The Democrats Are Making A Suicidal Mistake

As a report undermines her statements about the email server, and polls show Trump drawing even, the Clinton campaign is quickly becoming a disaster.

Somewhat predictably, Hillary Clinton’s campaign has become a sinking ship. All of the lessons that should have been learned after her 2008 run failed so badly (that voters’ trust in her diminishes with each word she speaks, that her campaigns are woefully poorly run, that Bill is a liability) have been ignored, as the Democrats press forward with what looks like a doomed strategy.

Things were already looking bad when new polling showed that Trump had drawn even with Clinton, or was actually beating her (something Democrats have insisted is impossible). Now, the Inspector General for the State Department has released a report that contradicts large parts of Clinton’s story about her email server, which was already a highly troublesome and persistent issue.

The report hands the Trump campaign a powerful issue to deploy against Clinton. As the New York Times reported, it has numerous damning portions:

The inspector general found that Mrs. Clinton “had an obligation to discuss using her personal email account to conduct official business” with department officials but that, contrary to her claims that the department “allowed” the arrangement, there was “no evidence” she had requested or received approval for it… Department officials told the inspector general’s office that “Secretary Clinton never demonstrated to them that her private server or mobile device met minimum information security requirements,” the report said. The report also criticized Mrs. Clinton for not adhering to the department’s rules for handling records under the Federal Records Act once she stepped down in January 2013… The rules governing emails under previous secretaries were, the report said, “very fluid.” By the time Mrs. Clinton came to office, however, they were “considerably more detailed and sophisticated,” spelling out the “obligation to use department systems in most circumstances and identifying the risks of not doing so.”

The Clinton campaign quickly released a statement arguing that the report had in fact exonerated her of wrongdoing. But even the Times, whose Clinton coverage is generally extremely sympathetic (they are the paper, after all, that went back and re-edited a news piece about Bernie Sanders to avoid making it seem too complimentary), seemed unable to stomach this attempt to twist the report’s findings. The Times makes clear that the Clinton campaign’s response to the report ranges from distortion and omission to at least one outright lie. Clinton’s statement insists that “As this report makes clear, Hillary Clinton’s use of personal email was not unique.” But as the Times replies, the report actually indicates that “Mrs. Clinton’s use of a private email and server stored in her home was, in fact, unique.” Thus the Clinton campaign has responded to the report by simply pretending it says something other than what it actually says.

This is a useful exemplification of a disturbing recurrent Clinton trait: responding to criticisms that she has lied by telling… even more lies, thus causing the whole thing to degenerate further down into disaster. It’s the same tactic Clinton thought would work when she was called out on her claim about ducking sniper fire in Bosnia. There, Clinton said that she remembered “landing under sniper fire”; “There was supposed to be some kind of a greeting ceremony at the airport,” Clinton said, “but instead we just ran with our heads down to get into the vehicles to get to our base.” “There was no greeting ceremony,” she later repeated. CBS News then pointed out that this was false, and that the footage contradicted Clinton’s statement. The Philadelphia Daily Inquirer then asked Clinton why, if there was no greeting ceremony, there was footage of her calmly meeting a little girl on the tarmac. Clinton replied “I was told that the greeting ceremony had been moved away from the tarmac, but that there was this eight-year-old girl, so I can’t rush by her, I’ve got to at least greet her. So I greeted her, I took her stuff, and I left.” CBS then reported that once again, Clinton was lying. In fact, she lingered for ages on the tarmac in a highly elaborate greeting ceremony, not only meeting the little girl, but shaking hands with a large group of military officials individually, taking photos, and staging a group picture with an entire class of 7th graders.

The lie about ducking sniper fire is the one most often discussed, but it was actually the second lie (the lie about the lie) that was far worse. Asked why she greeted a little girl if there was sniper fire, Clinton simply made up a story about how she didn’t want to break the little girl’s heart by fleeing from the danger, even though there was no danger and she did much more than greet the girl and run off. This was much, much more egregious than the initial lie, because it was a deliberate fabrication rather than a false memory. After she had been caught, telling the truth would have been fine. She could have simply said that our minds often tell us stories that aren’t true, we think of ourselves as braver than we actually were, and things we hear about others doing become misremembered as things we ourselves did. Yet rather than do that, Clinton became defensive, and created a whole new falsehood in which she bravely refused to rush away from the tarmac so that a little girl could meet her.

The sniper fire story itself is trivial. But her response to it suggested that whenever Clinton is caught out, she will simply become even more shameless, hoping that at some point people give up and stop pressing her. This dynamic is, of course, familiar to all children who have attempted to pile untruths on top of untruths in the desperate hope that a certain number of lies will eventually cancel each other out. But as every child learns, this only ever leads to further trouble and, sooner or later, you just have to come clean and admit that you’ve been dishonest.

But it’s quite clear that Clinton will never, ever do this. Even now that the State Department’s Inspector General has released a report explaining in detail why Clinton’s claims about her emails are false, she has responded by doubling down with even more implausible statements.

This does not augur well for the remainder of the campaign. It means that Hillary Clinton has what might be termed a “trust death spiral.” She begins by having the public think she is untrustworthy. Then, in response to accusations that she is untrustworthy, she says things that make her sound even more untrustworthy. Because there’s no point at which she’ll simply break free and come clean, things can only ever get worse for Hillary Clinton. If you point out that her positions have changed (making her somewhat untrustworthy), she responds by insisting that they haven’t changed (making her even more untrustworthy). If a report says she is misrepresenting the situation with her email, she will then misrepresent the report itself. 

This is a problem not just because it decreases public trust; it also treats voters like they must be incredibly stupid. It’s brazenly insulting to people’s intelligence to simply deny that a report says what it says. And because people are more intelligent than that, they don’t like it when you try to pull tricks like this.

That fatal flaw means that Clinton is in terrible trouble. As this publication has explained in detail before, Clinton suffers from the fact that her weaknesses are those that Donald Trump is well-positioned to exploit. Trump is uniquely strong against Clinton, and Clinton is uniquely weak against Trump. One core problem is that nobody ever seems to go from disliking Clinton to liking her, while plenty of people seem to go from disliking Trump to liking Trump.

Meanwhile, desperate liberals are falling back on some of their worst arguments yet in an attempt to convince people that the obvious is in fact the impossible. New methods of explaining away the facts include: “The election is still many months away, it’s too early to tell anything” (Right, but unless people start liking Hillary Clinton more with each additional disaster, things will only get worse); “Sanders backers will come around and realize Clinton is the better of the two options” (Sure, but how are you going to get them to physically go to the polls to support someone they still can’t stand?); and “Obama’s approval ratings have been going up, which will favor Democrats in the fall” (they are almost certainly going up because everyone despises Clinton and Trump so much that Obama now looks positively spectacular by comparison).

Liberal pundits have also already begun preparing their excuses for a Clinton loss in November. It will all be Bernie’s fault. After all, “if Bernie splinters the left and erodes Clinton’s support among voters, the consequences for our country could be even more dire than another Bush administration.” I am not the first to point out that Democrats seem to have a more developed strategy for blaming Sanders for Clinton’s loss to Trump than they have for actually defeating Trump. Their plan, should they lose, is not to concede that they ran a disastrous candidate from the beginning and ignored all of the warning signs, but to simply spend four years shouting the word “Nader” at every progressive who cares to point out what a blunder Clinton’s nomination was. In this way, just as Democrats after 2000 learned no lessons (perhaps you should have nominated someone who wouldn’t cause people to vote for Nader?), Democrats after 2016 will similarly remain smugly convinced that Clinton was the best choice, no matter how much the vast majority of Americans may disagree.

Watching this mistake play out in slow-motion is painful. As Clinton continues to tank, and continues to delude herself as to why she is tanking, and thereby cause herself to tank further, Sanders supporters will have to watch in exasperation watching their predictions all come true before their eyes. Even the satisfaction of an “I told you so” will be robbed thanks to the liberals’ insistence on calling them Naderites. Meanwhile, a monstrosity named Trump continues his unstoppable ascendance. Of course, there’s a simple way to solve the problem and salvage the party’s chances of winning the election. Yet some Democrats continue to prefer the unrealistic candidate over the pragmatic one, and insist on nominating Clinton.

For more Current Affairs coverage of the Clintons, pre-order our new book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America, shipping July 1st.

This Month In Travesties

Sending our regards to the unfortunate…

The case of Otto F. Warmbier has lately become disturbing. The facts, for those unacquainted with them, are as follows:

University of Virginia student Otto Warmbier has been sentenced by North Korea to 15 years of hard labor for crimes against the isolated state… Warmbier, 21, traveled to North Korea’s capital of Pyongyang over the holidays through a China-based travel organization known as the Young Pioneer Tours. On January 2, the college student was arrested at the airport as he was boarding a plane. His crime against the state, according to North Korea, was stealing a banner, which apparently had North Korean propaganda on it, from his hotel during his stay. 

We find Mr. Warmbier’s case a troubling one. Who among us hasn’t occasionally succumbed to the urge to poach North Korean propaganda from our hotel walls? If this be a crime, then by all means lock up Current Affairs and throw away the key. (Please don’t.)

Current Affairs has promised to be a friend and ally to all persons experiencing suffering or despair. So when we saw Mr. Warmbier on television, giving a teary press conference in which he begged a panel of stony-faced DPRK bureaucrats to spare him, we couldn’t help but feel that we were needed. It is true, of course, that our means of assistance in the matter are limited. Current Affairs can deluge Kim Jong Un with relentless batches of undesired magazines, but this is about the only superpower we possess.


Otto F. Warmbier

But in the absence of doing something useful, we can do something loud. We do not know much about the inside of Pyongyang labor camps, but we suspect Otto’s quality of life has somewhat deteriorated since his days at the Theta Chi frat house in Charlottesville (There are only a few places Current Affairs would less rather be than the Theta Chi frat house in Charlottesville, but a North Korean prison cell is probably one of them.) It is likely that he is being denied access to food, perhaps even to bowties. This cannot be tolerated.

And so Current Affairs is resolved to help Otto stay resolute. We shall include a small note to him in each edition of our magazine (very small*), wishing him well and encouraging to defy his tormentors. We will send him a Current Affairs subscription (gratis), so that he may gain a fully accurate understanding of the world beyond the prison gates.

(North Korea has not previously been known for enthusiastically transmitting subversive political magazines to its imprisoned dissidents, but we are willing to offer small bribes to postmen if it will help, and promise to refrain from printing lewd caricatures of Mr. Jong Un and from putting the phrase “Supreme Leader” in derisive quotation marks.)

We are confident that this will help. Not for nothing did a critic once refer to the act of reading Current Affairs as “the only thing that could make 15 years of hard labor seem tolerable.” Keep your chin up, dear fellow! Current Affairs is with you through all of this, not in any sort of real way, but certainly by the intention of our spirits. And after all, what could be more helpful to an imprisoned man than to have his plight discussed at length by intellectuals and academics in the pages of journals and periodicals?

But we find ourselves interrupted…

Now, look here, Current Affairs, all of this is a bit rich. Here you are focusing on one young white American chap, when scads of similar horrors take place across the globe daily. Why should Current Affairs expend its considerable political capital to aid Mr. Warmbier, when there are hundreds of us poor wretches who did not attend the University of Virginia? Methinks Current Affairs has become a tad blinded by its love of bowties. 

Oh, how right you are, mysterious italicized intruder. There are an awful lot of human travesties about which to make a fuss, and to expend valuable ink on Otto is surely rather biased of us. Why, right as we type, Saudi Arabia continues its relentless bombing campaign against Yemen. Otto has the full diplomatic muscle of the United States Government pulling for him, does he truly need us by his side?

There is, for example, the case of Mr. Bernard Noble, a 48-year-old man sentenced to “13 years and 4 months imprisoned at hard labor and without the possibility of parole” for the possession of two marijuana cigarettes. Mr. Noble does not live in the DPRK, but in the State of Louisiana. And as Louisiana justice goes, Bernard may have gotten off lightly; sentences of 20 years or even life for similar crimes are not unknown.


Mr. Bernard Noble

Now, it’s certainly true that there are many differences between the United States and North Korea. They are on different continents, for instance. But, well, 15 years at hard labor is 15 years at hard labor, and it can’t bring much comfort to Bernard to know that he lives in the World’s Freest Democracy. Did we mention he has three children?

Bernard Noble, then, seems at least as deserving of our comfort and assistance as young Otto. And to speak frankly, we’re all probably a bit more complicit in Mr. Noble’s fate, since it’s our own legal system in which he finds himself ensnared.

We must therefore be just as dedicated to reminding readers of Bernard as we are to reminding them of Otto. We shall write regularly to them both, so that they know they are loved and will never be forgotten. Hello, Bernard!

But you know, there are more victims of injustice in this world than the poster-ripping bowtie enthusiast and the pot-smoking New Orleans dad. There are, after all, plenty of people in North Korea’s prisons who are not Otto F. Warmbier. There are plenty of people in Louisiana’s rural penitentiaries who are not Bernard Noble. And there are 49 other states, and numerous other countries, in which the hapless and unfortunate spend their days confined to dismal cells, sometimes without a friend or lover in the whole of the cosmos.

