Why Journalists Love Twitter

Tweets make lazy political journalism easier than ever…

Journalists have always been lazy. Anyone who pines for a Golden Age of diligent reportage, when a writer would pound the pavement in search of a good lead, or phone source after source demanding the truth, has never actually picked up an old newspaper or magazine and examined its contents. Then, as now, most writing was swill: thinly-sourced, trivial in subject matter, and slobberingly deferential to power. The All the President’s Men era of American journalism lasted exactly the duration of the film All the President’s Men. Do crack investigative reporters exist? Yes. Do they mostly end up fired, or at least in constant conflict with authority? They do. Meanwhile, most of the press remains, as ever, a content mill.

Given that much of the media consists of content-for-the-sake-of-content, the introduction of Twitter came as something of a godsend to journalists. With 500 million new Tweets rolling in every day, and nearly 310 million active monthly users, Twitter offers a sprawling bank of quotable sources. Tweets from all lands are ripe for plucking and republishing,

Hashtags, then, have become something of a goldmine for online publications. Sites like BuzzFeed have made a name for themselves in co-opting tweets from teenagers to pad out their pages with such heady articles as “Just 28 Really Real Tweets About Gymnastics” and “19 Tweets Anyone Addicted To Diet Coke Will Completely Relate To.” But it’s also increasingly common to see tweets quoted as sources in articles from CNN or The New York Times, who can produce the appearance of doing man-on-the-street reporting even as they sit at their desks trawling through Twitter. With millions of members of the public jabbering at one another at all times, Twitter is a vast ever-refreshing quote bank, an extraordinary tool for the writer in an age of 24-hour demands for fresh content.

There’s a basic ethical problem to the BuzzFeed-style practice of culling and republishing tweets. This model of article, which simply repackages memes, quips, and observations created by Twitter users, profits from people’s writing without compensating them for it (and in many cases, without properly crediting them). This constitutes a kind of low-level theft (somewhat like bullying a nerd to do your math homework, if the nerd was a preteen with 100 Twitter followers and you were a multimillion dollar publishing house), and there’s something disquieting about seeing people’s wit being resold for profit without their permission.

But Twitter-based journalism is disturbing for reasons that go far beyond questions of intellectual property and attribution. Using Twitter as a prism through which to examine and report the world creates a narrow and distorted impression of reality. And with journalists already prone to clubby insularity, Twitter provides new ways for them to confirm their preexisting worldviews, and further wall themselves off from ordinary experience. As a consequence, the world reported in the press is the world that exists on Twitter, not the world as it actually exists.

Twitter is not a normal place, though its users are ostensibly normal people. Like a Petri dish forgotten in a warm, moist cabinet, it has developed some truly curious cultures. Facilitated by its ease of use and offer of anonymity, Twitter has borne a plethora of unique subgroups with names as terrifying as “ISIS twitter” (self-explanatory), “Woke Twitter” (tweeters who focus on social justice issues, often to the point of self parody), and “Irony Twitter” (tweeters who communicate only in irony and sarcasm). Each of these groups has developed their own vernacular, traditions, and jokes, much like one would expect of high school cliques, or minor league gangs. Far from being some kind of lofty online manifestation of the “public square,” Twitter has become the digital equivalent of a stall wall in a public high school bathroom, one in which Neo-Nazis and Communists compete with one another for the most obnoxious Sharpie doodles.

Thus presenting tweets as evidence of some national or global trend (rather than as a trend on a social media platform) is several shades of problematic. Inevitably, if we take trending hashtags for actual trends, we will be dealing with a biased sample: we are looking at what is popular among people who spend time on Twitter rather than among people more broadly. Forgetting the Internet’s biases creates delusion. We may treat the artisanal cupcake blogs we follow on Tumblr as representative of every cupcake in the world, but frozen, flavor-free grocery-store cupcakes are destined to remain the norm in most of real life.

When it comes to political journalism, treating the Internet as representative of reality can heavily bias coverage. It’s because the press gets its worldview from Twitter that it was stunned by the persistence of support for Donald Trump. After all, subsequent to every new vulgar eruption from Trump’s mouth during the campaign, a torrent of outrage poured forth on Twitter, leading pundits to repeatedly declare that Trump’s campaign was finally dead (The Onion captured this kind of wishful insistence nicely with the headline: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year”). Yet Trump maintained support from nearly half the electorate. It was almost as if the online world was a poor representation of the world at large. One is reminded here of Pauline Kael’s frequently misconstrued remark on the 1972 election, in which she observed how closed-off her New York social life made her: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” Kael’s remark was frequently spun as comically ignorant (it was misquoted as “I don’t know how Nixon could have won; nobody I know voted for him”), but it actually showed an impressive self-awareness about the detachment of the media from the public, one that most of today’s political pundits couldn’t achieve even if they set their best unpaid interns on it.

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For writers, Twitter provides a way of deepening one’s obliviousness and caressing one’s ego. Twitter allows commentators to follow only those whose opinions they wish to consume, and to receive instantaneous praise from their own followers. Thus Twitter provides a streamlined platform from which to shamelessly pimp out your writing to a self-selected group of people who are likely to read it. It’s a wonderful place to reaffirm your beliefs, and it’s so easy to do so on a platform designed to allow you to tailor the information you receive to what you want to hear, or what you know you’ll agree with.

Twitter does have its egalitarian component, however. At its best it is firmly anti-elitist, giving a platform to those who would previously have gone unheard. Some of these people (e.g. the neo-Nazis) had been pushed to the fringes for good reason, but others were excluded from mainstream discourse simply because mainstream discourse has a tendency to be snobby, corporate-driven, and exclusive. And where once one would have had to penetrate the Manhattan gala-and-book-talk scene in order to hurl abuse at a New York Times opinion columnist, now anyone with an internet connection can politely explain to Nicholas Kristof precisely why he is utterly and completely full of shit (an opportunity that the Current Affairs editorial staff takes regular advantage of). The platform thus allows for an unprecedented level of contact between the unwashed public and our patrician overlords.

But one should not overstate the case, and risk painting Twitter as some sort of classless comradely paradise. Pundits can easily filter out dissenting voices from the public, and sometimes take on the appearance of kings and queens holding court before an audience of adoring Followers. And while Twitter amplifies new voices, it does not seem to expand worldviews. For pundits, the general effect seems to be a winnowing down of their informational intake, to the point where it consists almost entirely of the words of other pundits.

To see the consequences of Twitter-centric journalism, one can examine one of the most repeated stories of the Democratic primary: the so-called rise of the “BernieBro.” In October of 2015, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic published a brief article titled “Here Comes the Berniebro.” Meyer, a largely Twitter-dwelling journalist (having 40,100 tweets to his name, plus 41,100 “likes” of other people’s tweets), suggested that a new phenomenon had arisen in American politics. The Bernie Sanders campaign was attracting a noxious wave of supporters, whom Meyer christened the “BernieBros.” This group was “very male, […] white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”) and “aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.” He described these supporters as obstinate and aggressive in their online presence, prone to “performative” appraisals of feminism, and (perhaps worst of all) firm in their belief that Sanders “really could win.” Meyer, himself a white man, castigated these white, male Sanders voters for supporting the sins of “free college for all and a $15 minimum wage” and for falling for “Sanders’s rhetoric that America is trapped in a number of deep, unprecedented crises.”

But aside from Meyer’s bizarre contempt for Sanders voters’ idealism, the article suffered from a simple problem: there was no evidence whatsoever that some kind of “BernieBro” trend actually existed. The theory that there was something distinctly “bro-ish” about Sanders supporters was in direct conflict with the actual demographic facts (a concession Meyer even made in the article, noting that “Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male”). Aside from a few dozen isolated tweets, largely by anonymous and unpopular users, nobody could seem to locate the whereabouts of these storied “bros.” To be sure, one could find occasional nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton made in comment sections (although when Glenn Greenwald investigated the examples being cited, he found some of the “BernieBros” turned out to be conservatives or women). People of all stripes are assholes on the internet, though, and no effort was made to answer the real questions, which was how many of these “bros” actually existed.

In a sensible world, then, Meyer’s article should not have even been a footnote in the history of the election. It should have been laughed off as shockingly obtuse. Yet somehow, a flimsy story based on a sample of Robinson Meyer’s Facebook newsfeed ended up – miserably – setting the tone for much of the remainder of the online primary. Instead, the political media in residence on Twitter took the specter of Bernie Bros and went hog wild. Soon everyone from Jamil Smith at The New Republic to Amanda Marcotte of Salon had latched onto the fantasy of an army of evil white men who supported socialist policies as a means of furthering racism and sexism. Smith wrote that unless Sanders could somehow contain the “bros,” they would damage his political prospects. The New Yorker published a cringingly unfunny and cruel “BernieBro Code” containing the “rules” such creatures live by (e.g. “A Bernie Bro is legitimately glad that his uninformed, mainstreamer aunt is part of a generation that is going to be dead soon.”) Paul Krugman, dissatisfied with Sanders’ economic proposals, went so far as to declare that Bernie himself “is becoming a Bernie Bro.” The Sanders campaign was forced to apologize for the BernieBros, despite there being scant evidence of their actual existence.

The explosion of the fake BernieBro trend was both fascinating and appalling. The narrative ruled media Twitter for months, and despite demographic data continually debunking it, pundits clung to it like a safety blanket. It became a convenient way to dismiss all criticisms of Hillary Clinton that didn’t come from someone with a byline in a major publication or a degree from an Ivy League school. In fact, Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast reported in June that she was skeptical of the BernieBros idea, for the simple reason that the Clinton campaign had tried to pitch her a story about the phenomenon. The BernieBros line proved convenient for the Clinton camp, as it shifted press coverage to questions like “How will Sanders stop the BernieBros?” and away from substantive policy.

The BernieBros story showed how news can be manufactured in an age of Twitter punditry: a writer grabs a few stray tweets and produces an article declaring them a nationwide event. Other writers, sharing both the first writer’s political persuasion and constant need to emit content, issue commentaries on the phenomenon, citing the first writer’s article as their source. Pundits quote pundits who quote tweets. Then there are more tweets, then additional punditry. At no point is the story checked against the real world: it is solely a dialogue between The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Twitter.

Thus there are real-world political consequences to this type of shoddy reporting; we at least know that it can filter into a presidential primary. There’s a feedback loop between the media and political elite, and Twitter provides a convenient means of fabricating stories to further particular interests. One can create the news entirely to fit one’s agenda and worldview, since there are always Twitter subcommunities where a certain thing is true, even if it is nonexistent in the wider world.

It can be harder to ascertain motive when all of this back-and-forth occurs online. With conventional network political coverage, sycophancy is easily detected. One could simply turn on Meet The Press, and witness Chuck Todd’s eyeballs morph gruesomely into hearts whenever he was seated across from John McCain or Chuck Schumer. On Twitter, with its veneer of equality, it can be difficult to determine who is doing what for which reasons.

Multiple kinds of journalistic dysfunction are enabled by Twitter. One can draw a distinction between the purely profit-driven lazy journalism of BuzzFeed and the brown-nosing and status-driven journalism of New York magazine or The New Republic. The former is simply unfortunate, in that it gradually turns everyone stupid. The latter, however, is actively pernicious. Through the magic of Twitter, political journalists form incestuous cliques that reaffirm their prejudices, then their own publications treat those cliques as the boundaries of the social world. Twitter helps make politicians our friends, and makes journalists friends with politicians. We have developed an online political culture that is a-okay with calling Dianne Feinstein their “queen” or 83-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg their “mom.” That is not something a healthy society does.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, though. Most of the world happily gets along without ever thinking about what The Atlantic has to say about anything. In writing about Twitter punditry, one runs the risk of reinforcing the very problem one is diagnosing, and attributing an outsized real-world significance to inconsequential commentators. But it remains true that political media sets agendas, and if a presidential candidate is forced to spend time responding to empty rubbish spread by pundits, this is time that cannot be spent campaigning. While the inhabitants of Twitter may constitute a comparatively small fraction of the American public, they make a comparatively large fraction of the country’s noise. To the extent that it escapes the Internet and poisons us all, their obsession with the insignificant could very well be significant.

Illustration by Lewis Rossignol.

Why You Should Never, Ever Listen To Nate Silver

Part I of our “How The Press Failed You” Series…

Of all people, Nate Silver should probably not have been gloating the morning after Election Day. After all, having made his reputation as a statistical wunderkind by predicting 49 states correctly in the 2008 race, Silver called five states wrong in the 2016 election, assuming Hillary Clinton would end up with 302 electoral votes (she got 232).

In fact, the entire 2016 campaign season was been characterized by a series of spectacular Silver blunders. Not only did he notoriously give Hillary Clinton a greater than 99% chance of winning the Michigan primary (she lost), and bungle Indiana as well, but he spent much of the past 18 months emitting a series of embarrassing declarations as well as ludicrous prophecies that totally failed to materialize. Let us go through a sample:

“I wonder how much of the Trump Bump is just voters trolling pollsters,” Two Good Reasons Not To Take the Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously — July 16, 2015.

