I Don’t Care How Good His Paintings Are, He Still Belongs In Prison

George W. Bush committed an international crime that killed hundreds of thousands of people.

Critics from the New Yorker and the New York Times agree: George W. Bush may have been an inept head of state, but he is a more than capable artist. In his review of Bush’s new book Portraits of Courage: A Commander in Chief’s Tribute to America’s Warriors (Crown, $35.00), New Yorker art critic Peter Schjeldahl says Bush’s paintings are of “astonishingly high” quality, and his “honestly observed” portraits of wounded veterans are “surprisingly likable.” Jonathan Alter, in a review titled “Bush Nostalgia Is Overrated, but His Book of Paintings Is Not,” agrees: Bush is “an evocative and surprisingly adept artist.” Alter says that while he used to think the Iraq War was “the right war with the wrong commander in chief,” he now thinks that it was the “wrong war” but with “the right commander in chief, at least for the noble if narrow purpose of creatively honoring veterans through art.”

Alter and Schjeldahl have roughly the same take on Bush: he is a decent person who made some dreadful mistakes. Schjeldahl says that while Bush “made, or haplessly fronted for, some execrable decisions…hating him took conscious effort.” Alter says that while the Iraq War was a “colossal error” and Bush “has little to show for his dream of democratizing the Middle East,” there is a certain appeal to Bush’s “charming family, warm relationship with the Obamas, and welcome defense of the press,” and his paintings of veterans constitute a “message of love” and a “step toward bridging the civilian-military divide.” Alter and Schjeldahl both see the new book as a form of atonement. Schjeldahl says that with his “never-doubted sincerity and humility,” Bush “obliviously made murderous errors [and] now obliviously atones for them.” Alter says that Bush is “doing penance,” and that the book testifies to “our genuine, bipartisan determination to do it better this time—to support healing in all of its forms.”

This view of Bush as a “likable and sincere man who blundered catastrophically” seems to be increasingly popular among some American liberals. They are horrified by Donald Trump, and Bush is beginning to seem vastly preferable by comparison. If we must have Republicans, let them be Bushes, since Bush at least seems good at heart while Trump is a sexual predator. Jonathan Alter insists he is not becoming nostalgic, but his gauzy tributes to Bush’s “love” and “warmth” fully endorse the idea of Bush’s essential goodness. Now that Bush spends his time painting puppies and soldiers, having mishaps with ponchos and joking about it on Ellen, more and more people may be tempted to wonder why anyone could ever have hated the guy.

Nostalgia takes root easily, because history is easy to forget. But in Bush’s case, the history is easily accessible and extremely well-documented. George W. Bush did not make a simple miscalculation or error. He deliberately perpetrated a war crime, intentionally misleading the public in order to do so, and showed callous indifference to the suffering that would obviously result. His government oversaw a regime of brutal torture and indefinite detention, violating every conceivable standard for the humane treatment of prisoners. And far from trying to “atone,” Bush has consistently misrepresented history, reacting angrily and defensively to those who confront him with the truth. In a just world, he would be painting from a prison cell. And through Alter and Schjeldahl’s effort to impute to Bush a repentance and sensitivity that he does not actually possess, they fabricate history and erase the sufferings of Bush’s victims.

First, it’s important to be clear what Bush actually did. There is a key number missing from both Alter and Schjeldahl’s reviews: 500,000, the sum total of Iraqi civilians who perished as a result of the U.S. war there. (That’s a conservative estimate, and stops in 2011.) Nearly 200,000 are confirmed to have died violently, blown to pieces by coalition air strikes or suicide bombers, shot by soldiers or insurgents. Others died as a result of the disappearance of medical care, with doctors fleeing the country by the score as their colleagues were killed or abducted. Childhood mortality and infant mortality shot up, as well as malnutrition and starvation, and toxins introduced by American bombardment led to “congenital malformations, sterility, and infertility.” There was mass displacement, by the millions. An entire “generation of orphans” was created, with hundreds of thousands of children losing parents and wandering the streets homeless. The country’s core infrastructure collapsed, and centuries-old cultural institutions were destroyed, with libraries and museums looted, and the university system “decimated” as professors were assassinated. For years and years, suicide bombings became a regular feature of life in Baghdad, and for every violent death, scores more people were left injured or traumatized for life. (Yet in the entire country, there were less than 200 social workers and psychiatrists put together to tend to people’s psychological issues.) Parts of the country became a hell on earth; in 2007 the Red Cross said that there were “mothers appealing for someone to pick up the bodies on the street so their children will be spared the horror of looking at them on their way to school.” The amount of death, misery, suffering, and trauma is almost inconceivable.

These were the human consequences of the Iraq War for the country’s population. They generally go unmentioned in the sympathetic reviews of George W. Bush’s artwork. Perhaps that’s because, if we dwell on them, it becomes somewhat harder to appreciate Bush’s impressive use of line, color, and shape. If you begin to think about Iraq as a physical place full of actual people, many of whom have watched their children die in front of them, Bush’s art begins to seem ghoulish and perverse rather than sensitive and accomplished. There is a reason Schjeldahl and Alter do not spend even a moment discussing the war’s consequences for Iraqis. Doing so requires taking stock of an unimaginable series of horrors, one that makes Bush’s colorful brushwork and daytime-TV bantering seem more sickening than endearing.

But perhaps, we might say, it is unfair to linger on the subject of the war’s human toll. All war, after all, is hell. We must base our judgment of Bush’s character not on the ultimate consequences of his decisions, but on the nature of the decisions themselves. After all, Schjeldahl and Alter do not deny that the Iraq War was calamitous, with Alter calling it one of “the greatest disasters in American history,” a “historic folly” with “horrific consequences,” and Schjeldahl using that curious phrase “murderous error.” It’s true that both obscure reality by using vague descriptors like “disaster” rather than acknowledging what the invasion meant for the people on whom it was inflicted. But their point is that Bush meant well, even though he may have accidentally ended up causing the birth of ISIS and plunging the people of Iraq into an unending nightmare.


Viewing Bush as inept rather than malicious means rejecting the view that he “lied us into war.” If we accept Jonathan Alter’s perspective, it was not that Bush told the American people that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction when he knew that it did not. Rather, Bush misjudged the situation, relying too hastily and carelessly on poor intelligence, and planning the war incompetently. The war was a “folly,” a bad idea poorly executed, but not an intentional act of deceit or criminality.

This view is persuasive because it’s partially correct. Bush did not “lie that there were weapons of mass destruction,” and it’s unfortunate that anti-war activists have often suggested that this was the case. Bush claims, quite plausibly, that he believed that Iraq possessed WMDs, and there is no evidence to suggest that he didn’t believe this. That supports the “mistake” view, because a lie is an intentional false statement, and Bush may have believed he was making a true statement, thus being mistaken rather than lying.

But the debate over whether Bush lied about WMDs misstates what the actual lie was. It was not when Bush said “the Iraq regime continues to possess and conceal some of the most lethal weapons ever devised” that he lied to the American people. Rather, it was when he said Iraq posed a “threat” and that by invading it the United States was “assuring its own national security.” Bush could not have reasonably believed that the creaking, isolated Saddam regime posed the kind of threat to the United States that he said it did. WMDs or not, there was nothing credible to suggest this. He therefore lied to the American people, insisting that they were under a threat that they were not actually under. He did so in order to create a pretext for a war he had long been intent on waging.

This is not to say that Bush’s insistence that Saddam Hussein had WMDs was sincere. It may or may not have been. The point is not that Bush knew there weren’t WMDs in Iraq, but that he didn’t care whether there were or not. This is the difference between a lie and bullshit: a lie is saying something you know to be untrue, bullshit is saying something without caring to find out if it’s true. The former highest-ranking CIA officer in Europe told 60 Minutes that the Bush White House intentionally ignored evidence contradicting the idea that Saddam had WMDs. According to the officer, when intelligence was provided that contradicted the WMD story, the White House told the officer that “this isn’t about intel anymore. This is about regime change,” from which he concluded that “the war in Iraq was coming and they were looking for intelligence to fit into the policy.” It’s not, then, that Bush knew there were no WMDs. It’s that he kept himself from finding out whether there were WMDs, because he was determined to go to war.

The idea that Saddam posed a threat to the United States was laughable from the start. The WMDs that he supposedly possessed were not nuclear weapons, but chemical and biological ones. WMD is a catch-all category, but the distinction is important; mustard gas is horrific, but it is not a “suitcase nuke.” Bashar al-Assad, for example, possesses chemical weapons, but does not pose a threat to the U.S. mainland. (To Syrians, yes. To New Yorkers, no.) In fact, according to former Saddam aide Tariq Aziz, “Saddam did not consider the United States a natural adversary, as he did Iran and Israel, and he hoped that Iraq might again enjoy improved relations with the United States.” Furthermore, by the time of the U.S. invasion, Saddam “had turned over the day-to-day running of the Iraqi government to his aides and was spending most of his time writing a novel.” There was no credible reason to believe, even if Saddam possessed certain categories of weapons prohibited by international treaty, that he was an active threat to the people of the United States. Bush’s pre-war speeches used terrifying rhetoric to leap from the premise that Saddam was a monstrous dictator to the conclusion that Americans needed to be scared. That was simple deceit.

In fact, Bush had long been committed to removing Saddam, and was searching for a plausible justification. Just “hours after the 9/11 attacks,” Donald Rumsfeld and the Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff were pondering whether they could “hit Saddam at the same time” as Osama bin Laden as part of a strategy to “move swiftly, go massive.” In November of 2001, Rumsfeld and Tommy Franks began plotting the “decapitation” of the Iraqi government, pondering various pretexts for “how [to] start” the war. Possibilities included “US discovers Saddam connection to Sept. 11 attack or to anthrax attacks?” and “Dispute over WMD inspections?” Worried that they wouldn’t find any hard evidence against Saddam, Bush even thought of painting a reconnaissance aircraft in U.N. colors and flying it over Iraqi airspace, goading Saddam into shooting it down and thereby justifying a war. Bush “made it clear” to Tony Blair that “the U.S. intended to invade… even if UN inspectors found no evidence of a banned Iraqi weapons program.”

Thus Bush’s lie was not that there were weapons of mass destruction. The lie was that the war was about weapons of mass destruction. The war was about removing Saddam Hussein from power, and asserting American dominance in the Middle East and the world. Yes, that was partially to do with oil (“People say we’re not fighting for oil. Of course we are… We’re not there for figs.” said former Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, while Bush CENTCOM commander John Abizaid admitted “Of course it’s about oil, we can’t really deny that”). But the key point is that Bush detested Saddam and was determined to show he could get rid of him; according to those who attended National Security Council meetings, the administration wanted to “make an example of Hussein” to teach a lesson to those who would “flout the authority of the United States.” “Regime change” was the goal from the start, with “weapons of mass destruction” and “bringing democracy” just convenient pieces of rhetoric.

Nor was the war about the well-being of the people of Iraq. Jonathan Alter says that Bush had a “dream of democratizing the Middle East” but simply botched it; Bush’s story is almost that of a romantic utopian and tragic hero, undone by his hubris in just wanting to share democracy too much. In reality, the Bush White House showed zero interest in the welfare of Iraqis. Bush had been warned that invading the country would lead to a bloodbath; he ignored the warning, because he didn’t care. The typical line is that the occupation was “mishandled,” but this implies that Bush tried to handle it well. In fact, as Patrick Cockburn’s The Occupation and Rajiv Chandrasekaran’s Imperial Life in The Emerald City show, American officials were proudly ignorant of the Iraqi people’s needs and desires. Decisions were made in accordance with U.S. domestic political considerations rather than concern for the safety and prosperity of Iraq. Bush appointed totally inexperienced Republican Party ideologues to oversee the rebuilding effort, rather than actual experts, because the administration was more committed to maintaining neoconservative orthodoxies than actually trying to figure out how to keep the country from self-destructing. When Bush gave Paul Bremer his criteria for who should be the next Iraqi leader, he was emphatic that he wanted someone who would “stand up and thank the American people for their sacrifice in liberating Iraq.”

