The Irony in Democrats’ Celebration of Muslim Lives

While Trump verbally disparages Muslims, a Democratic president is actually killing Muslim children by the dozen.

Donald Trump is currently being rightfully denounced for some sick remarks he made about the parents of a dead Muslim soldier. Khizr Khan, the father of a U.S. Army captain who was killed in Iraq in 2004, said in a speech at the Democratic National Convention that Trump had “sacrificed nothing” and had no understanding of American values. But instead of eating humble pie (as many commentators pretended that they had expected him to), Trump claimed that he had indeed made many sacrifices and wrongly suggested that Mr. Khan’s wife Ghazala was being silenced due to the couple’s Islamic faith. Democrats responded to Trump’s remarks with outrage, yet again insisting that Trump had hit a new low in his anti-Muslim rhetoric.

Trump’s remarks about the Khans were indeed disgusting, albeit totally unsurprising to anyone even passingly acquainted with his character and history. But Democrats’ morally indignant replies, and loud rhetorical support for the value of Muslim lives, also carry a certain irony. The newspaper headlines today all blare shocking reports about Trump’s continued bigotry. But further down the page, a different story about Muslim lives is receiving far less attention: the U.S. bombing of Syria, and its increasing numbers of civilian casualties. While Trump says racist things about Muslims, U.S. warplanes are actually killing them, something far less discussed even though (or perhaps because) it morally implicates Democrats.

In the last several weeks, multiple U.S. airstrikes on Syrian villages have had alarmingly high civilian death tolls. On July 19th, United States warplanes bombed a cluster of houses in the village of Tokkhar, where hundreds of people were taking refuge from fighting. The airstrikes killed at least 73 people, mostly women and children. Then, last week, another U.S. attack on a Syrian marketplace killed another 25 civilians

The civilian deaths have outraged human rights organizations. The Syrian Observatory for Human Rights suggested that “the number of human losses in the area is rising dramatically” and demanded that the U.S.-led coalition “stop targeting neighborhoods with civilians.” The head of the U.K.-based monitoring organization AirWars said the United States “appears to have relaxed some of their rules concerning civilian casualties.” As the Wall Street Journal has reported, there are “no civilian protections” in place in the Syrian conflict, and the Syrian National Congress warned that current procedures created “a major loophole in the current operational rules followed by the international coalition in conducting strikes in populated areas.” Yet the U.S. has “rejected calls by Syrian opposition figures after Tokkhar to halt the bombings for the sake of thousands of civilians trapped in Manbij.”

The U.S. has also been accused of concealing the true death toll. The lead Amnesty International researcher on Syria has said that, while the U.S. only admits to having cause 55 civilian deaths over the course of the conflict, the true number is is many times that, and the U.S. is responsible for “at least three of the deadliest single air attacks of the war on civilians”  As Amnesty said, “Levels of civilian killings from the coalition are so high now, we are edging towards the 1,000 figure, and they don’t disclose it, they are covering it up… Their investigations are not transparent…They dismiss evidence pointing to civilian casualties… even if there are photographs of scores and scores of dead bodies, with names.”

It’s also important to remember that death tolls themselves only begin to capture the scale of a bombing’s impact. The numbers of injuries are often far higher (and frequently unreported). “Injuries” can mean lost limbs, blindness, and paralysis. They can mean permanent disfigurement. They can mean that a person will never work again, and will suffer from depression and PTSD, or will require medical care for the rest of their lives. Furthermore, even those who are not “injured” can experience deep and lasting trauma, after seeing loved ones or even strangers torn to shreds before their eyes. The actual pain of a mother realizing her child has been blinded, or a brother watching his sister die, is absent from death toll statistics. The familiar language of news reporting, speaking of  “airstrikes” and “civilian casualties,” obscures what we are actually talking about. The worst photographs are always kept out of the press, so as not to upset people’s sensibilities. But it should be remembered that when we are speaking of “casualties from U.S. airstrikes” we are speaking of toddlers being dismembered in front of their parents’ eyes.

Now, fighting ISIS from the sky is never going to be a straightforward matter, and nearly all conflicts produce a certain number of civilian deaths. But it’s important not to let the difficulty of avoiding all casualties serve as a blanket excuse for evading accountability. The complaint of human rights advocates has centered around the fact that the United States is downplaying and concealing casualties, and that the deaths are growing in frequency without any justification. Observers have said that the United States does not appear to be taking sufficient measures to minimize harm, and does not appear concerned with transparently reporting and justifying the damage it inflicts. So while those defending the Obama Administration may be tempted to resort to familiar muttering about the “fog of war,” this avoids answering the real complaint.


The U.S. responded similarly after its bombing of a Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) hospital in Afghanistan last October. There, a United States airstrike completely destroyed a medical facility, killing 42 people and burning the patients alive in their beds. The Obama Administration refused the demands of MSF and the UN Human Rights Commissioner for an independent investigation by the International Humanitarian Fact-Finding Commission. Instead, the United States military undertook its own inquiry, in which it exonerated itself of war crimes charges. (The military conducted its investigation by smashing its way into the remains of the hospital with a tank, terrifying the medical staff.) Again, the issue was just as much about the lack of accountability after the attack as the attack itself. The U.S. military not only killed several dozen unarmed wounded Afghans and medical staff, but refused to let anyone else try to figure out what happened and whether a war crime had occurred. (The U.S. military did discipline certain staff members with “negative counseling” and “warning letters.”) 

All of this occurred under a Democratic president. So while the organizers of the Democratic National Convention where proudly presenting the Khan family as evidence of their superior devotion to Muslim lives (and while DNC attendees were chanting “USA, USA, USA” as if they were frenzied 2004-era Bush Republicans), the Obama administration was directly responsible for killing scores of living, breathing Muslim civilians. While Democrats were voicing their outrage that Donald Trump had said yet another despicable racist thing, the party was speaking up in defense of a candidate who had decimated a Muslim country, and who had actually voted for the senseless war that killed Cap. Kahn in the first place.

Rhetorical attacks on Muslims are indefensible. But physical attacks on Muslims, using tanks and gunships, are even more horrific. Democrats might not want to be so certain that they have the moral high ground when it comes to valuing Muslim lives.

Can The New York Times Weddings Section Be Justified?

Everyone makes fun of its status obsession. But if we’re being serious, doesn’t that make it indefensible?

At this point, the weddings section of The New York Times is almost beyond ridicule. It has been mocked endlessly for its Ivy-infatuated elitism. It has inspired a fake Twitter account (“The bride is willing to overlook her groom’s public school education, saying, ‘sometimes you take a chance–the heart wants what it wants.’”) and even a full book of parodies. Placing one’s wedding announcement in the Times has become “a sacred and important ritual that rich people have been performing for years,” something the Times itself has even acknowledged.

David Brooks, in Bobos in Paradise, described the upper-crust values that saturate the Vows section:

When you look at the Times weddings page, you can almost feel the force of the mingling SAT scores. It’s Dartmouth Marries Berkeley, MBA weds PhD, Fulbright hitches with Rhodes, Lazard Frères joins with CBS, and summa cum laude embraces summa cum laude (you rarely see a summa settling for a magna–the tension in such a marriage would be too great). The Times emphasizes four things about a person–college degrees, graduate degrees, career path, and parents’ profession–for these are the markers of upscale Americans today…

Everyone knows, then, that the Weddings section is disproportionately stuffed with members of the elite. In fact, this can even be proven mathematically. The “Wedding Crunchers” search engine collects all of the data from Times Vows entries, allowing one to carefully break down the demographics of featured weddings. With it, one can see “the omnipresence of the Ivy League, lawyers, and Wall Street,” and changes in the composition of the upper class over time (the rise of tech companies, for instance). The numbers confirm that a “gay Princeton grad from Davis Polk” has an unusually high chance of being featured in the Times relative to the number of gay Princeton Davis Polk attorneys in the general population.

The intricate application procedure for the Weddings strongly implies what the Times is looking for. The Vows department requests that those who wish to have their nuptials featured submit “addresses, schooling and occupations,” plus “noteworthy awards the couple have received, as well as charitable activities and special achievements.” The also require “information on the residences and occupations of the couple’s parents.” The section’s editor has described the decision-making process: “the basic premise is that we’re looking for people who have achievements. It doesn’t matter what field these achievements are in.”

Interestingly, the editor’s words imply a sort of egalitarianism. You can be in any field you like, so long as you have achievements. And indeed, as the Wedding Crunchers data confirms, this represents a shift from the old Times philosophy. Before, the weddings section was a “society page” for the WASP elite, heavily featuring alumni of the same few boarding schools. These days, featured couples are more diverse, especially in race and sexual orientation.

Yet it’s clear that this equality is extremely limited. It’s still the case that the weddings section disproportionately focuses on the wealthy and highly-educated. Rarely are couples without college degrees featured, and prestigious universities predominate. To argue that the page has diversified is tantamount to saying “Why, we feature lots of different kinds of people. There are transgender Harvard grads, Hispanic Harvard grads….”

Here’s the important question: if everyone admits that the New York Times Weddings section is disproportionately weighted toward the wealthy and highly-educated, how can it possibly be justified? How is it actually acceptable for an ostensibly liberal newspaper to conclude that wealthy, well-educated people’s lives are more interesting and worth more attention than non-wealthy, less-educated people? Everyone laughs about the Weddings section, even the Times itself. But joking aside, isn’t it morally indefensible to treat people as newsworthy in accordance with their elite social status?

There are several replies the Vows editors might make. One is to return to that theme of “achievement.” After all, they do not care which field you are in, so long as you have “achieved.” But we should note, first, the use of the term “field.” “We don’t care which field you’re in” means “we don’t care if you’re a psychologist, a hedge fund manager, or an American Studies professor.” But implicitly, “fields” refer to the sort of occupations that require advanced degrees. Is “working in a bodega” a field? Unloading trucks?  

Thus the kind of things the Times counts as “achievements” follow particular, narrow definitions of meritocratic success. Getting a promotion at Target isn’t an achievement. Getting your electrician’s license isn’t an achievement. Serving honorably in the military isn’t an achievement. Being the first in your family to get your associate’s degree isn’t an achievement. By viewing “achievement” through the prism of elite values, the Times implicitly dismisses non-elite achievements as being without worth, thereby diminishing the lives of the non-wealthy.

A defense that the Times looks for “achievements,” then, only further confirms that the Times has a narrow view of what constitutes accomplishment, and of whose lives are worth writing about. You’re worth writing about if you grow up on Martha’s Vineyard and get an advanced degree in theology at Boston College while wearing a three-piece suit. If you work at a Walgreens, you are unworthy of note.

Again, everyone knows that the Times thinks this. But how is that acceptable? The Times weddings section might be a trivial piece of fluff, without any serious social consequence. But it’s odd for the nation’s paper of record to have a little feature at the back that just screams “rich people’s lives are worth more.”


The Times might point to its occasional inclusion of a non-traditional wedding announcement. But these are the exceptions that prove the rule. In 2009, the Times featured the wedding announcement of two former drug addicts who had met at a Narcotics Anonymous meeting. The paper immediately received negative feedback from readers “who said they regarded the weddings pages as a place for upstanding people with good educations who come from good families.” One wrote: “Are we telling young adults it is alright to waste half their lives in a drug stupor and somehow it will magically work out?” From both the Times’ decision to include the announcement and the readers’ reaction to it, we can see that a Times wedding listing is not simply a reporting of an average cross-section of people getting married, but follows a conception of worth. 

The Times does insist that its announcements are more inclusive these days:

As the announcements under Woletz have become more diverse, parents like a union electrician, a retired firefighter and even a courier have popped up beside orthopedic surgeons and authors.

But the defense only confirms the objection. If “even a courier” is the way couriers are thought of, then we are still dwelling in a world that sees couriers as something odd and foreign, rather than a basic thing that people do. The Times attempts occasionally to inoculate itself against the charges of elitism by sprinkling an “unusual” person here and there. But these are such obvious contrasts to the rest of the page that they only confirm its general character.

Of course, the Times could always fall back on that classic journalist’s cop-out: we’re just giving the readers what they want. But this defense should never be taken seriously. (It’s often deployed to justify giving disproportionate coverage to atrocities committed against Westerners against those committed against non-Westerners.) The existence of a market for something cannot justify its existence. To test the absurd extreme of the principle: if I start a magazine called Kitten Stompers Monthly, and someone objects to my publishing a magazine about stomping kittens to death, it is no defense for me to say “Well, I’m just giving my readers what they want.” Of course I’m giving my readers what they want. But my readers clearly have despicable values, so why would that exonerate me?

The majority of New Yorkers (like the majority of Americans generally) do not have college degrees. Yet almost without exception, those featured in the New York Times weddings section have attended college, often a highly prestigious college. Let’s be clear what this means: a paper run by liberals, who would profess themselves averse to inequality, openly treats most of the population as insignificant. Now, perhaps this is not unexpected. Nobody, at this point, is surprised at the hypocrisy and elitism of The New York Times. But how do they defend it? How can they possibly believe themselves progressive while continuing to publish something that so openly views wealth and education as markers of virtue? How can they justify seeing “getting a Yale anthropology degree” as an accomplishment but not “working a physically-demanding job”?

My hunch is that the Times staff all implicitly do feel as if going to a prestigious university is more of an accomplishment than becoming a shift supervisor at a Costco. But my hunch is also that few of them would feel comfortable admitting that they feel this way. Yet if they really do believe it’s acceptable to prioritize certain people’s lives over others, they should be willing to say so, and openly state the reasons why, as well as their case for how this comports with their liberal values.