“Basically Trump is the Nickelback of presidential candidates. Disliked by most, super popular with a few.” — July 28, 2015

“PREDICTION: Trump won’t be the Republican /nominee.” — Aug. 6, 2015

“Media: Trump’s doing great! Nerds: No. Those polls don’t mean what you think. Media: A new poll shows Trump doing great! Proved you wrong!” —  Aug. 9, 2015

“Donald Trump is winning the polls and losing the nomination.” — Aug. 11, 2015

“About 25% of Americans identify as Republican. Donald Trump’s getting about 25% of that 25% in the polls. Why is this impressive to people?” — Nov. 19, 2015

“Dear media, Please stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls.” — Nov. 23, 2015.

“As for me, I remain quite skeptical of Trump’s chances. I also think his nomination would be an unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans.”  Nov. 29, 2015

“Idea that ‘Trump would win an election today’ also dubious. If election were today, voters would be more informed and news cycle different.” — Dec. 4, 2015

(in response to Rupert Murdoch tweeting that Trump’s “cross-party appeal” was a “winning strategy”): “Actually, Trump is by far the least popular Republican with independents (and Democrats)” Jan. 15, 2016

“Wait it’s just now sinking in that Trump might be a wee bit problematic as a general election candidate?” — March 20, 2016

“Trump’s general elex numbers have been terrible since he launched bid. Media barely noticed during 2015 Trumpmania.” — March 29, 2016

“[Idea of Trump being presumptive nominee by mid-May] is delusional. Math doesn’t work.” — April 9, 2016

“The bad news for Trump is that a poll showing him 5 points down is considered good news for Trump.” — June 26, 2016

“Perhaps the worst take is the ‘Trump’s actually doing well to only be down by 7!!!’ take. He’s the least popular major-party nominee ever.” — Aug. 3, 2016

“Trump has been super unpopular with the November electorate pretty much forever.” — Aug. 16, 2016

“Trump is doubling down on a losing strategy.” — Aug. 18, 2016

“[The] most delusional part of Trump thinking he has a silent majority is how small a fraction of the population he’s even bothering to appeal to.” — Aug. 13, 2016

On the whole, it’s a humiliating record. In the primaries, Silver didn’t even do as well as Carl Diggler, a fictional parody-pundit who literally just makes stuff up based on whatever his gut tells him. Presuming Silver is supposed to be something different from the rest of the jabbering punditocracy, his career should be over.

Yet bizarrely, in the days after the election, Silver was bragging about his performance. Silver insisted that after Election Night, he felt vindication, and scoffed that some major pundits had been “smugly dismissive of Trump’s chances.” Looking back on Silver’s record of statements on Trump, one wonders to which pundits he may have been referring. For over a year (July 2015 to Aug. 2016) he wrote smug “dear media” letters about Trump-hype and called Trump’s strategy “delusional,” insisting that Trump just didn’t understand the math. Having expressed regret after the primary for “acting like a pundit” and underestimating Trump, in the general election he was still acting like a pundit and underestimating Trump.

Thus Silver took a cheerful victory lap, despite having totally failed, repeatedly and embarrassingly, to provide any information of use. He bases his claim to have succeeded off his having given Trump a somewhat higher probability of a win than some other people, despite still thinking Clinton was the definite favorite. But it doesn’t take a statistical genius to be cautious in a situation of high volatility. (The main reason Silver is being praised for being wrong is that a man named Sam Wang of something called the Princeton Election Consortium was even more wrong, giving Clinton a 99% probability of a win.)

The myth of Nate Silver’s continued usefulness is based on a careful moving of goalposts. His initial claim to fame was based on number of states correctly predicted. But in 2016, if we measured by that number (especially if we subtracted the states whose outcomes were most obvious), Silver wouldn’t look good at all. So now we’re invited to focus on a different statistic, the percentage chance of an overall Trump win. Conversely, when it’s the percentage chance that goes wrong, Silver reminds us how many races he called correctly. Like a television psychic, Silver is able to carefully draw your attention to that which he gets right and ignore that which he gets wrong. If the probability percentages look good, but he screws up a large number of races, we should look at percentages. If those look terrible, as they did in Michigan, we should forget them and think about numbers of states.

Similarly, Silver will make predictions that have multiple components, so that if one part fails, the overall prediction will seem to have come true, even if its coming true had no relation to the reasons Silver originally offered. See, e.g., “It’s a tight race. Clinton’s the favorite but close enough that Trump would probably pull ahead if he ‘wins’ debate.” Silver can look back and say “I saw that Trump could pull ahead.” But what he actually predicted was that Trump could pull ahead based on debate performance. If he pulls ahead for some other reason, Silver is completely wrong (because he had excluded that other possibility), yet he seems right.

When one goes through Silver’s Twitter feed for the election cycle, one sees him predicting nearly every damn thing in the universe. Sometimes Clinton is winning, sometimes Trump is winning. Sometimes anything could happen, as in the below tweet:

Each of these outcomes now about equally likely: —Clinton landslide (8+ point win) —Obamaish win (4-7 points) —Narrow Clinton win —Trump win

Silver makes sure to hedge every statement carefully so that he can never actually be wrong. And when things don’t go his way, he lectures the public on their ignorance of statistics. After all, probability isn’t certainty, he didn’t say it would definitely happen. And of course, that’s completely true. But recognize what it means: even when Silver isn’t wrong, because he’s hedged everything carefully, he’s still not offering any information of value. Sophisticated mathematical modeling, just like punditry, can’t tell us much about the things we most need to know. It can’t predict the unpredictable, and the unpredictable is what matters most of all.

Donald Trump was trying an untested experiment. You couldn’t easily put numbers on it. Anyone who did was destined to be pulling the statistics from their ass, because there was no way for human beings to access the relevant information. The critical question was not: what do the polls, after some defensible adjustments, say about the candidates’ chances? It was “What happens when a bombastic, widely disliked male real-estate tycoon and a technocratic, widely disliked female Secretary of State go up against one another in a highly volatile race involving race, economics, the FBI, Wikileaks, and sexual assault allegations?” Since nothing like this has ever happened in human history, it was destined to be the case that the best thing you could do was be somewhat cautious. 

Silver actually knows all of the limitations of his work, and states them openly: Statistical models work well when you have a lot of data, and when the system you’re studying has a relatively low level of structural complexity. The presidential nomination process fails on both counts.” Thus the sneaky thing Silver does is this: he fills his work with caveats, but then turns around and writes articles like “The Six Stages of Donald Trump’s Doom,” in which he lays out very vivid, totally fantastical and unfounded, sets of forecasts about the future. In the primary, he foresaw a situation in which Bernie Sanders would win two states and then nowhere else, an idea that turned out to be doubly wrong (he lost one of the two, and then he won a bunch of others). None of this has any grounding beyond Silver’s gut.

This is why Silver is irresponsible and untrustworthy. It’s not, as the Huffington Post stupidly alleged, that he’s a bad or biased statistician. It’s that he mingles solid statistical observations (of highly limited usefulness) with wild prophecy and the same old know-nothing horse-race punditry. He acts as if statistics and polls can tell us to some useful degree whether Trump’s highly unorthodox political strategy will work. He offers totally worthless speculative scenarios, such as Bernie Sanders losing all but two states, even though the dynamics that would lead to such scenarios are not accessible to human observation or prediction. And over the course of the election, he used his authority and credibility as a numbers genius to tell people not to worry about Donald Trump, and to treat those who were “freaking out” as if they had were idiots.

But the central problem with Silver is that ultimately, he’s producing horse-race stuff. He doesn’t actually care about politics very much in terms of its human stakes. (In fact, according to journalist Doug Henwood, Silver once said that he “doesn’t give a shit” about politics.) He’s producing entertainment; people refresh FiveThirtyEight for the same reason that they watch actual horse races. But for anyone interested in the actual human lives affected by political questions, Silver’s analyses are of almost no help. They can tell us today that Silver thinks Trump has a 5% chance of winning. But then we might wake up tomorrow and find that Silver now thinks Trump has a 30% chance of winning. And the important question for anyone trying to affect the world, as opposed to just watching the events in it unfold, is how those chances can be made to change.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Nate Silver, just that nobody should ever pay any attention to him. Nate Silver will probably always be the best poll data analyst. The problem is that poll data analysts are completely fucking useless in a crisis. They don’t understand anything that’s going on around them, and they’re powerless to predict what’s about to happen next. Listening to anything they have to say is very, very dangerous. If you want to change anything, you’ve got to forget Nate Silver forever. That’s because he tells you entirely about the world as it looks to him right now, rather than the world as it could suddenly be tomorrow. He has no idea what the outer boundaries of the possible are. Nobody does.

Not Here To Make Friends: A Statement of Support For George Ciccariello-Maher

Nobody should suffer employment consequences for political speech on Twitter. Period.

It should be pretty obvious that you don’t have to like someone to stick up for them when the fascists come.

I do not like George Ciccariello-Maher.

As with most of my comrades, I first “met” him online, probably through some ridiculous ultra-leftist Facebook group that I can’t remember but likely left due to irreconcilable infighting over, I don’t know… speculation over how Bordiga would have felt about pornography. I found George very rude and condescending. He felt the need to “warn” me about my more “problematic” friends, which I consider a sort of sexist paternalism. I didn’t like his politics, which I found shallow and histrionic, or his passive aggression, which I found cowardly. Also, as a highly judgmental person who refuses to consort with anyone who is less than very cool or charming, I decided that the white guy academic who wrote “Brechtian Hip-Hop Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” was a tryhard nerd. Perhaps most unforgivably, his jokes were unfunny. Not offensive in any way—just unfunny.

But none of this matters, because George is under attack. After making an obvious joke at the expense of white supremacists (once again utilizing that classic Ciccariello-Maher wit), an avalanche of right-wing media opportunists seized upon the offending tweet. The hysteria of reactionaries is nothing new, but shockingly, George’s cowardly employers at Drexel University publicly censured him, a ridiculous breach of both academic freedom and free speech.

To quote the folk heroes of our time: I’m not here to make friends. Solidarity is not dependent on amity or admiration, it is the acknowledgment of a shared struggle for dignity, liberation and rights, applied consistently to all of humankind. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, and while petty bullshit is the spice of life, the work of left politics requires some truly flavorless battles.

The people that any ostensible leftist is obligated to stand up for will not always be likable. Usually they won’t even be leftists. They will have different politics, values and cultures than you. They will overcook their steaks. They will enjoy, and perhaps even prefer, the later seasons of The Simpsons. They will make atrocious decisions in facial hair, which you will suspect they styled in a pretentious effort to look “more ethnic.” They will act in bad faith. They will have bad manners. They will be dull, they will be snobs. They will get on your fucking nerves.

Suck it up. We are fighting for all.

The rule is: nobody should be punished by their employer for the dumb jokes they make online. Nobody should have to worry about having their material security taken away because something they said on Twitter got misinterpreted. Period. It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter what you think of them. Because universal human entitlements are universal. That’s the entire point of them. The moment your personal opinions of someone affect whether you believe they ought to be protected, you’re no longer a leftist.

We at Current Affairs stand with George Ciccariello-Maher without qualification or reservation, and we believe he would do the same for us. We’re with you, comrade. Don’t let the bastards get you down.

Banning Smoking in Public Housing is Just Another Experiment on the Poor

A seemingly unobjectionable public health measure increases surveillance and criminalization…

It is understandable, given everything else going on, that there has not been much controversy around the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s (HUD) new plan to ban smoking in all public housing. And after all, why should there be controversy? Liberals like the smoking ban because it’s a public health initiative, and keeps children from getting asthma. Conservatives couldn’t care less about some new public housing regulation. Banning smoking in housing projects is a plan everyone can be happy with.

But everyone shouldn’t be happy with it. Because this policy that seems totally unobjectionable is actually somewhat sinister. And the fact that the smoking ban appears so downright reasonable shows just how little the experiences of public housing residents enter into public debate.

HUD’s new ban covers “lit tobacco products where the tobacco leaves are ignited, such as cigarettes, cigars and pipes” and would restrict anyone from smoking in a public housing unit, common space, hallway, or within 25 feet of a public housing development. It’s strict: public housing tenants will no longer be able to smoke in or near their homes, and a lot of outdoor public areas already have restrictions on smoking.

The arguments for a full smoking ban in public housing seem persuasive. The American Lung Association has pointed out that secondhand smoke can pass through walls and ventilation, making the argument that a person’s right to be free of smoke is more important than another person’s right to ingest smoke. Banning cigarettes in housing projects, it is argued, makes residents healthier and better off.

But like many well-intentioned liberal regulations, in practice the smoking ban is not a magic wand that makes cigarettes disappear instantaneously. The regulation only means something in its enforcement, which means that it empowers public housing authorities to punish violators. As Current Affairs has argued before (about burkini bans), many laws that seem perfectly reasonable in their purposes become insidious when we think about how they will actually be imposed upon people (not that burkini bans are reasonable). Making a new rule means being willing to inflict some sort of punishment on people for violating that rule. And the process of inflicting punishment is often ugly.

It is not yet clear how the enforcement regime for the smoking ban will look, but homeless advocates expressed concern during the rule-making process that smokers could end up evicted for violating the ban. HUD Secretary Julián Castro has attempted to give reassurance on this, stating that “We don’t see this as a policy that is meant to end in a whole lot of evictions.” But Castro’s statement is worrying in its wording. He doesn’t “see” it as being “meant to” end in a “whole lot of” evictions. Not, “We will not be evicting people for smoking.” But we don’t see ourselves as intending to evict many people.

