Why Is “The Decimation of Public Schools” A Bad Thing?

It’s not enough to simply declare that vouchers and charters are bad…

The same words can have very different connotations to listeners on the right and listeners on the left. When Donald Trump told his supporters that he would soon be sending Hillary Clinton to jail, liberals were appalled. They insisted Trump was behaving like an “authoritarian strongman” who promised to “actively subvert democracy.” Trump’s threat to prosecute Clinton was the stuff of banana republics, where leaders put their political opponents in prison merely for their politics.

Yet Trump’s promise sounded like something quite different to his base. To them, promising to pursue criminal charges was not a subversion of democracy and the rule of law. Instead, it was a promise to uphold it. Trump’s pledged prosecution did not come across as a strongman’s belief that the political opposition should be in jail, but rather as a declaration that even politicians are not above the law. To them, Clinton had committed a crime, thus she should be in prison. Whether you hear the (now-dropped) prosecution threat as a “strongman’s punishment of opponents” or “a promise to apply laws fairly and equally” depends on whether you believe Hillary Clinton did something wrong. And your perception of whether she committed a crime is strongly influenced by your pre-existing political preferences.

People therefore interpret political language through ideological lenses. What sounds obviously appalling to one person may seem totally unobjectionable or even desirable to another. People on the left, however, often fail to comprehend this fact. They condemn “marginalization” and “inequality” as if everyone already agrees that those are bad things. (A lot of people don’t.) The same is true of “privilege” and “neoliberalism,” which are treated as self-evidently undesirable even though many people do not know what those things are, let alone share a hatred of them.

This problem frequently occurs in progressive condemnations of school privatization schemes. Recently, Donald Trump appointed billionaire Betsy DeVos to lead his Department of Education. The general reaction from the left has been horror and disgust, with the consensus view being that DeVos is something like the Education Secretary from Hell (a view I happen to share). This is because DeVos is a longtime advocate of both charter schools and voucher programs, and has spent large amounts of money helping transform Michigan’s public schools into a heavily charter-based system. DeVos apparently believes, like many others in the “school choice” movement, that the government should not really be in the business of running schools, but should hand out credits to parents and have private schools and charters compete over students.

As progressives have correctly pointed out in response to her selection, DeVos’s ideas would fundamentally change the way education is offered in this country. According to her critics, DeVos “wants to dismantle public education” and is” trying to gut public schools” Many strong critiques of the DeVos appointment have been written, and almost all of them spend their time vigorously denouncing her lack of commitment to preserving the country’s public school system in its current form.

But here is a crucial point: these critiques only sound bad to progressive ears. To conservatives, they sound very different. After all, the conservative line is that our public schools are a crumbling, bureaucratic, inefficient waste of money, a handout to the teacher’s unions. Why shouldn’t they be decimated? The argument of voucher and charter proponents is that voucher and charter systems are better than public schools. So unless you are already a committed progressive, there’s nothing persuasive about pointing out that Betsy DeVos plans to “end education as we know it.” Of course she does. Education “as we know it” is ruining children’s lives. The sooner it’s ended, the better.  Thus anyone trying to persuasively argue that Betsy DeVos’s ideas are bad needs to go beyond simply repeating that they are an “assault on public schooling” or that they would “privatize the nation’s schools.” In proving these points, one will only convince the convinced. Instead, one needs to make a clear and convincing case about the social consequences of DeVos’s beliefs.

First, let’s consider what the conservative argument on schooling actually is. It goes like this: government-run institutions tend to function poorly. They are not efficient, like businesses are, because they do not have incentives to perform well. Businesses, because they must compete for customers in a market environment, must offer the best products if they want to stay profitable. Governments, on the other hand, can offer crappy products, and because they are state-imposed monopolies, there is no way for consumers to go elsewhere. School choice will improve schools, because instead of forcing students to attend whatever school the government happens to offer, choice allows parents to decide which school they prefer. Schools will have to strive to be better and better, because parents can pull their students out and go elsewhere if they don’t like them. Introducing a profit motive into schooling offers a powerful incentive for schools to offer a great product. If there is money to be made on being a good school, you can bet businesses will want to provide great schools. Thus private, for-profit schools with vouchers are a highly efficient way of delivering the best-quality education.

One can therefore see why saying that DeVos wants to “dismantle public schools” is not an effective argument against the conservative position. If privatization makes better schools, then we should dismantle public schools. DeVos has argued that she is “driven by compassion for the less fortunate rather than any covert theocratic or elitist agenda.” If charter and voucher proponents are right about the effectiveness of choice and competition, then that isn’t a crazy position. And the pro-privatization position does not, on its face, sound ludicrous. After all, government is pretty inefficient, and many public schools do somewhat suck. Understanding why DeVos is the Education Secretary from Hell therefore requires examining a more basic set of principles, to understand just why the persuasive-sounding conservative case on education is actually deeply horrifying.

Let’s start with the dangers of profit. In Michigan, where DeVos’ education reform efforts have been concentrated, many charters are operated for profit, meaning that private companies can enter the schooling business just like any other business. To the right, “profit” isn’t a dirty word. If we can pay people to offer great education to kids, why isn’t this win-win?

But introducing profit into the school system is very dangerous, for a simple reason: it creates a terrible set of incentives. If we hand a voucher to a for-profit private school, or give a large grant to a for-profit charter school, there is a strong incentive for the school to give as little in return as possible. After all, since a for-profit corporation exists to maximize value to shareholders (not value to students), for-profit schools should try to spend as little money educating students as possible, in order to reap the largest financial gains. If you don’t have to spring for new lab equipment or new textbooks, you have no incentive to do so merely because it would benefit the students. A for-profit school is no longer concerned with the interest and wellbeing of those who attend it. They are just a means through which money is redistributed from state governments to CEOs and shareholders. Adding a profit motive to things that are necessarily highly unprofitable, like helping the poor, is dangerous, because it’s going to be very tempting for companies to take the government’s money and provide little in return. The existence of for-profit online charter schools shows the nightmare this can turn into. Pay a company to set up a school, and they may just stick the student in front of a computer screen all day. By creating a system in which there is money to be made by figuring out how to create the appearance of education without actually providing it, you are sending out an open invitation to con artists and profiteers.

Privatization advocates have a compelling response to this argument. They reply that it misses the full picture. Yes, corporations have an incentive to maximize shareholder value. But they can’t do that without satisfying their customers. The interests of shareholders and consumers are brought into alignment through the existence of choice. In the case of schools, because parents have a voucher, if the school is not prioritizing its students, parents can simply go elsewhere. Nobody is making them send their students to this particular school. The theory of school choice is about choice, and choice creates competition, which creates quality. A school that simply funneled money to its executives and shareholders would not long maintain its enrollment.

But the theory of choice here is a romantic fiction. In reality, parents will not have many options among which to choose (there are only so many schools within a feasible distance of one’s home, after all) and moving schools can be an extraordinarily disruptive and complicated process that hurts the child. We can also see how, even in theory, it is easy for a privatized school system to simply enrich the wealthy, while making schooling for poor children worse. In a public school system, all money is spent on the schools. In a for-profit school system, at least some portion of that money is directed instead toward the pockets of shareholders (if it wasn’t, the for-profit schools couldn’t continue to exist). And if we have a school district comprised in total of three for-profit elementary schools, and all of them simply pocket most of the voucher money while failing to educate the children, then no matter what “choices” among schools parents make, they won’t be able to improve the quality of the schools. One might expect new operators to enter the market, but if the only way to make any real money on the children is to neglect them, then new operators won’t be any better than the old ones.

This gets at the fundamental mistake of free-market economic thinking, which is the fallacious belief that the choices we make in a market situation necessarily meaningfully reflect our “preferences.” But what my choices say about my preferences depends on what those choices are to begin with. Defenders of free markets argue, for example, that people’s “choice” to work in unsafe conditions shows that they prefer unsafe jobs with high pay to safe jobs with low pay. But choice does not occur in a vacuum. Choices only tell us something significant about preferences to the extent that they are meaningful choices. “Would you rather be stabbed or shot?” is not a meaningful choice. Sophie’s Choice was not a meaningful choice. Thus in order to understand how much meaning to attribute to choices, it’s necessary to understand how choices are structured. Likewise, if we create a private, for profit, school system, I might have to choose between sending my child to FedEx Junior High to have them train to pack boxes, or Burger King Junior High to have them train to flip Whoppers. If I decide to pick FedEx, that doesn’t mean we have a school system that reflects my freely-made choices. My real choice would be to have taxpayer money paying for arts programs, English classes, and math, rather than being handed directly to the CEO and shareholders of FedEx. But that choice hasn’t been made available to me on the free market. The poorer and more desperate a person is, the less meaningful their choices are. If I am rich, and I can easily move wherever I please and enroll my children in any school I like, then my choice of some academy in Switzerland is strongly indicative of the fact that I think it is the best school. But if I am poor, and live in Detroit, my choices are curtailed by my conditions and my capacities.

Free market capitalists totally fail to understand how a lack of money can operate as a form of coercion. Thus they can make arguments (as made by the organization DeVos is a board member of) that child labor is a good thing, because they see the choice to go to work as freely made, failing to see how people’s levels of economic despair can cause them to make “choices” that they very much do not want to make. My decisions are only freely made to the extent that my other options are realistic. If my choice is to send my child down a mine or have my family starve to death, then I will send my child down a mine. But I still don’t want to send my child down a fucking mine.

There are other serious problems with the “gutting” of public schools. As we have argued before in Current Affairs, converting public schools to a voucher system makes education operate similarly to food stamps. After all, SNAP benefits operate roughly the same way: instead of giving people food, we give them the equivalent of money, which they then use to go and buy food. A voucher program does the same for schooling: instead of giving them schools, we give them a voucher, which they can use to go and find a private school. But look what happens with food stamps: the moment you start handing out a “voucher,” conservatives start seeing it as some kind of unearned “handout.” Pressure then develops to cut the handout. Is there any reason to think that “education stamps” would be subjected to less cost-cutting political pressure than food stamps? A serious problem with voucher programs is that they erode the idea of education as a fundamental right, instead making it seem like a privilege that one does not necessarily deserve. But education should be a right, because children cannot help the circumstances of their birth, and should therefore not be punished for their parents’ poverty.

Privatization schemes are also heavily dependent on the existence of highly astute parents, who have the time and inclination to carefully study schools. The most vulnerable children are unlikely to have such parents. And we can imagine a system in which private schools offer parents $100 out of the voucher money if they agree to enroll their children. Desperate and uncaring parents might snap up the cash, with the neediest children ending up in the most vicious, uncaring, profit-grubbing schools.

Betsy DeVos is a hellish choice for education secretary, because her ideology would create a hell for children. But that’s not because she’s in favor of the “private” rather than the “public.” It’s because the things needed by poor people, if done well, will never be money-makers. Introducing an incentive to make money will necessarily mean exploiting and neglecting the poor, whose “choices” are highly constrained by their circumstances. I fear privatization not because of some mystical devotion to the inefficiencies of government but because I fear the erosion of the idea of education as something that isn’t win-win, that we give to children because they deserve it rather than because we can profit from it. I worry that the sort of people who run things “like a business” do not really care about children very much, and are motivated by the wrong incentives. I am concerned about what would happen if they ever faced a choice between doing the right thing and doing the lucrative thing. It seems a fragile and fantastical (almost religious) hope to think that a market for schools will produce good schools rather than simply a new means for parasitic corporations to engorge themselves on government money. However bad our public schools may be, I will always trust those who see children as an ends above those who see them as a means. And people like Betsy DeVos, who think of the world as a series of mutually beneficial business opportunities, strike me as the sort who should least be entrusted with the awesome responsibility of caring for and educating needy children.

TV Review: Designated Survivor

A callous show for insufferable sanctimonious wonks…

During the final months of the presidential election season, it was reported that the cast of Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing would re-unite on the campaign trail in support of Hillary Clinton’s presidential candidacy. The announcement was met with derision both by the conspiratorial right (who believed Clinton to be a dark-arts practicing crypto-Marxist who has personally slaughtered a handful of grown men despite being afflicted with typhoid fever) and by the hard left, who remained appalled by her campaign’s seemingly intentional embrace of every one of the most off-putting clichés of what we might call Borowitz Report Liberalism.

But there is at least one constituency that Clinton could reach by enlisting the West Wing cast. It’s the small faction of policy fetishists who were raised on Sorkin’s White House drama. They are the people who change their Twitter display names to “Bartlet 2016,” and believe the unsatisfying outcomes produced by America’s political system aren’t the product of naturally occurring ideological clashes inherent in a representative democracy, but are due to a deficit of Dartmouth-educated economics professors in positions of executive authority.

ABC’s Designated Survivor, a deeply stupid show about a Secretary of Housing and Urban Development named Tom Kirkman who gets to be president after all of Congress is murdered by terrorists, is for those people.

Kirkman has little in common with the alpha-operator Jack Bauer, the character that made leading Sutherland a mainstay on America’s TV sets.  His wife won’t screw him, his son hates his dumb dad jokes, and his daughter mocks the flaccid pancakes he cooks for breakfast. And though he’s presented as a competent civil servant with a knack for compromise, he’s about to lose his post as the Secretary of Housing and Urban Development and be jettisoned to Montreal for an ambassadorship to something called the Civil Aviation Association. 

But these details of Kirkman’s life are presented to us in flashback, for Kirkman has just caught his big break: a terrorist attack on the U.S. Capitol that kills everyone inside, including the President. Kirkman was watching from an undisclosed location, because as the show’s title and several months of promotional material remind us, he’s the Designated Survivor. If you missed those promos, here’s what you need to know: Kirkman was randomly selected to sit out the State of the Union on the off-chance that every elected U.S. representative is x-ed out on the one night of the year they all gather in the same spot. The doomsday scenario actually happens, and Kirkman is thrust from his station as a D.C. ham-and-egger to leader of the free world. 

It’s all pretty predictable from there. He questions whether or not he’s really up to the job (though probably not quite enough for a guy who got the commander-in-chief gig thanks to a confluence of dumb luck and pyrotechnics). Straight away, however, Kirkman starts bringing a level of decency, integrity and stone cold savvy that only true policy wonks possess. For starters, he stares down a war-ready general who wants to use the capitol bombing as an excuse to attack a fleet of Iranian ships in the Strait of Hormuz. He not only bests the red-assed general using his superior knowledge of Iranian oil shipping lanes, but he sends a stern message to a devilish (aren’t they always) Iranian ambassador: “dock your ships within three hours or I’ll bomb Tehran.” Not bad for a guy whose wife thinks about Lin-Manuel Miranda while she blows him (probably). 

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Designated Survivor is treacly wish-fulfillment for every under-appreciated middle manager who’d like to believe he’s got what it takes to do the boss’ job, though he’d never say such a thing out loud. But it’s the show’s obsession with the nobility of regular people that makes it truly repellent. The problem with American politics, it argues, is that too many bad people are engaged in the process, which prevents us from reaching the consensus that every American craves deep down. If only our democratically elected government were handed over to a council of benevolent, Ivy-educated wonks, we’d get the sort of tax credits, charter school voucher programs, and sensible Middle Eastern ground wars that we all truly agree on. Unfortunately, the partisans are too busy grousing about Wall Street or trans-bathrooms to deliver. It’s perhaps fitting that Kirkman’s predecessor is obliterated just moments after acknowledging the obscene wealth accumulation enjoyed by “the 1-percent.”

One can feel the legacy of Sorkin’s Bartlet here. In the Sorkinian worldview, there are no class interests, no ineradicable conflicts. We simply fail to choose leaders with the proper combination of hokey Ordinary Folk Common Sense and expensive graduate education. It’s this same attitude that leads Clinton supporters to lament America’s collective indifference toward her résumé and professed love of policy minutiae. 

It’s significant that this pilot episode spends very little time mourning the tremendous human cost of the capitol bombing. Perhaps there’ll be a memorial service in future episodes in which Kirkman is challenged to present his plainspoken decency to America. But in truth, the creators of Designated Survivor don’t really see tragedy in the mass slaughter of Washington’s elected body. They see opportunity. And perhaps it would be opportune. But it’s hard to imagine a less exciting way of capitalizing on the moment than replacing all the dead people with a guy who still he wears his Cornell zip-up and probably reads vox.com.

Frost/Christman: Paranoia and 1970s Cinema

Remembering when film was appropriately cynical about American democracy…

We present a film discussion between Amber A’Lee Frost and Matthew Christman, adapted from their hugely popular Frost/Christman podcast. Here, they examine the political implications of both contemporary and classic cinema. We join our hosts mid-conversation...

AF: …It seems to me that a lot of the podcast success that I’ve experienced is really just people grasping for any bit of driftwood in the horrifying and continual slow sink of America into the burning oceans of death. Culturally speaking, we are just taking advantage of a fire sale. We’re cleaning up in the ruins, the ever-growing ruins of America.

MC: And today we’re talking about another time in American history that was dominated by a sense of almost universal distrust in American political institutions, a time when everyone in America was basically on the same page that the people in charge were actively malicious, had no interest in the general good, and were covering up a host of unspeakable crimes. I am, of course, talking about the period directly after the Watergate scandal in the 1970s; a time that spawned an entire genre of films you can kind of call, loosely, conspiracy or paranoia thrillers. We’re going to talk about two films directed by the great Alan J. Pakula, who made a loose trilogy of films in the early 70’s known as the “Paranoia Trilogy.” The two we’re discussing today, Parallax View from 1974 and All the President’s Men from the bicentennial year of 1976, are among the most interesting of the “paranoia thriller” genre. We’re going to start with All the President’s Men because as we’ve said, Watergate is the primal scene here. It’s the event that spawned all of these other movies, spawned this generalized sense in American culture of suspicion and paranoia about government.

