12 days before the Andijan massacre—offered a blow-by-blow of foreign policy dealings with Uzbekistan since 2001, which I’ll take the liberty of summarizing as follows:

1. Seven months before 9/11, State Department issues human rights report on Uzbekistan amounting to “litany of horrors.”

2. Immediately after 9/11, U.S. and Uzbekistan jump into War on Terror bed together. U.S. sets up military base on Uzbek territory near border with Afghanistan and proceeds to hurl money at Uzbek government. George Bush fêtes Karimov at White House. State Department continues to report on disastrous human rights situation.

3. Suicide bombings in Tashkent. Uzbek government embarks on anti-Islamic crackdown. State Department announces it’s cutting $18 million in aid due to human rights circumstances; Pentagon announces it’s increasing aid by $21 million.

4. Intelligence officials confirm Uzbekistan’s service as a CIA rendition destination. (Moral of the story: torturers come in handy.)

Following Western criticism of the assault in Andijan, Karimov evicted the Americans from their base. But the breakup was hardly definitive. Now, with so many new and improved threats emanating from the region—ISIS! Russia!—Uzbekistan is back in the game. And, hey, things are already looking up on the human rights front: shortly after I left the country in November, one of Uzbekistan’s many thousands of political prisoners was released from jail. Imprisoned in 1994 for what was supposed to be a nine-year stint, Murod Juraev saw his term repeatedly extended for offenses such as “peeling carrots incorrectly.” Of course, the return of Uzbekistan to the frontlines of the war on terror paves the way for mass arrests under the pretense of fighting ISIS.

On the domestic frontlines, meanwhile, Uzbekistan’s first daughter Gulnara remains under house arrest, but I dare say the lyrics of her pop star alter ego Googoosha ring eternal: “You look fine, but what do you hide in your soul?”

If You Want Solid Evidence That Clinton Is Corrupting the Political Process, Here It Is

The campaign openly skirts SuperPAC regulations in order to finance shady online propaganda efforts.

Whenever Hillary Clinton is accused of being a shady politician, who uses underhanded and unscrupulous methods, her supporters become extremely defensive. They say that all such allegations against Clinton are simply products of the right-wing noise machine, and that if Clinton is seen as venal and conniving it is almost certainly due to sexism rather than anything Clinton has actually done. Longtime Clinton operative David Brock has argued that when you get down to it, all of the scandals and allegations surrounding Clinton are little more than “nothingburgers.” Salon’s Gary Legum says there are simply “credulous people willing to believe any variation of legerdemain, no matter how irrational and absurd, if the name ‘Hillary Clinton’ is attached to it.”

But a new report offers hard evidence that Clinton’s campaign is, in fact, engaged in some of the most underhanded and antidemocratic practices that afflict our political system. In fact, Clinton’s campaign is engaged in precisely the kind of money-driven secrecy and subversion that Democrats have long insisted were wrecking American politics.

According to the Daily Beast, a pro-Clinton SuperPAC called “Correct the Record” has spent $1 million “pushing back against” Bernie Sanders supporters on social media, “addressing” thousands of people on Facebook, Twitter, Reddit, and Instagram. What this amounts to in practice is creating hundreds of fake accounts, which then place campaign propaganda all over the web as if it came from ordinary supporters. This group is spending a fortune unofficially intervening in social media conversations, without other users knowing that the messages are being funded by a SuperPAC. 

This practice is known as astroturfing (as in “fake grass-roots”), and it’s long been deployed by the more disreputable corporate marketers. (Versions of it have been used by Big Tobacco, the gas industry, and campaigners against teachers’ unions.) Companies will have astroturfers fill comments sections and social media, pretending to be ordinary members of the community, while they are in fact simply shilling for their employer. As Adam Bienkov of The Guardian defines it, astroturfing is the attempt to create an impression of widespread grassroots support for a policy, individual, or product, where little such support exists. Multiple online identities and fake pressure groups are used to mislead the public into believing that the position of the astroturfer is the commonly held view.

When done subtly, astroturfing makes it difficult to trust who is on the level, and means that one’s whole impression of an issue or movement may be completely distorted. It’s extremely pernicious, because it means nobody knows when they’re having an honest conversation, versus when they are being carefully manipulated by a well-funded public relations campaign. At its worst, it can totally destroy people’s abilities to have open conversations online (the effort involved in controlling it is one of the key reasons why Current Affairs does not have a comments section). As one Reddit user explained:

Astroturfing makes me angry. It should make you angry. It should make you fucking well see red. It’s marketing evolved into something incredibly scary, sophisticated, and evil. It’s essentially thought warfare, or psychological warfare, which takes away much of what was supposed to make the internet a new and beautiful frontier of communication. Worse yet, if you actually identify and approach these operatives, they’ll gaslight you and deny that they are such an operative. These are people who are paid to psychologically abuse you. Do you get this? It’s an ugly and evil thing, and not only does it take away our ability to take information and fact at face value, but it takes away our ability to take opinions, feelings, and personal stances at face value as sincere and legitimate.

Funding these kinds of covert online propaganda efforts has long been one of the most devious methods of affecting the public conversation, generally favored mostly by corporations and dictators. In Paste Magazine, Shane Ryan helpfully points out that these are the exact tactics employed by Vladimir Putin, whose government hires “hundreds of Russians to post pro-Kremlin propaganda online under fake identities, including on Twitter, in order to create the illusion of a massive army of supporters; it has often been called a ‘troll farm.’”

There’s a reason such tactics are most closely associated with Putin: they are deeply Orwellian and corrosive of a democratic political process. Ryan explains why this is effective: it “muddies the waters” by turning online political activism into a totally unnavigable morass. In the case of Putin, for every anti-Putin hashtag, the trolls spread a pro-Putin hashtag; so what was originally a grassroots anti-Putin movement on social media began to look like just one movement among many. Likewise, only Bernie Sanders has a strong movement on social media, but through flooding the internet with fake Clinton support, one can make it harder for the opposition to organize, and distort the impressions of how people actually feel (which will inevitably end up filtering into the resulting media coverage). 

This well-funded astroturfing campaign is not the only way the realities of social media have been manipulated to create favorable impressions of Clinton; an entire media narrative sprang up based on false instances in which Bernie Sanders supporters were supposedly engaged in acts of mass, coordinated harassment. But whereas that was done by individual Clinton-supporting journalists, the astroturfing efforts are being funded on a large scale with the approval of the campaign itself.

Of course, ordinarily a campaign isn’t technically responsible for the actions of an independent SuperPAC. After all, SuperPACs are limited by rules that prohibit coordinating with the candidates themselves. These rules may be somewhat meaningless in practice, but they do mean that candidates can theoretically be held blameless for actions taken by independent groups on her behalf. But here’s where an even more pernicious aspect comes in: the “Correct the Record” group actually does coordinate with the Clinton campaign, exploiting a loophole in campaign finance regulations. This is so antithetical to the spirit of the rules that the Daily Beast reports that it “befuddled many campaign finance experts, who noted that super PACs, by definition, are political committees that solely do independent expenditures, which cannot be coordinated with a candidate or political party.” The experts explained that: 

…the relationship between the campaign and the super PAC would test the legal limits. But Correct the Record believes it can avoid the coordination ban by relying on a 2006 Federal Election Commission regulation that declared that content posted online for free, such as blogs, is off limits from regulation. The “Internet exemption” said that such free postings do not constitute campaign expenditures, allowing independent groups to consult with candidates about the content they post on their sites. By adopting the measure, the FEC limited its online jurisdiction to regulating paid political ads.

So Correct the Record is actually “testing the limits” of finance restrictions; a lawyer for the Campaign Legal Center has said that these tactics are “creating new ways to undermine campaign regulation.” That means that even the Koch brothers haven’t used this kind of novel subversion of the SuperPAC rules.

All of this confirms a point recently made by Glenn Greenwald: Clinton’s supporters, and the mainstream Democratic party generally, have shown themselves massively hypocritical on the subject of campaign finance. They have decried Citizens United and the influence of SuperPACs on politics, yet when it comes to the Clinton campaign itself, they are more than willing to excuse the behavior they condemn when it is done to support Republicans.