To these people, then, Current Affairs dedicates its affections. Bernard and Otto are mere synecdoches, vessels through which we transmit our message to you. That message, broadcast from the innermost depths of our hearts, is this:



Illustration by Benjamin Saucier

Bill Clinton’s Shameful Genocide Denial

Clinton’s actions during the Rwandan genocide were worse than is usually remembered…

“If the horrors of the Holocaust taught us anything,” Bill Clinton said before becoming president, “it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide. Even as our fragmentary awareness of crimes grew into indisputable facts, far too little was done. We must not permit that to happen again.”

Clinton’s words were stirring, but they reflected a broad consensus among the Western powers after World War II: another Holocaust could not be allowed to occur. By the time of the Clinton Administration, this had become an article of American political faith, one of the country’s few solid moral commitments: whatever other misfortunes we might inflict through our actions and inactions across the globe, the United States would never permit the tragedies of 1939-1945 to replay themselves.

The events in Rwanda during 1994 would be the true test of the country’s commitment to the principle. It was the precise scenario that each president had solemnly sworn an oath to prevent. Moreover, the country had the resources, opportunity, and knowledge necessary to help. It was, fundamentally, an event that could have been stopped, or at least significantly mitigated, through the taking of steps that were known and feasible. But over the course of 100 days, as literally hundreds of thousands of bodies piled up in Rwanda, President Clinton did exactly what he had promised he would never do; he remained “silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide,” and even as his “fragmentary awareness grew into indisputable facts,” he lackadaisically “permitted it to happen again.”

But even worse, and seldom acknowledged, is that Clinton did something far worse. He did not just “sit on his hands”: he deliberately stalled the efforts of others to intervene, and went so far as to deny the genocide in order to avoid being pressured to stop it.

The most important thing to understand, in analyzing international responsibility for the genocide, is whether enough information was available to the decision-makers. A person cannot be held accountable for not stopping something he did not know was occurring. Indeed, Bill Clinton, according to Samantha Power, “is said to have convinced himself that if he had known more, he would have done more.” He claimed in 1998 that he did not “fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which [Rwandans] were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.” Clinton offers his present-day charitable works in Rwanda as proof that once he is made aware of suffering there, he will dedicate himself diligently to alleviating it, that he would never leave Rwanda to perish if he knew he was capable of acting.

But Clinton’s claim not to have fully understood the situation is a lie. Clinton knew. Knew there was a genocide, knew its scale. People at all levels of government knew. It was all over the press. In fact, the idea that any informed official at the time could plead ignorance to the Rwandan genocide is laughable. As time passes, it may be easier and easier to blur the history, to suggest that everything was opaque and uncertain and that it would have taken impossible omniscience in order to understand. But the violence in Rwanda was in the newspapers. It wasn’t just the stuff of minor internal State Department memoranda and overlooked faxes at the bottom of receptionists’ inboxes. It was in The New York Times and The Washington Post. The Administration’s spokespeople was being regularly asked about it.

It’s easy enough, if we know nothing about it, to accept the proposition that the scale of the Rwanda genocide became clear only after the fact. Fog of war and all that. It certainly comports with the received image of Africa as a dark and unfathomable continent, out of which reliable information never flows. But any glance through contemporary sources instantly invalidates this view of history. To say one didn’t know is not just implausible or unlikely. It is a lie.

When assessing the question of “knowledge,” and the subsequent issue of culpability, it is vital to keep in mind the timeline of the genocide, and to figure out what information was available at what points. Again, remember that President Clinton, in tearfully apologizing to Rwandans, said he did not “fully appreciate the depth and the speed” with which Rwandans were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

On April 6th, 1994, the day before the Rwandan genocide began, the country’s president had been assassinated, his plane shot down over Kigali by parties unknown. It was the small spark necessary to trigger a genocide; the president was a Hutu, and the killing provided the necessary pretext for the country’s military forces to carry out a plan they had been working on for some time: the extermination of their ethnic rivals, the Tutsi minority. On April 7th, a motley assemblage of paramilitary forces, under the direction of high-ranking members of the political elite, began a concerted program of mass slaughter. Inspired by an apocalyptic “Hutu Power” ideology, and fueled by “hate radio” stations commanding ordinary citizens to kill, groups of machete-wielding death squads roamed through the country, killing every Tutsi they could find, as well as moderate Hutus. In this nationwide paroxysm of stabbing, raping, and shooting, hundreds of thousands would be killed over the next 100 days.

The Rwandan president was assassinated on the 6th, a Wednesday. The killings began on Thursday the 7th and lasted three months. On the Thursday, members of the Presidential Guard killed eleven Belgian UN peacekeepers, as well as the Rwandan prime minister. On Friday the 8th, Bill Clinton publicly stated that the prime minister had been “sought out and murdered. Reuters described a “wave of bloodletting” in which “embers of the security forces and gangs of youths wielding machetes, knives and clubs rampaged through the capital, Kigali, settling tribal scores by hacking and clubbing people to death or shooting them.”

On Saturday, April 9th, Clinton included references to Rwanda in his weekly radio address (which was otherwise devoted to crime and other domestic issues” and focused largely on Clinton’s pitch for his crime bill.) Of the situation there, he said:

Finally, let me say just a brief word about a very tragic situation in the African nation of Rwanda. I’m deeply concerned about the continuing violence… There are about 250 Americans there. I’m very concerned about their safety, and I want you to know that we’re doing all we can to ensure their safety.

That same day, United Nations observers in Kigali witnessed a massacre that took place in a Polish church, in which over one hundred people including children were brutally hacked to death. The New York Times described Rwanda and Burundi as “two nations joined by a common history of genocide,” raising the specter of the g-word.

On the 11th, The New York Times published the accounts of Americans who had recently evacuated:

‘It was the most basic terror,’ said Chris Grundmann, 37, an American evacuee, describing the fears of the Rwandan civilians and officials who were targets of the violence. He and his family, hunkered down in their house with mattresses against the windows, heard the ordeals of Rwandan victims over a two-way radio.‘The U.N. radio was filled with national staff screaming for help,’ he said. ‘They were begging: ‘Come save me! My house is being blown up,’ or ‘They’re killing me.’ There was nothing we could do. At one point we just had to turn it off.’ Since Wednesday, it is estimated that more than 20,000 people have been killed in fighting between the Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority that have struggled for dominance since Rwanda won independence from Belgium in 1962. On Friday alone, the main hospital had many hundreds of bodies before noon. Mr. Grundmann, an official with the Centers for Disease Control [said that] the family’s cook, a Tutsi, came to their home begging for help on Friday after having spent three days pretending to be dead. ‘He told us that on Wednesday night someone had thrown a grenade into his home… He escaped through an open window, but he thinks his wife and children died. For 36 hours he played dead in a marsh. There were bodies all through the marsh. He said there were heads being thrown in.’

On April 12th, The New York Times printed a profile of several Adventist missionaries who had fled:

“Now that we are out,” Mr. Van Lanen said today, “I fear, in a way, that we have betrayed the people we came to help. Now, they fear that most of those people—deprived of their protection—will become victims of the bloodletting that has set the majority Hutu tribe of Rwanda against the minority Tutsis. Red Cross officials estimate that the violence has taken more than 10,000 lives in Kigali alone, and as many or more in the countryside

That same day, Toronto’s Globe and Mail ran a report containing interviews with traumatized Canadians who had evacuated:

“There were bodies everywhere. Wounded people were not getting any attention. Women with children on their backs were hacked to pieces. I saw one man still alive who was disembowelled, another had almost been cut in half with a panga (a long, sharp knife).” The streets of Kigali were like a “slaughterhouse” and “blood was literally flowing in the gutters.” 

On the 15th, The New York Times published a report about the refugees gathered in at the Hotel Milles Collines, later made well-known in the film Hotel Rwanda:

In Kigali, scores of Rwandans have taken refuge at the Hotel Mille Collines. There is an uneasy, nervous coexistence there between the families of the Rwandan military and some middle-class Tutsis who were unable to leave the city. Both are convinced they will be massacred. They congregate in the dark hallways, whispering for hours, virtual prisoners. As United Nations soldiers came to take the foreign journalists to the airport, dozens of the Rwandans crowded around and begged to be evacuated, fearing that the departure of Westerners would mean sure death for them. Their pleas were rejected by the troops. As the convoy left, many gathered silently in the driveway and stared.

On the 16th, the Montreal Gazette published a desperate plea from a Rwandan exile, under the headline “Don’t abandon us”:

[Fidele Makombe] says he was stunned by the orgy of murder, rape and torture unleashed in the small central African nation… Human-rights observers are convinced that the coterie of ethnic Hutus around the president used the incident as a pretext to unleash a reign of terror… Makombe, who runs the Rwandese Human Rights League from his base here, is appealing to the world not to kiss off Rwanda as another African human-rights basket case, but to understand the true nature of the conflict…

The killings in Rwanda were no secret, then. Every day, the papers were full of them; these are random examples, one could offer many, many more clippings from the Washington Post, The New York Times, and the various wire services, and these were just from the first weeks of a genocide that went on unimpeded for three months without Clinton acting. By April 24th, the Sunday Washington Post was filled with pleas from Human Rights Watch, who explained unequivocally what was going on:

We put the word genocide on the table. We don’t do it lightly. There is clearly here an intention an eliminate the Tutsi as a people… This is not “inter-tribal fighting” or “ethnic conflict.” First, it’s not fighting, it’s slaughter…

A front page Post story from the same day described “the heads and limbs of victims… sorted and piled neatly, a bone-chilling order in the midst of chaos that harked back to the Holocaust.”

To not “fully appreciate” what was going on would have required not glancing at a newspaper for the three months from the beginning of April to the beginning of July.

It’s important to provide excerpts from some of these contemporary media accounts, so as not to accidentally lapse into believing that the genocide was something hidden or unknown. After such a calamity, for which so many are culpable, a great number of people have vested interests in downplaying the extent to which the genocide was (1) knowable and (2) preventable. If only to spare themselves a lifetime of guilt, they must publicly repeat that the situation was unclear, and that nothing could be done. But the historical record says otherwise; very little was unclear, and even those things that were unknown on April 8th were certainly clear by the 20th, when fleeing survivors’ reports of genocide were being recounted in the press daily. As April turned to May, the nation’s papers were openly puzzled by Clinton’s refusal to do anything. On May 2nd, the editorial board of USA Today angrily denounced Clinton for his uselessness:

Imagine the horror of watching 25 mutilated bodies float down a local river – every hour. Try to picture 250,000 North Carolinians abandoning their homes and belongings in a terrified run for their lives from machete-wielding madmen. That’s what life is like these days in Rwanda, a small but densely populated Central African nation where as many as 200,000 men, women and children have been slaughtered in the past three weeks… Where is the world’s horror? And, more immediately, where is the world’s outrage? Surely, if hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians were hacked to death in France or Germany, the international call for action would be swift and strong. But Rwanda is in Africa. And, unfortunately, the Western world reacts slowly to black-on-black violence. President Clinton, who criticized George Bush for not doing more to stop ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, certainly took his time getting around to this genocide. Only last weekend did he finally deliver a radio address, broadcast in Rwanda, pleading for an end to the violence. That’s about three weeks – 200,000 victims – too slow.

But if the editors at USA Today thought Clinton would spring into action after 200,000 victims, they were mistaken. Besides the evacuation of Americans, Clinton’s radio address to Rwandans (which Human Rights Watch called “so mild as to be worthless”) would constitute the full extent of the U.S.’s action in the country until July.

In fact, there was a conscious commitment to inaction by the Clinton Administration. As Princeton Lyman, then serving as U.S. Ambassador to South Africa recalls, “[p]eople knew what was going on…There certainly was information flowing in. The African Bureau at the State Department was pleading for the Pentagon to bomb the hate radio stations. People had information. There was just a reluctance to do very much.” Former State Department military advisor Tony Marley describes a meeting at the State Department:

One official even asked a question as to what possible outcome there might be on the congressional elections later that year were the administration to acknowledge that this was genocide taking place in Rwanda and be seen to do nothing about it. The concern obviously was whether it would result in a loss of votes for the party in the November elections… I was stunned because I didn’t see what bearing that had on whether or not genocide was, in fact, taking place in Rwanda. Partisan political vote-gathering in the U.S. had no bearing on the objective reality in Rwanda.

Marley said that even modest proposal for action were instantly rejected. When Marley suggested that they at least attempt to jam the frequencies hate radio stations that were fueling the genocide, a State Department lawyer told him it would go against the spirit of the U.S. Constitution’s commitment to free speech. (For the record, United States constitutional law does not protect the right to order a genocide on the radio.)

But the Clinton Administration actually did something much, much worse than failing to intervene. It deliberately attempted to downplay the atrocities, refusing to refer to them publicly as genocide, for fear that doing so would obligate them under the U.S.’s Genocide Convention to take action. As The Guardian reported in 2004, classified documents showed that “President Bill Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994 but buried the information to justify its inaction… Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.” “Detailed reports” were reaching the top levels of government; Secretary of State Warren Christopher “and almost certainly the president” had been told mid-April that there was “genocide and partition” and a “final solution to eliminate all Tutsis.” The CIA’s national intelligence briefing, circulated to Clinton, Al Gore, and other top officials, “included almost daily reports on Rwanda,” with an April 23 briefing saying that rebels were attempting to “stop the genocide, which… is spreading south.” As William Ferroggiaro of the National Security Archive explained, declassified documents show that “[d]iplomats, intelligence agencies, defense and military officials – even aid workers – provided timely information up the chain… That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.” Joyce Leader, U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Kigali, admitted in 2014 that “We had a very good sense of what was taking place.”