The ugly hypocrisy of the Times wedding page has been pointed out before. In 2002, journalist Timothy Noah called for its abolition, since it is “built on the false assumption that the weddings of wealthy non-celebrities constitute news.” (Noah’s case was undercut somewhat by the fact that he admitted having lobbied heavily to have his own wedding included in the section.) But for some reason, no amount of scorn seems to induce any amount of shame. Yet it is shameful. It’s completely trivial. But it’s shameful. And the Times should either justify the Weddings Section, by explaining why it’s acceptable to be an elitist, or get rid of it entirely. 

You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like “Hamilton” Run Our Country

The American elite can’t get enough of a musical that flatters their political sensibilities and avoids discomforting truths.

In 2012, Captain Dan and his Scurvy Crew, a four-man hip-hop ensemble trying to cement “pirate rap” as a tenable subgenre, appeared on America’s Got Talent. The quartet had clearly put some thought, or at least effort, into the act; their pirate costumes might even have passed historical muster were it not for the leftmost crewmember’s Ray-Bans and Dan’s meticulously groomed chinstrap beard.

The routine itself went precisely in the direction one might have expected:

Captain Dan: When I say yo, you say ho. Yo!

Scurvy Crew: HO!

Captain Dan: YO!

Scurvy Crew: HO!

The group managed to rattle off two-and-a-half stilted lines before the judges began sounding their buzzers. Howard Stern was the last to give them the red “X,” preferring to let the audience’s boos come to a crescendo before he cut the Scurvy Crew off. Stern seemed to take great pleasure in calling the group “stupid,” “moronic,” “idiotic,” and “pathetic” on a national stage (Captain Dan grimaced through his humiliating dressing-down while his bandmates laughed it off, exposing a gap in emotional investment in the project between captain and crew, one that likely led to some intra-group tension during the post-show commiseration drinks).

Howie Mandel: They have restaurants like this—like Medieval Times—where you go and you get a pirates thing and you get a chicken dinner. We didn’t get a chicken dinner with this.

In 2012, everyone (save for Captain Dan himself, along with people whose tastes range from “music from video games” to “music about video games”) was in agreement that performing high-school-history-project rap in Colonial Williamsburg garb was culturally unconscionable. Right?

Wrong. The world in which we live now includes Hamilton, a wildly successful “hip-hop musical” about the first Secretary of the Treasury of the United States of America.

Now, perhaps the America’s Got Talent audience isn’t an accurate sample of the American population as a whole. Perhaps they actually thought “when I say yo, you say ho” was clever , but were directed to boo by an off-screen neon sign. Or perhaps something happened in the past four years that made everyone really stupid.


But what if the American public’s taste hasn’t devolved? What if Hamilton’s success is the result of something else altogether?

Brian Eno once said that the Velvet Underground’s debut album only sold a few thousand copies, but everyone who bought it started a band. The same principle likely applies to Hamilton: only a few thousand people could afford to see it, but everyone who did happened to work for a prominent New York/D.C. publication.

The media gushing over Hamilton has been downright torrential. “I am loath to tell people to mortgage their houses and lease their children to acquire tickets to a hit Broadway show,” wrote Ben Brantley of the New York Times. “But Hamilton… might just about be worth it.” The hyperbolic headlines poured forth unceasingly: “Is Hamilton the Musical the Most Addicting Album Ever?” Hamilton is the most important musical of our time.” Hamilton Haters Are Why We Can’t Have Nice Things.” The media then got high on their own supply, diagnosing all of America with a harrowing ailment called “Hamilton mania.” The work was “astonishing,” “sublime,” the “cultural event of our time.” Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune said the musical was “even better than the hype.” Given the tenor of the hype, one can only imagine the pure, overpowering ecstasy that must comprise the Hamilton-viewing experience. The musical even somehow won a Pulitzer Prize this year, alongside Nicholas Kristof and that book by Ta-Nehisi Coates you bought but never read.

One of the publications to enter swooning raptures over Hamilton was BuzzFeed, which called it the smash musical “that everyone you know has been quoting for months.” (Literally nobody has ever quoted Hamilton in my presence.) BuzzFeed’s workplace obsession with the musical led to the birthing of the phrase “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack.” That three-word monstrosity, incomprehensible to anyone outside the narrowest circle of listicle-churning media elites, describes a room on the corporate messaging platform “Slack” used exclusively by BuzzFeed employees to discuss Hamilton. J.R.R. Tolkien said that “cellar door” was the most beautiful phonetic phrase the English language could produce. “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack,” by contrast, may be the most repellent arrangement of words in any tongue.


Those of us unfortunate enough not to work media jobs can never be privy to what goes on in a “BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack.” But the Twitter emissions of the Slack’s denizens suggest a swamp into which no man should tread. A tellingly ominous and thoroughly representative Tweet:

“When the Buzzfeed #Hamilton slack room has a heated debate about which Hogwarts houses the characters belong to” —@Arielle07

“Nerdcore” music (Wikipedia: “a genre of hip hop music characterized by themes and subject matter considered to be of general interest to nerds”) has always had trouble getting off the ground. The “first lady of nerdcore,” rapper MC Router (responsible for the song “Trekkie Pride”), never achieved the critical success for which she had seemed destined, instead ending up on the Dr. Phil show after an acrimonious dispute with her family over her unexpected conversion to Islam. Similarly, the YouTube series “Epic Rap Battles of History,” however numerous its subscribers may have been, has consistently been unjustly robbed of the Pulitzer. Now, finally, nerd rap has apparently found in Hamilton its own Sgt. Pepper, a lofty, expansive work that wins the hearts and minds of previously skeptical elite critics.

One should have no doubt that “expensively-staged nerdcore” is a perfectly accurate, even generous description of Hamilton. Doubters need only examine a brief lyrical snippet. Consider this, from “The Election of 1800”:

Madison: It’s a tie! …

Jefferson: It’s up to the delegates!…

Jefferson/Madison: It’s up to Hamilton!

Hamilton: Yo.

The people are asking to hear my voice ..

For the country is facing a difficult choice.

And if you were to ask me who I’d promote …

Jefferson has my vote.

Perhaps marginally less embarrassing than “when I say yo, you say ho.” But only ever so marginally.

One could question the fairness of appraising a musical before putting one’s self through its full three-hour theatrical experience. But if nobody could criticize Hamilton without having seen it, then nobody could criticize Hamilton. One of the strangest aspects of the whole “Hamiltonmania” public relations spectacle is that hardly anyone in the country has actually attended the musical to begin with. The show is exclusive to Broadway and has spent most of its run completely sold out, seemingly playing to an audience comprised entirely of people who write breathless BuzzFeed headlines. (Fortunately, when you can get off the waitlist it only costs $1,200 a ticket—so long as you can stand bad seats.) Hamilton is the “nationwide sensation” that only .001% of the nation has even witnessed.


There’s something revealing in the disjunction between Hamilton’s popularity in the world of online media and Hamilton’s popularity in the world of actual human persons. After all, here we have a cultural product whose appeal essentially consists of a broad coalition of the worst people in America: New York Times writers, 15-year-olds who aspire to answer the phone in Chuck Schumer’s office, people who want to get into steampunk but have a copper sensitivity, and “wonks.” Yet because a large fraction of these people are elite taste-makers, Hamilton becomes a topic of disproportionate interest, discussed at unendurable length in The New Yorker and Slate and The New York Times Magazine, yet totally inaccessible to anyone besides the writers and members of their close social networks. When The New Yorker writes about a book that nobody in America wants to read, at least they could theoretically go out and purchase it. But Hamilton theatergoing is solely the provenance of Hamilton thinkpiece-writers. The endless swirl of online Hamilton-buzz shows the comical extreme of cultural insularity in the New York and D.C. media. The “cultural event of our time” is totally unknown to nearly all who actually live in our time.

Given that Hamilton is essentially Captain Dan with an American Studies minor, one might wonder how it became so inordinately adored by the blathering class. How did a ten-million-dollar 8th Grade U.S. History skit become “the great work of art of the 21st century” (as the New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik says those in his circle have been calling it)?

To judge from the reviews, most of the appeal seems to rest with the forced diversity of its cast and the novelty concept of a “hip-hop musical.” Those who write about Hamilton often dwell primarily on its “groundbreaking” use of rap and its “bold” choice to cast an assemblage of black, Asian, and Latino actors as the Founding Fathers. Indeed, Hamilton exists more as a corporate HR department’s wet dream than as a biographical work.

The most obvious historical aberration is the portrayal of Washington and Jefferson as black men, a somewhat audacious choice given that both men are strongly associated with owning, and in the case of the latter, raping and impregnating slaves. Changing the races allows these men to appear far more sympathetic than they would otherwise be. Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda says he did this intentionally, to make the cast “look like America today,” and that having black actors play the roles “allow[s] you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” (“Cultural baggage” is an odd way of describing “feeling discomfort at warm portrayals of slaveowners.”) Thus Hamilton’s superficial diversity lets its almost entirely white audience feel good about watching it: no guilt for seeing dead white men in a positive light required. Now, The New York Times can delight in the novel incongruousness of “a Thomas Jefferson who swaggers like the Time’s Morris Day, sings like Cab Calloway and drawls like a Dirty South trap-rapper.” Indeed, it does take some getting used to, because the actual Thomas Jefferson raped slaves.

“Casting black and Latino actors as the founders effectively writes nonwhite people into the story, in ways that audiences have powerfully responded to,” said the New York Times. But fixing history makes it seem less objectionable than it actually was. We might call it a kind of, well, “blackwashing,” making something that was heinous seem somehow palatable by retroactively injecting diversity into it.

Besides, you don’t actually need to “write nonwhite people into the story.” As historians have pointed out, there were plenty of nonwhite people around at the time, people who already had fully-developed stories and identities. But none of these people appears in the play. As some have quietly noted, the vast majority of African American cast members simply portray nameless dancing founders in breeches and cravats, and “not a single enslaved or free person of color exists as a character in this play.” (Although Jefferson’s slave and mistress Sally Hemings gets a brief shout-out.)

Slavery is left out of the play almost completely. Historian Lyra Monteiro observes that “Unless one listens carefully to the lyrics—which do mention slavery a handful of times—one could easily assume that slavery did not exist in this world.” The foundation of the 18th century economic system, the vicious practice that defined the lives of countless black men and women, is confined to the odd lyrical flourish here and there.

Miranda did consider adding a slavery number. But he cut it from the show, as he explains:

There was a rap battle about slavery, where it was Hamilton and Jefferson and Madison knocking it from all sides of the issue. Jefferson being like, “Hey, I wrote about this, and no one wanted to touch it!” And Hamilton being very self-righteous, like, “You’re having an affair with one of your slaves!” And Madison hits him with a “You want to talk about affairs?” And in the end, no one does anything. Which is what happened in reality! So we realized we were bringing our show to a halt on something that none of them really did enough on.

Miranda found that by trying to write a song about his main characters’ attitudes toward slavery, he ran into the inconvenient fact that all of them willfully tolerated or participated in it. That made it difficult to square with the upbeat portrayals he was going for, and so slavery had to go. Besides, dwelling on it could “bring the show to a halt.” And as cast member Christopher Jackson, who plays George Washington, notes: ‘‘The Broadway audience doesn’t like to be preached to.” Who would want to spoil the fun?

Instead, Hamilton’s Hamilton is what Slate called simply “lovable—a product of the play’s humanizing focus on Hamilton’s vulnerabilities and ambitions.” The play avoids depicting his unabashed elitism and more repellent personal characteristics. And in the brief references that are made to slavery, the play even generously portrays Hamilton as far more committed to the cause of freedom than he actually was. In this way, Hamilton carefully makes sure its audience is neither challenged nor discomforted, and can leave the theater without having to confront any unpleasant truths.


Just as Hamilton ducks the question of slavery, much of the actual substance of Alexander Hamilton’s politics is ignored, in favor of a story that stresses his origins as a Horatio Alger immigrant and his rivalry with Aaron Burr. But while Hamilton may have favored opening America’s doors to immigration, he also proposed a degree of economic protectionism that would terrify today’s free market establishment.

Hamilton believed that free trade was never equal, and worried about the ability of European manufacturers (who got a head start on the Industrial Revolution) to sell goods at lower prices than their American counterparts. In Hamilton’s 1791 Report on Manufactures, he spoke of the harms to American industry that came with our reliance on products from overseas. The Report sheds light on many of the concerns Americans in the 21st century have about outsourcing, sweatshops, and the increasing trade deficit, albeit in a different context. Hamilton said that for the U.S., “constant and increasing necessity, on their part, for the commodities of Europe, and only a partial and occasional demand for their own, in return, could not but expose them to a state of impoverishment, compared with the opulence to which their political and natural advantages authorise them to aspire.” For Hamilton, the solution was high tariffs on imports of manufactured goods, and intensive government intervention in the economy. The prohibitive importation costs imposed by tariffs would allow newer American manufacturers to undersell Europe’s established industrial framework, leading to an increase in non-agricultural employment. As he wrote: “all the duties imposed on imported articles… wear a beneficent aspect towards the manufacturers of the country.”

Does any of this sound familiar? It certainly went unmentioned at the White House, where a custom performance of Hamilton was held for the Obamas. The livestreamed presidential Hamilton spectacular at one point featured Obama and Miranda performing historically-themed freestyle rap in the Rose Garden.