Greenwald says that this is also especially evident when Clinton’s supporters attempt to justify her donations and speaking fees from Wall Street: the argument Democrats usually make is that corporate money in politics is inherently corrosive, regardless of whether there is a quid-pro-quo arrangement whereby a candidate promises a specific vote in exchange for a specific donation. But when it comes to Clinton, her supporters insist that in the absence of proof that she specifically cast a particular vote in exchange for a particular donation, there is nothing unobjectionable about corporate support for her campaign.

This kind of shift, in which Democrats change their minds about shady practices when they are being done by the candidates they like, has been evident throughout the Clinton campaign. A small but revealing instance occurred in Wyoming, a state which Bernie Sanders won, but not by the same overwhelming margins as he did in some other Western states. Explaining the smaller margin, “a Clinton campaign aide said their ‘secret sauce’ in Wyoming was the state’s onerous vote-by-mail rules that required anyone voting by mail to have voted as a Democrat in the 2014 midterms.” “Secret sauce” is a telling phrase; the Clinton campaign seems downright pleased at the existence of “onerous” voting rules. Ordinarily, Democrats see onerous voting rules as an impediment to the expression of the popular will; the entire apparatus of Jim Crow-era voter suppression was built on onerous voting rules, and it is the stated policy of the party that voting should be as straightforward and inclusive as possible. But the moment self-interest and principle conflict, it is principle that gets tossed overboard; when such rules favor one’s preferred candidate, suddenly they are no longer an unjustified bureaucratic obstacle but a delicious “secret sauce.” All of which raises the question of whether Democrats will only particularly care about voter disenfranchisement when it’s their own voters being disenfranchised.

The “Correct the Record” project should disgust anyone who values open participatory democracy. It’s sinister for two reasons: first, astroturfing is a psychologically manipulative attempt to use money to distort the process of political deliberation. It represents the worst kind of cynical politics, a politics that instead of building support the hard way, simply buys it. (One senses that an aide told Hillary Clinton “Madam Secretary, Bernie Sanders seems to have lots of grassroots support online,” to which she replied “Hmm, that’s what we need. Get me $1 million worth!”) Second, it constitutes a total repudiation of the supposed “progressive” stance on campaign finance and SuperPACs. Clinton’s campaign is not only not trying to curtail SuperPACs, but is quite literally trying to push the possibilities for SuperPAC expenditures to their very outer limits, breaking new ground in undermining campaign finance laws. Any Democrat with an ounce of loyalty to their stated principles on money in politics should be willing to acknowledge this for what it is: a blatant example of the corrosion of the political process, one that seriously casts doubt on Hillary Clinton’s desire to clean up that process.

Oh God, Please Not Libertarianism…

Two new books by libertarians. Are they bad? Yes.

Manifestos are not meant to be sophisticated things. They are declarations, not dissertations. To write a manifesto is to issue a piercing scream, a denunciation of all the world’s wrongs and a rousing call to arms. The manifesto is no place for nuance or pragmatism, for thinking things through and resolving differences. The manifesto is the medium of one who has already worked everything out and is compelled to shout it to the world.

Oddly enough, the manifesto appears to have switched sides over the last century. Once they were the provenance the revolutionary left, from the Communists to the Surrealists. But since the 1970s, it has principally been libertarians cranking them out. Murray Rothbard and Ron Paul both issued their respective manifestos. Conservative pundit Mark Levin’s Liberty and Tyranny: A Conservative Manifesto became a #1 bestseller in 2009. Now, the book-buying public finds itself treated to two new manifestos of the libertarian right: David Boaz’s The Libertarian Mind: A Manifesto for Freedom and Charles Cooke’s The Conservatarian Manifesto.

This libertarian penchant for manifestos is not especially surprising; its philosophy is one of proud simplicity and certitude. Just as Marxists are convinced that class relations explain everything, libertarians see the war between freedom and tyranny as the root cause of all misfortune. (Classifying libertarianism as “simple” or reductionist is not a slight; libertarians themselves insist that a virtue of their principles lies in their elegant intuitiveness.) Indeed, in his very first sentence, David Boaz announces that “libertarianism is the philosophy of freedom,” immediately lumping all other human beliefs together as philosophies of unfreedom. Then we hear about some of the great threats to our freedom today, foremost of which is… Michael Bloomberg’s ban on big sodas. (The stakes, as you can see, are high.)

From there, Boaz proceeds down a well-trodden path. Expositions of libertarianism often follow a standard catechism, one that attempts to posit an inescapable deductive proof that libertarianism is correct and irrefutable. Nobody can deny the niftiness of this little Socratic exercise. But just as in Socrates’s own dialectics, if one does not carefully examine each libertarian premise before accepting it, one soon accidentally signs on to some spectacularly objectionable conclusions.

In Boaz’s recitation, the libertarian chain of logic proceeds roughly as follows: Human beings own themselves, because for someone else to own them would be slavery. To own oneself means to own the products of one’s work, for the right to self-ownership is meaningless without the right to the fruits of one’s efforts. So property rights are an essential human entitlement. Since human beings own themselves and their property, it is illegitimate for anyone else to aggress upon these things. Thus, the fundamental principle of justice is that people and their property must be left alone to do as they please, so long as they do not interfere with the person and property of others.

There isn’t much more to it than that, nor need there be. From one or two axioms, we can arrive at a full defense of capitalism and the minimal state. It’s only when we give this concept of labor’s “fruits” a bit of a cross-examination, or wonder what a world built on this mathematically perfect credo would actually feel like to live in, that it begins to wobble somewhat.

The jump from the right to self-ownership to the right of property ownership always occurs hastily, as if the libertarian knows full well he’s fudging one of the most dubious steps of his proof. Boaz makes the unfortunate decision to choose John Locke’s theory of “labor mixing” as his preferred means of papering over the leap. This is the theory, dating from 1689, that when a person “mixes” her labor with a thing (say by turning a tree into a chair), she develops a property right in it. Why this should be so, nobody knows. What “mixing” even is, nobody knows either. Boaz doesn’t attempt to define it; its function is simply to jury-rig a rickety theoretical bridge that will suffice until the next deduction is made. So long as the reader blinks, she will fail to notice that the entire natural rights justification for property is built upon flashy prestidigitation.

The rest of the philosophy requires similar hand-waving. The idea that nobody should interfere with the affairs of another sounds obvious, until we attempt to negotiate our messy realities with it. Should I take the gun from my depressed neighbor’s hand so he cannot kill himself?

So, too, with the related principle that people are legally entitled to do anything that doesn’t exercise force against others. Could nobody legitimately stop a wealthy man from purchasing and deliberately destroying a life-saving vaccine? Simple principles are only satisfactory to those oblivious to complicated realities.

This becomes starkly evident when Boaz arrives at his proposals. The libertarian is committed, through his deductions, to believing that government intervention is never morally justified. From there, he has to strain himself to prove that government intervention is never effective either. Boaz makes a lively attempt at this, going through the market-based solutions to a series of issues.

They’re all a disaster. On the environment, he suggests crises should be handled “at the local or state level.” There’s no plan for how a global environmental crisis requiring a multi-national solution could ever be addressed. On education, he wants full privatization, meaning that not only should schools be privately-run, but they should no longer be free and guaranteed. Vouchers or subsidies, he makes clear, are merely a compromise for those horrified by the prospect of a world in which many children cannot go to school because their families cannot pay.

Naturally, he wants Social Security privatized, though true libertarianism wouldn’t have compulsory retirement savings at all. Boaz doesn’t address the question of what would happen if a retiree’s private investment account goes bust. Do we leave these unfortunate elderly in poverty? The libertarians never say. The same unanswered questions face the free market health care plan. If some people make the foolish decision not to get insurance, then get sick, do we leave them to their fate? Surely the penalty for financial mismanagement shouldn’t be death.

The only possible libertarian answer is hinted at in Boaz’s section on poverty. To his credit, Boaz does recognize poverty in America as an issue, though like a curmudgeonly octogenarian he continually informs us that things are better than they were during the Depression. (Those surviving on $2 a day will draw small comfort from Boaz’s reminder that unlike them, the French monarchs of Versailles lacked indoor plumbing.) But his solution is simply to insist that the churches and the Elk’s Lodge will take care of it. Of course, the churches and the Elk’s Lodge have been around for quite a while, and so far haven’t shown much of an ability to assist America’s 16 million impoverished children. But that’s where the second part of Boaz’s solution comes in: the elimination of welfare and occupational licensing.