Evictions devastate people’s lives, and are one of the great cruel stressors in the lives of poor people. And for people who have an addiction to tobacco (one that is frequently a response to… the stresses of being poor), hanging the threat of homelessness above their heads is the least sympathetic possible response. It means that people who are already suffering with medical issues resulting from tobacco use now have to worry about whether their habit will lead to being cast out into the street.

Of course, there are other, less extreme punishments that public housing authorities can inflict. They can, for example, issue fines and citations. But fining poor people (again, for a habit that is incredibly difficult to control) means extracting pieces of the little wealth they have, without necessarily actually causing them to stop smoking. It also often leads to even more serious consequences down the line, such as ever increasing fees or possibly jail time. The result (unless one is willing to start instituting evictions) may be that there is still plenty of smoke in public housing projects, but also poor people regularly paying new fines.

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But possible evictions are not the only issue. Even if no evictions occur (an unlikely result) the policy still increases the intense surveillance of the poor. Public housing projects are already miniature surveillance states. Partially as a result of socially-minded efforts by Democratic presidents (such as Bill Clinton’s crackdown on resident drug use), public housing residents have their behavior monitored in ways that citizens of private dwellings would never accept. Because the government is offering people free or reduced-cost housing, it is able to extract extraordinary concessions from them in terms of their liberty. Housing authorities regulate and police people in highly invasive ways. The extent of regulation varies by jurisdiction, but has the common feature of making poor tenants constantly “walk on eggshells” if they want to avoid having their homes taken away. (For example in Massachusetts, a 93 year old client of mine once faced eviction for spilling juice on another tenant.) Yet it’s hard for people experiencing hardship to turn down the bargain. This is the sort of logic that pushes criminal defendants to be excited about GPS monitoring, because at least it’s not jail. It’s the sort of logic that tells food stamp recipients to be happy about limits on the type of food they can buy, because at least they can get food; or employees to smile as they pee into a cup, because at least they have a job.

This is something that liberal technocrats, such as Obama administration HUD officials, do not realize. They look entirely at the public health question, ignoring the fact that they are only able to enact their dream public health initiatives on people because those people are poor. They would like to ban smoking in all housing. But they only have control over public housing. It therefore seems to make sense to ban smoking there. But this treats poor people as a social experiment, who can be “nudged” and cajoled in ways that ordinary citizens cannot. It is an open acknowledgment that public housing is not “real” housing, insofar as it does not come with the kind of control over one’s own space that one would have if one owned a home.

HUD has been strangely indifferent to this aspect of the smoking ban, even though they clearly know it exists. A Q&A on the Department website shows that the agency is highly sensitive to concerns that the ban will disproportionately affect disabled people (who cannot get outside to smoke) or mentally ill people (who are likely to have a harder time complying with the rules). Yet HUD’s responses to the questions indicate that, while they know these inequities exist, they don’t intend to do anything about them:

Q: What about residents that smoke and have difficulty getting outside, or have mobility impairments–can they be allowed to still smoke in their units?

A: As proposed in the rule, allowing a resident to smoke in their unit or building common area is not an accommodation that can be granted under these regulations once effective.

So, by HUD’s own acknowledgment, disabled people are out of luck. Likewise the mentally ill:

Q: Smoking prevalence is high among people with mental illness. Could a smoking ban be harmful to this population?

A: Although the proposed rule would not require that residents quit smoking, it may lead them to quit or substantially cut back…

This particular HUD response is especially amusing, since it entirely evades the question. We can imagine a hypothetical in which the same mentally ill people were in the habit of pressing a button, and HUD had announced plans to inflict electric shocks on anyone who pushed the button. An identical Q/A in that scenario would run as follows:

Q: Will electrifying the button harm people?

A: Although nobody is required to stop pressing the button, electrification could lead to substantial reductions in button pressing.

So HUD knows mentally ill people will probably be harassed and coerced under the new policy. But they’re not doing anything to stop it.

Amusingly, HUD has insisted that its plan does not mean smokers cannot obtain public housing, even though in practice it means that someone who smokes will likely be unable to comply with the regulations required for them to keep their housing. (We’re not saying you can’t live here if you smoke, you just can’t smoke if you live here.)

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Public health policies that discourage smoking are probably desirable. There is very clear evidence that smoking, and secondhand smoke are detrimental to one’s health and are contributing causes to a host of afflictions such as asthma and emphysema. But it’s only poor people who are discouraged from smoking by punitive means. A serious effort to stop smoking across society would target the source, going after the cigarette companies who make their living killing people. Strict limits on production, stricter FDA regulations, heavy taxes can all change the incentives of production and thereby reduce the amount of cigarettes available. One might also consider the kind of advertising/labeling regulations popular in Europe, or expanding education campaigns. If HUD wanted to get people in its projects to stop smoking, it should at the very least guarantee free and readily available nicotine patches to all of its residents.

In fact, perhaps one could even consider addressing the underlying conditions of poverty and despair that might push some to smoke in the first place and certainly produce much more pressing public health issues. But well down at the bottom of the list of measures should be targeting the poorest users of the product and imposing strict penalties for non-compliance. It’s easy enough to bully and threaten people into quitting smoking. It’s much harder to actually be serious about public health concerns, and to remedy the underlying social causes of the issues.

Poor people’s lives are defined by precariousness: the constant threat of sudden expenses that wipe out one’s meager wealth, the constant possibility of job loss or eviction. HUD’s job should be to make those things disappear, to give people the comfort and stability that poverty has robbed them of. A smoking ban only increases the invasiveness of the monitoring and punishment regime to which the poor are nearly universally subjected. But further, by making these kinds of policy bargains, where you trade your freedom for a little bit of well being, we are eroding the possibility of having what we actually want – a free, healthy, happy life.

Bad Ways To Criticize Trump

Progressives need to focus their critiques on issues that actually matter to people…

It is very easy to find ways to criticize Donald Trump. Because he has so many loathsome traits of character, Trump provides the prospective critic with ample possible lines of attack. It can be difficult to know where to start. Is it the bombast? The racism? The massive serial sexual assault? Is it the mob ties? The fraudulent university? The overstated wealth? How about all of the lies? Or the false promises? What about the near-total lack of an attention span, and the ignorance of global affairs? Should we dwell on his childish personality? On his bullying? His vulgarity? His sexism? Trump presents a veritable buffet of appalling qualities, and it is nearly impossible to decide where to start.

But not all criticisms of Trump have equal effective force. After all, surely it matters more that he has actually committed serious sex crimes than that he has possibly made some bizarre reference to Megyn Kelly’s menstrual cycle. Likewise, his history of making it hard for his contractors to feed their families is far more reprehensible than his outlandish tweeting habits or his risible haircut. Trump’s actions have hurt people in serious ways, and his behavior can be divided into that which is merely silly (such as his calling Rosie O’Donnell rude names) versus that which actively causes pain (such as his almost certainly having raped someone).

Unfortunately, media outrage about Trump frequently adopts a uniform level of outrage at his acts. Trump’s history is treated as a set of bad things, meaning that few distinctions are made among which kinds of transgressions are worse. But there are lesser and greater crimes. Trump’s constant theft of wages and payments from dishwashers, cabinet-makers, and servers is far more consequential than, say, his promotion of a failed mail-order steak franchise. But press coverage often treats such things as being of equal interest. For example, an Atlantic article compiling a definitive list of Trump’s “scandals” lists both the sexual assault allegations and the fact that Trump may have once bought concrete from a Mafia affiliate. But surely grabbing dozens of women’s genitals without their permission is worse than having purchased building supplies from someone vaguely shady. And ThinkProgress put as much effort into its comprehensive (half-joking, but carefully-reported) history of Trump Steaks as its coverage of the story of Trump’s alleged brutal rape of his wife.

Likewise, Mother Jones magazine ran a series on Trump called “The Trump Files.” It included plenty of damning information about Trump’s use of lawsuits and harassment to keep his critics quiet. And yet other entries in the series included: “Donald Thinks Exercising Might Kill You” and “Donald Filmed a Music Video. It Didn’t Go Well.” In the Trump files, one can find plenty of information about how Trump cheated the New York City government out of tax money, or dumped his business debts on others. Yet one can also find files on some of his more ludicrous reality TV show pilot ideas, and “the time a sleazy hot tub salesman tried to take Trump’s name.” There’s a funny file about how Trump couldn’t name a single one of his “hand-picked” professors for Trump University. But the important point about Trump University is not that Trump lied about knowing who the instructors were, it’s that it bilked people out of their savings.

Criticisms of Trump therefore need to be made carefully, because they can all end up bleeding together as noise. This is a good reason for, if not ignoring entirely, then at least giving very selective coverage to the rubbish Trump posts on Twitter. A Tweet is not, after all, the most consequential of communications. And while it may have been interesting for The New York Times to have two reporters compile a vast list of “the 289 People, Places, and Things Donald Trump Has Insulted on Twitter,” a journalist’s time may be better spent on more useful investigative work.

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It’s understandable why Trump’s Twitter feed attracts so much attention. After all, it’s outrageous, and frequently very entertaining. How can anyone resist finding out what he has to say about Glenn Beck (“mental basketcase”), Ruth Bader Ginsburg (“her mind is shot!”) or Saturday Night Live (“unwatchable!”) The truth is, no matter how much we may deny it, on some level many of us enjoy watching Trump defy taboos and be nasty to people. After all, the entire reason for things like the New York Times Trump insult database is that it’s amusing. People hate Trump, but they also love hating him.

There’s also a convenient rationale for reading Trump’s tweets, especially now: it provides closer access to the thoughts of the President of the United States than anybody has ever previously had. For journalists, there is good reason to cover Trump’s social media outbursts: his words are now important. When the President speaks, it moves markets. It can create diplomatic incidents. Like it or not, Trump’s tweets do matter.

The problem, however, is that Trump knows this. He knows that every noise he makes is amplified by the press. And he knows that, as journalist Michael Tracey writes, “his tweets will be instantly picked up by all the typical news outlets [and]  everyone will frantically seize upon every crass Trump tweet, and use it to set the “tone” of their coverage for the day.” Thus Trump’s rude and provocative tweets are calculated for maximum effect. And while members of the press may insist that they understand Trump is trying to get attention, they nevertheless end up granting him precisely the attention he seeks.

It’s a difficult paradox to get out of. You can’t ignore Trump’s tweets entirely, because it’s news if the President of the United States has publicly threatened or disparaged someone. But at the same time, by affording coverage to whatever Trump wants to say on Twitter, one allows him to set the agenda and make the news about himself.

Yet it’s possible that a balance can be struck. Tracey offers a series of tips to journalists for how to deal with Trump’s tweets, which balance the necessity of paying attention to the President with the reality that the current President is a manipulative attention-seeker. As he writes:

– You don’t need to share, comment, react to, or write articles about every Trump tweet. Trump will do inflammatory tweets. Some might be in the middle of the night. Everyone knows that he does this. It’s not surprising anymore. Therefore, it is not incumbent on the journalist to treat every instance of this as a major news item, just like you are not required to treat every politicians’ PR release as a major news item. Journalists should dictate the terms of their coverage, not Trump. 

– You don’t need to treat every Trump tweet as 100% literal. Most of the time Trump is, pardon my French, just “bull-shitting.” He muses, he riffs, he does these extemporaneous stream-of-consciousness rants…So if Trump muses about some nutty idea on Twitter, it doesn’t mean that he plans to actually implement this idea in terms of government policy. He could just be trying to get a rise out of people. And it usually works.

– You are allowed to simply ignore Trump tweets. This may sound like a novel idea, but you are under no obligation to even pay attention to every Trump tweet. As a journalist, you are allowed to focus on other things… Hysterically over-reacting to every Trump tweet helps Trump. When you treat today’s loony Trump tweet as the top news story… you are keeping him at the center of attention, which he obviously craves. But you are also… strengthening his grip over the media, and you are making the media appear helpless and servile. 

The core problem of Trump coverage, one that is rarely acknowledged or dealt with, is that because bad publicity helps Trump, there seems to be no way to criticize him without further inflating him. The moment you pay attention to him, he has won. And since it seems impossible not to pay attention to him, he will therefore always win.

That may make the situation seem impossible. It’s only impossible, though, if the media continue to follow the same set of rules for coverage that they have always operated under. If it always merits attention when important people do outrageous things, then Trump will dominate the media forever, because Trump knows how to increase his importance and knows how to be outrageous. The rules of what’s important must change if we are to successfully reduce Trump’s dominance of the press. That means apportioning more coverage to, for example, Saudi Arabia’s ongoing bombing of Yemen, and less coverage to whatever 140-character idiocy Trump has most recently spewed. It should be recognized that Trump is intentionally trying to get people to pay as much attention to him as possible, and that one needs to find a way not to give him what he wants.

But finding effective ways to apportion critical attention to Trump means more than just ignoring some of his more rancid Tweets. It also requires ridding ourselves of certain kinds of criticism, which frequently seem damning in their content but aren’t damning at all in their ultimate consequences.