But nobody in the United States government was willing to use the word “genocide” publicly. The United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide contains a binding requirement that countries prevent genocide, so acknowledgment of the genocide would have created a legally binding mandate to stop it. Even though internally, members of the Clinton Administration were referring to a genocide, publicly their spokespeople were under strict orders to refuse to confirm that a genocide was occurring, for fear that it “could inflame public calls for action.”

“Be careful,” warned a document from the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense’s office, “Legal at State was worried about this yesterday – Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually ‘do something.’”

The resulting press conferences took Clintonian hairsplitting to its most absurd outer limits. Here, reporters try to pin down State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley and Secretary of State Madeleine Albright:

REPORTER 1: —comment on that, or a view as to whether or not what is happening could be genocide?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Well, as I think you know, the use of the term “genocide” has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination. There are—there are other factors in there, as well. When—in looking at a situation to make a determination about that, before we begin to use that term, we have to know as much as possible about the facts of the situation.

REPORTER 2: Just out of curiosity, given that so many people say that there is genocide underway, or something that strongly resembles it, why wouldn’t this convention be invoked?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think, as you know, this becomes a legal definitional thing, unfortunately, in terms of—as horrendous as all these things are, there becomes a definitional question.

Finally, at the end of May, as hundreds of thousands lay dead across Rwanda, the Clinton Administration changed its policy and began using the term. But even then they took great pains to use a carefully-constructed legalism; while they would admit that there may have been “acts of genocide” occurring, they drew a distinction between these and “genocide,” in the apparent belief that this would keep them from triggering the Genocide Convention.

Again, reporters tried to get a straight answer:

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: We have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

ALAN ELSNER (REUTERS): How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.

ALAN ELSNER: Is it true that the—that you have specific guidance not use the word “genocide” in isolation, but always to preface it with this—this word, “acts of”?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: I have guidance, which—to which I—which I try to use as best as I can. I’m not—I have—there are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of.

Alan Elsner later described his incredulity at the Administration’s non-responsiveness:

The answers they were giving were really non-answers. They would talk in incredibly bureaucratic language. In a sense, it was almost like a caricature. If you look at it now, it looks utterly ridiculous. These were all kind of artful ways of doing nothing, which is what they were determined to do.

Not only did the Clinton Administration adopt a policy of refusing to recognize the genocide, but it pressured other countries to do the same. Former Czech Ambassador to the U.N. Karel Kovanda recalled that his government was pressured by the U.S. not to use the term:

KAREL KOVANDA: I know that I personally had an important conversation with one of my superiors in Prague who at American behest suggested that they lay off.

INTERVIEWER: Lay off calling it genocide?

KAREL KOVANDA: Yeah. Lay off pushing Rwanda, in general, and calling it genocide specifically.

INTERVIEWER: So the Americans had actually talked to your government back in Prague and said, ‘Don’t let’s call it genocide.’

KAREL KOVANDA: In Prague or in Washington, but they were talking to my superiors, yes.

There is much to be revolted by here. Despite Clinton’s promise that he would never sit idly by while genocide was occurring, not only was he doing exactly that, but his administration actually perpetrated a planned act of genocide denial specifically in order to avoid having to prevent a genocide from occurring. As The Guardian reported, the Clinton Administration, “felt the US had no interests in Rwanda, a small central African country with no minerals or strategic value.” Thanks to Rwanda’s lack of minerals, the world’s most powerful nation was content to let 800,000 people have their faces chopped off with machetes.

But even this underplays the Clinton Administration’s responsibility. It’s true that the U.S. government both deliberately refused to send forces to Rwanda and deceived the world about whether a genocide was occurring. It’s also true that both then and now, Bill Clinton pretended that there was too little information to come to any conclusions all while receiving detailed briefings on the genocide (as it was simultaneously splashed across the daily papers). But perhaps even worse, the Clinton Administration actually took affirmative steps to keep the United Nations from sending a force to Rwanda. As Samantha Power explains:

In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. 

“Recall,” said former special envoy to Somalia Robert Oakley, “it wasn’t just not sending U.S. forces: we blocked a security council resolution to send in a U.N. force.” Indeed, Clinton Administration deliberately stalled United Nations efforts to coordinate an intervention. According to Foreign Policy, “[w]hen the genocide began, the United States launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at bringing the U.N. peacekeepers home. Initially, Washington sought to shutter the mission entirely.” On May 17th, The New York Times reported that “The United States forced the United Nations… to scale down its plans and put off sending 5,500 African troops to Rwanda in an effort to end the violence there…  Washington argued that sending in a large peacekeeping force raised the risk of the troops’ being caught up in the fighting.” There was “a decisive U.S. role in the tragic pullout of United Nations peacekeepers” and each time the United Nations attempted to formulate a modest plan for reprieve, the United States stalled it, even to the extent of using its Security Council veto power over other nations.

One may wonder why the Clinton Administration acted so callously in the face of such a preventable catastrophe. But one need not wonder long. The relevant considerations were explained by Bill Clinton during his commencement speech at the Naval Academy in May of 1994, during the middle of the genocide:

Now the entire global terrain is bloody with such conflicts, from Rwanda to Georgia… Whether we get involved in any of the world’s ethnic conflicts, in the end, must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake.

There, in plain language, was Clinton’s philosophy. “The cumulative weight of the American interests at stake” were the deciding factor when it came to “ethnic conflicts” like the Rwandan genocide. With few American interests in Kigali (no minerals), there was little that needed to be done.

Clinton’s close political advisor, Dick Morris, was even more explicit in describing the president’s reasoning:

The real reason was that Rwanda was black. Bosnia was white. European atrocities mattered more than African atrocities—not to Clinton himself, but to the media, which covered the grisly deaths in Yugoslavia but devoted considerably less attention to the genocide in Africa. And without the media dogging him to take action, Bill Clinton…wasn’t about to pay attention.

The words of a jaded and disreputable operative like Dick Morris may of course be taken with some skepticism. And he underplays the extent to which the media was covering the genocide. But as USA Today noted, it’s hard to believe that if the same circumstances had occurred in a European country, Clinton would have shown the same level of indifference. The president’s treatment of Rwanda had everything to do with a political calculus; Administration officials were openly concerned with the situation’s effects on the November election. (They lost anyway.)

Bill Clinton has struggled to explain why he did not intervene in Rwanda. In 1998, he visited Kigali and offered what some have described as an “apology,” though it did not contain much actual apologizing. In that statement, Clinton admitted that “[i]t may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate” the depth of the terror.

Indeed it did seem strange, because it was, in fact, impossible. As Rwanda scholar Timothy Longman wrote, “Clinton’s claims were false. It is not that the U.S. government didn’t know what was happening in Rwanda. The truth is that we didn’t care.” And as Samantha Power has concluded, “[a]s the terror in Rwanda had unfolded, Clinton had shown virtually no interest in stopping the genocide, and his Administration had stood by as the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands.”

Even as he constructed the appearance of regret, then, Bill Clinton was engaging in political spin. Dana Hughes of ABC News reports on an internal memo from late in 1994, offering talking points with which the president could cover himself. The memo:

suggests the president argue that the United States took appropriate and swift action in Rwanda after it was clear there was genocide, and that the U.S. was one of many countries who authorized the United Nations to pull out of the country right before the atrocities began. In short, says the memo, the U.S. ‘did the right thing’ and shares no responsibility for allowing the genocide to occur. Clinton himself echoed these sentiments in comments to the press a few months earlier where he said he had ‘done all he could do’ to help the people of Rwanda.

One of the most disturbing aspects of Clinton’s conduct around Rwanda is that he has been willing to lie about it and twist it in order to paint himself as sincerely oblivious and well-intentioned. The existing evidence incontrovertibly proves that Clinton failed to intervene because he didn’t see anything to be gained domestically. This is not a conspiracy theory, or a speculative hypothesis. Clinton’s own words from the time of the genocide, about the “cumulative weight of American interests,” affirm what witnesses from his Administration have said.

The evidence also proves that the Clinton Administration went far beyond inaction. It also attempted to stop others from acting. But worst of all, it adopted a conscious policy of genocide denial. It knew there was a genocide, but publicly fudged the truth so as not to have to stop it. This is actually far, far worse than even Holocaust denial; after all, the most harmful time to deny a genocide is while it is occurring, especially if your denial made deliberately so that nobody will stop the genocide. At the peak of one of the 20th centuries worst mass slaughters, Bill Clinton presided over an act of institutionalized genocide denial so as to allow the slaughter to continue.

Perhaps, in a just world, Bill Clinton would in prison for conspiracy to deny a genocide. But we live in this world, in which he is likely to return to the White House.

Adapted from the upcoming Current Affairs book “Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.” Pre-order today for shipping July 1st.

Killing a Shadow

A “special terrorist” is killed, but remains a mystery…

Today, May 13, Israel received a very slightly belated birthday present. Hezbollah announced that Mustafa Amine Badreddine, one of the organization’s top commanders, had been killed in Syria earlier this week.

Throughout the day, blame for the killing was intermittently directed at Israel. Haaretz claimed that “[i]nitial reports blamed Israel for the attack, but signs show that Israel was not responsible for Badreddine’s death.” Al Jazeera reported that the Israeli military had declined to comment on Hezbollah’s allegations concerning its guilt. The Guardian diplomatically put it like this: “Leading Hezbollah commander and key Israel target killed in Syria.”

“Key Israel target,” of course, translates into joint U.S.-Israeli nemesis. According to the sages of the U.S. State Department, Badreddine belonged to that exclusive club known as the Specially Designated Global Terrorists (SDGTs). The designation formerly included Badreddine’s brother-in-law Imad Mughniyah—assassinated in a collaborative CIA-Mossad operation in Damascus in 2008—as well as Samir Kuntar, victim of an Israeli airstrike on Syria in December. Badreddine was rumored to have been the target of a previous Israeli airstrike that killed Mughniyah’s son, among others.

Compounding his SDGT status, Badreddine is one of five Hezbollah members currently being tried in absentia in The Hague by a bizarre, United Nations-backed entity called the Special Tribunal for Lebanon (STL)—incidentally the subject of my article for the forthcoming edition of Current Affairs.

The tribunal was created with the ostensible purpose of bringing to justice the murderers of former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri, killed along with 21 others in a massive blast in 2005. Ever since the groundwork was laid for the judicial operation, however, its rather transparent goals have oscillated between sticking it to Syria, sticking it to Hezbollah, and sticking it to Hezbollah and Syria.

The STL is blazing all sorts of trails. In addition to being the first international trial in absentia since Nuremberg, the court advertises itself on its official website as “the first tribunal of its kind to deal with terrorism as a distinct crime.” Terrorism is defined in part as “something liable to create a public danger”—in other words, pretty much everything Israel has ever done in the country, unless you regard massacres of civilians and the saturation of Lebanese territory with unexploded cluster munitions as public safety maneuvers.

Israel, it bears mentioning, is officially exempt from suspicion in the Hariri assassination despite having benefited substantially from its direct outcome: the withdrawal of Syria from Lebanon.

Now that one of the defendants has ceased to exist, it remains to be seen how the STL will proceed. Since the trial is already in absentia, it may not be too difficult to tack on a post-mortem aspect.

But who, exactly, was Mustafa Amine Badreddine? The standard answer is that nobody really knows. An STL defense lawyer representing the “interests” of Badreddine described him to me as a “shadow,” someone around whom there was so much mystery that you could never be sure who the real Badreddine was.

The Hezbollah Connection,” a 2015 wannabe tour-de-force authored by Israeli military analyst Ronen Bergman for The New York Times, notes that Badreddine’s “name appears on very few Lebanese documents” and that he “appears to have been living a second life under the name Sami Issa.” In the course of the 8,000-word article Bergman apparently does not find space to question the guilty verdict on Hezbollah.

Meanwhile, The Daily Beast—ever the authoritative source on the Middle East and everything else in life—took the liberty last summer of publishing an exposé on Badreddine titled: “Meet the Pyromaniac Playboy Leading Hezbollah’s Fight in Syria.”

Of course, we don’t actually get to meet Badreddine—an opportunity that was also obviously unavailable to the article’s author, Alex Rowell, who nonetheless faithfully reproduces “the words of STL prosecutor Graeme Cameron,” of which there are many:

“According to Cameron, as ‘Issa,’ Badreddine was ‘the de facto, but not the registered owner of a jewelry business with several branches in Beirut. He [had] an apartment in [the Lebanese coastal town of] Jounieh, registered in the name of another, and a boat registered and insured in the name of another. He drove an expensive Mercedes automobile which was not registered in his name. He had several concurrent girlfriends and was seen regularly in restaurants and cafes socializing with his friends.’”