“What would happen to potential welfare recipients if welfare weren’t available?” Boaz asks. “Many of them would get jobs.” Actually, we know precisely what such people do when welfare isn’t available. We know this because for all practical purposes, welfare has been eliminated from this country in the last 20 years. In fact, one of the most bizarre aspects of policy discussions on poverty is that conservatives remain convinced there is a thing called “welfare,” in which the federal government writes checks to people for being poor. Yet for all the noise expended on it, there’s no such program.

Boaz, like many fiscal conservatives who discuss public benefits, is unaware of the actual landscape of American social programs. The closest thing to any kind of “welfare” system is the Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program, which offers measly sums, is exclusively for families, has a 60-month lifetime benefits cap, and requires recipients to get a job. Since Boaz speaks of “welfare” in the abstract, it’s impossible to know for certain whether it’s TANF that he intends to eliminate, but that certainly seems the case.

In practice, what does happen when we eliminate welfare? Well, we can look at Mississippi, where poor families receive almost nothing in government subsidies, as recently documented by Kathryn Edin and Luke Schaefer in $2 a Day. Do these people get jobs? No, for the simple reason that there are no jobs available. Instead, they sell their plasma and become malnourished. Have the churches and Elks stepped in, as Boaz predicted they would? Nope, they sure haven’t.

Boaz has some other solutions, but they’re disgusting. They mostly amount to simply stating that poor kids should act more responsibly, that they should all finish high school and that the girls shouldn’t get pregnant too young. Not that he has a policy suggestion to go along with this; it’s just useless moralizing about the diminishing moral fibre of impoverished teens. Recognize that regardless of the truth or falsity of this theory, it gets one nowhere. Even if you believed that somehow behaving in an upstanding manner would bring more jobs to decimated neighborhoods, it’s completely unclear how to actually create a sudden nationwide wave of moral responsibility. But the point is not to solve the problem, the point is to make poverty the fault of poor people so that we are absolved of the responsibility of dealing with it.

Boaz concludes his poverty section with what is possibly the dumbest question ever asked, though he believes it to be one of the cleverest:

“If you’re not convinced that private charity can replace government welfare, ask yourself this: [if you had a hundred thousand dollars to help the poor,] would you give it to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services…or a private charity? Most people would not hesitate to choose a private charity.” Right, Dave, but the entire point of the skepticism is not a belief that government is better at providing charitable services, but that not enough rich people give to charities to solve the problem, whereas governments can levy taxes. If the rich weren’t such unfeeling swine, we wouldn’t have a problem.

The rest of the book is full of similar mischaracterizations and logical pretzels. The Universal Declaration of Human Rights is not just wrong but “impossible,” Boaz declares, because to declare education a human right mean that someone has to provide it, and since that’s not always possible, education cannot be a right. This weird little trick of language only works if you define a right to be a thing that can be provided at all times, instead of a moral obligation toward which all societies must aspire.

Then there are the senseless distortions of the left’s principles. Socialists “want to eliminate property rights.” No they don’t, they want workers to own their factories, farm laborers to own the farms, etc. Communism is the system in which “everyone owns everyone.” Actually, everyone owns the means of production, a somewhat different principle, but if you accept the libertarian idea that one’s property is coextensive with one’s body, then shifting legal control of a workplace from the owners to the society is no different to slashing up the owners with a straight razor. That little logical slippage is also what makes the libertarians wail so loudly about taxes. If financial assets are as essential as bodily integrity, then a tax is logically indistinguishable from a kick in the face.

All of this is disheartening, especially the poverty section, because it makes one realize the extent to which hardcore libertarianism is both profoundly persuasive and worryingly oblivious. Its writing is clear, its slogans are appealing, and its principles appear indisputable. Yet beneath this theory of freedom is a practice of misery. To figure out precisely how the one leads to the other requires careful scrutiny and skepticism. Unfortunately, since beguiling yet unexamined rhetoric so often carries the day in politics, The Libertarian Mind will doubtlessly win converts. The consequences for the poor, whose few remaining benefits Boaz would gleefully strip, are likely to be devastating.

There is a wearying familiarity to The Libertarian Mind; Hayek wrote all of this in The Constitution of Liberty, then Rothbard wrote it again in The Ethics of Liberty, then David Friedman in The Machinery of Freedom. Read one sentence of one libertarian book and you’ve read every sentence of every libertarian book. Boaz insists that libertarians come in dozens of unique varieties, but the libertarian mind ends up sounding pretty hivey:

“There are many kinds of libertarians, of course. Some are people who might describe themselves as ‘fiscally conservative and socially liberal’… [some] want the government to remain within the limits of the Constitution…Some are admirers of Dr. Ron Paul and his son, Senator Rand Paul…Some have noticed that war,… welfare, taxes, and govermnent spending have deleterious effects.”

So there you have it: libertarianism ranges from people who support small governments and free market capitalism to… people who support small governments and free market capitalism. A mighty large tent those fellas have, one that can contain figures all the way from Ron Paul to his son Rand.

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It’s that libertarian narrowness that leads Charles Cooke, in The Conservatarian Manifesto, to reject the label for himself. Cooke positions himself as a pragmatist, and appears genuinely interested in negotiating between differing political inclinations and forging something new rather than rehashing Rothbard or Rand.

The something new is “conservatarianism,” an awkward neologism that Cooke insists “is not a linguistic trick” deployed to sell books. (It is.) The conservatarians like Cooke are those alarmed by both the Republicans’ tendency to expand government spending and the libertarians’ reflexive anti-authoritarian extremism. They are those who “feel like a conservative around libertarians, and a libertarian around conservatives.”

Cooke’s “conservatarianism” is a fascinating illustration of the way ostensible moderation can mask extremism. He ends up mixing the most noxious elements of both conservatives and libertarians. Conservatarianism is for those who both want to destroy all social programs (like libertarians) but also enjoy the preservation of authority and hierarchy (like conservatives). If you find conservatism too concerned with morals, and libertarians too concerned with freedom, then how about a philosophy that cares about neither morality nor freedom?

Oh, alright, that’s a gross caricature, but Cooke has earned himself the poke in the eye. It also does get at unpleasant aspects of the compromise politics Cooke supports. To the extent that it holds together as an intelligible proposal for the Right, it appears to be both more concerned than Republicans with cutting the size of government, and less concerned than Libertarians with limiting America’s violent incursions into other countries.

Cooke believes that libertarians are too skeptical of American military interventions around the globe. “Not every intervention is Iraq,” says in defense of American global dominance. That’s certainly true; some interventions are Vietnam, Libya, Chile, Nicaragua, Guatemala, Iran, and Sudan. Cooke argues vigorously that America must occasionally step up to ensure the peace and stability of other countries. But it’s telling that he does not name a single instance in which this has successfully occurred. Not that one ought to expect him to, since America’s track record as a global peacekeeper is widely recognized as abysmal.

On immigration, Cooke disagrees with libertarians. He rejects the idea that people should have a right to move about the world as they please. “America is a country, not a charity,” he says. Of course, Cooke himself is an immigrant, who benefitted from an immigration system that holds preferences for British citizens like him over people from poorer countries. He recognizes that this is probably grossly unfair, but says only “[S]o what?” Well, so, some people think rewarding people who already have a lot is probably less morally defensible than giving opportunities to people who have less.

The “so what” attitude toward people in trying circumstances is the most disturbing aspect of Cooke’s new politics. Boaz, however demented his solutions, is interested in addressing the situation of the sick, the poor, the elderly, and the oppressed. The existence of such people does not even register with Cooke. Poverty is barely mentioned at all. Of the four references in the index, two are to offhanded remarks that the War on Poverty was a waste of money, one is to a statement that uninsured poor people are a regrettable consequence of economic growth, and one is to a statement dismissing arguments that poor women should have abortion access. One wonders how Cooke can formulate a political program without even noticing that America contains nearly 50 million poor people.

But that is because Cooke has other issues on his mind, like guns and abortion. He very much likes guns, and very much does not like abortion. (For an ostensibly “new” right-wing politics, this seems an awful lot like the old stuff.) Not only does he believe in the vigorously defending the right to have guns, but he wants America to actually “normalize guns and gun ownership.” (Emphasis added.) Heaven knows what the purpose of this would be; Cooke doesn’t say.