AF: Speaking of formative, I actually saw this for the first time in high school. I think my history teacher was hung over and popped in All the President’s Men. And I remember thinking it was so good, but for all the dumb high school reasons that you think a movie is good. First of all, it’s almost put together like noir. The shots of Deep Throat, they could be German Expressionist. There’s this hint of blue light across his eyes, and the dialogue at times can be really choppy. It’s more conversational than an actual noir, but for a nonfiction film, especially of that period, it’s extremely stylized. And I thought it was so cool, even though I really didn’t understand Watergate. I knew it was a break-in, but I didn’t know that it led to the exposure of a lot more coordinated corruption at the highest level. So it made this massive impression on me, but in a very high school way where I just ended up saying “freedom of the press is the cornerstone of our democracy.” Just this very immature interpretation of it because it’s just a cool movie.

MC: It’s very much an attempt to make heroes out of newsmen. It recapitulated noir but the hero is no longer a cop or a private detective, he’s a reporter. The reporters are the story even more than Nixon himself. Nixon stays in the background of All the President’s Men. He only appears onscreen on film during his inaugural address. The real star is the job of reporting, journalism.

AF: There was so much classically romantic treatment. They wanted it to look documentarian, but with these cool noir-y stylized things. It was so invested in creating these heroes, these great truth tellers. In fact, one of the big complaints by historians about the film is that it eliminated all of the other people who were involved. It has Ben Bradlee in it, but there was a team of people at the Post ensuring that this information came to light and supporting this highly controversial investigative work.

MC: And not just people from the Post, but other newspapers. There’s an interesting subplot in the movie about them being pissed that they didn’t get a particular scoop, and going to Miami to get it back. where you get the impression that what’s really driving them is much less some sort of abstract desire for the truth, but a competition with the New York Times.

AF: Also horniness. They’re very horny. It is such a high-T film. They’re highly competitive guys. At least Dustin Hoffman in it portrays Bernstein as kind of a poon hound. It’s a very dudely movie, a cool-guy movie.

MC: Their T is almost as high as their pants.

AF: I love the high pants, love the thick ties.

MC: There’s some good 70’s fashion in this movie.

AF: The ties are like canoes. Aesthetically it’s amazing. The fashion’s great, the cars in it are great.

MC: Massive boats. Big cars, big pants… What has happened to America? Driving around in Smart Cars wearing skinny jeans.

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AF: And there’s Bernstein’s cool-ass apartment, with just weird glass vases everywhere. I’ve been to journalists’ apartments. They don’t look like that. Journalists do not have an eye for bohemian design.

MC: I remember thinking Bernstein’s place looked baller.

AF: It looked like a bachelor pad.

MC: A place you’d bring a girl for fondue. And you know she starts unbuttoning the blouse half an hour into it. It’s like, “Damn, Bernstein, that’s how you bagged Nora Ephron…”

AF: Anyway, let’s talk a little bit about ratfucking.

MC: Ratfucking. That’s a practice described in the film. In intelligence terms, it’s “black propaganda.” You make fake documents ascribed to your opponent in order to undermine their credibility. When Woodward and Bernstein meet and interview one of the CREEP operatives, Donald Segretti, they talk about the 1972 ratfucking campaign. It included, most famously and probably most effectively, the “Canuck letter,” in which someone wrote to a New Hampshire newspaper claiming to have heard frontrunner Edmund Muskie making a disparaging comment about French Canadians. That was very damaging in heavily French Canadian New Hampshire, and led to a snowballing effect, with accusations about Muskie’s wife being an alcoholic…

AF: Well, they didn’t just put out these rumors, they stole his stationery. They would have people volunteer for the campaigns, then when they were in the campaign offices grab the stationery so that they would have a template to send out. So on Muskie’s stationery, they apparently accused a senator of having like an illegitimate child.

Regarding ratfucking, we can talk about contemporary parallels…

MC: And it all culminated in Muskie doing a press conference outdoors in the winter in New Hampshire where he defended his wife’s honor and it looked like he cried. There’s still dispute to this day about whether he did cry or whether it was the snow. Either way, it destroyed him. He was done. And the only guy who didn’t get ratfucked was the guy Nixon wanted to face, George McGovern, whom Nixon then dutifully did face and destroy.

But there’s a funny background to the film, because as they keep finding out about all of this ratfucking, and about Watergate, you realize it’s totally superfluous, because you keep hearing about things like the Eagleton disaster. That’s where it was discovered that Thomas Eagleton, McGovern’s vice presidential nominee, had had electroshock therapy, and they had to kick him off the ticket. And so McGovern’s campaign is totally fucked, and Nixon’s going to cruise to reelection. Yet Nixon still does this unnecessary thing that will ultimately doom him, which makes a kind of ironic counterpoint to everything that’s going on.

Regarding ratfucking, though, we can talk about contemporary parallels. Trump’s former campaign manager Roger Stone has been in the news lately. He’s acting as sort of the thug voice of unbridled Trumpism, vowing to put people in the streets to fight back if Hillary wins, on the assumption that any Hillary victory would be through electoral fraud. (Although I would honestly advise him to check in on what the BMI of the average Trump supporter is before vowing that he’s going to have these guys fighting in the streets.) But Stone got his start in 1972 as one of Nixon’s ratfuckers. He was there on the ground floor. And, as the funniest story from that, on one of his earliest missions he was supposed to donate to the Muskie Campaign on behalf of the “Homosexual Alliance” or some group like that. He was going to write a check in that name, so that they could go “Look who’s donating to Muskie.” But Stone worried that people would think he was gay, so he changed it to the “Young Communists League” or something.

AF: No homo.

MC: Yeah, Roger Stone no homo. He might like orgies, but not gay ones. He looks away from the dick and balls when the orgies are happening. He wants you to know that.

AF: I think we were hoping for the most horrifying type of ratfucking from the DNC email leak, but a lot of what came out of it was incredibly inept and weird. But one of the things that stuck out to me was that they considered a contemporary kind of anti-Semitism against Sanders. Not like “Well, you know he killed our lord.” But one of the emails from the CFO of the DNC, Brad Marshall, said “it might make no difference, but for Kentucky and West Virginia, can we get someone to ask his belief.” Astroturfing organic comments from the crowd is a huge ratfucking thing. And he said, “does he believe in a God? He had skated on saying he has ‘Jewish heritage.’ I think I read he’s an atheist.” This could make several points difference with my peeps. My southern Baptist peeps would draw big difference between a Jew and an atheist.” My peeps!

MC: Yeah that’s just that’s how far we’ve fallen…

AF: I know it’s almost like they’re just such failures now.

MC: Yeah, they’re just, they’re low-T fucking lanyard dorks.

AF: It’s because they’re Democrats.

MC: They’ve never had the gut instinct.

AF: They didn’t have a taste for the jugular, as they said in All the President’s Men.

MC: A lot of that is because these Republican guys have been forging this ruthlessness in College Republican politics for 40 years now. That’s where the guys who got Goldwater the nomination learned their trade, that’s where Karl Rove learned his trade. I was not a College Democrat but I have a feeling that their blood runs a little weaker than the College Republicans.

AF: I was a college Democratic Socialist, and we’re a disparate bunch, but we thought the college Democrats were bitches. That was our impression of them, as ineffectual as we were.

MC: That sounds about right.

AF: That’s the weird thing about this movie, though. It’s viewed as a triumph of “non-fiction fictionalization” or whatever. But it’s not the most informative view of the Watergate scandal. It’s good because it doesn’t reduce it to “oh, there was a break-in in a hotel.” But you’re not going to get the best overview of the mass corruption at the highest level.

MC: It’s an incredible amount of detail, but it’s very, very narrowly focused on the specific stories that Woodward and Bernstein were writing in the immediate aftermath of the break-in. And I think part of that is because the audience knew the broad outlines of the story by that point. They were familiar with it, so it really was a question of “what story are we going to tell?” to an audience that knows the whole thing. We’re not going to have Sam Ervin up there yelling from the Judiciary Committee chair. They saw that on TV. We got to give them something they haven’t seen before. What they hadn’t seen, and what nobody had seen, was the heroic narrative of Watergate.

AF: Not just heroic! Cool. Like Ben Bradlee with his fucking shoes on the desk.

MC: Oh God, Robards is so cool.

AF: He’s the coolest guy in the movie. He’s got that voice.

MC: I would say Jason Robards’s Ben Bradlee is one of the coolest dudes in any movie ever. But it gives you someone to root for, it gives you a narrative of heroism and cool in a situation that did not really have any of that.

The thing that stuck with me is that last shot. In the lead up to the last shot, they’ve just been dealt a massive setback. A guy who they had used as a source in the story has repudiated what he told them, and that left them with egg on their face, and there’s a lot of pressure on the Post to pull the stories or fire them. Then it’s this shot of a television showing Nixon’s second inaugural, and in the background are Woodward and Bernstein on their typewriters, and the sound is those clattering typewriters. And the idea you get in your head watching this is “They’re going to win. They’re going to get this guy. He thinks he got away with it, but they’re back there and they’re just slowly sharpening their knives and they’re going to cut his heart out.” It is a way to offer this triumph. And that’s interesting, because one thing that the rest of the post-Watergate movies had in common is they’re very grim and they’re very pessimistic about America. They’re contemptuous about the idea of heroism, the idea of defeating the negative forces that control our lives. And one of them is the film Pakula made two years before All the President’s Men, called Parallax View. You have a great pithy description of what Parallax View is.

AF: I was watching this with a friend because I hadn’t seen it before, and he told me “this is like if All the President’s Men were a Dukes of Hazzard episode.”

MC: That’s 100 percent correct.

AF: It is! It’s “ah, journalist got himself in a sticky situation again. How’s he going to get out of this one?”

MC: There’s even a car chase. Warren Beatty, who’s the hero, is trying to escape this Bubba of a rural deputy. The cars get covered in mud and one of them crashes through a general store. It’s incredibly Dukes of Hazzard.

AF: There’s so much activity in this movie. There are no periods of tense dialogue or anything. Do you want to give people a synopsis?

MC: Parallax View starts with the assassination of a sort of maverick left-wing senator as he’s addressing a party at the top of the Space Needle in Seattle.

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AF: He’s saying “I’m not beholden to anyone I’m so independent.” You’re very optimistic, you like him immediately.

MC: His last words are literally something like “some people think I’m too independent.” And then he gets riddled with bullets.

AF: It’s a shock, too. I didn’t see it coming. It’s beautifully shot.

MC: You’re watching it behind the glass and you see his back, then the glass gets covered in blood. It’s very upsetting and abrupt. Then one of the waiters has a hilarious Keystone Kops race to get to the top of the Space Needle and he ends up falling off of it and dying. And he’s the guy who’s fingered as the assassin, but we see that there was another gunman, who puts a gun away and escapes.

AF: The Kennedy assassination parallels here are kind of obvious. There was all of this promise, and then there’s this sudden, very public insane violence.

MC: Then we get a commission behind desks who intone the results of their inquiry, that the assassination was by one lone gunman and there was no evidence of a conspiracy. That sets the situation up. But then we focus on Warren Beatty, the star of the film, playing (like a lot of these movies) the journalist who is visited by his next girlfriend who was a witness to the assassination and claims—

AF: She’s a hysterical woman. This is another very high-T film.

MC: She’s essentially the only female character in this. I’m surprised he didn’t do the old “slap her in the face to get her to stop being hysterical” moment.

AF: I think that was probably considered. I don’t just want to joke about these being high-T films, though. They are incredibly sexist. But I’m just not that kind of moralizing feminist. I think we can accept that they’re sexist and move on.

MC: We sort of have to assume that any movie about a badass taking on the power in the 60s and 70s is not going to be very considerate of gender equity.

AF: It’s just a lot of pussy hounds with shaggy hair and a take-no-prisoners attitude.

MC: Speaking of that, they have to try to get information out of like half a dozen hysterical broads in All the President’s Men. There are all of these women who work at CREEP who they try to get stuff out of, and they’re all just on the verge of tears at all times. They have to apply their machismo on them to get to admit what happened.

AF: The first major tip they got was just some girl on the Hill. And it’s Dustin Hoffman chain-smoking doing the “you’re very attractive.” And I guess he sells it.

MC: So in The Parallax View, this hysterical female claims that someone wants to kill her, that all these other witnesses have died. He gives her the high hat, but next shot is her on a slab in the morgue. And even though she just warned him she was next, that she was going to be killed, they tell him “oh she OD’d on barbiturates behind the wheel of a car.” But now he thinks “OK, this is bullshit.” And he takes a journey around the country. He ends up discovering that there’s this organization called the Parallax Corporation whose job it is to cultivate and then rent out lone gunmen for anybody who can pay for them. And what’s interesting about this is that the conspiracy here is very nebulous. We never really get any idea of the motives of the people who hire the Parallax Corporation.

Watergate made it acceptable to challenge government at a basic level, in terms of its benevolence and the notion that it has no interest in democracy.

AF: Or why they require weird brainwashing, or why this is the most productive way to get gunmen for hire. It’s kind of a plot hole there: you could just find a psycho who has good aim.

MC: But what it’s trying to do is evoke the sense that there is a hidden force basically acting against democracy. The idea that if anything pushes too far against the restraints of the American two-party system, it will be brought down by some force or another that can pay these guys, these lone gunmen to do it. In 1974 that had to have been how everybody felt.

AF: At that point, it was seven years past the Summer of Love. Some of the idealism had disappeared but it was still a highly political time. People think of the 60’s as the time when everyone was in the streets, but there were tons of people in the streets in the mid-70’s. It just didn’t have the utopianism anymore.

MC: It didn’t have the hippy edge. It was sliding into cynicism and anger. That was the time when the Weathermen broke off from SDS and started blowing up bathrooms.

AF: And themselves, sometimes.

MC: Yes, hilariously. Pervasive frustration. “Shit, there’s really no way to get through this.” And that’s what these movies really represent, a breathtaking paralysis when you look upon the political system you live in and realize that there is no changing it. There’s too much concentrated wealth and influence at the top. These things are really just dramatizations of that feeling.

AF: There’s an anxious fantasy about it too, in the very Freudian sense. Parallax View isn’t just All the President’s Men if it were a Dukes of Hazzard episode. There’s also a nice sprinkling of Manchurian Candidate in there. Because they didn’t know what the corruption actually looked like, so they imagined the process.

MC: The Parallax Corporation don’t just get guys off the street and say “Hey, you shoot this guy.” It’s a multistage recruitment process. There’s a questionnaire you have to fill out.

AF: Figure out if you’re a psycho.

MC: And if you score psycho enough on the test, then you can go to the next stage. This is something the Parallax View is most remembered for, I think it’s the highlight of the film. It comes halfway through: Warren Beatty has taken on an assumed identity and has gotten the test taken on his behalf by a murderous mental patient. And the basis of his high score on the test, he’s been given the next round. And in the next round, he goes to the Parallax headquarters and they strap him into a chair. And they show him this 6-minute montage film that’s deeply unsettling.

It starts off very slow paced. It gives you prompt words like “home,” “mother,” “father.” Along with them, you get images that are meant to evoke those things, like a family around the dinner table. Norman Rockwell, a picket-fenced house, that kind of stuff. Then you get things like “God” and you get a Congregationalist church with a nice white steeple. Then you get “enemy” and there’s Hitler and Nazis. Then you get “God” again, and it starts to go faster and faster and it starts, most crucially, to start mingling everything together before every prompt. And one of the prompts is “me” and it shows images of a child in various stages of distress. A child running away from a guy who looks like he’s going to beat him up. A child huddled up in a dark room.

AF: Again a sort of crude fantasy Freudianism of The Manchurian Candidate. Inner child talk.

MC: Then it starts getting really jumbled up; the pace of the editing is faster and faster. It includes lots of images of sex, both homoerotic and heterosexual. Then you get dead people. You get bullets. You get blood. You’ve got General MacArthur screaming. And then the most interesting thing is, in the midst of this maelstrom of images of violence, you get this repeated shot of Thor from the Marvel comics just standing. It keeps repeating Thor with the phrase “me.” And it feels like the whole montage is designed invoke these feelings of confusion and aggression and then posit violence as the answer to this stirred-up emotional state. Because once it reaches the climax, it then goes back to the soothing rhythms that it had before, implying that this powerful wave of threat and anxiety has been pacified by the embodied man exercising violence on his own behalf.

But what’s most interesting is that a lot of the images are things that were in advertising. The kind of one-to-one representations of American ideals that you saw in ads, both print and television, in the 60s and 70s.

AF: There was a lot of paranoia at the time about subliminal messaging in advertising too.

MC: It totally feeds into that. It feels like the commentary is that the culture we live in is giving these messages, because there were all these guys shooting presidents and senators during this time period, almost at random. If you’re not positing that it’s the government, you’re still left to answer for why these guys are doing this. And the montage has the purpose of showing that even if there isn’t some conspiracy to manufacture these people, our culture is manufacturing them.

the-parallax-view_warren-beatty_brown-twill-jacket-top-bmp-1

AF: There was an anti-consumerist bent to all of this as well. People had kind of a vague anti-industrial, misplaced mistrust of what I might say is “capital,” though they wouldn’t necessarily articulate it in those words.

MC: Anyway, at the end of Parallax View, Warren Beatty is able to infiltrate this organization, they give him a job, and he goes to a rally for this rightwing presidential candidate, who I think is there to represent George Wallace. The idea is that anybody, regardless of their ideology, who pressed against the status quo was going to get smacked down. And the senator gets shot, and Warren Beatty realizes he’s getting set up. And he’s running around on a catwalk, trying to escape, people pointing at him saying, “there he is, there he is.” And finally, there’s an open door at the end of the catwalk, and he’s running towards it at full speed, and a dude just steps out and blows him away. The next scene we’re back to behind the same desk from the committee at the beginning of the movie reading another statement saying that this assassination was carried out by Warren Beatty, there’s no conspiracy, and everyone needs to move on.

AF: By the way, I hate to keep bringing this up, but Manchurian Candidate also ends with assassination on the catwalk.