As the situation in Iraq deteriorated into exactly the kind of sectarian violence that the White House had been warned it would, the Bush administration tried to hide the scale of the disaster. Patrick Cockburn reported that while Bush told Congress that fourteen out of eighteen Iraqi provinces “are completely safe,” this was “entirely untrue” and anyone who had gone to these provinces to try and prove it would have immediately been kidnapped or killed. In tallies of body counts, “U.S. officials excluded scores of people killed in car bombings and mortar attacks from tabulations measuring the results of a drive to reduce violence in Baghdad.” Furthermore, according to the Guardian “U.S. authorities failed to investigate hundreds of reports of abuse, torture, rape and even murder by Iraqi police and soldiers” because they had “a formal policy of ignoring such allegations.” And the Bush administration silently presided over atrocities committed by both U.S. troops (who killed almost 700 civilians for coming too close to checkpoints, including pregnant women and the mentally ill) and hired contractors (in 2005 an American military unit observed as Blackwater mercenaries “shot up a civilian vehicle” killing a father and wounding his wife and daughter).

Then, of course, there was torture and indefinite detention, both of which were authorized at the highest levels. Bush’s CIA disappeared countless people to “black sites” to be tortured, and while the Bush administration duplicitously portrayed the horrific abuses at Abu Ghraib as isolated incidents, the administration was actually deliberately crafting its interrogation practices around torture and attempting to find legal loopholes to justify it. Philippe Sands reported that the White House tried to pin responsibility for torture on “interrogators on the ground,” a “false” explanation that ignored the “actions taken at the very highest levels of the administration” approving 18 new “enhanced interrogation” techniques, “all of which went against long-standing U.S. military practice as presented in the Army Field Manual.” Notes from 20-hour interrogations reveal the unimaginable psychological distress undergone by detainees:

Detainee began to cry. Visibly shaken. Very emotional. Detainee cried. Disturbed. Detainee began to cry. Detainee bit the IV tube completely in two. Started moaning. Uncomfortable. Moaning. Began crying hard spontaneously. Crying and praying. Very agitated. Yelled. Agitated and violent. Detainee spat. Detainee proclaimed his innocence. Whining. Dizzy. Forgetting things. Angry. Upset. Yelled for Allah. Urinated on himself. Began to cry. Asked God for forgiveness. Cried. Cried. Became violent. Began to cry. Broke down and cried. Began to pray and openly cried. Cried out to Allah several times. Trembled uncontrollably.

Indeed, the U.S. Senate Select Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA interrogation tactics concluded that they were “brutal and far worse than the CIA represented to policymakers.” They included “slamming detainees into walls,” “telling detainees they would never leave alive,” “Threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, threats to cut a detainee’s mother’s throat,” waterboardings that sometimes “evolved into a series of near drownings,” and the terrifyingly clench-inducing “involuntary rectal feedings.” Sometimes they would deprive detainees of all heat (which “likely contributed to the death of a detainee”) or perform what was known as a “rough takedown,” a procedure by which “five CIA officers would scream at a detainee, drag him outside of his cell, cut his clothes off, and secure him with Mylar tape. The detainee would then be hooded and dragged up and down a long corridor while being slapped and punched.” All of that is separate from the outrage of indefinite detention in itself, which kept people in cages for years upon years without ever being able to contest the charges against them. At Guantanamo Bay, detainees became “so depressed, so despondent, that they had no longer had an appetite and stopped eating to the point where they had to be force-fed with a tube that is inserted through their nose.” Their mental and emotional conditions would deteriorate until they were reduced to a childlike babbling, and they frequently attempted self-harm and suicide. The Bush administration even arrested the Muslim chaplain at Guantanamo Bay, U.S. Army Captain James Yee, throwing him in leg irons, threatening him with death, and keeping him in solitary confinement for 76 days after he criticized military practices.


Thus President Bush was not a good-hearted dreamer. He was a rabid ideologue who would spew any amount of lies or B.S. in order to achieve his favored goal of deposing Saddam Hussein, and who oversaw serious human rights violations without displaying an ounce of compunction or ambivalence. There was no “mistake.” Bush didn’t “oops-a-daisy” his way into Iraq. He had a goal, and he fulfilled it, without consideration for those who would suffer as a result.

It should be mentioned that most of this was not just immoral. It was illegal. The Bush Doctrine explicitly claimed the right to launch a preemptive war against a party that had not actually attacked the United States, a violation of the core Nuremberg principle that “to initiate a war of aggression…is not only an international crime; it is the supreme international crime, differing only from other war crimes in that it contains within itself the accumulated evil of the whole.” Multiple independent inquiries have criticized the flimsy legal justifications for the war. Former U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan openly declared the war illegal, and even Tony Blair’s former Deputy Prime Minister concurred. In fact, it’s hard to see how the Iraq War could be anything but criminal, since no country—even if it gathers a “coalition of the willing”—is permitted to simply depose a head of state at will. The Iraq War made the Nuremberg Laws even more empty and selective than they have always been, and Bush’s escape from international justice delegitimizes all other war crimes prosecutions. A core aspect of the rule of law is that it applies equally to all, and if the United States is free to do as it pleases regardless of its international legal obligations, it is unclear what respect anybody should hold for the law.

George W. Bush may therefore be a fine painter. But he is a criminal. And when media figures try to redeem him, or portray him as lovable-but-flawed, they ignore the actual record. In fact, Bush has not even made any suggestion that he is trying to “atone” for a great crime, as liberal pundits have suggested he is. On the contrary, he has consistently defended his decision-making, and the illegal doctrine he espoused. He even wrote an entire book of self-justifications. Bush is not a haunted man. And since any good person, if he had Bush’s record, would be haunted, Bush is not a good person. Kanye West had Bush completely right. He simply does not think very much about the lives of people darker than himself. That sounds like an extreme judgment, but it’s true. If he cared about them, he wouldn’t have put them in cages. George Bush may love his grandchildren, he may paint with verve and soul. But he does not care about black or brown people.

It’s therefore exasperating to see liberals like Alter and Schjeldahl offer glowing assessments of Bush’s book of art, and portray him as soulful and caring. Schjeldahl says that Bush is so likable that hating him “takes conscious effort.” But it only takes conscious effort if you don’t think about the lives of Iraqis. If you do think about the lives of Iraqis, then hating him not only does not take conscious effort, but it is automatic. Anyone who truly appreciates the scale of what Bush inflicted on the world will feel rage course through their body whenever they hear his voice, or see him holding up a paintbrush, with that perpetual simpering grin on his face.

Alter and Schjeldahl are not alone in being captivated by Bush the artiste. The Washington Post’s art critic concluded that “the former president is more humble and curious than the Swaggering President Bush he enacted while in office [and] his curiosity about art is not only genuine but relatively sophisticated.” This may be the beginning of a critical consensus. But it says something disturbing about our media that a man can cause 500,000 deaths and then have his paintings flatteringly profiled, with the deaths unmentioned. George W. Bush intentionally offered false justifications for a war, destroyed an entire country, and committed an international crime. He tortured people, sometimes to death.

But would you look at those brushstrokes? And have you seen the little doggies?

Andrew Sullivan Is Still Racist After All These Years

Viewing racial groups as undifferentiated blobs defined by stereotypes is a dangerous form of bigotry…

Andrew Sullivan’s latest piece of writing for New York is a bizarre thing indeed. Entitled “Why Do Democrats Feel Sorry For Hillary Clinton?”, it spends most of its length making the (correct) argument that the person most responsible for the poor management of the Hillary Clinton presidential campaign was Hillary Clinton. But after laying out the thoroughly convincing case for this bleedingly obvious proposition, Sullivan takes a rather unexpected detour into the politics of race. Suddenly pondering on the causes of achievement gaps among racial groups, Sullivan muses thusly:

Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites? Asian-Americans, for example, have been subject to some of the most brutal oppression, racial hatred, and open discrimination over the years. In the late 19th century, as most worked in hard labor, they were subject to lynchings and violence across the American West and laws that prohibited their employment. They were banned from immigrating to the U.S. in 1924. Japanese-American citizens were forced into internment camps during the Second World War, and subjected to hideous, racist propaganda after Pearl Harbor. Yet, today, Asian-Americans are among the most prosperous, well-educated, and successful ethnic groups in America. What gives? It couldn’t possibly be that they maintained solid two-parent family structures, had social networks that looked after one another, placed enormous emphasis on education and hard work, and thereby turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones, could it?

As I say, for anybody who had been pleasantly savoring Sullivan’s Clinton critique, the abrupt transition is somewhat jarring. But apparently this is the format of Sullivan’s new New York column; he meanders from subject to subject, riffing on whatever he finds important or what comes into his mind.

And so it’s curious that this, of all things, should be occupying Sullivan’s thoughts. He is, after all, restating a version of an argument that has been made for about forty years, one that has been the subject of countless responses from social scientists. The argument has a name (the “Model Minority” argument) and an extensive Wikipedia article. In its core form, it goes roughly as follows: “I don’t see why black people are always whining about racism in this country. After all, Asian people seem to do just fine. If there’s so much ‘racism,’ why are Asian test scores so high, hm?”

There are more sophisticated versions of this argument, but Sullivan is stating it in its absolute crudest form, suggesting quite openly that instead of America being a “profoundly racist society,” a better explanation for why some races are “earning more” and are more “well-educated” on average is that members of those racial groups have made better choices, e.g. the choice to have marry and tell their kids to get an education.

Now, I think the above paragraph by Sullivan is deeply and obviously racist. I also think it is willfully empirically ignorant. But since the argument he is making is very common, and since charges of racism and ignorance are very serious and require substantiation, let me explain why Sullivan’s perspective is both bigoted and mistaken.

The first objectionable aspect of Sullivan’s argument is his suggestion that Asian-Americans have “turned false, negative stereotypes into true, positive ones.” In and of itself, this is a racist notion, because it suggests that certain racial stereotypes can be “true” and “positive.” Because I believe that racial stereotypes are inherently racist, since stereotypes are crass and prejudiced generalizations, I find Sullivan’s idea that stereotypes about Asians could be “true and positive” to be racist.

There are several problems with Sullivan’s embrace of racial stereotypes about Asians. First, as Matthew Bruenig documented at Jacobin, because racial stereotypes treat race as a helpful analytic category (even though “Asian American” lumps together people of totally different backgrounds), they lead to poor social science. Bruenig points out why it’s ignorant to discuss “Asian Americans” as being “better educated” or “more prosperous.” First, Asian Americans as a group actually have a higher poverty rate than non-Hispanic whites. But more importantly, using “Asian American” as a category obscures the massive differences among different Asian Americans, with Filipino Americans having a substantially lower poverty rate than whites and Hmong Americans having a far, far higher poverty rate than whites. Because some subgroups of Asian Americans have far higher incomes than white Americans, statistics for Asian Americans overall look pretty good. But one can only posit a theory of how “Asian” emphasis on education and family ties has led to their success if one ignores the fact that many groups of Asian Americans have not achieved this incredible success, even though they share whatever distinctively Asian cultural characteristics Sullivan thinks are important.


