Racism and the American Pit Bull

The fear of certain breeds of dogs mirrors the fear of certain people…

Ceecil and Harambe. The names circulate in the public consciousness like those of beloved celebrity icons or fallen heroes, or street names evoking particular histories that we might be in danger of forgetting.

Cecil the lion was named after Cecil Rhodes, one of the most brutally racist imperialists ever to roam the planet. In July of 2015, Cecil was lured away from Zimbabwe’s Hwange Game Reserve and shot for sport by Walter James Palmer, an American dentist and hunting enthusiast. International outrage over Cecil’s death was instant and long-lasting, resulting in the creation of laws banning or curtailing trophy game hunting.

Harambe was a 17-year old lowland gorilla, also born and raised in captivity. He was shot to death by zookeepers in May 2016 when a three-year-old wandered into his enclosure. The gorilla had supposedly showed signs that he might prove harmful to the child, after dragging the boy through the water. The shooting provoked a public furor; a petition signed by over 500,000 insisted that the child’s family be prosecuted for negligence.

When such deaths and stories publicly erupt, they reveal more about the place of animals in human social relations than they do about the actual animals themselves. The culture relentlessly anthropomorphizes them, granting them names and imbuing them with human qualities in order to render them more sympathetic, more deserving of our attention and sympathy.

But such love for animals is profoundly selective. Only certain classes of relatable animals, ones bearing endearing names, are empathized with. Consider, in contrast, the fate of countless and nameless pit bulls.

Pit bulls have long been the bogey dogs of America, subject to harassment and torture because of the unwarranted fears about them. Few breeds have been as demonized, though a persistent public relations effort on the part of pit bulls’ fervent supporters may slowly be causing a shift in the tide of opinion. Pit bulls even continue to be exterminated as part of pre-emptive measures designed to protect the public. Bronwyn Dickey’s new book, Pit Bull: The Battle over an American Icon, reproduces a photograph of pit bulls euthanized in Kansas. There are no names attached to the photograph, no individual dogs here, only a dogpile, a small mountain of canine carcasses seemingly thrown casually atop one another, heads and paws facing in different directions.

The laws surrounding pit bulls are as vicious as the dogs’ supposed reputation. Out of all breeds, pit bulls are the most likely to be subject to Breed Specific Legislation (BSL) and they have been cruelly and mercilessly killed by irate neighbors and police. American police have become notorious for their practice of routinely executing dogs when entering houses under search warrants, and an inner-city pit bull owner cannot expect to see their dog survive any such encounter with police. There are few legal remedies available when police shoot dogs, and the Internet is full of disturbing, heartbreaking testimonies from bereaved owners who have seen their pets gunned down before their eyes.

Importantly, there is no such thing as a pit bull “breed” to begin with. There are several different breeds of dogs that are broadly defined as such, including the English bulldog, a short-legged, slobbering animal that was once literally bred to fight and corral bulls but is now light years away from its long-legged, active ancestor. No one could possibly look at a contemporary bulldog and imagine it as a vicious hunter. (These days they give off more of an “asthmatic Winston Churchill” vibe.)


One of the most prominent myths about pit bulls is that they have special locking jaws and that, once they’ve sunk their teeth into flesh, they cannot be dislodged without either thrusting a rod between their teeth or killing them. This is not the case, as can be deduced by both common sense and a glance at the skull of any pit bull. Another myth is that these demon jaws can exert pressure up to 740 pounds of pressure per square inch. This, too, is false.

As a result of such attitudes, pit bulls can essentially be hunted down at will, and their owners suffer from various forms of stigma. BSL means that people with pit bulls or other dogs defined as dangerous breeds cannot rent in many neighborhoods and are compelled to find housing in poorer and often more precarious areas. In 2012, a Maryland court ruled that pit bulls, unlike other dogs, were “inherently” dangerous, thus increasing the owners’ liability for their acts. (The court’s decision was later undone by the state legislature.)

It wasn’t always like this. Fans of vintage television may be familiar with Pete the Pup, the pit bull with a ring around his right eye who became a star on the show Little Rascals. Then there was “Stubby” (widely held to be a pit bull), who served with the Twenty-Sixth Yankee Division and played an active role with American troops as they traveled to fight alongside the French in 1917. Stubby even reportedly “took” his own German prisoner of war.

Dickey’s book explores how the pit bull went from being a beloved American icon to a much despised demon dog, subject to extermination at will. The shift in attitudes towards pit bulls reveals much about American society. Dickey’s assiduously researched book takes us through the creation of the breed, from its earlier place as a stalwart companion to war heroes (and, indeed, even as a war hero itself), through the 19th century when they were deployed in New York City’s notorious dog fighting rings.


In the 20th century, the 1970s witnessed the swift and precipitous decline of modern cities. As America’s urban areas struggled, poorer residents, often Latino and Black, came to depend on pit bulls, which were an affordable means of receiving protection and companionship.

The media vilification of pit bulls soon followed. Dickey suggests that the creation of the 24-hours news cycle, inaugurated by CNN in 1980, represented a turning point. The rise of cable television created a salacious interest in “ghetto” and “thug” stories, and the news networks loved to report on the viciousness of urban “animals” both canine and human. A July 1987 Sports Illustrated story about pit bulls featured a cover illustration of the dog snarling, open-mouthed, with fangs on full display. The title in large print and all caps: “BEWARE OF THIS DOG.” During this time, at the height of the Drug War, the media similarly stigmatized Latino and Black men. They were treated as toxic carriers of drug addiction and social dysfunction, much as rats and other animals have been cast as sources of disease.

The link made between savage beasts or dangerous animals and black humans is as old as the history of enslavement. As the actor Michael B. Jordan memorably phrased it: “Black males, we are America’s pit bull. We’re labeled vicious, inhumane, and left to die on the street.” (Jordan made the comment in a promotional interview for the film Fruitvale Station, in which he played Oscar Grant. Grant was an Oakland resident fatally shot by transit police, in a killing that anti-police brutality activists have described as an execution, and proof that black lives in America are treated as expendable.)


The history of relations between African Americans and dogs is complex. On plantations, dogs were trained to track and hunt runaway slaves, a practice that continued in the Southern use of police dogs against civil rights activists. Yet slaves also forged loving relationships with the animals. Dickey writes about Charles Ball, a slave “who escaped from a South Carolina plantation around 1812” and for whom “the love of a dog provided the only sense of comfort he knew.” Ball named his beloved dog Trueman but had to leave him behind during his final escape, knowing that the dog’s bark might give him away. In a poignant section of his memoirs, he wrote, “I recollected that he had always been ready to lay down his life for me; that when I was tied and bound to the tree to be whipped, they were forced to compel me to order my dog to be quiet, to prevent him from attacking my executioner in my defense.”

But one cannot tell the story of relations between African Americans and animals without noting the ways in which black people have been consistently dehumanized themselves. In a slave economy, Africans were treated not just as exploited labor, but as display items, suitable for zoos. Their bodies were presented as evidence that they were closer to baser animals like apes. Hundreds of year of racial pseudoscience, which lasted long after slavery’s abolition, offered supposed proof that they were less evolved than their white rulers and owners.

Black people were quite literally exhibited as curios and specimens. The most notorious example may be that of Saartje Baartman, born in South Africa in 1789 and sold in her twenties to two white men who took her around the world and put her on public view. They forced her to endure throngs of crowds who came to see and even poke the “Hottentot Venus,” endowed with larger buttocks and, so the rumor went, a more extensive labia than white women. Baartmen would die penniless in Paris only a few years later, and her genitals, brain, and skeleton could be viewed in the Museum of Man till the 1970s. Her remains were only returned to her homeland and buried in 2002.

Baartman was no anomaly. Dickey recounts the story of the Congolese pygmy Ota Benga who, in 1906, was exhibited alongside an orangutan trained to do tricks in the Bronx Zoo. The New York Times weighed in that Benga was part of “a race that scientists do not rate high on the human scale” adding that “it is probably a good thing that Benga doesn’t think very deeply.” Desperate and unable to return to his home, Benga committed suicide in 1916.

Charles Darwin’s theories of evolution were used to further dehumanize entire races of people, put on display or discussed, as Baartman and Benga were, as proof of “living links” between apes and men.

That dehumanization, the belief that black, brown, and other non-white people are lesser beings, persists today, especially evident in the continuing series of police brutality incidents that break out with depressing regularity in the United States. When Rodney King was beaten almost to death in Los Angeles, police officers told of their fear that he was under the effects of Phencyclidine (PCP). The same justification was heard in Chicago after the police killing of Laquan MacDonald, a 17-year-old shot sixteen times while walking down the street. Since MacDonald had drugs in his system, he had become that deadliest of creatures, the frenzied black male, capable of anything. In public discourse, a black man killed by police is inevitably cited or described as someone possessed by PCP, and thus possessed by forces beyond his control, forces which make him so lethal that only death will quell the danger to those around him.

We might recall the myth of pit bulls and their interlocking jaws.

The links between “animality” and race have always been vividly present even if never explicitly discussed. The concepts of breed, blood, and race have served to determine what constitutes the human, the non-human, and the purported differences between the two. Dickey traces the history of the concept of “breed”:

…how we think about breed and how we think about race inform each other, even though we may not always realize it. The very word ‘race’ comes from the world of dogs, in fact. It was first coined in medieval France, where hunters and falconers classed their animals according to function, like the English, but also according to “nobility,” in a quasi-caste system. The hounds belonging to French royalty were placed in the “highest” race, and the common guard dog belonged to the “lowest.” For several hundred years thereafter, writers across Europe referred to races, rather than breeds, of dog. This was transposed onto humans sometime during the Enlightenment as naturalists, most notably Buffon and Linnaeus, expanded their taxonomies.

The notions surrounding classification made it easy to attest that the “race” of pit bulls was inherently unstable, with persistent breed characteristics that can never diminish. To a degree, of course, dogs can be bred to indicate some characteristics more than others. Australian shepherd dogs will herd their humans if they’re not put to work in actual fields. But as Dickey shows in an entire chapter devoted to the issue, a “breed” has to be carefully maintained—its defining features can literally disappear in the matter of just a few generations of puppies. And, as the animal theorist Colin Dayan points out, “There is no pit bull gene for danger.”