MC: That’s true, but that’s the crucial difference, though, isn’t it? In Manchurian Candidate, Lawrence Harvey breaks his conditioning and shoots his asshole stepfather and his evil mom.

AF: He gets through, and then he shoots himself, and it’s violent and gory and tragic and meaningless. But in a different way.

MC: It’s kind of a bummer, but democracy has been preserved.

AF: I honestly think like Kennedy’s assassination was such a startling event that it became visually inescapable for a lot of filmmakers afterward.

MC: Absolutely. But what’s interesting is it that it didn’t really manifest in film too much until after Watergate. Because even if people had questions about the Kennedy assassination, the idea of publically expressing them was something that didn’t really become possible until then. Watergate made it acceptable to challenge government at a basic level, in terms of its benevolence and the notion that it has no interest in democracy. Those sort of thoughts were still largely unspeakable, even with Vietnam and everything, and it really took Watergate to break that psychic barrier—at least when it came to Hollywood and films.

Transcribed by Michael Fantauzzo.

Alan Dershowitz Takes Anti-Semitism Very Seriously Indeed

Anti-Semitism should not be treated lightly. This is why Alan Dershowitz is very careful with the accusation…

Amidst a controversy over supposed anti-Semitism, Breitbart editor Stephen Bannon has found a prominent defender in former Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz. Dershowitz thinks that because accusations of anti-Semitism are so serious, they should be only be lodged extremely cautiously. As he says:

I think we have to be very careful before we accuse any particular individual of being an anti-Semite…He has been supportive of Israel…. But it is not legitimate to call somebody an anti-Semite because you might disagree with their policies. 

Dershowitz believes that the evidence against Bannon and his website does not warrant a charge of anti-Semitism.

Let’s be clear what that evidence is. First, Bannon’s ex-wife stated that Bannon “doesn’t like Jews,” and that Bannon wouldn’t send his children to a certain school because he didn’t like “the number of Jews that attend” because Jewish children are “whiny brats.”

But since Bannon has denied the statement, Dershowitz thinks it shouldn’t count. Fair enough. We want, after all, to make sure our allegations are well-founded before we go ruining reputations.

The more serious part of the accusations against Bannon concerns his website’s fostering of the alt-right. Alt-right political circles have a pronounced tendency to attract neo-Nazis, and comment sections on alt-right websites are shot through with derogatory remarks about Jews and Zionists. Jewish conservative pundits like Ben Shapiro receive torrents of anti-Semitic abuse from alt-righters, and Shapiro says the Breitbart wing of conservatism features online harassers “calling for me, my wife, and two children to be thrown into a gas chamber.” It has been disturbing, then, to hear Bannon boast that Breitbart has served as “the platform of the alt-right.” Breitbart has defended the anti-Semitic tendencies, the gas chamber memes and pro-Nazi tweets, as part of a kind of harmless cultural subversion.

Breitbart states that the “origins” of the alt-right can be found in “thinkers as diverse as… Oswald Spengler, H.L Mencken, Julius Evola, Sam Francis, and… Pat Buchanan.” It’s an odd collection of forerunners, with a few unknown figures. But note that every single one of the “diverse” thinkers from which alt-right ideas originate has one thing in common. The editor of Mencken’s works found him “clearly and unequivocally” anti-Semitic, calling Jews “the most unpleasant race ever heard of.” Julius Evola was also a notorious anti-Semite, and wrote an introduction to the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. Sam Francis thanked Billy Graham for daring to point out the Jewish “stranglehold” on American media and believed Jews were the technocratic operatives of a managerial class that dominated society. Pat Buchanan has long been notorious, and watched closely by the Anti-Defamation League, for his statements on Jewish political dominance. And while Spengler personally disowned anti-Semitism, he was the favored philosopher of the Third Reich and his theories have a prominent place in neo-Nazi thinking.

Thus it’s curious that this should be the entire list of thinkers Breitbart itself posits as inspiring the alt-right. After all, it’s a fairly eclectic and obscure group of writers to cite… unless you’re an anti-Semite. To lay it out step-by-step, then: (1) Bannon says openly that he wishes Breitbart to be a platform for the alt-right. (2) Breitbart’s own guide to the alt-right cites only five intellectual influences. (3) Four out of five of these influences are openly anti-Semitic, and the other is beloved by Nazis.

The Breitbart world’s feelings about Jews surface overtly sometimes, and not just in a headline like “Renegade Jew.” Breitbart‘s (part Jewish, though practicing Catholic) tech editor, Milo Yiannopoulos, has said that Republicans sold out “all for a few shekels from their globalist paymasters in banking and industry.” (Thanks to Bannon’s patronage, Yiannopoulos may even soon be denouncing shekel-grubbing financiers from a White House podium as Trump’s press secretary.) Yiannopoulos and fellow Breitbart writer Allum Bokhari have also defended as “funny” the alt-right’s use of anti-Semitic caricature “Shlomo Shekelburg,” and said (again, in Breitbart itself) that “Nazi propaganda” can be good for “lulz” if used against people like, for example, “a Commentary editor.” Yiannopoulos, defending the notion that “Jews run everything,” has insisted that “it’s not anti-Semitic to point out statistics.” (He has also previously been seen sporting an Iron Cross.)

Yet none of this is sufficient for Alan Dershowitz to cast doubt on Bannon’s sincere opposition to anti-Semitism. This is because anti-Semitism is such a serious charge, with such devastating social consequences for the wrongfully accused, that we would only want to use it in cases where it is clearly warranted. After all, it is “not legitimate to call somebody an anti-Semite because you might disagree with their policies.” It is not, Dershowitz says, a term we would wish to toss around loosely unless there’s “overwhelming evidence.”

Who, then, meets Dershowitz’s extremely lofty, cautious, and totally unpoliticized standard? Let us explore a partial list of the justly accused:

Those Who Have Been Very Carefully And Responsibly Deemed Anti-Semites By Alan Dershowitz 

Once again, one would hesitate to condemn Steve Bannon without evidence. It would be unfair to call him an anti-Semite merely because his website defends using “Shlomo Shekelburg” caricatures, his tech editor says that “Jews run everything,” his movement’s intellectual influences unanimously think Jews are human poison, and his ex-wife flatly insists he doesn’t like Jews. It would be extremely unfair to leap to conclusions, because allegations of anti-Semitism should never be made merely for reasons of political convenience.

Fortunately, Alan Dershowitz always exercises responsibility when it comes to determining who is and isn’t an anti-Semite. He would not, after all, wish to be careless.

The Climate Change Problem

If progressives think it’s a serious threat to humanity, why don’t they act like it?

Let me make a confession to you. I don’t believe that human-caused climate change is a serious problem. Now let me be clear: when I look at the empirical evidence, I am very much convinced that it is a serious problem. In fact, every time I dig into the facts, read the reports of experts, try to understand the problem for myself, I become terrified. And yet I still don’t believe in climate change. I know I don’t believe in it, because if I believed in it, I would be acting differently. If I truly believed that Florida was going to sink into the sea, and that urgent action needed to be taken in order to stop this from occurring, I wouldn’t be editing a magazine. And I certainly wouldn’t have spent any of the past six months reading books or watching YouTube videos. If I believed climate change mattered as much as I am supposed to think it matters, I would be spending my every waking effort calling urgently for political action. I am not doing this. Therefore, I think I believe less in the importance of climate change than I say I do.

Here is one reason I think many people reject the apocalyptic forecasts of climate change “alarmists”: they don’t actually seem very alarmed. Yes, when climate scientists tell us about the problem, they tell us that if we do not radically reverse course on emissions immediately, we will boil ourselves alive and create an overheated hell of drought, displacement, and despair. But then why aren’t those climate scientists out in the streets? If the academic community believes climate change is a serious problem, there should be climate scientists going to every town in America, holding listening and teaching sessions at churches, libraries, and schools. They should be educating the public, fielding any and every skeptical question people might have. They should not just be giving quotes to newspapers, in which they tell us we’re all going to die, but they should give free and open lectures around the country, debating skeptics and embarking on a massive project to shift public opinion and end apathy.

If climate change is going to be as bad as climate scientists say it is, they need to work to shift the national mood. Obama should be talking about it constantly. It should be his number one issue. After all, if the claims made by scientists are true, then this issue should essentially come before all others, because it threatens the survival of the species. Supposedly, liberals believe the claims made by scientists, yet they do not treat this as an issue that comes before all others. Why didn’t Hillary Clinton respond to every single debate question by insisting on talking about climate change? Surely she affirms the scientific consensus. Yet the scientific consensus implies that this is the number one issue. But it wasn’t Clinton’s.

I have a suspicion that the failure to act as if the scientific consensus is actually true fuels doubts that it is true. “Rising sea levels” is not something we actually take seriously, it’s just something we say. After all, if liberals really took it seriously, it would be at the top of the New York Times every day. They’d never shut up about it. It isn’t the top story, though. The top story is usually something Trump did.

Imagine scientists discovered an asteroid hurtling toward earth. And they tried to warn people that unless urgent action was taken to blow up the asteroid, everyone would perish. But “asteroid denialism” set in. Blowing up the asteroid would require raising taxes and would disrupt the orderly operations of capitalism. Republicans would insist that the entire asteroid idea was a scheme cooked up by elitist liberal eggheads designed to scare Middle America into voting Democratic and bringing about a feminist Marxist dictatorship. But honestly, if the people voicing concerns about the asteroid were penning occasional op-eds, rather than constantly doing everything they could to persuade people to believe in the asteroid, I wouldn’t be sure that they really believed there was an asteroid at all. If they spent their time going to conferences and eating brunch, I would think that perhaps the Republicans were right. After all, people who think an asteroid will kill us all unless people are persuaded to stop it do not sit around eating brunch. After all, it’s a fucking deadly asteroid. 

The situation with climate change is much like the asteroid. Every good progressive affirms on an intellectual level that climate change is not just a problem, but the problem. Yet if it’s really true that unless we act in the next few years, a series of very bad things will happen that may take many many, lives, nobody should be acting the way many contemporary progressives act. Certainly nobody should be watching Netflix. Unless you convince people that they are about to suffer terribly, then climate change will not prevent them from voting for a denialist like Donald Trump. So you’d better be out convincing people…

Climate change also raises some very important issues about what constitutes a “rationally” held belief. Weirdly enough, I think most people on the left believe in climate change for irrational reasons. They believe in it because scientists say it matters, or because The New Yorker says that scientists say it matters. But they haven’t actually spent months carefully combing through the arguments made by skeptics, and figuring out what the flaws are. They haven’t actually buried themselves in mountains of climate data in order to verify to their satisfaction that the scientific findings are sound. In fact, it may be impossible for non-scientists to hold scientific beliefs “rationally.” We have to trust that science is a rational process and that we are being told the truth.

That’s a paradox of (good-faith) skepticism: by refusing to accept the claims of scientists on a trust basis, skeptics are demonstrating a kind of rationality. I am a “skeptic” of a certain kind, in that I am very uncomfortable defending a “scientific consensus” that I cannot prove myself. If someone approached me with a series of pseudo-scientific arguments supposedly proving that climate change was not occurring, I would not know how to prove that it was. I couldn’t suddenly become an amateur climate scientist and defend the position rationally. I have to defend it with an appeal to authority, namely the authority of scientists.

This point about knowledge is important, because it means that ordinary people who are skeptical of climate change should not be treated as irrational and backward. In fact, it is perfectly healthy to be skeptical of the authority of experts. We can say that if I am not an expert in a field, I should not doubt the claims of those who are. But that position doesn’t hold. After all, I am not an expert in Scientology or alchemy. Should I trust the claims of Scientologists or alchemists? From the inside of a scientific field, the difference between fraud and reason might be obvious. But from the outside, for people who are not trained scientists, the difference is not obvious. It’s very difficult, when I am not an expert, for me to decide whom to trust among two people claiming to be experts. A Princeton physicist tells me that global warming isn’t real. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change says otherwise. An oil executive tells me yet another thing. All of these people know more than I do about energy and the environment. Sorting out whom to trust is therefore hard. It’s easy if you already know how to do it. But most of us don’t know how to do it. 

Yes, when 99% of scientists believe something, it’s probably wise to believe it. But recognize that unless you teach people the underlying scientific facts, this is still asking them to believe based on faith. “Scientific consensuses are true” is a statement that can be believed for either rational or irrational reasons depending on whether you’ve worked it out for yourself or believe it for the same reason you might believe “what the Koran says is true.”

Those concerned about climate change are therefore asking people to indulge in an act of faith: to believe, without understanding the underlying science very well, that the scientific prediction of an asteroid-type disaster is true. This is a major ask. It requires people to make a large amount of sacrifice for something that they are taking based on trust, trust that experts would never mislead them and are not deluded. It’s no wonder people prefer the comforting denials of a Trump, the insistence that experts are full of it and that everything will be fine.

I must admit, I don’t trust experts much myself. I think they’re frequently arrogant and self-delusional. I also don’t know anything about climate science, and I don’t have time to learn. In this respect, I am like most people. The question here is how, if most people are like this, they can be moved to support the necessary serious political action on climate change. The answer, I think, is that they need reasons why expertise can be trusted. They need experts to be trying to persuade them, rather than just dismissing skepticism as ignorance. They need experts to act as if their prophecies are true, rather than going on with their quiet and comfortable lives in coastal enclaves. A crucial lesson for Trump-era progressives is this: it’s not enough to be right. You have to persuade people you’re right. 

Here in Massachusetts, I think a large swath of my neighbors affirm that climate change is the number one threat facing humanity. And yet they have never done so much as bring it up with me in conversation. If this really were a problem of asteroid-magnitude, don’t you think we’d at least be mentioning it with some regularity? If we think it’s going to happen, shouldn’t we speak about it? 

If the science is right, we may be in the last few years where it is possible to do anything to stall the effects of emissions on the planet. That means it’s a moment of extraordinary urgency. For every single progressive who believes that this is in fact true, it needs to be treated as the crisis it ostensibly is. Otherwise, why should anyone take the leap of faith required to produce serious action? A vast political movement needs to be built if there is any chance of reversing existing trends. Doing so is going to require more than just having the facts. It’s going to require figuring out what it takes to get people to truly believe the facts, and then behave as if those facts are true. 

The New Alternative Right (And How To Get Rid of Them Quickly)

To get rid of this horrifying pestilence, the left will need to ask itself some serious questions.

With attention-seeking pests, it is often unclear whether the wisest course is to ignore them or confront them. By ignoring them, one does nothing to stop them festering and multiplying. By confronting them, one gives them precisely what they want, and possibly makes them grow even faster than they otherwise would have.

This dilemma has become acute with the rise of the “alternative right,” the catch-all name for a bizarre new trend in American conservatism, one that everyone seems to agree exists but nobody seems to know quite how to define. This “movement,” such as it is, appears to have arisen as a sort of filmy spume atop the wave of the Donald Trump presidential campaign, which brought previously fringe far-right voices into the relative mainstream.

One of the difficulties in analyzing the alt-right is the fuzziness of its boundaries. Nearly every broad generalization you can offer about it alt-right is not quite correct. In fact, even classifying the alt-right as a “movement” is somewhat of a misnomer. It is highly decentralized, and its membership has hitherto been active almost exclusively in internet communities, not in political circles or in grassroots organizing.

Certain observations can be made, though. It appears to be an overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) male, overwhelmingly (but not exclusively) white collective of gamers, gym rats, tech enthusiasts, climate change skeptics, anti-vaxxers, anti-feminists, men’s rights advocates, white supremacists, sci-fi geeks, so-called “pick-up artists,” and various species of troll. Though they are a disorganized bunch, and despite a certain predictable level of infighting, their worldview has a fairly high level of consistency across their many platforms.

We can divide them roughly into two general groups, though there is overlap between them. Some alt-righters are “futurists,” the kind of Silicon Valleyites that Corey Pein has aptly described as “mouthbreathing Machiavellis.” They believe that a society governed by computer code would be preferable to the vagaries of popular democracy, and frequently discuss their desire to establish autonomous island kingdoms where entrepreneurs can conduct social experiments outside the jurisdiction of United States law. This worldview has found support in Trump-loving Silicon Valley billionaire Peter Thiel, who believes that America has been in decline since women got the vote and that Apartheid was an admirable example of economic efficiency

But the more numerous and perhaps more influential group of alt-righters are those sometimes labeled “natural conservatives,” who feel strongly about traditional gender roles and race-based nationalism. They believe that “Western values” must be preserved against outside contaminants. If you think that sounds rather like a throwback to the ‘50s, you’d be correct. Of course, the vocabulary is different: alt-righters profess to believe in something they call “human biodiversity” or “race realism,” meaning that there are biological differences between races, and irreconcilable differences between cultures produced by different races. The prominent “race realist” website American Renaissance is quite direct in its statement of purpose: “It is entirely normal for whites (or for people of any other race) to want to be the majority race in their own homeland. If whites permit themselves to become a minority population, they will lose their civilization, their heritage, and even their existence as a distinct people.”

Online, this mutated form of white pride manifests itself in often inscrutable ways. Pro-Nazi memes proliferate across rancid corners of the internet. A cartoon frog named Pepe (since designated a hate symbol by the Anti-Defamation League) has become the unofficial mascot of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic rhetoric. Entire blogs and forums are given over to obsessive litanies of disgust against women who sleep with men outside their race, or against white couples who adopt non-white children. On these websites, thousands of men complain about “the feminization of society,” which they view as closely connected to racial and cultural adulteration, and confer with each other about effective strategies for keeping women in their place.