But stereotypes don’t just create empirical failures by obliviously viewing distinctive groups as amorphous racially-defined blobs. They are also deeply harmful, and there is no such thing as a “positive” racial stereotype. By saying there are such things as “positive” racial stereotypes to begin with, we are allowing for the possibility of ordering racial groups hierarchically (the “diligent” races, the “lazy” races, etc.), and if some groups are associated with “positive” racial traits it is inevitable that others will be associated with negative ones. Members of the British Colonial Office during the 1950s, for example, praised “the skilled character and proven industry of the West Indians,” contrasting them with “the unskilled and largely lazy Asians.” It may seem as if calling West Indians “industrious” is paying them a compliment, but in doing so one is adopting a framework by which character traits are assigned to ethnicities, a framework which views people not as individuals but as the prisoners of their racial identity.

Regardless of what judgments are being made, positive or negative, the inclination to judge people by their race is poisonous. Certain white people see nothing wrong with classifying Asians as “smart” or “hard-working.” After all, what could possibly be objectionable about stereotyping someone as intelligent? But all racial stereotypes have deleterious impacts, particularly on children. For many young Asian Americans, the “Model Minority” stereotype causes serious psychological anxiety. Because, thanks to racial stereotypes, they are expected to be scientifically-minded, humble, and diligent, Asian American students often feel a sense of inadequacy if they cannot live up to unreasonable expectations, an incredible psychological burden of racial expectation that leads to not seeking help when they are struggling and has been linked to suicide. (Some schools even offer counseling for Asian students trying to deal with the mental health consequences inflicted by Sullivan’s worldview.) Every racial stereotype is ugly, and every single one hurts the people to whom it is applied, and the very idea of a “true, positive” racial stereotype is both unscientific and insidious.

(It’s worth mentioning that Sullivan’s perspective also conforms to a common line of thinking among those who emphasize the importance of racial categories: that if one sees Asians as superior, one cannot be racist. I have seen this repeatedly from those who attempt to defend Bell Curve-type thinking; they believe that if they claim Asians are equal or superior to whites, they cannot be white supremacists. Here we should note the implications of this worldview: that someone who used the n-word and advocated the return of Jim Crow would not be racist so long as he carved out an exception for Asians. And that’s not a theoretical argument: white South Africans exempted Japanese people from Apartheid restrictions by making them “honorary whites.” The fact is that it doesn’t matter what your racial hierarchy is; if you have a racial hierarchy at all, you’re a racist. If you think black people are lazy, but Asian people are superhumans, you are being racist against both groups by treating them as cartoons instead of people.)

There are other serious deficiencies with Sullivan’s argument. For one thing, in his attempt to blame racial cultural traits for differing economic outcomes, Sullivan does not give a moment’s consideration to the differences in history between groups. It’s been pointed out over and over that since black people disproportionately consist of the descendants of slaves, while large numbers of Asian American immigrants are among the most prosperous and well-educated in their home countries, it’s absurd to attribute the resulting economic disparities to freely-made cultural and behavioral choices. An honest person would at least mention and discuss the importance of differences in background, including the education levels of Asian immigrants and the fact that black people spent two centuries being whipped, raped, and killed. Sullivan does not mention and discuss these things. Therefore Sullivan is not an honest person.

That dishonesty is the central problem with Sullivan’s passage. The causes of people’s economic and education outcomes are of central concern to the social sciences; an extraordinary amount of research is done on these topics. Sullivan pretends that this research does not exist, acting as if the long conversation on the errors and dangers of the Model Minority myth simply has not been happening, even though it has been going on for multiple decades. He wishes to beat up on the “social justice” types for their comical view that America is racist, without considering any of the actual evidence they put forth to support the view that America is racist. This means that Andrew Sullivan is not interested in finding out the truth, but in advancing a particular prejudiced worldview.

One has to conclude, then, that Sullivan hasn’t learned much since the days when he helped midwife The Bell Curve and grant flimsy race science a veneer of intellectual respectability. He still believes race is a reasonable prism through which to view the world, and that if only our racial stereotypes are “true,” they are acceptable. He is therefore an unreliable and ideologically-biased guide to political and social science. He is also a racist.

The Racism v. Economics Debate Again

Anyone who says the election was “about race” (or “about” anything) has little regard for truth…

I would have thought we could have moved on by now. Both before and after the 2016 election, there were months of acrimonious debate over the question of whether Trump voters were motivated by racial hatred or anxiety over their economic prospects. And I thought the general conclusion would have been that the premise was wrong to begin with, that you couldn’t talk about “Trump voters” as a single unit, because the category includes a broad spectrum of people with a varying set of motivations. Some of them liked Trump’s rhetoric on jobs and globalization, some liked his rhetoric on immigration and Islam, and some liked all of it. Both of the appeals obviously contributed to his victory. (Those of us on the left, however, frequently suggested that Democrats should focus on winning over the economically-motivated Trump voters, rather than the wealthy racists, because the ones anxious about jobs are the ones whose support Democrats have a greater chance of peeling off.)

The “racism or economics” debate is a pretty easy one to resolve, then. Trump’s campaign was based on bigotry, but also fueled by a backlash to the unfairness of the contemporary globalized economy. And many workers fell for his promises to bring jobs back, just as racists got excited over his stigmatization of Mexican immigrants. A question that appears contentious and intractable actually has a fairly obvious answer.

But British journalist Mehdi Hasan has decided to reignite the debate once more, with a new column in The Intercept arguing that racism was the primary cause of Trump’s victory and that Democrats who say Trump voters were hurting economically are “trafficking in alternative facts.” Hasan is blunt and his conclusions unqualified: “The race was about race,” he says. “It’s not the economy. It’s the racism, stupid.” Hasan singles out Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren for criticism, saying that by claiming Trump voters were economically motivated, Sanders and Warren are ignoring the “stubborn facts” and “coddling…those who happily embraced an openly xenophobic candidate.”

Hasan’s column repeats arguments that have been made over and over for two years, from Salon to Vox to The Atlantic. Many liberal pundits have consistently dismissed the idea that Trump voters acted out of defensible economic motives, instead suggesting that they were just as deplorable as Hillary Clinton made them out to be. (In fact, they go beyond Clinton, who was trying to draw a distinction between those who were deplorable and those who should be respected and listened to.) The position is somewhat surprising coming from Hasan, though, who has often seemed sympathetic to the Sanders left, and it’s doubly surprising for appearing in Glenn Greenwald’s Intercept, which has been consistently critical of Vox-ian liberalism.

If Hasan thinks this is true, then, it is worth dealing with his evidence. His argument for the proposition that the election was “about race” is as follows: There are a series of statistical correlations between racism and Trump support. Donald Trump did better than Romney or McCain among voters with high racial resentment. The best way to predict whether any given person is a Trump supporter is to ask them whether they think Barack Obama is a Muslim. If they say yes, they’re almost certainly a Trump supporter. (“This is economic anxiety? Really?” comments Hasan incredulously.) Those who hold negative racial stereotypes about African Americans are far more likely to be Trump supporters. (“Sorry, but how can any of these prejudices be blamed on free trade or low wages?”) On the other hand, having a low income did not predict support for Trump, and Trump supporters actually tend to have higher incomes than Clinton supporters. And while there may be “economic anxiety” among Trump voters, it tends to be the product of racial resentment rather than its cause; in 2016, people who were racist tended to be economically anxious, while people who were economically anxious did not thereby become racist.


These are the entirety of the facts that Hasan presents to support his conclusion that the election was “about” race and that Bernie Sanders is factually wrong to say things like “millions of Americans registered a protest vote on Tuesday, expressing their fierce opposition to an economic and political system that puts wealthy and corporate interests over their own.”

I have long been critical of those in the political press who loudly insist on their superior allegiance to Fact and Truth. By contrast with Hasan, who quotes John Adams that facts are “stubborn things,” I tend to believe facts are fundamentally slippery things. Statements that are literally factually true can often be highly misleading, and sometimes you do actually need the addition (not substitution) of some “alternative facts” in order to understand what is really going on. For example: I can cite GDP growth as proof that Americans are doing well economically. But it’s not until I understand the distribution of the economic benefits across society that I will know how the majority of Americans are actually doing. Or I can cite the fact that lifespans are increasing as evidence that American healthcare is “making us live longer.” But it might be that richer people are living longer while poorer people are actually living less long, making the word “us” erroneous. If a fact is true, but is incomplete, then it might actually leave us more ignorant than we were before.

This is precisely the situation with Hasan’s statistics. They are carefully selected to support his argument, with the statistics that don’t support it simply ignored. He, like many others who have written “it’s about racism” pieces, depends heavily on evidence that racism “predicts” support for Trump while income doesn’t, meaning that racists are more likely to be Trump supporters while poor people aren’t more likely to be Trump supporters.

But if we think about this statistic for a moment, we can see why it’s a dubious way of proving that Trump support was “about” race. First, Hasan is confusing the statement “Most racists are Trump supporters” with the statement “Most Trump supporters are racists.” Of course most racists are Trump supporters; racists tend to be on the political right, because the political left defines itself heavily by its commitment to advancing the social position of racial minorities. It would be shocking if racism didn’t predict support for Trump, because it would mean that racists had decided to ignore David Duke’s endorsement of Trump and vote for a candidate who embraced the language of “intersectional” social justice feminism. Nor is it surprising that Trump did better with racists than his more centrist predecessors. The more racist your campaign rhetoric is, the more the racists like you.

The income statistic is similarly unsurprising. Of course Trump’s supporters tend to be higher income. Republicans are the party of low taxes on the rich, and Trump wants to lower taxes on the rich. Democrats are the party of social programs for the poor. So poor people were always going to disproportionately be for Clinton, and rich people were going to disproportionately be for Trump. Furthermore, since Democrats are disproportionately the party of racial minorities, and racial minorities tend to be less wealthy than white people (due in part to several hundred years of black enslavement), the racially diverse Democratic base will ensure that poverty doesn’t predict Trump support.

Note how neither of these facts address the actual question. If we want to understand the relative role of race and economics in creating votes for Donald Trump, it doesn’t really help us to know that racists tend to be Trump voters. Imagine we have 100 voters, 10 of whom are high-income racists and 90 of whom are low-income non-racists concerned about the economy. Well, we know our 10 rich racists will probably vote for Donald Trump. And we know that being a low-income non-racist doesn’t really predict support for Donald Trump, so let’s say those votes split equally, or even break slightly in favor of Clinton. We count the votes, and the result is: 54 Trump, 46 Clinton. Trump gets 10 rich racists, plus 44 poor non-racists. Clinton gets 46 poor non-racists.

We can see, then, what can be concealed by statistics showing that “wealthy racists tend to support Trump” and “poor and economically anxious people tend to support Clinton.” Those two statistics are consistent with a situation in which the vast majority of Trump’s support occurs for economic reasons rather than racial ones. Yes, it’s true, the presence of racists in Trump’s coalition put Trump “over the top.” But it’s also true to say that the Democrats losing half of all economically anxious people put Trump over the top, and if you focused on the racism, you’d be focusing on the minor part of Trump’s overall support.

In laying out this hypothetical, I am not attempting to show that this is actually what happened. The two statistics (“racists support Trump” and “poor people support Clinton”) are also consistent with a situation in which 100% of Trump’s supporters are racist. Instead, I am demonstrating that the two premises in and of themselves can’t lead us to the conclusion Hasan wants to draw (and that other pundits have drawn over and over from them), which is that Trump’s support was about racism.

Hasan calls the idea that Trump “appealed to the economic anxieties of Americans” a fiction and concludes that “instead, attitudes about race, religion, and immigration trump (pun intended) economics.” But what he’s proved is that racial attitudes trump economics as predictors of a particular individual person’s support for Donald Trump, not that racial attitudes trump economics as the main issue Trump voters cared about or the main reason for his success. If we take the question “Was the election about race or about economics?” to mean “What was the relative role of race issues and economic issues in determining the outcome of the election?” then Hasan’s evidence does not actually address his question.