In fact, Dickey’s research indicates that most of the animals supposedly involved vicious killings or injuries were not even actual pit bulls. Instead, the simple fact of an attack caused the animal to be identified as a pit bull, with even Golden Retrievers labeled as such. In the tautology established around pit bulls, all pit bulls are dangerous dogs and all dangerous dogs are pit bulls.

African Americans are subjected to the same axiomatic reasoning, even though the races of humans are just as indeterminate. Racial categories are a fluid mess, impossible to define with any precision. But the scientific reality, that race is far more social than biological, has done nothing to prevent confident pronouncements on the essential characteristics of racial groups. And it has certainly never kept African American men from being treated as a dangerous breed, in need of locking up.

The racist attitude connecting dogs and African Americans was never clearer than in the case of Michael Vick. 2007 saw the explosive revelation that Vick, star quarterback for the Atlanta Falcons, had been running a dogfighting ring out of his home in Virginia. The news shocked and horrified his fans and the general public. Reports emerged that several dogs from his “Bad Newz Kennels” had been “drowned, hanged, electrocuted, and beaten to death in addition to the daily pain and suffering they experienced as victims of dogfighting.” Vick himself had killed several of them.

Vick served twenty-three months of a three-year sentence, and after his release faced a massive public backlash. He found himself a pariah. No matter how many apologies Vick delivered, scant forgiveness was on display.

But as Dickey points out, none of the athlete’s public denouncers seemed to recall that in 1969, Doug Atkins, the white defensive end of the Saints, openly admitted to using his pit bull Rebel in dogfights. Atkins was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1982.

Vick, by contrast with Atkins, was not just denounced, but was relentlessly dehumanized. Dickey writes:

Critics called for Vick to be ‘neutered,’ electrocuted, or torn apart by dogs. Cartoonists portrayed him as an animal. PETA demanded that he receive a brain scan to test for possibly psychopathy before being allowed to return to football. Threats were made against Vick’s family members, specifically his children. In 2010, the conservative television commentator Tucker Carlson said, ‘I’m a Christian, I’ve made mistakes myself, I believe fervently in second chances, but Michael Vick killed dogs, and he did [it] in a heartless and cruel way. And I think personally he should have been executed for that. He wasn’t.’

The brutal language used to denounce Vick was widespread, legitimized by the fact that it was in defense of dogs. As Jane Berkey, founder of the Animal Farm Foundation put it to Dickey, “Finally, the public hated something worse than it hated pit bulls, and that was Michael Vick.”

Ironically, the Vick revelations created a massive turnaround in the public perception of pit bulls. Vick was ordered to pay $1 million for the long-term care of forty-nine dogs seized from his property. Eventually, according to reports, all but two were accepted by shelters and homes around the country, and they were referred to as the “Vicktory Dogs.” Sports Illustrated ran a story about the dogs, featuring one of the rescued animals on the cover.

Today, after a massive public relations campaign waged by Berkey and others, pit bulls are attaining a nearly mythic image, one completely opposite to their former reputation. They have been termed “nanny dogs” for their temperament and ability to get along with children. On its website, the online resource site Pit Bull Rescue Central lists figures like Helen Keller and Fred Astaire as notable owners of the dogs. All of the famous owners on the list are white. The implication is simple: Who is the typical pit bull owner? Not Michael Vick. The pit bull’s redemption in the public mind directly coincided with its transition from a dangerous “black” dog to a lovable “white” dog. Michael Vick, by contrast, was an animal and a savage, who deserved to be put down.


Dickey is relentless in exposing the brutal racism and classism at the heart of the pit bull scare. For that reason alone, her book is an invaluable resource for those who want and need a counter-narrative to the usual stereotyping of animals. Pit Bull is an important study of how one animal and its context can reveal everything about the link between race, class, and “animality.”

Yet, as much as it presents necessary histories and analyses, Pit Bull works less as a book than a collection of usually interesting essays. Dickey is clearly a superb journalist, but there’s a difference between writing a series of journalistic pieces and writing a unified book on a theme. As a monograph on pit bulls, this work lacks an animating principle and often lags in tempo. Dickey is often too caught up in her factual reporting to keep her eye on the larger coherence of the book.

To her credit, Dickey does not take the easy way out by concluding her book with details on happy pit bull owners. Instead, she focuses on organizations like Pets for Life, which provides pet care supplies and veterinary services to those who cannot afford to keep their dogs, even though they depend on their animals as a lifeline of love and support. Rather than romanticizing pit bulls as “nanny dogs” in accordance with the current trend, Dickey writes simply that:

They are no more or less deserving of good homes. They didn’t cause society’s ills, nor can their redemption—real or imagined—solve them….More important, there never was a ‘pit bull problem.’ What happened to these animals was a byproduct of human fears, and what humans feared was one another.

Meanwhile, the question of race flies to the surface every time animals return to public discussion. The death of Harambe, the lowland mountain gorilla, provoked an outcry against the child’s family that was distinctly racialized. Media reports demonized the African American family of the child, focusing on the father’s previous history with drugs. Some argued that the mother’s irresponsibility proved that all her other children were being neglected at home. Over 500,000 petitioners insisted that, surely, the mother’s behavior was negligent, and that she should face criminal charges. (Apparently none of the petitioners had ever actually lived with toddlers; preventing a truly determined preschooler from clambering into the gorilla enclosure would require superhuman vigilance.)

About a month later, a white two-year-old, Lane Graves, waded into waters at Orlando’s Walt Disney and, while his horrified parents tried to save him, was drowned by an alligator who made off with the body (it was eventually recovered). In that case, there was never any question of the parents having charges filed against them for negligence. Instead, the nation mourned. Five alligators were killed in the hunt for the one that had drowned the child. But no Facebook groups sprang up to pay tribute to the alligators.

The impulse to quickly separate black parents from their children in order to provide them with supposedly better homes has historical roots, as Dorothy Robertson demonstrates in her book, Shattered Bonds: The Color of Child Welfare. Robertson critiques the foster care system that has consistently wrested black children away from their parents and funneled them towards white adoptive or foster parents. In an eerie echo of this process, pit bull and animal owners left bereft by Katrina, many of whom refused to leave their pets in the face of disaster, watched as animal rescue organizations swooped in and took away their beloved companions. Attorney Steve Wise, quoted by Dickey, put it bluntly: “The message is, ‘You’re poor, and we can take care of these dogs a lot better than you can.’” It doesn’t take much to stir up the public perception that African Americans are irresponsible and uncivilized.

Of course, there are other explanations for the differing treatment of Harambe’s death versus that of the alligators. One is simply that alligators, lacking in any cuddly features, rank lower than gorillas on the likeability scale for humans. But Harambe’s death and the outrage that surrounded it also reflected a difference between the value placed on animal lives versus black lives. Once, apes were seen as contiguous to Africans and other non-white people, hence the placement of the orangutan next to Ota Benga. But apes are now anthropomorphized, and many would rather have seen the child die than the gorilla.

Contrary to previous mythology, apes are no longer signifiers of blackness. They are treated with compassion and dignity, recognized for their intelligence and sophistication. Yet no such transformation has occurred in the treatment of race for humans. Black bodies are still shot at will and caged by the hundreds of thousands. Black people continue to be treated as animals even as animals have become human.

The redemption of the pit bull shows that animals have finally transcended race. It is only black humans who must continue to bear its burden.

“We” Do Not Feel That Way, Thank You Very Much

The use of “we” is a form of rhetorical coercion.

When we write, we all share one very important tendency, one we do not notice, and one which we should feel ashamed of. This is the tendency to deploy the word “we” as a cheap method of insisting that the reader already agrees with us, without having to undergo the bothersome effort of proving that they actually do agree.

The tendency to use “we” is pervasive in contemporary nonfiction. Once you start looking for it, you’ll find it everywhere. (Once you start being irritated by it, you will spent half your life as a reader in a state of extreme irritation.) Sentences like this abound:

We have become trapped in a toxic cycle of political discourse, unable to articulate ourselves without offending one another.

We no longer know what we mean by concepts like patriotism and dissent.

How long will we continue to deny the reality of climate change? 

These “we”s come very naturally. They feel right. They suit the style of writing. The above sentences do not seem especially objectionable.

But they are objectionable, at least if they are written casually and without consideration. The problem here is that it’s unclear who “we” are. I’m a reader, and don’t deny the reality of climate change. know what I mean by patriotism and dissent. I’m not trapped in whatever toxic discourse cycle you’re talking about. You may suffer from all of these problems, but leave me out of it!

“We” suffers from a similar problem as the use of the passive voice. It allows the writer or speaker to evade the question of who they are actually talking about. And it’s often lazy, because it attempts to force the reader into the “we” camp without actually undertaking the effort of showing why they belong there.

I used to think that the “we” problem was so obvious that everyone knew about it, and that it was needless to point out a problem that we (oh dear) are all aware of. But recently, I came across one of the worst examples of we-writing I have ever seen, in a book by Virginia Postrel. Ms. Postrel has been a columnist for the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. So if the “we” problem has been addressed by style guides, the advice certainly isn’t being enforced at our major media outlets.

Here’s the passage from Postrel. She is trying to make the case that consumerism is natural rather than artificial, based on the fact that women in Afghanistan enjoy consumer products without being subjected to advertising:

What’s true for New Yorkers should be true for Afghans as well. Why buy a green burka when you’re a poor peasant and already have two blue ones? Why paint your nails red if you’re a destitute widow begging on the streets? These indulgences seem wasteful and irra­tional, just the sort of false needs encouraged by commercial manip­ulation. Yet liberated Kabul had no ubiquitous advertising or elaborate marketing campaigns. Maybe our desires for impractical decoration and meaningless fashion don’t come from Madison Avenue after all. Maybe our relation to aesthetic value is too funda­mental to be explained by commercial mind control. Human beings know the world, and each other, through our sens­es. From our earliest moments, the look and feel of our surroundings tell us who and where we are. But as we grow, we imbibe a different lesson: that appearances are not just potentially deceiving but frivolous and unimportant—that aesthetic value is not real except in those rare instances when it transcends the quotidian to become high art. We learn to contrast surface to substance, to believe that our real selves and the real world exist beyond the superficiality of sensation. We have good cause, of course, to doubt the simple evidence of our senses. The sun does not go around the earth. Lines of the same length can look longer or shorter depending on how you place arrows on their ends. Beautiful people are not necessarily good, nor are good people necessarily beautiful. We’re wise to maintain reasonable doubts. But rejecting our sensory natures has problems of its own. When we declare that mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value, we deny human experience and ignore human behavior. We set our­selves up to be fooled again and again, and we make ourselves a little crazy. We veer madly between overvaluing and undervaluing the importance of aesthetics. Instead of upholding rationality against mere sensuality, we tangle ourselves in contradictions.