Following bombardment by these and other details, we are treated to the minor disclaimer: “(The prosecution had not responded at the time of publication to an inquiry by The Daily Beast as to how exactly it came into this knowledge.)”

To be sure, this is not the only attempt to discredit Hezbollah by portraying its members as licentious frauds. Dr. Mordechai Kedar, a senior lecturer at Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, shamelessly published an op-ed earlier this year on his own version of the martyrdom of Hezbollah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah’s son Hadi, killed by the Israeli army in 1997.

In Kedar’s imaginary world, the young man “was killed in a fight that broke out between partygoers in a Beirut nightclub.” Lest we miss the point of this teaching: “A nightclub is the last place in the world that Nasrallah would want his son to even have entered. Liquor flows like water in these nightspots and Islam’s high moral standards are not in evidence.” The summary of the op-ed goes as far as to pose the existential question: “Could embarrassing revelations about the death of Hassan Nasrallah’s son put an end to his leadership of Hezbollah?”

Were the world a remotely just place, however, Kedar himself would have far more existential questions to deal with. Some of them might concern the fact that he has publicly advocated for mass rape as a deterrent to terrorism.

As for the late Badreddine’s brew of Specially Designated Global Terrorism, Hezbollah’s statement today noted that he “took part in most of the operations of the Islamic resistance since 1982.” This was the year of Hezbollah’s birth—the result of an Israeli invasion of Lebanon that killed some 20,000 people, the vast majority of them civilians.

Such activity would also seem worthy of a “special designation,” as would numerous other special cases over the years: the Israeli-backed slaughter of up to several thousand civilians in the Palestinian refugee camps of Sabra and Shatila; Israel’s drone-assisted massacre of more than one hundred civilians sheltering at a United Nations compound in Qana; the elimination of eighty bystanders in a failed CIA assassination attempt of Shia cleric Mohammed Hussein Fadlallah; mass-scale destruction of people and property thanks to rush shipments of U.S. weaponry to Israel.

In terms of Global Terrorism, Badreddine’s shadow couldn’t hold a candle to the competition.

How To Justify Hiroshima

Anyone who thinks the bombings were even slightly questionable must be “historically illiterate.”

As Barack Obama prepares to become the first sitting President to visit the Hiroshima bombing site in Japan, pundits are already forecasting a new wave of justifications for the attacks and criticisms of Obama’s “apology tours.” Already, Michael Auslin of Forbes has put out an article claiming the attacks were inevitable and necessary, and that “no American president president need ever apologize” for it. The “Patriot Post” mocked Obama for feeling sorry about “winning World War II.”

Vigorous defenses of America’s conduct in the war, and its use of the atomic bombs, have been made since virtually the moment of their being dropped. The arguments made when Obama visits Hiroshima will be well-worn and familiar. Commentary surrounding the President’s Japan visit is likely to follow predictable patterns that have now repeated themselves for over seventy years.

All kinds of hideous acts are justified every day for one reason or another, and, there is nothing truly remarkable about the fact that people continue to defend the annihilation of 125,000 human beings at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But there is something curious about these inevitable outpourings of excuses for America’s conduct. It’s not the argument itself, but the intensity of the sheer certitude with which the acts are justified. Seventy years on, not only do media experts rush to excuse the bombings, but they rush to excuse them with a certitude that one usually sees reserve for the most elementary scientific truths. To these writers, that Hiroshima and Nagasaki were justified is as obvious as the law of gravity. Argue with a defender of the bombings, attempt to inject the smallest portion of doubt into the consensus, and one will be accused of pacifism and the revisionist conception of history.

Commentary defending the attacks consistently exudes this hyper-confidence in their correctness. A 2013 National Review article on the subject was entitled “Remembering When We Were Strong: Hiroshima, Nagasaki, and the Moral Necessity of a Nuclear Strike.” The author, David French, took the “historically illiterate” and “Christian pacifist[s]” to task for failing to appreciate the costs of “weakness” and the virtues of “decisive force.” In a Forbes article last year, Henry I. Miller wrote that slowly:

the “was it necessary?” Monday-morning quarterbacks emerged and began to question the military necessity and morality of the use of nuclear weapons on Japanese cities.  Since then, there have been periodic eruptions of revisionism, uninformed speculation and political correctness on this subject…

Last year, with the 70th anniversary of the Hiroshima attacks, the same kind of confident defenses emerged again. New Criterion editor Roger Kimball described opposition to the bombings as the product of  “the anti-American intelligentsia [and] other sentimentalists of limited worldly experience.” Toby Young, in the British Spectator, complained that because of the anniversary, he was hearing the “predictable wailing and gnashing of teeth about the horrors of nuclear weapons,” even though the Japanese “brought their misfortune on themselves.”

That view is widely shared. Young and the others are all conservatives, but their opinion remains the majority one. A Pew poll taken last year found that 56% of Americans believe the bombings were justified, with only 34% believing they were unjustified. That number does reflect a change; immediately after the war, 85% of Americans believed the bombings were justified. But a belief in the rightness of the bombings continues to persist.

The basic argument in support of this view is a familiar one. The bombings, defenders say, precipitated the Japanese surrender and ended the war. In doing so, they saved millions of lives, both American and Japanese, that would have been lost over the course of an impending American land invasion of Japan. Those who are horrified by the casualties of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are therefore putting unreasoning sentiment above practical necessity. The only moral choice was to drop the bombs, since they ultimately saved lives.

This argument is the one put forward in 1945, and the historical debate has not reached a clear resolution. Opponents of the bombings insist that the decision had little to do with the surrender; the Japanese were on the verge of surrendering anyway, and the bomb was intended to intimidate the Soviets rather than the Japanese.

If discussions of Hiroshima and Nagasaki occur on these terms, however, they are destined to be forever irresolvable and polarizing. First, running a historical counterfactual and determining what “would” have happened if the bombs had not been dropped is an impossibility. Second, people’s underlying position on the question of whether nuclear weapons are acceptable is destined to influence their interpretation of the historical evidence. The more horrified one is by nuclear weapons, the more one is likely to want to believe that the Japanese were on the verge of surrender. The more one believes that American foreign policy is a force for good, the more one is likely to believe that the bombings were a well-intentioned effort to help people by a president concerned with minimizing casualties. Pre-existing political tendencies will inevitably color the interpretation of murky historical evidence.

But if the evidence is debatable, then the extreme confidence of the bombings’ defenders is both unwarranted and disturbing. Even if we just have an open question as to whether the slaughter of over one hundred thousand civilians was a necessity or totally pointless, the stakes of the issue seem high enough that conservatives ought to be hesitant before issuing bluster in defense of mass death. With an impossible counterfactual to contend with, a hot dispute among scholars, and a brutal event under discussion, pejoratively writing off disagreement as “illiterate” and “wailing” somewhat undermines one’s confidence in the writers’ capacity for fair assessment.

Indeed, it is the sheer glibness of so much of the disdain that is worrying, that makes one question whether they are even concerned about the moral questions at all. Oliver Kamm, a liberal writer for The Guardian who prominently defends the bombings, felt so chuffed when Noam Chomsky once accused him of “tacit acquiescence to horrendous crimes” that he uses the phrase as a blurb for himself.

Anyone who defends the attacks will inevitably begin by conceding that they were horrible, but for some reason they tend to be remarkably casual. In Kimball’s writing, this toss-off line is phrased in the jaunty phraseology of a Sarah Palinism: “Were those bombings terrible? You betcha.”

In fact, though everyone who supports the attacks’ necessity insists that they care very deeply about the moral question, and that they simply believe the bombings were a tragic necessity, they always emphasize the “necessity” far more than the “tragedy.” Kimball dismisses John Hersey’s eye-opening work of journalism, 1946’s Hiroshima, in one word: “manipulative.” Kamm just refers to the bombings as “terrible,” before immediately launching into his explanation of how all opposition is confused and meritless.

Perhaps, then, it is worth injecting a small piece of Hersey’s reportage, in order to convey some sense of what is written off or undiscussed in the arguments of atomic bomb defenders. Here, Hersey discusses Hiroshima in the immediate aftermath:

Mr Tanimoto… ran toward them by the shortest route, along Koi Highway. He was the only person making his way into the city; he met hundreds and hundreds who were fleeing, and every one of them seemed to be hurt in some way. The eyebrows of some were burned off and skin hung from their faces and hands…. Some were vomiting as they walked. Many were naked or in shreds of clothing. On some undressed bodies, the burns had made patterns – of undershirt straps and suspenders and, on the skin of some women (since white repelled the heat from the bomb and dark clothes absorbed it and conducted it to the skin), the shapes of flowers they had had on their kimonos. Many, although injured themselves, supported relatives who were worse off. Almost all had their heads bowed, looked straight ahead, were silent and showed no expression whatever. After crossing Koi Bridge and Kannon Bridge, having run the whole way, Mr Tanimoto saw, as he approached the centre, that all the houses had been crushed and many were on fire. Here the trees were bare and their trunks were charred. He tried at several points to penetrate the ruins, but the flames always stopped him. Under many houses, people screamed for help, but no one helped; in general, survivors that day assisted only their relatives or immediate neighbours, for they could not comprehend or tolerate a wider circle of misery. The wounded limped past the screams, and Mr Tanimoto ran past them. As a Christian he was filled with compassion for those who were trapped, and as a Japanese man he was overwhelmed by the shame of being unhurt, and he prayed as he ran: “God help them and take them out of the fire.”

The passage only gives the narrowest glimpse at the scale of the destruction. But it is hard to imagine how one could sensibly discuss the issue without attempting to envisage some of the suffering involved. Even someone who considers himself a steely-hearted utilitarian, who has no trouble causing 100,000 people to perish if it will save 100,001, must use his capacity for empathetic imagination in order to make an informed assessment of the costs. After all, some deaths involve truly hideous suffering, and without understanding what the situation looks like for its victims, is impossible to even know the stakes of what we are dealing with.

And yet defenders of the bombings never permit the survivors’ stories to intrude upon their arguments. The neoconservative writer Max Boot says that “I don’t think the atomic bombing of Japan was a uniquely reprehensible event.” He would insist that what he means is that the bloody bombing of cities had become commonplace on both sides by 1945, that the bombs were different in type and intensity but otherwise a continuation of existing policy. But in order to make this case persuasively, Boot would need to deal with the fact that survivors beg to differ. Akihiro Takahashi, who was 14 years old when Hiroshima was bombed, and lost his ears and became deformed, was asked directly how the bomb differed from conventional weapons:

A conventional bomb does not have a heat wave. But with the atomic bomb, at the moment of the explosion, a fireball is created with a temperature of millions of degrees Celsius, and the area on the ground below the bomb reached 3,000 to 4,000 degrees Celsius. Steel starts to melt at 1,530 degrees, so that was much hotter than molten steel. Then the wind from the atomic bomb affected an area with a radius of 16 kilometers. At the moment of the explosion, the shock wave spread and was followed by a wind that reached 440 meters per second. Even the most powerful typhoon to hit Japan had a speed of only 82 meters per second. I myself was blown 10 meters by the blast, and the wind caused skin to peel off, eyes to pop out, and intestines to be blown out of the stomach. I myself lost the skin on my arm, and it dangled down from my fingers.

Boot doesn’t mention these unique horrors. In fact, absent from every single defense of the bombings is a vivid description of their consequences. Why is that? After all, if the argument is a practical one, that the bombings were necessary in order to avoid a worse outcome, it should not be necessary to downplay the suffering, or wave it aside in a sentence. But each of them knows that the moment they quote Akihiro Takahashi, the pro-bombing case will begin to sound absurd.

That really is the factor that should make every single Hiroshima defense suspicious. The writers’ level of revulsion just isn’t sufficient to indicate that they really know what they are talking about. The New York Times “human rights” journalist Nicholas Kristof, perhaps known best for his enthusiastic defense of sweatshops, conceded in his own pro-bombing column that “[i]t feels unseemly to defend the vaporizing of two cities.” But anyone who finds this merely “unseemly” can have no appreciation for what the “vaporizing” of cities actually entails. To actually reckon with the reality, one would not have to feel a simple “unseemliness” in defending the bombings, but a deep and tormenting perversity. Again, that isn’t to exclude the possibility of making the “better than the alternative” argument. It is merely to say that in order to make an argument justifying the obliteration of 100,000 civilians, slight discomfort will not do. If the utilitarian case is ever to be made, it must be made through tears. Anything else means the discussion isn’t being treated with the moral seriousness it requires.

Like Boot, Kristof knows that if he goes beyond the abstract, if he talks about the realities of two obliterated cities instead of the debates between Japan’s military and its emperor, he case will be instantly sapped of its force. So matters are kept vague and hypothetical.  Kristof considers the argument that the U.S. ought to have bombed a remote area instead of a highly-populated city, or waited before dropping a second bomb on Nagasaki. “Yes, perhaps” we should have, he says. But there are 100,000 lives at stake in that perhaps.

The other massive omission Kristof makes is one shared by nearly every published defense of the bombing, namely the mentioning of Dwight Eisenhower, Douglas MacArthur, and Herbert Hoover. All three believed the bombings to have been horrendous and a mistake. But bizarrely, even as the historical consensus has been somewhat unsettled, and the wisdom of the bombings has been questioned by a greater percentage of Americans, the words of these three figures are still seldom quoted.