To get closer to a real answer, we might do better to look at what the most important issues were to Trump voters. What attracted them to Trump? Do they care more about economics or about race? We can begin to get an answer from a Pew poll conducted in July of 2016, which ranked issues by their importance to voters, broken down by the candidate they were supporting. Among voters generally, the economy was considered a “very important” issue to 84%, with immigration only the sixth-most important issue. Among Trump supporters, though, economic issues were considered very important to 90%, compared to 80% of Clinton supporters. For Trump supporters, immigration was the third-most important issue, with 79% considering it very important. Thus nearly every Trump supporter was “very” concerned about economic issues, and economic issues won out by at least 10% over immigration.

We still don’t know very much from this. But we do know that a good chunk of Trump supporters cared about economics without caring as much about immigration (and we must assume that all Trump voters who cared about immigration were racists in order to accept Hasan’s conclusion). Of course, “being worried about the economy” can mean a lot of things; a rich man can be worried about his tax rate increasing, and we don’t know anything about racial attitudes from this survey. But it should caution us against coming to simple conclusion like “the election was about race.”

Even if we stick to demonstrations of the factors that predict Trump support, we find Hasan burying crucial evidence. Hasan quotes a Gallup report that, in his words, “found that Trump supporters, far from being the ‘left behind’ or the losers of globalization, ‘earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration.’” But let’s look at the original context of that quote:

[Trump’s] supporters are less educated and more likely to work in blue collar occupations, but they earn relatively high household incomes and are no less likely to be unemployed or exposed to competition through trade or immigration. On the other hand, living in racially isolated communities with worse health outcomes, lower social mobility, less social capital, greater reliance on social security income and less reliance on capital income, predicts higher levels of Trump support.

Hasan’s presentation of the Gallup analysis therefore borders on intellectual dishonesty. If you quote the bit about high average incomes and no lower likelihood of unemployment (facts which, as I explained before, we would expect given the general composition of the Republican base compared to the Democratic one), but you don’t quote the part about bad health outcomes, blue collar jobs, and low social mobility, then you’re selecting only those facts that confirm your worldview and refusing to deal with the ones that contradict it.

This is the trouble with Hasan’s overall argument, and with these types of pieces generally. They accuse others of ignoring “the facts,” but they don’t really care about facts themselves. Otherwise, why wouldn’t Hasan mention the fact that the economy was “very important” to 90% of Trump supporters? Why wouldn’t he even deal with that statistic, even if he had a good argument for why it should be disregarded? It’s the duty of a responsible political analyst to address the evidence that undermines their position.

Hasan is likewise unfair in his characterization of the Sanders/Warren position on Trump voters. He says that “for Sanders, Warren and others on the left, the economy is what matters most and class is everything.” But Sanders repeatedly accused Trump of running a “campaign of bigotry” and whipping up nativist sentiments. In the op-ed Hasan quotes, Sanders says that “millions” of Trump voters voted out of economic concerns. But he does not deny that large numbers of Trump’s voters may be racist. (He has explicitly acknowledged that “some are.”)

In fact, I don’t know a single leftist who denies that Trump ran a racist campaign that energized racist voters. The leftist position is, rather, that there are many (“millions of”) Trump voters who were drawn to his anti-Establishment stance because of their economic hardships, that Democrats should have had a better message to target those particular Trump voters, and that suggesting Trump voters as a unit are racist is both politically unwise and unsupported by evidence. Hasan is extremely derisive toward this position, with his repeated suggestion that it’s factually ignorant, even stupid. But he doesn’t offer any actual proof for why it’s wrong. Instead, he willfully mischaracterizes it.

Actually, the left-wing stance here should be extremely uncontroversial. It doesn’t even have to presume that the majority, or even a very large percentage, of Trump voters were “economically anxious” rather than racist. Consider the 100-voter scenario from earlier. Say we have 48 rich racists and 52 poor anxious people. Trump snags all the racists by default, but then manages to lure 4 anxious poor people through his message on trade. Trump wins. In that situation, it’s still worth pointing out that Democrats needed a better economic message, and that economics were an important determinant of the outcome. A lot of the misguided attempts to decide what the election was “about” result from failures to think about marginal differences. If most Trump voters were racist, and a minority were economically anxious, and the election was decided by a small number of votes in Rust Belt states (which it was), then politically you might reasonably decide that it’s not worth focusing on the racists (who will never vote for you) and instead you should craft a rhetorical appeal to the economically anxious Rust Belt voters who can mean the difference between winning and losing. (As I said, though, so much depends on how you want to define the phrase “what the election was about.” If it’s about majorities, you might get one answer. If it’s about margins, you might get another. In Trump: Anatomy of a Monstrosity I go into more detail about how anyone can construct any story they like about the election and have it be true in a certain sense.)

I should add here that the necessity of fairness applies no matter which side of this you think is correct. If I say “90% of Trump voters thought the economy was the most important issue, therefore the race was about economics,” and I do not mention or deal with the disproportionate amount of racial prejudice among Trump voters, I am also cherry-picking the facts that support my preferred conclusion. Anyone who tells you the one issue that the election was “about,” and cites factors that “predict” support, without telling you the full range of relevant information, is arguing either ignorantly or dishonestly. They are not putting all of the facts on the table; rather, they are just giving the evidence that supports their own position. This is partisanship and bias, which nobody should engage in. Having a well-defined set of political commitments does not justify misrepresentations of the truth.

Frankly, Hasan’s column saddens me. I have really respected some of the excellent work he has done on his interview programs (even though he has a consistently irritating tendency to constantly interrupt his guests). And I’m disappointed in The Intercept, which promised to follow Glenn Greenwald’s idea that you can be opinionated and honest at the same time, for publishing it. That’s not because it offers a conclusion I disagree with; I’m happy to have a discussion about the role of racism in the 2016 election, as weary as I am of that particular debate. Rather, it’s because Hasan uses the characteristic argumentation technique of the glib pundit: instead of helping the reader think through an issue and showing your work, you just throw out a few random statistics that back up your position.

The truth about race and economics in the election is easy to grasp. They both mattered, and we can focus on whichever we choose. (Personally, I think that means focusing whatever is most useful or instructive, and that the question “Do Trump supporters tend to be racist?” is less consequential than “Are there enough non-racist, economically anxious Trump voters to where economic anxiety played a significant role in his margin of victory thereby meaning Democrats need to address the issue more?”) And if Mehdi Hasan were as committed to Facts and Truth as he professes himself to be, he would be happy to concede this rather than perpetuating a pernicious misrepresentation.

Now Peter Singer Argues That It Might Be Okay To Rape Disabled People

The New York Times lets the utilitarian philosopher make his most horrific argument yet…

Advocates for people with disabilities do not care for utilitarian philosopher Peter Singer. This is because Singer has publicly justified killing disabled newborn infants because of their disabilities. In his book Practical Ethics, Singer weighed the moral justifications for taking the lives of disabled babies. He concluded that in severe cases, such as for children with spina bifida, it might well be morally wrong not to take a baby’s life. For less serious conditions, such as hemophilia, Singer concluded that the decision as to whether or not to kill the infant should depend on whether it would make the parents happy, and whether they intended to “replace” the child with another, non-disabled one:

“When the death of a disabled infant will lead to the birth of another infant with better prospects of a happy life, the total amount of happiness will be greater if the disabled infant is killed. The loss of happy life for the first infant is outweighed by the gain of a happier life for the second. Therefore, if killing the haemophiliac infant has no adverse effect on others, it would, according to the total view, be right to kill him.”

Singer’s early statements on euthanizing the disabled led to protests of his talks during the 1990s, and caused controversy when he was appointed Professor of Bioethics at Princeton University. In the years since, Singer has done little to repair his reputation among advocates for the disabled, having repeatedly given interviews containing controversial statements about the moral justifications for infanticide. And he has only dug a deeper hole by stating that he wouldn’t be willing to raise a child with Down’s Syndrome because it wouldn’t make him happy (“For me, the knowledge that my [hypothetical Down Syndrome] child would not be likely to develop into a person whom I could treat as an equal… would greatly reduce my joy in raising my child and watching him or her develop), as well as by posing queries like the following:

“Most people think that the life of a dog or a pig is of less value than the life of a normal human being. On what basis, then, could they hold that the life of a profoundly intellectually disabled human being with intellectual capacities inferior to those of a dog or a pig is of equal value to the life of a normal human being?”

This kind of stuff (repeated again and again) has led some disabled people to get the not unreasonable impression that Peter Singer, perhaps the world’s most prominent ethicist, would prefer it if they died. (And unfortunately, Singer’s hideous remarks have undermined the creditable efforts he has made to get people to care more about the suffering of children around the world. For a utilitarian, Singer does not seem to think much about the utility of sabotaging his credibility as an ethicist in order to make callous and inflammatory comments about disabled people.)

One might therefore have thought that Singer could not possibly alienate disabled people any further, or make himself sound like any more of a monster.

But one would be wrong. For now, Singer has co-authored an op-ed in the New York Times in which he appears to defend the morality of raping disabled people.

The actual argument Singer makes in his Times article is jaw-droppingly repulsive. But, first, it’s necessary to understand the incident he’s commenting on. At issue is the case of Anna Stubblefield, a Rutgers University philosophy professor convicted of sexually assaulting her mentally disabled pupil, and sentenced to 12 years in prison. The case is, to say the least, extremely unusual. The student, D.J., was a severely impaired 30 year old man with cerebal palsy, who had never spoken a word in his life and communicated through “screams” and “chirps.” Stubblefield acted as his personal tutor, using a discredited pseudoscientific technique to elicit what she insisted were complex communications from D.J. Eventually, based on what she believed D.J. wanted, Stubblefield began engaging in sex acts with him, having become romantically attracted to him over the course of her time assisting him.

D.J.’s family were horrified to discover that Stubblefield, who had supposedly been helping D.J. produce highly intelligent messages demonstrating his complex inner feelings, was in fact committing what they regarded as abuse. Stubblefield insisted that D.J.’s disabilities were only physical, that he was mentally bright and simply needed a means of expressing himself. D.J.’s family believed his mental deficiencies were as extreme as his physical ones, and that believing he could consent to a sexual relationship was like believing a child could consent to one. On the family’s complaint, Stubblefield was prosecuted, convicted, and sentenced.

Here’s where we get back to Peter Singer. Singer, along with University of Oxford professor Jeff McMahan, argues that Stubblefield’s sentence was grossly unjust, for several reasons. The judge in the case did not permit Stubblefield to present evidence that D.J.’s cognitive capacities were high enough for him to communicate and consent. The case was filled with assumptions that D.J. was a helpless victim, rather than actual proof that he was. If, as Stubblefield claimed, his abilities were being underestimated, and this could be proven using a (non-discredited) technique, then he could be asked about whether he consented to the sexual relationship. Instead, because of his inability to speak, D.J. was presumed to be voiceless.

This is a perfectly reasonable argument. In fact, as Singer and McMahan note, it’s one made by advocates for the disabled, whose position on the Stubblefield case has not necessarily been what one might intuitively expect. While the disability community is obviously concerned with protecting disabled people from being sexually assaulted, they are also wary of arguments that diminish the agency of the disabled themselves, by portraying them as necessarily childlike and incapable of reasoning or making choices. Some have argued that the prosecution actually demeaned D.J., granting him less personhood than Stubblefield did.


If Singer had stuck to the argument that Stubblefield should have been allowed to present more evidence, and that D.J.’s wishes should have been given more respect, he might actually have earned himself back some favor in the disability community. Not much favor. But perhaps a shred.