On abortion, though, Cooke makes an important point. The abortion debate is about one issue alone, which is the definition of “taking a life.” What abortion rights proponents consistently fail to realize is that their arguments can never be persuasive to the pro-life side, who view abortion as the murder of a human being. Everything hinges on that one question. If abortion is murder, then nothing can justify it, period. When Planned Parenthood says that “only 3%” of their services are abortion-related, it’s irrelevant. If abortion is murder, then the percentage is irrelevant. A nonprofit claiming that only 3% of its work consisted of mass slaughter would have a difficult day in court.

Thus, the pro-choice side needs to give up all the arguments of the variety “if you don’t like abortion, don’t have one,” since “if you don’t like murder, don’t kill someone” would never fly. Their argument needs to be, first and foremost, that it isn’t murder, that “a life” is a fluid and imprecise term about which there can be no scientific resolution, only differing instincts. On this, the pro-choice side is actually on very strong grounds. Every position on this is going to ultimately be arbitrary; “when does a life begin?” is a question with no more of a definitive answer than “when does one stop being simply unshaven and start having a beard?” Cooke is nevertheless exactly correct to point out that this is the central question in the abortion debate, and that everything else is evasion.

The book is less novel and contrarian than one might hope, though. By the end of it,  you may be hard-pressed to remember the distinction between conservatives, libertarians, and conservatarians. That’s because this is largely some rancid old wine in an unsightly new bottle. Cooke does encourage conservatives to give up the gay marriage fight, but he is uninterested in it as a basic right and is more concerned with the “very real threats that the partisans of gay marriage are posing to individual liberty” by legally mandating businesses serve gay and straight customers equally.

And yet the manifestos of Cooke and Boaz are still worth reading. Why? Because they are clear and systematic expositions of the authors’ respective philosophies, and because there is tremendous benefit in engaging with wrongheaded arguments that are stated well. The Left would benefit from appropriating the precision, accessibility, and organization of conservative writing.

It’s true that there are some teeth-grindingly irritating things about each author’s writing style. Boaz has fully mastered Patronizing Libertarian Voice, with which (male) libertarians use highly irrational arguments to dismiss every other politics as the beliefs of a child, while loudly insisting on their faultless rationality. Cooke drizzles his Oxford education all over the page (we get plenty of highfalutin italicizations like pace and Weltanschauung, plus, oh dear, “to wit”), but then reverently quotes from lumbering galoots like Andrew Breitbart and Kevin Williamson* as if they were Oscar Wilde.

But the titles do not lie. These are manifestos. They lay their cases before the public, and if you are of the type swayed by chintzy syllogisms and references to the Founding Fathers, you will doubtless end up converted. In its classic form, the art of the manifesto entails layering spirited rhetorical packaging atop extremist politics and patent untruth, and by this standard David Boaz and Charles Cooke are two sublime artists of the manifesto.

* Lest it be alleged that Kevin Williamson does not merit the cruel appellation “galoot,” I cite the following evidentiary point: Mr. Williamson is supposedly a “theater critic” for The New Criterion. And yet Kevin Williamson is such a droolingly inarticulate violent numbskull that he is unable to sit through a whole theatrical performance without picking up a neighboring audience member’s phone and throwing it across the roomKevin Williamson is a galoot.

Elizabeth Gilbert and the Pinterest Fantasy Life

If only all writers had the luxury to think of their work as nothing but pure, magical creativity…

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest—her seventh—book, Big Magic (Riverhead Books, $24.95), is a typical product of the hybrid world of publishing today: it began as a series of TED talks, its cover was premiered on the e-commerce site Etsy, and it now exists as a 288-page text that she has referred to as a “manifesto.” Big Magic is, on the surface, a cheery self-help manual, an optimistic and sunny nudge towards creativity for those who may hesitate to plunge headlong into making what she calls “whatever creates a revolution in your heart.”

Gilbert is expansive in her definition of the “creative,” and insists that writing is only one of many such endeavors available to anyone who wants to take up anything from, say, raising goats, or cross-stitch, or perhaps making quilts to sell on, well, Etsy. Still, given her experience, what she returns to most often is the world of writing.

In that sense, Big Magic is Gilbert’s first book-length foray into writing about writing, a profession she has been a part of for nearly twenty-five years. Gilbert is also an enormously successful writer — according to The Daily Beast’s Lauren Streib, she has “easily” made $10 million in royalties just from her 2007 blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia.

We can assume that it is the phenomenal success of that book which made Gilbert so successful on the TED circuit and why so many are so eager for her advice.  In a time when the “creative” fields are diminished in value but also seen as potentially profitable and simultaneously good for you, it is inevitable that millions would tune in to see what a best-selling author might have to offer them in terms of advice on how to emulate her example.

The line she walks in this new book is a fuzzy one: Gilbert wants to seem assured in conveying she has insider knowledge about her field, but she doesn’t want to acknowledge that being a writer is actually a profession. To do so would demystify her entire career and, really, mean that hers would be no different than the many books lining bookstores everywhere, promising everyone the best-kept secrets to publishing or the “creative life.” So, instead, she presents, in Big Magic, not a description of how to become a writer but how to be a writer. This is entirely in keeping with the message of Eat, Pray, Love, which similarly swept aside any material considerations—how, exactly, are women to embark upon epic journeys across the globe without independent and very large means?—in favor of a can-do quasi-spiritual set of injunctions about uncovering one’s true self. Because Big Magic is in so many ways an addendum to the earlier text, it becomes a case study of how a hyper-successful writer conceives of herself and her profession. In the end, Big Magic is not about actually helping people become better at creating work. Rather, it’s about furthering the informal literary empire spawned by Eat, Pray, Love.

That’s not to say that Big Magic is entirely without merit. Gilbert offers many useful checks against the unnecessarily dramatic stereotypes people are apt to immerse themselves in when they look for the creative life, such as the one that dictates that genius can only emerge from tormented lives. She calls for discipline in turning out work even when it seems impossible to keep at it. All of that is necessary advice—in a world where writing and/or creative work is as fetishized as it is ill-paid, it’s useful for those looking to create over the course of a lifetime to know that some myths are best abandoned.

Despite such helpful admonitions, most of Big Magic reads like carnival puffery from a fortune-teller. Gilbert combines Oprah-esque pithiness with strange, bizarre suppositions that render her the Deepak Chopra of Creative Work.

Take, for instance, her idea about creativity or magic, the theme of the book:

And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins.

Writers/creators across the ages have attempted to describe the creative process and how it takes hold of them. But to describe it as “otherworldly” and “not entirely human in its origins” in the first quarter of the twenty-first century dissociates it from the material realities in which it takes place. It is inevitable, given the title of her book, that Gilbert should deploy this kind of language. But it is also disingenuous given that she also criticizes creative workers for being unrealistic about their writing practices.

Then, there is her idea about ideas:

I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

In other words, ideas are entities looking for the perfect home in the bodies and minds of creators. To support her theory, she gives an example of a novel she once planned to write, about Brazil and rainforest development. Due to various circumstances, she eventually stopped researching and developing it. In the meantime, she became friends with Ann Patchett, a fellow writer whom she first met at a conference. The two women bonded instantly, with Patchett landing a loving kiss on Gilbert after their panel.

They became epistolary friends as well, exchanging handwritten letters where they discussed their lives and work. Somewhere along the way, it transpired that Patchett, too, was considering a novel about Brazil with similar themes. But it was only when they met for breakfast one day that Gilbert discovered Patchett’s work bore striking similarities to her own, down to their both including a protagonist who was a spinster from Minnesota. 

From this coincidence, Gilbert decides that her theory is right: she had stopped working on the idea and it, presumably in a huff, floated off to take residence within Patchett’s mind instead.

Somehow, it never seems to occur to Gilbert that perhaps such a close friendship had to have resulted in some kind of basic symbiotic intellectual relationship. Instead, she decides that it confirms that ideas are like spectral beings that leap from body to body, seeking the ones that will put them forth into the world.

Or, perhaps, Gilbert simply ignores the truth, that intellectual work is rarely exclusively original, and is acted upon by factors too varied to see in the immediate moment. After all, that kind of theory would severely undercut the theme of the book which she announces quite smugly: “And that, my friends, is Big Magic.”