This argument, whatever its factual value, relies on a lowdown trick in order to gloss over its weakest points. Instead of proving her case through evidence, Postrel simply throws out a bunch of “we” assertions, as if everyone knows intuitively that the observations she is making are correct. Thus there is no need to prove her premises, and as long as her conclusion follows from them, her argument will be sound.

But half of these “we” statements are highly questionable. We “believe that our real selves and the real world exist beyond the superficiality of sensation?” Do we? I certainly don’t. In fact, I don’t even know what that means. We “declare that mere surface cannot possibly have legitimate value”? I have never heard anybody declare this. Perhaps some people do this. If they do, perhaps they should be named and quoted. But we certainly don’t. Apparently, though, we “veer madly between overvaluing and undervaluing the importance of aesthetics” and make ourselves “a little crazy.” Well, Virginia Postrel may have made herself a little crazy through trying to navigate a series of contradictory abstractions about surfaces and substances. But she’s more alone in that than she thinks. 

It’s interesting that Postrel should invoke madness, and say that “we’re all crazy” in a certain way. It’s as if I were to say “Of course, we all hear voices and suffer hallucinations,” or “naturally, we are all terrified of our shadows.” (The use of “of course” and “naturally” is another quick way to try to badger your reader into glossing over your flimsiest assertions.) Maybe I am right in my assumption about everybody else, and we are all out of our minds. But it’s possible that I am simply wrongly assuming that my personal delusions are widely shared.

It’s impossible to fully escape the use of the reader+myself+society “we.” I slip into it constantly myself (see above). And it has value, insofar as sometimes the writer wishes to show the reader what the writer and reader have in common, or wishes to speak about a broad group that includes herself. But because the identity of the we is so often left unspoken and assumed, the word can easily be deployed nefariously, as a way of coercing agreement from unidentified parties who may or may not actually accept the proposition. Writers and readers alike should be skeptical of we-language, even if it will never be eliminated entirely. The more “we” is purged from our speech, the better off we shall be.

Why Appeals To “Progress” Are Empty

If these “new advances in the field” are so obvious, it should be easy to defend them.

Here is a type of argument I do not like, but seem to be greeted with a lot:

Your position is so dated. Nobody thinks that anymore, it’s based on premises that were discredited years ago. You’re clearly unaware of recent advances in the field. We have progressed so much since then. 

At first glance, this looks like a somewhat legitimate line of response. After all, if my premises have been discredited, my arguments certainly collapse. But it should go without saying that the assertion that my premise are discredited is not, in itself, proof that they are discredited.

And yet, statements like these seem to occur a lot. I recently wrote an article defending the idea that absolute free speech should be guaranteed in common spaces. In response, a commenter told me that I was relying on an “outmoded epistemology.” But, as usual, asserting that the epistemology is outmoded was treated as sufficient, with no necessity of explaining why it is actually so.

My complaint here is that “datedness” is not justifiable as a criterion for evaluating anything. It may well be that, when someone tells me I am just rehashing 1920s positivist dogmas that have since been disproven, that is exactly what I am doing. But for anyone to be persuaded, we need to know how they were disproven so we can evaluate whether they were correctly disproven.

When I issue a statement on a subject in which I am not a specialist, it is perfectly possible (in fact, even likely), that there are recent advances in the field of which I am unaware. Work by specialists takes some time to diffuse to a broader public. But “new discovery X disproves your assertion because of Y” is a different argument than simply stating “there are new discoveries that disprove your assertions.” The latter does not consist of actually showing why an argument is incorrect, but posits a form of secret knowledge, that one insists would prove the argument incorrect if it were revealed (but which is not revealed).

One of my favorite phrases, which I can’t remember the source of, is “arguments so old they’ve forgotten all the answers to them.” I tend to think that, often, we’re told that a position is false and outmoded, but are never told why it’s false and outmoded, thus the only thing we know is the bare unsupported assertion that it’s false and outmoded.

Acknowledging this should bring discomfort. It means that frequently, we know what we think without knowing why we think it. We know that the theory of evolution is accepted, but if we were asked by a skeptic to prove it, many of us would struggle. Or we know that the theory of gravity is true, but if Aristotle asked us why his own theory had been discredited, we would have a hard time arguing the point with him.

“We have moved on” simply isn’t much of an argument. That’s because it could be used to justify any status quo, however pernicious. The Khmer Rouge could explain that all knowledge was outmoded, that a new historical era had begun, and that those who dissented were simply ignorant of historical progress. Stalin could say that bourgeois democracy was a discredited concept, and Hitler could say that racial equality was a long-discarded fantasy.

The weakness of appeals to progress should unsettle “progressives.” After all, the remaining opponents of gay marriage are told that they are “on the wrong side of history” and that “the debate has been had.” But the fact that a consensus has been reached does not mean that it can be rationally supported. Sometimes history creates nightmares. Nothing is justified by the mere fact that it happens to be what history has spat out at that particular moment.

But this type of argument upsets me for another reason: it deliberately sets out to make other people feel as if they are so stupid, so totally out of the loop, that they don’t even merit a response. Every time I am told that I have some sort of “totally discredited epistemology,” I start to question my entire worldview. I wonder whether I am just dumb, and have missed something obvious and huge. After all, the argument is essentially that everyone now knows this is false, so much so that there is no need even to explain it.

All my life, the intellectual tendency I have hated the most is the tendency to treat knowledge as the privilege of the few, and to sneer at people who supposedly do not have it. Frequently, this involves berating people for not knowing things, even as you refuse to actually explain what the things are. Richard Dawkins does this, scoffing at religious myths while being totally uninterested in presenting the basic philosophy of science in a careful, compassionate, and thoughtful way (one that treats objections seriously instead of writing them off with a snort of derision). Leftist activists do it, chastising people for offenses, and then telling them that it is “not the job” of the activist to explain why the person is wrong. Relativists do it, scoffing at old-fashioned “scientism” without actually explaining their objections. Anyone who invokes a consensus in order to silence questions, while being unwilling to actually justify the consensus belief itself, is both asking people to believe things for irrational reasons (believe it because it’s what we think nowadays) and making people feel excluded for having “missed the boat” on whatever the new intellectual fad is.

I also don’t like the rhetoric that condemns “dated” and “long since discarded” beliefs because there’s always a chance (just a chance) that the discarded beliefs were gotten rid of for no good reason, and that by now nobody really remembers why the decision was made. I tend to be “old-fashioned” in my thinking sometimes, in that I believe many widely-held contemporary beliefs among my peers on the left (disdain for “reason,” skepticism of “free speech,” rejection of “The Enlightenment,” etc.) are wrong-headed, and that people of previous generations had better conceptions, to which we should return.

But these points are frequently brushed away with appeals to historical progress. Old ideas are bad ideas, they are stale and therefore need replacing. But the fact that a broad consensus has developed against a notion is not proof that it’s false or worthless. At the very least, the claim needs to be justified with something beyond “the debate is settled, you’re discredited, the end.” If there have been recent advances in the field, you must say what they are, and whether they were any good.

Democrats Have Their Own Basket Of Deplorables

Don’t hesitate to call Trump’s supporters “deplorable.” And they’re not the only ones.

It is the most honest thing that Hillary Clinton has said during this entire campaign.

On Friday, Clinton spoke at an LGBT for Hillary gala in New York City. About Donald Trump’s supporters, she stated that:

You know, to just be grossly generalistic, you could put half of Trump’s supporters into what I call the basket of deplorables. Right? The racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it. And unfortunately there are people like that. And he has lifted them up. He has given voice to their Web sites that used to only have eleven thousand people—now have eleven million. He tweets and retweets their offensive, hateful, mean-spirited rhetoric.

She backed away from this, of course, because Hillary Clinton’s backbone has the rigidity of water-logged cardboard. But her equivocation to one side, the statement she made was unquestionably true: many of Donald Trump’s supporters hail from the far-right and white supremacist political milieu. For example, former Ku Klux Klan leader David Duke explicitly endorsed Trump in a robocall he produced as a part of his run for the U.S. Senate from Louisiana. And then there’s William Johnson, a Trump delegate from California to the Republican National Convention who also happens to be the head of the so-called American Freedom Party, a white nationalist political group.

This holds true of Trump’s supporters in the general public as well, if Alabama Trump supporter Jim Sherota’s sentiment is any evidence:

Hopefully, he’s going to sit there and say, ‘When I become elected president, what we’re going to do is we’re going to make the border a vacation spot, it’s going to cost you $25 for a permit, and then you get $50 for every confirmed kill… That’d be one nice thing.

And naturally, the chair of the American Nazi Party has described Trump’s candidacy as presenting “a real opportunity for people like white nationalists.” So it is hard for anyone to make the argument that Donald Trump is not receiving enthusiastic support from the most extreme reactionaries in American society. “Basket of deplorables” is about the kindest thing that can be said of them.

But there are two groups of deplorables in American politics, and Democrats would do well to recognize the second. Trump’s group seeks to immiserate people of color in hot blood, furious at the faltering of white supremacy in this country. Yet the other group actually has worse consequences. These are the neoconservatives, and instead of being driven by bilious rage, they are motivated into action by the cold and bloodless logic of empire, and unfortunately for Secretary Clinton, they are all #WithHer.

Atrocity-mongers like Max Boot and Robert Kagan have, to a man, aligned to support Clinton’s campaign. People like former CIA director Michael Morrell, whose agency is one of the biggest impediments to democracy and justice around the world, have signed on as well. The Daily Beast reports that “some of the GOP’s best brains” are now for Clinton. Clinton even made a point of bragging about how blood-drenched war criminal Henry Kissinger had praised her work at the State Department (which Senator Sanders reminded her of in a polite and devastating fashion in one of the Democratic primary debates). This, combined with her support of military intervention in Libya and her long-standing vociferous support for further American military intervention in Syria, has the potential to cause exponentially more actual harm to human beings than what Trump is doing now.

