The Clinton Foundation’s Problems Are Deeper Than You Think

Critical scrutiny has focused on the Foundation’s fundraising. But there are equally troubling questions about its actual work.

In recent days, large amounts of criticism have been directed at the Clinton Foundation over its fundraising methods, and purported ethical conflicts of interest arising out of Hillary Clinton’s tenure as Secretary of State. Stated most strongly, the allegation is that Clinton’s position as Secretary helped her squeeze foreign governments for Foundation donations, and access to the State Department was sold to the highest bidder. And while “pay to play” charges remain unconfirmed, it’s certain that the Foundation raised money from foreign governments in ways that present a troubling ethical problem for a likely future president.

Democrats have vigorously defended Clinton and the Foundation. Supportive journalists have insisted the story amounts to nothing, and Donna Brazile has objected to the tendency of journalists to treat “normal behavior” (like granting special access for large donors) as somehow worthy of disapprobation. Some have cited this as an example of what they call the “Clinton Rules,” whereby behavior that is engaged in routinely by other politicians is treated as uniquely pathological when done by the Clintons.

One major reason that the “pay-for-play” story has failed to stick, then, is that many people simply don’t see what the big deal is. Sure, Clinton may have collected Foundation donations from human rights violators across the planet. And sure, giving large donations to the Foundation may have made it easier to secure a meeting with a Clinton. But, it is said, since these were charitable donations to a foundation that does a lot of good work, what’s the harm?

It is almost a requirement that any criticism of the Clinton Foundation be followed immediately by a qualification about how much Good Work it does. Even Glenn Greenwald has said that it is “beyond dispute” that the Foundation does a great deal of good work. (Instead, Greenwald points out how likely it is that Saudi Arabia donated to the Foundation in the belief doing so would confer favor, rather than because the Kingdom felt an intense commitment to the Foundation’s stated goals of empowering women and improving LGBT rights.) James Carville has said that “somebody is going to hell” for criticizing the fundraising practices of such a worthy organization (Carville’s remark echoes previous comments by Madeleine Albright that Bernie-supporting women belong in hell; “Our opponents will burn in hell” is evidently becoming the unofficial Clinton campaign motto.)

But critics of the Clinton Foundation may want to think twice before casually paying tribute to the organization’s tremendous good work. Most of the claims about the Foundation’s efficacy have little basis in any actual reported facts. Instead, it is simply assumed that the organization has tremendous humanitarian accomplishments, without any serious inquiry into what these are. An examination of the actual available evidence, as opposed to the PR claims of the Foundation and its boosters, suggests the need for far greater skepticism about the organization’s charitable acts in addition to its fundraising.

First, the Clinton Foundation is a strange type of “charity” to begin with. The New York Times has described the Foundation as “more a nonprofit global consulting firm than a traditional philanthropy.” Contrary to James Carville’s claim that the Foundation is “taking money from rich people and giving it to poor people,” its primary mission, says the Times, is “not to provide direct humanitarian aid.” Instead it “is known for sending bright but inexperienced recent graduates to work as technical advisers to government ministries.”

Ira Magaziner, who heads the independent Clinton Health Access Initiative, has said of their work that “the whole thing is bankable… It’s a commercial proposition. This is not charity.” Instead of aid, the Clinton Foundation spends much of its effort “creating new markets,” finding lucrative investment opportunities in the developing world for Western private capital. These have included everything from “using business methods to streamline fertilizer markets in Africa” to “working with credit card companies to expand the volume of low-cost loans offered to poor inner city residents.” (Note that typically, enticing poor people into taking on large amounts of credit card debt is not among the activities of a charitable foundation.) Bill Clinton is open about the fact that in this work, he is trying to help corporations profit from the developing world. He attempts to “reinvent philanthropy” as a lucrative enterprise for his partners because, in his words, “I think it’s wrong to ask anyone to lose money.”

It’s hard to keep track of all the “commercial propositions” the Foundation is engaged in, because it operates in a highly unusual fashion. Ordinarily, charitable foundations make grants to outside organizations. But only 15% of the Clinton Foundation’s spending is on charitable grants. Instead, it spends most of its money on its in-house programs, whose efficacy can be far more difficult to track. The task is made even more difficult thanks to the Foundation’s ongoing allergy to transparency.


Partly because of that, Charity Navigator, a watchdog group, at one point added the Clinton Foundation to its watch list of problematic charities, and for many years did not rate the organization at all because its “atypical business model. . . doesn’t meet our criteria.” The Clinton Health Access Initiative has refused to allow the charity evaluation organization GiveWell to analyze its outcomes, and the Better Business Bureau has listed the Clinton Foundation as failing to meet the basic standards for reporting the effectiveness of its programs. Bill Allison of the pro-transparency Sunlight Foundation has gone much further, and said that the organization operates as a “slush fund for the Clintons.”

Indeed, certain Foundation expenditures have appeared unduly lavish, and difficult to justify. The Foundation spends $8 million in annual travel expenses (the Clintons fly on private jets), bought a first-class plane ticket to bring Natalie Portman (and her prized Yorkie) to an event, and funds a “glitzy annual gathering of chief executives, heads of state, and celebrities.” Some costs are outsourced to others, and universities that invite Bill Clinton to speak can find themselves hit with unexpected invoices for $1,400 hotel phone bills and $700 dinners-for-two.

The annual summit of the Clinton Global Initiative has become, according to some, particularly unseemly. NPR’s Adam Davidson, who has moderated panels at the CGI, has professed a skepticism of how much good is actually done, suggesting that the Foundation offers a “theater” of charity without the actual results:

There is a real creepy vibe there. It’s all about buying access. It’s incredibly expensive. It costs hundreds of thousands to go, and you meet all these people selling their private equity start-ups. You spend more money to get more access. There is this creepy theater that happens where you have a big CEO up there with President Clinton bathing each other in love about how generous and wonderful they are and how much they care about the world…’ It feels like the worst version of an elite selling access to the aspirational, creating a theater of doing good, but it is all about something else. It really feels gross.

Davidson suggests that the CGI is the “performance of public charity, not actual intervention.” (He also points out that, even if the pay-to-play charges are baseless, it is thoroughly unwise for a presidential candidate to be “beholden to scumbags.” Since many human rights violators have given the Clinton Foundation large amounts of money, Clinton will assume the presidency owing favors to dictators.)

Davidson’s judgment is shared by others who have looked into the Foundation. Journalist Carol Felsenthal, who has extensively examined Bill Clinton’s post-presidency, suggests that he feels the need to appear to be involved in charity as part of a “striving for respectability” aimed at restoring his image after the public disgrace that marked his last years in office. Clinton, she says, has made no secret of the fact that with his Foundation work, he is “angling for the Nobel Peace Prize”; he is a person who “feeds off public acclaim,” and therefore needs a successful charity to helm. Indeed, the Foundation certainly brings Bill Clinton himself both luxury and adulation. Lawrence O’Donnell has offered a particularly acidic take on Clinton’s philanthropy:

It’s all self-glorifying. If we wanted to sit down and say ‘Let’s construct a path for glorification of Bill Clinton in a postpresidential environment,’ we could say ‘It would be great if he did a lot of good works in Africa.’ Look. My resistance to being impressed by Bill Clinton’s charitable work comes from his obvious, desperate desire for me to be impressed by it. And his extremely calculated desire for me to be impressed by it. This is a person as calculating about public image as exists in the world.

A publicity-oriented approach to charity has clear human consequences. In the Clinton case, we can see these in Haiti. After the devastating Haitian earthquake in 2010, both Clintons were heavily involved in the recovery. Bill was given such large and nebulous authority that Haitians dubbed him “Le Gouverneur,” fearing he would become a sort of colonial administrator. The Clintons raised millions of dollars, including 30 million dollars through the Foundation, to assist the Haitian people.

But all of this money produced very little. Multiple expensive initiatives went nowhere, and the gleaming new industrial park the Clintons touted for Haiti brought few jobs and was largely unused. Instead of housing, the Clinton-led recovery built needless new luxury hotels. Indeed, Adam Davidson reports that the Clinton Foundation is not a major force in Haiti, and is not making any significant progress there. Journalist Jonathan Katz says it’s “hard to find anyone who looks back on [the recovery] as a success.” The Clintons themselves have simply stopped discussing Haiti publicly, though Haitians have occasionally showed up at Hillary Clinton’s office to protest the disappearance of millions of dollars in recovery funds. As one Haitian official who worked with Bill Clinton put it, “There is a lot of resentment about Clinton here. People have not seen results. . . . They say that Clinton used Haiti.” (More details on the Haiti debacle can be found in Doug Henwood’s My Turn, as well as my own book on Bill Clinton.)

But what about the Foundation’s domestic programs? These constitute the bulk of its work; despite the Clinton Foundation’s prominent promotion of its “global” programs, only 1/3 of its spending is on initiatives outside the United States. But here, too, Foundation work seems to disproportionately spend on staff rather than actual aid. A commenter on Inside Philanthropy, who works in public health, explains how the Foundation attaches its name to community health initiatives without actually materially assisting them:

The Clinton Health Matters Initiative (CHMI) is a domestic community health program located within one city/county in 5 states. Businesses like GE and Humana write million dollar checks to the Clinton Foundation to support the implementation of these local initiatives, but none of the money actually goes toward the work. I attended the so-called “CHMI convening” in Houston, TX. The Foundation representatives held an all day meeting during which the participants were to develop a wish list to improve the community’s health. They said “don’t worry about the cost.” We thought this was great news: more community health resources. Everyone assumed that the Foundation and GE would be funding the work, which would produce community health jobs, but we later learned that the Foundation does not fund its own projects. It committed no budget, staff, or office space to develop the Initiative but hired merely one person, a regional director to oversee the work. The money that GE, the corporate partner, donated toward the Initiative went to the Foundation’s coffers, not the local projects…

Under the CHMI model, each health indicator is assigned 5 goals, totaling 45 that Foundation claims will be reached within a brief 5 year period. There is no way any organization can accomplish that many goals without adequate funding and staffing. The Clinton Foundation should be ashamed of misleading these communities into thinking that it will fund and support the implementation of this massive work.

The Clinton Foundation has a powerful name that most city governments and corporations want to be associated with, but how can it claim to be serious about community health when it doesn’t fund its own projects or give grants to existing local public health organizations? The Clinton Foundation exploit these communities to get corporations to write huge checks. Everyone gets excited that it’s coming to town. The corporation improves its brand through association. the Foundation improves its bottom line, but the community’s health gets short changed. It’s a hustle, a brilliant and legal one, but still a hustle.

As we read things like this, it may be tempting to conclude that the Clinton Foundation is little more than Potemkin philanthropy, a vast, wasteful, occasionally useful apparatus that exists largely to make Bill Clinton look good and help Bill Clinton’s friends find investment opportunities in Africa. But that would be slightly unfair. It’s not that the Clinton Foundation’s charitable works are fraudulent or nonexistent. It’s that it seems highly likely that they are not doing anywhere near the kind of good they insist they are. The Clinton Foundation and its offshoots are plagued by internal dysfunction, and one of its primary expenditures has been the massive Bill Clinton Presidential Library. It has spent increasing portions of its budget on salaries over the years, and decreasing portions on the distribution of low-cost pharmaceuticals.

We must consistently bear in mind the relevant metric: it is not whether the organization has good works it can point to, it is whether it is spending its money well. Asked to account for the the whereabouts of various dictators’ contributions to its operations, the Foundation may well point to a warehouse it built in Malawi. And indeed, all other things equal, it is better to have a warehouse than not to have one. But if one is working on a hundred-million dollar budget, building a warehouse may still amount to a gross squandering of funds.


Foundation defenders have been quick to point out that the organization spends most of its money on programs, as well as the A rating it received from CharityWatch. But this misses the crucial point; it’s not about the fact that you spend your money on programming, it’s what that programming actually does. Likewise, CharityWatch rating does not actually look at what’s relevant, namely what the organization has gotten for its money.

Clinton supporter David Corn points out that when we ask these questions of the Clinton Foundation, we find no obvious answers:

Has it mounted projects that have failed? We don’t know. Does it have a lot of highly paid staff? Yes, it does. But maybe that’s justifiable, if the results are strong enough… Still, rendering an ultimate verdict is tough. It’s a pity that, as is often the case with many nonprofits, the results of its high-minded efforts are not fully verified in a manner that could transcend agenda-driven political squabbling.

Of course, Corn assumes that the Clinton Foundation’s lack of transparency is a mere oversight, a bug rather than a feature. He does not consider the possibility that the Foundation’s failure to disclose the results of its work is because there are few results to disclose. Still, Corn’s article is worth reading. Here we have a strong supporter of Clinton making the best case for the Foundation’s impact. Corn clearly began with the intention of shifting the focus from the organization’s fundraising to its verifiable accomplishments. And yet despite his best efforts to defend the Foundation’s good work, he found it impossible to produce much in the way of measurable results.