Well, that all sounds thoroughly demented, you may be thinking. Why would anyone want to associate themselves with these people? Perhaps it’s because the alt-right is a new and exciting flavor of right-wing conservatism, which presents itself not as the steady hand at the wheel in turbulent times, but as an edgy, transgressive, youthful, fun-loving force in a repressive world: a world where, supposedly, all meaningful discussion has been stifled by cultural shibboleths about gender and race. It is “liberals” now, not “conservatives,” who are overly attached to received ideas, to unquestionable mantras, to behavioral protocols; liberals who are humorless, inflexible, and easily scandalized; liberals who selectively punish and censor ideas they consider dangerous, or even merely distasteful. In this context, the alt-right paint themselves as countercultural. They encourage people to express the primal urges and instinctive beliefs that The Man has been telling them to repress for most of their lives.

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There are many ways to approach the voice that lives inside your head, whispering unkind assumptions about others—you can think of it as a kind of original sin, as a vestige of some rejected part of your upbringing, as some automatic cognitive process that you choose to separate from your volitional identity. Or you can see it as the voice of truth, which other people are trying to program out of you for their own self-interested reasons. If a particular racist thought occurs to you often, says the alt-right, it’s because deep down, you know it’s true. You can stop wasting so much mental energy fighting your inclination to favor people who resemble you, because favoring people who resemble you is the natural order of things. As the left insists at increasing volumes that everyone—especially white people, and even more especially white men—must engage in constant soul-searching, in exhausting self-interrogation, the alt-right tells you that you can simply trust yourself.

It’s all the more rewarding to have this kind of self-congratulatory inner faith dressed up as a form of hard, uncompromising realism. The alt-right, in the classic mode of conspiracy theorists, is extremely fond of claiming that it alone is willing to accept truths that the rest of the world is determined to ignore. Being an alt-righter is also intellectually easy, in the sense that its ideas are few and simple and make no moral demand upon those who hold them. The day-to-day life of your average alt-righter seems to consist of savaging people on Twitter and then, possibly, going to the gym. (When writing about their work-out routines, the alt-right’s rhetoric switches from a vicious racist screed to the drippiest self-pitying sentimentalism, such as this tragic bit from blogger Mike Cernovich:

We all hit the gym for one of two reasons. We were too skinny or too fat. That is, we were inadequate or scarce rather than full and abundant. We grind away that old body. Fat peels off and muscles surface. We start to look great, in some cases super human. Yet we don’t feel that way. We stay home alone, or we date women who aren’t hot enough for us, as we believe a hot woman would cheat. The man looking at us in the mirror is one we don’t recognize. But what about the man we can’t see? What about our souls? Have our souls experienced the same changes as our bodies?”)

Though they are vocal about the things they despise—immigration, any celebration or deliberate inculcation of racial diversity, women entering previously male-dominated spaces and professions, restrictions on free speech—the alt-right has few positive policy positions, which doubtless saves them a lot of mental effort.

The difficult question is how much anyone should care about the “rise” of such people. White supremacists are frightening, but online white supremacists are mostly just pitiful. But what if their rhetoric and their pet theories begin to migrate into mainstream discourse? Right now, the alt-right is like the creepy guy whom you’ve suddenly noticed following you as you walk home alone late one night. What do you do now? Should you confront him? Maybe he’s just messing around, and if you ignore him, he’ll go away. But what if he was just playing around, but then when you confront him, he suddenly changes his mind and decides to murder you? But what if you’re overreacting, and then the interaction is just a huge embarrassment? But then what if he murders you?

In other words, it’s hard to know how to feel about these people. One loathes what they stand for, obviously, but should one actively fear them? Their real-world political influence may be limited by the fact that white males do not by themselves have an electoral majority. But the alt-right could still use its disruptive influence to foster racial divisiveness in ways that could be frustrating, if not fatal, to progressivism.

The left has been talking a great deal lately about the inadequacy of the concept of colorblindness, which was the paradigm within which many millennials were brought up to understand race. In the context of the Black Lives Matter movement and police shootings of unarmed black people, article upon article has carried headlines like “Colorblind Ideology is a Form of Racism,” “Why Color-Blindness Is A Counterproductive Ideology,” and “Why It’s Racist To Be Colorblind.” Within the space of a couple years, young people have been instructed to completely discard a worldview that was transmitted to them as gospel through textbooks and after-school specials throughout most of their lives. Colorblindness was once understood to be synonymous with racial inclusiveness, but now it is yet another way to be a racist. Not only is contemporary America far from being colorblind, so the argument goes, but colorblindness itself is a “racial utopic vision,” fundamentally unachievable and thus pointless even to strive for.

The backlash to colorblindness is understandable. After all, it has been disturbing to watch conservatives seize the language of Martin Luther King in order to justify policies King himself would have recoiled at, such as dismantling affirmative action and making voting more difficult. But left-wing arguments for recognizing the importance of race carry a perverse consequence: by reinforcing racial categories, they encourage white people to preserve their white identity. This is a strange tension that many on the left seem to find it difficult to talk about. Progressives accept the existence of minority affinity groups as self-evidently worthwhile and necessary, but it is important to nail down in very precise and comprehensible terms how the left’s views on race as a category differ from the “racial realist” framework embraced by the alt-right. Demographic changes will only continue to make this question more complicated. As the racial makeup of the U.S. changes, and parts of the U.S. become increasingly minority-majority, will it be socially acceptable for white people to have some form of explicitly-stated group identity that is racially-defined without being “racist”? If we wish to build a society that is both multiracial and truly egalitarian, we are going to have to revisit this question, and we would do well to make sure the alt-right or its successor is not the only group with a ready script when we do.

This may mean introducing some additional considerations into the way we presently discuss race relations. For example, the recent fad of professing to hate “white men”—however amusing and cathartic it might be—is clearly counterproductive, as it lets racist white men feel themselves justified in throwing around accusations of “reverse racism,” and encourages them to form a group identity based around the notion that they are despised and embattled. Ultimately, things like the #KillAllWhiteMen hashtag are not worth the amount of energy they take to explain, and make it harder to have good-faith discussions about other nuances of inter-race and cross-cultural communication. The left should stop this kind of talk.

But even more important than forms of speech are matters of substantive policy that affect individual people’s lives. Here the alt-right could cause serious trouble. If the Republican party is driven toward its racist fringe, we can expect the mainstream left to move rightward as well, as it seeks to cadge votes from alienated party moderates. Cleverer members of the alt-right have tried to cast their movement as a localist, populist antidote to a creeping globalization puppeteered by out-of-touch elites: this was the narrative that was woven around the Brexit vote, and such a narrative might well gain similar traction in the U.S. A new political paradigm where one is asked to choose between an isolationist, anti-immigration, explicitly racist “right,” and a “left” that defends global capitalism by making emotional appeals to the virtuousness of superficial diversity, would be extremely difficult terrain for those interested in real economic justice.

The left has always had a difficult balance to strike between localism and globalism: On the localist side, the left generally supports policies like food sovereignty and environmental preservation against the depredations of multinational corporations. Yet lefties are also globalists, who believe that individuals worldwide have the right to migrate freely, and who should be wary of protectionist economic arguments that demonize companies for employing foreign workers rather than demonizing companies for paying those foreign workers pitiful wages. Allowing the alt-right to take proprietary control over anti-globalization rhetoric, and thus force the left into a false choice between defending globalization or defending racism, would be a terrible mistake.

The left’s failure to offer a compelling alternative may be partly responsible for the alt-right’s success. Certainly, this is the claim made by movement provocateur and spokesman Milo Yiannopoulos. Yiannopoulos is known primarily for going around college campuses giving lectures with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?”, inevitably sparking protests, which in turn increase his infamy. (Yiannopoulos also splashily debuted a “privilege grant” college scholarship for white men, raising $100,000 online through a nonexistent charity and then proceeding to deposit the money directly into his own bank account.) Yiannopoulos argues in a co-written essay that the alt-right’s ugliness has been spurred by the left’s retreat into some kind of dreary, preachy totalitarianism:

Had  [the political establishment] been serious about defending humanism, liberalism and universalism, the rise of the alternative right might have been arrested. All they had to do was argue for common humanity in the face of black and feminist identity politics, for free speech in the face of the regressive Left’s censorship sprees, and for universal values in the face of left-wing moral relativism… Young people perhaps aren’t primarily attracted to the alt-right because they’re instinctively drawn to its ideology: they’re drawn to it because it seems fresh, daring and funny, while the doctrines of their parents and grandparents seem unexciting, overly-controlling and overly-serious.

Much of this is idiocy. One need only look at the statistics on black wealth, or on female representation in Congress, to see the continuing necessity of “black and feminist identity politics.” The white men who write off these movements as mere irrational ideology have spent very little time trying to understand the lives of people different from themselves.

Still, one should accept a certain part of the caution. It’s true that the left too often lacks (1) good arguments and (2) wit. It’s very easy, when one is convinced of one’s own moral correctness, to denounce one’s enemies as evil and keep them from speaking. In doing so, one can indeed take on the very kind of bullying, close-minded disposition that the left is supposed to detest. The left should be empathetic and curious, and should never be seen as opposed to “universal values” or “freedom of speech,” both of which are foundational to its historical struggles.

It’s also worth confronting the alt-right’s actual arguments head on, rather than simply closing one’s ears and denouncing them. Yiannopoulos and others insist that feminists and progressives are afraid to debate Actual Facts, because the left is ideological rather than rational. Leftists then reinforce this perception by merely scoffing and dismissing Yiannopoulos and his ilk as racists, and attempting to have them kicked off college campuses. This is unfortunate, because it allows the alt-right to feel as if their arguments are indeed so strong that their enemies are terrified of having to deal with them.

Once their one or two serious critiques are addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.  

Nobody need be terrified, however. Underneath all the rhetoric, the alt-right have few actual arguments. Their most convincing points are their attacks on left-wing hypocrisy and self-contradiction (the silencing of dissent in the name of dissent, simultaneously trying to dismantle and reinforce racial and gender identities, a failure to apply consistent moral standards). Once those critiques are taken seriously and addressed, the alt-right has nothing else to offer beyond mystical blood-purity theories and Nazi frog memes.

It’s not yet clear whether the alt-right will be influential in the long run. Seen one way, its rise is encouraging news for progressives. After all, it is fueled by the success of progressive ideas; the alt-right is a backlash to advances in racial equality. Perhaps the clownish Trump campaign, and all of the racist memes, are the last gasp of a doomed demographic. It’s hard to know if this lunacy is merely the theatrical death-throes of a Republican Party whose time is passed, or if it’s the birth of a terrifying new right-wing ideology that threatens to define America’s future political life.

But nobody should wait to find out the direction of the movement. Neo-Nazism is also nothing to kid around about, and the percentage of the country who embraced Trump is truly alarming. We should take advantage of the present upheaval in our national debate and begin organizing around a morally coherent alternative. The causes of this new movement need to be identified, its ideas countered and extinguished. The alt-right are hideous, and it is not enough to take note of them. They must be gleefully squashed.

Illustration by Benjamin Saucier

What This Means, How This Happened, What To Do Now

Dealing with the election of Donald Trump

This morning, the people of Earth awoke to find that the fate of the human species has been placed in the hands of reality television mogul and unconvicted sex criminal Donald J. Trump, who has been given access to the nuclear codes. This is, to somewhat understate things, a deeply troubling development. Trump is a man embodying every single noxious trait in the human character, a man that even Glenn Beck finds unhinged. For those of us who abhor white supremacism and sexual assault, or who believe that climate change and nuclear war threaten the survival of the planet, this is a state of emergency.

There is no time to sit around goggle-eyed and slack-jawed. We should ask a number of straightforward questions, and try to figure out what’s what. First, how did this happen? Second, what are its implications? And finally, what the hell do we do now?

But first, let’s take a breath. Yes, this is a disturbing event of extraordinary magnitude. Remember, though, that the U.S. presidency, while extremely important, is only a small part of the existing world. Nothing has exploded just yet, nobody has died, and we have a little while longer to figure out how to interpret this thing and brace ourselves for its consequences. Nobody quite knows what is about to happen, and while it might be worse than all of our fears, it could also end up not quite being nearly as bad as expected. If there is one thing this election has shown, it is that we just don’t know what the future holds. All we can do is try to remain calm and analyze it as soberly as we can.

What, then, does the election of Donald Trump actually mean? Here is the important point: nobody knows. Anybody who says they know doesn’t know. This election is, first and foremost, a repudiation of the establishment, which means that the wisdom of pundits, experts, and elites has been proven hollow. So in trying to interpret this event, do not listen to those who insist they know things, or who confidently offer a new round of predictions for what will happen. We’ve entered the Age of the Unpredictable.

At least in the very immediate aftermath, the consensus among liberals about their loss seems to be as follows: they underestimated the racism and sexism of the American people, and the degree to which this country was full of a dark and rotten hatred. As Paul Krugman summed up his own take-away:

People like me, and probably like most readers of The New York Times, truly didn’t understand the country we live in. We thought that our fellow citizens would not, in the end, vote for a candidate so manifestly unqualified for high office, so temperamentally unsound, so scary yet ludicrous. We thought that the nation, while far from having transcended racial prejudice and misogyny, had become vastly more open and tolerant over time. There turn out to be a huge number of people — white people, living mainly in rural areas — who don’t share at all our idea of what America is about.

I have a strong feeling that Krugman’s perspective will become conventional wisdom among devastated blue-staters in the next few days. Trump won because of his appeals to racism and sexism, and his vicious misogynistic lies about Hillary Clinton. He won because a large percentage of the country is hateful and does not share progressive values.

This is a tempting story for people on the left to tell themselves, because it exonerates them of any responsibility for the outcome. It is also an extremely discouraging story, because it suggests that the majority of voters are bad, nasty, deplorable people. Fortunately, this story is almost certainly misleading. One of the main problems here is that many Democrats in coastal cities know very few Trump voters. Thus they have a hard time making sense of these voters’ motivations. In order to understand Trump’s base of support, instead of trying to speak to and empathize with these voters, they look at statistical data. From that data, they see that these people express anxiety about race and immigration, and that they are not disproportionately poor. They thus conclude that Trump voters are motivated primarily by prejudice, and mock the idea that it is economic concerns that matter most to them.

If you adopt this theory, then you reach a somewhat fatalistic conclusion about Trump supporters. You can’t persuade them, because they’re racists, and racism is an irrational feeling. Instead, you fight them, by mocking them, and trying to turn out your own base. By treating Trump’s support as largely the product of racism, one gives up on any attempt to actually appeal to Trump voters’ concerns and interests, since racism is not an interest worth appealing to.

This was what Democrats did. This was a campaign of mockery: Trump voters were treated with disdain. Hillary Clinton dismissed huge swaths of them as a “basket of deplorables.” To be a Trump supporter was to be dumb, a redneck, a misogynist.

Here’s the problem: if Democrats had actually spent time with Trump voters, as opposed to judging them by polls, they would have found this theory incomplete. They missed the fact that many Trump voters had a kind of undirected dissatisfaction and anger at the Establishment. For some, the source of this was most likely economics. For many, immigration. For others, it was probably simply an existential despair at the hopelessness of modern life, such as we all feel. But many of them simply didn’t know what they were angry at. They just knew they were angry. Trump came along and gave them a convenient narrative: the source of this anguish was ISIS, Mexicans, and Hillary Clinton. This was very powerful. Democrats didn’t have a good counter-narrative. They lost.

There are facts that complicate the simple “racist deplorables” explanation. As Nate Cohn of The New York Times noted, “Clinton suffered her biggest losses in the places where Obama was strongest among white voters,” meaning that this was “not a simple racism story.” There are plenty of people who voted for Obama in 2008 or 2012 who voted for Donald Trump in 2016. The important question is why? These are people who will happily vote for a progressive black president, but will turn around and vote for the Klan’s favored candidate four years later. What is going on?

The only thing we know is that this question won’t be answered easily or quickly. It depends on spending time with these people, understanding what truly makes them tick, and how to make them tick differently. Note that maybe it is racism that fueled their Trump votes. But it’s clear that racism is something that can be exacerbated by demagoguery. Just because someone is capable of being a racist doesn’t mean they will be one. We are all highly susceptible to social influences. Trump can make people more racist than they were otherwise inclined to be. The question for Democrats is how to get people to move in the other direction.

It’s important to recognize the extent to which the Trump vote was an undirected repudiation of the Establishment rather than an affirmative vote for anything. Liberals didn’t understand why none of Trump’s scandals (the fraud, the tax evasion, the sexual assaults) seemed to dim his support. They didn’t realize that Trump was a bomb being thrown at the elite, which meant that (in some sense) the worse he was, the more people liked him. A vote for Trump is a Molotov cocktail. It is not nuanced. It is designed to do as much damage as possible. Pointing out that the Molotov cocktail does not share the thrower’s values, or cheats on its taxes, is not an effective rhetorical strategy. Because a vote for Trump is an attempt to blow up the government, it doesn’t matter at all whether Trump is a sleaze, sex predator, or vulgarian. He pisses off the right people, and that is what matters.

The most important parallel with Donald Trump’s victory is the surprise U.K. Brexit vote, in which pundits similarly confidently predicted that the country definitely wouldn’t vote to leave the European Union, only to have the country decisively vote to leave the European Union. Elites in London simply couldn’t imagine that there were enough people willing to make such a suicidal choice for the mere pleasure of delivering a middle finger to the Establishment. But they underestimated how much people hated the Establishment, having rarely traveled outside their insular cosmopolitan bubble. Having failed to appreciate the degree of latent rage simmering outside the urban center, they were blindsided. Likewise, as Krugman’s words illustrate, America’s liberal press could not believe that Donald Trump could ever be president. The outcome was so unthinkable that their inability to imagine it affected their assessment of its chances of occurrence.

In fact, the most important lesson of this election is about the press. This disaster should cause a major reevaluation of political media, who failed utterly to appreciate the seriousness of what was happening. There is a good argument to be made that the media is responsible for creating Trump in the first place. But the press also thoroughly failed the country, by distorting reality to make it appear as if Clinton was more likely to win than she was. In doing so, they allowed people to rest easy who should have (and would have) been out trying to put the brakes on the Trump train.