This is a problem on multiple levels. Not only is every figure like Boot and Kagan a detestable moral abscess, they are also fundamentally spineless opportunists. Without access to the imprimatur of the state and all the power that it brings, they are useless to Raytheon and Lockheed Martin. In the unlikely event that Hillary Clinton loses to Donald Trump, they will change their tune at the drop of a hat and make attempts to save face by flattering Trump’s ‘muscular resolve in the face of foreign policy challenges’ or some such nonsense, and in so doing would worm their way back into the good graces of those in power. The Democrats are allying themselves with people who have zero loyalty to them.

Long term, this is not a solution for victory if you are a putatively liberal party like the Democrats are supposed to be. By rehabilitating the architects of the GOP’s worst actions, actions that have resulted in catastrophic failure even when evaluated by their stated goals, the Democrats under Secretary Clinton are hemming themselves in rhetorically. They are tying themselves to odious people who will instantly split the moment the other side offers a better deal better deal. At best, this is poor strategy. At worst, it is a deliberate effort to put criticism of the self-perpetuating war machine out of electoral bounds.

The Clinton campaign has made “Dangerous Donald” an ongoing theme this election cycle. Their ads have featured Trump and his bombastic rhetoric over and over again, making the point that the Republican nominee does not have the temperament to be making decisions for the nation in the White House. That is true: a Trump presidency would be a disaster on many levels.

But with friends like Henry Kissinger and Michael Bloomberg, the future under President Hillary Clinton looks to be just as bleak for the working class in the United States and around the world. American politics is one big basket of deplorables.

Let The Kooks Speak

They will only embarrass themselves.

Holocaust deniers have no arguments. This is because, whenever they attempt to formulate arguments, they are destined to run headlong into the stubborn facts of the historical record, with its mountains of documentary and eyewitness testimony showing the full scope of the Nazi horror. For this reason, usually the best way to deal with a Holocaust denier is to allow him to hang himself with his own words. Because the historical reality of the Holocaust is among the most well-established of factual certitudes, anyone attempting to deny it will quickly be forced to resort to babble rather than reason. It is the simplest thing in the world to humiliate such people.

A strange thing happened in Brooklyn recently. Visitors to the Brooklyn Commons, a left-wing café and event space, noticed something horrifying on the bulletin board: a flyer advertising an upcoming event at the Commons, on “9/11 and our Political Crisis,” with “investigative journalist” Christopher Bollyn. From a distance, the flyer didn’t look like much, but in small print it spoke of a plot by “neocons and their Zionist partners in crime” to dominate the world. Christopher Bollyn, as it turns out, is not only a 9/11 conspiracy theorist, but a raving anti-Semite who thinks the Jews assassinated JFK.

Many were baffled by why the Brooklyn Commons would hold such an event. Why on earth would a progressive café provide a platform for a blatant racist? It was yet another confirmation of the (true, and depressing) fact that in certain parts of the radical left, it’s not terribly uncommon to find anti-Semitic conspiracy theorists.

Outrage was quickly directed against the Commons, who were met with demands to cancel the event. Interestingly, a large part of this came from the radical left itself. Though often accused of being unwilling to purge anti-Semitism from their ranks, leftists quickly and vigorously condemned the Commons. Rabble-rousing journal The Baffler called the Commons’ hosting of the event a “grievous misjudgment” and demanded its cancellation. Jacobin magazine, which has worked with the Commons, expressed shock and seconded the demand. The Brooklyn Institute for Social Research, an organization that puts on left-wing teaching sessions, announced its decision to “remove all of our programming from the Brooklyn Commons despite the significant logistical and financial challenges that this decision entails.” On social media, the Commons was treated with contempt and disgust.

Astonishingly, the Commons went ahead and let the event proceed. The Commons’ owner, Melissa Ennen, defended the event on free speech grounds. In a statement, Ennen said that she allows anyone to book the space and hold events there, and does not investigate their views:

I did not research the speaker before accepting the rental. I do not have the time, resources or inclination to censor the hundreds of groups who rent the space. Since launching in 2010, the list of renters has included local Tea Partiers, conservative promoters of charter schools, explicitly anti-union corporations, elected officials who voted for the Patriot Act and wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

Ennen made no defense of Bollyn’s views. Instead, she said that she had a reason for allowing racists to book the space. As she explained:

I agree that all forms of racism should have no place in leftist spaces, but in my opinion, to get to the root of racist thinking, confrontation works better than censorship.

Ennen finally quoted a story from a man named Paul Frantz, who in the 1970s had attended a talk by notorious eugenicist (and inventor of the transistor) William Shockley. Frantz explained that by listening to Shockley speak, he realized just how wrong Shockley truly was. Shockley’s blatherings about genes and IQ taught Frantz that just because someone was a Nobel laureate, they didn’t necessarily know what they were talking about.

On social media, Ennen’s defense was mocked. One person called it a “ridiculous defense of an indefensible booking,” others suggested it was a pathetic excuse, one that offensively invoked free speech and anti-censorship to justify giving a platform to a racist. “Racism is not like a vaccine,” a commenter said. “We don’t need to expose everyone to it to make sure they don’t catch racism.” Others laughed at Ennen’s invocation of free speech. Free speech, they said, means the government can’t censor you, not that you have to help racists spread their message.

Many of these arguments seem compelling on the surface. That the café could defend Bollyn’s talk is almost inconceivable. But once we think through the actual implications of the criticisms, it becomes less obvious that the Brooklyn Commons was wrong to permit the event.

If we take the owner’s words to be true, the Brooklyn Commons is set up, as the name implies, as a “commons.” It’s a space that anyone can rent, to put on any event they like. It’s therefore designed to be “democratic,” in the sense that every single person has an equal ability (presuming they can afford the rental fee) to gather there and give whatever kind of presentation they like.

Ennen says that she takes this principle very seriously indeed. (In fact, she refused to apologize, saying that she was willing to lose friendships over the issue because she feels so strongly about the question of censorship.) Thus, even though she herself is a progressive, Ennen has allowed groups she opposes including the Tea Party to use the space. According to her, when she say anyone can book the space, she means it.


If that’s true, it is less clear that the Brooklyn Commons should have canceled the speech. People argued that the Commons was “hosting” and “providing a platform for” a racist. But “hosting” implies that the Brooklyn Commons invited the speaker, and the Commons only “provided a platform” in the same way that it provides a platform to everyone. If I set up a true Speakers’ Corner, the entire point is to allow anyone to talk. The very moment I start introducing restrictions (“except racists”), it’s no longer an open forum. The important question, therefore, is “should anti-Semites be given the equal freedom to book an open public event space?”

We can draw analogies. Say we introduce a community arts program, which offers free art supplies to starving painters. If one painter paints disgusting racist portraits, should we stop giving him paints? If we have a community typewriter-lending program, in which we rent low-cost vintage typewriters to hipster poets, should we refuse to lend typewriters to someone who writes misogynistic rap lyrics? Some people may feel that we should make these distinctions. But it’s important to acknowledge what that entails: someone has to be empowered to assess a painter’s art to determine whether it is racist or not.

This may seem like a sort of “slippery slope” argument. But it’s not quite that. Instead it points out that the moment you start making content distinctions (of whatever kind), you have assumed the power to determine who should and shouldn’t speak in a place. You might have very, very good reasons for thinking that a particular person has such hideous beliefs that they shouldn’t speak (and you might be right). But it becomes your determination. Dissident scholar Norman Finkelstein, himself a victim of censorship, tried to explain this fundamental principle of free speech in a recent lecture to the Communist Party of Great Britain. Finkelstein, citing John Stuart Mill, asks the communists why they should be the ones to determine which speech to authorize. (Finkelstein also pointed out that if you’re certain a speaker has nothing of value to say, it is all the more reason not to be afraid to let him speak.)

The authority point is extremely simple and very important. The reason for being a free-speech absolutist is not  that all viewpoints are equally legitimate, but that deciding which viewpoints are legitimate involves assuming the power to start making speech distinctions. And unless that person is infallible, people will inevitably be wrongly censored sometimes. After all, it’s easy to see how this could happen. If you’ve refused to rent to the anti-Semite, what about the Tea Partier? They’re racists too! And what about the neoconservatives? They caused 600,000 deaths! Soon the entire notion of a “freely accessible public event space” disappears.

But why is this about “censorship” or “free speech” at all? Whenever discussions like this come up, about the decisions of private entities to permit or not permit events, one common reaction is to point out that the First Amendment applies only to the government. Private entities, they say, are under no obligation to honor people’s free speech rights. 

Yet it’s unclear why only government acts can qualify as restrictions on speech, in a world where the government is not the only entity capable of exercising power over people. If corporations control access to the means of speaking publicly, then “private censorship” can stifle public speech just as effectively as governments can. Consider Twitter. Twitter is a private corporation. The First Amendment does not apply to it, and it can get rid of whichever users it pleases. Because of this, when conservatives are kicked off Twitter and whine about being censored, liberals quickly point out that their free speech has not, technically, been violated.

Yet because everyone is on it, Twitter has tremendous power to control public discussions. For journalists and writers, Twitter is an incredibly important professional resource, where connections are made and projects are hatched. Some people have built their entire careers on Twitter. Thus they must stay on Twitter’s good side, because it has the power to vaporize their professional lives, as it did to one odious right-wing pundit, if they displease the corporation. Thus far, they have generally limited their bans to defensible cases (though not always) but there is no restriction on Twitter’s ability to stifle its users, thus all are dependent on its continued benevolence. 

These days, so much of the “commons” (if by this, we mean “the place where public discussions occur”) is privatized. That gives corporations like Facebook a tremendous power to censor speech (as it did recently, in sending a haunting Vietnam War image down the memory hole, before meeting with public outcry). These powers may be distinguishable from that of a government in principle (you can always go and start your own Facebook!), but in practice the power of corporations over people’s lives is nearly unlimited. 

So if we confine “free speech” to government acts, we are confining it to a very narrow realm. If parks are private, and social media is private, and event spaces are private, then this kind of “free speech” doesn’t guarantee anything at all. It certainly doesn’t mean being guaranteed the ability to speak. If one is not prohibited from speaking, but there is nowhere one can speak, then the idea that one is entitled to speak freely is meaningless. Some people say “the right to speak is not the right to be heard.” But this only supports the Brooklyn Commons’ position. Bollyn had the right to rent a space and set up a PowerPoint in it. He wasn’t entitled to have anyone come to his event.