The Obamas have been supporters of Hamilton since its embryonic days as the “Hamilton Mixtape song cycle.” By the time the fully-fledged musical arrived in Washington, Michelle Obama called it the “best piece of art in any form that I have ever seen in my life,” raising disquieting questions about the level of cultural exposure offered in the Princeton undergraduate curriculum.

In introducing the White House performance, Barack Obama gave an effusive speech worthy of the BuzzFeed Hamilton Slack:

[Miranda] identified a quintessentially American story in the character of Hamilton — a striving immigrant who escaped poverty, made his way to the New World, climbed to the top by sheer force of will and pluck and determination… And in the Hamilton that Lin-Manuel and his incredible cast and crew bring to life — a man who is “just like his country, young, scrappy, and hungry” — we recognize the improbable story of America, and the spirit that has sustained our nation for over 240 years… In this telling, rap is the language of revolution. Hip-hop is the backbeat. … And with a cast as diverse as America itself, including the outstandingly talented women — (applause) — the show reminds us that this nation was built by more than just a few great men — and that it is an inheritance that belongs to all of us.

Strangely enough, President Obama failed to mention anything Alexander Hamilton actually did during his long career in American politics, perhaps because the Obama Administration’s unwavering support of free trade and the tariff-easing Trans-Pacific Partnership goes against everything Hamilton believed. Instead, Obama’s Hamilton speech stresses just two takeaways from the musical: that America is a place where the poor (through “sheer force of will” and little else) can rise to prominence, and that Hamilton has diversity in it. (Plus it contains hip-hop, an edgy, up-and-coming genre with only 37 years of mainstream exposure.)

The Obamas were not the only members of the political establishment to come down with a ghastly case of Hamiltonmania. Nearly every figure in D.C. has apparently been to see the show, in many cases being invited for a warm backstage schmooze with Miranda. Biden saw it. Mitt Romney saw it. The Bush daughters saw it. Rahm Emanuel saw it the day after the Chicago teachers’ strike over budget cuts and school closures. Hillary Clinton went to see the musical in the evening after having been interviewed by the FBI in the morning. The Clinton campaign has also been fundraising by hawking Hamilton tickets; for $100,000 you can watch a performance alongside Clinton herself.

Unsurprisingly, the New York Times reports that “conservatives were particularly smitten” with Hamilton. “Fabulous show,” tweeted Rupert Murdoch, calling it “historically accurate.” Obama concluded that “I’m pretty sure this is the only thing that Dick Cheney and I have agreed on—during my entire political career.” (That is, of course, false. Other points of agreement include drone strikes, Guantanamo, the NSA, and mass deportation.)

The conservative-liberal D.C. consensus on Hamilton makes perfect sense. The musical flatters both right and left sensibilities. Conservatives get to see their beloved Founding Fathers exonerated for their horrendous crimes, and liberals get to have nationalism packaged in a feel-good multicultural form. The more troubling questions about the country’s origins are instantly vanished, as an era built on racist forced labor is transformed into a colorful, culturally progressive, and politically unobjectionable extravaganza.

As the director of the Hamilton theater said, “It has liberated a lot of people who might feel ambivalent about the American experiment to feel patriotic.” “Ambivalence,” here, means being bothered by the country’s collective idol-worship of men who participated in the slave trade, one of the greatest crimes in human history. To be “liberated” from this means never having to think about it.

In that respect, Hamilton probably is the “musical of the Obama era,” as The New Yorker called it. Contemporary progressivism has come to mean papering over material inequality with representational diversity. The president will continue to expand the national security state at the same rate as his predecessor, but at least he will be black. Predatory lending will drain the wealth from African American communities, but the board of Goldman Sachs will have several black members. Inequality will be rampant and worsening, but the 1% will at least “look like America.” The actual racial injustices of our time will continue unabated, but the power structure will be diversified so that nobody feels quite so bad about it. Hamilton is simply this tendency’s cultural-historical equivalent; instead of worrying ourselves about the brutal origins of the American state, and the lasting economic effects of those early inequities, we can simply turn the Founding Fathers black and enjoy the show.

Kings George I and II of England could barely speak intelligible English and spent more time dealing with their own failed sons than ruling the Empire —but they gave patronage to Handel. Ludwig II of Bavaria was believed to be insane and went into debt compulsively building castles — but he gave patronage to Wagner. Barack Obama deported more immigrants than any other president and expanded the drone program in order to kill almost 3,500 people — but he gave patronage to a neoliberal nerdcore musical. God bless this great land.

This article originally appeared in our July/August print edition.

Why Does Michael Eric Dyson Think Most Black People “Can’t Make Distinctions”?

Strategic voting is not that difficult, but Dyson thinks ordinary African Americans are incapable of understanding which state they live in.

In a recent debate, Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson and Princeton University professor Eddie Glaude debated the question of whether to vote for Hillary Clinton. Dyson, a Clinton supporter, argued that while there were problems with Clinton, a Trump presidency would be so damaging to black interests that a vote for Clinton was necessary. Glaude argued that by making the election solely about the fear of Trump, Democrats were trying to avoid confronting the real issues facing black communities and the very real drawbacks to Hillary Clinton’s candidacy.

Prof. Glaude was asked then asked what he recommended black voters actually do, given his criticisms. After all, if people fear Trump but detest Clinton, how are they supposed to vote?

Glaude’s reply endorsed the method that Current Affairs has also recommended: strategic voting. If you live in a swing state, vote for Clinton. If you live in a safely red or blue state, vote your conscience. That way, people in 40-something states can register their protest votes against Clinton, but people in swing states will make sure Trump doesn’t get into office.

It’s a very simple strategy. Vote based on where you live. If your third-party vote might help put Trump in office, then don’t do it. If it definitely won’t make any difference, then feel free to vote third-party or skip the presidential contest entirely.

The strategy makes perfect sense as a way to maximize people’s ability to vote based on principle, without having them accidentally throw the election like Nader in 2000.

But Michael Eric Dyson’s reply was strange. Dyson suggested that black people were incapable of understanding the concept:

I wish that black people were political scientists who could adjudicate competing claims about rationality, on the one hand, and demagoguery, on the other. I’m telling you, at the end of the day, the black people you’re concerned about, the vulnerable people you’re concerned about, can’t make distinctions—if you’re in a blue state or in a red state—they can’t color-book like that.

Glaude understandably recoiled at this bizarre reply, explaining to Dyson that he was being “condescending” and needed to have a “fundamental faith in everyday, ordinary people.” Dyson replied that he did understand ordinary people, because “I preach to them every Sunday.” The debate then descended into cross-talk as Dyson interrupted Glaude’s multiple attempts to reply.


Dyson’s comments are worth highlighting, because they demonstrate a type of argument commonly exhibited by Clinton supporters. This argument suggests that criticisms of Clinton (however valid) should be silenced, because they threaten to hand Trump the election. But strategic voting is a reply to this argument. It offers the following solution: keep criticizing Clinton, but make it clear that Trump is horrendous, and make sure swing-state voters understand the importance of keeping him out of office. That way, there is no need to lie about how good a candidate Clinton is, but there’s also no risk that the criticism will accidentally result in the loss of Ohio.

As Dyson illustrated, Clinton supporters have no real reply to this argument. All Dyson could suggest was that black people can’t understand the difference between a swing state and a safe state. Glaude pointed out that this is condescending, but “condescending” is actually too mild a word for what it is. Actually, it’s both racist and elitist. To see why, pretend that Dyson’s quotation was spoken by Donald Trump instead of a distinguished sociology professor. “The black people you’re concerned about… can’t make distinctions.” It openly declares that ordinary black people are too stupid to understand simple concepts.

Michael Eric Dyson insists that his support for Clinton acknowledges the fundamental problems with her candidacy, and the Clintons’ history of grossly mistreating black constituencies. He insists that he simply wishes to avoid a Trump presidency. But by being unwilling to support strategic voting, which aims to avoid a Trump presidency without diluting the criticisms, Dyson suggests that he is not, in fact, as critical of Clinton as he insists he is. This is not surprising. Dyson has a history of dishonestly pretending to side with the oppressed while actually simply defending the powerful.

But the issue goes beyond Dyson. Many Clinton supporters, now that the primary is over, would very much like people on the left to shut up and cease to criticize Clinton. They use the fear of a Trump presidency as a bludgeon to keep progressive detractors quiet. Yet there’s no need for this to be an either/or question. So long as Clinton critics make clear that on Election Day, they need to keep Trump out of office, they need not pretend to support Clinton anything more than grudgingly.

Evaluated fairly, Michael Eric Dyson’s comments about the reasoning capacity of black voters are outrageous. But in their “at all costs” mission to keep Trump out of power, Democrats have been increasingly sounding a lot like conservatives. But it’s perfectly possible to both reject this and reject Trump, without risking a Trump presidency.

When Will Pro-Trade Journalists Begin Outsourcing Themselves?

Don’t they care about global poverty?

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Clinton Administration official turned aggressive neoliberal blogger, once gave a nasty rebuke to those who lament the consequences of free trade on American workers. DeLong, like many of his peers in the media world, insists that by complaining about poverty among out-of-work Americans, we must necessarily be wishing that the Chinese had not experienced the benefits of outsourcing. He asked:

Is there a way to interpret [critics of the effects of trade with China] other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value manufacturing occupations we want to keep in the United States?

DeLong’s reasoning was echoed by several attacks on Bernie Sanders by liberal journalists. In Slate, Jordan Weissmann said Sanders was telling Vietnamese seamstresses that he wanted them to remain impoverished. At, Zach Beauchamp said Sanders’ skepticism of trade means trying to help Americans while “screwing over the global poor.”

So this the phase we are in. One in which media commentators (raised in affluence and currently enjoying at least middle class incomes—who are thus, according to their own moral calculus, very economically privileged) tell Americans devastated by the collapse of the uneducated labor market that their poverty, marginalization, and hopelessness is Actually Good, because people in Bangladesh can now move from absolutely abject poverty to slightly-less-abject poverty. That is, provided the sweatshop where they work doesn’t collapse on them. And provided they are willing to endure a nightmare of nonexistent labor power, terrible health and safety standards, total impunity for their bosses, and for the women, an atmosphere of near-constant sexual threat and exploitation.

The first thing to say is that DeLong is offering a transparently bogus choice. “Help poor people in Bangladesh” or “help poor people in Yuma” is a false binary. Yes, as the working class in America have suffered, the incomes of some of the poorest people in the world have risen. But do you know who else have seen their incomes rise? The world’s wealthiest, by vast margins. Pretending that globalization is a simple matter of siphoning from the poor-but-less-poor to the more-poor is a willful deception. It completely ignores the vast explosion in the income and wealth of those at the top. If you want to know where we can get the money to help poor people in China and India and Mexico, we know where to look: the upper half of the global income distribution diagram. See below:


Now the actual numbers of such distributions are often debated. But you don’t have to accept UNICEF’s exact numbers to acknowledge that there is a vast ocean of income that is controlled by a tiny portion of the world’s people. There is more than enough money being generated in the global economy to ensure a decent standard of living for a Bangladeshi factory worker and an out of work Ohio iron worker with a bad knee and two kids. To constantly frame this as a zero-sum game between the global poor and the American poor is an act of basic dishonesty.

But suppose you’re a journalist, writer, or academic who really does think that outsourcing is the only way to help the world’s poorest. Isn’t your own moral path then clear? Shouldn’t you be outsourcing your own job to people from the poorest parts of the earth? There are many talented and ambitious writers and scholars in China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria. If you make, say, $80K a year as a pundit, isn’t your moral duty to work with your employer to outsource your work to a poorer country? Punditry, after all, is very easy to conduct via telecommunications, unlike being a waiter, an orchard worker, or a yoga instructor. And isn’t it very possible that you could get at least a large majority of the value of your work from a team of people in India at a fraction of the cost, while providing all of them with wages far higher than the median income of their home country? You could have your employer pay five Indian writers $10K/year to replicate what you provide for the company. The Indian writers would make better than six times the Indian median annual income. And your employer gets to pocket that extra $30K—which, after all, is why outsourcing actually exists, to improve profits. Everyone wins! Well, not you. But this is precisely the bargain that you think America’s uneducated labor force should make. It is, in fact, a condition that you have loudly argued is morally necessary. Yet to the best of my knowledge, not a single neoliberal wonk has fallen on his or her sword and given up their job to a worker in the developing world, nobly sacrificing their own economic good for that of several other people, and accepting a life of poverty, despair, and opiate addiction in the devastated post-industrial landscapes of modern America. It seems that the morality of outsourcing only applies to other people, and not the kind of people who live in the tony precincts of post-collegiate cosmopolitanism. Funny about that.


I have a particular individual who should step right up to the plate: J. Bradford DeLong, Clinton apologist, hippie puncher, and relentless enemy of the well-being of America’s uneducated labor force. As a professor of Economics at UC-Berkeley, DeLong is paid $135K a year. (As a public employee, DeLong’s salary is a matter of public record.) Couldn’t his job be performed by some of the self-same Chinese workers that he has such deep concern for? It’s not like there aren’t a lot of talented Chinese workers with degrees in economics. Let’s be generous and assume that those Chinese workers could only perform his job at 80% of his value. If you’re UC-Berkeley, and you could hire five Chinese people with MAs in economics at $20k, have them teach the three classes he probably teaches in a year via Skype, publish some research, and attack commies and poor people on his blog, all while pocketing the extra $35K? Those five Chinese people would make about two and a half times the median Chinese income for that kind of money, after all. Wouldn’t you take that deal at 80% of the quality? And wouldn’t Brad’s own moral compass insist that you were morally obligated to do so? (If you’re worried for ol’ Brad, don’t be: tenured economics professors always have side hustles, doing “consulting” work that typically pays more in a day than your average destitute former factory worker on food stamps makes in a month. He’ll be just fine.)