Hoover did not mince his words: “The use of the atomic bomb, with its indiscriminate killing of women and children, revolts my soul.” General MacArthur said he saw “no military justification for the dropping of the bomb.” Eisenhower recounted in his memoirs that in the lead-up to the bombing, he was “conscious of a feeling of depression.” He says that he told the Secretary of State that dropping the bomb was “completely unnecessary,” and “our country should avoid shocking world opinion by the use of a weapon whose employment was, I thought, no longer mandatory as a measure to save American lives.” Eisenhower affirmed his stance in an interview with Newsweek, saying that “the Japanese were ready to surrender and it wasn’t necessary to hit them with that awful thing.”

Nor were these three eminent figures the only high-ranking officials to regret the decision. Truman’s Chief of Staff, Admiral William Leahy, said that in his opinion, “the use of this barbarous weapon at Hiroshima and Nagasaki was of no material assistance in our war against Japan.” The Commander in Chief of the Pacific Fleet, Chester Nimitz, said in 1945 that “The atomic bomb played no decisive part, from a purely military standpoint, in the defeat of Japan.” Admiral William Halsey, Commander of the Third Fleet, said in 1946 that “The first atomic bomb was an unnecessary experiment. . . . It was a mistake to ever drop it.” Henry “Hap” Arnold, commanding general of the Air Force, said in 1949 that “it always appeared to us that, atomic bomb or no atomic bomb, the Japanese were already on the verge of collapse.”

The quotes go on and on. One can cite dozens of senior military officers and cabinet officials, from the commander of the Strategic Air Force to the Undersecretary of the Navy, all of whom thought the bombing was unnecessary and abhorrent, and many of whom strongly believed it should have been dropped in an uninhabited area instead of in the middle of a hundred thousand civilians. When one reads all of the quotes together, one gets the very strong feeling that, even on the highly questionable assumption that there was a military necessity to the bombings, the decision was not taken with the casualty-minimizing humanitarian carefulness that supporters insist was at play.

Justifiers of the bombings are thus constantly evading the actual difficult questions and evidence. If they were serious, and meant what they said about the bombings being a tragic necessity, they would happily cite the words of Eisenhower, MacArthur, Nimitz, and Leahy to explain why they were all in error. They would tell us why the attacks could revolt the coarsened soul of Herbert Hoover, but do nothing to their own. Instead, they sweep all of their words away as if they were never spoken.

The final tactic used is the accusation of revisionism. Oliver Kamm says that revulsion at the bombings occurred long after, that it “is not how they were judged at the time.” Michael Auslin says critics are “second guessing” at “decades remove.” David French believes that the Left began to “control the narrative.” Kristof cites the new “emerging consensus” driven by revisionism (of course, the poll results cited earlier prove him mistaken on the emergence of any actual “consensus.”)

But it’s false to say that this is mere hindsight, that all criticism is the work of the “Monday morning quarterbacks” in the contemporary left. Arnold and Eisenhower say they knew it was in error at the time of the decision. Nimitz spoke mere months after the bombing, and further criticism erupted within a year. Albert Einstein was quoted in 1946 “deploring” the use of the bomb, and many dissenting writers and thinkers saw the bomb as the harbinger of something deeply and truly terrible. One haunting example comes from a New Yorker writer, Clifton Fadiman, who wrote the following in a 1946 introduction to a book of Ambrose Bierce stories:

On August 6, 1945, the planet, with the United States in the lead, passed half-consciously into an era of despair. With a noiseless flash over Hiroshima, homo sapiens issued the first dramatic announcement of his inability to make a biological success of himself. The next few years or decades seem almost certain to provide planetary wars that will rend and crack and shiver the earth’s thin skin, years of wholesale suicide, years that will paralyze the moral and religious sense of mankind. Civilized man–unless he decides to use his reason–will fall forward into a new and almost unimaginable barbarism.

Fadiman’s words, as well as those of Takahashi, Eisenhower, MacArthur, and Einstein, should trouble all of those who speak confidently and casually in defense of the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Something so wretched should never be justified with such glib self-assurance.

Democrats Should Be Very Worried About Hillary’s Anti-Trump Strategy

If this is how she plans to go after him, she’s making a fatal mistake.

On Wednesday, Hillary Clinton’s campaign released two new attack ads against Donald Trump. The first shows a string of prominent Republicans denouncing Trump, including Ted Cruz calling him a narcissistic bully and Marco Rubio labeling him a phony. In the second ad, Clinton simply plays a series of Trump’s most controversial soundbites, from lines about anchor babies to his classic “bomb the shit out of them.”

The new anti-Trump ads have been called “straight-up savage” and “devastating.” The Washington Post’s Greg Sargent said that the first “brutal” ad “shows the shredding machine that awaits Trump.” Slate called the ads a “one-two punch” that seem like a “good plan.”

But to the contrary, these ads are a horrible plan. They’re the worst possible plan. And the fact that the Clinton campaign can believe they’re useful demonstrates just how minimal their understanding of voter psychology is, and reveals them to be woefully unprepared to deal with Trump in a general election. If this is the sort of material that the Hillary campaign has up its sleeve, the Democrats should be very worried indeed.

The essential problem is that, but for a few small tweaks, the Trump campaign itself could have put out these ads. Trump loves to be called names by Mitt Romney, Ted Cruz, and Lindsey Graham. He’s proud of it. Stringing these clips together just showcases what Trump himself says: establishment Republican losers hate him. That ad makes him look like a rebel: stuffed shirts like Mitt Romney hate his guts. (I’m a socialist, but I literally found myself warming to Trump as I watched him driving these conservative blowhards apoplectic.)

The ad also erodes the coherence of Hillary’s own campaign. Not only does it not hurt Trump, but it actually damages Hillary, by muddying her own politics. If she’s a progressive Democrat, then why would she give any credence to what Ted Cruz thinks? Shouldn’t being loathed by Ted Cruz reflect incredibly positively on someone? If the Democrats believe that conservative Republicans have policies that are essentially just as heinous as Trump’s, why should Hillary believe denouncements of Trump by Republicans carry any weight? If we produced a set of clips of the numerous times that right-wing Republicans have said nasty things about Clinton, would she want us to listen to that? Of course not. Because nothing said by Lindsey Graham should be given a shred of attention or credence by anyone. (And indeed, it isn’t.)

One of the key flaws in these ads is that they assume the viewer already agrees with them. Anyone who supports Trump is going to already know that the rest of the party hates him; that’s part of his appeal. Likewise, they’re also going to know that Trump says extreme and uncouth things; that’s another part of his appeal. Every single person who believes Trump was “destroyed” by this ad hated Trump already. This ad is about as effective as John Oliver calling Trump “Drumpf.” It does absolutely nothing to persuade people who do not already dislike Trump. All it does is congratulate people who agreed from the start.

That means that Hillary Clinton is basing her anti-Trump strategy on a dangerous premise: that merely by telling people what they already know about Trump, they will be motivated to show up to vote for her. Clearly, she believes that she will forge a coalition between the Republicans who hate him for being a nihilistic showboating vulgarian, and the Democrats who hate him for being a vicious bigot and possible fascist.

At first, this may seem smart. But it’s actually just complacent. It shows a failure to absorb the lessons that were learned too late by the other Republican candidates. They, too, believed that all you needed to do to turn people off of Trump was to point at him and say “Look at him, he’s… well, he’s TRUMP!” As if that, in itself, was sufficient. But all Trump had to do was reply “I’m Trump. So what?” and they would be left stammering. “Well, well, just look at him!”

This tactic relies on the voter already sharing your fixed opinion of Trump. Meanwhile, you’ve given nobody any actual reason why they should vote for you instead. So Hillary Clinton offers not a single argument in her own favor, she merely campaigns by holding up a picture of Donald Trump’s face, hoping that will be enough. And perhaps it will be, at first. But meanwhile, Donald Trump is slowly out converting people. And every time he does so, holding up a picture of his face seems less and less effective, is met with more and more responses of “So?”, and ever more resembles an advertisement for Trump rather than an attack on him.

Political causes fail when they act as if they can win simply by existing, without the need to convince the unconvinced. This is something Republicans actually discovered for themselves when they went after Bill Clinton during his presidency. Conservatives would say “But he’s an adulterer!” assuming that all they needed to do was point this out, and Clinton’s support would collapse. But since they had nothing prepared to answer the follow-up question “And why should that matter to me?”, and he himself remained charming and kept his cool, the attacks ended up boosting Clinton further. This is also one of the reasons liberals often lose political arguments. They believe that to point out that something is offensive is sufficient to convince people that it is bad. But they end up unable to deal with the person who simply replies “Well, what’s wrong with a thing being offensive?” 

If Hillary Clinton’s entire case is going to be “I’m not Trump,” she’s going to have a hard time knowing what to do when he comes back with “Well, I am Trump. And Trump is great.” She’ll have no agenda of her own; in fact, she can’t have one if she hopes to say that supporters of Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders alike should rally behind her. All she can do is pray very hard that Trump’s unfavorable ratings don’t begin to erode, taking her entire argument with them.

I’ve previously written about the unique disadvantages that Clinton faces in a race against Trump. She has a tendency to flounder when attacks begin, and her background provides perfect fodder for his brand of primetime sleaze-slinging. She is also not well-positioned to criticize Trump on a number of his most important weaknesses, like shady business dealings; for every dubious quid-pro-quo of his, he’ll bring up nine of hers. One can already see her heading for charges of hypocrisy: in the second of the new ads, Trump is depicted as crazy for refusing to take the nuclear option “off the table”, but Clinton herself is notorious for having refused to take “any option off the table” in regard to Iran. Half the things Clinton will say of Trump (evasive, narcissistic, opportunistic) are equally true of Clinton herself; the difference is that Trump owns these qualities and is proud of them. He’ll get points for honesty, despite being one of the most prolific liars in the country.

The one strategy that might work against Trump is an attempt to neutralize his attention-seeking through the promotion of a positive agenda. This is why I’ve argued before that Bernie Sanders may have been the more effective candidate against Trump; if you can focus single-mindedly on your principles, and avoid being dragged down to Trump’s level, you may stand a chance of forcing him to get serious (and therefore lose his schtick, which is the basis of his appeal). But if you get down in the gutter with him, as Marco Rubio found out, you’re toast. If you start bashing him, he will bash you back, and he will be funnier and more shameless than you are. Trump will always win a battle conducted on Trump turf. If Hillary Clinton is committed to pursuing the “You’re a racist and Republicans hate you” line, instead of working to appear stately and above the fray, she might be walking directly into Trump’s gaping trap.

Already, liberals are beginning to count their chickens and confidently predict a Clinton victory. One might expect more humility given how many pundits were just humiliated over their certain predictions that Trump would lose the primary. But this is especially dicey given how vulnerable and clueless the Clinton campaign is now hinting it will be. If these ads are any indication, Clinton, like so many poor souls before her, has no idea how to stop Trump.

Mass Incarceration and the Limits of Prose

Many books try to capture the truth of mass incarceration. But how can words hope to convey the reality?

Writing compellingly about the prison system is nearly impossible. The challenge is to bridge the gulf between the readable and the necessary; true crime sagas are thrilling to read, mass incarceration statistics are moderately less so. Real trials never feel like John Grisham novels, and prisons themselves are less the gritty gangland battlegrounds of HBO’s Oz and more just an endless bureaucratic tedium. For those who believe American criminal justice is dysfunctional and unjust, this creates a frustrating paradox: many of the stories that most desperately need to be conveyed are those that are the most difficult to tell interestingly and well.

The task of persuasion remains crucial, though. Despite growing recent public awareness and scholarly attention given to the problem of mass incarceration, it has proven difficult to create the sense of urgency required to start bringing down walls and signing release orders. “A dozen books in recent years have addressed this problem without having much of an impact on policy or practice,” laments Robert Ferguson in Inferno: An Anatomy of American Punishment. “Why has identification of the problem had so little effect? What is it about punishment that confuses people?” Everyone now knows about it, but mustering the will to stop it is another matter. 

Ferguson himself believes the answer lies in an insufficient examination of the nature of punishment and the American punitive psyche. But the problem might be less to do with a lack of a certain kind of writing, and more with some inherent limitations of the subject matter. For, where a writer is concerned, prisons differ in an important respect from ordinary places: they are arenas where all sensation, all color and variety, has been deliberately extinguished. This spareness of stimulus does not easily lend itself to enticing or unique prose.

Literature on mass incarceration therefore easily becomes didactic. Writers about prisons, both inside and out, are faced with creating vividness from the mundane, and find themselves with a limited and clichéd vocabulary. “America’s criminal justice system is broken,” they say, in a sentence that has been written verbatim tens of thousands of times. Or they will resort to the familiar statistics; the third of black men that will pass through prison gates at some point, the millions entangled with the court system in some way. To stimulate intrigue, writers will call this system Kafkaesque, even though it really isn’t. The Kafkaesque is defined by mystery. Who is doing this? What logic governs this thing? In the case of American prisons, we know the who, how, where, when, and why. It’s a matter of public record.