But in that case, does everyone have to let everyone speak all the time? Should racists be given television shows? Should crackpot climate change deniers be put alongside experts? Should there be no such thing as a safe space? Do we have to let misogynists speak at feminist events? Of course not. It’s not that all viewpoints must be included all the time, it’s that there should be freely-accessible common spaces in which all viewpoints can be heard. It’s not that Current Affairs should publish every submission we receive, it’s that everyone should have the equal ability to start a website (and if ISPs started blocking anti-Semitic websites, that would implicate free speech despite being non-governmental). Every corner need not be a Speaker’s Corner, but there should always be a Speaker’s Corner. And since there are very few true public “commons” spaces, it’s admirable for the Brooklyn Commons to be one of those.

Of course, a crucial question is whether Ennen is telling the truth that the Commons is in fact a commons. If Ennen has previously refused any invitations on subject-matter rather than logistical grounds, her entire defense crumbles. If she would refuse a booking from the Klan or Dick Cheney, then it is hypocritical (and a minimization of anti-Semitism) to permit Bollyn. Some have suggested that the Commons’ actions in whitewashing the event (and Ennen’s own history with the 9/11 Truth movement) implied that they were more sympathetic to Bollyn than they let on.


But the wider point is less about the specific behavior of the Commons, and more about the arguments people made in opposing that behavior. Separate from the factual determination about whether the Commons’ representations of its own motives are true, many on the left are skeptical of the commons principle in itself. They argue that racist speech has no value, and that “free speech” is about not having the police confiscate your printing press, rather than being entitled to particular kinds of public discussion spaces. But if “lack of value” is the relevant question, then someone has to determine that value. And if people are free to rent discussion spaces in theory, but in practice nobody will rent to them, then the “right” carries no real-world effect in enabling speech. (Again, this is not to imply that people should be required to rent to all comers, but that someone who did rent to all comers shouldn’t be condemned.) If we solely conceive of “free speech” as a legal entitlement rather than a social value, that freedom will exist solely within the text of the law. 

There is an important pragmatic argument here, also. Bigots may find their cause helped by efforts to censor them. As commenter Samuel Chance pointed out, by keeping yourself from hearing racists, you do not thereby eliminate racism. In fact, the opposite can be true. As Chance wrote:

Bad ideas are best confronted rather than suppressed. If you deny ignorance a public forum, the ignorance doesn’t die, it grows in private. When you later are forced to confront it, it might by then be stronger than you.

It’s important to argue with Nazis not because Nazis can be convinced, but because people who are not yet Nazis need to see why the Nazis are wrong. They need to see that the left’s principles make sense, that we are doing more than just asserting that the issue is beyond debate. As a recent cartoon points out, while those on the left tend to simply declare that debates are so settled that arguments do not need to be put forth, those on the right happily dispense voluminous literature on why leftist arguments are wrong. As a result, the politically naive can lack the critical intellectual tools necessary to keep themselves from being seduced by poisonous arguments.

There are several things one can do when an anti-Semite announces an event. It’s true you could protest the event space, for not canceling the event. You could boycott it, and try to convince other groups not to hold events there. You could (at the extreme end) threaten to drive it out of business, or at least make it so toxic that few people wish to be associated with it. (Indeed, the Brooklyn Commons owner reported receiving emails threatening dire consequences for The Commons.”)

But you could also take a different approach. Instead of targeting the event space, whose crime was not to distinguish among those to whom it rented space, you could target the anti-Semitic 9/11 Truther whose event poses the problem to begin with. You could hand out literature to all attendees, explaining why this man is odious and should be ignored. You could stage a massive protest outside, a protest against the event itself rather than the event space. You could even attend the event, and perform calculated symbolic disruptive acts.

But you could go beyond even this. You could demand that the event space allow another event, this time a teach-in about the problem of anti-Semitism. At that event, you could perform an important self-examination on the question of whether the left has done enough to combat anti-Semitism. Is the problem that we are allowing them to rent event space? Or is it deeper?

I’ve been told that my view that “the solution to bad speech is more speech” is romantic and unrealistic. The idea of civil public discourse is a fantasy; you don’t reason with fascists, you destroy them. And I have to admit, all of that sounds very persuasive.

But let’s look at the actual facts of what ended up happening in Brooklyn. The Commons didn’t cancel its event, despite pressure. Protesters showed up, and mayhem ensued. Bollyn did speak. But according to witnesses, he simply rambled incoherently for nearly two hours to a tiny group of bored misfits. The AlterNet writer who went said it was a “pathetic spectacle” with the “supposedly brave iconoclast, prevaricating for a half-empty room of gullible dimwits while dressed like a dad at a PTA meeting.” The Daily Beast’s Jacob Siegel wrote that “not long after the talk started, people started to nod off,” and that and that once you “strip away everything else…  here was a middle-aged man dully clicking through slides.” So Bollyn gave his speech, and he was a failure who converted nobody.

Whatever theoretical skepticism people might have about letting racists speak, here we can chalk up a victory for open public debate. Bollyn didn’t have his event canceled, he was allowed to say exactly as he pleased. Nobody in his lunatic fringe group could claim he was censored. The most destructive weapon against Bollyn was his own words.

I tend to think that left-wing critics of free speech are giving a gift to the racists. One of the most constant rhetorical themes of the American racist right is “they won’t listen to our arguments, they just call us racists and try to shut us up.” And because it’s true that the left doesn’t listen to their arguments, and just calls them racists and tries to shut them up, credulous people may think their views are right. This is precisely what happened in the debate surrounding The Bell Curve. Many people denounced the book without having read it. Then conservatives pointed out, correctly, that the critics hadn’t even read the book they were criticizing. That makes it look like the left is in fear of the truth. But those that did read the book had an easy time showing its massive errors of statistical reasoning. (And in fact, years before, Noam Chomsky had already diligently vaporized one of the co-authors’ intelligence theories.) 

Thus it’s easy to win if you stay focused on the truth. I will have the debate on race and intelligence any day of the week, any time, any place. I will have it because the racists should have their bluff called. Of Bollyn, an attendee said that “the facts and conclusions he’s reached are what these people don’t want to hear.” But when they say that nobody wants to listen to the facts, they’re wrong. Not me. I’d love to hear these supposed “facts.” I say bring on the facts! What they want is for me to call them racists and keep them from speaking. What they really, really don’t want is to have anyone actually examine their arguments. Once you let such people open their mouths, you hear how little they have to say.

In the Bollyn case specifically, we also saw some positive good come out of the event. The protesters who came to the event were far-left radicals, who detest anti-Semitism so much that they want its speakers to be prevented from renting space. The pictures of those radicals serve as an important rebuttal to those who associate leftist critics of Israel with anti-Semitism. If Brooklyn Commons had quietly refused the booking, we would never have had such public evidence of the left’s hatred of anti-Semitism.

The question of “free speech for racists” is both incredibly difficult and incredibly important. The instinct to take the easy route, and make sure people with hideous beliefs cannot have platforms, is an understandable one. But you don’t get rid of a belief by pretending it isn’t there. The Bollyn event itself was outrageous. But what happened is exactly what should have happened. People organized against him, to show where they stood. The left did what it should do: insistently refused to put up with anti-Semitic bigotry. And, in the end, nobody ended up listening to Christopher Bollyn. 

So let the kooks speak. Let them rent whatever spaces they like. There is no easier way to prove their insignificance than to let them have their say.

Money, Labor, and Current Affairs

A word on our compensation practices and our commitment to paying writers punctually and fairly.

It’s no secret that the political bent of Current Affairs is broadly left-wing. We therefore get occasional questions (mostly in good faith, but sometimes not) about how the values held by our editors and contributors comport with our compensation practices. Because we believe strongly in both fairness and accountability, it is worth explaining a little bit about how our organization works, and the standards to which we aim to hold ourselves.

Current Affairs does not operate for profit. Every penny we take in, after printing and web costs, goes directly to our writers and artists. Our editorial staff are volunteers. We exist for our readers, writers, artists, and editors, and for nobody else. Whatever success we have is shared equally.

One of the main goals of Current Affairs is to help revitalize the writing economy, by helping to establish and maintain the expectation that writers are to be paid fairly and paid on time. At the moment, publications with huge budgets pay writers pittances. Even worse, they can often take months (sometimes years) to actually disperse writers’ payments. This erodes the possibility of anyone actually making a living freelancing.

Current Affairs is very young, and has almost no money. We began at the end of 2015, with $16,000 raised through a Kickstarter campaign. We have about $8,000 in the bank at any one time. So far, each of our print editions has cost approximately $5,000 to print and distribute, and we have paid about $2,000 to writers and artists for each issue. This means money is always incredibly tight.

Yet we are very proud of how we have managed to do thus far. Even given the incredible difficulties of beginning a print magazine in a digital era, we have been able to produce four issues of extremely high quality, and to build a dedicated base of subscribers in 40 states and 5 countries. Our writers have been paid, and they have been paid punctually.

So far, we have largely compensated people at the following rates:

Print essays – between $175 and $325

Print illustrations – between $50 and $100

Online essays – between $50 and $150

These amounts are not what we would hope for. Writers and artists cannot live on them. They are, in fact, dismal and embarrassing. And yet they are still often higher than what publications with annual revenues of multiple tens of millions of dollars pay their contributors. The fact that we (a brand-new, volunteer-run, entity with a couple of thousand dollars to our name) can consistently pay writers, demonstrates just how disgraceful it is that large corporate media entities pay so pitifully. For them, there is no justification for not paying well for writing. We work hard to make sure we can pay as many people as much as possible. If a publication is successful, but is not paying writers well, that means it is not making any effort to pay writers well. The excuses they offer are lies.

We also believe strongly in paying punctually. The industry norm is not only that you get paid nearly nothing, but that your near-nothing payment arrives 18 months late, after about six rounds of pleading and cajoling. We do not want this to happen. Our writers will be paid immediately via check or money transfer upon receipt of the final draft of their work.