Such reductive and, really, bizarre assertions about the creative process seem out of place in a book that lays claim to helping readers get away from other myths, like the one about tormented genius. But they are in keeping with the mystical premises of Eat, Pray, Love.

That book redefined self-help literature for women. It has, and I think rightly, been criticised as “priv-lit,” dwelling too much on lifestyles only attainable by those who can afford to take a year off and travel in relative comfort, as Gilbert did. Jessa Crispin locates Gilbert’s memoir in a long tradition of inward-looking female, white memoirists who travel through foreign lands without ever considering the cultures they march through with depth or curiosity. Despite many such criticisms, the book has made Gilbert that rare thing, a multimillionaire author who will never again have to worry about financing her work.

Gilbert will always be defined as the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Even the republished version of her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, has her authorship of that memoir clearly noted on the front cover. For some authors—Harper Lee comes to mind—the enormous success of a first book can become an albatross, an achievement that clouds and freezes one’s sense of movement as a writer. But Gilbert, to her credit, has continued to write. After Eat, Pray, Love came a sequel of sorts, Committed, about the reasons why she decided to marry the man she wrote about falling in love with in the best seller. Sales were respectable, but it saw nothing like the success of Eat, Pray, Love (arguably, what could?) In 2013, Gilbert returned to fiction, and published a tome of a novel, The Signature of All Things, which received positive reviews.

The Signature of All Things was written with the luxury of time and place. Gilbert bought the largest and oldest house built on the tallest hill in artsy Frenchtown, New Jersey. 

She had the enormous attic fitted out with bookshelves and secret cabinets designed by the well-known carpenter Michael Flood. Her custom-made desk was built out of a 15-foot long slab of acacia.

But the book also meant a return to intensive research, three years spent studying arcane histories of herbs and biology. Elsewhere and in Big Magic, she talks about the process of the work that went into it, filling up boxes with note cards, producing a 70-page synopsis before she even began writing the book.

None of this comes to Gilbert as a set of recent habits: she has always been a writer. As she describes it in Big Magic, she grew up on her parents’ Connecticut Christmas tree farm (her father was a Chemical Engineer who grew the trees on the side, and her mother a nurse of Swedish descent) and she and her sister had no television growing up but were encouraged to read and write and to create their own worlds. According to Gilbert, she took vows early on, actual vows, to do everything she could to become and stay a writer all her life. She moved to New York to attend New York University and received a Bachelor’s in Political Science.

This is the point at which Gilbert’s account of her writing life (told not chronologically but in terms of themes woven through the book) in Big Magic varies significantly from the reality that she has alluded to in prior work. It’s not so much that she lies, exactly, but that she engages in strategic acts of omission. In Eat, Pray, Love, she admits to being a highly successful freelance writer. In 1993, she became the first unpublished short story writer to appear in Esquire since Norman Mailer. A 2013 New York Times profile notes that her editors still remember with “reverence” the skill apparent in her work, and she was widely published in the top magazines like GQ. Her GQ story about the Coyote Ugly Saloon became the basis for the hit film about the bar. She made enough money that she lost a considerable fortune in her divorce. All three of her first books either won awards or accolades from sources like The New York Times.

There has never been an idyllic time for writers, but in the 90s, during the time that Gilbert flourished, writers who made it to the upper echelons of the top magazines could make a decent or even excellent living from writing. The proliferation of internet publishing and related factors have since changed and exploded all that.

In light of all this, Gilbert could have written a very different and more realistic book. She could have retained the advice about discipline and plugging away, dispensed with the hoo-ha about ideas as beings and provided a more realistic view of what it takes to become a successful writer/creative producer like her.

But that would undercut all of Big Magic’s otherworldly mystification about the nature of creative production. So, instead, she completely downplays Eat, Pray, Love’s success and insists it took her completely by surprise. This is how she describes what happened:

I once wrote a book that accidentally became a giant best seller, and for a few years there, it was like I was living in a hall of fun house mirrors.

And:

It was never my intention to write a giant best seller, believe me. I wouldn’t know how to write a giant best seller if I tried.

On the one hand, even the most savvy publishing houses will admit that, bar a few stratospheric authors like Tom Clancy, there is never any predicting a best seller. Still, Gilbert received a $200,000 advance to go forth, travel, and write the book. Her publisher, at least, seemed fairly confident in the book’s sales potential. (While Gilbert has spoken openly about her advance elsewhere, she doesn’t mention it in Big Magic.)

She also goes on to write, “It never occurred to me that my own thoughts and feelings might intersect so intensely with the thoughts and feelings of so many other people.” This is simply a lie: unless she had the cachet to get away with not writing one, publishing houses generally demand book proposals before committing to publication.  Pitching a book—and receiving such a large advance—is entirely about revealing exactly why the “thoughts and feelings” of the author might coincide with her readers. Even if she didn’t have to produce one, Viking would have at the very least asked for some sense from her as to why the book mattered enough at that particular time for them to publish it. In which case, Gilbert would have had to provide at least a perfunctory sense of her target audience and why they would want to buy her book.

In other words, Eat, Pray, Love was not some mere accident but a well-planned intervention into the zeitgeist of publications by and about women.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the success of Big Magic—the potion that Gilbert is trying to market as “magic”—would never come about if she blithely and carelessly went off on a mysteriously funded jaunt across the world. Rather than convince the reader to anthropomorphize every aspect of the process, it would have been more honest of Gilbert to point to the structural, procedural elements of it—that you don’t just get a book contract like the one she received for Eat, Pray, Love without an agent and a few lawyers, for instance, or that book proposals are necessary and hard work.

Instead, Big Magic resolutely erases any evidence of such. It turns work like writing into, well, a “creative process,” and thus renders it not a profession but into something between an act of deep meditation and lots of wishful thinking. In fact, she relentlessly mocks those who complain about the conditions of writing as a profession:

From the volume of complaints that emerges from the professional creative class, you would think these people had been sentenced to their vocations by an evil dictator, rather than having chosen their work with a free will and an open heart.

In other words, Gilbert, who has spent half her life as a professional writer, now believes that hers is simply a vocation. Yet, when she actually describes the trajectory of her career—and it has been a long and illustrious one—she treats it not as a mystical calling but as work. At one point, for instance, she relates how her editor at GQ, where she was then a staff writer, pulled a story she had worked on for five months, a travel story about Serbia on which the publication had spent a lot of money. The editor’s rationale was that he realized she was not the person for the job and there was no point in her pursuing it any further; he told her to simply move on to the next assignment. Gilbert’s point in relating the anecdote is that writers must always be prepared to end projects that aren’t working. But we might glean a different story here: that no one hires a casual, vocational writer to work on a travel story about Serbia for five months. The freedom to flit, to cut one’s losses and move on, is possible only when one has the backing of a serious institution and serious money, plus an editor who can sign off on half-a-year’s salary and travel expenses for a project that never sees completion.

In fact, this is one of the dominant threads in conversations about the breakup of media outlets: that fewer places are able and willing to develop the kinds of writers who can do sustained long-form writing, and that this has been a negative for media in general. Gilbert displays no awareness of or interest in these changes, even as they fundamentally diminish the possibility of following her advice and becoming the kind of liberated, magical creative spirit she insists all writers should be.

This is yet another way in which Gilbert sidesteps the institutional and structural questions currently haunting the landscape of the creative fields—similar problems are rife in, say, dance or art—in favor of aphorisms designed to make the reader feel that she has been immersed in a spa offering creative well water as a lubricant for the soul. Yet, everywhere, in the arts, people are revolting against what they forthrightly call the exploitation of artists. In January 2016, the bestselling British writer Philip Pullman resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival, citing the event’s refusal to pay featured writers as his reason. In New York, the Freelancers Union is gaining steady momentum as it collectivizes writers, arguing not just for fair but timely compensation.

The current writing economy is generally inhospitable for those who want to write for a living, even though there are some changes afoot, like the kind described above. Gilbert occupies a rare stratosphere of the creative world, but it took her years of hard work to get there, and in a time when writers were paid decently. In a non-Gilbertian world, the average writer is a freelancer (given how many magazines have cut their budgets) who has to hang on to editors like a bulldog on a mailman’s leg just to get tiny checks mailed to her. The utter instability of writing as a profession has meant that a long and steady career like hers is unlikely, no matter how much determination one brings to the effort.