The possibility that the Clinton Foundation fails to achieve much makes it even more objectionable that the organization has extracted money from smaller, less wealthy philanthropic groups, offering to have Bill Clinton speak at their fundraising events in exchange for their donating huge sums to the Clinton Foundation. The head of one small school-building charity, which tried to get Clinton to accept an award at its annual fundraiser, was told by Clinton Foundation that “they don’t look at these things unless money is offered, and it has to be $500,000.” If the Clinton Foundation is doing less with its money than comparable organizations, then by siphoning money from other charities, the Foundation is actually harming charitable efforts.

It is understandable that the Clinton Foundation’s fundraising practices have drawn the bulk of the scrutiny; after all, its good works are universally praised and the pay-to-play allegations raise serious ethical questions. But the Foundation is also suspiciously uninterested in explaining its actual accomplishments. Its most touted achievement, on AIDS drug pricing, comes from the separate Health Access Initiative and not the Foundation itself. And some of its work appears to consist of helping loan companies find new impoverished people to lure into debt. Considering Adam Davidson’s testimony that the Global Initiative is a way for rich people to feel good while making money, and Ira Magaziner’s admission that the Foundation’s work has little to do with charity, it is worth expanding our inquiry beyond fundraising. The Clinton Foundation’s problem is not just how it makes its money, but how it spends it.

Portions of this article have been adapted from the book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.

America’s All-Purpose Rent-A-Cop

Outgoing NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton has made policing into a very lucrative enterprise…

New York police commissioner Bill Bratton recently announced that, come September, he would be stepping down from his post. After only two years on the job, Bratton is heading for the private sector, where he will become an advisor to “Teneo Holdings,” a consulting group founded by a former aide to Bill Clinton.

The move is a natural one, given Bill Bratton’s career trajectory. Over the years, Bratton has become very unusual kind of police officer: a “celebri-cop” who flits between the private sector and government service, alternating between lucrative consulting gigs and high-profile municipal appointments.

Before Mayor Bill deBlasio brought him on in New York, Bill Bratton headed up the police forces of both Boston and Los Angeles, as well as a prior stint in New York under Mayor Giuliani. In his public role, Bratton became known as a major advocate of so-called “broken windows” policies, a fashionable conservative “theory” of policing that advocates focusing on low-level property crime in order to deter higher-level violent crime. In practice, because it explicitly suggests a disproportionately punitive approach to minor crime, “broken windows” often translates into the systematic harassment of homeless people and African Americans. This has made the practice “controversial.”

Indeed, the “broken windows” technique could be seen in the 2014 death of Eric Garner, which happened only six months after Bratton resumed his post as head of the NYPD. Garner was confronted by police for selling untaxed loose cigarettes, and it was Garner’s outrage at being continually harassed that led police to tackle and ultimately kill him.

Bratton’s continuing embrace of broken windows practices in the face of evidence has made him an ongoing target of civil liberties groups in New York. The ACLU lamented that “Bratton has stubbornly held on to the philosophy of ‘broken windows’ policing.” Bratton has faced ongoing pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement, which he has claimed practices “bigotry.”

But it’s not surprising that Bratton might have been clueless in the face of BLM’s rise; he is an old-school adherent to the Moynihan Report notion that the “distintegration of the family” is a far more salient factor than poverty in understanding the causes of crime. He has called rappers “basically thugs,” said that minorities trust the FBI because they “rely on the federal government so much,” and claimed that he has trouble hiring black police officers because it’s hard to find black men without criminal records.

But while Bratton’s racial history is disturbing, it is predictable. Rather, it is the business side of Bratton’s career that makes him unique in American policing. Bratton is possibly even more businessman than cop, having passed repeatedly through the notorious “revolving door” of U.S. politics, that rewards government officials with high-paying corporate jobs.

In his new capacity at Teneo Holdings, Bratton will “advise CEOs on how to deal with issues ranging from terrorism to cybercrime.” Teneo is a well-known golden parachute for ex-government workers looking to turn a profit in the private sector, and in recent years it has brought on advisers including former Senate majority leader George Mitchell, and Lord William Hague, the former British foreign secretary.

But Bratton’s business dealings extend far beyond Teneo. He has accumulated a good bit of wealth over the years in a variety of schemes. When he left the LAPD, Bratton joined “Altegrity International,” a global security firm. Just before his return to New York, Bratton won a $250,000 contract to consult with the Oakland Police Department as a member of the Strategic Policy Partnership. Similarly, before his stint in Los Angeles, Bratton had been a consultant to the LAPD in his position at Kroll Associates. All of this has led to the creation of a kind of “Bratton Brand,” which sells policing expertise all over the world (Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron even wanted to bring him on to head London’s Metropolitan Police.) Bratton has worked as a paid television analyst of policing for NBC, and dishes out advice at the Aspen Ideas Festival. But Bratton’s specialty is “re-engineering police departments,” moving to a city, equipping the police department with large amounts of military gear (“You name it, we are buying it,” Bratton proudly reported of the NYPD), and then hopping back through the revolving door onto more corporate boards.

Bill Bratton is not just a consultant. In fact, he’s something of an entrepreneur. In addition to his other funding streams, Bratton has founded two companies under his name, “Bratton Technologies” and the “Bratton Group LLC.” Bratton Technologies is the originator of “BlueLine,” a kind of “LinkedIn for law enforcement.” It remains unclear why cops would need a dedicated cop-only social network. But BlueLine does serve a purpose. It helps technology and weapons companies market their products to local departments, reaping lucrative contracts and making sure no municipality misses out on the latest in advanced weapon systems. BlueLine “enables vendors serving the law enforcement community to more effectively reach tens of thousands of individual police departments, forming a first-of-its-kind global law enforcement marketplace.”


Bill Bratton also served on the Board of Directors of Motorola Solutions and SST. SST markets “ShotSpotter,” a gunshot-locator technology. ShotSpotter operates by placing microphones all over cities, which are intended to detect possible gunshots and alert police accordingly. The high rate of false positives has called ShotSpotter’s effectiveness into doubt, and some police departments seem to view it as an enormous waste of money. But ShotSpotter also comes with serious civil liberties implications, since it places all parts of a city under constant secret audio surveillance by police (Yes, this likely violates the Fourth Amendment).

But despite its problems, New York City embraced ShotSpotter, unveiling a multi-million dollar system shortly after Bill Bratton stepped down from the SST board and joined the NYPD. In 2014, while he was NYPD commissioner, Bratton was paid nearly $50,000 by SST, even as he oversaw the implementation of a $3 million contract between SST and the city. Shockingly enough, earlier this year Bratton called for the city to spend many more millions of dollars purchasing additional ShotSpotter equipment.

Bratton’s conflicts of interest are endless. (The Village Voice said they trailed from him “like toilet paper on an old man’s shoe.”) Another security firm Bratton worked for was given over ten million dollars by the city of Los Angeles while Bratton was in charge of the LAPD. And Motorola, naturally enough, supplies the NYPD with millions of dollars in communications equipment.

Bill Bratton has successfully bridged the law enforcement and corporate worlds like no other police officer in the United States. Few other police commissioners publish business books, after all. (Bratton’s book is all about “collaboration” and “networking,” presumably collaboration between city police departments and firms trying to sell them large amounts of expensive technological devices and military-grade weaponry.) Bratton has successfully built a multi-million dollar scheme, by which he introduces cities to the “theory” of harassing vandals and sex workers, and in exchange reaps vast sums of money from both taxpayers and corporations.

Is there anything terribly wrong with that? It’s a ‘free country’, after all, and if Bratton has find a way to make policing work for him, perhaps we should congratulate him. But once we remember that police officers carry guns, and that police have a common tendency to use those guns, and that black lives do matter, Bratton’s new model is somewhat terrifying. When policing is driven by the financial incentives of companies looking for contracts, and when police commissioners have major money to make, it’s easy to foresee a world in which ordinary people suffer while freelance supercops like Bratton do very well for themselves. If the Bill Bratton-style rent-a-cop is the future of 21st century policing, then God help us all.

We Will Force You To Be Free

You can measure how bad a law is by what it looks like when you enforce it.

One obvious, but rarely mentioned, fact about law is that it means nothing except in its enforcement. A law that only exists on paper might as well not exist at all. Thus when the public demands a new law, it is asking for new law enforcement as well. Often, a law that sounds wise and principled in its conception (e.g. banning handguns), may look far better on paper than it does in the actual process of enforcing it (e.g. imprisoning poor black men on gun charges) After all, to “ban” something does not simply make it disappear, as by magic wand, but rather grants the government the power to inflict punishment on people who violate the ban.

Thus when some French resort towns banned the “burkini,” a wetsuit-like garment worn by some Muslim women, burkinis did not simply vanish from the country’s beaches. Instead, the ordinances produced the inevitable event that occurred this week in Nice: uniformed police officers gathered around a Muslim woman and demanded that she strip her clothing off in front of them. However reasonable a “ban” may sound at the abstract level, in its actual consequences (“having the police force women to take clothes off”) it may be far more extreme.

Critics have charged that the burkini ban is simply Islamophobia on the part of French authorities. French secularists, however, would insist that banning a particular clothing item, which they feel harms women (and which creates an ill-defined “public safety” concern) is distinct from banning a religion.


But when we look at the the necessity of enforcement, we see that it’s factually impossible for the process of applying the law not to involve a religious test. That’s because the burkini can’t be readily distinguished, in any principled way, from an ordinary wetsuit. Whether a woman’s full-body swimwear is a wetsuit or a “burkini” therefore depends entirely on how it is intended to be worn, rather than what parts of a person’s body are being covered up. The French towns are not, in fact, banning particular items or actions (like covering your arms), unless they would likewise enforce a universal wetsuit ban. Instead, they are banning covering your arms for reasons of religion. Nobody can argue, then, that the ban targets particular behaviors rather than particular beliefs, since whether a certain form of covering is a “burkini” depends entirely on the belief of the wearer.

This makes the whole idea of even sustaining a ban ludicrous, because it requires French police to comb the beaches for wetsuit-wearers, and then determine whether the wetsuit is religious or nautical in origin. That means finding out whether the wearer is a Muslim. (Actually, if we’re being serious, it means finding out whether the wearer is a Muslim and whether she is wearing the covering for reasons of religious faith or water temperature.) The whole process cannot be anything but farcical.

The reality of enforcement also shows just how false the quasi-feminist defenses of the Muslim wetsuit ban are. French officials have insisted that Islamic dress constitutes the enslavement of women, and that religious body covering is incompatible with the French conception of women’s liberty. But it’s hard to reconcile a “female empowerment” defense with the reality of a law that involves quite literally policing women’s swimsuits. If it’s wrong to make women wear burkinis, it’s surely it’s just wrong to make them not wear burkinis, if the underlying principle is “women should be free of coercion.” (In fact, it’s obviously a far worse restriction, since requirements imposed by the state are far more coercive than those imposed by community convention.) And if someone believes that Islamic dress is a patriarchal form of oppression against women, then why are they using the police to harass the “victim” of that oppression (the woman upon whom the burkini is imposed), rather the perpetrator (the men who impose it)? Surely even on the theory that the burkini is enslavement, it makes little sense to harass and fine the enslaved person.

The French sometimes have an odd conception of freedom. As political scientist Corey Robin noted, the scene from the Nice beach evokes Rousseau’s notorious maxim that people will be “forced to be free.” From Robespierre to the burkini, the French conception of liberté has often seemed to entail very little actual liberty.


It’s unfair to blame an entire nation for a repressive policy. People are distinct from their governments, after all. But while we shouldn’t speak of “the French” as discriminatory and repressive, there are certain particular French people we can hold responsible. These include the dozen or so beachgoers that watched passively as the police surrounded and harassed the Muslim woman in Nice. (In fact, some of them did more than silently observe; they applauded the police and shouted ‘Go home’ at the woman, causing her daughter to burst into tears.) By making no effort whatsoever to support the woman, and gawking as the police made her display her arms, each of these people shamefully participated in a humiliating act of authoritarian bigotry.

The burkini ban is nonsensical in a hundred different ways. If one’s concern is, as the ban proponents say it is, with France’s national security, what purpose does it serve to have the police chase down Muslim women on beaches? Surely such a policy is more likely to enrage ISIS than to defeat them. And it’s certainly a small irony to see police in combat boots telling a barefooted woman that she is inappropriately dressed for walking on the beach.

Since all of its justifications collapse under a moment’s rational scrutiny, the bans cannot be made in good faith. Thus even someone disturbed by Islamic religious requirements for women’s body-coverings must conclude that it is prejudice, rather than principle, guiding France’s municipal governments. Far from freeing Muslim women from the tyranny of their own religion, the requirements are similar to the “self-deportation” proposals offered by American anti-immigrant activists: make it so impossible and miserable to live as a Muslim in France that all French Muslims must either cease to be Muslims or cease to live in France.

Anyone concerned with actual, rather than pretextual, feminism, can see how simple this issue is. As journalist Leigh Phillips noted, it’s very easy to be consistent in opposing both patriarchal religious practices and bigoted civil liberties restrictions: nobody should make a woman wear a burkini, and nobody should make a woman not wear a burkini. The consistent lover of liberty understands that Rousseau’s dictum is just as contradictory as it sounds; forced freedom isn’t freedom, because freedom is the absence of force. If feminism means anything, it means not surrounding women with police officers and demanding they take off their shirts. And once we get past vacuous abstractions about secular values and the national interest, there’s no way to see a wetsuit ban as anything other than a totalitarian absurdity.