Instead, he decided to give another defense of Stubblefield, and in doing so offer one of his most outrageous arguments yet: it might actually not be bad to rape cognitively impaired people. As Singer and McMahan write:

If we assume that he is profoundly cognitively impaired, we should concede that he cannot understand the normal significance of sexual relations between persons or the meaning and significance of sexual violation. These are, after all, difficult to articulate even for persons of normal cognitive capacity. In that case, he is incapable of giving or withholding informed consent to sexual relations; indeed, he may lack the concept of consent altogether. This does not exclude the possibility that he was wronged by Stubblefield, but it makes it less clear what the nature of the wrong might be. It seems reasonable to assume that the experience was pleasurable to him; for even if he is cognitively impaired, he was capable of struggling to resist.

Consider carefully what is being said here. Here, Singer and McMahan are assuming D.J. is severely impaired. But, they say, that means he is too intellectually inhibited to understand the notion of consent. And because he doesn’t understand consent, he can’t withhold it. And because he didn’t fight back, it’s reasonable to assume he was having a good time, making it unclear why it would be harmful to perform a non-consensual sex act on him.

Again, let’s be clear on what they are saying: if someone is intellectually disabled enough, then it might be okay to rape them, so long as they don’t resist, since a lack of physical struggle justifies an assumption that someone is enjoying being raped. (Singer is also offering a variation on his own prior arguments in favor of bestiality, which work because Singer believes disabled people and animals are the same for purposes of ethical analysis.) Note that his reasoning would also justify sexually molesting infants, who are likewise incapable of understanding the notion of consent.

The New York Times therefore just published a philosophical defense of raping disabled people, and Peter Singer has—somehow—reached a new low on disability issues. (Actually, to be precise, an argument that it’s not clear what the harm is in raping disabled people, along with the implication that non-consensual sex acts against physically and mentally incapacitated people aren’t actually rape anyway if the victims do not know what consent is.)

Singer’s casual rationalization of sexual abuse actually offers a useful illustration of why nobody should subscribe to utilitarian philosophy to begin with. Utilitarians are meticulous and Spock-like in their deductions from premises, but their impeccable logic inevitably leads toward utterly horrifying or bizarre conclusions that totally conflict with people’s most basic shared moral values. Utilitarian reasoning can lead you to believe that there’s no such thing as “good” and “bad,” only “better” and “worse” (which means that genocide isn’t inherently bad, and in fact could be fine if it’s the least-worst available option in a certain set of circumstances). It can lead you to believe that it’s less morally justifiable for a couple to remain childless than it it is to murder an elderly homeless person in their sleep (because failing to create a potential happy long life is worse than taking someone’s unhappy short remaining life). It can, as Freddie deBoer has pointed out, lead you to believe that in the Jim Crow South, you should frame an innocent black man for a crime, knowing he will be lynched, if doing so would calm the resentments of the white community and thereby avoid having them perpetrate a wave of far more brutal violence. It can also lead you to be an apologist for sweatshops and factory collapses. Due to the nature of their premises, utilitarians constantly end up endorsing the moral necessity of an endless number of inhumane acts. It’s a terrible philosophy that leads to brutal and perverse conclusions, and at its worst, it turns you into Peter Singer.

I suppose that, at this point, nobody can be surprised at Singer, though it really was somewhat unfortunate that he chose to follow up an argument for granting disabled people their agency with an argument for why sexually abusing them doesn’t cause harm. But he’s made it clear over his career that he doesn’t care about the consequences of dehumanizing people. Perhaps more shocking is the fact that the New York Times either didn’t notice what was being argued, or felt that the argument made a legitimate contribution to debates about consent and disability. Either way, the continued presence of Peter Singer in national dialogue about disability shows just how far we have to go before people like D.J. will actually be granted their full humanity, by prosecutors and philosophers alike.

Compassion and Politics

We should probably try to be humane and care about people…

For a brief moment earlier this month, it seemed as if McDonald’s had gone political. From nowhere, the company’s Twitter account began attacking the President of the United States, calling Donald Trump a “disgusting excuse of [sic] a president” and taunting him over the size of his hands. It was an abrupt shift in tone from a social media account better known for conducting meaningless polls about hamburgers and engaging in clumsy attempts to keep up with the hashtag generation (e.g. “When bae is a Big Mac #relationshipgoals”).

Of course, the account had been broken into; anyone who thought American corporations would be capable of showing some moral and political backbone against Trump must have forgotten how the country’s liberal-leaning tech CEOs turned from opposition to instantaneous capitulation and groveling immediately after Trump’s election. But the momentary flicker of controversy over the McDonald’s tweet did provide one small insight into a certain prevailing political tendency. For, immediately upon hearing of the incident, Business Insider editor (and Democrat) Josh Barro decided to remark as follows:

“This is a real brand misstep for McDonald’s. Fat slobs with bad taste are a core Trump demographic.”

It was a nasty and elitist remark. (It was also wrong. As Guardian journalist Chris Arnade has documented, far from being for “fat slobs,” McDonald’s are often vibrant gathering-spots in working-class communities.) Josh Barro has always been a proud elitist, though. He believed the election of Trump proved it was better to let elites control political decision-making than to let the “masses” pick and has quite seriously declared that “elites are usually elite for good reason, and tend to have better judgment than the average person.”

A small amusing fact here is that Barro is “elite for good reason.” That good reason is that his father, Robert J. Barro, is the Paul M. Warburg Professor of Economics at Harvard University, a Harvard alumnus well-connected in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Little surprise then, that Joshua Barro grew up to be… a Harvard alumnus who has worked almost exclusively in the world of think tanks and financial journalism. Elites are indeed elite for good reason, but it has precious little to do with the consequences of individual striving or merit.

In itself, though, an attack on McDonald’s-goers by one Business Insider editor would be of little interest. Business Insider is, after all, a rag, and Barro’s opinions are of no material consequence to humankind. But the attack exemplified a notable recent trend in the discourse of prominent wealthy Democrats: the heaping of limitless contempt upon poor people. Instead of heeding suggestions that greater amounts of empathy for working-class Trump constituencies might make Democrats less likely to lose these people’s votes, lately some liberals have doubled down. As Clio Chang pointed out recently in Jacobin, figures including Paul Krugman (“I try to be charitable, but when you read about Trump voters now worried about losing Obamacare it’s kind of hard”) and Markos Moulitsas (“Be happy for coal miners losing their health insurance; they’re getting exactly what they voted for”) have reacted to stories about hardships and deprivation in Trump-leaning communities with unqualified disdain. Ex-New York Times theater critic Frank Rich recently declared he had “no sympathy for the hillbilly,” and suggested that:

“Liberals looking for a way to empathize with conservatives should endorse the core conservative belief in the importance of personal responsibility. Let Trump’s white working-class base take responsibility for its own votes — or in some cases failure to vote — and live with the election’s consequences… Let them reap the consequences for voting against their own interests.”

This kind of thinking isn’t limited to media commentators. It seems to be a strand in liberal thinking more broadly. Matthew Stoller collected a series of Huffington Post comments on an article about poor whites dying from ill-health and opiate addiction:

  • “Sorry, not sorry. These people are not worthy of any sympathy. They have run around for decades bitching about poor minorities not “working hard enough,” or that their situation is “their own fault.” Well guess what? It’s not so great when it’s you now, is it? Bunch of deplorables, and if they die quicker than the rest of us that just means the country will be better off in the long run.”
  • “Karma is a bitch and if these people choose to continue to vote Republican and try to deny other [sic] from attaining the American dream, they deserve no better than what they are getting!”
  • “I for one have little sympathy for these despairing whites. If they can’t compete against people of color when everything has been rigged in their favor, then there’s really no help for them. Trump and his G(r)OPers will do little to elevate their lot. If anything, these poor whites will be hired to dig grave pits and assemble their own coffins.”

The odd thing about all of this is that, just as Rich says, this is the conservative way of thinking about people experiencing deprivation. Rich is a wealthy man telling poor people that their problems are their own fault and they should exercise some personal responsibility. This does not sound like the rhetoric of liberals, who until recently were supposed to be the hippie bleeding-hearts and the boosters of failed but well-meaning Great Society entitlement programs. Now they’re telling the working class that they should either hoist themselves up by their bootstraps or, better yet, die and make the world a better place.

Something seems to have happened here. And to see what it is, we might do well to return to the example of Business Insider’s Josh Barro. For while Barro is currently a Democrat, he wasn’t always. In fact, after many years in the Republican Party, he only made the switch last year. Someone, then, whose publicly-stated view is that the country should be run by its enlightened oligarchs and the children of its Harvard economics professors, thinks the Democratic Party is a more congenial home for his politics than the Republican Party.

That clearly shouldn’t be the case. The Democratic Party, if it is adequately representing its fundamental democratic principles, should be a party that someone like Josh Barro would never want to join. The fact that he does want to join it should be serious cause for concern among the Democratic leadership. If the Democratic Party is actually on the left, then nobody who holds the views that Barro does (that the “masses” are incapable of judging for themselves and must be ruled by “elites”) would ever voluntarily join it. In fact, we can design a kind of useful metric—a Barrometer, if you will—for determining whether your political party is adequately representing working people’s interests. It’s quite simple: if Josh Barro is in your party, then your party is failing to represent working people’s interests. Having Barro turn up in your political camp is like when Zuckerburg turns up to Burning Man: it means the party’s over.

Now, there are multiple possibilities here. It may be that the Democratic Party actually represents wealthy snobs who think McDonald’s is for fat idiots and think miners with black lung deserve their fate for Voting Against Their Interests. Or it may be that the party simply doesn’t threaten the political interests of those wealthy snobs. But either way, it’s clear that the contemporary Democratic Party isn’t going to be making much of an attempt to redistribute power or wealth downward.


An important dimension of this is captured by National Review’s Kevin Williamson. Williamson is an uncommonly good writer and morally hideous human being who attained some notoriety when he decided that poor white communities “deserved to die” for failing to contribute anything to the global economy. He offers a standard right-wing take on poverty and deprivation: if your life sucks, you’ve nobody to blame but yourself. Capitalism, for Williamson, is a bringer of endless bounties, and the idea that it has “victims” is preposterous. (It is strange that such enthusiastic promoters of unregulated markets love to talk about the wondrous economic processes by which pencils are made but have less to say about workers getting brutally maimed in auto parts assembly plants.)

But Williamson notes something puzzling: lately, a number of Democrats seem to agree with his view that poverty is a function of poor decision-making:

“Today’s Democrats talk about the Republican-leaning parts of the United States as though they were particularly unsympathetic Third World countries, populated by people who not only lost life’s lottery but deserved it.”

Williamson says that the Democrats are now the party of the “respectable upper middle-class”; they’re the party of life’s winners, and Republicans are becoming the party of the losers: after all, most of our country’s most visible billionaires supported Clinton (Gates, Buffett, Bloomberg, Cuban, Zuckerburg, etc.), whereas the collapsing epicenters of the country’s opiate epidemic are the heart of Trump Country.

Williamson’s economic winners-and-losers framework is wrong in some important ways. (For one thing, it only works if you look solely at white people.) But he’s right to detect a distinctly snobbish and bourgeois sensibility in contemporary Democratic politics. Yesterday’s Rockefeller Republican is today’s Clinton Democrats, and Rockefeller Republicans were fundamentally aristocratic in their inclinations.

Perhaps this explains why, as Bernie Sanders has noted, it’s hard to figure out what the Democratic Party actually stands for these days. After all, what common political interests are shared by both black communities in Detroit and Warren Buffett? (Though we do know that Buffett has a longstanding passion for offering black people exorbitant mobile home loans.) What unites a Hispanic domestic worker in Los Angeles with her studio executive boss? Only the most toothless and ineffectual political program could capture the wealthiest and the poorest alike.