Let’s, then, go through a few insults and criticisms of Trump that don’t seem to work very well. A few of the most obvious:

  1. Trump is orange
  2. Trump is vulgar
  3. Trump is dumb
  4. Trump has funny hair

These are all given frequent mention. They are also beside the point. One should care far more about what Trump thinks and does than what he looks like. Now, one could say that what he looks like is in some ways a reflection of who he is, since the ridiculous spray-tan with the little white eye-regions is the product and consequence of his vanity. But the broader principle of progressives should be: what someone looks like is of minimal relevance in evaluating them. That’s what we believe. And we should be consistent in that belief. If someone made fun of our candidate’s appearance, no matter what that appearance was, we would declare that as a matter of principle, image should matter less than substance. Such high-mindedness is both admirable and correct. But it has no force unless you maintain it consistently, even as applied to people whom you detest. (Furthermore, mockery of Trump’s mannerisms and appearance has the perverse effect of building him up into more of an icon than he already is.)

This is why the “Naked Trump” sculptures, which a group of anarchists erected during August in American city parks, were so politically useless. The sculpture depicted Trump as grotesquely flabby, his penis so minute as to be invisible to the naked eye. Entitled “The Emperor Has No Balls,” the statue’s artistic point was to humiliatingly “expose” Trump. But the message didn’t really make sense. Some people critiqued it as “transphobic,” a bizarre line of argument. The real problem with it, though, was that it didn’t actually make a serious point. Trump is fat. So what? Do we hate fat people? Do we want to reinforce the idea that being fat is gross? Trump has a small penis. So what? Do we want to maintain the cruel idea that penis size says something about one’s dignity? And how would we feel about a similarly unflattering nude Hillary Clinton sculpture? Mocking his body is a satisfying form of lashing out at Trump, but it’s not a particularly noble, persuasive, or progressive one.

In fact, one should also be wary of progressive attacks against Trump that are based on premises that progressives do not actually share. For example, there have been critical press articles (by liberals) about Melania Trump’s skirting of immigration law, Trump’s lack of familiarity with the Bible, and Trump’s evasion of the Vietnam draft. But progressives don’t want immigration status to be an issue, and they don’t care whether political candidates have read the Bible. And we’re the ones who are supposed to be sympathetic to those who wanted to avoid being killed in Vietnam.

These attacks are therefore not honest reflections of our values. Of course, the progressive response is that these critiques of Trump are about hypocrisy, about his own standards. Because Trump is anti-immigrant, it makes sense to call out his wife’s own violations of immigration law, or his own employment of unauthorized workers. Because Trump is pretending to be religious for the purposes of running for office, it makes sense to point out his pitiful knowledge of Biblical lore. Because he is warlike, we can point out that he’s a chicken. (Likewise with the sculpture: because Trump is a narcissist, it makes sense to point out that he is unattractive. Not that we care. But he does.)

There’s something a little bit uncomfortable about dwelling on these issues at all, though, because it’s hard to simultaneously insist that something matters for the limited purpose of proving hypocrisy but ultimately doesn’t matter in the least. If we call Trump a small-penised, nonreligious, draft-dodging employer of illegal immigrants (and one who is not even a billionaire at that!), we are willingly adopting a set of values that we don’t hold. And it may be difficult to turn around and insist that actually, those things are fine. Thus while it makes logical sense to make such critiques, it muddies progressive messaging. One’s time is probably better spend pointing out how Trump doesn’t live up to a set of good values that we do hold rather than a set of bad values that he himself pretends to hold.

A useful question to ask when criticizing Trump is as follows: would I care about Thing X if someone on my own side did it? For example, isn’t it true that if someone on my side had bought concrete from someone with criminal ties, I would be taking pains to explain why buying concrete from someone unpleasant doesn’t make you yourself unpleasant. Likewise, I do not care when Democrats have unfortunate haircuts. What matters to me is what someone believes, not whether their flesh is or is not the color of a ripe Satsuma.

This is why John Oliver’s mockery of Trump on Last Week Tonight was particularly toothless and pathetic. Having found out that Trump’s German ancestors were called “Drumpf” rather than “Trump,” Oliver led a campaign to “Make Donald Drumpf Again,” wringing great amusement out of the apparent silliness of Trump’s ancestral name. But what was the point of this joke? What did it say about Trump? Lots of people have foreign ancestors with unusual names. Do we care? Isn’t progressivism supposed to have, as one of its principles, that foreign names aren’t funny just because they’re foreign? Isn’t this the cheapest and most xenophobic of all possible jokes? Oliver’s Drumpf campaign became extremely popular, but it was deeply childish. It fell into a common trap of Trump critiques: it descended to Trump’s level, using name-calling and playground taunts rather than trying to actually critique the truly harmful and reprehensible things about Trump. (It is possible to do satirical comedy that is actually brutal. The best joke about George W. Bush was nothing to do with My Pet Goat or his choking on a pretzel, but was the Onion’s devastating headline: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere.”)

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The critique of Trump as “vulgar” is another especially ineffective angle. Trump’s vulgarity is actually one of his only positive qualities. Vulgarity can be refreshing. It can get to the point, and be emotionally honest. It’s also nice to be told what politicians really think, in language that doesn’t try to disguise cruelty beneath a thin cloak of civility. As Amber A’Lee Frost writes, vulgarity in itself can have a clarifying effect:

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

Frost also points out that “vulgarity is the language of the people” and can be “wield[ed] righteously against the corrupt and the powerful.” Of course, much of Trump’s vulgarity has no such redemptive quality, and is used in the service of power rather than to undermine it. But it’s still more important to critique the underlying sentiment of Trump’s views rather than the coarseness with which Trump expresses them.

The failure to distinguish between tone and substance afflicted coverage of the notorious Billy Bush tape. Multiple news outlets reported that Trump had been caught on tape making “lewd” or “vulgar” remarks about women. In fact, he had been caught on tape bragging about committing sexual assault. The problem wasn’t the vulgarity. (After all, it would have been unobjectionable if he had been caught on tape saying “there’s nothing I love more than when someone gives unambiguous and enthusiastic consent for me to grab her by the pussy.”) It didn’t matter that he had said the word “pussy,” it mattered that he had admitted to a series of outrageous sex crimes. But the idea that “vulgarity” is what’s unappealing about Trump suggests that if he did the same exact things, with a little better manners, his behavior would be beyond reproach.

Calling Trump dumb is a similarly futile line of attack. First, nothing reinforces perceptions of liberals as snobs more easily than picking on stupid people. When Trump is mocked for his pronunciation of “China” or compared with the President from Idiocracy, critics miss something important: Trump may be an idiot, but he’s no dummy. That is to say: treating Trump as if he is slow leads to underestimating the kind of genius he has for successful PR manipulation. People will analyze the reading-level of Trump’s speeches, and conclude that he has the mind of a fourth-grader. But if you treat Trump as a fourth-grader, you may assume (quite wrongly) that he is easily outsmarted. Up until this point, underestimating Trump has produced nothing but misfortune for the underestimators. Trump should be treated as what he is: non-literate, non-worldly, but media-savvy and ruthlessly cunning. “Trump is dumb” messages are likely to play about as well as “Bush is dumb” messages did during the Bush/Kerry fight. They make liberals seem haughty, and Trump can claim that the elites are sneering at him (and by, implication, the working class) for his lack of formal learning.

Some critics of Trump seem to almost want to goad him into being worse for progressives. For example, in the time following the election, Trump was attacked for refusing national security briefings and retaining executive producer status on The Apprentice. The premise here, apparently, is that we want Donald Trump to spend less time working on reality shows and more time exercising the power of the presidency. But that seems an insane thing to desire. For progressives, it would probably be better if Trump spent four years continuing his reality show act than if he started thinking about which countries he’d like to bomb. The fewer national security briefings he gets, the better. (Same logic applies to the wall. Here’s a quick tip that all progressives should follow: if he doesn’t make an effort to build the wall, don’t tell him he’s a hypocrite and a failure.)

Likewise with Trump’s self-enrichment. A number of people have dwelled on his “conflicts of interest,” suggesting that Trump will unconstitutionally use his new powers to seek new business opportunities abroad, exploiting the office for financial gain. But if we’re being honest, this is probably the best outcome progressives could hope for. We should pray that Trump wants money rather than power, because building hotels in Singapore is one of the least destructive possible uses of his time. Corruption may be bad, but for progressives who care about human rights, Trump’s corruption should be very low on our list of worries. As Noam Chomsky has pointed out before, we should always hope that strongman-leaders are corrupt. If they’re corrupt, they might not do too much harm; you also can buy them off with money. But if they’re sincere yet megalomaniacal, there’s no end to the evil they will do. A corrupt con man will drain your treasury, but an honest ideologue could massacre six million people.

The question anyone writing about Trump should think about before making a criticism is as follows: does anybody really give a crap? For example, which do people care more about: Trump being friendly with Putin or about the potential disappearance of their Medicaid benefits? Do they care more about Trump tweeting some slur about a news anchor, or about the threat of nuclear war? Focus should be kept on those things that affect people’s lives the most.

There are bad potential critiques of Trump at every turn. When Trump negotiated with the Carrier air conditioner company in Indiana, arranging for them to keep 800 jobs in the United States in return for a tax break, some pointed out that 800 was only a fraction of the jobs in Indiana’s manufacturing sector. But this was a foolish critique. After all, 800 may not be many jobs statistically, but it’s a lot to the people working those jobs. Trivialize that number and you trivialize those people’s experiences. And saving 800 jobs was pretty impressive for a guy who hadn’t even been sworn in yet. Scoffing at the number seemed bitter and out-of-touch, and the grumbling appeared to implicitly concede that Trump had accomplished something.

But there was a far better critique to be made: Trump had essentially arranged for the company to receive an enormous bribe as a reward for threatening to send jobs to Mexico. It was a deal that looked good but set a terrible precedent, because it signaled to corporations that Trump would help to arrange for taxpayers to give them money to stay in the United States. The Trump Carrier deal was a PR masterstroke, but there was a serious and effective criticism to be made of it.

One person who understood how to criticize the deal effectively was Bernie Sanders. In the Washington Post, Sanders wrote:

Today, about 1,000 Carrier workers and their families should be rejoicing. But the rest of our nation’s workers should be very nervous. In exchange for allowing United Technologies to continue to offshore more than 1,000 jobs, Trump will reportedly give the company tax and regulatory favors that the corporation has sought. Just a short few months ago, Trump was pledging to force United Technologies to “pay a damn tax.” He was insisting on very steep tariffs for companies like Carrier that left the United States and wanted to sell their foreign-made products back in the United States. Instead of a damn tax, the company will be rewarded with a damn tax cut. Wow! How’s that for standing up to corporate greed? How’s that for punishing corporations that shut down in the United States and move abroad?

Note what Sanders did not do. He did not criticize every aspect of the deal. He did not diminish what it meant to the workers whose jobs were saved. But he reversed the message: instead of a move to help workers, it was a handout to corporations. This is the correct approach. It doesn’t treat every aspect of everything Trump does as necessary of the same criticism. Instead, it asks: how do Trump’s actions affect people in the real world? And if Trump’s actions affect people negatively, they should be criticized.

It’s possible to conduct effective messaging against Donald Trump. During the campaign, unions and independent groups recorded a series of devastating video ads featuring Trump’s workers and contractors, explaining the various ways in which he had screwed them and hurt their families. If they had been run across the country, they might have been very effective. (The Clinton campaign didn’t do anything with them.) Donald Trump has very low favorability ratings, and it should be relatively easy to expose him as a con man, one who offers working people promises that he has no intention of fulfilling, who says he will “drain the Washington swamp” and then stuffs his administration with parasitic billionaire elites.

But mounting effective attacks against Trump requires caring about being effective to begin with. The more Democrats spend time talking about things like, say, Trump angering China with a phone call to Taiwan (isn’t the left supposed to favor talking to Taiwan?), the less we’ll zero in on Trump’s true political weaknesses. Trump wants us to talk about his feud with the cast of Hamilton. He does not want us to force him to talk seriously about policy.

Criticisms should be of the things that matter: the serial sexual assaults, the deportation plans, the anti-Muslim sentiment, the handouts to the rich, the destruction of the earth. These are the things that matter, and if progressives actually do care about them, then these are the things we should spend our time discussing. Forget the gaffes. Forget the hypocrisy. Forget the hotels. Forget the hair. And don’t bother calling him Drumpf.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity. Pre-order today for shipping January 20th. 

1000 Ways To Misrepresent Noam Chomsky

As two new books show, Chomsky’s actual writings and arguments are almost always ignored…

Nearly everybody who ever writes about Noam Chomsky badly misstates his beliefs. That’s somewhat predictable, since the moment you discuss him to begin with, you’ve already rejected one of his most important principles, which is that when it comes to politics and science, the ideas advanced are far more relevant than the (murky, largely unfathomable) motivations of the people advancing them. Thus, when writers write about Chomsky, it’s almost certain that they don’t understand him, because if they understood him they probably wouldn’t be writing about him to begin with. Rather, they would be writing about his claims and the arguments and evidence he marshals in support of these claims. Oddly, this rarely happens.

In fact, an almost universal characteristic of those who write about Chomsky is that they seem never to have carefully read anything he has written. It’s easy to be cynical about the media, and assume that bias and misrepresentation are commonplace. But popular Chomsky-writing is often downright bizarre, not because it simply exhibits a distaste for him, but because it frequently accuses him of making arguments and holding beliefs that he has never once held, or that he has spent a lifetime vocally rejecting. No matter how many times Chomsky makes an assertion in print, academics and journalists will vigorously insist that he believes the exact opposite of that assertion. When Chomsky speaks, writers seem to hear what they think Chomsky would or should say, regardless of what he actually does say.