But let me finish with a familiar question: is there a way to interpret DeLong’s refusal to outsource his job to China other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value professor of economics and anti-poor class warrior occupations we want to keep in the United States?

The Current Affairs Interview: R. Dwayne Betts

Dwayne Betts explains why prison prose is possible…

R. Dwayne Betts is an award-winning poet and memoirist whose latest collection is Bastards of the Reagan Era. Betts spent eight years in prison starting when he was 16; he recently graduated from Yale Law School. He spoke to Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson in response to the article “Mass Incarceration and the Limits of Prose,” published in our March/April edition, which had reviewed recent books on the American criminal justice system and explored the possibility that prisons were nearly impossible to write about well.

NR: You take issue with the idea that mass incarceration is a problem impervious to literature, that there’s something about its nature that is uniquely impossible to convey in words. Why do you think that’s wrong?

RDB: I don’t think that there are any problems impervious to literature. Also, it seems that the issues with these books is on one hand their imperfection and on the other their failure to offer a cogent solution to a complex problem. I’m not sure that’s a fair assessment or standard. And, just as a broader point – I challenge the idea that mass incarceration cannot be conveyed – its problems, challenges, and tragedies – in words. This is particularly a hard task – this conversation when you consider that we are talking about two memoirs, a book of legal scholarship, and work by a young ethnographic scholar. The standards for judging them vary so widely that they can’t, even with their considerable ambition, begin to carry the water of decades/centuries of racist and unjust criminal justice policies.

NR: So if the existing literature on mass incarceration fails us (and it seems like you might not disagree with that), it’s not because there’s something inherently impossible about the subject, it’s just a function of the way people are doing the writing. It’s nevertheless going to be difficult to use words alone to communicate the nature of racism and a criminal justice system that ensnares millions. How could someone possibly hope to convey those truths to people who will never experience them firsthand?

RDB: I’d ask you what literature you find compelling about Vietnam? The Things They Carried by Tim O’Brien? Dien Ca Dau by Komunyakaa? [In Elizabeth Alexander’s essay “A Black Man Says Sorbet”], one of the issues she takes with the prison memoir is the way it essentializing prison as the experience of young black men. So this is a critique of Makes Me Wanna Holler, of Manchild in the Promised Land. She talks about this narrative of redemption, and I think she is talking about the way that these narratives are woefully disengaged from politics and community, both in the downfall and the rise. But the existing literature on prison goes beyond that – and, I’d argue that failing to be fully realized, is not failing. The memoir itself, with the author trying to resist being the hero, is as much to blame as all else. The need to write people as more than flimsy representations of violence. This is probably where the prison memoir, at its worst, has failed. I think about the rape scene in Makes Me Wanna Holler, for instance.

But there are other books that don’t fail like this. Mitchell S. Jackson’s The Residue Years. Etheridge Knight’s poetry. But your final point brings up something I struggle with. Has prison gave me some unique understanding of hell that you cannot have? And if it has, can my writing bring you close to that? The philosopher L.A. Paul has a new book called Transformative Experience. She defines a transformative experience as one that gives you new information (that others who haven’t experienced don’t have) and changes the way you experience being you. Prison is the quintessential transformative experience. There are things you can’t get, without being there. But that inaccessible thing (horror, agony, absence?) does not prevent you from getting the texture, the feel, the gut wrenching absurdity of prison. If that were true, there would be no capturing real knowledge: of war, of prison, of power, of childbirth, while standing on the outside of it. That’s not a tenable position.


NR: When we’re talking about the specific case of race and criminal justice in American life, one problem seems to be that writers who want to draw attention to these things are trapped by the perceived necessity to create some kind of narrative with publishable, marketable appeal. Yes, they face the problem that every writer faces; experience will only ever be imperfectly captured on the printed page. That’s unavoidable; if you thought writing needed to create a perfect picture of its subject matter, you could never write. The trouble seems to be that as well as trying to depict the situation, they also feel the need to provide an explanation for it, and this is a case where a lot of explanations are destined to be cheap. So Jeff Smith only gets a book deal because he’s a professor/state senator who went to prison, and that gives it an entertaining narrative; Alice Goffman is telling us about the Ivy League sociologist who went into the wilderness of the Philadelphia streets. What gets read (and so what gets written) is the stuff that tells the best stories, not the stuff that tells the most truth.

RDB: But even Goffman’s book, which I have been highly critical of, is an attempt to understand something. And her failures have little to do with genre specific challenges, but the challenges of any writer. In fact, her book is really about the kinds of narratives that I think will force us to look at this situation with more complexity. I just think her analysis failed. There is no hard distinction between the truth and best stories. I’m not convinced that the best writers aim for explanations. Michelle Alexander’s book is scholarship, Alice Goffman’s is scholarship. And so explanations drive it… But ultimately, we can point to books of all genres that use stereotypes and tropes as their author’s major cache.

NR: No, I think it’s exactly true that the best writers don’t aim for explanations, that attempts to explain rather than depict are a major pitfall. When you try to come up with some theory for why everything is the way it is, rather than just trying to show what it is, the facts end up being contorted to fit the theory rather than the theory emerging from the facts.” If I were rewriting the article, I don’t think I’d refer to the “limits of prose,” but probably the “limits of explanatory nonfiction” and the challenges of prose. Goffman is an interesting study in failure, because she clearly felt as if her intentions were good, and she clearly doesn’t like mass incarceration, and she spent 8 years doing field research. What went wrong there? I do think one problem is that, as a sociologist, she had professional incentives to write a big explanatory book. What you criticized her for in your review of On the Run was creating this cops and robbers story in which black life was defined by criminality at its essence. But in sociology, you’re always kind of looking for an essence.

RDB: Right. I agree with the idea of the challenges of prose. But probably think that we’re better off reading better books. Of these, I think Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy is easily the strongest. And yet, even in it’s strength, one has to concede that he is the ultimate activist. And he is currently in it. So we have to expect that his book does the heavy lifting of explaining why we should be outraged. We have to go to other books for different stories. I’ve been reading Matthew Desmond’s Evicted. It’s similar to Goffman’s book, but a quarter way through I see he avoids much of her missteps. Partly he avoids them by not placing himself in the center of the narrative. For Goffman, and I’d never thought of it this way, but for Goffman, she becomes the center piece of the book, and it is she who becomes the hero. So regardless of what she feels about mass incarceration, others cannot be heroes if she is to be the hero. And I don’t mean to say this is the case because she is white. I mean to say that just like my own memoir or any prison memoir, there is this challenge – how can you write a story where you are not the hero, when part of the writing admits you are like those around you.

This is the thing that the novelist, the writer of a memoir where they are legitimately not in the muck in the same way (Stevenson’s book, for example), does not have to wrestle with. And so, thinking of her book this way, you realize that her struggles are the same ones anyone faces – any memoirist, in that it is both about being more than explanatory and getting away from being the center of your own narrative, the hero. To do that, you have to make other people full, in all their complexity. Ultimately, we have to be careful about what we desire from any one book. I think. And as much as I criticize some and praise others, they all are what help me think about things I don’t want to do with my own writing in the future, and things that I do.

Photo by Rachel Eliza Griffiths

Democrats Are Redbaiting Like It’s 1956

Everyone from Donald Trump to the Sanders supporters is now a KGB puppet…

In the past few days, a number of Democrats have revived a long-dormant practice: accusing those to their left of being Kremlin operatives, and discrediting their political opponents with allegations of grand KGB conspiracies. As questions are raised over whether the Russian government hacked the Democratic National Committee’s email servers, certain political elites have used the opportunity to revive an eerily familiar political tactic, one with its roots in the 1950s.

Let’s begin with the facts. Just before the beginning of the Democratic National Convention, a batch of internal DNC emails was released. These mostly showed a party leadership beset by amusing, Veep-like disarray and squabbling. But they also revealed the lengths to which party officials went to butter up donors and the insidious nature of the party’s relationship with the national news media. Most controversially, they revealed that ostensibly-neutral Democratic political officials had in fact been supporting Hillary Clinton during the party primary, and had even sleazily discussed how to use Bernie Sanders’ lack of religion against him.

Those revelations caused the resignation of party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. But all of the substantive questions over the emails’ contents have now been overshadowed in the press by a different question: who leaked the emails to begin with?

The suspect list was quickly reduced to one: the Russian government. The evidence for that was murky to begin with but has grown more solid over time. (“Anything’s possible” replied Barack Obama, when asked about possible Russian involvement.) Harvard law professor and cybersecurity expert Jack Goldsmith has cautioned thatthere is no public evidence whatsoever tying Russia to the hack,” and that “attribution for cyberoperations of this sort is very tricky and tends to take some time.”

But even before the precise origins and motives for the hack have been sorted out, media figures have been conjuring progressively larger and larger conspiracy theories. U.S. intelligence officials are uncertain whether the hack “was intended as fairly routine cyberespionage… or as part of an effort to manipulate the 2016 presidential election.” Yet the hack is being treated by many as a Russian plot to elect Donald Trump, as part of a Trump-Putin alliance serving Vladimir Putin’s “plan for destroying the West.”

The theory is not confined to a small, deranged political fringe. It is being voiced by respected members of the media establishment. Josh Marshall of Talking Points Memo has said there is “a substantial amount of evidence suggesting Putin-backed financial support for Trump or a non-tacit alliance between the two men.” Former Enron adviser Paul Krugman has enthusiastically embraced the theories and has even implied that Trump may be a Manchurian Candidate. Anne Applebaum of the Washington Post has seconded the idea.

One of the most insistent pushers of the theory is Franklin Foer, the former editor of The New Republic. Last week, Foer offered a detailed list of reasons why the election of Donald Trump would play into Putin’s hands, and why he believed Trump and Putin could be working together. As he wrote, “if Putin wanted to concoct the ideal candidate to serve his purposes, his laboratory creation would look like Donald Trump.” Foer is outraged by the email hack, which he sees as “worse than Watergate”:

This is trespassing, it’s thievery, it’s a breathtaking transgression of privacy. It falls into that classic genre, the dirty trick. Yet that term feels too innocent to describe the offense. Nixon’s dirty tricksters didn’t mindlessly expose the private data of low-level staff… We should be appalled at the public broadcast of this minutiae.

It should be noted, first, that all of these figures are supporters of the Democratic nominee for president, Hillary Clinton, and that the hack of the DNC emails proved deeply embarrassing for the Clinton campaign. The shift from discussing the emails themselves to discussing who leaked them is tremendously helpful in taking negative attention away from the DNC and Clinton. As one BuzzFeed writer put it, “Now Russia is the story.” Neera Tanden, the president of the Center for American Progress, declared: “Wasserman Schultz resigned. So now maybe we can focus on who was behind the leak.” By attempting to turn the email hack into a bigger scandal than Watergate, Democrats serve the twin goals of (1) not having to talk about internal problems with the DNC and (2) further pushing the unsubstantiated Trump-Putin alliance theory. (In fact, we know this was an explicit strategy and not just a stroke of good fortune. When the hacks occurred, Bloomberg reported that “If the Democrats can show the hidden hand of Russian intelligence agencies, they believe that voter outrage will probably outweigh any embarrassing revelations.”)

But liberals in the press have gone beyond simply questioning the source of the email leak. Firmly convinced that Trump’s candidacy is being advanced by the Kremlin, they have also turned against leftists, claiming that they are doing Putin’s bidding. A fellow at the Center for American Progress, for example, accused Intercept journalist Glenn Greenwald of being a “Russia troll.” Josh Marshall pondered how many online “Sanders supporters” and “Trump supporters” were actually being run out of a Russian operation, while a writer at The Atlantic confronted a Bernie fan on Twitter about their suspicious interest in Ukraine. And the Democratic Blue Nation Review, run by longtime Clinton operative David Brock, warned that online “Bernie or Bust” supporters could instead be “sophisticated agitators” in the pay of the Russian government.

Jonathan Chait, a liberal writer for New York magazine, suggested that leftists are reflexive defenders and enablers of the Russian state: 

Just as the left of the ’40s and ’50s saw anti-Stalinism as an excuse for Jim Crow, a Glenn Greenwald today casts Russia’s human-rights record in an implausibly favorable light, and reflexively dismisses any contrary view as simple hypocrisy. When Russia menaces Ukraine, The Nation informs its audience that this is perfectly justifiable because Ukraine is not really a country at all.

All of this is very ugly indeed. By conspiratorially positing that those who disagree with them are either intentionally or unintentionally serving the interests of the Kremlin, liberals are reviving the some of the darkest aspects of 20th century political discourse. Just as the movement against the Vietnam War was once accused of being run out of Moscow, and just as the Civil Rights movement was supposedly filled with Communist agitators, liberals have once again revived one of the nastiest traditions in the history of American political smear tactics: the McCarthyist innuendo. Throughout the Cold War, members of the political establishment attempted to discredit those on the left through invocations of the specter of the KGB.