One can contrast these difficulties with the successes that the Black Lives Matter movement has had in creating political pressure around the killings of black people by police. The names and lives of victims, like Walter Scott, Sandra Bland, and Eric Garner, make for powerful, wrenching narratives. Prisons themselves are a different matter. There is no single moment of tragedy; the injustice is stretched over years or decades. And it is not an individual story, but the story of multitudes. But harms that take place over long periods of time, and are perpetrated collectively, become abstract. Protests against policing can animate around discrete events, such as a tragic death or a non-indictment. Yet the prison system is not an event, but a constant. It doesn’t build toward a sudden, violent climax. Instead, it operates perpetually in the background, a slow, quiet suffocation rather than a single deadly gunshot. Fruitvale Station can show us the devastating final hours in the life of a single individual, Oscar Grant. But how do you tell the story of millions being housed in cages for decades? What could a film about solitary confinement look like, except a blank wall accompanied by a scream?

A number of recent books have attempted to deal with this challenge, and to rouse the kind of passion necessary to activate real public opposition. None of them quite succeeds, since nothing ever can. But by placing them side-by-side, one can see the truth emerging in the gaps. Their varying approaches to crafting mass incarceration narratives, and what those approaches both capture and fail to capture, reveal how the limitations of prose affect our ability to communicate effectively about the prison system.

The newest of these is Mr. Smith Goes to Prison (St. Martin’s Press, $25.99), which benefits from its uniquely novel angle. Jeff Smith was a promising young state senator in Missouri when he lied to the FBI about a campaign finance violation, earning him a year long sentence in a federal penitentiary. As an ex-political science professor, Smith had long been interested in the criminal justice system, and the conviction afforded him with an unexpectedly in-depth experience of it. Ever the enterprising politician, Smith took advantage of his stretch to produce a detailed entry into the neglected genre of involuntary ethnography.

The prison memoir has never been an especially robust or popular genre, and it is not difficult to see why. Each must describe the same sensations: the routinization, the deprivation, the slow process of setting aside what it was like to be human. As a result, they tend to bleed together, the narrator’s voice lost the moment her identity was stripped at intake. Claustrophobic and stark as the cell it is written in, the form is inherently hostile to the literary impulse.

Mr. Smith Goes to Prison deftly avoids this pitfall, distinguishing itself by taking advantage of its author’s strengths. Smith has a wry voice and absurdist humor that enliven his recounting of the experience, and a social scientific academic background that lets him make important big-picture policy observations. The risk was that Smith would simply write a “fish-out-of-water story,” how he went from brokering appropriations bill negotiations to trading packs of cigarettes. And of course, he does tell that story, but Smith also aims to use examples from his observations to inform a wider systemic critique.

Smith is keenly observant of tiny details, from the kitchen’s B-grade meat containers stamped “For Institutional Use Only” to the dated pop culture reference points of long-term inmates. He compiles a list of rules for survival (never accept a candy bar left on your pillow; it comes with major hidden strings attached) and translates prison slang (“dipping in the Kool-Aid” means barging into a conversation uninvited). He tells us how to steal peppers from the warehouse (always in the socks, since the pockets bulge too much). He explains the intricacies of racial hierarchy and segregation, and frankly discusses the issues of sexuality in prison, including rape. He carefully demonstrates the mechanisms of prison profiteering, from minor offenses like the mass theft of food supplies by correctional officers to major operations like the dollar-a-minute phone calls and the massive mark-ups on commissary goods.

Smith is especially good at showing the real-world implications of policy questions. His passages on solitary confinement are especially disturbing, discussing the ways in which it gives inmates “depression, rage, claustrophobia, and severe psychosis” with the lack of stimulation and interaction creating a “slow-motion torture.” He points out how small things matter, like giving inmates access to weightlifting equipment. Dismissing safety paranoia, Smith says that bodybuilding is one of the most important ways that inmates learn to develop and be proud of their achievements, and that it gives them hope and dignity.

One might think Smith’s experience somewhat narrow, because he spent his time in a minimum-security prison. But this turns out to be one of the book’s most important points: contrary to what the public believes, the differences between minimum and maximum-security facilities have shrunk in recent years. No more Club Fed, with its tennis courts and spas. Minimum security is maximum security without the barbed wire; the conditions are just as stark and brutal, and the discipline is just as rigid.

Smith is exasperated by just how unnecessary so much of that rigidity is, and documents its harms to the well-being of both inmates and the communities into which they will ultimately be released. Storing inmates far from their families and making phone calls unaffordable breaks down relationships, and that lack of a support network increases their likelihood of re-offending. The cruelty of the correctional officers is often needless and builds mistrust and hostility. And the educational programming offered to inmates borders on the fraudulent, with some “classes” consisting of sitting silently in an empty room until an hour has elapsed. The only real skills training offered is a several-week course on “how to grow tomatoes in water.”

All of this, for Smith, creates an unconscionable waste. He points out that inmates are intelligent, creative, and often remarkably entrepreneurial, but that their abilities are being squandered. The miniature economy that runs in a prison trafficks largely in pornography, cigarettes, Mother’s Day Cards, and peanut butter (for muscle building). But its operators are well-familiar with economic and mathematical concepts, even though they use “somewhat different jargon than you might hear at Wharton.” 

Smith is not the first one to note this; The Wire’s Stringer Bell used the formal economic knowledge he gained from reading The Wealth of Nations in order to master the drug market. But Smith is policy-oriented, and has recommendations for how these skills can be put to good use. Inmates are hungry for knowledge, he says. They have endless time on their hands and want the knowledge and connections that will help them stay in jobs once released. But the prisons consistently fail to provide even the most meager opportunities; even Smith’s own repeated attempts to teach classes to his fellow inmates were instantly vetoed by the prison administration.

Like every memoir ever written by a politician, Mr. Smith Goes to Prison is partly self-serving. Smith frequently trumpets his long history of volunteer work and enjoys listing his political achievements. And though Smith does everything to come across a decent guy who made a regrettable error of judgment, it is nevertheless disturbing when he admits he planned to pin the campaign finance misdeed on a young staffer who had committed suicide.

Still, Smith’s book is invaluable, since it manages to be both vivid and thorough in documenting America’s prisons from the inside. It’s regrettable that it takes a state senator to tell these truths, though. The “fish out of water” story is good at bringing the facts to life, but its premise also means the described experiences will inevitably be atypical. Smith does his best to remain focused on the lives of those he did time with, but he has a very limited access to their inner worlds. Everyone in prison is putting on an act in order to survive, and Smith admits he rarely manages to break through and find people’s true selves. Smith’s book is overflowing with useful observations and facts, but it remains an outsider’s account.

Bryan Stevenson is intensely aware of this challenge in Just Mercy (Spiegel & Grau, $14.99), recently released in paperback. Stevenson, who has worked as a lawyer on behalf of the poor for decades, is foremostly concerned with conveying the experiences of his clients. The book is framed by Stevenson’s own account of his work defending the indigent, and how he came to recognize the depth of the justice system’s bias and cruelty, but he is careful to use these in the service of telling the stories of those he works for.

Stevenson has already received well-deserved praise for the emotional force of his writing and his skillful selection of devastating anecdotes. The people he meets are impossible to forget. There is Joe Sullivan, a mentally disabled thirteen-year-old sentenced to life without parole, sent to an adult prison where he suffers unspeakable sexual abuse and ends up in a wheelchair. Yet Sullivan still retains an upbeat spirit, asking Stevenson about cartoon characters and reciting a little poem about how nice life will be when he goes home. It is impossible not to be outraged by the hell Sullivan has been condemned to. Stevenson’s depictions of tormented youths doomed to spend their entire lives suffering from horrors totally disproportionate to their crimes should make it difficult to justify the very idea of trying children as adults. (Stevenson managed to convince the Supreme Court to abolish mandatory life without parole for juveniles in 2012, but the only practical effect is that a hearing must be provided before giving a child life without parole.)

The story at the heart of Stevenson’s book, though, is that of Walter McMillan, accused of a murder he couldn’t possibly have committed. (Scores of people from his church were selling sandwiches with him in front of his house while it happened.) Yet while McMillan’s case seems a slam-dunk for the defense, Stevenson shows how the specter of racism continues to haunt the justice system. McMillan is a black man who had relations with the white woman who was murdered, and in Monroeville, Alabama, this is enough to put him under suspicion in the community. In fact, it is almost enough alone to convict him; the actual testimony against McMillan is laughably unreliable and contradictory. But McMillan is sent to death row nevertheless, where Stevenson fights a lengthy battle to present the evidence that will exonerate McMillan. After six years watching those around him in his cell block being executed one by one, McMillan is finally released, but by this time trauma-induced dementia has set in. When Stevenson goes to visit McMillan in his care facility, he finds that McMillan still believes he is on death row. McMillan’s story is a harsh reminder of the stakes, not just because of how patently unfair his conviction was, but because his tragic ending shows that many injustices can never be set right.

Yet Stevenson’s choice of McMillan as the main case study also has a shortcoming: McMillan was innocent, and very obviously so. His case is thus a perfect illustration of just how little truth and justice can matter when it comes to defendants who are poor and black. But while cases like McMillans are not infrequent, the main group of people on whom the injustice of mass incarceration is inflicted are guilty rather than innocent.

It’s understandable that Stevenson would pick the most sympathetic possible case to anchor his book. It shows just how little American constitutional protections can really matter in practice. Here we have a gentle, harmless man with a rock-solid alibi, and his life is nevertheless ruined because of his status in the racial and economic hierarchy. Nevertheless, the most common story of American prison life is not that of Walter McMillan. It is that of people who did commit crimes, often violent ones, but who nevertheless receive sentences vastly incommensurate with those crimes, and who are given none of the resources they need in order to build a stable life for themselves. Thus a fair criminal justice system will require building sympathy for more than just those who are already sympathetic.

This speaks to one of the central dilemmas in animating public support for prison reform. On the one hand, it is tempting to make the points that will most easily convince people: low-level drug offenses shouldn’t carry long prison terms, fourteen-year-olds who tagged along when an older brother killed someone shouldn’t get life without parole, the innocent should go free. All of these statements are true, all of them demand changing current American practice, and all of them can probably be supported by a good majority of people.

But America’s prison system is so vast, so bloated and so cruel, that making it humane is going to require unpopular reforms as well as popular ones. The reform-minded often emphasize drug sentencing, because it seems an issue on which it is easy to build political consensus. Yet even fixing drug policy would barely put a dent in the number of incarcerated. And as Gilad Edelman puts it in The New Yorker, “having a fifth of the world’s prison population would be better than having a fourth, but not by much.” The real problem is sentences for violent crime, but as Edelman says, “acknowledging the need to cut down the number of violent prisoners is a tough sell.”

Building the necessary empathy for violent criminals, and showing the way they too are victimized and locked into an inescapable cycle of imprisonment, is part of the project of Alice Goffman’s acclaimed ethnography On the Run (Chicago, $25.00). For eight years, Goffman attempted to immerse herself in the world of the guilty, young black men in Philadelphia who spend their lives in and out of various jails and prisons. The result is an extraordinary piece of work, logistically speaking, since Goffman is able to bring details from lives that are typically never seen or cared about by elite policymakers.

Goffman brings readers inside the lives of the men of 6th Street, whose entire lives seem defined by their interactions with police. They are ruled by fear and mistrust, the War on Drugs destroying any prayer they might have had of maintaining an ordinary existence. Goffman aims to help readers understand why Mike, Chuck, and the other 6th Street Boys act as they do. They are criminals, to be sure, but in Goffman’s portrayal their lives seem almost inevitable.

Goffman’s work has encountered some extraordinarily high praise as well as some fierce criticism. One criticism of the work, made by Dwayne Betts, is that its attempt to humanize backfires. In fact, Goffman simply “encourages outsiders to gawk,” reducing these men to the sum of their crimes and their police encounters. She thus fails to portray the neighborhood in three dimensions, excluding its culture, its warmth, its relationships, and treating it solely as a dysfunctional symptom of the drug war.

Another criticism of the book accuses it of inaccuracies. Multiple reviewers have gone after Goffman for supposedly taking liberties with the facts. The most vociferous has been Northwestern University law professor Steven Lubet, who has repeatedly accused Goffman of dishonesty in The New Republic. Lubet says that Goffman’s accounts of certain events, like her supposed visit to Chuck’s deathbed, do not add up. But he also suspects something fishy in her narrative, especially a passage in which she discusses her readjustment to life outside 6th Street.

The factual challenges to Goffman have not gone particularly far. Gideon Lewis-Kraus of The New York Times and Jesse Singal of New York magazine checked them out, and her sources seem to confirm her reporting. But Lubet is right to hit upon Goffman’s narrative of her return to Princeton as seeming particularly odd. In the “Methodological Note” at the end of her book, Goffman writes of arriving at Princeton after her time on 6th Street:

The first day, I caught myself casing the classrooms in the Sociology Department, making a mental note of the TVs and computers I could steal if I ever needed cash in a hurry.. The students and the even wealthier townies spoke strangely; their bodies moved in ways that I didn’t recognize. They smelled funny and laughed at jokes I didn’t understand. It’s one thing to feel uncomfortable in a community that is not your own. It’s another to feel that way among people who recognize you as one of them…The Princeton students discussed indie rock bands– white people music, to me– and drank wine and imported beers I’d never heard of. They listened to iPods, and checked Facebook…Moreover I had missed cultural changes, such as no-carb diets and hipsters. Who were these white men in tight pants who spoke about their anxieties and feelings? They seemed so feminine, yet they dated women. More than discomfort and awkwardness, I feared the hordes of white people. They crowded around me and moved in groups.