This has been going on for as long as Chomsky has been in public life. If he defends the right of free speech for Holocaust deniers, he is accused of denying the Holocaust. If he says he supports the tactic of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel, he is accused of opposing the tactic of boycotts, divestments, and sanctions against Israel. If he says he does not support Hillary Clinton’s policies, but would vote for her if he lived in a swing state, he is accused of supporting Hillary Clinton’s policies.

Ordinarily, when someone has stated something emphatically, repeatedly, and in plain language, it is not worth responding to those who insist one has said something else. But lately, such a vast new flurry of misrepresentation has erupted that it is worth taking the time to examine some cases in detail. Once we understand the extreme degree to which Chomsky’s positions have been misstated, we cannot help but reach a deeply troubling conclusion about the fate of truth in mainstream institutions. The facts are so simple, and the falsehoods so plain, that they should trouble anybody who wishes to maintain the slightest confidence that what they read in books and newspapers has some relationship to the facts.

When Chomsky speaks, writers seem to hear what they think Chomsky would or should say, regardless of what he actually does say.

In the last few months, two new major books about Noam Chomsky have been released by major publishers. The first, Tom Wolfe’s The Kingdom of Speech, is published by Little, Brown, and has been praised in the New York Times and the Wall Street Journal. The second, Chris Knight’s Decoding Chomsky, was published by the Yale University Press in September and has received a sympathetic nod in the Chronicle of Higher Education.

Both of these books attempt the same task: they wish to demolish Noam Chomsky’s reputation as an intellectual. They are perfectly open about this goal. Chomsky is one of the most highly-cited scholars of all time, and both Wolfe and Knight feel his reputation is undeserved. Each takes a different approach. Wolfe argues that Chomsky’s linguistic theories are disproven, and portrays Chomsky as a haughty exemplar of radical chic, whose political attitudes were “pre-fixed in a shtetl in Russia half a century before he was born,” and whose armchair theorizing about language has been discredited. Knight says that Chomsky’s linguistic output is “not really science but scientism,” incomprehensible nonsense produced to serve the “Pentagon-funded war science community.”

These authors approach Chomsky from different political perspectives. Wolfe is a conservative, who believes Chomsky represents the kind of elite radicalism he has spent his career lampooning. Knight is a Marxist, who dislikes Chomsky’s skepticism of revolutionary politics and poststructuralist theory. Despite that, each book is ostensibly concerned with Chomsky’s linguistics. Neither Wolfe nor Knight is a linguist, but each rests his demolition of Chomsky primarily on an attempt to discredit his scholarly rather than political work.

But one cannot separate these books neatly from the political agendas of the authors. Both believe that Chomsky’s reputation in linguistics has illicitly enhanced his reputation as a political analyst and critic. Both refrain from attacking Chomsky’s political views head on. Both aim to discredit his politics by attacking his scientific/linguistic claims. The strategy is simple: poison the well and all that comes forth is discredited. Expose the scientific work as wrong, even fraudulent, and the political views are discredited.

Intellectually speaking, this strategy should not succeed. After all, one can be right about one thing and wrong about another. Yet this sort of approach is frequently rhetorically effective. It is a tribute to the power of Chomsky’s political views and the evidence he presents in their support that so many critics of his politics feel that the best strategy for undermining them is to attack his linguistics. However, even this course of criticism is only effective to the degree that it gets the linguistics right. Wolfe and Knight are so far from understanding even the basic issues about which they write that it is astonishing that their works have made it to print.

Tom Wolfe’s attack on Chomsky’s linguistics centers on what might seem like a rather obscure question: is Pirahã, a language spoken by a small Amazonian tribe, “recursive”? Despite its seeming obscurity, this technical linguistic issue has attracted an unusual amount of attention from the mainstream press, starting with a 2007 New Yorker article by John Calapinto. It has also attracted an unusual amount of misunderstanding.

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The story here, as told by Calapinto and Wolfe, is roughly as follows: at the core of Noam Chomsky’s linguistics is the idea that all human languages have a property called “recursion.” However, a rugged field linguist named Daniel Everett once ventured deep into the Amazon, discovering a tribe called the Pirahã, whose language had no recursion at all. When Everett came back from the jungle, and tried to show that he had destroyed the foundations of Chomsky’s linguistic theories, legions of Chomsky acolytes attempted to smear and discredit him, in order to preserve the reputation of their master. By publicizing Everett’s findings, Wolfe hopes to slay Chomsky once and for all.

It’s a good story, except for a single small wrinkle: the “idea” supposedly held by Noam Chomsky isn’t one he has ever actually held. Chomsky never believed that all languages had recursion. He believed that all people had the capacity to acquire languages with recursion. Thus, even without understanding recursion itself, we can understand why Chomsky was totally unfazed by Everett’s fieldwork. It simply had no bearing whatsoever on Chomsky’s underlying thesis.

Picturing Chomsky’s likely reaction to the discovery of Pirahã, E.J. Spode imagines the following dialogue:

Chomsky is working at his computer when a student rushes in.

Student: Professor Chomsky! They’ve discovered an Amazonian tribe that has a language without recursion!

Chomsky [slowly turning from his computer]: Can they learn Portuguese?

Student: Well… yes.

Chomsky slowly turns back to his computer.

In the 1970’s, Weekend Update on Saturday Night Live used to feature a character named Emily Litella, played by Gilda Radner. Emily was an elderly lady with a hearing problem, who used to humorously misinterpret various issues of topical concern. She would wonder why people were concerned by all the “sax and violins on television.” Or she would wonder: “What is all this fuss I hear about the Supreme Court decision on a “deaf” penalty? It’s terrible! Deaf people have enough problems as it is!” Dan Everett, and Tom Wolfe as his chronicler, misinterprets Chomsky so badly that he appears to be reenacting an Emily Litella sketch. “All human languages have recursion, you say?” “No, I said that while all human languages don’t necessarily have recursion, the internal faculty of language clearly must.” “Well, that can’t be right, since I found a language without recursion!”

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So Everett’s claims concerning recursion in Pirahã are logically irrelevant to Chomsky’s claims that recursion is a central universal property of the faculty of language. The press and Wolfe have presented a thing called the “Everett/Chomsky debate,” even though debate is impossible, as Everett’s claims have no bearing on the truth of Chomsky’s. Tom Wolfe’s book treats Everett as having slain Chomsky, even though neither Everett or Wolfe have the faintest understanding of what Chomsky is arguing.

Worse, Wolfe treats every linguist who attempted to point out the mistake as a hyper-protective cult member. To Wolfe, a paper rebutting Everett’s claims was nothing but “a swollen corpus of objections—cosmic, small-minded, and everything in between.” As E.J. Spode writes, for Wolfe “all the dreary loathsome facts in that paper just made the case for recursion in Pirahã even better. [What could be] a more reliable sign that you are right than that people start arguing against you with things like ‘facts’? Screw facts!”

Wolfe is committed to telling a good yarn (naturally, with a lot of ellipses and sound effects). So Everett is “a rugged outdoorsman, a hard rider with a thatchy reddish beard and a head of thick thatchy reddish hair” who “could have passed for a ranch hand or a West Virginia gas driller.” And Chomsky is an air-conditioned office-bound nerd, with a blinkered shtetl mentality (yes, the there is a thick undercurrent of anti-Semitism to the characterization of Everett as hardy, muscular Christian and Chomsky as feeble, nerdy Jew). Chomsky’s peeved reaction to the Everett controversy is treated as a haughty disdain for those who disagree with him. Nowhere is it considered, by Wolfe or his reviewers, that Chomsky might simply be exasperated because Everett claims to have disproven a theory whose content he doesn’t actually comprehend. And because Wolfe himself depends entirely on Everett’s work, adding nothing but flashy rhetoric and invective (e.g. derogatory nicknames), every word of The Kingdom of Speech is irrelevant to assessing Noam Chomsky’s actual contentions.

Like Wolfe, Chris Knight believes that Noam Chomsky’s work in linguistics is “nonsense.” However, as a fellow leftwing radical, Knight shares many of Chomsky’s political beliefs, and considers Chomsky an insightful political thinker. Knight therefore feels he must wrestle with the “two Chomskys” puzzle. How, he wonders, can someone whose linguistic work is so self-evidently atrocious be such a capable political analyst? (Note, this is the opposite of the usual “two Chomskys” question asked by Chomsky’s opponents, which is “How can such a capable linguist produce such political childishness?” The New York Times described it in 1979 as “the problem of an opinionated historian inhabiting the same skin as the brilliant and subtle linguist.”)

Knight believes that Chomsky’s entire corpus of linguistic work is a web of fallacy and deception, though he acknowledges having “no training in theoretical linguistics” (Knight and Wolfe thus share a similar confidence in their ability to demolish fundamental parts of a field they have seemingly never taken so much as a introductory-level class in.) Knight begins from the premise that Chomsky’s approach to linguistics cannot make sense. This, he says, is because Chomsky believes in a kind of “value-free” science, divorced from political content. Chomsky believes that the “social and cultural” dimensions of language are irrelevant to studying it. Knight says that Chomsky’s linguistics work contains a “foundational error,” namely that it views the human brain as a “biological object with a certain weight and size.” This is a mistake, “since the mind, being intersubjective, cannot be pinned down this way.” After all, “minds reflect back on each other, interpenetrate one another and so transcend the confines of the skull.” (Interpenetration goes undefined. Intersubjectivity apparently has something to do with the fact that people communicate. And what “transcending the confines of the skull” involves, God only knows.)

In writing all of this, Knight simply misunderstands Chomsky. Chomsky has never stated that one can understand everything about language by studying the brain, and or that there are not cultural dimensions to language use. Rather, the aspect of language that Chomsky himself is interested is that which is common to all human beings. Put another way, Chomsky is interested in understanding what makes languages the same rather than what makes them different, even though they obviously differ.

Knight says that Chomsky “acknowledges no socially constructed persons, no communities, no traditions” and believes there is “no environment or context in which speaking takes place.” For Knight, these “strange doctrines” are so transparently false that they would be “unlikely to have prevailed” on their own merit, hence the need to invoke the Pentagon in order to explain their success. Indeed, Chomsky would certainly agree that these are “strange doctrines.” Fortunately, he has never espoused anything resembling them.

Again, the mistake is straightforward. Chomsky believes that one does not need to understand “context” in order to examine the particular properties of language into which he is inquiring. That is because he is interested in the facts about language that do not vary by context. The statement “variations in tradition do not affect this question” is different from “there are no variations in tradition.” Of course Chomsky believes that speaking takes place in “communities” and that societies and cultures vary widely. But if you want to understand the properties that are common to all human beings, it’s precisely the “social and cultural dimensions” that you don’t want to look at.

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But the most important thing about these two books is not that they are wrong, although they are. It is that neither of them actually understand the ideas they intend to attack. When Chris Knight emailed Noam Chomsky, and asked what Chomsky thought of Knight’s criticism of his theories, Chomsky replied that he could not detect any criticism of his theories. (Knight reprints the remark in his book, inexplicably proud of it rather than embarrassed by it.)

We therefore have two books which do not actually have a basic factual command of their subject matter. Yet at no point in the publication process did the editors at Yale or Little, Brown actually step in to check whether the book’s central contentions were truthful. Their edits, presumably, were entirely stylistic. Thus there is evidently no mechanism at major publishing houses to check whether anything a book is saying is actually true.

Here we have to ask an important question: how can so many respectable institutions print such scurrilous attacks on a man whose ideas they don’t even bother to understand? Why wouldn’t they try to get the facts right? This is where politics must necessarily come in. Those that jump to dismiss Chomsky’s linguistic work often quickly move on to their dismissals of his political arguments. Consider Caitlin Flanagan’s warm New York Times review of Wolfe’s book. Flanagan buys Wolfe’s arguments about the linguistics, and says that in 100 years it is Wolfe’s ideas rather than Chomsky’s that will endure. But she also detests Chomsky’s politics. As she writes:

Much that is distasteful — and, at worst, fraudulent — about the American university system can be traced, ultimately, to [Chomsky’s 1967 essay] “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” It allowed every plodding English department adjunct and uninspired life sciences prof to imagine themselves not as instructors but as “intellectuals,” people whose opinions on American foreign policy were inherently more valuable than those of the common men and women whom, ironically, they claimed to champion…

Flanagan’s discussion of “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is yet another example of a passage expressing the exact opposite of the truth. As Current Affairs has noted before, Chomsky’s essay was concerned with condemning intellectuals. Chomsky mocked the popular conception that the academics who advise governments (the “best and the brightest” who plotted U.S.’s bloody invasion of South Vietnam) are “responsible intellectuals.” Arguing against the view that intellectuals have some unique role in managing society, Chomsky suggested that they should perhaps limit themselves to the more modest (and less glamorous) task of simply telling the truth. As Chomsky explains:

It’s a very attractive conception that, ‘We are the rational, intelligent people, and management and decision-making should be in our hands.’ Actually, as I’ve pointed out in some of the things I’ve written, it’s very close to Bolshevism… And it underlies the fear and dislike of democracy that runs through elite culture always, and very dramatically right now… The claims to expertise are very striking. So, economists tell you, ‘We know how to run the economy’; the political scientists tell you, ‘We know how to run the world, and you keep out of it because you don’t have special knowledge and training.’