Franklin Foer has a reply to those who accuse him of red-baiting. Because the Russian government is no longer communist, he says, he cannot be engaging in McCarthyism. But the harmfulness of the method is not affected by changes in the political form of the Russian state. The 1950s witch-hunt would have been just as damaging even if the Soviet Union had been an entirely imaginary entity. By inflating Russia’s evils to absurd extremes, and then accusing others of enabling them, one directly recreates the Cold War means of silencing dissent. By treating Russia as an all-purpose bogeyman, even when the U.S. routinely engages in similar behavior, one replicates an atmosphere that allows all criticism of the U.S. to be treated as traitorous. 

Besides, the Cold War parallels are coming straight from the accusers themselves. Jonathan Chait explicitly concedes that the dynamics are the same today. Michael Weiss of the Daily Beast calls the DNC hack the boldest intrusion ever by a past and present Cold War adversary into America’s political decision-making.” (Note the “and present.”) And Foer himself, by referring to Russia’s attempt to undermine the “West,” directly reinforces a Cold War geopolitical framework.

This kind of thinking is disturbing, because of where it leads. First, it takes you further and further away from the land of sober-minded assessment and careful reasoning. Most of the Trump-Putin theories follow the precise same patterns of logic deployed by JFK conspirators and the 9/11 Truth movement. They don’t prove their assertions with direct evidence, but offer all sorts of “suspicious” facts that supposedly imply the conclusion. So we get a lot of “isn’t it interesting that Trump has business interests in Russia?” and “isn’t it convenient that the leaks helped Trump and Trump likes Putin?” Of course, the former is (slightly) interesting and the latter is convenient. But building theories this way turns you into a madman. Look at Foer’s own conclusion:

In the end, we only have circumstantial evidence about the Russian efforts to shape this election—a series of disparate data points and a history of past interference in similar contests. But the pattern is troubling, and so is the premise.

Troubling patterns and premises, rather than troubling facts, are what substantiate stories about black helicopters and chemtrails. When disparate data points will do, one becomes paranoid. But some of the conspiracy-minded liberals seem to embrace that. “Just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t after you,” a BuzzFeed writer reminds us. Of course, it doesn’t mean they aren’t after you. But it does mean your judgment on the question is going to be irreparably compromised.

But the issue here is not really whether the Russian government was behind the DNC hack. It’s that liberals are using the hack, plus a lot of wild, speculative theories about Trump, to avoid substantive criticisms from both their left and right. They have complained that the hack is “clearly intended to do maximum political damage to Democrats on the eve of the convention” and that the Russians are “trying to sabotage an American election.” (Although it was evidently Julian Assange, rather than Vladimir Putin, who chose to time the email release to coincide with the DNC.) These lines leave something unacknowledged: what the “damage” and “sabotage” actually was. In fact, the DNC emails were damaging because they disclosed true facts about the inner workings of the party. Thus to complain about sabotage is to complain that the public found out the truth. If searching my partner’s phone reveals evidence that they have been constantly cheating on me, they may well be right to complain that I should not have looked at the phone, or that what I have done is “worse than Watergate.” Ultimately, though, the search is less important than what it has turned up.

The most disturbing aspect of the Democrats’ current behavior, however, is not that they are prioritizing procedure over substance. It is that they are reviving a brand of political thinking that should have died with the collapse of the Soviet Union. By seeing any and all opposition as the work of secret Kremlin plots, they have returned to one of the most desperate and ugly forms of character assassination in American political history.

Democrats Need to Stop Insisting That Everything Is Going Well

Trivializing people’s problems and fears is not a good way to win support.

Among members of the liberal press, the reaction to Donald Trump’s RNC acceptance speech has been almost unanimous. It was, they say, “grim,” “angry,” and “dark.” Trump painted a “Mad Max” picture of the United States, as a nation in crisis, beset by crime, terrorism, unemployment, and despair.

This picture, say the commentators, is false. Trump exaggerated crime rates, which are actually going down rather than up. He scare-mongered about immigrants and terrorism, creating threats where there are none. And he suggested that the world is going to hell in a handbasket, when it is not. As Ezra Klein put it in a blog post for his website, Trump had to convince people that “things are really, really bad” when things are not “really, really bad.”

This has been a consistent thread in the liberal reply to Trump’s rhetoric. Trump casts America as a broken land in need of fixing. Democrats respond that America is doing just fine, and that everyone is better off than they have been in years. They highlight the achievements of the Obama administration in bringing healthcare to millions and reducing unemployment. In response to Trump’s bright-red “Make America Great Again” baseball caps, the Democratic Party attempted to popularize its own brand of “America Is Already Great” hats. (They did not take off.)

All of this is a peculiar role reversal. Ordinarily, conservatives are the ones defending the status quo, while the left tries to rouse public interest in various pressing social problems. Now, Trump is the one speaking of the decline of the country’s fortunes, while liberals have become the new cheerleaders for America-as-it-is.

Of course, Trump is hardly a leftist in his diagnosis of the cause of the present troubles. In his speech, Trump displayed a downright Nixonian view of the country’s cities, as hotbeds of murder and social dysfunction. Naturally, the immigrant hordes and Muslim menace are looming over us, threatening to kill our police officers, take our jobs, and convert our children to Islam.

But some of Trump’s populist rhetoric is distinctly leftist in its tone, and there were portions of the speech that could have come straight from the mouth of Big Bill Haywood or Eugene V. Debs:

I have visited the laid-off factory workers, and the communities crushed by our horrible and unfair trade deals. These are the forgotten men and women of our country. People who work hard but no longer have a voice.

That posture presents a formidable challenge for the Democrats. Trump is (as some predicted he would) positioning himself to the left of Hillary Clinton on many economic issues, decrying the influence of big business and the “disaster” of NAFTA. In doing so, he could well appeal to the millions of people who were drawn to Bernie Sanders because of Sanders’ willingness to fight for the working class.


Yet the response among Democratic commentators has not been to explain why Democratic policies will better serve laid-off factory workers. Instead, they have tried to downplay the very existence of laid-off factory workers, with article after article explaining that Trump has overlooked the positive. The press has even taken Trump to task for overstating how many young African Americans are unemployed, pointing out that actually, it’s only ⅓ rather than ½ (though it does rise to ½ if you count the underemployed). But it’s odd to go after Trump f0r pointing out how hard African Americans have it, considering that the facts on black wealth and unemployment are indeed disturbing.

Pointing out Trump’s statistical errors does not provide an effective counter-narrative, and it threatens to make the Democrats seem totally out of touch with people’s concerns. When people working cushy media jobs tell working class Americans that they’re better off than they think they are, one can almost hear a variant on the myth of Pauline Kael’s puzzlement that Nixon could have won the election when nobody she knew voted for him: “I can’t understand what this whole ‘widespread despair’ business is all about. Nobody I know is in despair.”

The vision of America as profoundly broken is not some delusion. Things might not be “really, really bad” for Ezra Klein, but they are for many others. Liberals may point to the low unemployment rate as proof that the Obama economy is rebounding. But those numbers conceal important truths about the state of the country. For example, look at the vast rates of consumer debt, with credit card debt alone reaching $1 trillion. Even if access to credit has positive overall effects, debt creates nightmares for people.

Consider what happened to Kevin Evans. After 25 years at his job, Evans was laid off during the recession. He was forced to sell his home, and reduced to mere subsistence. Whenever he could, he worked low-wage jobs at lumberyards and the like. At the same time, Evans build up $7,000 in credit card debt trying to pay for his daughters’ college education. In the past few years, Evans’ employment position has improved as the economy has grown; he’s back to a better-paying full-time job. But now, CapitalOne is garnishing his wages, taking 25% of everything he earns in order to pay back his outstanding debt. He continues to live in constant economic uncertainty.

The important thing about Evans’ story is that it shows how recovery can exist on paper while a person’s level of financial stress remains high. If we look solely at employment, Evans is a success. But in reality, he’s still struggling, a huge chunk of his wages disappearing to pay off debts. Stories like Evans’ are perfectly consistent with economic recovery, buried beneath ostensibly encouraging statistics. In other areas, too, the actual factors creating despair are overlooked. For example, as Matthew Desmond has recently pointed out, many people’s lives are now dominated by the threat of eviction from their homes.

Actually, these truths aren’t really any kind of a secret; the facts are well-known and frequently discussed. Whole areas of the country are “dying of despair.” In West Virginia, “the economy is declining along with the coal industry, towns are hollowed out as people flee, and communities are scarred by family dissolution, prescription drug abuse and a high rate of imprisonment.” The suicide rate is the highest it has been in 30 years. Life expectancy is actually diminishing among poor whites. Rising levels of alcoholism are destroying countless lives, with the result that the white working class holdsa shockingly dismal view of what the future holds for them.”

These facts shouldn’t have to be reiterated. It’s been explained repeatedly, by everyone from the National Review to Noam Chomsky, that Donald Trump’s success emerges from working-class anxiety over these real social problems. As writer J.D. Vance tells it:

These people–my people–are really struggling, and there hasn’t been a single political candidate who speaks to those struggles in a long time. Donald Trump at least tries. What many don’t understand is how truly desperate these places are, and we’re not talking about small enclaves or a few towns–we’re talking about multiple states where a significant chunk of the white working class struggles to get by.  

And yet right after Trump’s speech, instead of focusing on her own solutions to America’s problems, Hillary Clinton remarked that “the last thing we need is somebody running for president who talks trash about America.” That sounds like something George W. Bush would have said about John Kerry. And it’s hard to think who such a line will persuade. The despairing, angry mass of Trump supporters is hardly likely to buy into the theory that its grievances are “unpatriotic,” and people on the left are supposed to reject the idea that criticisms of social problems constitute “trashing America.”

But, we might say, economic anxiety is one thing, racially-charged national security anxiety is quite another. What about the fear-mongering on immigration, crime, and terrorism? Surely Trump’s apocalyptic image of the country’s security needs to be rebutted. Trump has explicitly tried to insist that crime is rising, when has been going down steadily for the last 20 years. And the number of Americans killed in terror attacks is minuscule.

Here again though, we see the weakness of the Democrats’ approach to countering Trump. Trump’s rhetoric is certainly ominous and paranoid, pretending that enemies lurk around every corner, that immigrants, criminals, and terrorists are tearing apart the country they love. That’s not the case. But in order to persuade people that that’s not the case, you need more than a graph of crime rates. You need a compelling alternate explanation for what is going wrong in people’s lives.

It’s somewhat important to point out that nearly everything Trump says is a transparent falsehood. But it’s also true that while Trump may lie a lot, he’s not always lying. When Trump talks about abandoned factories and bodies in the streets of Chicago, he’s not making those things up. (Nor, despite misstating his own previous positions, is he wrong about Clinton’s “failed policy of nation building and regime change … in Iraq, Libya, Egypt and Syria.”)

It’s also important to understand why it’s easy to create an imaginary crime wave, namely that when people feel a generalized and nameless sense of fear and hopelessness, they grasp at myths that help explain their feelings. Take the Brexit crisis in the U.K., which was an instructive lesson in what can happen when the working class feels excluded and angry. The consensus among elites is that Brexit voters were driven by racism and the fear of immigrants. And it’s true that, were it not for fear of immigration, the Brexit vote would likely have gone the other way.

However, in terms of a political strategy, it is pointless to simply scoff at pro-Leave voters for being racists. If people are blaming immigrants for their problems, the correct strategic response is to build a platform that shows people what the actual source of their problems is, and proposes a means of solving them. By simply lobbing charges of xenophobia, one denies that any of the underlying anxieties fueling anti-immigrant sentiment (as opposed to the sentiment itself) are real and legitimate. If you don’t have a compelling alternate vision and program, then of course people will be susceptible to demagoguery about crime and immigration. Trump and Nigel Farage may have a racist and delusional explanation for the cause of the world’s troubles, but they have an explanation. 

Creating a successful competing political philosophy isn’t just a matter of making those communities understand that immigration benefits them. (Actually, among low-wage workers, immigration may well slightly increase competition for jobs, a fact that needs to be acknowledged and dealt with.) It’s also a matter of actually proposing ways of better redistributing the economic benefits of globalization. As Fredrik deBoer pointed out here recently, we know where the economic gains have gone; they’re certainly not evenly shared across society. Global inequality has risen to the point that nearly all wealth is controlled by a tiny minority of the super-rich, and labor power is in decline. It might be wise for the left to have something to say about this. 

So far, centrist Democrats have been miserably bad at generating that kind of meaningful alternative (possibly because they are, themselves, largely the beneficiaries of inequality). In fact, by dismissing the concerns of working-class voters, and gushing about the Obama administration’s wonderful policy achievements, liberals almost seem to be mocking and taunting their working-class constituents. (Clinton’s missteps, like telling coal country voters that she would put miners out of business, have also been unhelpful.) As Emmett Rensin has written, elite liberalism has become characterized by a “smug style” that simply shouts “idiots!” at the “stupid hicks” who are getting “conned by right-wingers.” Rensin says that liberalism has come to believe in “the politics of smart people in command of Good Facts,” which has “no moral convictions, only charts.”


One could see that after Trump’s speech. The most common response to Trump among liberal commentators seems to be the relentless fact-checking of his statements, rather than any attempt to articulate a comprehensive alternate political worldview. Barack Obama himself, in addition to adopting the “America is already great” mantra, has decided that the best way to defend his health care policy to the public is through writing a heavily-footnoted academic article for a scholarly journal. 