The Necessity of Political Vulgarity

To deny the importance of vulgarity is to reject the revolutionary tradition…

Many were surprised to see the notoriously centrist run a glowing profile of a revolutionary socialist quarterly. In leftist circles Vox is generally derided for its bland liberal politics, so when it published a lengthy examination of the popular socialist magazine Jacobin, a hatchet job seemed more likely. But astonishingly enough, Vox covered Jacobin fairly, even generously, in a piece flatteringly titled “Inside Jacobin: how a socialist magazine is winning the left’s war of ideas.”

For a publication inherently antagonistic to capitalism, Jacobin felt downright reasonable to Vox writer Dylan Matthews. Matthews described it as the “leading intellectual voice of the American left, the most vibrant and relevant socialist publication in a very long time,” leaving one to wonder how Jacobin’s frequent allusions to violent revolution sat so comfortably with such proudly pragmatist liberals.

One answer is that, however radical Jacobin’s political program may be, the magazine is committed to maintaining civility and sobriety in its tone. As Matthews explained:

The long-term goal might be a revolutionary working class, but for now [Jacobin publisher Bhaskar Sunkara] is most passionate about trying to get more uniques than the New Republic or FiveThirtyEight. He has little patience for left-of-center writers who go out of their way to make enemies, saying of Gawker, “It’s less mean and snarky than it used to be. I don’t like that kind of mean internet humor. … Being mean as a way to fight the power is kind of ridiculous.”

“Being mean” is an interesting aversion for an impertinently revolutionary magazine that sells posters of guillotines and regularly invokes the specter of Soviet communism. Are not guillotines a bit—dare I say—“mean?”

What Sunkara is talking about here is much more specific than “mean,” a rather vague word that he pairs with “snarky” (behead the kings of course, but don’t dare snark against them!). What he is actually talking about is vulgarity, the crass, ugly dispensation of judgment with little to no regard for propriety. Vulgarity is the rejection of the norms of civilized discourse; to be vulgar is to flout the set of implicit conventions that create our social decorum. The vulgar person uses swears and shouts where reasoned discourse is called for. Someone like Saul Alinsky for example, might be considered vulgar, for considering protest tactics like his famously unrealized “fart-in” at the Rochester Philharmonic. (One might question the efficacy of a flatulent protest during a symphony, but it is certainly the sort of vulgarity that cannot be ignored.)

It is understandable for a magazine aspiring to respectability to eschew vulgarity in its pages. To poach the New Republic’s readers may require poaching the New Republic’s restraint in tone, and one does not impress Vox by childishly taunting the bourgeoisie.

Yet to dismiss vulgarity as a tool for fighting the powerful, to say that being mean is “ridiculous,” is to deny history, and to obscure a long and noble tradition of malicious political japery. In fact, “being mean” not only affords unique pleasures to the speaker or writer, but is a crucial rhetorical weapon of the politically excluded.

Vulgarity has always been employed in revolutionary rhetoric, perhaps most notably in the propaganda leading up to Jacobin’s own beloved French Revolution. Forget snark, the pamphleteers of France were all too happy to satirize and smear the upper class with the utmost malice. Clergy, royals, and anyone else in power were slandered and depicted visually in all manner of crass and farcical political cartoons.

Of all the public figures subjected to such vicious derision and gossip (often highly inaccurate gossip at that), Marie Antoinette was singled out for especially inventive and vicious taunting. True to French tradition, the slanderous pamphlets, called libelles, were fond of wordplay. For the Austrian-born Antoinette, they coined Austrichienne, meaning “Austrian bitch,” but also resembling the French word for “ostrich.” Thus, layering a visual pun upon a verbal one, one artist actually portrayed Antoinette stroking a massive, ostrich-like penis, complete with legs and a saddle. Mounted upon the penile steed was progressive royalist Marquis de Lafayette, who sympathized with the peasants but was eventually denounced as a traitor by Robespierre (revolutionaries tend not to be terribly fond of diplomatic fence-straddlers). In another of the ostrich-themed cartoons (it was evidently a series), Marie actually bared her own genitals to the phallic beast and its rider. It’s a stunningly vulgar image, and without a doubt, quite nasty and mean. One couldn’t imagine a Beltway professional depicting the ruling class so crudely today; even the most offensive of right-wing political cartoonists haven’t yet dared to explore the satirical possibilities for giant ostrich-dicks.


There was also no requirement that a piece of anti-royal propaganda be clever or punny in order to be published. Quite a few of the cartoons regarding Marie were the sort of pure tabloid sensationalism that would make Gawker blush. Likely owing to the rumor that the King suffered from sexual dysfunction, leaving his wife to wild bouts of promiscuity, Antoinette was often in flagrante delicto—sometimes with Lafayette, sometimes the king’s brother—the Count of Artois, and sometimes even with different ladies of the court and her close female friends. These pornographic little pamphlets showed various stages of undress, ranging from a hand up the skirt to full nudity and sexual contact. Cartoonists enjoyed drawing Marie in orgies with both men and women, and the King’s own sad and scandalized penis often made an appearance.

The line between farce and rumor was often blurred by the flip ambiguity of the libelles. It can be difficult to discern today what was speculation and what was just a joke, but some of it was clearly very elaborate parody.

Take the 1789 libelle, L’Autrichienne en Goguettes ou l’Orgie Royale (that’s The Austrian Bitch and her Friends in the Royal Orgy), which is written as a play. In this ribald little piece of fan-fiction, Louis XIV’s brother has cuckolded the impotent king and sired the royal heirs himself:


Louis XVI

The Queen

The Count of Artois

The Duchess of Polignac


The action takes place in the apartments.

Guard: To arms, there comes Her Majesty.

Another guard: There will be an orgy tonight. The female Ganimede is with the Queen.

Another guard: Artois, the beloved one, there he is between vice and virtue. Guess who the vice is.

Guard: You do not need to guess. I can only see that this God is multiplying.

Scene II

The Queen (to Madame de Polignac, who steps aside to let the Queen go): Come, come in my good friend.

The Count of Artois, slightly pushing the Queen and pinching her buttocks: Come in too. What a nice bottom! So firm!

The Queen (whispering): If my heart was as hard, wouldn’t we be good together?

The Count of Artois: Be quiet you crazy woman, or else my brother will have another son tonight.

The Queen: Oh no! Let’s have some pleasure, but no more fruits.

The Count of Artois: All right. I will be careful, if I can.

Madame de Polignac: Where is the King?

The Queen: What do you worry about? Soon he will be here to annoy us.

Charming, no?

It’s important to note that libelles like these were highly illegal—just as illegal as the writings of Voltaire or Rousseau, or any explicitly political tract deemed guilty of “heresy, sedition or personal libel”—and that they were sold right alongside their more serious-minded counterparts (under the counter, of course). Illegal pamphlets had to be printed outside the country, producing dozens of printing presses just outside French borders. Hundreds of agents smuggled pamphlets through a secret network to reach the tabloid-hungry French masses. In order to stem the tide of banned pamphlets about Marie Antoinette in particular, the French government actually sent spies to England to buy up the entire stock before they could make it France. It’s therefore not particularly difficult to argue (as many historians do) for a causal relationship between nasty political porn and the revolution that followed, especially when the pamphlets posed such a risk to produce and obtain.


Historian Robert Darnton noted in The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, his fascinating book on the illegal pamphlets and their illicit circulation, that primary documents indicate that booksellers themselves did not distinguish between the intellectual and the prurient, saying, “We consider [Rousseau’s] Du Contrat Social political theory and Histoire de Dom B pornography, perhaps even as something too crude to be considered literature. But the bookmen of the eighteenth century lumped them together as ‘philosophical books.’”

So if nasty little libelles weren’t that much of a threat to power, why suppress them and punish possession with imprisonment as you would revolutionary philosophy? And for that matter, why would a French citizen risk their freedom for a cartoon of Marie Antoinette enjoying an orgy if there wasn’t something satisfyingly transgressive in the insolent and forbidden consumption of vulgarity?

Historian Lynn Hunt, author of both Politics, Culture, and Class in the French Revolution, and The Family Romance of the French Revolution, also holds hard and fast to the significance of meanness and vulgarity in a revolutionary context, saying of the libelles, “There’s a disagreement about this among historians, but I have argued and others have argued that this was a part undermining the aura of the monarchy and making it easier in the end to arrest the king and execute him—and especially to execute the queen.”

One lesson of the French Revolution, then, is that rudeness can be extremely politically useful. There are arguments to be made over who constitutes a valid target, but when crude obscenity is directed at figures of power, their prestige can be tarnished, even in the eyes of the most reverent of subjects. Caricature is designed to exaggerate, and therefore make more noticeable, people’s central defining qualities, and can thus be illuminating even at its most indelicate.

And evidence abounds for the galvanizing power of vulgarity in our own time—just look at the appeal of Donald Trump. Trump has successfully undermined opponents through the use of innuendos and crudities, and has turned the political process upside-down by gleefully undermining its dignity.

Of course Trump’s willingness to be disgusting has been alienating to those who like their politics to come with a sheen of respectability. He so revolted the punctilious and proper conservatives at the National Review that he inspired an entire “Against Trump” issue of the magazine. His braggadocio and dick jokes appall the traditional right; he would have made William F. Buckley’s eyes bulge (although what didn’t?) and he gives Peggy Noonan a traumatic case of the vapors.

But Trump’s vulgarity is appealing precisely because it exposes political truths. As others have noted, Trump’s policies (wildly inconsistent though they may be) are actually no more extreme than those of other Republicans; Trump is just willing to strip away the pretense. Other candidates may say “national security is a fundamental priority,” whereas Trump will opt for “ban all the Muslims.” The latter is far less diplomatic, but in practice the two candidates fundamentally mean the same thing. We should prefer the honest boor, as polite euphemism is constantly used to mask atrocities.

This candor is also the fundamental reason why Old Money types have always detested the arrivistes. The nouveau riche with their gaudy tastes, their leopardskin carpets and solid gold bathroom fixtures, upset the balance of things by giving the game away. They make wealth look like something nasty and indefensible. Douchebags in Lamborghinis fundamentally undermine the self-conception of the upper classes, which is that they are the appointed stewards of taste and judgment against the vast uncultured hordes. But since the rich of all flavors are a monstrosity and a cancer, it’s the flashy, obnoxious kind of wealth that we should hope for, the kind that tells no lies and is more obviously despicable. Civility is destructive because it perpetuates falsehoods, while vulgarity can keep us honest.

In fact, there are times when political vulgarity is not just useful, but vital to convey the passion of messaging. In 1968, a 19-year-old anti-Vietnam protester was arrested in a courthouse for wearing a jacket with the words “Fuck the Draft,” leading to a major Supreme Court decision protecting freedom of speech. In 1988, N.W. A. released “Fuck tha Police,” a song that instantly became notorious for the bluntness of its confrontational, profanity-laden lyrics.

In both cases, the vulgarity was an unmistakably clear response to political circumstances. The Vietnam war was a moral obscenity of the highest order; there was no polite way of expressing the appropriate depth of revulsion. N.W.A. were saying what every black person had wanted to say for a long time, in the only words strong enough to even begin to communicate the truth. The depravity of the atrocious acts committed by the powerful far exceed the depravity of any swear words one could use to describe those acts. The death and brutality of Vietnam didn’t just deserve an f-word or two, but warranted every last curse that could be spoken by the human tongue. And as the 18th-century French knew, monarchy is the real barbarity; it was the libellistes who were the true allies of the Enlightenment.

To maintain its potency, vulgarity should certainly be the exception rather than the rule. And there will always be Jacobin and its kin for the more genteel set. But there are certain people to whom one must be mean, certain circumstances in which one must be crude. A politically effective propriety means knowing when to use one’s manners, and when to tell an ostrich-themed dick joke.

And of course, vulgarity isn’t inherently subversive. Even when politicized its effects are often mild and mostly cathartic. When anonymous Twitter trolls deluge establishment journalists with bon mots like “I will eat your ass like McRib,” it may not be particularly revolutionary. But it is not at all unprecedented; it’s not even particularly shocking if you know a little history.

The left will always need its journals and polemic and academic writing, but there are times when it is both right and proper to terrify the bourgeoisie with your own feralness. Reclaiming vulgarity from the Trumps of the world is imperative because if we do not embrace the profane now and again, we will find ourselves handicapped by our own civility. Vulgarity is the language of the people, and so it should be among the grammars of the left, just as it has been historically, to wield righteously against the corrupt and the powerful. We cannot cede vulgarity to the vulgarians; collegial intellectuals will always be niche, but class war need not be.

Whose Gay History?

Chicago went from raiding gay nightclubs to painting rainbows all over its streets. But queer history is more complicated than the standard progressive fable…

When 38-year-old Ron Huberman landed the coveted job as head of the country’s third-largest school system in Chicago, he did so with absolutely no background in education. But Chicago was ruled by then-Mayor Richard M. Daley, son of Richard J., who continued a proud dynastic tradition of political appointments. Huberman had formerly been appointed president of the Chicago Transit Authority (by Daley) and before that, was Daley’s Chief of Staff and, before that, Executive Director of the Office of Emergency Management and Communications (also appointed by Daley). By Daley standards, he was a perfect fit for the job.