But to see how Democrats might begin to reformulate an actual set of values, let’s go back to Frank Rich. Rich says that Democrats “need to stop trying to feel everyone’s pain,” because this would “cater to the white-identity politics of the hard-core, often self-sabotaging Trump voters who helped drive the country into a ditch on Election Day.” And herein lies a core fallacy: that in empathizing with people, you necessarily excuse them, and that by acknowledging someone’s suffering, you thereby endorse their political agenda. You don’t have to sign on to “white identity politics” in order to think that nobody deserves to have their health insurance taken away, no matter how stupid they’ve been either personally or politically. Rich writes that Democrats should “hold the empathy and hold on to the anger” because “if National Review[‘s Kevin Williamson] says that their towns deserve to die, who are Democrats to stand in the way of Trump voters who used their ballots to commit assisted suicide?”

The answer is that Democrats are supposed to be the ones who aren’t callous assholes like Kevin Williamson, that they’re the ones who are supposed to believe people don’t bring their pain on themselves and that you don’t discard people merely because they’ve made foolish decisions. (After all, the entire left argument about criminals is that poor decisions are frequently a product of bad circumstances rather than their cause, yet certain Democrats seem incapable of extending to Trump voters the logic that they would apply to death row inmates.) Democrats are supposed to recognize the degree to which responsibility rhetoric ignores how little meaningful choice individuals have under the current economic and political system, and how ludicrous it is to blame them for things that are the product of massive structural forces. Since our lives are the product of our environments and our biology, and since we have almost no control over either of those things, talk of responsibility usually massively overstates the role of raw human willpower in shaping human destinies.

There’s a perfectly simple and consistent principle from which Democratic (or progressive, or left, or just humane) politics are supposed to start: basic compassion for those who are suffering. The moment you find yourself saying “they brought it on themselves” or “I have no sympathy,” you have ceased to practice the (often difficult!) basic moral principle that should drive left-wing politics, which is a deep compassion for people’s struggles and a desire to help them make their lives better.

Note that this gets around common objections to having “sympathy for the hillbilly.” It’s sometimes suggested that instead of empathizing with Trump voters, we should empathize with those who will be victimized by Trump’s policies, e.g. Muslims and the undocumented. But the whole idea of universal compassion is that you don’t have to choose: you care about people in proportion to the amount they are being hurt, so the people who will be hurt the most can receive the most attention without diminishing the struggles of those who are being hurt somewhat less. This also means that nobody needs to have much sympathy for rich Trump voters (which, as it is often pointed out, constitute a disproportionate fraction of the Trump constituency). If you voted for Trump because you’re a well-off bigot who thinks your taxes are too high, no hearts shall bleed for you.

A good statement of compassion-ethic was formulated by Arthur Schopenhauer (the most sensible, and therefore least-read, 19th-century German philosopher), who felt that the foundation of morality was in our ability to empathize with each other and care about the sufferings of the world. As he wrote:

“Boundless compassion for all living beings is the surest and most certain guarantee of pure moral conduct, and needs no casuistry. Whoever is filled with it will assuredly injure no one, do harm to no one, encroach on no man’s rights; he will rather have regard for every one, forgive every one, help every one as far as he can, and all his actions will bear the stamp of justice and loving-kindness. … In former times the English plays used to finish with a petition for the King. The old Indian dramas close with these words: ‘May all living beings be delivered from pain.’ Tastes differ; but in my opinion there is no more beautiful prayer than this.”

All living beings. That means caring about what happens rather than caring about who it happens to. It means valuing both the crime victim and the prisoner, or the families of both the dead U.S. soldier and the dead Yemeni child. It doesn’t discriminate by race or nation, but only by the degree of harm being experienced.

Having compassion as your starting point doesn’t lead to a particular necessary set of policy prescriptions. It doesn’t make you a strict pacifist, or mean you need to think single-payer healthcare is practicable. But it does mean you can’t end up like Frank Rich or Kevin Williamson, using the word “victims” in quotes and trying to determine who deserves to have a parent poisoned by industrial waste because they supported Trump’s EPA nominee. It doesn’t mean you can’t think people are stupid, or can’t think they should be making different choices, but it does mean that no set of bad choices means you should be afflicted with black lung or be crushed to death by industrial machinery. Nor does it (or should it) necessitate being patronizing, and treating the destitute like infants or curiosities. In fact, in a certain way you actually grant someone their humanity by being frustrated over their choices rather than seeing them as little more than the helpless product of circumstance. But none of that means that you end up like Markos Moulitsas, taking pleasure in watching people reap the harmful consequences of the decisions you warned them against. 

There are plenty of ways in which to reconstruct a moral foundation for liberal politics. People’s inclinations on this may be different. But Schopenhauer was right. “May all living beings be delivered from pain.” That’s not a bad place to start.

“Debate” Versus Persuasion

In defense of political rhetoric…

A common argument on the left runs as follows: one should not have an excessive confidence in the power of “rational debate” to solve political disagreements. There is, after all, no reasoning with some people. They are beyond argument, and thinking that you can reason with them is delusional. Any attempt to do so is likely to hurt your political fortunes, because it misunderstands how power works. Politics is not a university debating society, in which each side offers its premises and conclusions and the team with the tightest logic wins. It is “war by other means,” a clash of interests that is won by gaining the ability to push your agenda through, not by showing the other side how reasonable you are.

This issue often comes up when someone on the left does something perceived to undermine free speech and open discussion. When a white supremacist gets punched in the face, or a right-wing pundit gets shouted down on a college campus, some moderate and civility-minded person will suggest that the best way to fight right-wing ideas is by debating them, not by shutting down the conversation entirely. Inevitably, the response of those who do believe in shutting down “debate” is roughly as follows:

“It’s ridiculous to suggest ‘debating’ certain ideas, like fascism. You can’t debate such a thing. You can only destroy it. It is laughable to propose that we should sit down and argue about whether white supremacism is a good thing.” 

A version of this argument is made by Richard Seymour. Seymour says that “fact-checking” members of the far right is “beside the point.” You can’t “debate” someone like Donald Trump or Marine Le Pen. That’s because a debate only works if both parties are interested in having one. But people like Trump and Le Pen aren’t interested in debate. They use language as propaganda, rather than in a good faith attempt to find truth. Anyone who has watched a video of Adolf Hitler’s spittle-spraying orations can instantly see the futility of “debate” against certain parties.

Seymour therefore counsels against ideas like, say, inviting Marine Le Pen onto your talk show so that you can grill her. You might think you can “expose” Le Pen this way, but you won’t:

“The basic idea that ‘exposing’ fascists is bad for them, that ‘exposure’ is something that they want to avoid, depends on the totally erroneous idea that they are there to free associate about their ideas, to converse, to logically defend various truth claims. If they were worried about being ‘exposed’ in that way, they wouldn’t come on your television show, or go out of their way to court publicity.”

Discussion about the limits of debate is important. It has implications for questions of both free speech and political tactics: if dialogue is impossible, what’s the point of attempting it? If right-wing speakers are not attempting discussion, but propaganda, why shouldn’t you try to shut them down? And if political power is not built through debate, should we even be trying to convince people?

It’s important, in considering these questions, to clear up what “debate” is to begin with. Many of the criticisms of “debating” people seem to assume a narrow definition of debate: they criticize those who think pure logic can successfully counter right-wing political points. The idea here is that “debate” consists of rational argumentation: I present my points, with evidence, you present counterpoints with evidence, I rebut your counterpoints, you parry my rebuttal with some more evidence, and one of us wins through superior logic. It is this form of debate that is impossible with Donald Trump. With Donald Trump, I present my points, with evidence, and he says I founded ISIS and then brags about having a billion dollars. You can’t really meet this with “fact-checking” or even “logical argumentation,” because facts don’t mean anything to him.

But it’s too simple to say this means you can’t “debate” people like Trump or Le Pen. From the fact that you can’t use a particular kind of debate (throwing facts at someone), we would be concluding that you can’t debate them at all. That’s not necessarily true, however. “Debate” is not strictly a contest of logical argumentation; it is a contest of persuasion, and the strict presentation of factual arguments and conclusions is only one of the ways in which this occurs.

Debates are about argument, but they’re also about rhetoric, the art of discourse. “Rhetoric” has a negative connotation these days, but it shouldn’t. It has a great tradition. Rhetoric is simply the use of spoken and written tactics of persuasion. The rhetorician calculates her words for the effect they will have on the audience. As classically conceived, this is opposed to the dialectician, who uses words in an open-minded truth-seeking inquiry.

Richard Seymour is right. People like Trump and Le Pen aren’t doing anything resembling open-minded truth-seeking inquiry. Instead, they are calculating their words toward a particular end, namely the end of getting people to support them. It’s therefore not so much that you “can’t debate” such people as that you can’t bring logic to a rhetoric fight.

It may sound as if I’m encouraging the left to give up reason and embrace propaganda. But that’s not quite what I mean. I think it’s very important to seek truth, and examine yourself, and figure out what the facts are. I just don’t think that’s necessarily what wins debates. Political debates are won by having the most persuasive messages. All I’m suggesting is thinking about trying to find some words that actually convince people, rather than trying to find the most logically precise words. In a public political contest, being too logical will make you sound lawyerly and difference-splitting. It won’t carry the audience, and the audience are the ones who vote.

In making the decision as to whether to debate someone, and how, it’s that effect on the audience question that should be crucial. It’s all about the audience; you’re never going to persuade your opponent, your job is to persuade the person watching. Yet Democrats often debate as if they’re trying to persuade their opponents, which is one reason they fail. You shouldn’t be trying to prove to Trump that he’s wrong, or somehow grill Marine Le Pen on television until sheer force of reason causes her to abandon her lifelong political convictions. What you should be doing is trying to make these people look callous and foolish, which may or may not involve the use of pure logic.

I don’t like to invoke the authority of the ancient Greeks, but Aristotle really did point out something quite useful in his treatise on rhetoric. He wrote that:

“There are… three means of effecting persuasion. The man who is to be in command of them must, it is clear, be able (1) to reason logically, (2) to understand human character and goodness in their various forms, and (3) to understand the emotions-that is, to name them and describe them, to know their causes and the way in which they are excited.”

Rhetoric consists of logos, ethos, and pathos—logic, emotion, and character. To be a skilled persuader you need all three. Make purely logical arguments and you’ll flounder, because you also need to be able to use language in ways that touch people emotionally and that convince them you’re a person of sound character who ought to be listened to. People come around to your views partially for logical reasons, but partially because they come to trust you, and to see you as reliable.

That’s one key reason why people on the left lose debates. It’s not because “you can’t debate a fascist,” it’s because fascists think about how to actually win the audience. If you’re not thinking about that, of course you’ll lose.

There’s something that sounds faintly dirty about encouraging people to think beyond purely rational forms of persuasion. But it’s that refusal to get one’s hands dirty with rhetoric that is the problem, not the willingness to use language rather than physical force as one’s chief political weapon. The choice is not necessarily between “trying to reason logically with the other side” and “engaging in violent struggle.” It could also be that for progressives, persuasion is usually best effected neither through violence nor formal deductive reasoning, but through effective messaging, telling people things that actually get them to support your politics. In other words, it’s not just what you say, but how you say it and who you are

Bernie Sanders offers a good illustration of what I mean about using language effectively by going beyond reason and incorporating character and emotion. I long thought Sanders would be particularly effective in a debate against Donald Trump, far more so than Hillary Clinton. That was not because Sanders has a more acute command of debater’s logic than Clinton; in fact, she’s far better at this. Rather, it’s because Sanders had those other two appeals: the emotional appeal and the character appeal. Sanders could very effectively describe meeting people without health insurance, and speak with moral conviction about the plight of the underclass, and he could fundamentally get people to trust him by having a kind of personal integrity that many people respected. (Hardly anybody respects the character of either Clinton or Trump.) Democrats need to not just be right on the facts, but to have candidates that can speak to people on an emotional level, and who seem to have the kind of human traits in which people can place their confidence. (This is why, political positions aside, it’s probably a bad idea to run a slippery self-aggrandizing politico like Cory Booker or Andrew Cuomo in 2020.)