Clinton supporters can often seem stunningly oblivious. Pundit Andrew Sullivan (who believes that the rise of Trump proves that people are too stupid to be entrusted with democratic decision-making) responded to Trump’s criticism of Obamacare by saying that “I’m on Obamacare and I picked my own doctor.” Well, bully for Andrew Sullivan. But not everybody shares in his good fortune, and it’s both arrogant and useless to explain why Democratic policies look great from where you’re sitting. Such people fundamentally do not seem to understand what it feels like to live outside of the coastal elite bubble. Prominent liberal writers like Ezra Klein, who help shape policy priorities and set agendas, are totally uninterested in the way other types of people’s lives are actually lived. Their view of the working-class experience comes entirely from Bureau of Labor Statistics reports. Thus they don’t understand the things that make people unhappy, stressed out, hopeless, and frightened. 

One person who did appear to understand these things was Bernie Sanders. This was clear from his interactions with voters, and it’s why tens of thousands of people showed up at his rallies. It’s why he was able to rival Trump in the enthusiasm of his voters. He went from being a fringe candidate to a serious contender for the nomination, by tapping into an important part of the national mood. The fact that Sanders took off so unexpectedly, despite his total lack of traditional political charisma and a disorganized campaign apparatus, should have been a lesson.

Democrats need to pay attention to the Sanders model if they want to generate any enthusiasm or make any inroads with new groups of voters. Instead of telling people that everything is alright, they need to acknowledge that for many, many people things aren’t alright at all. Then, instead of offering terrifying doomsaying like Trump, they need to inspire people to believe things can get better. They need to run a campaign of hope rather than a campaign of complacency. If they want to successfully win Trump’s voters over, they will need to stop treating such people as nothing more than delusional racists. Yet, worryingly, many Democrats don’t actually seem to be committed to the task of winning people over. They seem to believe that Trump supporters are, indeed, just “dumb hicks” who can’t be reasoned with.

This is a fatal position to take. So long as Democrats are trying to retain support instead of grow it, Trump will continue to lure new voters while Clinton’s voter base will either remain stagnant or shrink. In order to win, you’ve simply got to persuade people. Internet theorist and perennial TED talker Clay Shirky recognizes the wonk problem, and tells Democrats that they have wrongly “brought fact-checkers to a culture war.” That’s true as an assessment of the problem, but the question is how Democrats intend to win that culture war. Do they intend to win it by trying to get people who already agree with them to half-heartedly drag themselves to the polls, and by portraying Trump’s working class constituency as the enemy? Or do they intend to win it by offering an actual principled contrast that deals with the real problems that people have?

The selection of Tim Kaine as Clinton’s running mate is not a good sign here. Kaine has no potential whatsoever to craft the kind of inspiring alternative platform that Democrats need. Hillary Clinton has not just admitted Kaine is boring, but says that she “love[s] that about him” because he fits her “fondness for wonks.” But wonks are precisely the problem; they are incapable of understanding voters’ emotions. Such people will puzzle over why Americans are “stubbornly negative” about the economy, failing to even recognize that large parts of the the country are characterized by massive inequality and poverty.

Kaine certainly doesn’t help with the Democrats’ need to reclaim a progressive populism, since he infamously tried to help banks evade consumer protection regulations. Trump will (accurately) seize on this as a reflection of Democratic obliviousness. Indeed, just hours after the pick was announced, the Republican National Committee sent out a statement pointing out that “Kaine has castigated opponents of free-trade agreements as ‘losers’ and strongly supported the War in Iraq.” By selecting Kaine, Clinton shows that she has no intention of trying to rechannel the working class anxiety fueling the Trump campaign into something positive. Instead, she’s simply hoping that people will be so afraid of Trump that they have no choice but to join her. Perhaps they will be. But consider: Trump tells people he will keep them safe from joblessness, terrorism, and crime. Clinton tells people that joblessness, terrorism, and crime aren’t problems, and that she’ll keep them safe from Trump. Which scare tactic is more compelling? 

In an age where millions of people are looking for explanations and solutions for their despair, it might be unwise to count on fear of Trump as one’s sole campaign message. So long as Democrats stick with the mantra that everything is fine and Obama is fantastic, not only will they come across as smug, not only will what they are saying be false, but it’s hard to see how they will win a presidential election.

Slavery is Everywhere

Millions of human beings are presently enslaved. Shouldn’t that be somewhat disquieting?

All human beings are enslaved, though some are more enslaved than others. Our typical binary distinction between freedom and slavery (I am either free, or I am enslaved; I cannot be enslaved but free, or free but enslaved) is false, for coercive conditions exist on a spectrum. At the extreme end of that spectrum is the typical scenario of slavery, the antebellum South with its whippings and overseers. But a myriad of other conditions bear striking similarities to this kind of slavery, even as they lack what we think of as its central features (auctions, manor houses, white-suited masters with sluggish drawls).

For example, say you were to take Highway 61 out of Baton Rouge, and head north toward the Mississippi border. If, after about 35 miles, you turned off into the country, you would soon find yourself at the Louisiana State Penitentiary, known informally as “Angola.” There, you would notice something striking. You would see open fields, filled with cotton and other crops. And in these fields, you would see row after row of black men, young and old, tilling the fields and picking the cotton. It might seem like a scene from the 1850’s. But then, as you looked closer, you would notice something else, something even more disquieting: these rows of black men were being watched over, overseen, by other men. Men with guns. And it would quickly become clear to you that if the men picking cotton decided they were tired of picking cotton, and began to pack up and wander off, these men with guns would have something quite emphatic to say about it.

The Angola prison facility began as a slave plantation, and little has changed about it since its earliest days. Perhaps the only difference is that it has since installed a gift shop, where tourists can purchase T-shirts and coozies emblazoned with cheery confinement-themed slogans (“Angola: There’s No Escapin’ It” and “Angola: A Gated Community”). In all but the most superficial aspects, the facility is the same: black men in chains, working the fields from dawn to dusk, their every personal liberty surrendered, every wish granted solely at the discretion of the fat old white man who runs the place.

It’s certainly very strange to see slavery so alive and well in a country so convinced it has abolished it. But for a nation of lawyers, Americans are startlingly oblivious to a gaping loophole in their formally codified rights: they’ve never actually prohibited slavery at all. That sounds like somewhat of a conspiratorial exaggeration, but it’s indisputably the case. The 13th Amendment, the one that supposedly abolished slavery, reads as follows:

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

Did you notice the loophole? It’s alright if you didn’t; it seems to have passed the rest of the nation by for 150 years. But there it is: slavery is prohibited, except…

It’s perfectly fine to enslave someone, then. The only condition is that it be punishment for a crime. The 13th Amendment therefore does not prohibit slavery; it doesn’t even pretend to. What it does is offer a procedural guarantee that nobody will be enslaved without first undergoing a legal proceeding to determine whether they deserve it.

In practice, this does very little. After all, nearly anything can be made a crime; by some estimates, the average American commits three felonies per day without knowing it. And the State of Louisiana has taken full advantage of the 13th Amendment’s useful little caveat; it officially sentences people to “years at hard labor” rather than “years in prison,” and it often assigns people to decades of labor for even petty crimes like marijuana possession.

Now, fortunately, for most people, there is little risk of falling in the loophole and ending up enslaved. But this shouldn’t be especially comforting; if we had been told in 1850 not to worry, because most people have no risk of ending up as slaves, this would be irrelevant to the moral horror of the institution.

The fact that for most people the risk of slavery is low, but the law sanctions it for others, turns rights into little more than a myth. The question of whether or not a person becomes enslaved depends on whether they stay on the correct side of the law, a law that is destined to be crafted far more by the powerful than the powerless (that is, after all what power means to begin with).

Indeed, in the years after the Civil War, white Southern elites figured out how to take full advantage of this opportunity. Frustrated by the prohibition on the buying and selling of human beings, they turned to the criminal law to obtain a continuing supply of cost-free black labor. As Douglas Blackmon documents in Slavery By Another Name, a system of “neoslavery” arose, in which being poor effectively became a crime, and since crime could be punished by enslavement, black people could be reenslaved. It was a neat trick, almost effortless. The ease with which the South simply replaced slavery with Jim Crow is a cautionary tale for those who act as if the existence of legal procedural rights is a sufficient guarantor of social equality.

As a word and a concept, slavery is troublesome. It’s etymologically arbitrary, deriving from the word “Slav,” since a number of Slavic people were captured and enslaved during the Middle Ages. Slavery therefore does not have some kind of easy inherent connotation, the way that a word like “prisoner” might (from the Latin prensionem, “a taking,” thus “one who is taken”). Of course, all words are arbitrary at their core, but some have more intelligible conceptual underpinnings than others, and “Slav”-ery doesn’t do much to help us answer the question of what slavery is.

The 1926 International Slavery Convention defined slavery as “the status or condition of a person over whom any or all the powers attaching to the right of ownership are exercised,” and most other definitions are similar; slavery is what happens when person becomes a commodity. But determining whether the “powers of the right of ownership” are being used is less clear than might initially be supposed. In legal theory, property is a kind of “bundle” of rights; the right to use something, the right to alienate (sell) it, the right to proceeds from it, and the right to destroy it. Now, a person can’t sell me or destroy me, so he can’t have the full rights of ownership, but people are given the right to use others all the time. Getting the right to use without the right to sell is called a lease; and people regularly lease land, cars, and people. A labor market is just a market for people-leases.


Focusing on slavery as a set of theoretical property rights constructions is therefore somewhat bizarre. It considers the types of legal rights the owner holds or exercises, rather than the person in question’s actual experiences. Thus the same two experiences could be slavery or not, depending on how they arose. If we see a row of men doing back-breaking work picking cotton, whipped and beaten, working 12 hour days, they might be enslaved. But what if we learn that they’re employees, that they’ve signed up for this since it’s the only job in the area? Well, according to all the theories we’re not dealing with slavery anymore, but it sure looks pretty similar.

That’s one of the reasons the phrase “wage slavery” arose to describe industrial toil. By the people-as-property definition of slavery, it’s an oxymoron; if everybody in the factory is being paid, nobody is being enslaved. But workers’ rights campaigners used the term “wage slavery” to illustrate a crucial point: being given wages so pitiful you couldn’t afford to move elsewhere meant that a wage system and a slave system could end up feeling exactly the same for the worker. Some even argued that wage-systems were worse; a capitalist who rented his labor could brutalize and destroy workers’ bodies and simply replace them one they wore out, while a slaveowner had some incentive to protect his investment. Most people treat rental cars with less care than cars they own, thus leased wage-workers could be even more poorly treated than slaves in many cases. (Rather than justifying slavery, that fact indicts wage work.)

Because the boundaries of slavery are difficult to pinpoint, and people tend to associate it so strongly with the slave regime of the American South and the Transatlantic slave trade (far more than they think of Greek slaves, slaves in the Middle Ages, or, well, Slavs), many situations resembling slavery in “all but name” are ignored or treated as normal.

Yet if we honestly examine what sort of experiences constitute slavery or its equivalent, we find that the experience of brutal and effectively involuntary work, is everywhere. Slavery is invisibly present in the architecture of our lives. In fact, we are surrounded by innumerable symbols of slavery, cunningly-disguised, made anodyne by ubiquity and routine.

The experience of slavery is present in countless products we unthinkingly purchase, consume, and discard every day. These items were created or harvested, in whole or in part, by fellow human beings who have been conveniently hidden from our sight. Such workers are not paid a living wage. Their lives are devoid of the most basic necessities. They live under conditions of abject misery and fear. And so once we get ourselves out of the conceptual muddle, and look below the surface, we are faced with the disquieting reality that we are all actively participating in a slave economy: today, right now, this minute.

It’s a simple enough matter to prove. Take, for example, your morning cup of coffee. If you drink an inexpensive brand like Folgers, your brew is a hodgepodge of beans from all over the world: there’s no way to know exactly where they came from. So there’s a good chance that some of your coffee came from the Ivory Coast, and that those beans were picked by children under the age of 15. These children were trafficked and made to work long hours, as many as eighty a week. They groaned under the weight of loads so heavy that their burdens left them with open sores on their bodies. When their pace slackened, they were beaten with branches or bicycle chains.

If you source your coffee regionally, say from Honduras or Brazil, the story is a bit better, but not much. Many children quit school to work the fields, depressing wages for the entire workforce. If your coffee-picker is an adult, he or she still likely earns next to nothing, was forced to pay inflated prices for goods at the estate shop, and was then bound to the plantation by ever-mounting debts. The coffee industry, overflowing with the milk of human kindness, has performed a Cost-Benefit Analysis, but says that ensuring that child labor and forced labor are absent from their supply chains would be “onerous and especially costly to implement.”

“Alright, so coffee is slavery. I’ll stick to tea.” Ah, don’t be so quick. Workers on tea plantations endeavor to live on about 17 cents a day. Sex trafficking of tea pickers’ children, with or without their parents’ knowledge, is rampant, because parents cannot afford to feed and educate children on the wages they earn. The pattern repeats across products in dozens of industries. There are similar stories behind your sweets, your clothes, your electronics. Nor is this confined to remote corners of the world: right here in the United States, slaves and child laborers are part of the labor force that picks the fruits and vegetables we eat every day.

All of this is the realm of the quasi-known. Everyone knows it, but they don’t really know it, or they pretend not to know it so everyone can get on with life without feeling miserably, uselessly guilty. It is one of those things that seems better not to think too much about. Yet think about it we must, if we are not to be monsters.