But the news of Huberman’s appointment in 2009 was soon dwarfed by his apparent revelation to the Chicago Sun-Times: that he was gay. Huberman’s coming out left many in Chicago’s influential gay community bemused; he had already been out for a long time. He had a partner with whom he openly attended social and workplace events in gay bars and establishments all over town, and he had been out to his parents since the age of 15. In effect, Huberman re-emerged from a closet that he had thrown wide open many years ago.

Daley and his administration always had a tight grip on what kind of stories accompanied news of appointments, so the coming out story was clearly no accident. It was meant to deflect attention away from both Huberman’s lack of qualifications and the controversies surrounding CPS at the time. Daley had just announced the closure and reorganization of 22 schools and everywhere parents and students were agitating against the slashing of funds to the beleaguered system. Daley himself was not doing well in polls, facing widespread criticism for having ceded too much on a citywide parking meter contract which quadrupled residents’ parking costs. He would eventually decide to not run for re-election and Huberman, who began his CPS term promising to stay in for the long haul, would hand in his own resignation soon after Daley’s announcement.

But in retrospect, the Huberman appointment was a novel new kind of political scheme. Got a school district to kill? Hire the gay guy, have him “come out” to the press, and continue your decimation of schools while everyone is even momentarily distracted. 

To be gay in Chicago was once a potential source of shame and stigma, especially in the senior Daley’s administration. On April 25, 1964, police carried out an early morning raid on a nightclub called the Fun Lounge, to which the city’s gays flocked to mix and mingle. As John D. Poling writes in Out and Proud in Chicago, Cook County Sheriff Richard Ogilvie had placed the club under surveillance, describing its activities as “too loathsome to describe.” The raid resulted in the arrests of 109 people. The Chicago Tribune reported the names of eight teachers and four municipal employees in the paper, ruining their and several other lives in the process.

The Chicago of today is almost unrecognizably different. The city has become a hospitable landscape for gays, especially the wealthy and powerful sort. Chicago is now home to numerous gay nonprofits and swarms with gay politicians, activists, and officials.  It is home to gay men like Chuck Renslow, the founder of International Mr. Leather, a long-standing (since 1979) annual conference and contest for leathermen. It is also home to wealthy gay men like Fred Eychaner, one of the most powerful and influential men in the country, ranked as the sixth highest contributor to the Democratic National Committee. In 1998, Daley renovated, with great fanfare, the predominantly gay Lakeview neighborhood popularly known as Boystown. The $3.2 million facelift came with giant, phallic rainbow pylons that marked the area’s limits and was the ultimate sign that the city of Chicago loves its gays, at least of a certain type.

Within people’s lifetimes, then, Chicago went from police raids on gay lounges to taxpayer-funded rainbow streetscapes. All of which raises a baffling question: how did the city get from there to here?

It’s the question examined by historian Timothy Stewart-Winter’s new book Queer Clout: Chicago and the Rise of Gay Politics, which looks at Chicago in the post-war years in an attempt to identify just how these dramatic changes came about.

For the most part, gay history has focused on the coasts. It is widely and in some sense accurately assumed that those fleeing the repression of the heartland inevitably departed for the east or the west. But there have always been gays in the Midwest, and their story is only beginning to be told. Chicago is, as Stewart-Winter rightly points out, “a major transportation hub and one of the nation’s largest cities, and it drew gay migrants from across the Midwest.” It is also an international city, home to several immigrant communities, and historically a bastion of left-wing organizing (we gave the world the eight-hour week, and you’re very welcome).

Chicago has a long and storied history, having been home to several such political and social movements. Give this complexity, it makes sense that Stewart-Winter focuses on a particular period of gay history, and how it unfolded within the context of the growing civil rights movement.

Sensibly, he also emphasizes the local aspect, and the importance of state laws. State and municipal politics and law have always had a large effect on the lives of  gay people. It was, after all, local laws and policing practices that first made life hell for gays and then eased the restrictions on them.

And the state government has constantly been of major import. For example, in 1961, the Illinois legislature passed two laws which almost contradicted each other. The first decriminalized gay sex by repealing the Illinois “crime against nature” statute. But the second “altered liquor regulations in a way that gave the city of Chicago more power to keep gay bars closed after a raid.” This, Stewart-Winter points out, had a negative effect on gays as individuals and as a group: “Chicago’s experience thus revealed that legalizing intimate acts was not enough to make gay people feel safe when they gathered.”

But who were these “gay people?” They were a far more diverse group, economically and racially, than is traditionally acknowledged. One of the contributions of Stewart-Winter’s book is to examine how the struggles of gay people were fought in tandem with those of African Americans.

2016 is the 100th anniversary of the Great Migration, and Chicago was one of the cities to which African Americans moved from the south. The city’s racial history has been a troubling one, marked more by hostility, stigma, and exclusion than by acceptance, and the urban segregation and division between whites and blacks can also be seen in its gay community. Queer Clout examines the rise of gay power in the unavoidable context of black-white relations. Stewart-Winter posits that gay activists employed the tactics of the civil rights movement and even briefly worked with its leaders. Today’s gay movement is largely cynical in its use and appropriation of civil rights history and rhetoric: gay marriage activists have repeatedly and troublingly likened themselves to Rosa Parks. But at least for a brief period of time in Chicago, the alliance between white gays and African American civil rights activists was more palpable and genuine.

Early in the morning of December 4, 1969, Fred Hampton, chairman of the Illinois Black Panther Party and deputy chair of the national BPP, was murdered by police during a raid, while he lay sleeping. Also killed was Mark Clark, the Black Panther member on security duty at the time. The killings incited explosive responses amongst blacks and whites, with support or denunciation falling along mostly predictable racial lines. Stewart-Winter writes that the incident would “cement the fragile black-gay alliance in Chicago” when the leaders of the Mattachine Midwest, the leading gay organization at the time, were taken on a tour of the apartment in which the two men were killed, the walls still riddled with bullets. Shortly after, Mattachine Midwest and Chicago Gay Liberation, another new and more radical group, issued a joint statement supporting the Panthers in challenging the police version of the raid.

Equally fascinating is the political history of Chicago’s black politicians and their efforts on behalf of the gay community. Gays fighting against restrictive laws found allies in men like Alderman Clifford Kelley and Harold Washington, Chicago’s first and so far only black mayor.  Such alliances were not entirely outside of traditional Machine politics—Washington, for instance, was innately progressive in his sympathies, but his stance came just as much from political necessity: he needed gay white progressive votes to combat the racist vote-gathering of white politicians opposed to him. Ultimately, though, neither the alliances between activists nor the ones between politicians and activists would last very long. This was because, as Stewart-Winter writes, “…ironically, in the very years when policing and punishment in black neighborhoods began to increase, the policing of predominantly white gay establishments and neighborhoods became far less systematic.” As the gay rights movement scored victories, and the police raids finally stopped, the experiences of black and gay people were no longer as obviously comparable. The gay rights movement would go on to score several victories, and police raids on mainstream (white) bars finally stopped. But this came at the same time as deepening poverty and more police surveillance on the south and west sides where blacks and an increasing Latino population resided. Eventually, the racial rifts between white gays and the rest of the city widened again, as the differing populations dealt with more or less a sense of security and safety from the state.

Over the course of detailing such shifts and changes, Queer Clout introduces hitherto relatively unknown Chicago activists like Pearl Hart, a Jewish lesbian lawyer who defended prostitutes and left-wing activists, and Ron Sable, a gay physician and activist who would be instrumental in developing gay-focused health care resources in the city. And it reveals interesting details about those who have since gone on to rosy careers as established progressives. For instance: Jesús “Chuy” Garcia, a Latino member of the Chicago Board of Commissioners, became famous in 2015 for nearly ousting incumbent Mayor Rahm Emanuel. In a city famous for its allegiance to the Machine, and for only having elected one non-white mayor (Washington), Garcia was lauded as the lefty-progressive alternative to Emanuel, who has long been seen as one of the more conventional liberals of the Democratic party. But in Queer Clout, we learn that Garcia, had to be “hauled in and sort of beaten” by union people when he attempted to wiggle out of supporting a gay ordinance in the late ‘80s, according to writer Achy Obejas.

Queer Clout gives us many such tantalizing glimpses into Chicago political life, though it sometimes feels discordant and episodic as it tries to mold several stories and a wide range of characters into a larger, coherent narrative. The book will become a resource for those curious about gay history outside the coasts, and could easily have been at least twice its size.

In his most lucid chapter, “Lesbian Survival School,” Stewart-Winter paints a comprehensive and poignant picture of the challenges facing Chicago’s lesbian community as it worked on developing what was often a radical feminist agenda and also dealt with the complexities of race and ethnicity. Chicago was “the epicenter of the socialist feminist union movement that spread to more than a dozen cities in the 1970s,” Stewart-Winter points out. “Since the emergence of gay liberation,” he notes, “lesbian politics has been far more inflected by radicalism than has gay male politics.” As women, lesbians needed to pay more attention to matters like workplace harassment, equal pay, and abortion and reproductive rights. As feminists, they were more inclined to resist the pathway of marriage towards respectability.

But lesbians are not a homogeneous block, and there have been racial divisions from the beginning. Early lesbian feminism was imbued with the politics of separatism, something that black lesbians, who have historically needed and wanted to be part of their families and communities, have not always aligned with. In addition, white lesbians have historically tended to work on the assumption that queer=white.

As nearly anyone with the most casual understanding of the city knows, race continues to centrally define Chicago life and politics. In 2009, reporting on Chicago being ranked the most segregated city (it has recently moved down to third place), the Chicago Tribune interviewed several residents, asking why they chose to live in segregated neighborhoods. Not once did the paper even use the word “racism.” It concluded the piece by quoting a black woman: “There is a comfort level being among people of your own race…I don’t think that there was any intention of segregation behind that.”

But segregation in this city is not some genteel agreement between the races and ethnicities to quietly live away from each other. Rather, the segregation that is starkly evident to anyone who travels beyond the city’s justly celebrated downtown landscape is marked by economic devastation on the south side and much of the west. Everywhere on the south side, school buildings are shuttered, grocery stores are scarce, and large patches of neighborhoods are simply boarded up. Nearly all of this has been the result of many decades of brutally enforced, plantation-style racist and economic policies and actions. As recently as 1975, the Chicago Reporter sent a black journalist, Stephan Garnett, to Marquette Park, located in a white neighborhood, to report on its facilities. He was set upon by nearly 20 white men, had a beer bottle broken on his head, and his car set on fire. In 2011, mostly white and gay residents of Boystown, insisting that black youth coming to the area’s social service agencies were committing crimes in their neighborhood, declared that they would create dog squads to patrol in the evenings.

All of this is to say: the alliances between black and white gays and lesbians were doomed to fail in a city whose racism survives in its most unmediated, primal form and which serves as its living, breathing, heart. Stewart-Winter does not quite name racism as a motivation but does point to the ways in which these racial inequalities reinforce other kinds. Quoting a 1993 report by the Human Relations Foundation of Chicago, he writes about how the concentration of gay organizations in (mostly white) Lake View compels queers of color who live elsewhere to travel long distances for basic services.

Yet when it comes to the racial schism in Chicago, Stewart-Winter’s own analysis echoes the very problems that he attributes to queer activism. Given his attention to race, it’s surprising that Stewart-Winter often falls into the familiar trap of distinguishing between gay activists and black activists, thereby erasing the group of people who are both gay and black. We learn little about Chicago’s queer of color activist community or how it has been nourished in its historic spaces, like the famed Bronzeville, home to Chicago Jazz and Blues. The city’s black queer scene was for years celebrated even in the 1920s by Chicago Defender, black America’s paper of record. In more recent times, black queer life has been sustained by both groups and individuals. Affinity, a nonprofit group, has worked to provide resources for social services and support. The poet and organizer C.C. Carter organized Pow-Wow, a performance space that, for years, often showcased black queer talent. Academics like Cathy Cohen and Beth Richie have served as mentors to more radical groups like Black Youth Project. BYP, along with Assata’s Daughters, has worked with the local chapter of Black Lives Matter and others to defeat State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez in her recent re-election bid. Alvarez was notorious for not immediately investigating the killing of Laquan McDonald, the black youth who was killed with 16 shots fired by officer Jason Van Dyke.

Assata’s Daughters was founded by black queer women under 30, like Hannah Baptiste and Page May. The black prison abolitionist and activist Mariame Kaba has been the driving force behind an astonishingly large array of mostly queer black and youth-led radical organizing. Among Latinas, groups like the now dissolved Amigas Latinas survived for over two decades, bringing together lesbians and trans people in spaces that helped budding activists develop their own organizing talents. Many of them have gone on to work as immigration activists.