The passage may seem an unusual one to single out, tucked as it is at the end of the book. But it’s notable for its failure to ring true, given the facts known about Goffman’s background. As Lubet points out, Goffman was raised in tony surroundings as the child of prominent academics. She attended a prestigious private school, and was at the University of Pennsylvania when she was researching the book. To think that somehow when she got to Princeton, she was baffled by the existence of the iPod, stretches the limits of the imagination. For a wealthy double Ivy-leaguer to be looking for TVs to steal in case she needed extra cash is hard to believe.

Her fear of white people is similarly implausible. Goffman says she was scared especially of white men, even though “on some level, I knew they weren’t cops, they probably wouldn’t beat me or insult me.” On some level? This despite the fact that her adviser was a white man, and that no male sociologist in the history of Princeton has ever been mistakable for a cop.

But Goffman’s failure interestingly reinforces the point about the difficulties of discussing mass incarceration. It appears as if Goffman’s research was sound, but the narratives she laid atop it were faulty. Goffman attempts to use the “fish out of water” framing in order to make her personal story seem more exciting, but doing so requires her to distort her experiences and background in a way that harms her credibility. And she tries to tell a story about how the drug war has created a Wild West in which black men are forever on the run, but this isn’t exactly true. The reality is, as it always is, more complex than that. While easily-summarized punchlines may sell books (“white Princeton sociologist enters a terrifying urban battleground and loses herself in the process”), when they imply things that aren’t true, they damage our ability to understand and address the social problems they are supposedly concerned with. Yet in that old battle between the readable and the necessary, the readable continually wins out.

The same tendency toward narrative at the expense of truth applies equally to the classic text of the anti-mass incarceration movement, The New Jim Crow (New Press, $14.99). By invoking America’s own apartheid, Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander wanted to forge a powerful image that would stir public sentiment. She tried to avoid simply presenting dusty statistics, using the segregation comparison to convey the severity and urgency of the injustice. But as critics have pointed out, the Jim Crow metaphor isn’t precisely accurate. As law professor James Forman has explained, calling present-day criminal justice Jim Crow fails to explain the system’s often equally devastating effects on Hispanics and poor whites. It also obscures the fact that mass incarceration was not imposed simply by whites, but also involved support from blacks fearful of crime. Thus even Michelle Alexander doesn’t quite identify the problem precisely.

Smith, Stevenson, Goffman, and Alexander have all written powerful books, each using a different strategy to try to capture what criminal justice in America today is like. Each of them succeeds to a degree, and each ought to be read. Ultimately, though, none of these authors can do what they set out to do, because America’s prison system tests the limits of prose. You can try to turn it into a story with a moral, a snappy metaphor or the cry of an innocent man accused. But it’s too bleak, pointless, and devastating to be captured in any of these.

remember when I first realized how little there truly was to be said about what goes on inside a prison. I made a stupid, naive blunder interviewing a client while working at a public defender’s office.

“How are you?” I asked him with eager-intern chirpiness.

“I live in a tent with 80 men and there is no air conditioning. So that’s how I am.”

“Oh,” I replied sheepishly, making a “whoops” face. “I’m sorry.”

Monotony does not make for good stories, yet politics thrives on stories. 12 Years A Slave must be about about man who escapes slavery instead of the scores who did not, because this is where the story is. As Stanley Kubrick described his fundamental problem with Schindler’s List: “The Holocaust is about six million people who get killed. Schindler’s List is about 600 who don’t.”

This is not to deny the countless horrifying incidents in the life of the American prison system. But so many of these tend toward the meaningless. I once worked on a class-action lawsuit against a prison in the American South, and I remember reading the statements that had been taken from the inmates. There was one man who was deprived of medical care as he slowly watched his testicle grow steadily larger and turn purple. Each day he would look at the testicle. Each day as the pain worsened, he would beg the guards to take him to the hospital, and each day they would tell him to shut the fuck up. Eventually, when the testicle had grown to the size of a baseball, he was finally brought to the doctor to be castrated. By that time, the cancer had spread. The end.

It is hard to imagine the film version of this scenario being successful. You can’t readily adapt it for Netflix. Yet these are the stories that we are trying to tell. Stories without lessons, without resolution or purpose.

Literature is a key ally of social progress for its ability to induce empathy, but literature seems powerless when it comes to mass incarceration. This is unfortunate, because for no issue is the creation of empathy more crucial than in criminal justice. From the beginning, the task is to foster love for the most despised. Not only that, but with prisons being hidden away in countrysides, people must be made to feel something that they cannot see.

One reason the prison epidemic has been hard to excite public emotion against is that while it is easy enough to write about, is difficult to write about powerfully. The story of a prisoner is the story of a starved brain, a human being slowly going mad inside a box. The story of American criminal justice is the story of millions of such people, being placed in suspended animation and put away. What can be said about this? Where’s the moral? When it comes to mass incarceration, words simply fail us.

The Current Affairs Interview: Jamelle Bouie & Ryan Cooper

This month: Our Nihilist Press Corps

In this edition of the Current Affairs Interview, we confront two prominent political journalists about their borderline-obsessive coverage of Donald Trump.

LEGAL NOTICE: Current Affairs in no way wishes to imply that the subjects intended to be interviewed by Current Affairs. The Current Affairs Interview is conducted non-consensually, and consists of bothering the interviewees on Twitter until they respond. The following is transcribed entirely from the results of such public Twitter harassment. It has been edited solely for grammar and clarity.

Current Affairs: Six out of your last twelve articles appear to be about Donald Trump. Is there truly this much to say?

Jamelle Bouie, Slate: Number one, yes. Number two, I write four to five times a week, so that’s not really saying much.

Current Affairs: My goodness, you mean there’s mountains more where that came from! Mr. Bouie, Current Affairs pleads with you to devote your considerable writerly energy to other subjects. 50% Trump is no good.

JB: The vast majority of my work has nothing to do with Trump.

CA: A statement one wishes were true but one belied by the record.

JB: So, what percentage of the 60 stories I’ve written since September do you think are about Trump?

Ryan Cooper, The Week [unprompted]: I’d bet money it’s no more than 10% Trump.* But more to the point, he’s been leading the GOP field for 6 months.

CA: Sorry, we forgot that political writing today means writing over and over about GOP frontrunners. Many apologies. [You probably have] many stories about how other Republicans are wrong, too.

At this point, Jamelle Bouie evidently became so disgusted that he departed the conversation.

RC: Jamelle and I write about all kinds of stuff. But, yes, Republicans are wrong about virtually everything, and it matters.

CA: Don’t think we don’t spot the slip in your logic, Cooper! You’ve used “Republicans are wrong and it matters” to justify “My writing about Republicans being wrong matters.”

RC: It matters as much as anything else anyone writes matters, i.e. not very much. Neither you nor I nor anyone else is going to solve climate change with a couple of fucking blog posts.

CA: Then one might as well have a blog about knitting as do your job.

RC: Pretty much! Except I ain’t gonna make rent with that.

CA: Odd that political writers only pretend to care about solving the issues. Really they’re just feeding the mill to pay the rent.

RC: It might occasionally make some difference. But you’ve got to be insanely deluded to think writers are a major political actor.

CA: But if this is true, then why write about Donald Trump’s day-to-day idiocies instead of something else?

RC: I don’t! But the fact that a quasi-fascist is leading the GOP is interesting.

CA: But this was what you initially defended. “Why, Jamelle Bouie, do you write so many Trump articles?” “Because he is important.”

RC: He is, I just don’t cover his “day-to-day idiocies,” [which are] mainly stuff he swiped from the Nuremberg Laws. But if other people want to, fine. That’s as reasonable a use of their political energy as anything.

CA: This is it! You media people are all nihilists! You do not actually think you are capable of anything. You give up the task of persuading people and just resign yourself to condemning Republican foolishness.

RC: I try every day to persuade people, I just don’t have illusions about whether they’ll be convinced (they won’t).

CA: That doesn’t sound to me like the attitude of someone who is trying very hard.

RC: Read my stuff and judge for yourself, I don’t care. Every political writer in the country has been calling Trump a liar for a week straight and it hasn’t done jack shit.

CA: EXACTLY! We have learned that “calling him a liar” doesn’t work. But this resignation to inconsequentiality seems like suicide. We called the fascists liars, they came anyway. Well, then perhaps writing columns calling them liars wasn’t the best way to prevent fascism!

RC: Good thing the press isn’t the only thing standing between us and Trumpist dictatorship.

CA: Well, it’s not exactly apparent what else is standing in the way! What exactly are you relying on here, if you believe influencing ideas is futile?

RC: Just hope the economy doesn’t collapse next year. ¯\_()_/¯

CA: A prayer, then. You literally think fascism is on the march and you’re greeting it with a shruggie. If fascism threatens us, our every breathing moment should be dedicated to strategizing its destruction.

RC: It has always threatened us. But the solution is proper economic policy and unions, not blog posts about non-Trump subjects.

CA: Do people know how to implement proper economic policy and successfully build unions? If not, why is the job of the writer not to figure out how this is done and then tell people how they can do it?

At this point, Mr. Cooper ceased to reply.

The morning after our interview, we received a message from Mr. Cooper in reply to our suggestion that writers should try to produce work that helps people to do the things that he wishes people would do:

“[Producing writing like that is] worth doing (and I do it) but I think you’re misunderstanding the demographic profile  of the average newspaper reader. 95% of journalism is infotainment for the upper middle class.”

Well, ladies and gentlemen, there you have it. The entire op/ed mill is a stupefaction racket. The sole difference between The National Enquirer and Politico is the average reader’s income bracket. Thus probably safe to ignore all political media.

*It’s actually 18%. Having said he would “bet money” that the number was under 10%, Mr. Cooper can send his check to:

The Current Affairs Organization, P.O. Box 441394, West Somerville, MA 02144

Articles Written By Jamelle Bouie About Donald Trump

(11/14/15 – 12/1/15)

Due to space constraints, the following list is incomplete and has left off a number of articles by Mr. Bouie that, while they are about Mr. Trump, do not feature Mr. Trump’s name in the headline and are thus make for somewhat less impactful list entries. 

  • “Donald Trump Is A Fascist,” Nov. 25, 2015.
  • “Donald Trump Is A Conservative Media Creation,” Nov. 23, 2015.
  • “Donald Trump Is Actually A Moderate Republican,” Nov.19, 2015.
  • “Why The Paris Attacks Will Only Boost Donald Trump,” Nov. 16, 2015.
  • “How Stupid Are The People of Iowa? Donald Trump Insults Everyone,” Nov. 14, 2015.

Some Post-Interview Analysis

What depressing creatures these journalists are! What a tragedy it must be to live this way, forever conscious of the superficiality and purposelessness of one’s writing, yet doomed to continue pouring it forth. How can one inhabit such a position without lapsing into despair?

If our conversation with Mr. Cooper is any indication, the answer is that one cannot. It is, in fact, not terriby fun writing five new Trump stories per fortnight. Thus one only has two possible means of protection against the realization of the emptiness of one’s work: (1) touchy defensive posturing, à la Mr. Bouie (of the school that likes to say “How dare you impugn my work!”) or (2) ritual confession and self-flagellation à la Mr. Cooper (in which the journalist convinces himself that, so long as he does not pretend to do more useful work than he knows he is doing, it is acceptable to remain useless.)

There is something very odd indeed about this kind of attitude toward one’s career. The political opinion-writer produces every word as if he is deeply invested in the consequences of an issue. As Mr. Cooper told us, these things matter. Yet he behaves as if these things do not matter very much at all; when confronted with the stakes he shrugs, says “Hey man, I’m just looking to pay my rent.”

The dissonance between the writer’s two beliefs cannot be resolved. He believes politics have important and urgent consequences for people’s lives, yet is content to twiddle his thumbs. And if one says to him “But are you not a mere thumb-twiddler?” he replies “I mean, what do you want me to do?”

Ah, yes, the old “what are we supposed to do about it?” For aeons, it has served the cause of inaction, allowing the comfortable and slothful to rationalize their indulgences. Of course, it is easily met with an answer: “Think of something! That’s your entire job!” But the political journalist is able to wall himself off from those who would place such demands upon his ingenuity.

What is striking is how unwilling political writers are to defend their profession. They know full well that in the age of digital media, the Internet is a sprawling, cavernous echo chamber, and that their job is to make the first noise, so that others may reverberate it across time and space. But they have no aspiration toward altering the situation. They do not believe it can be altered, even though they themselves are the ones who remake it anew every day.

What an aggravating abdication of duty! What fatalistic suicidal resignation! What a cowardly self-fulfilling prophecy! Try nothing, then complain that you’ve failed.

Ah, but what about the question: what ought we do to, then? What would you do, Current Affairs, you arrogant little magazine, sitting about casting aspersions on decent journalists while you remain content to blow spitballs at these hardworking servants of the public good?