Have we always managed to live up to our principles? We have not. A few payments have been late. This was due to absent-mindedness and our failure to keep a well-organized system. Our volunteer editorial staff work hard, but sometimes things slip by them. But we are committed to doing better, and any writer or artist who sends us a reminder of our debt to them is paid immediately. We have also run a few pieces for which writers were not compensated. None of the content produced by our founding editors is compensated. We have also had contributions from some academics and students that were not compensated, or were compensated below our usual rate. Sometimes the first piece a writer has written has been free, but then all subsequent pieces have been paid. We are not happy about this; we believe that all free writing undermines, even if indirectly, the compensation expectations for writers, by increasing the available supply of free labor. However: in these early stages of our existence, some of our work, both written and editorial, has had to necessarily be produced by volunteers, simply because otherwise we would have gone out of business. Over time, we hope to eliminate free writing entirely. For the moment, our philosophy is this: while we will gladly accept free contributions, we will always compensate a writer who asks to be compensated. And we will try to apportion our budget to make sure that those who must make their living as writers get paid first. We do not mind accepting free work from those who write as a hobby, because they have another source of income and our incredibly limited budget would not be put to its best use in compensating them. It is better that that budget be spent helping more people survive as writers.

Again, however, we are not proud of this, and hope it is a (very) temporary situation. It is a shameful necessity of our earliest days. Ultimately, we want to pay all writers what they deserve. And as our magazine grows, all of our revenue after print and web costs will be directed toward paying for content and editorial work. Our writers will always benefit in direct proportion to our own success.

All of our editors are volunteers working at their own availability, but these are full editorial positions, not grunt labor. They work from project to project rather than in formal shifts. And the moment we can pay for editorial work, we will pay.

Our annual subscriptions are $60. That may seem a lot. However, it barely covers our costs. In fact, if we could charge far more, we would. Currently, we are depending on writers who are accepting far less than they can live on, and editors who are volunteering thousands of hours for free. We will therefore always make our subscriptions as expensive as possible, on the promise that that money is entirely used to improve the content and compensate the contributors. We must destroy the expectation that good content can be had cheaply. Good content requires intensive labor, thus if good content is being offered cheaply, someone is being screwed out of adequate compensation for their labor.

We are always striving to do better. We believe writers, artists, and editors should be able to make comfortable livings. We believe that, even though the miserable pay of writers can be blamed partially on the internet, media outlets also bear a significant share of the responsibility. They have taken advantage of the glut of freely available content, knowing that writers have no bargaining power. They have taken this to absurd extremes, by withholding people’s compensation, sometimes for years, knowing there is little a writer can do to change the situation. Current Affairs will do whatever it can to help solve this problem.

Again, we can only do so much. We ask that our readers kindly indulge us as we inevitably fail to fully embody our ideals. We ask them to bear in mind the harsh financial realities of our situation, and the difficulty of surviving as a non-profit left-wing print magazine. We ask them not to judge too harshly our occasional moral compromises, but also to call us out if we ever become the very thing we denounce. And we ask them to believe us when we promise that we are committed to making sure all intellectual labor is someday fairly compensated.

Finally, we ask you to consider supporting us in our effort to build a magazine that is fresh, smart, and committed to the well-being of its writers, artists, and staff. Please consider donating or subscribing today. Your money is guaranteed to end up with those who deserve it: the hard-working and brilliant people who produce our words and pictures, and who struggle daily to stay afloat in an impossible and unjust media economy.

The Current Affairs Interview: Caitlin Flanagan

Current Affairs confronts the writer over her criticism of Noam Chomsky…

We spoke with Caitlin Flanagan to clarify some of her comments on Noam Chomsky’s work. The interview was conducted via Twitter. As is Current Affairscustomary practice, the participant was unaware that this Twitter exchange constituted an “interview.” But it did.

CA: Are you aware of Noam Chomsky’s actual beliefs and writings at all?

CF: I am, thank you.

CA: So you are aware that the Wolfe book is based on a factual misunderstanding of Chomsky’s beliefs about recursion?

CF: I don’t think it’s based on recursion…

CA: And you are aware that your depiction of his view of intellectuals is the direct opposite of his actual view?

CF: Do you think Chomsky was enjoining “intellectuals” to remain tools of the state?

CA: Of course not. Which is why we explained precisely what he was and was not enjoining.

CF: What line of my essay contradicts your assertions?

CA: “whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men” Which is the opposite of his belief. And you did not note that the person you are writing about doesn’t believe this.

CF: Do you think his essay had any effect on American college professors? In terms of re-imagining their right role in society?

CA: No. As Chomsky has documented, intellectuals have always been self-important and felt it their duty to issue pronouncements. [Anyway,] do you admit that Chomsky is strongly against the position that intellectuals have “inherently more valuable” opinions?

CF: Without Chomsky, student anti-war demonstrations would not have found support from so many faculty members…

CA: So no contrition over the error, no actual counterargument? [You] asked which exact parts of [the] article were mistaken, we told [you] precisely.

CF: You did not cite one single mistake.

CA: “people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men”

CF: There is no mistake. [“The Responsibility of Intellectuals”] was hugely influential. You shortchange Chomsky.

CA: It’s interesting that you’ve admitted you find Chomsky’s actual words irrelevant to whether Wolfe’s attack on him is fair.

CF: My opinion on this is irrelevant to your assertion. The opinion of the original readers of the essay is what matters.

CA: So Chomsky’s own beliefs are irrelevant to whether it is fair to smear him? You don’t even feel compelled to note them?

CF: Chomsky was instrumental in changing national opinion on the war – which he did by awakening academics to a powerful new role. Your reading of this essay – and its literary effect – is literal and ultimately dismissive of its power.

CA: Wait, this is your defense? [Our] failure is that [we are] reading Chomsky as literally saying what Chomsky is literally saying??

At this point, Caitlin Flanagan ceased to respond.

What Noam Chomsky Thinks Of “Intellectuals”

Contrary to what the New York Times thinks, Chomsky is highly skeptical of “expert opinion.”

Recently, Caitlin Flanagan of the New York Times wrote that Noam Chomsky’s writing is the source of “much that is distasteful — and, at worst, fraudulent — about the American university system.” Chomsky’s view of the “responsibility of intellectuals,” she writes “allowed every plodding English department adjunct and uninspired life sciences prof to imagine themselves not as instructors but as “intellectuals,” people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion.” Thus, she says, Tom Wolfe’s new attack on Chomsky is “precise, scathing and not undeserved.”

But if Flanagan read what Noam Chomsky actually writes about intellectuals, she would see that his views are the direct opposite of what she takes them to be. In fact, Noam Chomsky has spent his entire career vigorously rejecting the idea that a caste of “intellectuals” is in a better position to guide policy than ordinary men and women. His “Responsibility of Intellectuals” essay was a critique of the “Best and Brightest” model of intellectualism favored by the liberal intelligentsia. Here are some of his actual words on the subject of intellectuals, which can be contrasted with the depiction in Flanagan’s article:

I think one of the healthy things about the United States is precisely this: there’s very little respect for intellectuals as such. And there shouldn’t be. What’s there to respect? I mean, in France if you’re part of the intellectual elite and you cough, there’s a front page story in Le Monde. That’s one of the reasons why French intellectual culture is so farcical- it’s like Hollywood… My suspicion is that plenty of people in the crafts, auto mechanics and so on, probably do as much or more intellectual work as plenty of people in universities… So if by “intellectual” you mean people who are using their minds, then it’s all over the society. If by “intellectual” you mean people who are a special class who are in the business of imposing thoughts… they’re really more of a secular priesthood… and the population should be anti-intellectual in that respect, I think that’s a healthy reaction. (Understanding Power, p. 96)

On self-important elitists who think they know better than others:

It’s a very attractive conception that, ‘We are the rational, intelligent people, and management and decision-making should be in our hands.’ Actually, as I’ve pointed out in some of the things I’ve written, it’s very close to Bolshevism. And, in fact, if you put side-by-side, say, statements by people like Robert McNamara and V.I. Lenin, it’s strikingly similar. In both cases there’s a conception of a vanguard of rational planners who know the direction that society ought to go and can make efficient decisions, and have to be allowed to do so without interference from, what one of them, Walter Lippmann, called the ‘meddlesome and ignorant outsiders,’ namely, the population, who just get in the way… It’s a pretty constant strain, and understandable. And it underlies the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture always, and very dramatically right now… The claims to expertise are very striking. So, economists tell you, ‘We know how to run the economy’; the political scientists tell you, ‘We know how to run the world, and you keep out of it because you don’t have special knowledge and training.’

On Bakunin’s warning that a class of intellectuals would presume to know better than ordinary people:

Bakunin warned that the new class [of the ‘intelligentsia’] will attempt to convert their access to knowledge into power over economic and social life… There will be a new class, a new hierarchy of real and counterfeit scientists and scholars, and the world will be divided into a minority ruling in the name of knowledge, and an immense ignorant majority. And then, woe unto the mass of ignorant ones…A century later, Bakunin’s new class has become a grim feature of contemporary reality. 

On the jargon used by intellectuals:

[Obscure academic writing is] a way of guaranteeing that intellectuals will have power, prestige and influence. If something can be said simply, say it simply, so that the carpenter next door can understand you. Anything that is at all well understood about human affairs is pretty simple.

On the arbitrary designation of who constitutes an “intellectual”:

People who are called “intellectuals” are a very curious class… If the janitor who cleans [an MIT professor’s] room happens to have a great deal of knowledge about world affairs and a good deal of insight into human life and understanding, maybe more so than the people who write books, we don’t call him an intellectual… If you look at the history of ‘intellectuals,’ it’s not a pretty one. 

Finally, in regard to “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” essay itself, Flanagan has clearly not read beyond the second paragraph (surely understandable, since the essay is long and somewhat complicated). Chomsky’s argument is that intellectuals, by anointing themselves “responsible scholar-experts” and helping to plan and justify the American invasion of South Vietnam, were renouncing the basic duty of intellect, which is first and foremost to be committed to truth and moral integrity. Chomsky argued that, faced with the horrors of children being burned alive by bombs, anyone who was committed to the values of intellectual inquiry, or who found themselves in a privileged “intellectual” position, had a basic duty, as both a person and a scholar, not to deny the truth. To trivialize this argument, to treat Chomsky as snobbishly seeing himself as part of an entitled caste, is appalling on both a moral and, yes, intellectual level.

If Chomsky’s essay in any way contributed to the idea that a class of “intellectuals” had more valuable opinions than anyone else, it can only be because nobody paid the slightest attention to anything Chomsky has ever actually said about intellectuals. It’s incredibly, willfully dishonest of Flanagan to pretend that Chomsky believes the opposite of what he actually believes. How can the attack on Chomsky be “not undeserved” if it attacks a position he has vigorously fought against his whole life?