This kind of dynamic, activist fervor did not come out of the blue but has been decades in the making. Much of it has been slowly and carefully nurtured out of the limelight. In contrast, the white gay community has received far more city and community funding, and has, especially in recent years, been far more beholden to a mainstream national agenda which has included issues like gay marriage, hate crimes legislation, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell.

One of the few black activists discussed in the book is the late Vernita Gray, who died in March 2014 and who is acknowledged here as a primary source and mentor to the author. Her story becomes a way for Stewart-Winter to trace the lack of clout at the start of the book to its conclusion, where she becomes the symbol of the ultimate attainment of queer clout.

At the close of the book, Stewart-Winter proves that gay political success has been achieved by relating the tale of a wedding: the marriage of Gray, an out African American lesbian, to her white partner Patricia (Pat) Ewert. Gray was a longtime activist in the city, with a large part of her career devoted to working within the Chicago municipal machine. During the Daley administration, she worked in the office of the Cook County State’s Attorney’s Office, Dick Devine, for 18 years. Devine was first assistant to Richard M. Daley when he was the State’s Attorney, and both men have been publicly called out by police torture activists for not prosecuting police commander Jon Burge, finally convicted of torturing more than 100 black suspects. While she cannot be held responsible for these acts, Gray’s role in the office required her to frequently justify, defend and explain away the actions of Devine who was frequently accused by queer activists of engaging in police brutality (full disclosure: I was among the queers who protested against him).

Gray was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 2012. By then, she was already in a civil union partnership with Ewert. Gay marriage finally became legal in 2013 but was only scheduled to take effect in June 2014. Gray, fearing she would die before then, asked for and received, with the help of Lambda Legal, a waiver. On November 27, 2013, Gray and Ewert had a wedding ceremony in their home and were given a legal marriage certificate.

This intimate ceremony was widely covered world-wide, with write-ups in The Independent, the Chicago Tribune, The Guardian and the Daily Mail. The wedding was a brilliant framing of the poignancy of gay marriage: who but the most heartless monster could be critical of the cause after seeing a dying black woman unite with her white partner in holy matrimony?  It was a classic media moment. 

But concluding a book about queer clout in Chicago, one that claims to focus on local politics, with a gay marriage, makes no sense at all. Throughout, Stewart-Winter barely mentions the larger national battles like gay marriage. In fact, gay marriage was largely funded by and brought to local cities and towns by national organizations, and it was ultimately decided at the federal level, not the local one.

The concluding section on Gray’s wedding seems beautiful and innocuous. But it’s actually insidious, insofar as it makes gay marriage the center of gay politics. The message—and Stewart-Winter’s politics—are clear: Gay marriage constitutes the ultimate success of gays and lesbians. In a book that pays little attention to the vast richness of black queer life except as an accessory to white gay organizing, Gray (one of the few black lesbian activists mentioned a few times) becomes a tool for reconciling the deep racism that still exists in this city.

For many liberals and even progressives and leftists, gay marriage is seen as the pinnacle of achievement for the gay community, marking its entrance into a system of state-endowed rights and privileges not available to the unmarried. But looked at more critically, gay marriage is not an achievement for a community; rather, it shows the deep division in that community’s priorities.

In the early 1990s, the gay community, ravaged by the onset of AIDS, marched on behalf of Haitian immigrants who were being rounded up and placed in camps as suspected carriers of the HIV virus.  Collectively, they demanded an end to the discrimination that also kept HIV-positive gays out of hospitals and the institution of universal healthcare. Today, most wealthy and well-off white gays can afford HIV-medications while the more vulnerable, mostly poor, mostly women, and mostly people of color have to struggle for access to resources to which they must travel long distances. Stewart-Winter himself points out that the majority of social service and healthcare resources in Chicago are on the north side, compelling black and other queers of color to travel long distances to gain access to them.

A better postscript, then, would have continued Stewart-Winter’s documentation of the inequality in resources, and the continuing challenges facing queers of color in a city marked by an intense rise in violence and brutality towards immigrants and black and brown people. A key problem with Stewart-Winter’s book is that its focus on the development of clout leads him away from a fuller consideration of the power behind it. In the end, he attempts to paint a happy portrait of reconciliation—a black-white wedding, the national triumph of gay marriage. But power is at work behind clout, and power ultimately defines who lives or dies, who gets funding for HIV resources and who doesn’t.

When it comes to queer clout, it is simply not enough to note how it came about but to ask the bigger question: What is clout used for?

Photograph courtesy of Margaret Olin.

Review: “Listen, Liberal”

To understand the ascendance of affluent professional liberalism, one needs to understand how the labor movement shot itself in the foot…

In the 1990’s, The Baffler was the most reliable voice of intelligent dissent against Clintonian New Economy dogma. The journal’s founder, Thomas Frank, skewered the delusions of the new class of moneyed technocrats, giving courage and comfort to those of us inhabiting the (lonely) left opposition during that dark era. For many of us, Baffler fandom became devout. Over the years, I acquired a near-complete set of the journal going back to issue #4, and among my most valued possessions are two Baflfer t-shirts, Baffler pencils, and (most prized of all) an oft-used set of coasters stamped with the magazine’s bulldozer logo. To use one of Thomas Frank’s own expressions, my admiration for Frank became entirely commodified.

During the Bush years, however, some of us became mildly disappointed in Frank. Following a sadly typical leftist trajectory, his work became gradually less challenging. He began to inhabit, if not exactly the respectable center, precincts well within the spectrum tolerated by mainstream publishers. This was apparent in his mass-market bestseller What’s the Matter with Kansas, which introduced us to the remarkable transformation of Frank’s home state from populist radicalism to a now familiar brand of right-wing lunacy. While this provided much amusement and a certain amount of enlightenment, it was also made-to-order product for Democratic Party loyalists, who were spared from self-examination. Republicans were rendered as the demonic, irrational figures of MSNBC stereotypes. Frank’s follow-up work, The Wrecking Crew, also directed at the right, turned Frank’s critical klieg lights onto the inner circle of the Bush Republicans in Washington, examining how they successfully sold the same snake oil to the supposedly credulous rubes back home.

Both works contained some criticism of the Democratic Party. Frank lambasted the party for its inability to take electoral advantage of the profound suffering induced by Republican policies. Yet most of this criticism was pro forma, confined to a few pages buried beneath Frank’s somewhat voyeuristic tour of carnival freaks and holy rollers from the flyover states, and the sleazy Washington operatives who manipulate their trust.

With his new book, Listen, Liberal, Thomas Frank’s talents have finally been channeled where they belong: into systematically exposing the cynicism, capitulations and fecklessness of the Democratic Party. He points a finger at the party that claims to serve the interest of the working class, while actually benefitting from the very inequalities its members decry.

Along the way, we are provided with a full tour of recent political history. Frank takes us through the Clinton administration’s consolidation of the neoliberal approach: scandalously punishing poor African Americans with welfare reform and the Drug War, forcing the country to unwillingly ingest NAFTA, and maintaining Reagan-inspired anti-union statutes. Frank then shows how the Obama Administration carried on these themes, maintaining an obsession with Ivy League meritocracy that masked a craven commitment to putting corporations first. All this is capped by the bank bailouts, which Frank characterizes as “Clintonism on monster truck tires,” engineered by the same crew of Goldman Sachs alumni who set the system up to fail in the mid 90s.

For Frank, the central defining tendency of the modern Democratic Party is its domination by “professionals,” the highly-credentialed, data-driven Best and Brightest that Obama stuffed his cabinet with. For such people, “a great coming-together of the nation’s educated is the obvious objective of political work,” and “compromise” becomes the goal rather than the concession. Affluent liberals see themselves as concerned with “inequality,” but they have little interest in actually readjusting the balance of wealth in society.

Frank is particularly concerned to rebut the standard Democratic defense: that what looks like surrender to the wealthy is actually pragmatism, necessitated by the viciousness of Republican opposition. To test the claim, Frank takes us deep into Blue America, to my home state of Massachusetts, to see what liberals do with free rein over state governance. But instead of being the egalitarian paradise one should expect in a fully Democratized territory, the state is now home to the “the wealthiest municipalities in the nation, populated by engineers, lawyers and aerospace workers.” Cambridge has become a new startup hotspot, and MIT now functions primarily as “an incubator for business enterprises” including biotech industries “bankrupting America” through the marketing of “thousand dollar pills.” Under Frank’s gimlet eye, the Massachusetts miracle consists mainly of entrepreneurs, knowledge workers, and creatives “choking the life out of people,” getting rich and endlessly congratulating themselves for doing so. Martha’s Vineyard is the de facto capital of elite America.


Frank combines smart polemic with carefully wrought historical arguments to demolish the illusion of liberalism’s commitment to working people. Still, Listen Liberal is a bit perfunctory, for several reasons. First, the shadow of Frank’s former support for Obama hangs over his text. Frank now recognizes that he was taken in by Obama’s grandiose progressive-ish promises, “transformative” rhetoric, and “community organizer” background. Yet Obama was not, as Frank believed, “a hero who would put things right.” Instead, he saw that “this man in whom I and so many others had placed such faith, was in fact another ordinary consensus Democrat with ordinary consensus ideas.” It’s an honorable confession, particularly given that Frank is a political pundit, for whom never admitting error is a virtual sacrament.

But Frank assumes that “we” were all snookered by Obama. “We” presumably refers to those who share Frank’s leftist sympathies. But “we” were not all equally gullible. Some saw right away that Obama’s slogan-based politics of uplift were a product of the public relations industry masking the absence of any actual meaningful political ideology (indeed, the 2008 Obama campaign won multiple advertising industry awards, with Obama beating out Apple to become “Marketer of the Year”). As early as 1996, Adolph Reed pegged Obama as “a smooth Harvard lawyer with impeccable do-good credentials and vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal politics.” Noam Chomsky and Doug Henwood approached the “hope and change” phenomenon with similar skepticism.

In fact, two years into Obama’s presidency 5000 of us directed a petition at Frank himself, among other left leaders and media figures, criticizing them for according Obama the kid-gloves treatment. We argued that the failure of pundits like Frank to criticize Obama’s early policies and appointments was in part responsible for his endless capitulations to the big banks, his distinctly non-progressive policies on trade, immigration, and the environment.

Another, somewhat less recent, set of historical facts in Frank’s book deserves critique. Frank sees the early 1970’s as an important turning-point in Democratic politics, during which there was a massive shift in the party’s leadership class. As Frank relates it, after the disaster of the 1968 Democratic National Convention, George McGovern’s campaign initiated the beginnings of a de facto, slow motion coup “replacing workers organizations with affluent professionals” in the party bureaucracy. Frank suggests that this new arrangement, which shattered the New Deal coalition, was characterized by disdain for unions on the part of party leaders.

But this oversimplifies matters. There’s no doubt that among the McGovern circle, there was plenty of contempt for the “Archie Bunkers” in labor and the working class. Yet many of those in McGovern’s anti-war coalition were actually opposed to labor for good reason. The big labor unions had made a Faustian bargain with the state during the Cold War, and labor enlisted in the anti-communist crusade by blacklisting red unionists (and in doing so, firing their most effective organizers). Because the AFL-CIO leadership believed that U.S. global dominance would be good for American workers, it was always strongly supportive of U.S. foreign military action, and had never opposed a U.S. military conflict prior to the Iraq war. AFL-CIO President George Meany was complicit in the CIA-supported coup against Salvador Allende in Chile. And Meany’s successor, Lane Kirkland (like Meany an “unreconstructed Cold Warrior,” as Mother Jones noted), was one of the founding members of the “Committee on the Present Danger.” The CPD would provide many of Ronald Reagan’s closest and most hawkish foreign policy advisers, and Kirkland helped it put a working-class imprimatur on the burgeoning neoconservative movement. Teamster leadership was no better, longtime Teamster president Dan Tobin having worked hard to drive out any and all communists during the first half of the 20th century.

The labor leadership’s steady drift to the right is an important part of the explanation for the movement’s decline. Robert Fitch’s 2006 Soldarity for Sale documents how narrowly self-interested union leaders created ineffective, hierarchical and frequently corrupt institutions that ceased to meaningfully represent their members. Yet the names Meany and Kirkland appear nowhere in Listen Liberal. Nor do others like “Greedy Gus” Bevona, Jimmy Hoffa, and the rest of a long line of felons at the top of the union pyramid. Mentioning them would call into question Frank’s narrative of unions as the mere helpless victim of McGovernite technocrats.

Recognizing these unattractive realities is necessary. Some leftists, particularly academically-oriented ones like Frank (who holds a PhD in history), view unions through rose-colored glasses. Labor studies curricula usually adopt an excessively celebratory view, rarely criticizing unions and generally failing to note their longstanding penchant for capitulating to institutionalized capital while feathering their own nest. But unions are often the enemies of their members. Union bureaucracies, no less than political parties, can develop a “leadership class” that disregards the interests of workers. Examining labor history honestly means acknowledging these truths. Until we understand and account for, say, the way Cesar Chavez’s embrace of near-dictatorial control helped to undo the United Farm Workers, it will be impossible to create truly democratic labor power.