Far from having contempt for “the common men and women,” as Flanagan says, Chomsky is centrally concerned with rejecting the claims that intellectuals “know best” and can decide what people ought to do. Instead, he believes in a decentralized democracy, in which ordinary people have control over their own lives, and which the authority of academic expertise is constantly interrogated. (See the Current Affairs interview with Flanagan here.)

It’s unwise to speculate on the motivations of particular writers (after all, this is precisely what Knight tries to do). But we could make an observation, which is that for the people who make these misrepresentations, Chomsky’s beliefs (if accepted) are profoundly threatening. Chris Knight, for example, is a Marxist, an anthropologist, and a radical relativist (insofar as he sees scientific thought as little more than a product of political interests). He has defined himself by these things. Noam Chomsky is highly skeptical of revolutionary Marxism and sees Knight’s kind of relativism as unwarranted and irrational. Tom Wolfe is a conservative. He built part of his reputation on the idea of “radical chic.” The idea that someone could hold radical political convictions for intelligent and rational (rather than status-seeking) reasons threatens Wolfe’s worldview and thesis.

If what Chomsky says is true, then the ideas these men have invested their lives in are worthless. Knight, for example, notes in frustration that Chomsky rejects the “fundamental Marxist insight” that “it is not consciousness which determines conditions, but the other way around.” Chomsky, faced with this “insight,” would point out that it is either vacuous or a truism. To accept Chomsky would therefore necessitate abandoning orthodox Marxist theory.

Thus both men have a powerful incentive to destroy Chomsky, and to convince themselves and others that he is a fraud with nothing to say. So Knight dismisses Chomsky as suffering from a kind of psychological schizophrenia stemming from his guilt at working for MIT. And Wolfe treats Chomsky as a poseur who has relied on dirty tricks to keep his scholarly reputation alive.

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There is a larger question, however, that goes beyond the psychology of individual writers and that bears consideration: what reason would major highbrow publications have to continually misrepresent Chomsky’s scientific and political views? Why so they uncritically publish the shoddy work of people like Wolfe and Knight? Well, Chomsky and Edward S. Herman have a theory about this, that of “manufacturing consent,” which happens to fit the phenomena fairly well. Chomsky’s actual views challenge the moral authority of these mainstream institutions. He denies that they have expert knowledge that gives them special unquestionable authority on social and political matters. There may be other reasons for their mischaracterizing Chomsky’s views, but it is unsurprising that they would be reluctant to present those views fairly. Noam Chomsky is unimpressed by the New Yorker and the Yale University press. He has dedicated his life to pointing out the nudity of various cultural emperors. In turn, they do not like him much, either.

The two new books about Chomsky are very poor efforts. In mounting their attacks, neither Wolfe nor Knight produces substantive evidence against Chomsky’s actual positions. Knight relies on speculative psychoanalysis, Wolfe deploys his usual mix of exclamation points and onomatopoeia. In a rational world, Chomsky’s reputation would easily escape such attacks unscathed.

But we do not live in a particularly rational world. We live in the world Chomsky depicts in his writings, in which propaganda passes for fact, oligarchy passes for democracy, and atrocities pass for humanitarianism. We live in a world in which authors can tell any number of lies they like, if it helps us to avoid having to confront dissenting arguments on their merits. Truth, however, is independent of any individual’s opinion, and we would all be better off if instead of focusing on who Noam Chomsky is and what we imagine he might say, we focused on what Noam Chomsky actually says and the reasons he gives for saying it.

The Best of Current Affairs

A sampler platter of Current Affairs delicacies…

The end of 2016 also marks the end of Current Affairs’ first year of existence. Over the course of the annum, we have been pleased to bring readers an extraordinary selection of writing on a sprawling array of subjects. For a brand-new print magazine, we are proud of how much high-quality content we have managed to produce in a relatively short amount of time. Thanks to our generous and supportive readers and subscribers, we have managed to build and sustain a new print magazine in a time of great economic difficulty for small media outlets like ours.

We’d like to thank our readers by presenting them with some of the best content we’ve published in 2016, arranged by topic. If you enjoy what we have to offer, we strongly encourage you to subscribe to our print edition or donate money to fund our work. (Remember, a Current Affairs subscription makes an ideal holiday gift!) Current Affairs is not for profit, and all of the funding we receive goes directly toward paying writers and illustrators so that they can produce the highest quality work.

Thank you, and we hope you’ll love all of the material we have in store for 2017!

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Media Criticism:

 

Culture

 

Law and Criminal Justice

 

Race & Gender:

 

Money & Economics:

 

History:

 

Right-Wing Politics:

 

People:

 

Immigration:

 

Social Issues:

 

2016 Campaign Coverage:

Havana Without a Backpack

An attempt to find decent food in Times Square…

hate tourists because they wear backpacks.

It’s an undignified way for an adult human being to carry their belongings. Take a cue from the locals and carry a purse (or—I’m sorry—“messenger bag,” if you’re really that insecure), but have some self-respect and get a grown-up bag. Moreover, wearing a backpack so guilelessly identifies one as an easy mark. Oh, you’ve decided to identify yourself as a hapless out-of-towner by strapping your personal effects behind you, outside of your line of vision, where I could simply unzip and snag the contents without you even noticing? I should rob you just to teach you a lesson.

Most of all though, backpacks are entirely unnecessary for sightseeing in New York.

It annoys me to see my adopted city treated as a wilderness, requiring “gear” more suited to camping. The backpacks are always bulging too—what is even in them? Water? We have that here—more water than you could ever drink, some of it with bubbles and flavors. Are you schlepping snacks? You’re in snacktown, my friend. An extra three sweaters? Embrace the randomness of life and know that you can never truly plan for the weather. You’re in a massive urban center, and there is absolutely no need load up on supplies like a sherpa dragging rich white idiots up Everest.

Of course, some tourists are indistinguishable from locals, but still others combine their backpacks with even more vulgar affectations, as if reveling in their conspicuousness.

Germans, for example, are particularly bad at matching pace with a crowd, which is unfortunate when you get stuck behind them as they often travel in impenetrable blocs of four or five. In touristy areas it’s easy to get stuck behind them, as they lumber teutonically, impassable and oblivious, the elderly and women with strollers whizzing by and through them as soon as they see a passable breach.

I single out the Germans here not because my cultural chauvinism does not extend to other groups, but because Germans are the group I can single out without getting yelled at—not even by Germans. This is because of the Holocaust.

But we’re getting off track.

It goes without saying that I hate Times Square, the Mecca for backpack-wearing tourists. It’s not at all an uncommon opinion, of course, but it’s worth seeing in print. There is some dispute as to whether former Mayor Rudy Giuliani or his predecessor David Dinkins had a bigger hand in “cleaning up” Times Square, but it was a joint effort with the city and the Disney company that pushed out the old porn shops and dives to make way for the sea of chain restaurants, high end hotels and corporate offices that now blight the area. It is the most visited place in the world, attracting 360,000 pedestrians a day; I’m not sure how many are wearing backpacks, but it is a lot.

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I went to Times Square to eat at Margon, the last real diner from before the Disney “cleansing”—at least that’s what everyone says, and my research turned up no others. Margon is a Cuban restaurant, currently staffed and managed entirely by 17 members of the Rivas family. It has occupied its current location since 1987, when a former dishwasher and Dominican immigrant, Rivas senior, took over the restaurant. Before that the space was a go-go bar.

I made my roommate Nick come with me because he is competent and thoughtful and hungry. I believe that while food is not necessarily best experienced socially, it certainly is best evaluated in the company of others. Also I didn’t want to brave the maddening crowds alone.

We actually wove through the throngs with relative ease, down 46th street and over 7th Avenue, past the McDonald’s and the Actor’s Equity building and suddenly, like a mirage, a massive lateral neon sign—a palm tree and flashy letters reading “Havana Central.” It appears a massive Cuban chain restaurant operates directly across the street from Margon. There are four Havana Centrals in total—Times Square, Yonkers, Edison (New Jersey), and The Roosevelt Field Mall in Garden City, New York (near the JC Penney). It’s essentially a theme restaurant, with decently priced goods and retro decor modeled after Cuba’s “Golden Era,” which their website describes vaguely as “the 1950s.”

Cuban food is chic now, and not just for the suburbanites of Edison and the tourists in Times Square. A delicious place called Pilar opened up a few blocks away from my own apartment, past the retirement housing on my block, past the family neighborhoods and the larger projects, right on the cusp of “cool” Brooklyn. It attracts deep-rooted members of the neighborhood, but also younger crowds and recent transplants. It is “hip” without being hoity-toity or elite.

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Passing the behemoth Havana Central, we spotted the easy-to-miss entrance to Margon. Once inside it became clear how the Rivas family has been able to hold on to the property. The restaurant is incredibly narrow, with barely enough space for the cafeteria-style steam tables and fryers that kept the food hot behind spotless sneeze-guards. Tables are lined up single file against the wall, with a few larger ones in back. The ceiling is also claustrophobically low, and it’s difficult to imagine the go-go dancers once shimmying in such a cramped space.

Despite the confinement of the room and the rows and rows of steaming food, the air was cool and the atmosphere pleasant. Pitbull played on the radio—though not too loudly—and a woman with an easy smile took our order, pouring a beef stew over a massive pile of beans for me. Nick ordered beef as well, something sautéed with peppers, also served with beans and rice. The portions were massive, but we were ambitious.

I also ordered the octopus salad—which Margon is famous for. It had a piecey texture and a subtle flavor—had you not seen the suckers you might think it was light meat turkey in a light vinegar sauce. The rest of the food was uncomplex and perfectly homey—the thick gravy of my stew was so rich I scraped everything that was left onto my beans and rice to ration it. Nick’s dish was every bit of magic you can do with cheap steak—all robust flavor. It was everything you want out of New York “Spanish style” comfort food, with none of the familiar pitfalls. The rice was not dry and the beans were not starchy. The meat was not gristled and the peppers weren’t slimy.

It was a particularly masculine crowd, and Nick blended in more than I thought he would with his Milwaukee electric tool hat and his glasses on the end of a sport-strap. I think I saw one other woman dining. And while Pilar isn’t as lilywhite as your average cidre-serving restaurant (“Would you like to see our SEE-druh menu?”), the diners at Margon were nearly all black or brown. At a large table in the back, men in work vests laughed over their food. A white guy with a handle-bar mustache and a Tommy Bahama t-shirt sat a few tables behind us. A pregnant woman ordered in Spanish, speaking with familiarity to the woman spooning her food. We left very full, and I was far calmer than I had expected to be after a trip to Times Square.

A few days earlier, JetBlue had sent its first commercial flight from the US to Cuba in nearly 50 years, and it seems as if both the urbanites and the suburbanites have their own Cuban fantasies again, whether nostalgic, chic or bohemian. Margon caters to no fantasy at all. It is a place to eat, to eat comfortably and well, and a place to take refuge from the crowds. It was small enough to escape Disney, and it is too small for backpacks.

Photographs courtesy of Jeremiah Moss

The Necessity of Credibility

Ridding ourselves of fake news requires having media outlets that are actually worth listening to…

Despite having decisively won the presidential election by the only measure that counts, the Electoral College, Donald Trump recently decided to call the legitimacy of the entire process into question. “In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally,” Trump tweeted.

There was instant widespread condemnation of Trump. The New York Times ran a headline declaring that Trump’s claim had “no evidence.” ABC News declared it “baseless,” NPR went with “unfounded.” Politico called it a “fringe conspiracy theory.” Those news outlets whose headlines about the tweet did not contain the word “false” were criticized for failing their responsibility to exercise journalistic scrutiny.

The Washington Post swiftly sicced its top fact-checker on Trump. Glenn Kessler denounced Trump’s “bogus claim.” Kessler gave Trump a lecture on the importance of credibility, writing that since Trump was now “on the verge of becoming president, he needs to be more careful about making wild allegations with little basis in fact, especially if the claim emerged from a handful of tweets and conspiracy-minded websites.” Should Trump persist in wildly distorting the truth, he “will quickly find that such statements will undermine his authority on other matters.”

The media demanded to know where Trump had come up with such a ridiculous notion. The day after the tweet, Trump spokesman Jason Miller was asked by NPR whether there was any evidence to support the idea that millions of people had voted illegally. But surprisingly enough, Miller did have a source: The Washington Post.

In 2014, under the headline “Could non-citizens decide the November election?” the Post had run a piece from two social scientists, Jesse Richman and David Earnest, suggesting that illegal voting by non-citizens could be regularly occurring, and could even be prevalent enough to tip elections. As they wrote:

How many non-citizens participate in U.S. elections? More than 14 percent of non-citizens in both the 2008 and 2010 samples indicated that they were registered to vote. Furthermore, some of these non-citizens voted. Our best guess, based upon extrapolations from the portion of the sample with a verified vote, is that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in 2008 and 2.2 percent of non-citizens voted in 2010.