Oh, but we’ve said it already! Ask yourself a different question when you write: not “Why is Republican X wrong about Issue Y?” but rather “How can I convince someone who disagrees with me about Republican X that they are mistaken?” Of course, today’s political writers take these questions to mean the same thing. Yet they do not mean the same thing at all. If I write a column entitled “Donald Trump Is A Liar,” and I document the various things this man has said that I believe are lies, and I use evidence and clear argument, I may think I have done my best. I have done nothing of the kind, however. For I have not asked myself a single question about my audience, e.g. “Will those who like Donald Trump and do not think he is a liar read an article entitled ‘Donald Trump Is A Liar’?” (They will not.)

“But then I am stuck,” says the political writer. “They won’t read it even though I’m right.” No, you are not stuck. You must simply make an effort to build a writerly voice that people who disagree with you will enjoy reading. Telling them in blunt prose why their preferred candidate is a liar and a fascist is not the route to a congenial relationship between writer and audience. Perhaps be a friend to potential hostile readers, instead of an antagonist.

Oh, but writers don’t matter anyway, do they? So it hardly makes a difference whether you make an effort or not. But if you believe that, then for God’s sake write about flowers or crochet instead. Otherwise, at least make some attempt to be useful and consequential?

The Self-Destructive Tendencies of Online Feminism

The incredible potential for internet activism is being squandered by infighting and superficiality.

The internet was supposed to revolutionize feminism.

Thanks to social media, discourse is less dependent on mainstream media gatekeepers than ever before and marginalized voices have platforms with infinite reach. Women can still participate if they’re housebound, isolated or have caring responsibilities that would make attending meetings in person unmanageable. Theoretically, it’s easier than ever before for people to act collectively.

It’s a shame, then, that the reality of online feminism—and this is coming from someone who might have achieved a lot more with their life if it wasn’t for the countless hours wasted trawling gender politics hashtags on Twitter and Tumblr—falls so drastically short of this seemingly wondrous potential.

I started out a wide-eyed, keen believer in the power of social media to radically democratize debate. Several years later, it seems clear to me that it has massively backfired. Pleasing as it is to hear new voices previously snubbed by media and politics, it has become apparent that social media doesn’t just enable conversations, it also shapes them.

Let me present a case study from my own experience. Amongst a decent chunk of Twitter-using U.K. feminists, there has been an extremely toxic atmosphere for quite a while now. It began when battle lines were drawn based on what have since become the two primary divisions in online feminism: trans-inclusive vs. trans-exclusive conceptions of gender and decriminalization of sex work vs. the Nordic model.

There’s no logical reason the opinions must be related, but people who believe womanhood is dependent on being assigned female at birth and those who want to criminalize the purchase of sex are commonly grouped as “radical feminists.” Individuals holding these views are negatively labeled “TERFs” (trans-exclusionary radical feminists) and “SWERFs” (sex work-exclusionary feminist) by opponents. In turn, these groups are contemptuous of so-called “liberal feminism.” Worthwhile communication between the two camps is almost non-existent. Each accuses the other of perpetuating misogyny rather than fighting it and people involved are more likely to caricature opposing views than engage sincerely. Often, things get deeply personal and nasty. Those who support the decriminalization of sex work for any reason are frequently accused of being “rape apologists” or part of a “pimp lobby,” even if they’re current sex workers themselves. From the other side, tweets like “Why date a terf when you could date someone who isn’t a pile of turds?” are not unrepresentative. Particular academics and journalists are singled out as almost totemic hate figures. Trans women and former sex workers are equally at risk of being labeled TERFs or SWERFs.

Trans inclusion and sex work legislation are both big issues with significant repercussions, so it’s not surprising people who disagree about them aren’t able to simply put aside their differences. Real life isn’t just one big college debating club. On the other hand, the selection of these issues as the defining divisions in feminism is arbitrary. I know, for example, that a libertarian could share my trans-inclusive and pro-decriminalization stance yet support slashing the welfare state in a way the would harm many women. It’s not clear why I should consider that person more my feminist ally than someone who thinks criminalizing the purchasing of sex is the solution to harms associated with the sex trade.

In practice, online debate lacks a major strength of an in-person quarrel—it does not end. Instead, the arguments that caused the original rift are reenacted repeatedly in a way that is entirely performative—geared towards reinforcing divisions rather than promoting shared understanding. Neither side shows a genuine interest in either persuading their opponents or listening to their points. If you assume the goal is constructive conversation, it’s hard to see why anyone still bothers.

Instead, social media platforms like Twitter exacerbate the worst of our collectivist nature. Endless, circular, unproductive arguments allow people to clearly signal their membership of their chosen feminist “team.” The more extreme an individual is in their position and the more hostile they are to opponents, the clearer the signal.

Though the core basis of the division remains, the opposing group identities have expanded to cover a greater range of issues than sex work and definitions of gender. It has a chilling effect on open, sincere discussion when people are wary of being castigated as belonging to the wrong “team” if they express an opinion out of line with in-group consensus. Social media has the potential to democratize debate on a broad scale, but hierarchies have developed within online feminist discourse itself. Certain key individuals are disproportionately responsible for deciding what is considered acceptable opinion within given subgroups.

Even if debates on social media are approached sincerely, there are still factors that make amicable resolution impossible. For one thing, the fact there is a public record of everything you’ve said can make it harder for people to change position without feeling they’re losing face. Also, the lack of non-verbal cues such as body language and tone of voice makes situations more likely to escalate. Character limits on some platforms cause people to be more blunt and less nuanced than they would otherwise, and written communication generally leaves more scope for misunderstanding. Also, even if they didn’t start out that way, disagreements quickly turn into a spectator sport and end up with participants playing to the gallery.

Feminist discourse on social media also focuses disproportionately on a relatively narrow range of issues. Sex work legislation notwithstanding, the conversation topics with most traction are concerned with either language, pop culture, or identity. Conspicuously underrepresented is consideration of issues concerning material reality. It’s not that the stuff that is discussed is always unimportant, but it’s a very limited version of feminism that doesn’t position women’s living conditions, their ability to care for themselves and their children, their financial independence and their ability to extract themselves from abusive situations as central concerns.

Partly, this is a reflection of wider trends rather than something specific to social media—U.S. culture has a strong influence on all aspects of the English language internet, including conversations about feminism. From a U.K. perspective, there has always been a weird class blindness to political discourse in the U.S., which lacks the labor tradition of European countries. (Admittedly, the sudden rise of Bernie Sanders may challenge these preconceptions.)

Regardless of wider influences, the very fact that discussions are happening online encourages a disconnect from material reality. Identity and language are the topics most relevant to gender as it’s experienced actually on the internet, so it’s logical—in some ways—that these might be the things that internet feminism focuses on. This would be less of a problem if “internet feminism” was a distinct subsection of the movement, but there are good reasons to believe that online discourse is influencing the priorities of feminism as a whole.

One of the most frustrating traits of internet feminism is the popularity of filtering all analysis of gender issues through the lens of celebrity. This can sometimes be moderately illuminating—as a way of bringing discussions of sexual consent to a wider audience, for example—but it massively inhibits understanding if everything is approached this way. When self-purportedly “intersectional” feminist analysis is only ever applied to rich and famous people, it inherently neglects the very important intersection between gender and class, meaning that issues primarily affecting poor women are ignored.

The appeal of celebrity feminism is not without its ideology. Obviously talking about celebrities is so popular in general, so celebrity-centred gender politics has widespread appeal, despite its limitations. There also seems to be a self-consciously anti-elitist element to it in some cases. Talking seriously about celebrity is seen as a rebellion against people who dismiss pop culture—particularly the bits that are stereotypically more interesting to women—as trivial. Though there is some value to this idea, anti-elitism is nothing more than empty posturing if it’s at the expense of addressing issues that have a material impact on less affluent women’s lives.

I don’t want to read too much into snappy but facile social media posts, but it worries me that thousands of people apparently agree with the claim that “a person’s take on Kim [Kardashian] tells you where they are on gender.” At the very least, the number of shares these kinds of Tweets and Tumblr blogs receive demonstrates that the platforms don’t necessarily promote real insight.

Perhaps the defining feature of online feminist discourse—the celebration of individual “badass women”—borrows closely from the idol-worship of celebrity culture. Often, the women praised in this way actually are celebrities. Other women designated feminist heroes on social media—and on websites, like Buzzfeed, geared towards tapping into online conversations to generate page views—include Kurdish soldiers, anti-FGM campaigners, plus-size models, teenagers who’ve defied dress codes and women who have said something sassy to men on online dating websites.

There is nothing inherently harmful about praising particular women as role-models. The worry is that a rampantly individualistic form of feminism is replacing serious consideration of women’s unified interests as a group. It’s telling that most coverage of 18-year-old Malala Yousafzai—one of the most widely celebrated ‘badass women’ of all—doesn’t even mention that she happens to be a serious, committed Marxist, an ideology that totally rejects the idea of individuals as the movers of history. Instead, the media’s Malala profiles prefer to focus on her less insurrectionary qualities, such as a couple of complimentary sentences she once spoke about fellow “badass woman” Emma Watson.

Given that the culture of the internet has always been fast-paced, disconnected from the material world, predisposed towards impact over nuance and conflict over cooperation, it is probably foolish to think social media could be a neutral platform for discussing feminist issues. At the same time, the potential for mass participation is a huge genuine benefit. Feminists who are concerned with materially improving women’s lives need to ask ourselves: what can we do to minimize the negatives and maximize the positives of talking about this stuff online?

The answer can’t possibly be carrying on as we are now.

What People Are Saying About Current Affairs

Learn what our readers think of us, and what’s in the new issue!

Current Affairs enjoys promoting itself, and tends to think it’s one of the finer magazines on the newsstands. But if you’re the skeptical type, you might believe the best way to determine whether Current Affairs is any good is not to consult Current Affairs itself. “There is a chance that you are biased in favor of your own magazine,” you could say to us. And this, we confess, may be true. So we implore you: don’t take our word for it. Pick up a copy of Current Affairs from our online shop! And ask our readers what they think. Here’s just a sampling of the unsolicited feedback we’ve recently received:

  • “Just got my first issue of Current Affairs magazine and it is absolutely excellent. It leaves no stone unturned, from a critical examination of the RBG popular cult to a review of recent popular books on prisons. If you’re bored with the same tired takes on everything, I assure you this will refresh and educate you, and it’s beautifully designed, too.”
  • “I recently described it as ‘The best thing that’s happened to me in as long as I can remember.’ I also made friends on the subway because I was laughing so hard reading it, so you may have some new subscribers soon. It’s amazing.”
  • “A graphically luscious, contrarian view of the vomit of conformity.”
  • “[Features some] of the greatest wits writing on the left today, and the layout is so pleasing to my eyeballs.”
  • “Just read your first issue. Never read a magazine cover to cover before. I’ll be subscribing!”
  • “I’ve just finished reading your first issue, cover to cover… It is rare to witness intelligence, irreverence, idealism, and invention in such loving communion. I feel changed from what I have read. And it’s not just what I have learned. I feel in better spirits to face the chaos of the world.”

And from Slate Star Codex:

“I’ve been reading Current Affairs magazine and really enjoying it. It’s edited by Nathan Robinson of Navel Observatory and discusses issues from what for ignorance of a better name I think of as “the Freddie deBoer perspective” – ie pretty far leftist/socialist, but especially interested in criticizing other leftists – especially those who prefer wet dreams about gulags and guillotines, or analyzing how Rihanna lyrics can teach us about mansplaining, to actually fighting for justice. Although the articles are pretty good, what I really love is the sense of humor: for example, instead of real ads, they have beautifully designed fake ads for “companies” and “products” like Tony Blair’s Dictatorship Counseling (“no human rights violation too egregious to euphemize”) and Big Pharma-style socialism pills (“occasional side effects include…accidentally becoming the very embodiment of the thing you are attempting to eliminate”). There are also interviews “conducted nonconsensually and transcribed entirely from the results of public Twitter harassment” and fun childrens’ activities like Color The Flint Water Supply. 

All of which should make a very strong case for subscribing in time to receive our May/June issue. Ah, but would you like to know what’s in it? Very well then.

Presenting The May/June Issue of Current Affairs
Inside you’ll find:
  • Amber A’Lee Frost defends the necessity of being vulgar
  • Fredrik deBoer suggests a few journalists who could stand to deport themselves
  • Yasmin Nair on how gay political power in Chicago was built
  • An in-depth look at Ted Cruz’s autobiography (spoiler: we didn’t care for it)
  • An interview with Dwayne Betts on whether prison prose is possible
  • Some annotations brutally making fun of law professors
  • An offensive joke about Martin Shkreli
  • Our homemade cures for several major diseases
  • A tricky optical illusion!
  • An adorable painting of a sloth
  • A special letter to ISIS from Current Affairs
  • More amusement at the expense of Nicholas Kristof and Jonathan Franzen
  • The Entire Problem With Everything Summed Up In One Quotation
  • A special luxury word-search
  • Book reviews! Denunciations! Misleading statements!
  • Our famous cartoon caption contest!
  • Much, much, much more

If you don’t get yourself a copy, all of your friends will question your judgment. So subscribe today, or head over to our shop to try a single issue.