Liberal commentators made a crucial error: instead of trying to understand how the world actually was, they interpreted the world according to their wishful version of it. Throughout the race, I saw dozens of commentators on the left insisting that Clinton was a shoo-in, and that the “horse race” was manufactured. Trump, they said, stood no chance. For example, Jamelle Bouie of Slate wrote in August:

There is no horse race here. Clinton is far enough ahead, at a late enough stage in the election, that what we have is a horse running by itself, unperturbed but for the faint possibility of a comet hitting the track. Place your bets accordingly.

Plenty of others appeared similarly confident. Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias of Vox were equally cocky. Yglesias insisted that Trump’s prediction of an American Brexit was a complete misunderstanding of the dynamics of Brexit. He also claimed to have insights proving that polls showing a Clinton lead actually underestimated her support. Klein crowed that Hillary’s exceptional debate performances had “left the Trump campaign in ruins.” Even a usually sober-minded leftist like Corey Robin of Brooklyn College confidently declared that “Clinton is going to win big-time in November.”

This complacency was extremely damaging. Liberal pundits bought into myth (fabricated by the Clinton campaign) of Clinton as an “inevitable” president. This idea should have been disposed of permanently in 2008, as well as by Clinton’s weak primary performance against a socialist upstart. But there seemed to be a belief among the liberal press that if they just repeated it enough times, it would be destined to come true. This was sheer stupidity. By either explicitly or tacitly reassuring people that Clinton would definitely win, they diminished the sense of urgency among progressives. People could feel as if they didn’t need to do anything, because nothing inevitable needs help coming to fruition.

The press’s insistence that Clinton was doing fine was so ubiquitous that it distorted every progressive’s picture of reality. I fell victim to this myself. In February, I believed Trump was being massively underestimated, and wrote an article predicting with complete certainty that he would be president. In May, I said that the Democrats’ nomination of Clinton was a “suicidal mistake.” But then the drumbeat of inevitability began to penetrate my consciousness. I began to feel I was being alarmist, that I was letting my biases interfere with my judgment. After all, the pundits had their polling data. And they seemed so confident. I still felt so uneasy. Something felt wrong. But when Trump was accused of committing serial sexual assault, I began to feel as if they might be right. Perhaps Trump was over. I wrote that while “we should make sure the threat is truly vanquished before celebrating,” since it would be unprecedented to put someone who had admitted to sex crimes in the White House, “perhaps” we truly were rid of Trump.

This was foolish. But I see how it happened. We progressives all fell into an echo chamber of wishful thought, just like the Republicans did during their primary. Trump couldn’t win, so he wouldn’t win. We forgot that there is a distinction between media representations of reality and reality itself. If the press had done their job, rather than just bullshitting, perhaps we would have been as alarmed as we should have been.

The election of Trump is therefore a serious repudiation of media “experts.” Pundits like those at Vox position themselves as “explainers” of reality, disguising the fact that they are making an awful lot of things up in order to cover gaps in their knowledge. Trump’s election has shown that believing these types of claims to expertise can be positively dangerous. And yet it is almost certain the experts will persist in claiming superior knowledge of the world, even as they refuse to leave their D.C. and New York enclaves. There are no consequences to false predictions, even if you end up getting Donald Trump elected president, and it is unlikely that Ezra Klein and Matthew Yglesias will lose their jobs. (They have “pundit tenure.”) Indeed, Yglesias has already begun making his next set of predictions.

It is crucial, however, that the following lesson be learned well by progressives: these people do not know anything. Do not believe predictions, whether from this website or anywhere else. No political commentator or forecaster can offer you any real certainty, because they don’t have any special magic that the rest of us don’t have access to. Nate Silver may have been somewhat less wrong than everybody else. But Nate Silver was still wrong, or at least useless. (His predict-o-meter flopped all over the place over the course of the election cycle, making it a poor tool for calibrating one’s behavior.) Sam Wang of Princeton was totally discredited, having laughably predicted a 99% chance of a Clinton victory.

The reason they do not know anything is clear: they are absolutely obsessed with empirical data. They love polls, even though polls by definition can’t account for the sorts of things that do not show up in polls. Many people treated Donald Trump’s contempt for polls as a sign that he was living in his own world. In fact, he was living in the real world, which is separate and distinct from the world of polls and data. The fundamental problem with poll-watching is that you really never do know.

Thus, going forward, we need to have far less confidence in the power of existing empirical data to predict and explain the world. There needs to be a complete reevaluation, not of techniques for estimating probability, but of the meaning and importance that is attributed to probabilities. The truth is that the world is far more unknowable than we think. Human beings have free will, or are at least highly unpredictable, which means that efforts to anticipate their behavior are destined to go poorly.

Could this all have been avoided? It’s worth saying that in retrospect, running Hillary Clinton for president was never a very good idea. Running Clinton against Donald Trump was an especially bad idea, because all of Clinton’s weaknesses as a candidate played to all of Trump’s strengths. Clinton gave Trump precisely the kind of fodder (mini-scandals, shady dealings, etc.) on which his bombast thrives. She also happens to be a very poor campaigner, and a complacent one. The weakness was obvious even in the differing campaign slogans. “I’m With Her” is about the interests of the candidate. “Make America Great Again” is about the voters. Let’s learn an important lesson here: do not run a widely-despised ruling-class candidate who has open contempt for the white working class. That is a recipe for electoral catastrophe.

Could Bernie have done better? It seems a reasonable hypothesis. After all, Clinton lost because of the Rust Belt. As a populist, anti-Wall Street candidate focused on jobs, Sanders was well-positioned to strongly counter Trump in these states. Biden might have done even better, and I hope he regrets his decision not to run. But ultimately, these speculations are both impossible to evaluate and immaterial to the situation in which people now find themselves.

What other lessons might actually be useful going forward, other than trying to understand voters, running better candidates, and never listening to a word pundits and polls say? Well, a small one is: never vote third-party in a swing state. Jill Stein ended up receiving very little of the vote, making it silly to attribute this catastrophe to her (as Paul Krugman immediately tried to do). Still, where margins are small, even tiny third-party percentages can make a huge difference. And since all Stein voters were probably just as horrified at last night’s outcome as the Clinton voters, the idea that there is no difference between “the lesser of two evils” is false. Having less evil is always better. Don’t vote third-party in a swing state. (And third-parties should probably find a new strategy for building their movement that involves more than just trying to sabotage a presidential election every four years.) Still, any Democrat who focuses their ire on Jill Stein is seriously missing the point of this election.

But a very limited amount of time should be spent on blame-slinging and “I told you so”s. Every single person who opposed Donald Trump should have many, many regrets. I have plenty of them myself. I regret that I didn’t do more for Sanders, and then that I didn’t do more for Clinton after Sanders lost. I should have been knocking doors. Instead I watched movies and wrote magazine articles and went to class. I wrote an academic article. An academic article! What on earth was I thinking? I regret that I allowed myself to be lulled into thinking everything would be alright, even though I knew deep down that there was no rational reason for feeling assuaged, and that the “experts” who were telling me Clinton would win didn’t know any more than I did.

The truth is, those of us on the left were complacent asses. All of us. When I wrote in February that Trump would definitely defeat Clinton, I believed that. But I didn’t act as if I believed it. If I’d really felt like I believed it, I should have been spending my every waking hour working to prevent this hideous outcome. I didn’t, though. And when all of us think of how uselessly we frittered away so much of our time, how much more we could have done, we may be kicking ourselves for years. Especially if the nuclear apocalypse shows up.

What’s going to happen now? For a leftist, liberal, or progressive, nothing good. There is complete Republican control of government. This means that even in the best case scenario, in which Trump turns out to be mostly bluster, as incapable at organizing a dictatorship as he is at running a hotel, we can expect to have every single progressive policy of the last eight years rolled back very swiftly. Goodbye, healthcare! Goodbye, moderate criminal justice reforms! Goodbye, mild attempts to rein in corporate malfeasance! It’s all down the tubes. Sayonara. (Probably. Again, keep in mind: nobody knows anything.)

The worst case scenario is very, very bad. Trump could be our Hitler. They laughed at the Nazis in 1928, the man with the funny moustache and his gang of silly brown-shirted thugs. They weren’t laughing so much in 1933. Things could be the same when it comes to the man with the funny hair and the orange face. Hah… Hah… Hah… Oh shit. We know Donald Trump is a man without a conscience. Yet we have just handed him near absolute power (in part enabled by the joint Democratic/Republican expansion of executive branch authority over the years). For all we know, there could be death camps on the horizon.

For the sake of our sanity, it’s necessary to assume that this isn’t true. We must act as if we are not all about to die, as if the sky will not fall. (And who knows? It might not.) If we become resigned, if we start to feel doomed and hopeless, we are liable to produce a highly dangerous self-fulfilling prophecy. This has to be a moment of action rather than despair.

Progressives are going to have to fight for their values. They are going to have to fight hard. But they are also going to have to fight differently. The left will be doomed if it does not seriously rethink its practices. We’ve just lost every branch of government, and watched the presidency be given to a misogynistic sociopathic fraudster. Clearly we have gone wrong somewhere.

The most fundamental part of a new plan is this: do not do the same damn thing all over again and expect different results. We need a new kind of left politics. We need something that has what Obama had: inspiration, hope. It was joked that Hillary Clinton’s campaign slogan was “No you can’t.” That’s no good. Trump inspires people. He may inspire people by appealing to their nastiest, most inhuman and unneighborly instincts. But he inspires them. We have to have an agenda that gets people excited. It can’t be like trying to make people eat their vegetables. “You’ll vote for me and you’ll like it, because you have no alternative” is not an effective way to get votes.

Progressives need to understand how people who are different from them think. No more writing them off as racist and deplorable. Even if they are, what good does that do? You need to understand racists not so you can sympathize with them, but so you can figure out what shapes people’s beliefs, and help them reach different beliefs. People on the left must reach out to people on the right. They must make their case. They must go into red states. They must take counter-arguments seriously and respond to them. It is not sufficient to have John Oliver eviscerate Trump on television and call him Drumpf. It is not sufficient to have Lena Dunham dance around in a pantsuit. It is not sufficient to line up a bunch of Hollywood celebrities to tell people how to vote. When someone asks “What kind of world does the left want to build?” we need to have a vision. When someone asks “Why should I vote for you?” the answer cannot be “Because I am not Trump.” After all, people like Trump.

The Clinton campaign was a disaster. Let’s never do anything like it again. Let’s never again have a campaign in which people were constantly having to defend the indefensible. Let’s never again run on “experience” rather than values. Let’s never again treat everything as fine when it clearly isn’t. (Let’s also never again underestimate Donald Trump. The man is wily. He may have never read a book in his adult life. But he knows how to win an election. Calling him stupid, or treating him as stupid, misses the point. For a “stupid” man, he sure showed the elites.)

Overnight, the world has changed. We may have thought history had ended, that nothing too terribly unexpected would ever shake us up again. But history never ends. The future could hold anything. It may hold catastrophe. But there is no time to think about that. What is needed now is a plan. In the immortal words of Joe Hill

Don’t mourn, organize!

Letters to the Editor

The latest in our ongoing barrage of public complaints…

Despite our best efforts to discourage them, Letters to the Editor continue to flow regularly into the Current Affairs postbox. We hereby present a representative selection of our reading public’s most vehemently-held opinions. 

Re: You Should Be Terrified That People Who Like ‘Hamilton’ Run Our Country

To the Editors:

Has Alex Nichols seen Hamilton?  has Alex Nichols listened to the original cast recording? Obviously not. Maybe the article was written out of sour grapes at not being able to snag a ticket; but at any rate it’s pretty shoddy journalism to publish something about which the author is completely clueless. When the author does finally research their subject and listen or watch I think they will be very embarrassed.

Hamilton is not a documentary or some museum diorama of the time period. It is an unabashed, heart-on-its-sleeve musical based on a book about a specific person. The play is three hours long as it is. Something had to go. John Adams had to go, Ben Franklin had to go, they couldn’t do everything. Much like when they were writing the Declaration of Independence and they needed to excise the clause about slavery in order to not jeopardize  independence.

Honestly, in this era of debauchery and butchery and death and torture and horror daily in the news the one shining  light is Lin-Manuel Miranda who I believe is the reincarnation of Shakespeare among us. And your ‘author’  who has no idea what he is talking about has the nerve to slander everything they are trying to do.

Exploitation of the musical to promote a shallow take on society, what he is accusing Hamilton of being,  is exactly what the author of this article has done. I’m so sick and tired of the cynicism and ironic take-down of everything that’s good in this world.

Can there not be one thing in this world safe from smug  irony and snide cynicism? This show is a shining light in a world of horror and bad news. It is a love letter to musicals, to being young and feeling like you can do anything. It’s a love letter to New York and to joy and jubilation. What was the intention behind the show? Generosity. Giving the audience the best show they could possibly imagine. And someone has to go and shit all over it.

Good day, editors. 

ELIZABETH DENNEHY

CA: Our sincerest regrets. If we had known before publication that Lin-Manuel Miranda was the living reincarnation of Shakespeare, you have our assurance that we never would have taken an enormous shit on him.

To the Editors:

I am writing because, not being familiar with “Current Affairs”, was not sure if your publication is a parody piece or an attempt at a meaningful and serious contribution to contemporary American culture. Maybe the article is a parody (or pure clickbait) but would appreciate some insight, as I am sensitive to falling into what one might call “troll traps.”

Also, does the Editorial Board choose the titles of its article? Or does the author? Did anyone think it was maybe a bit hyperbolic? I mean, I imagine a lot of great leaders liked the movie Dumb & Dumber and it didn’t in any way deal with our legacy of slavery, the ills of global capitalism, or identity in a multicultural society.  Maybe I am naive and not sufficiently terrified. I did click on it though, so maybe mission accomplished(?).

Also, if the author did see it, was his expectation that a 3-hour musical written for a mass market was going to treat Hamilton like some multi-volume Howard Zinn book? I mean, it also contained no songs about the Native Americans, whether the Constitution entrenched existing economic structures/class, the relative merits of internal improvements (and whether best left to states or local governments), the defaults in the original Bill of Rights (e.g., states still had established churches), and whether communities whose structures and morals were largely religiously postmillennial (esp. in North) was a good thing, especially for women (among other subjects not found in the musical).

Also, if you haven’t seen it, Michelle Obama recently did “Carpool Karaoke” with James Corden. Michelle clearly is rocking out to a number of songs. I would also appreciate whether I should be terrified that the wife of the leader of the free world is singing along to a song that perpetuates the demand for blood diamonds.

I thought one of the merits of the musical was that its appeal fell somewhere on a shared plane of American understanding, that its takeaways were a reminder of our original aspirations (however missing from the start and incomplete today), and that, following liberals like Richard Rorty, elements of a shared positive cultural canon is important in sustaining a thinking polity and fostering unity in a multicultural society. I sure hope that article was a parody because if not, boy am I wrong!

MATT S.

To the Editors:

Alex Nichols’ recent review of Lin Manuel-Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton was, in polite terms, garbage. Nichols debased Current Affairs with a review that was factually inaccurate, intellectually lacking, and devoid of both insight and dignity. Put in a different way: the review was corny. Rarely has a review so disgusted me.

Nichols’ problem is not that he failed to see Hamilton before offering his critique. While a serious critic would review a play only after having seen it, one can imagine reasons to review a play without seeing it. The critique might be more about society than the play itself. But Nichols wants to take down both Hamilton and critique America generally, and current trade practices of the Obama administration, specifically. He fails. Not only does he seem unaware of Ron Chernow’s biography of Hamilton, he also seems clueless about the level of detail and historical accuracy in the play. No, let me correct that: Nichols writes as if Miranda’s narrative skills, compositional skills, and historical accuracy are not considerations but inconveniences that can be ignored as he creates a review of a fictitious shadow Hamilton that only he (Nichols) would recognize.

By reviews end, it’s not clear if Nichols’ problem with the show is that a Latino would dare to tell this particular American narrative and center people who look like himself as a reflection of America, that this story would be told in the language of hip-hop, or that Miranda chose to do something other than turn Hamilton into an expose about slavery and racism in America. Every story contains multitudes and at some level artists should be judged both by the narratives they tell and the narratives they leave out. Nichols can think of Hamilton in terms of the latter, it seems.

Racism is a peculiar thing. One might just write this review off as the modern tendency to raise snark to the level of wisdom, but this would be a mistake. Nichols failure is that of the typical racist; he lacks imagination. In his world, people of color lack agency. To show this, he cherry-picks quotes from cast members to show that they are obtuse. He writes that Miranda says the use of black actors is to allow “you to leave whatever cultural baggage you have about the founding fathers at the door.” For Nichols, this notion itself is illegitimate.

And to Nichols’ critique of the show’s cost. Miranda has made sure over 20,000 New York high school students saw the show for free. My tickets, they came in at the steep price of 137 dollars. This review is rubbish. The strawman Nichols makes  of Hamilton falls far below the standard that Current Affairs has set. He wants to attack President Obama and “the political establishment.” Such is fine. But to do so in this unseemly way is a disservice to both readers of Current Affairs and to those who produce the magazine.

R. DWAYNE BETTS

New Haven, CT


Re: The Great American Chemtrail

To the Editors:

Just an FYI for the editing staff of Current Affairs, the public is waking up to the global geoengineering/solar radiation management issue (systematically and intentionally labeled “chemtrails” by the propaganda piece your magazine printed). How will the population feel about “Current Affairs” helping the government hide this most critical issue? Legal efforts are already underway in the US and Canada to expose the ongoing climate engineering operations, perhaps “Current Affairs” should reconsider the position they are taking of completely deceiving the population. Again, one can only imagine how furious the public will be toward all those that helped to hide the devastating and illegal climate engineering operations, once they are fully awakened.

DALE WIGINGTON

CA: Thanks for the tip, Dale, but it’s hopeless. As you can see from our other correspondence, the public is already furious with us. Though they seem far more concerned that we disparaged the Alexander Hamilton musical than that we enabled a vast government coverup of chemical brainwashing programs. The public’s priorities, it seems, differ somewhat from your own.