Richman and Earnest’s thesis was extremely controversial, and was so heavily criticized that the Post ultimately published a note preceding the article, pointing out that many objections to the work had been made. But the Post never actually retracted or withdrew the piece. It was ironic, then, that when Trump tweeted about millions of illegal voters, the Washington Post’s fact-checker chastised him for relying on “conspiracy-minded websites.” After all, the conspiracy-minded website in question was the Post itself.

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After Trump’s spokesman pointed out that the tweet was consistent with assertions from the Washington Post’s own website, the newspaper’s fact-checking department became extremely defensive. They awarded Miller’s statement an additional “four Pinnochios.” Without actually linking to the Post’s original article about voting by non-citizens, fact-checker Michelle Yee Hee Lee tried to claim that the study wasn’t really in the Washington Post. Instead, she said, it: “was published two years ago in the Monkey Cage, a political-science blog hosted by The Washington Post. (Note to Trump’s staff members: This means you can’t say The Washington Post reported this information; you have to cite the Monkey Cage blog.)”

It was an embarrassing defense. The writers had explicitly said that a reasonable extrapolation from existing data was that 6.4 percent of non-citizens voted in the 2008 election. They had said so in an article that appeared on the Washington Post’s website, displayed in exactly the same manner as every single other piece of reportage. And the Post had never taken the article down or retracted the claim, and had only noted that the piece was highly controversial. Yet instead of apologizing for the Post’s role in spreading a dubious claim, Lee relied on ridiculous distinctions. She insisted that the Post had “hosted” rather than “published” the article. She attempted to enforce a made-up rule, that people aren’t allowed to cite the article as coming from the Post, but must instead cite it as coming from something called the “Monkey Cage,” which sounds far less credible. Yet on the article page itself, there is no such disclaimer to indicate a distinction between non-Post-endorsed “blog posts” and actual Post writing, and the words “Monkey Cage” appear in tiny letters beneath the ordinary full-sized Washington Post logo. There is nothing to make ordinary readers aware that the Post is not responsible for any claims made in these corners of its website.

This is not to say that Trump’s claim of massive voter fraud is correct. It is false, or at least totally unsubstantiated. We don’t have any reason to conclude that millions of people voted illegally. The original study that appeared in the Post was criticized for good reason. Attempts to conclude that millions of people voted illegally voted rest on shaky extrapolations, rather than actual positive proof. But it’s noteworthy that the Washington Post so blithely joined the chorus of those treating Trump’s claim as self-evidently bizarre and deranged, while refusing to acknowledge they had themselves helped to give legitimacy to the idea. Of course, it’s understandable that the paper would be reluctant to make such a concession. While it doesn’t make Trump any less wrong, it does undermine the idea that Trump is entirely reliant on conspiratorial and discredited sources—unless such sources include the Washington Post. But however embarrassing it may be to admit, the imperatives of professional integrity require one to concede that Trump wasn’t just making things up out of whole cloth.

The voter fraud story is indicative of a much wider problem with U.S. political media: its attempts to point out Trump’s falsehoods are consistently undermined by the media’s own lack of credibility on matters of fact. Especially with the rise of “fact-checking” websites, whose analysis is frequently shoddy and dubious, the political media contribute to the exact kind of “post-truth” atmosphere that journalists criticize Trump for furthering.

An interesting and illuminating example of this can be found in the controversy over so-called “fake news.” A few weeks after the election, a series of critics lamented the role of “fake” stories during the election cycle. A study by BuzzFeed reported that “the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets.” A number of commentators saw this as a bad sign for the future democratic governance. Andrew Smith of The Guardian suggested that the proliferation of false stories on social media was eroding the very foundations of reality. In the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof solemnly concluded that “fake news is gaining ground, empowering nuts and undermining our democracy.”

One of the most ominous and sinister warnings about the threat of fake news was found in (again) The Washington Post. In late November, the Post’s Craig Timberg produced a detailed report alleging that much of the “fake news” on the internet was, in fact, a carefully-crafted Russian propaganda effort designed to erode Western governments through the spread of damaging disinformation. The Post cited a “nonpartisan group of researchers” known as “PropOrNot,” who had “identifie[d] more than 200 websites as routine peddlers of Russian propaganda during the election season, with combined audiences of at least 15 million Americans.” Many news stories on the internet, the Post suggested, were not news at all, but lies propagated by Russia in order to further its own state interests. The Post concluded that while there “is no way to know whether the Russian campaign proved decisive in electing Trump… researchers portray it as part of a broadly effective strategy of sowing distrust in U.S. democracy and its leaders.”

The report landed like a bombshell. It was soon the most-read piece on the Post’s website, was covered by NPR, and was being promoted by prominent journalists and commentators as a crucial investigation. But subsequent scrutiny of the Post’s reportage revealed that its evidence for a Russian conspiracy was thin. PropOrNot’s “list” of “Russian propaganda” websites targeted a number of totally innocuous independent media outlets, including left-wing outlet Truthdig and popular financial blog Naked Capitalism. It turned out that to be classified as a “Russian propaganda outlet,” one needn’t actually be associated with Vladimir Putin or the Russian government. For the purposes of making the PropOrNot blacklist, it was sufficient that a media organization be “useful” to the Russian state. By that expansive criterion, plenty of ordinary political criticism and analysis (such as that found on Truthdig) could be classified as “propaganda.” After all, anything critical of the U.S. government could be considered helpful to the Russian government. The Post’s allegations therefore rested on a dangerous premise: the idea that if one can’t prove one isn’t helping the Russian government, then one is helping the Russian government.

Furthermore, the PropOrNot organization itself was highly mysterious and of dubious reliability. Its Twitter feed regularly accused its critics of being “fascists” and “Putinists.” All of its “researchers” were anonymous, and it was unclear what credentials or expertise they had, or who they themselves might be funded by. Thus The Washington Post tarred a series of legitimate independent media outlets as tools of the Russian state, based on the word of an unknown anonymous source.

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The Post quickly received intensive criticism over the report. The Nation said it had “smeared working journalists as agents of the Kremlin” by offering up a “McCarthyite blacklist.” Adrian Chen of The New Yorker called it “propaganda.” Glenn Greewnald and Ben Norton of The Intercept said the Post had offered “obviously reckless and unproven allegations… fundamentally shaped by shoddy, slothful journalistic tactics.” In Rolling Stone, Matt Taibbi called it an “astonishingly lazy report” and said that “most high school papers wouldn’t touch sources like these.” (Though Rolling Stone may not have been the optimal venue for launching a denunciation of substandard reporting using unreliable sources.) Yet confronted with evidence that it may have reported a story riddled with falsehoods, the Post (again) refused to admit error. “I’m sorry, I can’t comment about stories I’ve written for the Post,” replied reporter Craig Timberg. (“Can’t,” as is so often the case, meaning “won’t.”)

The irony here was that in writing about the spread of so-called “fake news,” the Post had itself produced a classic example of fake news. After all, wasn’t this entirely the sort of story about which journalists were panicking? A poorly-sourced series of outlandish allegations, that brought harm to people’s reputations without actually providing proof of wrongdoing?

The Post’s catastrophically bad reporting on “fake news” illustrated an unfortunate tendency of the American political press. When it comes to news about Russia or Vladimir Putin, all the usual standards of skepticism and caution (as one might apply to claims made by Donald Trump) seem to disappear. In October, Franklin Foer of Slate wrote a story alleging that a Trump Organization computer server was sending secret communications to Russia. (Amusingly, it turned out that the server was routinely sending the Russians spam promotional flyers advertising Trump hotels.) Mother Jones published quotes from an anonymous former intelligence official, claiming Donald Trump was a secret Russian agent. After Hillary Clinton’s loss, Paul Krugman became especially paranoid and unhinged, tweeting that James Comey and Vladimir Putin had “installed” Trump as president, and declaring that the FBI was essentially in “alliance” with Putin.

Such language almost seems a throwback to the 1950s, likewise a time when sinister Russian conspirators lurked around every corner and beneath every bed. Most of the “Russians are coming” stories were thinly sourced or based on unsupported quotes from anonymous government insiders. Consider this one from (…again) The Washington Post entitled “If you’re even asking if Russia hacked the election, Russia got what it wanted.” The writer argued that the Russian government had a conscious strategy to disrupt Americans’ faith in their systems of governance, and that:

…[the] strategy manifested itself in the Russians’ strongly alleged involvement in promoting “fake news” and disseminating hacked emails stolen from the Democratic National Committee. These emails hurt Hillary Clinton’s campaign and weakened Americans’ trust in the Democratic primary.

Note the key phrase: strongly alleged. When it comes to Russian meddling, it doesn’t matter whether the proof is strong. It matters whether the allegation is strong. Once we have a strong allegation that Russia is doing something nefarious, we can treat it as fact. The press’s treatment of Trump/Putin stories was little short of deranged. One can ponder how much of this was driven by loyalty to Hillary Clinton among certain journalists, versus how much was the sensationalistic pursuit of eye-catching stories. Either way, whenever the subject of Russia comes up, the press has a tendency to blow even the flimsiest rumor into the stuff of airport espionage thrillers. “Vladimir Putin has a plan for destroying the West—and that plan looks a lot like Donald Trump,” wrote Foer in Slate. Headlines like “The secret to Trump: He’s really a Russian oligarch” and “The Kremlin’s candidate” abounded.

But the mainstream media’s looseness with facts goes well beyond stories about Russia and Trump. It’s also furthered by “explainer” websites like Vox.com, which blur the distinction between (liberal) commentary and neutral empirical analysis. Particularly pernicious is the rise of “fact-checking” websites, which are ostensibly dedicated to promoting objective truth over eye-of-the-beholder lies, but which often simply serve as mouthpieces for centrist orthodoxies, thereby further delegitimizing the entire notion of “fact” itself. As Current Affairs has previously argued at length, websites like PolitiFact frequently disguise opinion and/or bullshit as neutral, data-based inquiry.

This happens in a couple of ways. First, such websites frequently produce meaningless statistics, such as trying to measure the percentage of a candidate’s statements that are false. PolitiFact constantly spreads its statistics about how X percent of Trump or Clinton’s statements are rated false, declining to mention the fact that this statistic is empty of any content, since the statements that are evaluated haven’t been randomly selected. The centrist biases of fact-checkers also affect their decisionmaking. Fact-checkers have, for example, insisted that it was wrong to say Hillary Clinton wanted to get rid of the 2nd Amendment. But this isn’t a “factual” dispute at all. It depends on one’s interpretation of the 2nd Amendment’s essential meaning, something that varies based on one’s personal political values.

Efforts to soften critiques of the Clintons were persistent features of fact-checks during the election. For example, fact-checkers have insisted that a factory in Haiti that the Clintons helped build was not a sweatshop, despite the fact that wages in Haitian factories are under a dollar per hour and workers have complained regularly of exploitative and abusive treatment. Conservative writer Sean Davis similarly encountered the topsy-turvy world of Clinton Foundation “fact checking.” When Davis wrote an article about the small percentage of its funding the Clinton Foundation spends on charitable grants (as opposed to its own in-house programming), PunditFact argued that the claim, “while technically true” was nevertheless “mostly false.” Davis was understandably puzzled by the idea that something could be rated false despite “technically” being true.

But this happens frequently on fact-checking websites. Fact-checkers claim that while claims may literally be true, they are nevertheless false for giving “misleading” impressions or missing crucial context. For example, when Carly Fiorina claimed that she had gone from being a secretary to being a CEO, her claim was given “Three Pinnochios” by The Washington Post, even though Fiorina had indeed (by the Post’s own admission) been a secretary before she was a CEO. The Post reasoned that while Fiorina was literally telling the truth, her statement was nevertheless false since she had advantages in life that other secretaries did not have.

The fact-checkers might think that by going beyond the literal meaning of statements, and evaluating the impressions they leave, they are in fact doing a greater service to truth and reality. In fact, they are opening the door to a far more subjective kind of work, because evaluating perceptions requires a lot more interpretation than evaluating the basic truth or falsity of a statement. It thereby creates far more room for bias and error to work their way into the analysis.

A good example of the perils of fact-checking is seen in Donald Trump’s claims over birds and wind turbines. Trump doesn’t like wind turbines, and frequently rails against them on Twitter and in speeches. One of his favorite points to make is that wind turbines kill birds, specifically eagles. At one point, Trump said the following:

“There are places for wind but if you go to various places in California, wind is killing all of the eagles… You know if you shoot an eagle, if you kill an eagle, they want to put you in jail for five years. And yet the windmills are killing hundreds and hundreds of eagles. … They’re killing them by the hundreds.”

This invited a vigorous fact-check from PolitiFact, who rated the claim “Mostly False” and said that Trump was “inflating” wind turbine deaths. Yet wind turbines do kill over 100 eagles per year in California, as PolitiFact admitted. Furthermore, eagle deaths from turbines are such a serious concern to animal welfare advocates. Save The Eagles International has reported “millions” of wind turbine deaths and the Audubon Society has warned that wind turbines, while good for the environment, come with “hundreds of thousands” of unnecessary bird deaths.