Gilbert is clearly an intelligent and well-read woman, and has to be aware of these shifts. But she doesn’t really have to care about reality. Big Magic will undoubtedly make her big money, and while it’s not likely to become a high-grossing film (the concept of ideas as amorphous supernatural beings does not quite make for the same cinematic experience as Mumbai sunsets and Italian dessert tables), it will probably be incorporated into book clubs and become a teaching tool for a particular subset of women.

Gilbert makes a point of saying that the money is not the point, but offers little to explain how someone with, say, multiple jobs and unstable shifts might carve out the time and the energy to continue with creative work. As with Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert isn’t interested in the reality of lives different from hers. Rather, she sells the idea that everyone can access her kind of success by magic.

In 2014, Gilbert sold her famously well-appointed house, telling the New York Times that she always had to move from a place once she had started and finished a project there. And so, the bookcases, the furnishings, even the imported statuary in the gardens, all of it was for sale for $999,999. It’s lovely, truly, that Gilbert has the financial resources to do so, but she appears to have lost a sense of the reality for many writers, who generally stay put in the same place and are barely able to make rent.

Without getting into any crude analysis of class politics, surely we can ask the simple question: if any place and a routine and discipline are all that’s required for a writer, why does Elizabeth Gilbert require such majestic spaces to write in?

Or we could ask an even simpler question of Gilbert, who scoffs at the very idea that the creative world should ever offer a living or stability: why shouldn’t someone who works tirelessly on a piece for, say, five months, expect to get paid really well for it?

Or even to be able to earn enough for rent? Gilbert can afford to believe in theories of creativity as magic, and wax on about the arrogance of creative workers who expect to make a living off their work—now that she has accumulated a small fortune of her own.

Ultimately, Big Magic isn’t really aimed at the “creative class,” but at a very particular kind of woman, a female consumer who wants to spend her money on a promise of a different life. In her acknowledgments, Gilbert thanks several people, but also thanks Etsy. It’s fitting; Etsy, like Gilbert, is a purveyor of goods with a quirky, homemade but polished aesthetic, professional goods given a carefully-honed sheen of amateurism.

Etsy’s visual cousin is Pinterest, a website that would have been inconceivable at the dawn of the internet: a visual repository of images of, well, things.  Need to know what a painted wooden blue table could look like, in fifty different shades and sizes? There will be a hundred images for you. Pinterest is ostensibly for the hobbyist — the idea is that you find, say, an image of a painted blue table and proceed to buff and transform that five-dollar table you found and carted home from the garage sale last summer.

But the truth is that what Pinterest offers most is a fantasy of what your imagined world might look like. If you’re like most people, your table will not be transformed. You might daydream about spending days lovingly sanding it and turning it a blue pastel, but the realities of life and work will intervene. Your table will collect dings and scratches over the years and become at best a larger holder of keys and the detritus of your life. Finally, one day, when you get ready to move, you’ll look at it and decide it’s too much trouble to take an unremarkable brown table with you. It will be stacked neatly against your dumpster, to be found by a delighted neighbor walking by, who will take it home with the exact same enthusiasm you once demonstrated, and will resolve to buff it and paint it blue, and the cycle will continue.

Big Magic is like a DIY Pinterest project, but about life itself. It is ultimately designed not for people who would like to think of writing as a profession, but for those who can afford to dabble in it. What Big Magic promises is akin to something you might find for sale on Etsy, to be recorded on Pinterest: a tiny mason jar that is also a snowglobe, a wishful, frozen fantasy of what the writing world might look like.

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, provided courtesy of Riverhead Books.

Bill Clinton Has Always Been This Person

Clinton has spent his entire career inflicting harm on black people while cynically claiming to speak for their interests

Confronted by Black Lives Matter activists at a Pennsylvania campaign event on Thursday, Bill Clinton snapped. Responding to protesters’ condemnations of Clinton’s record on criminal justice as president, as well as Hillary Clinton’s notorious warning about dangerous juvenile “superpredators,” Bill issued a furious rebuke:

This is what’s the matter. I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens—she didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.

As the activists refused to quiet themselves, Clinton became stern. “You listen to me,” he said, calling them “people on the far left screaming things that are not true.” He vigorously defended his record on criminal justice, and went on to cite his implementation of welfare reform as further evidence of his compassion for black lives.

Clinton’s acidic hectoring quickly made the news. He was rapidly criticized for not having any idea what Black Lives Matter actually stands for. Michelle Goldberg of Slate said Bill Clinton had become a liability to Hillary’s campaign and should be fired. Goldberg said it was “baffling” that Bill Clinton, after previously disowning his crime bill, would go back to defending it. This was, after all, the bill that  “expanded the scope of the death penalty, enshrined “three-strikes” provisions into federal law, and allocated almost $10 billion in funding for prison construction” and “is now widely seen as contributing to the human catastrophe of mass incarceration.” So, too, with the welfare rollback, in the aftermath of which the percentage of families in extreme poverty increased by 50%. It seemed an insanity for Clinton to justify such measures as being in the interest of black lives. Indeed, Goldberg openly wondered whether he was “slipping, mentally.”

But what happened on Thursday was neither unpredictable or inscrutable, nor was it the product of some senile bewilderment. Rather, it was simply the most blatant expression of a trait that has been present in Bill Clinton’s character since his early political career: his cruel and cynical treatment of black people, and his use of progressive racial rhetoric to mask a willingness to devastatingly harm black communities in the service of self-interested political ends.

Many have criticized the lasting impact that Bill Clinton’s policies have had for black Americans. Michelle Alexander has said that Clinton escalated the War on Drugs “beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible… ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.” In a comprehensive and nuanced summary of Clinton’s impact on African Americans, Christopher Brian Booker cites criticisms of Clinton’s “central role in the incarceration binge in the black community.”

Despite all of the evidence of the damage he inflicted upon African Americans, however, Bill Clinton has persistently been understood as a friend to the black community, the man who knew all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” who cultivated warm relationships with black leaders, who played the saxophone on Arsenio. Clinton prominently appointed black officials, such as Ron Brown as the Secretary of Commerce and Rodney Slater as the Secretary of Transportation.

Clinton has therefore always seemed somewhat of a paradox on race, a man who connected with black Americans emotionally while introducing policies that devastated them materially. His rhetoric, which acknowledged the trauma of slavery in a way no other president had before, and which treated African Americans as coequal participants in American life, has always made it appear as if Clinton must have been well-intentioned. Even Michelle Alexander, while saying it’s “difficult to overstate the damage” done by Clinton, credits him for “feeling bad” about creating mass incarceration, and points out that black leaders supported “tough on crime” measures too.

But in order to understand Clinton, it is important to set aside the idea that his heart must necessarily have been in the right place. The evidence suggests something different, something far simpler and more logical: Clinton treated black interests with total mercenary cynicism. If cultivating their support helped him, Clinton would go to every length to connect with black voters. But the moment he faced a difficult choice between the politically expedient thing to do and the racially just thing to do, there was quite literally no harm he was unwilling to inflict upon black people in order to secure even minor political victories.

This was most starkly evident in criminal justice. From the very beginning, Clinton made a point of, as Alexander puts it, “signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.” This is not just speculative interpretation on Alexander’s part; Clinton made it quite clear. During the 1992 election, just before Super Tuesday, Clinton traveled to Stone Mountain Correctional Institution in Stone Mountain, Georgia. There, he stood next to conservative Southern Democrats Sam Nunn and Zell Miller, as well as Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones (recently heard prominently defending the Confederate flag), posing for photographers in front of a group of black inmates. (See image above.) Clinton quite literally made a prop out of a group of convicts. 

The now rarely-seen photograph becomes even more disturbing given its location. As Christopher Petrella recently noted in the Boston Review, Stone Mountain is notorious as being the place where the modern-day Ku Klux Klan was born in 1915. As Petrella says, it’s a key location in the history of the subjugation of African Americans. He writes:

It is hard to imagine the DLC would not have been aware of Stone Mountain’s significance as a theater of white supremacy when it staged Clinton’s campaign event at the prison there. In fact, the choice of that particular place as a campaign stop—arranging white political leaders in business suits in front of subjugated black male prisoners in jumpsuits—is illegible except in light of this history.