Re: 1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism

To the editors:

It is a strange sort of “redbaiting” and “McCarthyism” that takes a conventional socialist principle as its starting point: solidarity with those resisting a fascist state. It is a bizarre sort of McCarthyism that takes place in socialist magazines, left-leaning journals, and relatively isolated spheres of social media.

The calls for escalated war in Syria have overwhelmingly come from the usual bi-partisan suspects. Donald Trump vows to “bomb the shit” out of ISIS in Syria. Hillary Clinton advocates a no-fly-zone in Syria that would, by her own admission, “kill a lot of Syrians.” Yet, Fredrik deBoer frets over the prospect “that arguments for intervention might come from the left,” and contends, “this is precisely the condition that presents itself today.”

With the exception of the usual liberal-interventionists, deBoer does a poor job of unmasking the McCarthyist “pro-war left.” He cites Stanley Heller in the Socialist Worker; he finds a “small army of angry tweeters;” he notes my own piece in the Los Angeles Review of Books. I do not wish to understate my own influence but I find the evidence of left-wing McCarthyism thin.

Heller criticizes journalists like Patrick Cockburn and Steven Kinzer in a sensational style. When it comes to prescriptions for action, Heller says the left should demand humanitarian aid and pressure the Iranians and Russians to withdraw. Heller did not once endorse further US military action, either against the Assad regime or Islamist rebel groups.

DeBoer says that left-wing pro-war McCarthyism is demonstrated by a “small army of angry tweeters” who attack journalists like Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek. Do Blumenthal and Khalek receive criticism for their anti-intervention stance? Yes. But much of the criticism comes from fellow anti-war leftists over legitimate disagreements over Blumenthal’s unfavorable analysis of the White Helmets and Khalek’s scheduled attendance at a conference sponsored by the British Syrian Society (founded by Assad’s father-in-law). While bullying behavior on any online platform should be condemned, people saying mean things about you on twitter is hardly the stuff of 1953 (deBoer himself might know something about this).

When it comes what I’ve written on the topic, deBoer simply accuses me of things I have not done. In my piece, I claimed that many on the left had “begun to parrot the same tendencies they disparage Western jingoists for.” I pointed to a number of individuals that have denied Assad’s crimes, derailed discussion of Assad’s crimes, tarnished Syrians as religious zealots, or embraced Russian imperialism. I criticized Tariq Ali because he denied Assad was responsible for the sarin attack in Ghouta and suggests a rebel “false flag” attack is responsible. I criticized Vijay Prashad because he disparages the rebels as “overrun by extremists” and “jihadis,” while not doing the same in other contexts (Palestine) where the chief resistance groups maintain an Islamist ideology. There was no call for a “purge,” no suggestion that these individuals should be “exercised,” and no insinuation that these individuals “work under the influence of a shadowy entity.” I simply think they are wrong.

DeBoer himself says that he doesn’t agree with everything my “targets” have said regarding the conflict in Syria but that “it’s incumbent on everyone to assess the relative power of their targets and their unlikely bedfellows, to remain cognizant of who has influence and who doesn’t.” Essentially, he thinks criticism of the left on this issue is pointless since they have no influence here and because such criticism will be used as firepower by establishment interventionists hell-bent on an increased US role.

I find this criticism unexpected, partly because of whom it comes from. DeBoer is notorious for his harsh criticism of what he sees as the damaging tendencies of the left. I would presume that deBoer doesn’t think Oberlin students preoccupied with the “injustice” of their dining options have any real political influence but that incidents like this hinder the ability of the left to “convince those who are not already convinced.”

I have the same feelings regarding the discussions on Syria. Many share the left-wing’s policy prescriptions for Syria: greater humanitarian aid, welcoming more refugees, and ending the ongoing US bombing campaign. It inhibits consensus building around these policies when a leading anti-war group and a large coalition of left-wing organizations do not take a stance against Assad’s crimes and all imperial intervention. How can people believe that the left opposes US intervention out of concern for the Syrian people when its members fail to condemn the regime that is killing them?

The left does not hold the reigns of power. But that does not mean a failure to take a principled stand in solidarity with Syrians doesn’t have consequences. I too believe that US military escalation is coming, made ever more likely by the prospect of a Hillary Clinton presidency. If the left stands to oppose it effectively it needs to take a position that is free of hypocrisy. That does not mean casting out dissenters. It does mean engaging in the kind of discussion that allows us to critically examine our own positions and ensure that we can cultivate greater support moving forward.

Evan Sandlin

DeBoer replies: I find Mr. Sandlin’s response to my criticism quite typical: after being called out for his distortions, he then proffers a much weaker, more reasonable-sounding version of those distortions, in order to appear fairer. He wrote what he wrote; I wrote what I wrote; unlike him, I’m willing to stand by mine.


To the Editors:

Your publication persists in referring to the inhabitants of the United States of America as “Americans.” In view of the aggrandizing and appropriative nature of such a nominative, may it be your magazine’s editorial policy henceforth to refer to these people as “united statesians,” a calque of “estadounidenses”, as they are known by their American neighbors.

Irkedly,

I. deKatz

Winter Springs, FL

C.A.: When the antiappropriative crowd come up with a somewhat less cumbersome calque, Current Affairs will be the first to clamber aboard. Alas, United Statesians strikes us as being just about as sensible as referring to citizens of the Republic of the Union of Myanmar as Republic of the Unioners. Send us better words and you can be assured that we will deploy them.

Explaining It All To You

The persistence of Vox…

Do you know what your problem is? Your problem is not that you are uninformed. That is what you might have thought your problem was. Your problem is also not that you lack information. This is a common misconception. In fact, people nowadays have lots of information. Too much, even. No, your problem is the opposite. Your problem is that you cannot interpret the information you have. You lack the guiding hand of expertise. You need a vox dei, a little Voice of God whispering in your ear, helping you along, telling you what it all means. You need someone to let you know what’s what, to find the truth for you and analyze it and put it in orderly stacks of notecards with little suggested opinions on them.

For the past two years, Ezra Klein’s philosophy in running Vox.com has been precisely this: people do not need facts, they need explanations. The ordinary person is ill-equipped to interpret the facts, to figure out what they mean. Klein rejects what he calls the “More Information Hypothesis,” the idea that a better-informed citizenry could have more productive political debates. In fact, because we see facts through partisan lenses, facts alone are useless. People are irresponsible with knowledge; facts just make them “better equipped to argue for their own side.”

Thus for Klein, the job of experts is not to give the public raw information, so that it can come to its own conclusions. The job of experts is to process the information themselves, and tell the public what it ought to have concluded. They are not here to help you figure out what you believe. You are a hopelessly irrational consumer. They are here, rather, to tell you what to think.

Vox therefore does not hesitate to make strong judgments. Its headlines frequently declare that “No, X is not what you think it is…” or tell you “Here’s the real reason why…” It promises to give everything you need to know on a subject, eliminating the need for further curiosity on the reader’s part. If you don’t know what the 18 best television shows are, Vox will tell you. (Quantification is its specialty; Vox builds trust by knowing the numbers, by having the data.) The Vox “explainers” say it plainly: about this, there can be no doubt.

Yet strangely, Vox staff would likely bristle at being called mere manufacturers of “opinion” or “commentary.” This is because when a Vox-er declares a scandal to be “bullshit,” he intends it as fact rather than opinion. There is no attempt to distinguish between the journalistic and the editorial. It all blurs together as “analysis.” Vox is therefore an exercise in the simultaneous having and eating of cake; it wishes to both make strong value-laden assertions and be trusted as neutral and dispassionate. This means that Vox inherently practices a crude and cruel form of rhetorical dishonesty: it treats matters of profound complexity as if they are able to be settled through mere expertise. If anyone disagrees with what the wonks have concluded, they must be dumb, delusional, or both.

As conservatives quickly pointed out after Vox’s debut, this ends up meaning that liberal political values are implicitly assumed to be factually correct. It has also meant that over the course of 2015-2016, Vox became a powerful propaganda outlet for Hillary Clinton’s campaign. It would run features like The 11 moments that define Hillary Clinton” (Of course there are exactly 11). These would include important milestones like “How the 2008 loss turned Hillary into a hipster” but would completely leave out Goldman Sachs and Clinton’s devastation of Libya.

Clinton appeals so perfectly to the Vox sensibility that its writers become puzzled when trying to figure out how anyone could oppose her. So Ezra Klein will ruminate on the mystery of why Hillary Clinton is distrusted by the public but liked by those in her inner circle, concluding that it is because Clinton is a careful listener who prefers paying attention to the views of others rather than explaining her own. (Klein doesn’t mention the equally plausible thesis that Clinton is distrusted because she tells lies about things and treats the public with cynicism and contempt.) Or Dylan Matthews will wonder why Hillary Clinton is not being given credit for her incredibly ambitious socially progressive policy platform. (Failing to consider that almost nobody thinks Hillary Clinton will ever actually make any attempt to put that platform into action.)  

As Fredrik deBoer says in his critique of Vox, the “explainer” stance is insidious, because it disguises partisanship as objectivity, falsely assuming that there can be such a thing as a “view from nowhere.” He shows how Vox used selective and highly unreliable empirical data in order to attack Bernie Sanders, while cultivating the illusion of rigor and neutrality. For example, by producing a calculator showing people how much each candidate’s policies would cost households in taxes, without disclosing how much these policies would save households elsewhere, Vox made it look as if Bernie Sanders was simply planning to drain families of all their money. As deBoer argues: “The whole notion of ideology-free explanation of complex subjects is of course itself ideology-laden… The pretense of neutral explanation simply deepens the potential dangers of bias.”

In fact, it is curious that Klein and Vox should have embraced the label of “explainers.” After all, the word has some interesting connotations. Explanations (rather than, say, “explorations”) are the provenance of the hyper-confident and the sometimes-criminal: one explains away one’s misdeeds; the villain caught red-handed shouts “I can explain!” as he is dragged away. Indeed, what Vox does much of the time involves explaining away, usually pointing out why the empirical data make it irrational to oppose Hillary Clinton’s policy preferences. “Explanation” has also increasingly become associated with the notorious act of “mansplaining,” the ubiquitous tendency of male know-it-alls to buttonhole passing women and show off their learning at generous length. Fittingly, the experience of reading Vox can often feel like a protracted blind date with a garrulous male Capitol Hill staffer.

It should be no surprise that the main thing these explainers love to explain is “policy,” the more complicated the better. Policy wonks love policies because they get to explain them. Everyone else hates complicated policies, because everyone else has to be subjected to them. The more inscrutable and byzantine the policy (and the more confusing and misery-inducing those policies are for ordinary people), the more jobs there are for wonks. Hence the site’s ongoing love affair with the Affordable Care Act, which in its abstruseness, ineffectiveness, and elitism has every ingredient dear to the heart of the wonk. And hence everything from Matthew Yglesias’ hilariously erroneous early prediction that Obamacare’s implementation is going to be great and people will love it” to his current cheerful call for a more punishing mandate

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The site’s founders are perfectly open about their passions. Witness the promotional blurb for the site’s podcast, “The Weeds”:

Everyone is always warning you not to get lost in the weeds. But not Vox’s Ezra Klein, Sarah Kliff, and Matthew Yglesias. They love the weeds. That’s where all the policy is. This is the podcast for people who follow politics because they love thinking about health care, economics, and zoning.

Nobody sensible loves thinking about zoning. For most of us, zoning regulations are a tedious necessity in the service of a particular administrative end. It’s amusing that Vox-ers deliberately disregard the old warning not to get “lost in the weeds.” That phrase is supposed to offer an important caution: if you fetishize policy detail, you lose sight of the actual broader purpose of policy, which is to improve human living conditions. For Klein et al., however, the policy is the purpose. (This is not an exaggeration: “The point of politics is policy,” Klein writes.) Policies are ends in themselves.

Klein might object to this. “Actually I understand full well what policy is for.” (Every sentence spoken by a Vox-er begins with an implicit or explicit “Actually.”) Klein would insist that, of course, policies are not the point. But then why does he like zoning? Why doesn’t he like buildings and see zoning as a means? This is how we know wonks don’t care about the ends of politics: they never talk about their actual political visions. What, for example, is Ezra Klein’s utopian ideal? What kind of world does he wish to build? Nobody knows, because he never tells us. He probably doesn’t even think about it. Whenever I meet a progressive wonk-type, I always make sure to ask them: “If you could wave a wand and fulfill your every political goal, what kind of world would you build?” The answers inevitably consist of more policy. “A nationwide jobs program,” “universal pre-K,” or “guaranteed annual income.” (And those answers are from the true dreamers and visionaries among the wonks. Frequently their utopias consist of things like “a 2% drop in the unemployment rate.”) Each of these is a policy dream that forgets what policy is supposed to be for.

The failure to think about ends and ideals is important, because it reveals the fundamental oversight of progressive wonk-ism. This is the idea that there ever can be such a thing as a “correct” and “rational” political solution, that one can discuss health care policy without discussing one’s values and convictions. As The Federalist pointed out, this is a fallacy: you may haul out your chart showing that ObamaCare decreased the numbers of the uninsured, and believe you have proven it is the rational policy choice. But those who object to ObamaCare see an individual mandate as a form of unjustified coercion, and disputes over the nature of coercion are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data. Focusing on “the weeds” is sly, because it carefully avoids having to discuss and defend your underlying moral assumptions. And by keeping the focus on “explanation” rather than “discussion,” one can avoid difficult questions that might force the interrogation of one’s preconceptions.

These disputes are philosophical and cannot be resolved through the display of empirical data.

But one should be careful about affirming Vox’s self-conception as an “news explainer” site to begin with. Despite the hype, much of Vox is the same old dreary #content as the rest of political media, with a bit more condescension and bar charts. These range from pointless banalities (“If America were Canada, the election would have been over long ago”) to clickmongering contrarianism (“3 Reasons the American Revolution Was a Mistake”) to obsessive considerations of the plusses and minuses of daylight savings time and time zones. There’s a hefty dose of the usual Democratic Party innuendo about Trump’s supposed Russian connection (“Trump is covering for a Putin plot against American democracy”—as Frankie Boyle has recently pointed out, it’s amusing to see those who whine about the rise of “post-truth politics” suddenly turn and declare that Donald Trump is a Russian agent), as well as copious free advertising for Elon Musk (Is he too ambitious? How will he meet his next challenges?) The rest is the same insipid horse-race stuff, plus the usual torrent of disdain for Trump and his supporters (“Actually, Trump supporters and Brexiteers are racists”).

Peculiarly, Vox is only loosely edited. For its core writers, it functions mostly like a blog. The lack of editorial oversight means some truly oddball content sneaks in, such as this 5,000 word piece from Todd VanDerWerff which begins as a defense of the Hamilton musical then digresses into a extended discussion of how VanDerWerff’s late father may or may not have been a rapist. The hands-off approach to content control lets wild and interesting things sneak in sometimes, such as the work of Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair or Emmett Rensin’s skewering of Daily Show-type liberal sanctimony. (It was odd to see Vox publishing something that implicitly condemned the bulk of the site’s own content, although Rensin was soon after suspended from the publication for being too interesting.)

The lackadaisical approach to quality control has also led to some extraordinary factual pratfalls. (Remember, though, that it is not facts but explanations that Vox promises.) In 2014, Deadspin had fun compiling a list of “48 times Vox totally fucked up a story,” including the site’s infamous assertion that Israel contained a road bridge between the West Bank and Gaza. One might have excused these as mere hiccups inevitable in a publication’s early life, but six months after the Year of 48 Fuckups, the site ran an embarrassingly error-ridden attack on Seymour Hersh, which managed to misstate the dates of both the My Lai massacre and the Abu Ghraib scandal within a single paragraph.

Vox’s factual unreliability is not merely a product of Klein’s sloppy oversight, however. It is in many ways inherent to the site’s model of content production, which depends entirely on having incredibly young writers assume a position of omniscient expertise. As Deadspin’s Kevin Draper observed:

These Bright Young People may well be near-experts on one or two subjects, or at least close enough to pass as such online, but Vox publishes at the same rapid pace as the rest of the internet, on an exceptional and ever-growing number of topics, and there’s only so much authoritativeness to go around.

Vox’s difficulty at getting the facts right emerges from its confidence in the wisdom of 22-year-old D.C. clickbait-churners. It is “an explainer site by people who live way too much of their own lives outside reality.” Corey Robin has noted that the main qualification of the “Vox generation of punditry” is that they “know their way around JSTOR,” yet have a broad historical amnesia that leads to them to be totally oblivious to the place of contemporary events in larger patterns over time.

James Fallows, in his deliciously scathing 1991 look at The Economist, suggested that the magazine’s intentionally anonymous bylines “conceal[ ] the extreme youth of much of the staff,” quoting Michael Lewis’ observation that “if American readers got a look at the pimply complexions of their economic gurus, they would cancel their subscriptions in droves.” But Vox proves Fallows’ thesis false. The pimpliness of Vox’s writing and editorial staff is evident in every word they write. Yet instead of discrediting Vox, it is part of their brand.

As Corey Robin notes, the Vox generation of pundits know their way around JSTOR yet have a broad historical amnesia…

No writer better represents the Vox ethos than co-founder Matthew Yglesias. Yglesias went straight to blogging as a Harvard philosophy undergrad, and his primary qualification for punditry has been his ability to produce a large volume of words at considerable speed. Along with Klein, he in many ways embodies what Vox-ism is all about. 