The need for independent criticism of unions has become especially important recently, given what happened during the Bernie Sanders campaign. Sanders was the most pro-labor candidate ever to seriously compete for the Democratic nomination, and he had a fighting chance of succeeding (if only a few Iowans had changed their minds!) But instead of embracing Sanders, labor unions almost unanimously shunned him, preferring to endorse a former Walmart board member whose first date with her future president husband involved crossing a picket line at Yale.

Yet the unions have mostly been let off the hook. Aside from a single story by Hamilton Nolan in Gawker noting labor’s “fuck up,” not a single major left media outlet has mentioned or criticized this colossal failure. But in retrospect, the unions’ failure to support Sanders should be seen as an almost unbelievable display of institutional self-immolation, or at least major cluelessness. A chance at a labor president was blown almost entirely thanks to the labor movement. The victimization story, as adopted by Frank, prevents the recognition of unions’ complicity in their own destruction.


As Thomas Frank was writing Listen Liberal, he must have felt somewhat despondent. The Democratic consensus was so deeply entrenched that the book could only be a hopeless attempt to shout into the void. The nomination of Hillary Clinton, after all, was originally expected to be a coronation. But now, post-Sanders, Frank’s indictments almost have a quality of déjà vu to them. Rather than being confined to the pages of niche magazines like the Baffler, criticisms of the Democratic leadership’s cynical capitulations and sellouts have been widely aired. They have been issued from the lectern of stadiums across the country by a candidate who (with slightly better luck and less suicidally-dysfunctional labor organizations) might have become the country’s first Socialist President.

It’s nothing against Frank, then, to say that his book is no longer as invigorating as it could have been. The times have caught up with his criticisms. Finally, attention is being paid to the Democratic Party’s failures to provide a meaningful opposition. All we need now is a functional labor movement. Then, perhaps, the liberals would have to listen.

It Is Perfectly Acceptable To Unashamedly Enjoy Avocados

Ignore those whose income depends on spoiling things people enjoy…

The Guardian has a wake-up call to offer avocado-eaters. In an opinion piece, food writer Joanna Blythman tells us avocado toast is creating an “emergency” in Mexico. “Hipsters,” she says, are “oblivious” to the deleterious effects of their large-scale avocado consumption.

Blythman’s anti-avocado argument is highly selective. She says that some mature pine forests are being “thinned out” to accommodate new avocado trees. Indeed, avocado farms are causing increased deforestation in certain parts of Mexico, though it’s not clear how serious the ecological threat is. For Blthyman, this is enough: avocados must go, and hipsters are ruining the world.

But the flip-side of increased avocado consumption is, of course, a booming avocado industry. In fact, the Guardian’s reporting on the environmental problem points out that Mexican avocado farmers are now earning sums of up to $500,000 per year on the yield provided by a single plot of land. The head of Mexico’s National Institute for Forestry, Farming, and Fisheries Research, while lamenting the effects of avocado farming on the country’s forests, noted that “avocado farming is very attractive, because of the prices being the way they are.”

Blythman is aware that Mexican farmers may be very pleased with the current demand for their product. But she says that: It’s a moot point whether the Mexicans who actually grow these on-trend fruits eventually harvest their fair share of the economic benefits.” But surely it’s the most important point. An argument that our love of avocados is actually hurting the Mexican people should deal centrally with the question of whether our love of avocados is actually hurting the Mexican people. Instead, Blythman simply recommends that we switch to cabbage, or kale, because it’s “cultivated easily in the UK.” Blythman does not stop to ponder how Mexican farmers might feel if everyone stopped buying their products and substituted British kale.

The question of “optimal avocado growth” seems a highly complicated one. On the one hand, growers in the “Avocado Belt” are now flush with incoming Chipotle money. On the other hand, forests are being destroyed and avocado trees guzzle obscene quantities of water. It’s very tricky (and possibly unanswerable) to determine whether the economic benefits to Mexicans outweigh the environmental costs. But regardless of how you come down on this question, the “eating avocados hurts Mexico” story is far too simple. Diminishing water supply is a chronic global consequence of climate change, and factory farms are far more environmentally costly than the avocado industry. As one commenter put it, “How about we keep our avocado trees and plant some more, but stop destroying the environment for bullshit reasons like building malls, resorts and printing useless stuff?” Climate change and environmental destruction are not happening because hipsters like avocados. Nor can they be fixed by hipsters feeling guilty about eating avocados.

This gets at the real problem with arguments like Blythman’s: they treat systemic problems as if they are the product of narrow individual consumption choices, and can therefore be fixed through changes in those choices. Blythman warns that cartels in Mexico take a portion of avocado profits. But the cartels aren’t going to go away, or be affected much at all, if Brits go back to using jam on their toast. Identifying the problem as “hipsters,” and trying to make them feel guilty, lets the major culprit (a vicious global capitalism that insatiably devours the planet’s resources) off the hook. 

But to suggest Blythman is simply misidentifying the problem gives her too much credit. In fact, the article exists entirely to be provocative. Otherwise, why would it so fail to answer simple questions like (1) How much are Mexican farmers benefiting? (2) What is the extent of the environmental damage? (3) How would changes in consumption habits affect the problem? This is an article designed entirely to irritate people, and thereby to get clicked on. It “calls out” Westerners for their avocado “fixation” and “fetish.” As such, sanctimonious lefties will spread it all over Facebook, and sneering rightists will hold it up as an example of the latest social justice absurdity.


In fact, we can almost identify a “food contrarianism” subgenre of online content, which generates attention and outrage by seizing on a popular food item and telling people why it is either immoral or crass for them to enjoy it. A few days ago, Meredith Heil of Thrillist got herself noticed by publishing an article entitled “Ketchup Is A Garbage Condiment And You’re A Moron If You Use It,” the central argument of which is that ketchup is only enjoyed by rubes, like GOP convention-goers and the Midwesterners she grew up with. (I do not know whether Meredith Heil lives in Brooklyn, but somehow I suspect she does, and that this has more to do with performed disdain for her Midwestern roots than with any actual problem there might be with ketchup.)

The Guardian itself has fully exploited the clickability of “this food you like is bad” pieces. Last year, writer Tony Naylor took on “brown sauce,” the U.K. version of steak sauce. Naylor wrote that the sauce, which is both tangy and spicy, amounts to nothing more than “chauvinistic flag-waving,” since it contains the sort of jumbled mixture of ingredients that Phileas Fogg might have thrown together after an adventure round the world. Naylor invoked the specter of colonialism, writing that “just as in the age of empire we ignored or abused indigenous peoples, so too their ingredients.” It does not occur to Naylor that it might be offensive to make an analogy between “mis-combining spices” and colonial crimes like the Amritsar massacre. (That was the one in which a British colonel ordered the killing of hundreds of nonviolent Indian protesters, reasoning that “it was my duty to open fire on them” because if he hadn’t, they would have laughed at him, and he would have—in his words—“made a fool of myself.”) Naylor even concedes that the sauce was actually invented in Nottingham, rather than being poached from a conquered colony, but says that this “hardly matters” since the sauce still reminds him of “jowly, Victorian and Edwardian gentlemen whose palates [were] befogged by years of brandy and cigars.”

Last year, the Guardian even tried to earn the ire (and clicks) of the entire British public with a column titled “tea is a national disgrace,” in which writer Joel Golby made the case that “it’s just hot brown slop you dip biscuits in.” (This is like calling a 1937 Chateau d’Yquem Sauternes “just some rotten old grape juice.” Note that you could use this method to dismiss nearly any tasty thing. Try it!) Golby said that tea was “up there with colonialism” as “the worst possible English trait.” Leave aside the fact that people from Shanghai to Baghdad to Mexico City all enjoy tea, so that the idea of tea as uniquely English is just a bit… colonialist in its premises. Golby recommends cussing out one’s “nana” the next time she lovingly tries to offer you a cup, by firmly telling her “Nana, tea is shit.”

Are any of these writers serious? Golby says he “doesn’t think it’s hyperbole” to say that getting tea for one’s office-mates is “one of the worst punishments that can be inflicted on a human being,” a process which involves such unbearable torments as having to “look for a tray.” Surely this is hyperbole. But he said it wasn’t hyperbole! I suppose that’s the joke: the comically hyperbolic denial that one is speaking in hyperbole. And yet, at the same time, Golby actually doesn’t seem to like tea. Or does he?

It can be impossible to penetrate the multiple levels of irony to discover what these writers really think. But that’s partially because such articles don’t emerge out of the writers’ deepest convictions, but rather from the economic necessity of content-generation. As an online writer, you need to put out regular takes, the hotter the better. That means your opinion had better be a strong one, and should anger as many people as possible. If you like ketchup, you’re dumb! Tea is for colonialists. If you eat avocados, you hate Mexico. What tea-drinking avocado-muncher could resist clicking the headline to find out the author’s arguments?

Those arguments are almost always incredibly lazy. They toss out the word “colonialism,” or simply make vulgar over-the-top declarations. But that’s what we would expect from content created for economic rather than ideological reasons. It’s tempting to view certain kinds of food-contrarianism, especially ones that invoke the British Empire, as part of the same tendency that thinks bad Vietnamese dining hall food is “cultural appropriation.” But many of these articles are not especially political. They exist because of the requirements of the content industry rather than because of social justice dogma. Every day The Guardian needs to have some opinions. And those opinions must be counter to conventional wisdom. “Avocados are pretty good” or “I like drinking tea with my nana” do not make for a sufficiently high share-count. (Naturally, the phenomenon is not limited to food, and extends to all things people might possibly enjoy. Witness left-wing magazine Jacobin explaining why Pokémon Go is reactionary and should be resisted.) 

Current Affairs has not been immune from this. Like anyone else, we are acquainted with the pleasures of scurrilously bashing popular things (although we strongly insist that when we do it, it is completely warranted; that Alexander Hamilton musical is right-wing rubbish). But on the whole our philosophy is, to deploy a nauseous coinage, “Wittgensteinian”: when there is nothing to say, one must not speak. Some weeks, we simply do not publish things. This is as it should be.

Unfortunately, this model is an economic disaster. If you aren’t cranking out the content, you aren’t raking in the clicks. And so we are compelled toward a dispiriting conclusion about the contemporary global economy: so long as international capitalism reigns, it will continue to inflict two equally horrendous punishments: avocado-induced deforestation itself, followed by Guardian hot takes about avocado-induced deforestation.

[Update: Meredith Heil does, in fact, live in Brooklyn.]

Why PolitiFact’s “True/False” Percentages Are Meaningless

Percent of what, exactly?

It has gone on for so long, and been debunked so many times, that it would seem unnecessary to issue further comment. But in the latest edition of Harper’s magazine, it happens again. This time, the culprit is novelist Martin Amis. In a feature article on Donald Trump, Amis says that, according to the independent fact-checking website PolitiFact, Trump lies more than 90% of the time.

In citing Trump’s extraordinary falsity-to-truth ratio, Amis is anything but alone. Scores of media outlets have used PolitiFact’s numbers to damn Trump. The Washington Post has cited the “amazing fact” of Trump’s lie rate, with bar charts showing the comparative frequency of his falsifications. The Week counted only those things deemed completely “True,” and thus concluded that “only 1 percent of the statements Donald Trump makes are true.” Similar claims have been repeated in the US News, Reason, and The New York Times.

But all of these numbers are bunk. They’re meaningless. They don’t tell us that lies constitute a certain percentage of Trump’s speech. In fact, they barely tell us anything at all.

The problem here is that PolitiFact isn’t actually evaluating what it purports to be evaluating. The assertion is that a certain percentage of Trump’s “statements” are true. But which statements are we talking about? When Trump speaks publicly, he can go on for more than an hour. During that time, hundreds of sentences will pour forth from his mouth. Each one of these is a statement. But PolitiFact is not evaluating all of them. Instead, it’s selecting particular statements to evaluate. Thus when someone says “X percentage of Trump’s statements are true,” what they mean is “X percentage of the statements PolitiFact chose to evaluate” are true.

That distinction makes an important difference. PolitiFact does not take a random sample of the sentences in Trump’s speeches. If it did, it would include things like “My father was in real estate” and “I’ve run a business for many years.” (Plus things like “You’re a beautiful crowd!”) Instead, it picks out certain statements that it thinks ought to be evaluated. But, by their nature, these are going to be the most contentious and controversial statements in the speech.

Because of that, speaking of PolitiFact ratings as percentages makes little sense. Percentages out of what? Out of the statements we decided to examine. But think about the implications of that. I could give a speech that is 99% uncontroversial truisms, plus one incredibly controversial lie. If PolitiFact checks my lie and nothing else, then by the prevailing standard I have a record of 100% falsehood, even though 99% of what I have said may be true.

This is not to say that Donald Trump doesn’t tell an astonishing number of lies. Clearly, he does. It’s merely to say that quantifying this number as a specific percentage makes little sense. You can conclude that Trump issues an extraordinary number of unbelievable whoppers. But you can’t make a ratio without acknowledging an enormous selection bias that is excluding large numbers of uncontroversial statements. (You might think that this would likely affect Trump and Clinton equally, thus making comparisons possible even in the absence of percentages. But even that’s not true. If both candidates told equal numbers of lies, but Trump’s lies were more noticeable, they would likely get picked for scrutiny more often.)