Chomsky believes, and states openly, that the idea of a self-appointed group of elite “experts” who know best about U.S. foreign policy is absurd. Yet Flanagan suggests that Chomsky legitimized the idea that a group of elite experts know best about U.S. foreign policy. Chomsky says intellectuals aren’t special and that ordinary people know just as much as the supposed experts, and Flanagan hears that intellectuals are special and do have a more legitimate claim to knowledge than ordinary people.

Flanagan fails to understand that Chomsky’s entire political philosophy is dedicated to a rejection of the idea that correct politics requires specialized expertise. She must either (1) be totally unfamiliar with his work, in which case she should not be writing about it in a newspaper or (2) intentionally distorting his work, in which case she should not be writing about it in a newspaper. In a fair-minded and rational world, The New York Times would retract this kind of erroneous misrepresentation, and Caitlin Flanagan would apologize to Noam Chomsky for having spread such grossly unfair untruths about him. But we do not live in a fair-minded and rational world. We live in this world, where Flanagan is unlikely to recant even when faced with proof that Prof. Chomsky totally rejects the position she associated him with, and has in fact been a lifelong critic of it.

If You’re a Democrat Bashing Bernie Voters, You’re Supporting Trump

Disparaging millennials is a good way to further alienate them.

Clara Jeffrey, editor-in-chief of progressive Mother Jones magazine, supports Donald Trump for President. Now, she says she doesn’t support Trump. But she can not be taken at her word. After all, in reacting to polls showing that millennials are tending towards third party candidates, Clara Jeffrey wrote: “I have never hated millennials more.” Because heaping disdain on millennials is likely to further alienate them from the Democratic Party, and because those alienated from the Democratic Party will be unlikely to show up to vote for Hillary Clinton in November, and because Donald Trump will become president if people do not vote for Hillary Clinton, Clara Jeffrey supports Donald Trump. 

Clara Jeffrey is not the only Democrat supporting Donald Trump. Kevin Drum, a progressive blogger also of Mother Jones, recently wrote an article blaming Bernie Sanders for millennials’ distaste for Hillary Clinton. If Sanders hadn’t pointed out that Clinton was in the pocket of Wall Street, Drum argued, she would not have lost millennial support.

By making this argument, Kevin Drum is supporting Donald Trump. Since millennials like Bernie Sanders, and since Drum is bashing the figure millennials identify with, Drum is pushing millennials away from the Democratic Party. Thus, Drum supports Donald Trump. Similarly, by diminishing the intelligence of female Bernie voters, Gloria Steinem was supporting Donald Trump. And by telling women that they would go to hell if they didn’t support Hillary Clinton, Madeleine Albright was also supporting Donald Trump. Because showing open contempt for someone is a good way to get them to refuse to help you, to dismiss and demean millennials is to support Trump.

The argument I have just made is, of course, absurd. But it follows from the logic being advanced by many Democrats, which is that by criticizing Hillary Clinton, one supports Donald Trump, since criticism of Clinton makes people less likely to vote for her. Clinton-supporting pundit Bob Cesca has gone so far as to say that “any attack on Hillary must be taken as tacit support for Trump.” Others, like Paul Krugman, imply that any journalism that puts Clinton in a negative light deliberately provides aid and comfort to the Trump campaign.

Say we accept this logic. Whether or not someone supports Donald Trump is not dependent on their professed opinion, or on how they will vote. Rather, it is solely a function of how their actions contribute to the probability that Donald Trump will become the President. If a person’s actions increase that probability, they are supporting Trump, regardless of what they say. If their actions decrease that probability, they are supporting Clinton.

If that standard is applied consistently, Bernie-bashing, millennial-hating Democrats are openly supporting Trump. That’s because Clinton is currently struggling to retain millennial support. And in order to win the election she’ll not only need their support in public opinion polls, she’ll need them all to actually go to a polling place and case a ballot for her. In order to do that, she needs to be wooing them. And those who support her need to be doing the same. Instead, they’re reinforcing nasty prejudices about millennials (incorrect ones, too, because old people undermine the Democrats far more than millennials do). Or they’re criticizing the one person in their party that millennials have come to respect.

Voter turnout is an aspect of the election that Democrats seem reluctant to discuss. When Nate Silver talks about which way the poll-needle has swung in the last few days, he talks entirely about who people support rather than who is actually going to vote. There’s a tacit assumption in much of the news coverage of polls that the old model of “likely voters” can simply be presumed to still hold. Yet it’s not clear that that’s true. If it turns out that Democrats are so unenthusiastic that few of them drag themselves out on election day, then a 3-point Clinton lead in the polls could easily translate into a landslide Trump victory. This is not to say that it will. But it is to say that the only people whose opinions matter are the people who actually show up. If Democrats focus solely on public opinion polling, rather than on getting people enthusiastic about actually turning out on Election Day, they may be in for a rude surprise come November.

What has concerned me from the beginning of this election is this: Democrats seem to have a better thought-out plan for how to blame leftists for allowing Trump to get elected than they do for how to actually defeat Trump. They’re all set to cast blame on Bernie if they are defeated in November. It will be very satisfying for them.

But if you actually oppose Trump, which Democrats and leftists alike do, you need to think about how to get rid of him. It’s fun to sit around saying “Your actions make you a Trump supporter!” “No, yours do!” But it’s also pointless. If we don’t want the next four years to see the rise of new white supremacist paramilitary gangs, it’s necessary to think in terms of strategy rather than the smug allocation of blame. Clara Jeffrey clearly has no interest in actually preventing Trump’s election. Instead, she would rather make that election more likely, by heaping scorn on those whose support she needs in order to stop Trump. By Democratic logic, this makes her a Trump supporter. By a more serious standard, she is simply a hypocrite, castigating others for causing something that she is partly causing through her own actions. A serious plan to defeat Trump involves not insulting the people whose votes Clinton depends on.

The Pathologies of Privilege

Everyone knows privilege is a rotten thing. But should it be excised or democratized?

Long before he fled to Mexico sporting a hastily dyed goatee, Ethan Couch was already a deeply unsympathetic figure. One night in 2013, when he was 16 years old, Couch drunkenly plowed a truck into a group of people, killing four of them. Hauled before a Texas judge, Couch offered one of the most notorious excuses for a brutal crime since “If the glove doesn’t fit” or the “Twinkie defense”: Couch’s crime was caused by an ailment known as affluenza.

Affluenza, a disease not recognized by any of the prominent medical manuals, is a novelty portmanteau of the words “affluent” and “influenza,” and refers to a phenomenon whereby rich children become so spoiled that they become incapable of restraining themselves from indulging their every impulse. As the psychologist testifying in Couch’s defense explained, from the earliest days of his upbringing, Couch had been raised without limits. Couch’s father, who owned a prosperous suburban roofing company, had let his son do precisely as he pleased. At the tender age of 13, Ethan was allowed to drive himself to school alone in his father’s truck. When the principal of the Anderson Private School pointed out to the older Couch that this might be unwise, the father “threatened to buy the school.” Couch’s mother was no less indulgent, reportedly supplying her son regularly with Vicodin.

All of this, argued the psychologist, turned Couch into a creature incapable of understanding that people “should” or “shouldn’t” do certain things, that there are acts, such as causing deadly accidents while driving drunk, that are considered “wrong.” Indeed, witnesses at the scene of the crash reportedly heard Couch bragging to his passengers that he could get them out of any legal trouble, and the victims’ families were shocked when he expressed no remorse whatsoever for killing four people. Raised in an environment where none of his actions had ever brought him so much as a scolding, Couch must have been puzzled by the very idea that people would hold him responsible for causing the deaths.

And so when Couch was sentenced, the judge appeared to take the “affluenza” diagnosis into account, letting Ethan off with probation and a required stint in a rehab facility. Nationwide outrage ensued, with Couch’s punishment being seen as absurdly light, and Couch himself becoming the poster boy for the rich, white, and privileged. The decision had been made, though, and Couch went free.

But Ethan Couch couldn’t even satisfy the extremely generous terms of his probation; after two years, a video surfaced of Couch playing beer pong at a party. Faced with the possibility of serving a prison sentence for failing to comply with the requirement that he not drink, Couch then went on the lam. He and his mother fled to a resort town in Mexico, where he was finally caught after reportedly spending thousands of dollars at local strip clubs. Three years after his crime, Couch finally faced the possibility of serious prison time.


It is tempting to see Ethan Couch as being emblematic of every inequality in the American justice system. Couch was the ultimate unaccountable brat, hurting people in whatever ways he pleases and then accepting no responsibility whatsoever. However we slice the thing, it is difficult to care about him.

In the language of progressivism, Couch seems like an extreme case of “white privilege.” “Privilege” is a popular term referring to the “set of unearned benefits” that accrue to someone because of their membership in an advantaged group. If you’re white, you’re simply more likely to catch a break than if you’re not. Many of us probably suspect that if Couch had been a poor black teenager, he would have been far less likely to receive a probationary sentence after killing four people.

The available evidence strongly suggests that this is indeed the case. By now, the horrifying statistics on black incarceration rates have long since ceased to actually horrify. A black man has somewhere between a 1 in 4 and 1 in 3 chance of being imprisoned in his lifetime, as compared with 1 in 17 for a white man, and there are more black men under the custodial control of the state (including probation and parole) than were enslaved in 1850, with a total of nearly one million African Americans imprisoned.

In criminal courtrooms, race is depressingly salient in sentencing decisions. The United States Sentencing Commission found that “prison sentences of black men were nearly 20% longer than those of white men for similar crimes.” While blacks are no more likely than whites to sell or use drugs (about 10% of both racial groups consumes illicit substances), blacks are 3.6 times more likely to be arrested. In capital cases, the race of the victim and the race of the defendant are two of the most important variables predicting whether the death penalty will be imposed. Statistics like these cannot be explained away by differences in the rate at which people of different races commit crimes; the precise same level of criminality results in different levels of punishment.

But it’s a mistake to just look at a single institution, like the criminal court system, in order to understand the continuing salience of race in American life. The heap of privileges that accrues based on skin color has a multitude of components, and the small instances of discrimination are pervasive. Researchers have found that a white job applicant who states he is a convicted felon is more likely to receive a callback for an interview than a black applicant with a clean record. And black applicants from Ivy League schools are less likely to receive callbacks than white applicants from less socially prestigious institutions. Landlords, too, were much less likely to respond to African American applicants.