Much of Yglesias’ work is simply boring (Yglesias likes writing about burritos). But it’s also somewhat stunning for its extraordinary combination of arrogance, erroneousness, and callousness. Yglesias is a perfect case study in how highly-educated people can be embarrassingly stupid, making consistently ludicrous factual and analytical statements. Yglesias muses aloud “I’d been interested to know what, if anything, is legally or practically preventing [Miami] from just expanding further and further west if anyone happens to know” (Many wrote in to point out the existence of a rather large expanse of swamp known as the Everglades.) Or he portentously announces that “in many ways, the Chipotle burrito is very similar to the iPhone.” Yglesias is perhaps the man whose work is most synonymous with the “#SlatePitch,” the intentionally irritating, click-hungry denunciation of some perfectly innocuous truth or convention (hence “The Case Against Eating Lunch Outside“).

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The Yglesias oeuvre…

But if Yglesias were simply naive and pompous, one could comfortably laugh at him. However, like the similarly contrarian Nicholas Kristof, he delights in taking up noxious positions designed to unsettle liberal sensibilities and thereby prove his independence of mind (and perhaps reassure him that he is less of a bore than his C.V. implies).

Hence articles like “Against Transparency,” in which Yglesias insists that journalists shouldn’t be able to view government email, without ever considering the potential real-world effects of giving the powerful new ways to conspire free of public accountability. One senses that Yglesias makes arguments like this with a delighted smirk, aware that he is annoying people, but convinced that their annoyance proves their irrationality rather than his intolerability.

The worst of Yglesias’ mischievous endorsements of horrendous moral stances was his column on factory safety. Immediately after the 2013 collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory that killed over 1,000 people, Yglesias took to Slate to explain why workplace safety regulations actually inhibited the operation of free markets. Yglesias explained that high-risk jobs have high compensation, and just like people might choose to be lumberjacks, they might choose to work in highly dangerous garment factories for a premium. Thus “it’s good that different people are able to make different choices on the risk–reward spectrum.” The article was accompanied by a photograph of Bangladeshis loading dead bodies onto a truck.

The column was classic Yglesias, in managing to be both ignorant and appalling. Appalling since Yglesias published it the same day as the factory collapse, as the rubble was still being cleared. Ignorant because Yglesias adopted the most delusional Heritage Foundation economic myth, that somehow people in Bangladesh work in dangerous garment factories because working in dangerous garment factories is what they most want to do. As Mark Brendle summarized:

Yglesias champions one of the most horrifying and widespread implements of oppression and misery yet conceived—factories taking advantage of cheap labor, lack of environmental regulations, and a disregard for human life by those who profit most from having those factories in their countries—then pretends that it exists in a vacuum, where people in “those countries” are happy for these jobs, instead of acknowledging the closed system of the global economy, where those conditions are not only systemic, but inevitable and structural, in order for the wealth and prosperity of the “first world” to exist at all.

When confronted with this outrage, Yglesias simply wrote another explanation of why his original work was justified, admitting that his reaction to the criticism “as a writer and a human being” was annoyance. (It should go without saying that if one’s first reaction “as a human being” to being asked to show a little compassion for dead Bangladeshis is “annoyance,” then one is not a human being at all.) Here is Vox-ism in a nutshell: it is impossible to stop explaining and think, impossible to understand that there are more questions in heaven and earth than “What do the data say?” (Like perhaps, “Am I a good person?”)

Yglesias perfectly demonstrates the operation of “Pundit Tenure,” a phenomenon by which established political commentators can never become discredited no matter how wrong they are. Provided they continue to emit a sufficient daily wordcount, and provided they do not question too many Beltway orthodoxies, they can bounce from publication to publication for the duration of their natural lives. Yglesias semi-seriously tweets “the Nazis had a lot of good ideas” and titles articles “Dumb Jewish Politicians,” yet none of this affects him. If any merit-based criteria were operating in determining who gets to be a pundit, Yglesias would long ago have ceased to make a living putting words together. And yet he persists.

I once attended a public talk Yglesias gave on housing policy to promote on his (62-page) book The Rent Is Too Damn High. Yglesias was placed in conversation with Yale Law School professor Robert Ellickson, a bona fide expert on housing and zoning with approximately four decades of experience in the field. Goodness knows why anyone thought to pair the two up, as Ellickson is notoriously grumpy and does not suffer fools with much equanimity. The discussion was one of the most satisfying I have seen. Ellickson clearly had no idea who Yglesias was, and took pleasure in ripping Yglesias’ pamphlet to shreds for its basic economic ignorance. Ellickson practically pondered aloud why a frivolous 20-something blogger was being treated as an expert on housing, pointing out the numerous ways in which Yglesias’ arguments were flimsy and ill-considered.

But watching Ellickson flay Yglesias, I was most struck by the fact that Yglesias was completely unfazed. Far from being ashamed at his humiliating defeat, Yglesias did not even seem to acknowledge that he was even being defeated or humiliated. He didn’t attempt to defend himself. He just… kept talking, as if the numerous arguments that had been made proving him wrong simply didn’t exist. 

This refusal to back down or admit fault is apparently characteristic of Yglesias generally. When a conservative publication interviewed him about his defense of dishonesty in politics, Yglesias simply told them “go fuck yourself,” and hung up. Recently, Yglesias tweeted a reprehensibly xenophobic remark aimed at Glenn Greenwald, unambiguously implying that Greenwald didn’t care about America because he lived in Brazil. (As is well-known, Greenwald moved to Brazil because of anti-LGBT discrimination in U.S. law, making Yglesias’ remark even more tactless.) When confronted, instead of apologizing, Yglesias doubled down, falsely accusing others of twisting his words. Yglesias is an enthusiastic practitioner of one of the most obnoxious tendencies in the human character: the belief that if people hate you, it must be because you’re right rather than because you’re an asshole. Thus when people criticize you for taking the opportunity of a deadly factory disaster to explain why workplace safety standards are Actually Not As Good As You Think, your default reaction is not contrition or self-doubt but annoyance that people fail to recognize your rationality. 

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This is what is most irritating and dangerous about the Vox mentality. It is the same tendency that afflicts mansplainers generally: the refusal to entertain the possibility that it could be you who is wrong. “Explanation” implies certitude. For the explainer, information flows in a one-way channel, from the mouth of the explainer to the ear of the explained-to. Vox does not need to listen; Vox knows. After all, these are the three charts you need to read about the Trans-Pacific Pipeline. Here’s the real truth about Donald Trump’s taxes, in five simple statistics. Everything you need to know, explained.

People have good reason for not trusting fact-checkers and wonks. That is because they lie. And they torment people with those lies, by portraying disagreement as an irrational refusal to acknowledge objective empirical truth. They treat political disputes as questions of fact rather than value, and steadfastly refuse to acknowledge their own considerable biases. 

When Vox emerged, there was some speculation as to whether it would survive. But it has consistently done well, and of course it will survive. It will survive because we are all insecure and confused, and promises of explanation and certitude are appealing in a chaotic world. Ezra Klein is right that we do not know what to do with the barrages of information we encounter every day, and his let-me-explain-it-to-you business model is savvy.

But the more Vox persists, the less hope there is for American politics. The Vox model is premised on the idea that people shouldn’t think for themselves, that the important parts of political thought and decision-making should be outsourced to experts. Inevitably, these experts will produce solutions nobody likes, because the moment one is convinced that all opposition must be founded in ignorance, one will always be right no matter how many people are hurt or how many people complain. The point of politics is no longer to help us live together and understand one another. The point is policy, and our job is to listen to the explainers. After all, they have the facts. They’ve got them here in 5 charts. It’s everything you need to know.

1953—2002—2016: Syria and the Reemergence of McCarthyism

Whenever the U.S. wants to go to war, opponents are accused of being apologists for dictators. The debate over Syria will be no different.

I have a lot of political interests, it’s fair to say, but only one obsession: red-baiting, the urge to purge, the great American yen for rooting out heretics and casting them into the wilderness. It’s that obsession that has me inclined to believe that we’re heading for another bout of McCarthyism, related to a coming conflict in Syria – and that it has the chance to rend the American left.

Call my obsession an artifact of family history, both recent and old. My grandfather, an antiwar socialist and college professor at the University of Illinois, was a target of the Broyles Bills, a set of Red Scare-era Illinois state bills designed to cleanse the state government of subversives. All manner of radicals and sympathizers were targeted by the legislation, whether they were actual socialists like my grandfather or merely suspected of Communist sympathies. Much of this legislation was defeated, with liberal Democratic governor Adlai Stevenson vetoing several measures. (Not that he was some sort of virile champion of rights for radicals. Stevenson disputed not the intent of the bills but their scope, arguing that they risked “burning down the barn to kill the rats.”) But as is common to these efforts, the damage was done even without legislative victory. Many of those targeted lost their jobs and saw their careers destroyed. My grandfather enjoyed the protection of tenure, and thus kept his position, but his reputation was in tatters. My father once told me he believed it contributed directly to the alcoholism that took my grandfather to an early grave.

The earliest Broyles Bills predated what we typically think of as the McCarthyist era. And yet now we can look back at them and see them as classically McCarthyist. McCarthyism does not refer merely to governmental attacks on intellectual and political freedom under the banner of anti-communism. It is a set of practices consisting of slandering opponents without fair process and based on thin evidence, ascribing dark motives to others to delegitimize their position, suggesting that those you argue with work under the influence of some shadowy entity, and insisting that your targets are not just wrong, but actively malign – and thus must be excised from the conversation. Sometimes that rejection means having someone arrested. Sometimes it means Congressional hearings and getting people fired. Sometimes it’s just a whisper campaign, a smear offensive, a secret meeting where you’re declared a cancer by your former allies. But the intent is always the same: to silence a type of dissent by insisting that it stems from nefarious motives, and through arguing that anyone voicing it must be shunned.

Anyone who lived in the immediate post-9/11 world is familiar with this type of thing. In the aftermath of the attacks, a culture of paranoid, aggressive patriotism enveloped the country, casting suspicion on anyone who didn’t plant a mini American flag on their lapel or their car. That anyone who didn’t press for all-out war on terrorism – whatever that meant – was guilty of tacit support for Al Qaeda was a given. Muslim Americans, and those who were unlucky enough to look as if they might be Muslim, were subject to constant suspicion and bouts of random violence. When conservative commentator Andrew Sullivan called left-wing writers skeptical of the War on Terror a “fifth column,” he was only expressing something like the conventional wisdom: to be insufficiently devoted to the war was to put yourself necessarily on the side of that war’s target. With McCarthyism, what’s questioned is not only the correctness of your position or the wisdom of your preferences, but your loyalties, your motives, and your character. It’s precisely that feeling of suspicion and exile that I experienced as an antiwar activist in the first half of the 2000s, bringing my family history to life in an intense way. There was no post-9/11 House Un-American Activities Committee, but there was a level of ambient fear that turned ordinary people into informants, a whole society of secret police. As the Georgetown law professor David Cole wrote regarding the re-emergence of McCarthyism in the post-September 11th world, “we have adapted the mistakes of the past, substituting new forms of political repression for old ones.”

The history of attempts to silence dissent through guilt by association, unsubstantiated accusations, and the insistence that some positions are too dangerous to be permissible is long – and bipartisan. Indeed, McCarthy himself was predated by anti-Communist Democrats, and the Truman-era purges of socialists from the Democratic Party in the post-World War II, early Cold War era. Truman Democrats worked tirelessly to expel socialists and communist sympathizers from the party. This was the fate of former FDR Vice President Henry Wallace, guilty of calling for such radical policies as universal healthcare, a de-escalation of the Cold War, and immediate desegregation. And this period itself echoed the prior world war, when progressive Democrat Woodrow Wilson had the communist leader Eugene Debs jailed for his public opposition to the horrific, pointless grindhouse that was World War I. Move forward again a half-century and you have the Vietnam War, COINTELPRO, and Hanoi Jane; move further back, and you have the Alien and Sedition Acts. Plus ça change.

The Truman era anti-Communist purges would be echoed approvingly in late 2004 by liberal hawk Peter Beinart, writing in (of course) the pages of The New Republic, one of several bastions of Bush-era “progressive” war-mongering and hippie-punching. Beinart called for a purge of the anti-war left in more or less explicit terms, arguing that liberals had to adjust to a new reality of benevolent American force, and to reject anyone who didn’t. (His embrace of the term “re-education” was a particularly nice touch.) Like so many others, Beinart would go on to regret his support for the war in Iraq, and Michael Tomasky would look back on his essay as “divisive, unleaderly, aggressively accusatory, and quite unfair” in 2006. But McCarthyism rarely looks good in the light of history, and does its damage in the present.

As someone who was right about Iraq and the broader question of America’s use of force in the greater Muslim world, I would love to say that I enjoyed our eventual vindication. But despite the endless string of “Why I Got Iraq Wrong” pieces that sprung up like mushrooms in shit in the late 2000s, there was little in the way of broader vindication for antiwar voices. To begin with, the “you were right for the wrong reasons” canard has always been deployed liberally in reconsiderations of American foreign policy. For another thing, the mea culpas have always been decidedly narrow in their focus, referring to the specifics of the Iraq war but not to the brutal treatment antiwar types were subject to in the leadup to that war. The reality of McCarthyism and its regular deployment as a means to bully people into supporting wars, cold or hot, goes largely undiscussed.

I suspect, in fact, that the cycle is starting up again. I suspect that the urge to purge is growing, and that the flashpoint will be Syria. I believe that some sort of American military intervention in Syria is likely coming. And, perhaps worse for those of us on the socialist left, the political battle over this war will not involve conservatives and some liberals fighting against a more-or-less unified radical left. This conflict will, I believe, divide the already-weak left, leaving it in tattered pieces.

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The existence of a pro-war left would have seemed unthinkable to many even 5 years ago. The wounds of Iraq and Afghanistan have been so deep, and the utter mess that followed regime change in Libya such a perfect repetition of all the bad ideas and failures of the preceding decade, that it seemed hard to believe that the country as a whole would want to go to war. That arguments for intervention might come from the left, traditionally anti-war, distrustful of the military and the government, and always on alert for the hand of imperialism, would have shocked me not long ago. And yet this is precisely the condition that presents itself today.

Take a typical missive in the stalwart leftist publication Socialist Worker. Stanley Heller, after engaging in the typical angry-old-man-leftist tactic of thumping his anti-Vietnam bona fides, ticks off every cliché imaginable: that to criticize or question the exact makeup of the anti-Assad forces in Syria is to be functionally pro-Assad, that such an attitude can only be the product of naïve West vs. East thinking, that Russia and Iran are the real Big Bads in the world, that skeptics of the Syrian resistance just don’t care enough about the destruction. Heller’s piece is remarkable in that its moral binarism and hysterical discussion of the Real Evil would be stark even in a neocon publication. He speaks of a “Assad-Iran-Russia Triple Alliance,” echoing the “Axis of Evil” named by the George W. Bush administration as the true source of the world’s evil. Heller tars his critics with guilt by association, charging people with “join[ing] the right-wing National Review and liberals like Steven Kinzer in cheering on Assad and Putin’s conquests.” But of course, this criticism cuts both ways, and in his demonization of Iran in particular, Heller joins with the most noxious hawks in American policy today. He even invokes the history of appeasement towards the Third Reich, perhaps the most ridiculous cliché in foreign policy argument today.

The phenomenon I’m describing is less apparent in leftist journals, though, than in the political spaces of social media, which have taken over an outsize portion of the leftist conversation in the past decade. Anyone on the broad left who engages on the question of Syria online can hardly have avoided them: a small army of angry tweeters, Facebookers, and internet commenters who loudly insist that supporting American military intervention in Syria is the only moral path. These voices are aggressive, unrelenting, and fixated on Syria to the exclusion of all else. And they tend to embrace classically McCarthyist behavior, accusing those who disagree with them of being pro-Assad, unconcerned with the suffering of the Syrian people, even agents of the Kremlin. To such people, the Syrian question is the only question, and there is no such thing as a principled opponent of the use of US force to save Syria. They are brutal, to the targets they’ve chosen, as they represent such people as complicit in the Syrian horror.

And chosen targets they have. Few have been the subject of more brutal smears than American journalists Max Blumenthal and Rania Khalek. Blumenthal and Khalek, known for their advocacy journalism on behalf of the Palestinian people, have become objects of fixation among those who aggressively advocate for more American arms in Syria. Their tweets, even those unrelated to the topic of Syria, are frequently flooded with responses attacking them as allies of Assad. Because their work typically concerns the greater Middle East, they are particularly vulnerable to these types of smear campaigns, given that they must find paying work in that fairly narrow niche. Because they reside on the left-wing fringe of “responsible” political debate, the professional worlds they operate in are necessarily small. Blumenthal and Khalek are, in a sense, political orphans: left-wing, disdainful of Democrats, not associated with deep-pocketed publications, and fiercely independent. They are thus vulnerable, and precisely the kind of voices we should be protecting, if we want to preserve an adversarial, questioning, critical press.

Khalek, in particular, has been the subject of a vicious and unrelenting smear campaign, constantly disparaged as an Assad apologist despite publicly criticizing the conduct of Assad (whom she calls a “mass murdering criminal“) and his armies on many occasions. Partly this fixation stems from the cloud of misogyny that is the constant environment in which women journalists are forced to work. But Khalek has long attracted a strange, negative obsession from a lot of people who you might imagine would be her allies. In their case against her, Khalek’s critics have made double standards an art form. Khalek has attracted considerable attention for initially agreeing to attend a conference sponsored by the Syrian government. This has been represented as an utterly disqualifying decision on her part, and akin to direct complicity with the Syrian regime. What goes unsaid in these attacks is that Khalek was to be joined by journalists and academics from a variety of perfectly mainstream places, that journalists routinely attend events sponsored by organizations and governments that they do not in any way condone. But that’s the reality of innuendo as a means of political attack: what matters is not what you can prove but what you can suggest. All you have to do is chum the waters and leave the imagination to run wild. After all, who cares about proof when the stakes are this high?