In fact, we can easily see the selection problem in action. Consider the following quotation from Donald Trump:

The question most young people ask me is about the rising cost of education, terrible student debt and total lack of jobs. Youth unemployment is through the roof, and millions more are underemployed. It’s a total disaster!

PolitiFact decided to fact-check Trump’s claim that “youth unemployment is through the roof.” It rated the statement “false,” because youth unemployment is now close to the rate that it was at before the recession. But PolitiFact ignored the second half of Trump’s statement, that “millions more are underemployed.” Now, this is just as much a factual assertion as Trump’s claim about unemployment. If we were trying to calculate a percentage of Trump’s assertions that are true or false, we would have to assess and include it. But PolitiFact didn’t.


As it turns out, while Trump may have been wrong about youth unemployment, he was correct about underemployment. There are millions of underemployed youths, working fewer hours than they need. As Derek Jacobson explained last year in The Atlantic, looking solely at youth unemployment actually gives a deceptively rosy picture of the economic situation facing young people. They may have jobs, but their incomes are low and their prospects for advancement are minimal. By setting aside Trump’s other remarks, about student debt and education costs, as well as underemployment, PolitiFact simultaneously portrayed him as more of a liar than he was and gave a misleading impression of young people’s economic fortunes.

Thus if there’s no clear logic to PolitiFact’s selections, the percentages are totally uninterpretable. This becomes even more absurd when PolitiFact tries to precisely rank candidates by their propensities for truth. Last year, The New York Times published an op-ed by PolitiFact’s editor, Angie Holan, which contained detailed comparisons of the lie-rates of various political figures. Yet Holan didn’t even briefly address the all-important question of how PolitiFact selects which statements to evaluate. Without understanding that, there’s no way we can assess the organization’s claim that Carly Fiorina lies more than Marco Rubio, who in turn lies more than Lindsey Graham. It should be somewhat incredible that the editors of The New York Times didn’t even ask their writer to explain what all the numbers in her article were actually supposed to mean.

To the extent that PolitiFact has publicly commented on its selection procedure, it has only further undermined its claim to numerical precision. On its website, the only information offered about selection is a series of highly imprecise and qualitative questions, such as whether the statement is “newsworthy.” Two of the listed questions even directly indicate that PolitiFact’s chosen statements are disproportionately likely to be lies: “Is the statement leaving a particular impression that may be misleading?” and “Would a typical person hear or read the statement and wonder: Is that true?” Thus PolitiFact specifically looks for “misleading” statements, meaning that if “percentage of checked statements” is treated as equivalent to “percentage of speech,” every politician will look like more of a liar than they actually are. (With better selection criteria, you could produce something more meaningful. For example, you could check all statements in which candidates cited a statistic, and then say that X percent of statistics in Trump’s speeches were true, versus Y percentage in Clinton’s speeches. But that’s decidedly not what’s being done here.)

PolitiFact “truth propensity” measurements become yet more dubious when we inquire into the underlying question of how “truth” and “falsity” are determined to begin with. PolitiFact believes that the veracity of all evaluated statements can be measured on a scale, ranging from completely “True” to a “Pants on Fire” lie. But many of the selected quotes are murky and open to interpretation. In fact, the very idea of a truth “meter” lends a faux-precision to the website’s often questionable parsings of political language.

Consider another Trump claim: that Hillary Clinton “wants to essentially abolish the Second Amendment.” For PolitiFact, this was false. As they explained, they “found no evidence that Clinton has ever said she wants to repeal or abolish the Second Amendment. She has called for stronger regulations, but continuously affirms her support for the right to bear arms.” But Trump’s claim can’t easily be rated “true” or “false.” Evaluating it requires adopting a particular interpretation of what the Second Amendment actually means, a question that is highly contested and difficult to resolve. For conservatives, nearly all restrictions on gun ownership “essentially abolish” the Second Amendment, since they believe the Second Amendment protects the right to unrestricted gun ownership. For liberals, the Second Amendment is narrower in its scope, and permits a number of regulatory measures. Recently, the Supreme Court has tended toward the conservative interpretation, having struck down gun controls in the D.C. v. Heller case. And since the Supreme Court is supposed to have the last word as to what the Constitution means, a conservative may well have a good case for saying that calls for regulation effectively constitute a call to repeal the Second Amendment.  

There are no easy answers in constitutional law; debates over the interpretation of various clauses and punctuation marks can go on for decades, sometimes centuries. But while PolitiFact ostensibly recognizes this (since it recounts the constitutional arguments in evaluating the claim), ultimately it feels compelled to color-code the statement using its Truth Machine.

It’s also the case that by focusing on the type of claims that can (supposedly) fit neatly into a truth measurement index, the “PolitiFact mentality” misses many of the most important ways in which deception operates. It’s notable that on PolitiFact’s scorecard of political truthfulness, Bill Clinton ranks as the most truthful of all the assessed politicians. Bill Clinton is, in fact, one of the most willfully deceptive and dishonest politicians of all time. Yet PolitiFact is doubtlessly correct that Clinton’s words are rarely factually inaccurate. That’s because Bill Clinton has always chosen his language very carefully, making statements that are accurate in a narrow, technical sense, yet totally misleading in their effect on the listener. (Plenty of examples can be found in my book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black America.)


So PolitiFacts effort to quantify truth is both futile and unscientific in multiple ways. Yet it has been totally embraced by the media. Just last week, Nicholas Kristof cited PolitiFact’s truth percentages to support an argument that while Donald Trump tells lies, Hillary Clinton tells mere fibs. Now, Kristof may be right about that (though as a general rule, when you find yourself defensively insisting on the importance of the difference between a lie and a fib, you’re probably a pretty egregious purveyor of both.) But in sprinkling his column with vacuous numbers, he adds an unwarranted veneer of social-scientific support to his claim. Kristof says that “Trump has nine times the share of flat-out lies as Clinton.” This means nothing.

Yet it happens over and over. Kristof cited the same fanciful numbers for a similar article in April defending Clinton’s record of dishonesty. (Most New York Times opinion writers only have about six columns in them, which are recycled indefinitely over multi-decade careers.)  And it is done without any thought by people at the very top of the journalistic profession. After all, Nicholas Kristof is a Rhodes scholar. He has won a Pulitzer Prize. He should know that he can’t possibly put a precise number on something like this. Yet he does so, unhesitatingly and without qualification. (It’s a good reason not to trust people who have won Rhodes scholarships and Pulitzer Prizes.)

Of course, the news media constantly makes use of misleading statistics. Darrell Huff’s delightful little book How to Lie With Statistics, published in 1954, reveals a number of manipulative tendencies that are still just as prevalent in the press more than half a century later. It’s understandable why they persist. Faced with the fact that we would love to quantify the world, but have very limited means of doing so, we make a load of totally unwarranted assumptions and produce an impressive-looking chart. Writers think they need lots of numbers to make an argument stick, and so they come up with some by any means necessary. Explanation isn’t justification, though. It may be perfectly easy to understand why the media feels compelled to dispense empty percentages, but that doesn’t make PolitiFact’s numbers any more meaningful or defensible.

Unfortunately, PolitiFact is unlikely to admit the problem. Their editor, Angie Holan, displays an irritating tendency common of journalists: believing that if you are angering those on “both sides,” this is evidence that you are objective and neutral. (The position is mistaken because it fails to consider an alternate possibility: that the reason you are disliked by both left and right is that you are universally known to be worthless.) “Partisan audiences,” Holan has said, “will savage fact-checks that contradict their views.” Dismissing criticism this way is worrisome, because it means that fact-checkers may view substantive objections to their methods as the product of mere “partisanship,” and treat all arguments that they are wrong as further evidence that they are right.

Yet the spreading of misinformation by major news outlets should be objectionable. It should stop. And if PolitiFact or the Washington Post’s Pinnochio-thing did have any interest in facts, they would entirely eliminate their use of percentages, and discourage the press from using their work this way. Every day they keep spitting out meaningless numbers, they undermine their credibility as scientifically-minded evaluators of truth. That’s a fact.

More Lawyers, Same Injustice

A case in Georgia has become notorious for its profanity. But it also says something about our public defender system…

Last month, in a Georgia courtroom, defendant Denver Fenton Allen appeared in front of Judge Bryant Durham, Jr. for a pretrial hearing. Allen was charged with murder, and his trial was scheduled for the next week. As the transcript shows, the hearing quickly became… unusual. By the end of it, the defendant has told the judge dozens of times to “suck my dick,” and the enraged judge has replied that the defendant “looks like a queer.” The hearing was such a comically vulgar calamity that it has gone viral, and an animated performance of the transcript has been viewed several million times.

It began straightforwardly enough. Allen came before the judge because he wanted to fire his public defender and get a different one. Judge Durham informed Allen that while he was entitled to a lawyer, he was not entitled to have a particular lawyer, and was stuck with the one he had. Allen then explained his reasons for wanting to fire the lawyer. First, he said, the lawyer had made sexual advances on him. Second, the lawyer had sent him against his will to the hospital to have a diagnosis made, presumably of Allen’s mental condition. Finally, Allen said, the lawyer had not given Allen access to any discovery documents, including police reports, the autopsy, and the coroner’s report.

In response to this, Judge Durham asks Allen’s public defender whether he has shared all of his documents with Allen. The lawyer replies that he has. But Allen is insistent. He tells the judge that the only document he has seen is the four-page indictment, explaining the charges against him. The judge tells Allen that perhaps his lawyer doesn’t have any other documents.

At this, Allen is becoming angry. “This is a murder case,” he says, “and you’re telling me the only thing on discovery is a four-page indictment.” Allen declares that he refuses to go to trial with the attorney he has been given, to which Judge Durham replies that Allen’s only other option is to try the case himself. Durham says that choosing to act as his own attorney would be “the biggest mistake of [Allen’s] life.” Allen is incredulous: “So you’re telling me you’re going to find me guilty if I go to trial to try to defend myself?” to which the judge responds “You’re probably right. That would be my guess…”

Allen repeats that he will not be tried with the lawyer he has, and says that he will get himself held in contempt if necessary in order to stall the proceedings. At this point in the transcript, the real fireworks begin. Having resolved to be found in contempt of court, Allen intentionally becomes as vulgar as possible:

ALLEN: I’ll just hold myself in contempt.

THE COURT: Listen to me–

ALLEN: Fuck you.

THE COURT: Listen to me.

ALLEN: Fuck you.

THE COURT: Listen to me.

ALLEN: Go fuck yourself. […]

THE COURT: I am–I am finding you in contempt. And I sentence you to twenty days for that. And if you say anything else, I’m going to give you twenty days for everything you say.

ALLEN: Fuck you.

THE COURT: Forty days.

ALLEN: Fuck you again.

THE COURT: Sixty days.

ALLEN: Go fuck yourself.

THE COURT: A year.

ALLEN: Your mama.

THE COURT: Ten years.

Things only get worse from there. Allen repeatedly says he is in a “kangaroo court,” and begins graphically describing the sex acts he intends to perform on the judge. Durham loses his temper and begins screaming. Allen says he will chop the judge’s family into pieces and calls the judge a “horse-ass cracker.” The judge says he “bets everyone enjoys sucking your cock.” After this continues for many minutes, the judge tries to find his resolve:

THE COURT: We are going to have the trial Monday week.

ALLEN: The fuck we are. I ain’t going to trial with this lawyer present.

The obscenities then resume, and the defendant and judge shout at each other for many more minutes before the judge finally declares the hearing over and has Allen escorted from the courtroom.

The hearing lies at the extreme end on the spectrum of judicial dysfunction. America’s justice system is often called “broken,” but even in a highly defective system, it’s rare to find judges and defendants literally screaming and bickering like children in a schoolyard. (Judges frequently behave like children, but they are sure to cloak their pettiness beneath a veneer of professional decorum.)

But the transcript of the Georgia hearing is not just interesting as an absurd clash between an ‘out-of-control defendant’ and a lunatic judge. A careful examination reveals important questions that get lost amid the various dick-based taunts.

Why, for example, did the public defender not have an autopsy report when the trial was to be held in a week? The defense of a murder trial requires intensive preparation. Allen’s attorney insisted that he had given Allen all of the available discovery documents. Yet in that case, with only days left before the trial, the attorney had failed to get ahold of some of the most crucial documents in the case.


In fact, looking past the headline-grabbing insult-fest, we can see that the real story here is not about the world’s filthiest defendant or the world’s pettiest judge. In fact, it is about the world’s most incompetent public defender. Leave aside Allen’s accusation that his lawyer had tried to proposition him sexually, a charge that the judge refused to take seriously. The public defender appears to admit that he has no discovery documents in the case other than a 4-page indictment, and yet somehow intends to try the case within a week. Allen found himself with only one weapon left to delay his trial: getting held in contempt. (It wasn’t actually a bad strategy, if Allen’s goal was to stall the process for a while.)

The public defender neglects his duty in another way: by standing silently by during the entire exchange, even as his client gets charged with new offenses for threatening the judge. At the time of the hearing, the public defender was still representing Allen, and thus still had an ethical obligation to safeguard Allen’s interests. A responsible defense attorney, seeing their client jeopardizing their case, would have made an attempt to intervene, encouraging leniency from the judge, or caution from his client. Of course, given Allen’s mood, it’s unclear how likely he would have been to heed such advice. But the defense attorney should have done everything possible to interrupt and prevent further damage from being done.