Thus I think giving up on argumentation, reason, and language, just because Purely Logical Debate doesn’t work, is a mistake. It’s easy to think that if we can’t convince the right with facts, there’s no hope at all for public discourse. But this might not suggest anything about the possibilities of persuasion and dialogue. Instead, it might suggest that mere facts are rhetorically insufficient to get people excited about your political program. You don’t need to refuse to debate people. You need to stop trying to debating them simply by pointing out that their statistics are erroneous and their syllogisms faulty. 

Again, let me emphasize quite clearly that while I believe in the power of persuasive communication, I do not believe in Trying To Reason With All The Trump Supporters. That would be stupid. For one thing, you’re far less likely to persuade a serious Trump supporter than a person who is instinctively left-leaning but simply doesn’t vote because they find all politics disgusting. And as Michael Kinnucan has pointed out here before, it may also be unwise to focus on appeals to the (largely) mythical “swing voter” who hops back and forth between Republicans and Democrats depending on who makes the best argument in that particular cycle. The vast majority of people who vote are pretty set in their ways, and time may be better spent energizing and politicizing the people who don’t participate (but who have real grievances and would benefit from joining a political movement). Under this theory, activism is better focused on black voters in Detroit than the small number of people in rural Michigan who turned from Obama to Trump. (I say this “may be” better because I am less certain than Kinnucan is that “swing voters” are hopeless, even if they are a small minority, and they can, after all, be a small minority that counts for quite a lot.)

So I don’t share the belief that if we just sat down with people on the far right, and talked about our differences face to face, we would find that we all believe the same things deep down. This was Barack Obama’s perspective, and it was colossally naive. If you sit down with Republicans and try to “meet them in the middle,” they will just sense that you are weak and eat you alive. It turns out that human beings don’t all
“believe the same things deep down.” Some of us believe deep down that the free market should be permitted to work people to death without even a basic guarantee of subsistence. Others of us believe that the government should ensure everyone gets healthcare and housing. These beliefs cannot be reconciled, and most of the people who hold each of them are pretty committed to their perspective, so discussing them does not seem as if it will be especially fruitful.

But it’s also true that you can’t build political power without caring about discussion and communication, because it’s impossible to coordinate human activity without these things. Every successful political movement has built itself in large part using words, because it takes words to convince people to perform acts. And political rhetoric, which incorporates factual reasoning but also goes beyond it, has a noble heritage, from the logical and emotional force of Martin Luther King’s argument against piecemeal civil rights advancements to the rousing words of the Internationale.

Ultimately I worry that, in mocking the idea that you can “debate” fascists, some on the left also end up jettisoning the very idea of having to persuade people of your ideas, and end up thinking that the only way you can “debate” someone is by fact-checking them (and since we know that doesn’t work, language fails us and we must retreat into violence). Yes, it’s true, you can’t just present the facts and evidence and assume people will agree with you and you’ll win. But any good lawyer could tell that you don’t just win a case through the force of the evidence, you also win it through the effectiveness of your presentation.

The other side understands this. Republicans know how to appeal to people’s guts, to their feelings of bitterness, suspicion, and fear. If the left is going to respond, it needs a message of equal power. Not mere facts, though of course we want those. But something that appeals to the nobler emotions: to solidarity, and joy, and the spirit of human kinship. We have effective emotional appeals, we just need to use them.

There’s nothing inherently shameful about political rhetoric. In fact, it’s essential. You should be appealing to the heart as well as the brain. You should have a character people can trust, not just arguments they can agree with. And it’s the only way you’ll win.

CNN Will Never Be Good For Humanity

Cable news is incapable of being a serious adversary to Donald Trump…

It should be perfectly obvious to anyone that there is no war between Donald Trump and CNN. It may look like there is. But there isn’t. This is because Donald Trump and CNN share the exact same core objective: to put on a really good show.

I say this is “perfectly obvious.” That’s because it’s an undeniable fact that CNN exists to serve the interests of the Turner Broadcasting System, which in turn exists to serve the interests of Time Warner, Inc., which exists to serve the interests of the shareholders of Time Warner, Inc. And Donald Trump exists to serve the interests of Donald Trump, whose primary interest is in appearing on television a lot and being famous and powerful. These two sets of interests are perfectly symbiotic, and there is no reason that there should be any serious conflict between them. Donald Trump wants to be on television. CNN wants people to watch television. And because people watch television when Donald Trump is on it, neither CNN nor Trump has any reason to make any effort to seriously undermine the other.

It’s bizarre, however, that when I have mentioned to people the simple fact that Donald Trump and CNN have the same relationship as clownfish and sea anemones, I have been treated like some kind of conspiracy theorist. I am, it is suggested, positing some kind of worldview in which media and political elites gather in backrooms and conspire over cigars. I am being cynical, and implying that nothing is as it seems and that we’re all stupified, zombified sheeple, unaware that the powers that be are laughing behind our backs while we obsess over a spectacle manufactured for consumption.

But in actual fact, I’m implying nothing conspiratorial at all, and it exasperates me endlessly that the idea should be perceived this way. I don’t think Sean Spicer and Wolf Blitzer meet for breakfast each morning and plot out the day’s Trump feud. Rather, it’s simply that by independently pursuing their own personal/institutional objectives, they benefit one another. This requires no shady collusion whatsoever. After all, the clownfish and the sea anemone do not have to work things out in a smoke-filled room. They don’t even particularly have to like one another. They simply go about their business, and the same thing happens to be good for both parties. Thinking about how relationships emerge from rational self-interest doesn’t make you Glenn Beck with his chalkboard; it’s standard economic thinking.

I’ll give you further evidence that I’m not offering a “conspiracy”: you don’t usually see conspiracies described openly in the pages of the Hollywood Reporter. And yet here we are:

On the TV front, [network president Jeff Zucker] and CNN have ridden the Trump wave as adeptly as any outlet. In the critical 25-to-54 demographic, CNN’s daytime audience in January was up 51 percent year-over-year (Fox News was up 55 percent); it pulled in an extra $100 million in ad revenue (counting both TV and digital) last year compared with past election years. Profit for 2016 neared $1 billion, and the short-term outlook suggests the Trump bump will lead to another $1 billion haul. “It’s going to turn 2017 into an even better year than we already expected to have,” says Zucker. 

Here’s the New York Daily News‘s Don Kaplan:

The feud between Donald J. Trump and CNN is like an iceberg: There’s so much more going on beneath the surface than anyone knows. At first glance, it would seem completely adversarial, but it’s not… Those who know Zucker understand his ego is almost as outsized as Trump’s, and given their history, the pair shares a special bond — one that entitles Zucker to a level of access other news executives do not enjoy. Zucker told New York Magazine the pair talked at least once a month during Trump’s campaign for the White House.

And Politico:

In fact, the presidential campaign and the first few weeks of the Trump administration have proven to be a boon to the bottom line for CNN and its competition. In many respects, Trump’s vitriol toward the media and the tough coverage of his administration reinforce themselves, driving coverage forward.

By all accounts, the rise of Donald Trump in American politics has been fantastically good news for CNN, which has seen an incredible ratings boost and reaped a billion dollar profit from the campaign cycle. And Jeff Zucker is an old friend of Donald Trump’s, having launched Trump’s television career by commissioning The Apprentice in 2004. (You can find lots of photos of them hanging out together.) For the head of a network with an ostensibly adversarial relationship with the new president, Zucker has seemed remarkably pleased with the direction of things: “This is the best year in the history of cable news … for everybody. We’ve all benefited.” (The New York Times recently observed that “nibbling filet mignon in a private dining room overlooking Central Park, Jeffrey A. Zucker, the president of CNN, did not look like a man perturbed.”) According to Politico, Zucker and CNN recognized early on that “Trump would be a ratings machine,” and deliberately gave him “quite a bit of coverage,” including broadcasting many of Trump’s rallies and speeches in full. Faced with the fact of his own complicity in the rise of a terrifying and incompetent president, Zucker said he had no regrets, and reportedly “sleeps great at night.”

Donald Trump and CNN’s Jeff Zucker

All of this is completely at odds with the received idea that Trump and the network are in a fight to the death, with Trump undermining journalists, ushering in a post-fact era, and posing a serious threat to the freedom of the press. CNN contributors and correspondents declare that Trump poses an “existential crisis” for American journalism and poses a threat to democracy and free speech. But television executives don’t seem to share that opinion. During the election CBS’s Les Moonves seconded Zucker’s perspective:

It may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS… For us, economically speaking, Donald’s place in the election is a good thing… Donald’s place in this election is a good thing… The money’s rolling in, and this is fun. It’s a terrible thing to say. But bring it on, Donald. Keep going.

Could anyone who actually had serious grave concerns about Trump speak like this? (Moonves later insisted he had been joking, though since what he said was true, it’s unclear what the joke was supposed to be.) Certainly anyone who thought that the future of the press was at stake, or recognized that millions of lives could potentially be destroyed through mass deportation (let alone nuclear war and climate change) you would have a hard time classifying anything about the election as “fun” or wishing Trump continued political success.  Yet that’s how the heads of CBS and CNN are feeling: they’re not worried. They’re downright pleased. For them (as opposed to everyone else), this is great. It is, as Zucker put it, “a very exciting time.” You don’t have to speculate especially wildly, then, in order to be skeptical of there being any real “hostility” between Trump and CNN. All you have to do is listen to its chief executive’s words.

Again, this doesn’t necessitate believing that there is a conscious effort on CNN’s part to help Trump. While overt media-political collaboration does happen (according to Cenk Uygur’s internal account of working at MSNBC, the Obama administration had significant pull with executives there and shaped the network’s tone), the real question is simply whether it’s possible for a profit-driven media to care much about serious journalism or moral values if ratings and profits lie elsewhere. Financial self-interest powerfully shapes us on a subconscious level, and it’s easy to see why the optimal position for CNN at the moment is to feel like they are opposing Trump while not actually doing anything to seriously undermine him.


And that’s precisely what seems to be happening. Yes, there are regular spats with Sean Spicer and Kellyanne Conway. These are entertaining; they even go viral! But after Donald Trump’s recent speech to Congress, in which he accomplished the spectacular feat of reading from a set of prepared remarks for the first time in his political career, CNN declared him “presidential,” with even the network’s progressive commentators gushing over Trump. It was somewhat bizarre to see Trump’s supposed bitter adversaries giving him totally undeserved praise for a transparently manipulative bit of agitprop. But as The Atlantic‘s Derek Thompson explained, television news is a show, and shows demand narratives, and Trump steadily becoming statesmanlike is a great narrative, so there was no reason not to give Trump the story he wanted:

The fundamental bias in punditry is not toward “presidential” behavior or against “resistance.” it is more simply pro-plot twist. Narrative shifts are great for television, so great that it is irresistible to manufacture them in the absence of actual shifting narratives.

(Journalistic symbiosis with Trump has a long history, by the way. Ever since the New York Times compared him to Robert Redford in 1976, before writing in 1989 that The Art of the Deal made one “believe in the American Dream again,” Trump has been offering the press great stories, and the press have dutifully printed them. Trump knows the ins and outs of media as well as anyone alive, and has been phenomenally successful at using the news to his advantage in order to build his celebrity and, ultimately, his power.)