Contemporary slavery comes in several varieties. Some occurs on a lucrative black market, while other forms are perfectly legal components of the economy. The old-fashioned kind of slavery, kidnapping people by force or trickery, who are then bonded into performing labor against their will—is common, and becoming more common every day. There are twice as many in this kind of enslavement today as there were during the entire 350 year duration of the transatlantic slave trade.

But there are legal horrors to match the illegal ones. Shockingly enough, for example, your American-grown blueberries may have been picked by an elementary- or middle school-aged child, who then had to go wearily to class and try to learn their multiplication tables. This is because, since 1938, using children for agricultural labor has been permitted by law, and the National Farmworker Ministry estimates that there are 500,000 agricultural workers under the age of 18. In 2014, Human Rights Watch released a report on U.S. child tobacco farm workers, some of whom are as young as 11 and work full 10 or 12 hour days. On the tobacco farms, many of these kids develop nicotine poisoning, experiencing “vomiting, nausea, headache, dizziness, skin rashes and burning eyes.” Yet for migrant families struggling to survive on meager wages, sending a schoolchild to work for a local farmer may be the only way to stay afloat. If you thought child labor had disappeared from the United States, you haven’t seen the agricultural sector.

And then there are countries like Bangladesh, where the main source of employment is the garment manufacturing industry, which pays about 14% of a living wage, and where factory working conditions are infamously unsafe. (Should we be surprised that Bangladeshis comprise a significant percentage of the refugees fleeing to South Asia and Europe, as desperate for escape as if their country were irreparably ravaged by violence and war?)

There’s a tendency to cast Bangladesh’s story as the growing pains of economic development, or cast the U.S. story as a consequence of irregular immigration. Of course, one shouldn’t downplay the complexity of the economic and logistical issues implicated by global trade, or large food systems. There may be some truth in saying that misery is a fact of human life, that we cannot simply will it away by disliking it. But let’s be honest with ourselves: we all instinctively know that to harness the misery of humans in one part of the world to provide comfort and entertainment for humans in another part of the world is a perverse and inexcusable form of evil.

If the choice were available, no person on earth would voluntarily toil away all the years of their life, on starvation wages or worse, with no hope of improving their lot, manufacturing useless luxuries to be fleetingly enjoyed by others upon whom the accident of birth has bestowed greater fortune. That is injustice itself. To respond to exposés of worker exploitation with statements like, “Well, they’d be worse off if they weren’t making our products” is to employ the logic of a slaver. It means shrugging and accepting obvious moral evils simply because they would be difficult to address, because altering the prevailing system will likely have complicated economic and political consequences. This is the kind of thinking that perpetuated the institution of slavery in this country throughout multiple centuries during which many people of both conscience and influence were fully aware that it was wrong. During those intervening years, thousands of human lives were trampled, degraded, mutilated, both spiritually and physically; and the ruination of those lives can never now be repaired. For those who believe that justice is not a mere category defined and circumscribed by our legal system, but is rather a holistic moral worldview that should inform all the decisions of our daily lives, it is impossible to accept a status quo that makes us all into the mirror image of an earlier generation of American elites: “masters who do not know how to free their slaves.”

The prevailing wisdom in some circles is that the bad PR surrounding labor abuses can compel multinationals to voluntarily improve their standards; or that multinationals, which are major regional players in most developing economies, will self-regulate in increasingly a humane direction due to the growing popularity of the “corporate responsibility” ethos. Perhaps that’s true. But this requires us to repose a large amount of trust in the personal goodness (or, at any rate, care for reputation) of company executives; and to trust also that this mindset will be handed down as a sacred charge to each new generation of managers. History should make us skeptical about the resilience of this sort of hereditary ethics. It would be preferable to have a somewhat more solid assurance than mere noblesse oblige.

On an individual level, the “conscientious objection” approach is ethical consumerism: to boycott companies that engage in unfair labor practices (including unpaid or minimally-compensated labor, use of child labor, bans on or retaliation against unionization, inadequate sanitation and safety standards, tolerance of sexual assault and harassment, and environmental destruction) and patronize companies that use good practices. But this is necessarily an approach with severe limitations. For starters, making ethically-informed choices can be extremely difficult due to the differences between the amount of information known by companies and by consumers, and the misleading or unverifiable nature of most “fair trade” labels. (Most companies claim themselves not to know what is happening on the contractor or sub-contractor levels of their supply chains, which may well be true, though it’s hard to believe that they could not possibly bestir themselves to find out if they so chose.)


And while it’s comparatively easy to be an ethical consumer of certain common food products, it’s next to impossible when it comes to necessities such as clothing and (what is now effectively a necessity in modern society) technology. Ethically-produced garments are nearly impossible to find; ethically-produced electronics are entirely impossible. You can buy used items, but that’s as close as you get. The “free market” approach is to buy the products that one wishes to see the market moved towards, but it’s hard to move the market towards a product that doesn’t exist.

Ethical consumerism is also something a middle- or upper-class gambit, because most ethical products are specialty products, difficult for low- and fixed-income people to afford. Companies like Wal-Mart have had great success with the reverse-Robin Hood approach, whereby, in charging rock-bottom prices for cheaply-manufactured goods, they rob the poor to feed the poor. And this is all to say nothing of the economic ravages and immediate hardship to vulnerable workers that would occur if all companies were to suddenly pull their operations wholesale from countries where exploitation is perceived to be “endemic.”

But what of the law? Can it save us? Until very recently, the answer was a resounding no. The law was, as it usually is, a pretty pitiful guarantor of basic human liberties, and slave conditions have persisted for centuries with statutory blessing.

However, a modest new legal tool may now be at our disposal. This February, with very little fanfare, Congress passed, and President Obama signed into law, a bill with the potential to significantly impact the extent to which companies are held accountable for the presence of slave labor in their supply chains. Section 901 of the Trade Facilitation and Trade Enforcement Act, introduced by Republican Congressman Tom Reed and co-sponsored by seven other Republicans, mandates the “elimination of the consumptive demand exception to prohibition on importation of goods made with convict labor, forced labor, or indentured labor.”

The “consumptive demand exception” refers to a provision of the 1930 Tariff Act that forbade the import of “all goods, wares, articles, and merchandise mined, produced or manufactured wholly or in part in any foreign country by convict labor and/or forced labor and/or indentured labor,” except for those items “not mined, produced or manufactured in such quantities in the United States as to meet the consumptive demands of the United States.”

In other words: you couldn’t import slave-made goods into the U.S. unless, you know, people really, really wanted to buy them. The exception rendered the Tariff Act’s prohibition on slave-made goods effectively meaningless. It was an almost sublimely-constructed piece of self-negation: we don’t import slave-made goods from abroad unless we don’t have enough of such goods here; but almost by definition, the goods we import are the goods we don’t already have.

Predictably, the law was rarely invoked. Many goods highly likely to contain slave labor in their supply chains—including coffee from the Ivory Coast, electronics manufactured in Malaysia, and garments woven from Uzbeki cotton—are regularly imported into the U.S. Theoretically, with the passage of the new law, the import of all such goods is completely prohibited. But many questions remain. How far down its supply chain does a company’s obligation extend—all the way to the raw materials stage? What penalties will companies face for attempting to import slave-made goods? How will the enforcement effort be funded? Who will undertake the difficult, research-intensive work of supply chain investigation, which will be necessary to prove specific violations? As is so often the case, without public pressure, the law will likely be a dead letter.

But if people concerned about the eradication of slavery come together to demand an articulate legal framework and substantial funding for enforcement, we may finally see the penalties for slave labor allocated onto the actors who drive the market for prices, the actors who are best equipped to bear economic risk: large multinationals. The closing of the “consumptive demand” loophole, even if well-enforced, will admittedly not directly improve the lots of those workers whose dire situation does not meet the technical definition of “slavery.” But you’ve got to start somewhere, and steady improvements to the laws should never be rejected even as they remain inadequate.

Slavery has actually been in the news quite a bit recently. It’s come up repeatedly in debates over removal of the Confederate flag. At Harvard University, student activists successfully advocated to eliminate the title “house master” from residential dormitories, and to remove a slaveowner’s family crest from the Harvard Law School shield. As national debates examine the role of race in our justice and our correctional systems, in our social structures, in housing and employment and education, the U.S. is confronting the ways that the underlying evil of slavery has metamorphosed and reappeared in many guises throughout the subsequent life of our nation.

But slavery does not just exist as the continuing reverberation of a tragic past, and by focusing on rooting out the symbolic and material consequences of historical slavery, we risk missing something quite important: the world is still full of actual, literal slaves. From the penitentiaries of Louisiana to the garment factories of Bangladesh to the coffee plantations of the Ivory Coast, slavery is ubiquitous but invisible. Faced with this disconcerting fact, each person must decide whether she is comfortable in continuing to passively participate, or whether she will accept the conclusion of our 19th century abolitionist predecessors: that one cannot coexist quietly alongside a slave system, and that it is one’s basic moral duty to find every available means of eliminating slavery from the earth for good.

The Political Sociopath

Ted Cruz’s autobiography reveals a man with few values and infinite ambition.

For someone who is so thoroughly disliked by anyone who ever meets him, for most of his life Ted Cruz has done inexplicably well at the political popularity contest. Political campaigning is supposed to be the art of winning people over, yet in his ascent to the U.S. Senate Cruz somehow managed to pull it off despite a total lack of charismatic warmth. Bill Clinton always had to be the most well-liked guy in the room; Ted Cruz will almost certainly be the least-liked guy in any room he ever enters.

It’s almost impossible to overstate the Texas senator’s off-putting qualities. Cruz’s senate colleagues unanimously despise him, and Sen. Lindsey Graham once made a “kidding-but-not-kidding” remark that if you killed Ted Cruz on the Senate floor, and the trial was held in the Senate, not a single Senator would vote to convict you. Cruz’s college roommate from Princeton has been asked to explain why he didn’t take the opportunity to smother Cruz in his sleep, and a neurologist has attempted to posit a biological theory for why Cruz’s face is so unsettling. Seemingly, the only real debate around Ted Cruz’s personal qualities is whether he’s better described as a “creep” or an “asshole.” Those who went to college with him knew him as a creep (it was the word most frequently offered when The Daily Beast interviewed his old classmates), citing his habit of lurking in the women’s hallway in his paisley bathrobe. On the other hand, those who worked with him on the Bush campaign in 2000 seemed unanimous in thinking him an asshole. Profiles of Cruz are filled with first-person accounts confirming his unpleasantness.

Consider a few:

  • “A classmate confided in Ted Cruz that her mother had gotten an abortion. Ted called her mother a whore.”
  • “We hadn’t left Manhattan before he asked my IQ…When I told him I didn’t know, he asked, ‘Well, what’s your SAT score? That’s closely coordinated with you IQ.’It went from, ‘Nice guy,’to ‘uh-oh.’”
  • “Ted’s style was sneering, smirking, condescending, jabbing his finger in your face—a naked desire to humiliate an opponent. No kindness, no empathy, no attempt to reach common ground.”

None of this is especially noteworthy in itself; the Ivy League and the Senate are swarming with the condescending and cretinous, though it must take a special kind of arrogance to make one’s self stand out as being uniquely insufferable among the Princeton undergraduate class. The real question is how someone this toxic could end up winning friends and influencing people. How could a man so downright eely (as Matt Taibbi memorably called him) get people to spend time around him, hand him money, and fill out ballots with his name on them? How could he get volunteers going door to door in support of him, people who have lives and families and surely some other things they could do than advance the career of a man so personally repellent?

This is a mystery that goes beyond Ted Cruz. Plenty of politicians are terrible people; this is universally acknowledged. But the voting public actually selects these people to be in charge. Nobody in Texas was forced to vote for Ted Cruz. George W. Bush, who makes a policy of never speaking ill of another Republican, was moved by the existence of Cruz to break his affability pledge for the first time, saying “I just don’t like the guy.” Indeed, nobody does. Yet Cruz won a Republican senate primary against Texas’s Lieutenant Governor, then a general election. The question, then, is how people that nobody likes can become extremely successful. We might predict that such people would be “losers”; because Ted Cruz is arrogant and nobody likes being around him, he has few friends and nobody wants to hire him to work with them. But the opposite is often true: they not only win, but rise and rise indefinitely. How do they do this? By what process does raw ambition subvert the ordinary rules of social success? Why do losers win, why do assholes finish first?


Ted Cruz’s autobiography is as useful a place as any to begin the search for clues, to figure out how he has managed to make people give him whatever he wants without making any effort to get them to like him. To be sure, it’s a propaganda book, written specifically to aid his campaign for the presidency, but it’s clear that it wasn’t ghostwritten, and it therefore contains a number of useful insights into how Ted Cruz thinks about and presents himself. The first striking thing is how open Ted Cruz is about his prioritization of personal ambition over any kind of deeply held moral conviction. Cruz doesn’t speak very much about the formation of his conservative worldview. He does not portray himself as being concerned with the issues first and himself second. Instead, he sees aspirations toward humility as essentially dishonest:

Anyone considering running for office, as I was at the time, is supposed to act totally disinterested in the political process, to pose as the reluctant public servant only answering the call because the people need him or her so desperately. But that wasn’t the truth. Not for me.