(The judge, too, committed some serious and revealing ethical breaches. Not only was he childish, but he told the defendant he would “probably” find him guilty if he chose to represent himself, even though Allen is supposed to be under a presumption of innocence until the evidence is heard.)

Allen’s allegations about his public defender should have been taken much more seriously by the judge. Allen had specifically detailed the various ways in which his lawyer was failing to provide him with a minimal level of constitutional representation. Instead of inquiring into these problems in order to make a determination about their truth or falsity, Judge Durham simply told Allen that his only other option was to be found guilty by representing himself. Allen knew, and stated clearly, that this was no choice at all. But instead of doing what most defendants do, and simply accepting the fact that he was doomed, Allen stood up for his constitutional right to competent counsel.

In the firmness of that refusal, Allen resembles another Southern defendant, one from fifty years earlier. Clarence Earl Gideon was an affable drifter who ended up before a Florida judge on a burglary charge in 1961. Gideon, who was accused of stealing $5 and some beer from a Panama City pool hall, asked the court if he could be represented by counsel. As the transcript shows, when the court told him he was not entitled to an attorney, Gideon stood firm:

THE COURT: Mr. Gideon, I am sorry, but I cannot appoint counsel to represent you in this case. Under the laws of the State of Florida, the only time the court can appoint counsel to represent a defendant is when that person is charged with a capital offense. I am sorry, but I will have to deny your request to appoint counsel to defend you in this case.

GIDEON: The United States Supreme Court says I am entitled to be represented by counsel.

Most lawyers at the time would have said Gideon was wrong. At that point in time, the Supreme Court hadn’t decreed that poor defendants had the right to free representation. But he was also prophetic. After being found guilty at trial, Gideon made it to the Supreme Court, which then did establish a right to counsel. Thanks to Gideon’s refusal to compromise on what he believed were his constitutional rights, the modern public defender system was born.

Denver Fenton Allen is probably not the next Clarence Earl Gideon. Gideon, after all, did not threaten to cannibalize the judge’s family. But Allen’s case is nevertheless instructive, because it reveals what happens in U.S. courtrooms when defendants try to stick up for their constitutional entitlements.

Allen, like so many other defendants, was brushed aside when he tried to complain about a lack of adequate representation. Even though he was facing a murder charge, the court was uninterested in figuring out whether his lawyer was giving Allen a basic adequate level of defense.

That’s not especially surprising. While the Supreme Court has guaranteed the right to a lawyer, the Court has an expansive definition of what constitutes “competent” lawyering. Drunk lawyers and sleeping lawyers have been deemed to have adequately represented their clients’ interests (even in death penalty cases). The country’s public defender system is in a very sorry state indeed.

This brings us to an important truth about criminal justice: having a lawyer, in and of itself, does very little to ensure that a person will receive a fair trial. In fact, there are circumstances in which having a lawyer may make a person worse off; some people could have represented themselves better than their inattentive public defender did. We know that many public defender systems are overworked and under-resourced, to the point where they openly admit that they cannot provide a level of representation that meets a minimal constitutional standard.

It’s striking, in fact, that the rise of the public defender system has coincided with the rise of mass incarceration. When the Supreme Court decided Gideon v. Wainwright in 1963, the combined federal and state prison population was 217,283. By 2014, it had risen to 1,561,500. That number doesn’t include those in local city and county jails, or those under other types of state supervision, including probation, parole, GPS ankle monitoring, community service and alternative court programs. While more people are now represented, far more go to jail.

More lawyers hasn’t meant more justice. The introduction of guaranteed representation didn’t cause the explosion in America’s prison population, but it also didn’t prevent it. It’s impossible to tell, of course, how much worse the numbers would have been if the Gideon case had never been decided. Presumably, the public defender system has helped a large number of people get better outcomes. But the mere presence of defense lawyers guarantees little, especially if the standards of competence are low.


This is where a “procedural” view of justice falls down. By its nature it overlooks ultimate outcomes. The U.S. Constitution is heavy on procedural rights; you get due process of law and the right to counsel before you’re flung in the penitentiary. But people can be given due process on paper without being afforded any actual measure of justice. The Gideon decision looks like a triumph for poor people’s rights in U.S. courts, and indeed it was. But in many parts of the country, especially across the South, the public defender system might as well not exist. Where an attorney’s job (whether through overwork or ineptitude) is to “meet ‘em and plead ‘em,” defendants often feel as if they’d be better off on their own. Yes, the statistics of indigent clients who now have representation have improved, but to what end. Thinking full representation is synonymous with full justice is like thinking full health care coverage means better health. Quality matters.

In fact, improving procedures can even sanctify perverse outcomes as legitimate. So long as the forms are all filled out correctly, a terrible injustice is deemed acceptable. So long as a death penalty defendant gets the proper number of appeals, they’ve been given justice. So long as a landlord’s eviction papers are properly served upon the tenant, the tenant has no right to complain that their children are being tossed into homelessness.

It’s something to bear in mind in discussions over so-called “civil Gideon.” Currently, the right to free representation only extends to criminal defendants. But as many have pointed out, certain civil proceedings (such as eviction, employment discrimination, wage theft, and child custody) have stakes nearly as high. Some therefore recommend that the entitlement to a lawyer be expanded to cover a far wider set of cases.

But we should be careful about introducing more procedure, without correspondingly assuring that it leads to more actual justice. Despite having had a vast public defense apparatus for half-a-century, mass incarceration persists. Changing procedures is important to the extent that it affects substance.

As far as Judge Durham was concerned, Denver Fenton Allen had gotten his due. And under the law, he quite probably had. He’d been given a public defender, who had given him access to all of the available documents (i.e. none). The judge saw no problem that could keep the case from going to trial, and Allen appeared to simply be unruly and obstinate. When the case descended into shouts, curses, and threats, the judge probably felt his view of Allen was confirmed. Allen’s case is just another trenchant example of what happens when a public defender fails his client. And it should make us skeptical of the usefulness of merely providing lawyers, without ensuring justice.

You’re Responsible For Things That Happen Because Of You

Are third-parties solely responsible for “spoiling” elections? No. Are they still responsible? Yes.

I recently published an article in which I defended the idea that people should think about voting strategically. Instead of deciding which person on the ballot best reflects your personal values, and voting for that person, you should think about what the potential consequences of your vote might be. Almost certainly, these consequences are negligible and your vote barely matters. But we also know for a fact that if 500 Nader voters in Florida had changed their minds in 2000 and voted for Al Gore, the disastrous Bush presidency could have been averted. Thus, I argued, if you live in a swing state where the Democrats need every vote they can get, you should vote for the Democrats. If you live in one of the 40-odd “safe states,” then vote however you please. (My argument is the same one made by John Halle and Noam Chomsky.)

People who are absolute defenders of voting third-party strongly object to the invocation of Nader. And there is one argument in particular that is made so commonly that it deserves a response, a reply I call the “million if’s argument.” It runs approximately like this:

Yes, it’s true that 500 Nader voters could have made the difference. But they’re not THE thing that made the difference. There are plenty of other factors that caused the 2000 election to go the way it did. Al Gore ran a terrible campaign, and did not successfully appeal to progressives. Clinton got himself impeached. Katherine Harris disenfranchised a bunch of Florida voters. The designer of the butterfly ballots caused a bunch of unintentional Buchanan votes. The Supreme Court stopped the recount. Because the margin was so narrow, if any one of these had been different, the outcome would have changed. It is therefore unfair to single out Nader voters as the cause. Why pick on them in particular? Why do Nader voters have a unique responsibility to vote for Gore? Why not blame the various registered Democrats who voted for Bush? Aren’t they equally responsible? Why not blame Gore himself? Why is it the voters’ job to support the candidate, rather than the candidate’s job to persuade the voters? Singling out Nader as the cause ignores all of the other causes, and presumes that Democrats have some sort of entitlement to the votes of progressives. 

This argument sounds very persuasive and is partially correct. But it misses the point. It’s absolutely true that many other factors caused the 2000 outcome. In fact, the list of “but-for” causes (i.e. the outcome would not have occurred but for “X” circumstance) is even longer than the argument suggests. After all, if Barbara Bush had never given birth to George, the outcome would have been different. If the American Revolution had never occurred, it would have been different. An infinite number of unrealized historical possibilities could have prevented the Bush presidency. So why pick on Nader voters?

Well, because the contingencies that matter are the ones you can affect. If I’m talking to a group of undecided progressive voters (which is who I am talking to with my article on why socialists should vote for Clinton in swing states), they are trying to decide how to use their votes. They can’t affect the tides of history, they can’t affect what the Broward County board of elections will do, they can’t affect the U.S. Supreme Court. The reason progressives should focus on the particular factor of “progressive voters who vote third-party” is because it is the factor that progressives themselves have some control over. Leftists can sit and curse Al Gore to the high heavens, but they can’t really change what Al Gore does. What they can do is change what they do. Blaming Katherine Harris is like blaming the tides. If contractor builds me a shoddy house, and it’s washed away in a storm, the contractor may have a point when he replies “Well, don’t blame me, the storm did it!” It’s certainly true that you need both contractor and storm to produce the outcome. But it can still be the case that he should have built me a better house.


This is a problem in all cases where we’re trying to assign responsibility for events that have multiple causes. If I’m driving drunk, and you run a stoplight, which of us is responsible for the resulting accident? Well, we’re both equally responsible. I shouldn’t have been driving drunk and you shouldn’t have run the stoplight. But it’s no defense of my conduct for me to point to yours.

We can devise a hypothetical with more obvious election parallels. You, me, and Ned all serve on the board of the Amalgamated Toxic Waste Corporation (ATWC). The three of us are environmentalists, who have gotten ourselves elected to the board as part of a secret strategy to tame the dumping practices of the ATWC through the exercise of shareholders’ power. At a board meeting, the chairman announces we will vote on whether to dump two million barrels of radioactive sludge in the Pristine River. The issue is contentious. Our little environmentalist contingent discusses what to do. I say we should all vote “no,” because several other board members agree with us; I think we can tip the majority and make the difference. You and Ned say we should abstain, because to even participate in the process “legitimizes” the question of whether or not to dump toxic waste. You tell me that even to answer “no” is to suggest the question has merit in the first place. But I explain that however appealing this theory may be, we cannot follow it. The board calculates majority votes out of the number of members voting, not the number of members present. Thus in a 10-member board, if there are 3 other members willing to vote “no,” we will win 6-4 if we all vote “no,” but we will lose 3-4 if we abstain. Thus, I tell you, if you care about the consequences, you’ve got to vote “no.” Ned tells me you will both take my suggestion under advisement.

The votes come in. It’s 4-4. You and Ned have abstained, while I have voted “no.” A tie goes to the chair. The chair votes to dump the toxic waste. Thousands of birds die.

I am furious with the two of you. “What the hell did you do that for? We could have saved the lives of 1600 bare-throated tiger herons!” But you give me the “million if’s” argument. “Why are you singling out us for blame? Why aren’t you blaming the waste-dumping capitalist swine who proposed the motion? Why aren’t you blaming the chairman who broke the tie?”

The answer, of course, is the same as in the Nader case: because you’re the one who is supposed to care about progressive values. We can’t control what those other beastly fellows do! Obviously, everything that ever happens is precipitated by an infinite prior string of events. But we care about what we can change. You can’t help the consequences that come about because of other people, but you’re responsible for those that come about because of you. And the fact that there are a million other “but-for” causes doesn’t mean you’re not one yourself. It’s not a matter of whether the candidate or the voters are responsible, it’s that everyone is equally responsible for the things that happen because of choices they make.


However, recognize that all of this also produces a corollary. It also means that third-party voters are right to complain that moderate Democrats unfairly single them out as a cause. If the progressive contingent is deciding among itself what to do, then it’s reasonable for it to focus on its own effects. But if someone outside the progressive contingent, like a right-leaning Democrat, blames Nader voters without equally blaming the right-leaning Democrats who voted for Bush, they are unfairly beating up on the left. If Gore’s horribly-run campaign was just a much a contributory cause as the decisions of Nader voters, then it’s just as mistaken for members of the Gore campaign to blame Nader voters and exonerate themselves as it is for Nader voters to blame Gore.

Thus I simultaneously believe that (1) Democrats should stop heaping blame and contempt on third-parties for their failures, when half the reason people vote third-party is a stubbornness fueled by Democrats’ contemptuous attitude toward them, and (2) if progressive voters in a swing state decide to vote third-party, and Democrats lose (but would have won if those voters had changed their minds), then the voters are (jointly) responsible for the outcome.

None of this suggests in any way that Hillary Clinton is not a horrendous candidate (and I vigorously reject any suggestion that the necessity of electing her means that progressive criticism of her should cease). If Clinton loses to Donald Trump, it will be correct to point out that her own failings were a large part of the cause. But if the decision of third-party voters also determined the outcome, then they must also answer for it themselves.