Indeed, others voiced horror at the time. Jerry Brown, then running against Clinton, said the white men in the photos looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.”

That single image could serve as an iconic representation of Clinton’s entire legacy on race. It belies all of his claims to have stumbled innocently into the creation of mass incarceration. Instead, he intentionally made a campaign issue out of his willingness to lock up as many black people as it took to secure his own political success.

Another 1992 incident displayed that ruthlessness even more starkly: the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. It’s a chapter in Clinton political history that has become moderately infamous, but most accounts fail to convey the full calculating brutality of Clinton’s actions.

Ricky Ray Rector was a black prisoner in Arkansas who had been convicted of murder and was scheduled for execution. But Rector was severely brain damaged, having shot himself in the head after shooting the victim; he was missing one-third of his brain and had been effectively lobotomized. As a result, Ricky Ray Rector’s mental functioning was that of a very young child. The prison chaplain recalls meeting him for the first time:

“He was gripping the bars, howling, jumping like an ape. There were Indians, he thought, in the corner of his cell, who he was busy hunting. In between, he would speak to me.” His sister Stella visited him, to be told about serpents slithering across his bunk, alligators and chickens set loose by the guards, and people shining spotlights into his cell.

The records of the prison “death log” note Rector’s activity in the leadup to his execution:

“6.46am: Inmate Rector began howling. 6.59am: Inmate Rector began dancing in his cell.” Soon after, Rector told a guard that “If you eat grass, lethal injection won’t kill you.”

As Rector’s execution time drew closer, even the prison warden had become uncomfortable with the idea of executing Rector, with one observer saying the warden “seemed to be coming apart the closer the execution got.” Meanwhile, frantic appeals were being made to Governor Clinton to give Rector clemency. Jeff Rosenzweig, Rector’s attorney and an old friend of Clinton’s, begged Clinton not to allow the execution to proceed. Rosenzweig told Clinton that Rector was “crazy, a zombie – it couldn’t, it shouldn’t be done. He’s a child. It’s like killing a child.” Clinton then “hung up with a non-committal pleasantry.”

Rosenzweig wasn’t alone in his desperate attempt. As The Guardian reported in 1993:

Others, close to Clinton, were making their own appeals to him. Mrs Freddie Nixon, wife of the pastor who had married the Clintons, had even written to Rickey on Death Row, and was particularly distraught. Dr Douglas Brown, the psychiatrist, faxed the governor to say the case had been a “travesty” – far from being “competent,” Rector was the least competent individual he had ever evaluated. He got no reply. Some of Clinton’s staunchest admirers, aware of his compassion and warmth, confidently expected him to intervene. “Nobody could believe that he would go through with it,” says one. “After all, the guy was berserk. You might as well execute a child.”

Clinton refused to grant clemency. Rector was executed on January 24, 1992. It is unlikely he had any idea what was about to happen. When he had his last meal, Rector set the dessert aside for later, even though there wouldn’t be a later. And in a pitiful and poignant detail, the night before his execution, watching Clinton on television, Rector said that he planned to vote for him in November.

There was no mystery as to why Clinton had refused to grant Rector clemency. Earlier in his political career, Clinton had lost a race against a “law and order” candidate, and those around him said he was determined not to make the same mistake twice. And it worked:

Intended or not, in the following months the political value of Rector’s execution became abundantly clear. It knocked the law-and-order issue out of the campaign. One commentator said it showed Clinton was “a different sort of Democrat.” As another put it, “he had someone put to death who only had half a brain. You don’t find them any tougher than that.”

Or, as former prosecutor and Arkansas ACLU director Jay Jacobson said, “You can’t law-and-order Clinton… If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody.” In the general election, the National Association of Police Organizations endorsed Clinton over Bush, and so did a law enforcement group in Bush’s home state of Texas.

Clinton did not just simply allow Rector to die, however. In fact, he was active in using Rector’s death politically, flying back to Arkansas just so he could be there for the execution. As The Guardian reported:

The same week, Gennifer Flowers came forward with her story of a 12-year affair with the candidate. Beset by crisis, Governor Clinton broke off his campaign in New Hampshire to return to Little Rock for Rector’s execution. There was no legal obligation on him to do so; as the Houston Chronicle remarked, “never – or at least not in the recent history of presidential campaigns – has a contender for the nation’s highest elective office stepped off the campaign trail to ensure the killing of a prisoner.”

The Ricky Ray Rector case has been mentioned from time to time as a controversial Clinton act. But it’s important to be clear about just what Clinton did: he deliberately had a hallucinating disabled man killed, in an execution so callous it made even the warden queasy. He personally ensured the execution of a mental child so as not to appear weak. This is an unthinkably monstrous act. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe: “The killing of human vegetables is an exercise for brutes.”

The Rector case is probably the ultimate moral lowpoint in Clinton’s political career, which has a number of them to choose from. Certainly, it doesn’t get much worse than killing someone. But there are plenty of other, less viscerally appalling instances of the same phenomenon: Clinton shoring up political support by demonstrating that he was more willing than Republicans to inflict harm and suffering on black people, securing the black vote through words and the white vote through deeds.

This is precisely what happened in criminal justice policy. When the United States Sentencing Commission recommended that Clinton close the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, Clinton refused, in a decision Jesse Jackson called “a moral disgrace,” and observing accurately that Clinton was “willing to sacrifice young black youth for white fear.” In his own defense, Clinton said that “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.” Indeed, it didn’t, and the 100-1 crack-powder disparity remained in effect until Barack Obama signed a law changing it to 18-1 in 2010.

In other areas, too, Clinton consistently supported African Americans until the moment doing so incurred a political cost, at which point he would make himself sound more right-wing than the noisiest conservative radio show host. Notoriously, he made a public show of comparing hip hop artist Sister Souljah to Klansman David Duke, in an act that drew ire from black Democrats who felt he was needlessly repudiating the black community to convince white people he was one of them. 

Then there was his treatment of black government appointees. Clinton was lauded for appointing the first black surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. But he was also perfectly willing to fire her. When Dr. Elders spoke at a United Nations event on AIDS, and responded to the question of whether masturbation should be taught as a way to prevent AIDS by saying that “perhaps” it should, she attracted ire from the right. Clinton instantly demanded she resign.

The same thing occurred in the case of Lani Guinier, the acclaimed legal scholar Clinton appointed to be Assistant Attorney General. When it emerged that Guinier had once written about the possibility of readjusting voting districts to correct prior racial imbalances in representation, Clinton withdrew her nomination, calling her work “anti-democratic” and “difficult to defend.” (Clinton didn’t even tell her he was withdrawing the nomination; she saw it in on the news. He then attempted to make amends by declaring that “I think she’s wonderful. If she came to me and asked for $5,000 I’d go down to the bank and give it to her, no questions asked.”)  The Guinier episode “sent shock waves through traditional civil rights groups,” who once again found themselves betrayed by Clinton. 

All of this added up to a pattern, which did not go unnoticed at the time. George Mason University professor and civil rights veteran Roger Wilkins observed: 

Look at this man’s record… When he wanted to establish himself as a different kind of Democrat . . . in 1992, he broke off campaigning to go preside over the execution of this self-lobotomized black inmate. When he was low in the polls a year ago, he came to Washington and took a swack at Sister Souljah and Jesse Jackson… And I can’t tell you that, as I look at the Lani Guinier episode, that my mind does not run back to all of those other things. That is his record.

A theme therefore runs through Clinton’s entire political career: black lives have never mattered to him, except to the extent that they conferred black political support. One could say that Bill Clinton has made a career of throwing black people under the bus, but what Bill Clinton actually did was throw black people under the bus, drive over them, back up, drive over them again, then get out, pull them from underneath, dust them off and ask them if they were okay and if he could get them a glass of water, then throw them under the bus again.

Bill Clinton’s comments on Thursday were therefore just the latest instance of a career-long repetition of the same tropes. At every turn, he has pulled the same maneuver: rhetorically claim to be acting in the interests of black lives, while spurning any and all efforts to actually improve the substance of black lives; praising the NAACP, then golfing at a segregated all-white country club. Even as he totally dismisses Black Lives Matter’s concerns over the crime bill, Clinton still insists he is looking out for the interests of the black community. As always, every word he speaks insists he serves black people, while every deed he does pitilessly betrays them.