For Cruz, then, ambition is a given; the only question is whether you’re going to pretend you don’t have it, or honestly admit that you do. Cruz gives himself points for telling the truth, but it’s notable that his worldview doesn’t allow for the existence of a genuine public servant, one who isn’t “posing.” Cruz cannot even conceive of the idea that someone would genuinely wish to serve others, would care about politics as something useful to society rather than the mere pursuit of personal success. This view of the world, in which everything is a game and the aim is to win, has been with Cruz since the beginning:

Midway through junior high school, I decided that I’d had enough of being the unpopular nerd. I remember sitting up one night asking why I wasn’t one of the popular kids. I ended up staying up most of that night thinking about it. ‘Okay, well, what is it that the popular kids do? I will consciously emulate that.’

Of course, Cruz doesn’t seem to have done a good job of emulating popularity, but it’s again notable how cynically he thinks about it. Popularity is desirable, thus you should ape the popular, then you will have the desirable thing, and thus you will have won. There’s not a moment’s thought that friendship is something intrinsically enjoyable, that people might like each other for reasons that go beyond their pursuit of particular self-interested ends.

So even as a teenager, Cruz’s only motivating force was political ambition. The 18-year-old Cruz spoke on camera of his desire for “world domination,” and he listed his life goals as: go to Princeton, go to Harvard Law, start a successful law practice, enter politics, become the President. Not a word about actually making the world better, understandable since Cruz thinks anyone professing a desire to serve others is lying.

The lack of talk about values in the book is almost stunning. Cruz describes what he has done, and how he did it, but he almost never talks about why he did it. Most politicians use the opportunity of a campaign book to explain and justify their principles; Cruz seems to believe that such an exercise would be dishonest. Indeed, if you don’t actually believe anything, it certainly would be.


So one of the most surprising aspects of Ted Cruz’s book is that he doesn’t actually come across as being particularly conservative, at least not in the sense of believing that being a conservative is about holding a particular set of moral convictions that one thinks are beneficial to society. In fact, as he describes the world, he can offer facts that make him sound almost like a left-winger. Consider the way he talks about his grandparents’ indenture in Batista’s Cuba:

The store gave the families credit, and the sugar mill paid their salaries through the general store, which then took the money to pay their debt and (in theory) give them any remaining money. But, of course, no money ever remained, and the arrangement led to perpetual servitude.

Or the hope offered by America to his destitute immigrant father:

It is difficult for many of us to fully comprehend what a beacon of hope this country offers the rest of the world. There is no other place on earth that would have welcomed so freely to its shores a man like Rafael Cruz. He was eighteen, penniless, and spoke no English… Barack Obama, noting his own rise from humble beginnings, has observed that ‘in no other country on earth is my story even possible.’ My family can relate to that sentiment. In no other country would Rafael Cruz’s story even be possible.

The framing of these anecdotes is strange. In the first, Cruz describes a scenario in which ostensibly free market employment relationships created “perpetual servitude” for workers. In the second, Cruz speaks positively of America allowing poor, uneducated Hispanic immigrants to enter the country. Yet this is a man who supports untrammeled capitalism and massive new restrictions on immigration. Cruz’s official immigration platform proposes to evaluate potential new entrants to the country so as to “prioritize the interests and well-being of Americans,” with an immigrant more likely to be admitted based on their “language skills,” “formal education,” “resources to create jobs,” “ties to the United States,” and “lifetime earning potential.” It’s hard to see how Rafael Cruz, a broke teenager who spoke no English, would ever be admitted under such a regime, yet Cruz the younger is proud that America made his father’s story possible.

Such paradoxes occur repeatedly. Cruz’s background, as the child of an immigrant raised in a home with some family difficulties, has infected him with the kind of personal experiences that turn one left-wing. Yet he is committed to a rigid conservatism that prohibits him from allowing these facts to change his mind.

Consider an especially bizarre example of the tension between Ted Cruz’s knowledge and his behavior. Here, Cruz describes the sexism his mother experienced as a female computer programmer in the 1950s:

One need not be a devotee of Mad Men to understand what faced working women in the 1950s. Coming out of college, my mom deliberately didn’t learn how to type. She understood that men would stop her in the corridors of the Shell offices and ask her ‘Sweetheart, would you type this for me?’ With a clear conscience she could answer ‘I’d love to help, but I don’t know how to type!… I guess you’re just going to have to use me as a computer programmer instead.’

Later in the book, Cruz relates an anecdote from his time working alongside his wife, Heidi, on the Bush presidential campaign:

One day [Heidi] went into the office of Robert Zoellick, who was serving as Jim Baker’s de facto chief of staff. Sitting at his desk with his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, Bob peered up, and Heidi said ‘Bob, I just wanted to see, is there anything I can do to help?’ He said, ‘Yes. Grapefruit juice. I want grapefruit juice.’ And with that he went back to work.

Heidi came into the office where I was working hopping mad. ‘Damn it,’ she said. ‘I’ve got a Harvard MBA. I’ve worked on Wall Street as an investment banker. And his request for me is grapefruit juice!?’

After a moment, she asked me, ‘What do I do?’ I sympathized with her completely. Then I said, ‘Sweetheart, here are the car keys. Go get him grapefruit juice, right now.’

Cruz isn’t an idiot; he knows from what happened to his mother that being called “sweetheart” and told to perform some mindless task is miserable and demeaning. And yet he can talk about “what faced working women” in one passage, and participate in the replication of that very same behavior later on.

Isn’t this bizarre? Well, not really. It’s actually not much of a paradox at all; it just requires you to accept the twin conclusions that Ted Cruz is (1) quite perceptive and (2) not very nice. That should be easy enough to admit, and is in fact confirmed throughout the text.


The thing about the autobiography, as others have noted, is that as a book it’s really not bad. It’s well-constructed and it isn’t boring. Cruz is a good writer, insofar as writing consists of selecting appropriate words and combining them into pleasingly rhythmic sentences. But that only serves to reinforce the point: Cruz is an intelligent person whose pathological ambition and ego keep him from allowing that intelligence to do any good. He should know better, but because he was born incapable of feeling inclinations other than self-interest, he will never follow his observations through to their implications if doing so might unsettle his convictions and cause him to stray from his path.

All of the observations of classmates and colleagues confirm this. Cruz at Princeton is described as someone who arrived with a sense of purpose and never strayed from it; he wanted to win, and he would do anything it took in order to do so. A reporter who met him during the Bush campaign said Cruz “was all pure unbridled ambition,” coming across as “a guy who would use whatever means necessary to get on top.” All of that makes Cruz much more frightening than a sincere conservative.

If you want snapshots of Cruz the asshole, you’ll find them in the book. Consider the following account of the birth of his child:

As she lay in the hospital bed, in labor, Heidi was typing furiously on her Blackberry, still tending to the needs of her clients. I admired her tenacious work ethic—it’s one of the many qualities that made me fall in love with her—but this was too much. I gently pulled the Blackberry out of her hands. “It will be here later,” I said. She had more important things to do.

To be fair, when it came to leaving work at the hospital steps, I wasn’t completely innocent. During much of the time were there, I was studying cases for an oral argument before the U.S. Supreme Court scheduled for two days later. I was appearing in support of a Louisiana law that allowed capital punishment for the very worst child rapists… So just hours after Caroline was born, I said a prayer of thanksgiving, kissed my beautiful wife and baby daughter, rushed to the airport, and flew to Washington to argue the case.

So he made his wife feel bad for checking her work messages after the birth of their child, then immediately ditched her because he felt his own work was more important. (In fact, throughout the book one is astonished at how somebody so successful and attractive as Mrs. Cruz could tolerate a lifetime of being entwined with such a man. The Universe seems to have attempted to send her a warning; her first date with Ted was at a restaurant called “The Bitter End.”)

But if Cruz is an “asshole,” made of pure self-interest and guile, we must wonder the extent to which he has any real political convictions. His ex-college roommate, who loathes him, has insisted that Cruz believes nothing, and that his every attempt to insist otherwise is calculated. But it’s impossible to see inside Cruz’s brain, and figure out the extent to which he is driven by conviction versus self-aggrandizement. What we can ask is a hypothetical: if Ted Cruz were given the choice between enacting a conservative utopia (while sacrificing his political career in the process, becoming a powerless nobody), and becoming the President of the United States (but guaranteeing that a conservative utopia would never come about), which would he choose? Again, we can’t resolve it, but based on the evidence presented in Ted Cruz’s book, in which his life seems to consist of the pursuit of success (as opposed to the pursuit of good conservative outcomes), it’s hard to think that he’d turn down the Presidency for the sake of realizing his ostensible ideal political outcome. For Cruz, there is only one ideal political outcome, which is “world domination” (to quote 18-year-old Ted) by Cruz himself.


Hillary Clinton is not Ted Cruz. Nor is she much like Ted Cruz, in any of the obvious ways. But she is a person about whom it is instructive to pose that same question: do we believe that, given the choice between becoming the President and enacting a liberal utopia (but being forgotten), Hillary Clinton would choose power or principle?

Clinton’s supporters have long insisted that her reputation as being underhanded and power-craving is unwarranted. The charge, they suggest, is sexist; it creates an image of Clinton as a conniving shrew, when any fair-minded examination of her record reveals this isn’t true. But it’s certainly the case that Clinton shifts her professed principles in accordance with the political needs of the day. Even a Clinton-supporting newspaper columnist admitted that her stance on trade had shifted to better align with the populism of Bernie Sanders:

When it comes to campaign trail flip-flops, Hillary Clinton delivered a doozy this week. On Wednesday she announced her opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade deal reached between the United States and Asian nations. Clinton says that any new trade deal must “create good American jobs, raise wages, and advance our national security” — and this one doesn’t. Clinton, however, has long been a proponent of the TPP, particularly when she was secretary of state just a few years ago (by one estimate, she expressed support for it 45 times). It’s doubtful she has suddenly become a protectionist or that, as president, she won’t find some way to support a different version of the TPP. So let’s be honest, this isn’t about jobs; it’s about one job, president, and Clinton’s desire to be the next one.

Clinton’s stances on other matters have shifted similarly. After defending gun rights in her race against Barack Obama, and pitching herself as a defender of the 2nd Amendment, Clinton used guns as a way to make herself seem more progressive than Bernie Sanders, going after him for coddling the 2nd Amendment. Her views on gay marriage seemed to change in accordance with its popularity among the public; after steadfastly insisting for years that marriage should be between a man and a woman, Clinton suddenly became a major gay marriage supporter when it seemed to be a nationwide inevitability. Clinton even wavers on women’s rights; she will steadfastly defend Planned Parenthood to progressive audiences, but will then suggest that conservative sting videos against the organization offer “disturbing” evidence. She has been consistently inconsistent, morphing herself skillfully to fit each political circumstance. Is she a friend or an enemy of Wall Street? The answer seems to depend on whether she is standing on a stage next to Bernie Sanders.

In this respect, Hillary Clinton is a kind of mirrored opposite of Ted Cruz. Each of them is driven by ambition over principle, but each has chosen a different orientation: for Clinton, it’s to adopt any position necessary to get votes. For Cruz, it’s never to let the temptation toward compromise and harmony get in the way of the quest for domination. Yet both of these figures clearly wake up in the morning attempting, above all else, to win. Their goals are about them. Even right out of law school, Hillary Clinton was bragging that Bill would be the president. Once Bill did in fact reach the highest office, he and Hillary devised a plan for the presidency: “8 years of Bill, 8 years of Hill.” It’s hard to see this kind of strategizing as in the service of progressive goals; it seems much more like a Machiavellian quest to maximize one’s time at the top. There’s something very strange indeed about people like Cruz and the Clintons, who even in their 20s were openly plotting their political dominance.

Which brings us back to the original question: why do ambitious people succeed to begin with, if they depend on the support of others to achieve that success, and if those others know perfectly well that the ambitious people are lying about their beliefs and only in it for themselves? Yes, such people are “climbers,” but they are enabled at every stage by the people who voluntarily hand them the power they seek.

One problem is that truly humble people rarely step forward, precisely because that humility is true. Ted Cruz is right to identify something suspicious in the “reluctant” public servant; for being so reluctant, they often seem quite eager. When most of us think of the truly decent people we have met, they are rarely in politics. They are teachers, social workers, public defenders, counselors, nurses, janitors, and aid workers. They are not in the public spotlight, precisely because they would actually refuse it if it were offered to them. There is nothing false in such people’s apparent lack of ego; it’s just how they are.

The old saws about politicians, then, contain some truth: nobody should be elected President who wants to be the President, for there is something astonishingly egotistical in wanting to become the President of the United States. The reason all of our politicians are so sociopathic and self-obsessed is that it takes a sociopathic and self-obsessed personality to seek political power over others. The success of a person like Ted Cruz, then, is a function of the structures that determine social achievement. In politics, as in business, you are rewarded not to the extent that you bring about decent outcomes, but to the extent that you screw the other guy. The people who float to the top of such a system are therefore destined to be the people most willing to screw the other guy, the people most willing to jettison thoughtfulness, principle, and selfless compassion when they get in the way of one’s goals. Thus people who are thoroughly disliked, friendless even, like Ted Cruz or Richard Nixon, get rewarded with high office. Until we readjust our mechanisms for allocating success, and consign such people to the obscurity and ostracism they deserve, the political sociopath will continue to win the game. Until we reward people on the basis of how decent and principled they actually are, rather than how well they can feign decency and principle, Ted Cruz will continue to win popularity contests despite being universally disliked.

Ted Cruz photograph by Jamelle Bouie.