Similar studies have shown race-based differences in how doctors judge the degree to which a patient is responsible for their health outcomes. (If you’re black, you’re irresponsible. If you’re white, you’re helplessly afflicted.) Two political scientists even found that white state legislators were far less likely to respond to emails from black constituents (the finding applied to legislators in both major political parties).

Looming over all the other disadvantages is wealth. Black Americans have lower median incomes than white Americans. But the difference becomes far more extreme when we look at the wealth people hold rather than just the incomes they receive. According to the Pew Research Center, the median white family in the United States was about 13 times wealthier than the median black family in 2014. A typical white family has over $100,000 in assets, while a typical black family has only $7,000.

The term “white privilege” is useful insofar as it captures the way the sum total of these differences creates a kind of “web” of disadvantage, in which being white just tends to make life much easier in a multitude of ways, both large and small. The theory does not say that for certain, without a doubt, in all circumstances that one’s life is going to better of if one is a straight white male. There are homeless white veterans and phenomenally wealthy black women. There are white defendants that receive unfairly heavy sentences, and black defendants who receive leniency.

But the existence of exceptions doesn’t disprove a tendency, and to be black in America means experiencing constant daily reminders that You Do Not Belong. It means being followed around and searched in your local deli even when you are one of the most recognizable world-renowned actors (as in the case of Forest Whitaker). Or it means coming home from an academic conference celebrating your scholarly achievements, only to be suspected as a burglar and arrested on the doorstep of your own home (as happened to Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gates). Ta-Nehisi Coates describes racism in modern America as a day-to-day experience of physical exhaustion that bores deep down into the soul. “White privilege” means being free from all of this.

Given the differential system of racial privileges, then, it is understandable that “white privilege” has taken on such resonance among progressives. Activist literature is full of exhortations to “check” one’s privilege, and privilege itself is treated as a fundamentally unfair and unjust entitlement, a mechanism by which one race maintains its dominance over the others.

But in this respect, “privilege” has a serious drawback as a way of helpfully explaining the social world. Privilege, because it is the fount of racial injustice, becomes self-evidently bad, something that one should be against. To possess privilege is to participate in the reproduction of inequality. Yet many of the social assets classified as “white privilege” are actually good things, to which human beings ought to be entitled. That which is granted to white people as a “privilege” should not be treated as a “privilege” at all, but as part of the basic dignity of all human-to-human interaction and taken-for-granted courtesy.

Consider a recent article from “EverydayFeminism.com,” a fairly typical exemplar of progressive discourse. The author describes six indicators that one has “class privilege.” These include: 1. Waking up well-rested. 2. Paying for a convenience (such as deciding to buy a coffee so as not to have to make it). 3. The ability to call in sick. 4. Having reliable transportation. 5. Being paid for all of the hours that one works. 6. Being able to buy healthy food.


The author is, of course, right that poor people can’t be assured of these things, and that to have money confers an extraordinary amount of additional comfort and security in ways that often go unrecognized. But there is something disturbing about using the word “privilege” to describe something as basic as getting a good night’s sleep. Being well-rested seems like something that all human beings ought to deserve as a right. By classifying something as basic as “not having one’s wages stolen by one’s employer” as a “privilege” instead of a right, one erodes the degree to which such a guarantee should be universally expected by all.

Take the Ethan Couch case. Couch’s “lenient” sentence was met with outrage, because he was given rehab and probation after causing four deaths. This was seen as a clear case of privilege. And indeed it was, insofar as Couch would have been less likely to get such a sentence if he had not been of such a moneyed background and such a marshmallowy complexion. But hatred of Couch easily blurs the difference between “his sentence was unfair because he received it on account of his race” and “his sentence was unfair because it was too lenient.” In fact, the sentence Couch received was perfectly fair. Couch was a teenager who had driven drunk. There were horrendous consequences to his irresponsibility, but Couch killed people negligently rather than premeditatedly. Sending him to rehab, and then giving him a full decade of probation (during which time any offense would result in his imprisonment), seems an entirely appropriate punishment for someone whose actions were grossly reckless rather than actually malicious.

Couch’s punishment was an injustice, of course. But it was an injustice because only Couch and people like him get the benefit of leniency, not because leniency is itself inappropriate. It is not unfair that Ethan Couch was given probation, it is unfair that Ethan Couch’s black counterpart would likely have been sentenced to spend half his life in a cage.

The same was true in several other recent cases of “white privilege” in the criminal justice system. Last June, after a 22-year-old white supremacist murdered nine black parishioners at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, he was treated with courtesy by arresting officers. When transporting the shooter to the station, police placed him in a bulletproof vest (in case he was attacked). Then, and most controversially, police bought him a hamburger from Burger King, because he had not eaten.

The police’s treatment of the Charleston shooter was instantly taken as a case of “white privilege.” If the shooter had been black, ran the criticism, he would have been slammed against the police car and tossed into the backseat like a sack of mulch. If the shooter’s black equivalent had asked for a bulletproof vest and a hamburger, officers would have laughed in his face, and possibly administered a beating.

All of that was true. But it’s also the case that criminal defendants deserve to be treated as the Charleston shooter was. If they haven’t eaten, somebody should bring them some food. A humane country feeds its prisoners. If they could be in danger because their crime was high-profile, measures should be taken to protect them. In the Charleston case, the injustice committed was not the granting of a hamburger to one individual, but the denial of hamburgers to others.


It can be hard to admit this. The Charleston AME shooting was so horrendous, and the defendant such a monstrous and hateful individual, that it is easy to feel rage upon thinking of him munching on a Whopper compliments of the Charleston Police Department. Imagining him smugly devouring it, one cannot help but want to knock it out of his hand and pummel him to a crimson pulp. These are understandable instincts. But they are also our worst instincts; it is our least rational self that fantasizes about vengeance. And to be scandalized by injustices against black defendants does not mean one should wish it on white defendants instead.

That concerning tendency became very clear in a recent case involving a Stanford University athlete, who was witnessed raping an unconscious woman. The athlete, Brock Turner, was given a six-month sentence (plus probation) and required to register as a sex offender. Prosecutors had asked for Turner to receive six years in prison, but the judge, Aaron Persky (himself a former Stanford lacrosse player), rejected the recommendation.

When Turner’s victim released a harrowing statement describing the assault, and Turner’s lack of remorse, the case became a nationwide scandal. An effort was launched to recall Judge Persky for his “undue leniency.” Turner became the latest poster boy for “white privilege,” an individual who believes himself free to violate and dominate whomever he pleases without having to fear any major consequence. Turner’s father was derided for his alarming statement that Turner was having his life ruined over “20 minutes of action” and for remarking that prison would have a “severe impact” on Turner.

But while the Turner case certainly illuminated the existence of “white privilege,” it also demonstrated some limits of the “privilege” framework. Those scandalized by Turner’s sentence were progressives, but they began voicing sentiments somewhat contrary to the ordinary progressive position on punishment. After all, it is typically rare for those on the left to (1) advocate recalling judges for being too lenient (2) mock the idea that prison has a severely negative impact on defendants and (3) demand more prison time. Very few of those who condemned the judge, and supported Turner’s victim, said explicitly how much prison time they wished Turner had been given. But it was an odd position for people on the left to put themselves in. After all, prisons themselves are dens of rape and abuse. To advocate that a young person be sent to prison, no matter how privileged that person may be, is to advocate something that should be meted out only sparingly and with extreme restraint, if at all.


Critiques of white privilege can therefore slip into the very callousness that we are attempting to critique in the first place. If white people are perceived to experience “undeserved” advantage, then creating a world of just deserts will involve removing those advantages. But if those “advantages” are necessities rather than luxuries, we may bizarrely find ourselves advocating to take away things we support. If only white people get fair criminal procedure, with a presumption of innocence, we could remove white privilege by giving everyone an extremely unfair system, but it’s hard to believe we would have successfully increased the amount of justice in the world.

In June, at a Disney resort in Orlando, a small child was killed by an alligator. The boy had been splashing about in the water at the edge of a manmade Disney lagoon (though there were signs warning against swimming), before being snapped up and carried of. The alligator death was a national news story; it was devastating to imagine the pain of the boy’s parents, their inevitable trauma and grief and guilt. But one internet commentator put things differently, saying: “I’m so finished with white men’s entitlement lately that I’m really not sad about a two-year-old being eaten by a gator because his daddy ignored signs.”

That heartless sentiment was only expressed by a select few online. But it shows the moral reasoning toward which “white privilege” analysis can lead, if it is not combined with empathy and a belief in people’s common humanity. The Disney toddler’s parents would surely trade every last scrap of their racial advantage for another moment with their son; white privilege offers small comfort when your child is being eaten by an alligator.

While “white privilege” is an important concept, then, it can have terrible pitfalls. It can lead to a belief that whiteness versus non-whiteness is the end-all determination of the human experience. At the extreme end, it can let us believe that grief itself can somehow be mitigated by privilege. But the benefits of privilege, as the alligator case shows, are limited. Often, privilege just means getting something, like a good education, that should be guaranteed.

The problem with privilege is not that it is an undue luxury, then. It is that all do not share in it equally. A failure to recognize that causes a doomed political strategy; it results in critiquing those who have privilege rather than granting it to those who do not. That means dragging entitled people down rather than lifting non-entitled people up; it’s a bit like responding to the racial disparity in death penalty sentences by resolving to kill more white people rather than to kill fewer black people. Indeed, that’s not as absurd as it sounds: Bill Clinton once professed himself very concerned by the racial differences in federal cocaine sentences (majority-African American crack users are more harshly punished than majority-white powder cocaine users), only to later announce that he supported raising powder sentences rather than decreasing sentences for crack. You can always fix inequality by making everyone equally miserable.

Certainly, some kinds of privilege are more “zero-sum.” A number of “privileges” operate like positions in a queue, where if I am near the front, you are necessarily near the back and vice versa. If I have $100,000 and you have $7,000, the only way to address my privilege may be to redistribute some wealth from me to you. But for those things, like fair criminal procedure, that can easily be given to all equally, “white privilege” matters less than black disadvantage.

Racial inequalities are pervasive in the United States, and take the form of both micro-level miseries and massive structural obstacles to economic and physical security. But privilege itself is a better thing than is traditionally supposed; everyone deserves privilege in abundance. The question is not how privilege can be eliminated, but how it can be democratized.

Illustrations by Benjamin Saucier