Now, the relevance of all of this to the present election can be debated. It is typical for Hillary Clinton’s supporters to point out that holding Hillary accountable for her husband’s actions is unfair at best and sexist at worst. Hillary Clinton was, of course, a major power in Bill’s administration and his equal partner in a joint political venture. But more importantly, Bill’s recent comments have been made as part of the campaign. Bill was defending this record on behalf of Hillary Clinton, to thousands of her supporters. If Hillary Clinton didn’t have Bill Clinton out front speaking about the Clinton Administration, it might be fair to ask people not to associate them. But since she has chosen him to be an ambassador for her message, we must at least assume that she does not think him as heinous as the record proves he is.

The contemporary political implications can be left to others to dispute. But it is a matter of historical fact that Bill Clinton used black people in the most despicable way possible, doing everything he could to convince them he cared while doing nothing but using their lives to advance himself politically. They trusted him, and he threw them in jail by the millions. As Michael Eric Dyson has explained, Clinton “exploited black sentiment because he knew the rituals of black culture,” then “exploited us like no president before him.” Nobody in the history of American race relations from slavery to the present has ever so cruelly manipulated the aspirations of the black population, has ever so heartlessly tormented them with empty promises while happily destroying their lives. 

Thanks to Clinton’s cultivated charm and savvy rhetoric, people have still not quite appreciated just how amoral Clinton’s treatment of race has been. Perhaps, now that his angry attack on Black Lives Matter has provided such a revealing illustration of Clinton’s tactics, the understanding will shift. Perhaps we will finally realize that Bill Clinton’s legacy on race is precisely what the Stone Mountain photograph shows: a man for whom black Americans have always been a prop, to be praised, disparaged, championed, taunted, freed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed, depending on the particular daily political needs of Bill Clinton. 

For more on Clinton’s record on race, pre-order our new book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black Americashipping July 1st. 

There’s Nothing Wrong With Feeling Entitled To Your Education

Loathsome as she may be, Abigail Fisher deserved to go to the University of Texas.

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff of Fisher v. University of Texas, is not particularly well-liked on the left. After Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008, she sued the school claiming that unconstitutional affirmative action policies were responsible for her failure to gain entry. The case has since charted a tortuous route through the American courts and is scheduled to be ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of its current term. If the Court rules in Fisher’s favor, race-based affirmative action programs could completely disappear.

Because of this, many have been understandably hostile to Fisher. Indeed, she is easy to caricature as the embodiment of every insufferable, self-aggrandizing tendency among white people: someone so furious that her rightful place in college was “stolen” from her by minorities that she was willing to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. Fisher was almost certainly denied because of her academic record rather than her race (there were numerous black students with better grades than Fisher who were also denied), black students represent only a tiny fraction of UT’s student body, and yet Fisher persists in nastily blaming black UT students for her failure.

Mockery of Fisher has thus been widespread. She has been called “too dumb to get in,” a “pasty pop tart,” a “noted dummy,” and a “soulless ginger looking for a handout.” On Twitter, black University of Texas graduates waved diplomas at her using the hashtag #StayMadAbby. Open letters were written to her, and she was laughed at relentlessly as a whiny, oblivious mediocrity.

Certainly, Fisher herself is nearly impossible to sympathize with, especially when one learns that she turned down an opportunity that would have enabled her to transfer to the University of Texas during her sophomore year, and that she has been working lucrative financial and marketing jobs after graduating from Louisiana State University.

Yet there is something disconcerting in the easy willingness of affirmative action supporters to adopt the rhetoric of “merit” against Fisher. Many of the criticisms of Fisher deploy the very language of “working hard” and “bootstrapping” that people on the left rightly detest when it is deployed by conservatives. Consider some of the things said about her:

 

  • The problem with Abigail Fisher… is that despite her relentless averageness, she believes that she’s entitled to treatment far surpassing her relentless averageness.
  • Instead of recognizing that she didn’t earn admission into UT-Austin, Fisher is attempting to validate herself by blaming affirmative action. Instead of unpacking that reality about her shortcomings, she packed up her privilege, went ahead and sued the school.
  • White mediocrity tends to complain and whine and not take responsibility for their own shortcomings
  • Stop being an entitled little brat and start working hard
  • #StayMadAbby for white girls who considered a lawsuit when trying harder wasn’t her thing.
  • not as smart as she thinks she is. will probably blame all the minorities for her mediocrity
  • I’ve spent too much of my life proving my worthiness to White people in both personal and professional spaces, and folks like Abby Fisher and Antonin Scalia are just going to have to stay mad while they chow down on their unseasoned meatloafs (or is it meatloaves? QTNA) and lament a world where they’re not just given stuff because they decided that they deserve it. I learned that lesson when I was five and my mom asked me if “I had McDonald’s money.” Long story short: I can only hope that the Supreme Court of the United States teaches her that too when they send her lily-why posterior back from whence she came.

 

And from the Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore: You are not entitled to anything just because you want it. Welcome to life.

Notice how these criticisms frame things: Fisher didn’t deserve admission. She wasn’t smart enough. She hadn’t tried hard enough. People aren’t entitled to anything. This language is ripped straight from the conservative playbook, from the worldview that says: “life is hard, you don’t deserve anything just because you were born, welcome to the real world, nobody gets a handout.”

Now, all of this is partially being deployed against Fisher ironically: she thinks minority entitlements are causing her hard work to go unrewarded, when the reality is that if anyone believes they’re entitled to something they didn’t work for, it’s Abigail Fisher. But it still ends up accepting the idea that college admission is (and should be) granted to people who are smart and who work hard, and that nobody deserves it.

But people do deserve it; everyone should get to receive the best-quality possible college education, even Abigail Fisher. “Smartness” should not determine our material rewards, because smartness is distributed arbitrarily. As far as college goes, the only question should be whether individuals meet the basic standard to be able to do the work. Competitive admissions processes among students who are all plenty qualified to do well (but must do dozens of extracurricular activities in order to make themselves stand out) are a dysfunctional absurdity that should have no place in education.

Abigail Fisher was therefore right to feel “entitled,” though she felt it for the wrong reasons. She felt as if she deserved to go to the University of Texas because she was a white legacy applicant, the sort of person who should get to go. As people have rightly (and viciously) pointed out to her, who you are shouldn’t confer some kind of special rights on you. Yet that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t all have those rights to begin with; “meritocracy,” the idea that everything must be earned rather than being given as a function of our basic humanity, is a pernicious notion, one that cannot help but result in gross unfairness however it is implemented.

This is a problem with so-called “privilege” analysis more generally. It treats “privilege” and “entitlement” as somehow being in and of themselves bad things, instead of being good things that all people should get to share in equally regardless of their race. Yes, it’s unfair that white people get to see themselves as being entitled to a place in a top college when people of color have to work their asses off to get there. But the solution is not to taunt white people and tell them they’re not entitled to anything, it’s to expand that entitlement so that everyone gets the same kind of privileges that white people do. When a rich white teenager makes a deadly mistake, they’re given counseling and treated with leniency, whereas a poor black teenager would be thrown in prison. That doesn’t mean we should start throwing rich teenagers in prison, it means we should start affording to poor blacks the same kind of justice that we give to rich whites. Removing entitlements, instead of spreading them fairly, creates equality only by causing everyone to share equally in misery.

There’s something disturbing about laughing at Abigail Fisher for being “dumb.” Nobody who considers themselves on the left should ever be comfortable calling someone “dumb” or “mediocre” or telling them they don’t deserve something because of their SAT score. It’s one step away from this to adopting the full-blown conservative understanding of human nature and moral desert, and beginning to spew all the cliches about how “the United States thrives because of a culture of opportunity that encourages work and disdains relying on handouts.”

The very existence of elite, competitive undergraduate schools is impossible to defend. Whether someone receives a University of Texas-level education should not depend on whether they can succeed in some merciless rat race; it should be openly offered to all people who are minimally capable. There should not be “tiers” of state universities to begin with, because elitism is ugly and immoral at its core.

Abigail Fisher therefore deserved to go to the University of Texas. But it’s because she is a human being, not because she is white.