The attacks on Khalek’s initial decision to attend the conference look particularly ridiculous when compared to the world of foreign policy analysis and reporting writ large. It’s a banal fact of our political system that bad actors pour money into the coffers of supposedly independent political organizations and ostensibly independent journalists. The brutal regime in Qatar pours millions into the coffers of the Brookings Institution; the regressive, autocratic UAE gives hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Center for American Progress. Saudi money is ubiquitous in our policy apparatus, its origins in a brutal theocracy of little concern to those who take it. Few remark on the cozy relationship between journalists and think tanks and the greatest force for injustice since the fall of the Third Reich, the United States government. Yet Khalek’s initial intent to attend a conference and report on it, alongside journalists and academics from a wide variety of establishment institutions, is uniquely disqualifying. Supporters of military adventurism in Syria will dismiss all of these comparisons, insisting that Assad’s malign influence is different than that of all other bad regimes. It’s the nature of McCarthyism to insist that the current Big Bad is the greatest evil the world has ever known, and that any consideration of other bad actors is merely a distraction.

Perhaps Khalek and Blumenthal really are Assadists in disguise. Perhaps they really are Russian agents. Perhaps their opposition to another American intervention in the Middle East stems from love for a dictator. Perhaps. What concerns me is not the character of any individual skeptics but the methodology through which we establish our opinions about that character. And what is clear is that no one has bothered to actually ask the targets of this witch hunt what they believe. No one has seen fit to establish a standard of fair evidence. No one has pursued these questions in the spirit of basic fairness. And so even if everyone targeted by these smears was in fact guilty, I’d oppose the inquisition.

If you’d like to see an inquisitor in action, you might look to Evan Sandlin. Sandlin, a graduate student in political science, recently exemplified the tendencies of left-wing McCarthyism in a piece for the Los Angeles Review of Books. His attack on supposedly pro-Assad leftists ticks all the boxes: it equates skepticism towards war on a dictator with support for that dictator, it engages in deliberately vague language and arguments through innuendo, and studiously avoids quoting the people it accuses.

Take, for example, Sandlin’s attacks on Tariq Ali, a far left voice who has been consistent in his opposition to Western intervention against Assad. Sandlin hammers him with full force, calling him a conspiracy theorist who accepts Russian propaganda on Syria – propaganda which, to be clear, legitimately is pro-Assad. Would it surprise you to learn, having read Sandlin’s piece, that this supposedly pro-Assad intellectual signed a public letter calling for Assad to abdicate his position and leave Syria? That Ali has said “The fact is that the overwhelming majority of people in Syria want the Assad family out – and that is the key thing that we have to understand and he [Assad] should understand”? That is a very funny way for him to be pro-Assad! This tactic of Sandlin’s dogs his whole essay; he finds every incriminating quote he can that seems to indicate support for Assad, but studiously fails to note the many times his chosen targets have denounced or repudiated him. This is intellectually dishonest to the core, to the point that I’d hope the LA Review would publish a correction, but I’m not holding my breath.

In fact, in an email to me after I challenged him, Sandlin confessed that “Some of these people, like Kinzer or La Riva, openly support Assad. Others, like Ali, Prashad, or Khalek don’t support Assad.” That seems like an important admission! Almost important enough to make it into his original essay. Funny that it got left out. Does this all mean that I agree with everything Sandlin’s targets have written or said about the conflict? Of course not. But that’s the thing about fairness and integrity: it applies even to those with whom you sometimes disagree.

Sandlin takes time to quote polls showing considerable Syrian support for Assad’s ouster –considerable, here, meaning 50%, by his own admission. In doing so, he at least makes some attempt to ascertain public opinion in Syria beyond the common assertion that “you should speak to real Syrians” – real Syrians being those who agree with whomever is making this argument. Whenever people go the “members of X country want” route, I’m reminded of Pauline Kael supposedly saying that she was shocked that Richard Nixon won because no one she knew voted for him. A common failing in American analysis of internal conflict in foreign countries is the tendency to see those that are most likely to talk to Western journalists as necessarily representative of public sentiment writ large. Every time unrest comes to Iran, journalists claim that every Iranian they talk to opposes the government, not seeming to understand that the older, more religious, more conservative portions of Iran’s population are not in the habit of talking to Western journalists. So with Sandlin: he just knows what real Syrians really want. Sandlin takes time to accuse his targets of orientalism, but sees no problem in making broad statements about attitudes on the Syrian street. The fact is that there is no more such a thing as “what Syrians want” than there is such a thing as “what Americans want”; all countries are a chaos of opinions. American force merely decides for all of them what the future will be.

Are there in fact pro-Assad leftists? Sure. The world of political opinion is broad; you can find people who support any particular lunatic position you can imagine. Just like there were legitimately pro-Al Qaeda, pro-Saddam leftists on the absolute fringe of political opinion and sanity. Did this make our prior decade-and-a-half of foreign policy a wise course of action? Of course not. What matters is not the existence of a pro-Assad left but the influence of the pro-Assad left. I would personally assign the power of that group at exactly zero. The power of the pro-war contingent in American politics, now – the hawks, the profiteers, the politicians desperate to find some more people to kill – well, it would be hard to overstate their influence. They are in every corner of contemporary political life. They haunt our democracy like poltergeists. And unlike the pro-Assad leftists, they have power, power to actually push our country towards yet another war. Sandlin engages in reckless guilt by association, yet seems unperturbed by the fact that, in attacking the motives of skeptics, he finds common cause with the most noxious warmongers of our time. Sandlin confesses to opposing American escalation in a brief, limp aside. But what cause does he think he’s supporting when he smears those skeptical of our involvement in this conflict? How could anyone who studies political science fail to understand the basic inequalities in power between those he attacks and those whose dirty work he’s doing?

To invest oneself in left-on-left combat against antiwar voices is to devote your energies to fighting the powerless to the benefit of the powerful. I don’t think anyone should hold their fire against targets they see as being worthy of legitimate criticism. But it’s incumbent on everyone to assess the relative power of their targets and their unlikely bedfellows, to remain cognizant of who has influence and who doesn’t. The apparatus of warmaking, in the contemporary United States, has a habit of becoming its own reason for conflict. Anyone who identifies on the broad left should remember that, even when they feel compelled by conscience to criticize those opposed to military action.

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What is the case against American intervention in Syria, anyway? It’s simple: several decades of American history demonstrate that the country’s military cannot secure the peace in foreign conflicts, and that its efforts to do so collapse into chaos and sectarian bloodshed. You’ll note that this argument requires no particular point of view on anti-imperialism, which is useful given that discussions of anti-imperialism and Syria have collapsed into a black hole of portentous meaninglessness that only the contemporary radical left could create.

Since the fighting in Syria is so horrific, and the Assad regime so ugly, it’s natural for people to cast about for something that might come along and end the misery. But what’s strange is the assumption, after all the lessons of post-World War II American history, that this something might be the United States military. Arguments about a potential American peace-keeping force (whether of the boots-on-the-ground or “smart bomb” variety) seem to assume that the question is whether the United States military will prevent chaos and bloodshed, not if it can. But we have every reason to doubt that our military has the capacity to ensure that, were we able to expel Assad without an even longer horror show of a war – which I find far from clear – the end of the Assad regime would lead to a peaceful outcome. It might surprise you to learn that a force built to inflict death and destruction has a hard time with creating peace. We had 150,000 troops in Iraq, and one of their explicit missions was to preserve the peace. Yet Iraqis died by the hundreds of thousands nonetheless. If our intervention is restricted to air power, the most relevant recent example is our Libya misadventure, which resulted in widespread chaos, terrible oppression of minority groups like sub-Saharan Africans, and a foothold for ISIS. Where does this faith come from that peace and order can grow from American force?

Meanwhile, the fixation on a no-fly zone – a solution typically presented as the middle-of-the-road, third way, sensible center option of some Beltway moderate’s wet dreams – is a distraction. To hear many tell it, establishing a no-fly zone is as simple as installing a new radio in your car. But in fact doing so entails a massive, massively expensive effort. Contrary to what many believe, it would be impossible to enforce a no-fly zone without a substantial military presence in the country. The necessity of boots on the ground for a viable “humanitarian corridor” has been admitted by General Lloyd Austin, head of U.S. Central Command, General Joseph Dunford, chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, and in a leaked email, Hillary Clinton. The notion of a purely air campaign that does not involve an American troop presence is a political fiction, a dodge that permits us to fantasize about conflict without risk. No such possibility exists. The question is whether we are willing to enter into a full-scale war in Syria. After years of lies about smart bombs and humanitarian warfare, you’d think the left would be past falling for these illusions.

There is no doubt that a large portion of the Syrian public rejects Assad, who share my own conviction that Assad must go. But we must take care to reflect on a rational reason for a sizable portion of Syria’s population to support him, the legitimate fear of reprisal violence against Syria’s Christians, Alawites, and government loyalists. This is a truism of “humanitarian” intervention: when great powers choose winners, they also choose losers. Look, for example, at Kosovo, endorsed so often as a good war that it has become a cliché. After Western powers saved the day, violence against the losers of this engagement was rampant. Kosovo was, in effect, ethnically cleansed of its Serbian population. The categories of victim and aggressor are neither simple nor static. There is little doubt that the Assad regime has cynically used concerns about reprisal violence against Syrian Alawites and Christians to defend his refusal to step down; there is also little doubt that fears of such reprisal violence are entirely warranted. There are no clean hands in war. I do not see evidence to suggest that the end of Assad means the end of bloodshed.

Nor do I believe that a war against Assad would stay a war against Assad. Arguments for US intervention don’t merely overestimate our power to end bloodshed. They overestimate the benevolence of the people who would run the war effort. The American defense establishment is fixated on Iran to the point of absolute obsession. To read conservative hawks – who remain, despite the broader problems in the conservative movement today, deeply influential in the realm of foreign policy – is to be privy to a bizarre worldview in which all of the world’s bad actions lead inevitably back to Tehran. It’s hard to name an American foreign policy entanglement that is not routinely invoked in arguments for our belligerent policy towards Iran. Israel must be granted billions in weapons and aid to help serve its role as a bulwark against Iran. Saudi Arabia’s myriad sins must be forgiven so that it can serve as a Sunni counterbalance to Shia Iran. Lebanon is secretly controlled by the Iranian government, Iraq’s continuing failure to achieve long-term stability is the fault of Iranian agents, Afghanistan is falling into Tehran’s clutches…. These are the relentless narratives that are found throughout America’s Very Serious foreign policy analysis.

Iran has indeed been deeply involved in the Syrian conflict, deploying scores of troops to the region to support the Assad regime. Those actions, like many undertaken by the mullahs, are deplorable. (I will spare you the history lesson about America’s involvement in civil wars in its own geographical region.) But right or wrong, Iran has been involved in Syria up to its elbows. Any American leftist who advocates intervention in Syria must be prepared for that conflict to become the spark that finally lights the fuse of our long-simmering tensions with Iran. Look to a National Post essay from 2012 by Michael Ross for a straightforward assumption that our concerns about Syria are really an artifact of our obsession with Iran. In the very first sentence, Ross writes that our fundamental goal is “ensuring that the situation in Syria doesn’t devolve into a scenario where Iran emerges as the regional winner in a post-Assad end-game.” The academic and media personality Dr. Majid Rafizadeh, president of the International American Council on the Middle East and North Africa, expressed similar attitudes in the Huffington Post in 2014, arguing that America’s tacit acceptance of Iranian support for the Assad regime constitues a policy of “appeasement.”

Our foreign policy apparatus will not suddenly forget its obsession with Iran once bombs start falling. The thing about deploying this vast military apparatus of ours is that once it gets going, it’s out of the control of those who favor “humanitarian” intervention and becomes its own unreliable beast. You go to war with the warmongers you have, not the warmongers you wish you had.

Of course, if we’re talking about the risk of a conflict in Syria spilling out into a broader war, we should be talking about Russia. Russia and Vladimir Putin are particular fixations of the pro-war left. Leftists who favor war in Syria constantly insist that Russia, too, is an imperial power, and that Soviet-era left-wing sympathies with the current Russian state are misplaced and destructive. And you know what? They’re absolutely right about that. Vladimir Putin is not a good guy; the Russian military and espionage services are not forces for good; Russian antagonism to American interests do not make Russian actions moral. All of that is true. It is also profoundly, perfectly irrelevant to the question of whether we should risk a war with Putin’s military. What is relevant is that Russia controls the world’s largest nuclear arsenal. Make no mistake: a no-fly zone means shooting down Russian planes, precisely the kind of direct combat that we have been lucky enough to avoid. It is an absolute miracle of history that the USSR and USA never engaged in large-scale armed conflict in the 20th century, a trick of chance and the fear of mutually-assured destruction. That so-called leftists are now asking us to roll the dice and see if Putin would stand down in the face of one of his jets getting shot down – an act that would surely undermine his political position at home – is ludicrous. I hear a lot of people claiming that, once the shooting started, Putin would back down. To which I ask, are you willing to risk nuclear war on that hunch? Preventing a nuclear conflict is, without exaggeration, the single most important political commitment currently facing humankind. Don’t be fooled by decades of relative quiet in US-Russian relations: the two countries easily possess enough warheads to render both countries utterly ruined. You’ll forgive me if I see any meaningful risk of such a conflict as too high.

And for what? For the chance that the American military will effectively serve as a revolutionary humanitarian power, when it has failed in that regard again and again? I don’t understand why this point remains so hard for people to grasp, after the prior few decades: the United States army is not a revolutionary force. It does not rescue the beleaguered people of the world. It does not swoop in to save the day like a real-world superhero. In his brief period of sanity, inspired by the humiliation of Iraq, Beinart put it succinctly, writing that “we lack the wisdom and the virtue to remake the world through preventive war,” that “the United States cannot be a benign power and a messianic one at the same time.” It is that impulse – the messianic impulse, the urge to see the American military as the avenging angel that will save Syria from its unspeakable misery – that has overtaken too many on the radical left. And it is an impulse that leads nowhere but disaster. We must have the clarity to see that, even when we are gripped by our detest for Assad.

This is the perpetual fuel of McCarthyism: the inability of anyone to reveal their true motives, and the accordingly limitless capacity to impute malign motivations onto them.

But, then, I can’t really prove that I detest Assad, can I? You only have my word to go on when I say that I think he’s a monster and that I wish I saw a way that his reign could end which would not lead to chaos, civil war, and reprisal violence. Just like there was no way for me to prove that my opposition to our last Iraq invasion was not motivated by some secret love for Saddam Hussein. This is the perpetual fuel of McCarthyism: the inability of anyone to reveal their true motives, and the accordingly limitless capacity to impute malign motivations onto them. Skeptics of the potential for deliverance through American force are pro-Assad because their critics have imagined them to be pro-Assad. Innuendo is enough. Assumptions of bad faith are enough. You must vigorously denounce Assad, constantly, or be considered his supporter – and even then, you can’t escape the shadow suspicion.

The need to constantly denounce Assad when discussing a potential Syrian intervention is the type of reflexive deference to political demand on which McCarthyism is made. Yes, I think Assad is a war criminal, one I’d love to see sitting in the Hague. But the constant calls to establish one’s purity on this question echo the ugliest history of loyalty oaths and purity tests, a history that I’m sorry to say has dogged the radical left throughout history. These days, when I see some soi-disant radical demanding people denounce the Assad regime, I get the distinct feeling of being asked for my papers. Do not ask me to take your loyalty oaths and do not ask me to submit to your ideological interrogations. If you tell me I’m either with you or against you, then I’ll be against you, every time. It’s a rule that’s never let me down.

I know a fair number of people, smart people, who believe that a new era of emboldened left-wing victory is coming to American politics. I find this notion pleasant. I also find it a fantasy. The common argument that the indisputably impressive gains of the Bernie Sanders campaign – the fundraising, the organization, the genuinely unprecedented enthusiasm among the youth – will lead to left-wing movement from the Democrats seems unfounded to me. On the contrary, I suspect that the next several years will see a ruthless consolidation of power by the corporate centrists who are so deeply embedded in the party’s leadership structure. I suspect we are looking at more years in the wilderness.

And if America jumps into the conflict in Syria with both feet, I fear a truly brutal series of ideological battles, amplifying the ongoing arguments and splitting apart the already-fragile coalition of the left. I have been shocked and disgusted to see people I admire and respect engaging in smear campaigns about Syria, and I suspect that, if a Hillary Clinton administration follows the course it seems likely to and drags us deeper into Syria, I’ll lose more friends. At least with Iraq the left was unified; an intra-left war would be a special kind of nightmare. But you have to have principles, and rejection of McCarthyism, redbaiting, and smear campaigns is maybe my first principle, and I am willing to lose as many allies as it takes to preserve that commitment.

Predictions are hard, especially about the future. It may very well be that the United States sees no percentage in wading into Syria and thus leaves it alone. Indeed, the most convincing arguments I hear from those who doubt we will escalate our interventions correctly point out that the American military isn’t ever deployed out of genuine humanitarian impulse, and that the powers that be will decline to get deeper involved because there is little self-interest in it for Americans. Perhaps we’ll even see a genuinely left-wing alternative come to pass: our government ceases its schizophrenic Syria policy and pulls out of the conflict entirely, we let vast numbers of refugees into our country, we even cease our support for terrible regimes and their bad behavior like the Saudis and their hideous war in Yemen. Personally, I’ll stay on guard and hope. The past years have made it hard for me to hope for sanity. For now, battles within the left over the correct stance on Syria are a minor skirmish in a small slice of the political spectrum. But things can change.

Assad is a special kind of monster; Syria is a special kind of hell. I hope the regime of Assad falls. I hope the people of Syria are finally allowed to emerge from this horrific, bloody, unthinkable civil war. But hope is not the basis for action. And a century of American foreign policy, as well as an adult conception of the reality of a broken world, should tell us to distrust our instincts even when we are most moved by humanitarian concern. Especially then, because it’s then when we are least likely to have clarity, most likely to be blinded by horror and grief. Those emotions can make commissars out of all us, can turn a commie into Joe McCarthy. It’s happened before, and if we aren’t careful, it will happen again.