Here we see how bias can affect fact-checks. Trump was clearly correct that wind turbines are a serious threat to birds, including endangered birds. Rating him “mostly false” depends on giving the least charitable possible interpretation to his words, suggesting that he meant hundreds were dying within California per year (which he did not say). And since it’s actually about 116 eagles within California per year, this would be a slight exaggeration. But note: Trump’s underlying point is still clearly valid. Wind turbines kill lots of birds. The Audubon Society is concerned. Trump isn’t making this issue up, it exists and it’s serious, and his sources are perfectly sound. The context and implications of Trump’s remarks make them true, even if his statistic is marginally off. But while context matters if it can help prove Carly Fiorina’s point is invalid, it doesn’t matter if it can help prove Trump’s point is valid.

This is a story about glass houses and stones: in order to convince people not to believe in disreputable sources, you must first give them reason to believe that you yourself are reputable.

It’s clear why the fact-checkers wouldn’t want to admit Trump’s point about birds and wind turbines is a good one. First, it sounds ridiculous, even though it happens to be true. Second, it’s Trump, and sober-minded Democratic centrists don’t like admitting that Trump is right about anything. Third, it unsettles Democratic centrist political convictions, because it seems to undermine the case for green energy. (It actually doesn’t. One can argue that wind turbines are worth the cost in bird-lives. Or one can argue that wind turbines should both exist and be made safer, as the Audubon Society does. There is no reason to be afraid of the facts.) But by refusing to admit that Trump is ever right, or at least has something resembling a point, fact-checkers render themselves untrustworthy.

When recently asked about Trump’s claims of voter fraud, Trump surrogate Scottie Hughes gave a statement about the nature of truth that shocked many people:

One thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch, is that people that say facts are facts—they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way—it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts. And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd—a large part of the population—are truth.

Politico reporter Glenn Thrush called Hughes’ remark “absolutely outrageous.” After all, Hughes was suggesting that there was no such thing as objective reality, that Trump’s claims of voter fraud were just as legitimate as the claims of those who had “reason” and “evidence” on their side.

Indeed, Hughes’ remark is somewhat terrifying. (Although it doesn’t sound particularly conservative. In fact, it rather resembles a mainstream liberal belief: that ideas of “truth” and “facts” are matters of interpretation, shaped by our personal identities rather than any “objective” reality. Hughes almost sounds as if she has been reading Foucault, and is on the verge of concluding that truth is little more than a series of differing narratives reflecting existing power relations.) If Hughes’ perspective were taken to its logical extreme, it would mean that every form of bigotry and error was just as legitimate as its opposite. Such a world is nightmarish.

But before getting too sanctimonious, journalists should question their own role in giving this perspective a boost. The garbage churned out regularly by CNN and Slate may be better than Trump’s tweets, but it is not that much better. And by failing to show humility about their own ability to generate truth, and themselves being highly detached from the real world, talking-head pundits and biased “data-based” journalists may be helping to create the “post-truth” environment, by robbing words like “true,” “false,” and “fact” of their meaning. By conjuring phony statistics (like “percentage of false statements”) and treating highly subjective and interpretive judgments as if they are Just The Facts, the press steadily erodes the credibility it will need in order to effectively hold Trump accountable. Kellyanne Conway is correct to point out that the single biggest piece of “fake news” was the story that Trump couldn’t win. It’s very difficult for places like, say, BuzzFeed to hold forth on the necessity of accuracy in journalism, when BuzzFeed itself had reported that Trump “plainly has no interest in actually running for office.” Trump has actually established some formidable credentials as a truth-teller against his critics in the press. After all, they were the ones telling him that his confidence of victory was a delusion.

In fact, BuzzFeed even published a lengthy profile mocking Trump-supporting commentator Bill Mitchell for being “post-truth” and “post-math.” To BuzzFeed, Mitchell was laughably divorced from reality for his belief that “enthusiasm” was a far more reliable predictor of electoral success than polls. Mitchell was treated with open contempt by data obsessives like Nate Silver, for his failure to understand “basic math.” But Mitchell turned out to be right. This raises an important question: if Trump and his supporters were labeled “post-truth” or “anti-facts” for the act of ignoring polls, but they turned out to be correct, then why should allegations of being “post-truth” or “anti-facts” be taken seriously? By using these phrases with overconfident abandon against Trump supporters, even when they don’t necessarily apply, members of the press diminish the currency of words like “truth.”

None of this is to suggest that the mainstream media is somehow “just as bad” as fake news from conspiracy theory websites. What’s reported in The New York Times frequently does bear a general resemblance to the truth. (Though not always, and one should never forget the Times’ uncritical repetition of government claims about weapons of mass destruction in the lead-up to the Iraq War.) The point is, rather, that even a single falsehood or misrepresentation can permanently destroy one’s credibility, and being trustworthy requires always being honest and self-critical. If phrases like “post-truth” are used cavalierly, they can become insignificant. If “fact-checks” are not really fact-checks, but are centrist opinion pieces, the word “fact” comes to connote “the highly contentious views of people who call themselves fact-checkers” rather than anything about reality or the world as it actually exists.

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Those who say Donald Trump dwells in a “post-truth” realm are not wrong. He lies a hell of a lot, and misrepresents a hell of a lot more. But in order for the “post-truth” charge to be taken seriously, one must be careful and reliable in calling out “lies.” And one must be serious in understanding why people become conspiracy theorists in the first place. If the press is unaccountable, condescending, and secretive, it won’t be believed, even if it’s right. (Similarly, one of the reasons that so many wild conspiracy theories develop around Hillary Clinton is that—as even her supporters admit—she is extremely secretive. As a purely practical matter, if you act like you’ve got something to hide, people will assume you do. And they’re not irrational to make that inference.) If people are heading for fake news, then it is urgently necessary to figure out how to get them back. One won’t do that by continuing to do the same thing, such as continuing to spew biased and speculative punditry. This is a story about glass houses and stones: in order to convince people not to believe in disreputable sources, you must first give them reason to believe that you yourself are reputable.

For progressives, having a reliable and trustworthy media means not being afraid of uncomfortable truths. If wind turbines kill a bunch of eagles, let’s have the guts to admit it. If the Clintons are actually pretty noxious, let’s be perfectly honest about their failings. If Trump is right about something, then he’s right. And if he is wrong about something, but he read it in the Washington Post, then let’s admit that this reflects worse on the Washington Post than on Trump. The truth is a precious thing, and it should never, ever be distorted for partisan reasons. Being credible means being self-critical, and trying to build a press that people can depend on to help them sort truth from lies.

Having a media people can actually trust should be a fundamental goal of Trump opponents. Currently, people don’t trust the mainstream media. And the first thing the media must do is acknowledge that part of that mistrust is entirely rational and reasonable. After that, building true credibility will at the very least require a major rethink of how ordinary political media do business. They will have to interrogate their assumptions more, defend or revise their work in response to criticisms, and get serious about truth, fairness, and accountability. They will need to abandon the assumption, commonly held, that if people on “both sides” are mad at you, you must be doing your job well. And they will need to be extremely cautious in their factual assertions. If I go around asserting that Trump’s attitude toward polls is “post-truth,” then report that Trump is a possible Russian spy, I will have few grounds to complain when Trump’s supporters decide to get their news from alt-right conspiracy websites instead.

Yet it is telling that after the election, the people who were most wrong during the campaign are still producing voluminous commentary. No outlet that wanted to regain trust and build audiences would be keeping such people on its staff. But “pundit tenure” is powerful. Thus is also likely that the quest for credible media will necessitate the creation of new media. CNN and The Washington Post have never shown a particularly encouraging capacity for introspection and self-improvement, and it’s unlikely that they’re contemplating major internal overhauls in their mission and accountability practices. Their institutional imperatives consist, after all, largely of seeking views and clicks. For them, the 2016 election was a success rather than a failure. A lot of people, after all, tuned in. Why should they do things any differently? Thus it would be useful to have fresh, truly independent outlets, ones that disclose their biases, are transparent in their methods, and are constantly trying to improve themselves rather than simply pursuing the same useless sensationalism and empty horse-race punditry. If one’s only options are Breitbart on the one hand, and The Washington Post on the other, readers lose no matter what.

Credibility is extremely difficult to achieve, and extremely easy to destroy. At the moment, the press doesn’t have it. They need to acknowledge that they don’t have it. They need to figure out why they don’t have it. And then they need to begin the long, agonizing, humbling process of trying to get it. The only way to counter fake news is with real news. Not fake real news, or news that merely looks like news but is actually opinion or allegation. Actual real news. Substantive and serious reporting. A commitment to avoiding innuendo and anonymous sources. Transparency and a willingness to atone for mistakes.

Every one of the three major candidates in this election (Trump, Clinton, and Sanders) was hounded by fake or exaggerated news stories. Trump was accused of being a secret Russian agent. Clinton’s email scandal was blown out of all reasonable proportion. And Bernie Sanders was hounded by malicious and unrepresentative stereotypes about “BernieBros.” Yet none of these stories were from fringe blogs and conspiracy sites. They were all produced by the mainstream press, which gave this nonsense primacy over stories about climate change, nuclear proliferation, Syria, health care, poverty, and every other conceivable issue of consequence.

Concerns about fake news are justified. But instead of begging our Silicon Valley overlords to crack down on the free sharing of information, we might start by building a mainstream press that has credibility of its own.

This article is adapted from the forthcoming book Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity, now available for pre-order. Ships January 20th.

Trump Gives Tax Cut To Company For Sending 1000 Jobs To Mexico

The president-elect’s PR move was very well-played. Bernie Sanders showed how to respond to such stunts.

Donald Trump’s deal to save 800 jobs at the Carrier air-conditioner plant in Indiana that were scheduled to be outsourced to Mexico should confirm Democrats’ worst fears about the Donald: that he is an exceptionally talented politician, one with enough of a talent for messaging and enough willingness to break with bipartisan orthodoxy to keep his economic-populist message convincing throughout what will no doubt be a profoundly anti-worker administration. If Trump can continue to dominate news cycles with things like this, it won’t matter when he shreds labor protections, deregulates industries, packs the NLRB and guts OSHA; the long-term consequences of those things are diffuse and complex, while saving 800 (or, per the Donald, 1000) jobs fits nicely into a 30-second TV spot. If Trump manages to sustain this kind of messaging, he will certainly win in 2020, and all the corruption scandals and Twitter faux-pas in the world won’t save the Democrats. It’s the economy, dumbass.

In a sense, of course, this is only the Democrats’ chickens coming home to roost: in hindsight they really shouldn’t have bought into the deep bipartisan consensus that Rust Belt manufacturing should be left to die slowly for the greater good. They accepted that since international trade permits every American to buy slightly cheaper at Walmart, it was acceptable to let entire regional economies wither on the vine with no real plan to replace the jobs. This argument was wrong on the merits, and wrong politically. The Democrats were always vulnerable to attacks on this front, since they had sold out one of their major regional constituencies in a big way; it’s just that up till now the Republicans have been both too feckless and too committed to free trade themselves to know how to exploit it. But the Republicans were saved from their fecklessness by an outsider candidate who turned out to be vastly better at winning elections than any national-level Republican in the modern era, and it’s very hard to see what the Democrats have to offer that win back the upper Midwest from a savvy economic populist like Trump—and without the upper Midwest there’s no Democratic coalition capable of winning national power. They should be very afraid.

Unfortunately liberal commentators don’t quite seem to see the scale of the problem. (That they are not terrifically good at politics should be pretty clear by this point.) From Paul Krugman at the New York Times sniffing that 1000 jobs isn’t that many jobs, you know, to Matt Yglesias at Vox complaining that the media shouldn’t have reported on this so much, liberals seem to be competing with each other for who can miss the point most. 1000 jobs is not that many jobs unless one of them’s your job. And it’s not the job of the media to counter Trump’s messaging strategy; that’s the Democrats’ job. A job they have thus far miserably failed at.

With one exception. Bernie Sanders published a piece in the Washington Post yesterday titled “Carrier Just Showed Corporations how to Beat Donald Trump.” Sanders reframes the debate entirely: even after Trump’s deal, Carrier is still outsourcing more than 1,000 jobs to Mexico, and it’s getting millions of dollars in tax breaks to keep a handful of jobs in Indiana—tax breaks that will come out of ordinary Indianians’ pockets. Trump, in Sanders’ telling, didn’t go to the negotiating table and beat a corporation; he pled with it and bribed it with taxpayer money and still lost half of the jobs. And now that corporations know they can get millions for threatening to outsource jobs, they’ll be coming for your job soon.

This is how it’s done, folks. Sanders is right on the merits, of course—corporations leveraging the threat of outsourcing to ring concessions out of localities isn’t the opposite of globalization but one of its vectors. But more importantly, he’s right on the politics. Democrats based their campaign strategy on the notion that Trump’s key vulnerability that he was no ordinary politician; this was ass-backwards. Trump’s unorthodoxy is his strength; it’s what makes people trust him. No, Trump’s vulnerability is precisely that he is a normal Republican—that beneath the messaging he’s ultimately committed to deregulation, de-unionization and tax cuts. His economic populism is ersatz.

Sanders understands this; his message on the Carrier episode (like his description of Trump’s infrastructure bill as a corporate welfare scam) exemplifies the economic populist message Democrats desperately need to adopt. Let’s hope other Democrats notice, because their current messaging strategy—railing against Trump’s racism, his conflicts of interest, the weird things he says on Twitter, while Trump keeps talking about jobs—is disastrously out of touch. If Trump manages to convince voters that he’s the one looking out for their economic well-being while his opponents tut-tut about Twitter storms, it’s going to be a long eight years…