Anybody who believes that CNN’s rhetorical commitment to journalism is actually serious should read the Hollywood Reporter‘s account of Zucker’s plans for the network. Serious adversarial reporting such as Jake Tapper’s has a place because Tapper successfully draws viewers. But the rest of the network’s plans have barely any connection to anything resembling journalism. Its future is in stand-up comics (W. Kamau Bell) and TV chefs (Anthony Bourdain—I love him, but that’s what he is.) They’re paying 25 million dollars to a YouTube vlogger named Casey Neistat, a man whose specialty appears to be giddily trying out incredibly expensive goods and services on camera, and whose plans for how to use the $25 million are inscrutably vague and buzzword-laden. To bolster their investigative reporting, CNN poached a team from BuzzFeed who had “broken several major stories, including Trump’s appearance in a soft-core Playboy video.” (A consequential scoop if there ever was one.)

But while the network’s preference for popularity over integrity would seem undeniable, CNN editorial VP Andrew Morse has insisted that it isn’t what it looks like: “We are decidedly not in the clickbait business… We don’t do cat videos, we don’t do waterskiing squirrels.” Morse might be a little more believable if the network’s politics section didn’t literally run headlines like “Haha Guys, This Bird Looks Like Donald Trump.” (He might also want to check the network archives before confidently declaring that CNN is free of cat and squirrel-based news stories; in fact, CNN is the perfect place to go for a “Squirrels Eating Potato Chips” video, and in the weeks before the election they were literally running stories like “Here’s The Whole Election In Cat GIFS.”)

The point here is not that there is something wrong with providing access to amusing cat photos or clips of squirrels noshing on Pringles. It is simply that CNN is a company, not a public service, and it can be expected to act like a company. Its aim is to produce content that people will watch. Sometimes the public’s taste will coincide with the public good. But not too often. And the rise of somebody like Donald Trump, who constitutes both a unique threat to human wellbeing and a unique opportunity for compelling television, heightens the tension between the journalistic and economic motivations of CNN. And since it’s the economic dimension that directs most corporate action, especially when there are billions of dollars to be made, CNN has a lot to gain from being just antagonistic enough toward Trump to guarantee some good entertainment without being so antagonistic as to bring him down and have to return to C-SPAN levels of thrilling political discourse. Thus to use Moonves’s formulation, in the Trump era, what’s “bad for America” is great for CNN.

The fact that CNN will never be good for humanity is not really the fault of the people who work at CNN. After all, it’s hard to see how they could do anything differently. (Though, to their credit, they have experimented with some impressively elevated programming.) Once your mandate is to get viewers, you’ve already got a pernicious conflict of interest, and the quest for viewers (or clicks) is endemic to contemporary American media. So much is driven by the pursuit of eyes on the page or screen, and anyone working within that system will struggle to do things that are morally necessary but don’t really attract a viewership.

This is a very old criticism, but I think in many ways it is a correct one. (The most clichéd sentiments are also often the truest sentiments.) When the production of media is motivated by profit, the temptations to sacrifice integrity are going to be great. In the case of Donald Trump, these temptations will be all but irresistible. An age that requires resistance therefore requires independent nonprofit media. Economics still runs the world, and behind the apparent war between CNN and the Trump administration is a relationship just as agreeable as that of the clownfish and the sea anemone.

They Must Be Trying To Fail

By failing to appoint Keith Ellison to chair the DNC, Democrats have written their suicide note…

At this point, one has to conclude that the national Democratic Party has a death wish. Given the opportunity to throw a minuscule bone to the Sanders progressives, the DNC declined. By giving its chairmanship to former Labor Secretary Tom Perez, instead of Rep. Keith Ellison, party leaders have shown that they must be actively desiring electoral oblivion.

The Ellison/Perez fight had been portrayed as a re-litigation of the Sanders/Clinton primary fight. It was and it wasn’t. It was, in that Keith Ellison was endorsed by Bernie Sanders, while Tom Perez had the backing of members of the party’s more traditional establishment. But that’s also an oversimplification. After all, Chuck Schumer, not exactly a socialist insurgent, had endorsed Ellison, and the political differences between Ellison and Perez were not nearly so obvious as those between Sanders and Clinton.

The race between Ellison and Perez was, however, a meaningful moment in determining the future of the party. And it wasn’t only the left-wing Ellison supporters who seemed to think so. After all, Obama-affiliated Democrats drafted Perez specifically in order to keep Ellison from attaining the chairmanship. Pressure had been brought upon them by wealthy party donors to make sure Ellison was foiled. Even though Perez’s supporters repeatedly insisted that Perez and Ellison were roughly equal in their left-wing credentials, it was clear that they couldn’t possibly have meant what they said. After all, they were desperate to thwart Ellison. As Clio Chang pointed out in The New Republic, the case for Perez made no sense. His boosters suggested that he was just as progressive as Ellison, but in that case, why run him? The only way Perez’s candidacy could be explained was by assuming that all the arguments made for him were false, and that party elites did perceive Ellison as a proxy for Bernie Sanders.

It was quite clear to anyone who thought about it honestly that this was an important moment for the party, and that party insiders knew it. They were willing to launch a disgusting smear campaign against Keith Ellison, which implied that he was a closet anti-Semite. (Some commentators verged into outright bigotry against Ellison’s Muslim faith; Jonathan Weisman of The New York Times suggested that Ellison was an ill-advised choice because he was black and a Muslim.) Ellison quite obviously represented the Sanders-supporting progressive insurgency, and Perez the traditional party elites. While some Clinton supporters went for Ellison, and some Sanders supporters for Perez, nobody could believe this fight was empty of political content, or purely about these two men’s personalities.

That’s why not selecting Ellison is a colossal mistake on a strategic level. Many of Bernie Sanders’ voters during the primary came to hate the DNC, resenting the party’s bias in favor of Hillary Clinton. Sanders voters didn’t like Clinton. They disagreed with her policies on a number of substantive points, and didn’t like being told they had to suck it up and vote for her after Sanders lost the primary. The 13 million people who voted for Sanders in the primary voted for him in part because they felt disillusioned with the traditional Democratic Party. They felt that the Obama Administration had been insufficiently progressive, and that Clinton represented the interests of a tiny group of incredibly wealthy people who couldn’t care less about the lives of the working class. Those people remained angry after the primary. Many of them did not show up to vote in the general election.


It was already extraordinary that the Democratic Party had made so little effort to appease the disaffected progressive faction. After all, when you don’t give ground to the left, they don’t organize for you. In the worst case scenario, they vote for Ralph Nader and destroy your electoral chances completely. It’s very important not to thumb your nose at your base. This was precisely what Hillary Clinton did. She selected Tim Kaine as her running mate, in what even Matt Yglesias acknowledged was an enormous “fuck you” to the party’s left flank. Her operatives spurned the offers of Sanders organizers to help get out the vote in Rust Belt states. We know how this turned out.

So it was incredibly important that the Democratic Party take some steps to indicate that it cared about progressives. Since the election, it hadn’t been doing a very good job of this. (Nancy Pelosi’s insistence that nothing needed to change, and her rebuke to a young leftist, demonstrated the prevailing attitude.) Appointing Keith Ellison to chair the DNC was the perfect opportunity. After all, chairing the DNC is a pretty minor role. It would mostly have been a gesture of friendship and unity, showing that even after the catastrophic mistake of ignoring leftist warnings not to run Clinton, the party was capable of valuing its leftmost members.

But no. Instead of granting the tiniest possible concession, the party has decided to affirm precisely what Nancy Pelosi has indicated: democratic socialists and social democrats don’t belong in the party. It’s not for them. What the party does depends on what billionaire donors want it to do.

This is politically suicidal. During the 2016 campaign, I made efforts to convince leftists to vote for Hillary Clinton. I ran into a lot of resistance. The general theme was: why should I vote for her when she doesn’t seem to care about my values? Why should I support a party that exists for its billionaire donors? And it was hard to come up with good answers to those questions. People on the left despised Clinton and the Democratic Party establishment, and didn’t feel as if there was any reason to be loyal to a party that didn’t seem to want them.

There was another serious pragmatic reason to believe the party needed Ellison. Like Sanders, he had the momentum and energy. Keith Ellison could get young people excited about Democratic politics. He had a way of connecting with people. Even Jonathan Capehart of the Washington Post, who had supported Hillary Clinton, was incredibly impressed with Ellison when he spoke to him, because of Ellison’s unique gift for explaining progressive values in concrete and relatable terms. In an era where Democrats are losing incredibly badly at every level, they needed someone who could motivate people and get them to organize. They needed someone who would harness the force that led to Bernie Sanders’ massive rallies, an enthusiasm that Hillary Clinton could never generate. With a significant segment of those people seeing their candidate yet again blocked (this time by an even more absurdly undemocratic process, in which ordinary party members had absolutely no say), it’s hardly likely that Perez will be able to energize those same forces. Electing Ellison was essential because it could have kept more left-wingers from quitting the party in disgust, and helped bring back some (much needed) robust grassroots organizing.

Now, progressives in the party are further alienated. Good luck getting them to vote for Democrats. No matter how many people may have insisted that Ellison/Perez wasn’t a replay of Sanders/Clinton, it’s impossible to deny that in some ways it was. The progressives needed to receive some kind of gesture. And they have received one: an enormous middle finger.

Even When It Doesn’t Save Money

Don’t use other people’s values and logic, use your own.

It is frequently tempting to justify policies by pointing to the money that will be saved by implementing them. This is a mistake. Or rather, it’s dangerous. Because if you suggest that the reason to do something morally good is that it saves people money, then you’re stuck if it turns out that this morally good thing actually doesn’t save people money, or turns out to cost quite a bit of money.

Cost-saving arguments are frequently made by people on the left in order to defend their policy preferences. Giving prisoners college degrees, for example, is good because it ends up saving the state money in the long run by reducing rates of reoffending. The death penalty is bad because it’s extremely costly to actually implement, given the complex legal procedures necessary in order to successfully execute someone. Drug-testing welfare applicants is bad because it costs a lot of money without yielding many results.

Each of these arguments has something in common: they support a left-wing policy position, without requiring a left-wing set of moral preferences. They try to show conservatives that one doesn’t need to be on the left in order to support educating prisoners, ending the death penalty, and declining to give drug tests to welfare applicants. It’s enough just to care about saving money. And everyone wants to save money!

But by making these kinds of arguments, people on the left both come across as dishonest and stake their claims on highly risky propositions. There’s something dishonest here because the real reasons why many people on the left support these things have nothing whatsoever to do with cost-saving. They don’t like the death penalty because they find it barbaric, they think prisoners should have access to education because they believe everyone deserves an opportunity to better themselves, and they don’t like drug-testing welfare applicants because they think it’s intrusive and demeaning.

How can one be certain that it’s not really “cost-saving” that motivates these positions? Well, because if it turned out that the policy in question didn’t save money, or there was a way to save even more money by doing the opposite, many people advancing these arguments would become somewhat uncomfortable. The easiest response to the cost-saving argument against the death penalty is that the death penalty would become much cheaper if we just took people behind the courthouse and shot them immediately after they were found guilty. And what if we find an incredibly cheap, yet even more invasive, way of drug testing welfare applicants? Would an opponent’s position waver even slightly? The truth is that most leftist positions are motivated by moral instincts, and everyone knows it. It’s convenient that educating prisoners or ending the death penalty might be good for the government’s coffers, but it’s certainly not why we care about those things.

You’re also doing something very risky when you make a big deal out of cost-saving arguments: you’re depending on the facts to always back you up. The moment the economics change, the argument that was in your favor is now just as powerful a reason not to listen to you. As Current Affairs has previously noted, many pragmatic cases for liberal immigration policy are of this sort. People will say that immigrants grow the economy, or they put more into the system than they take out, or they don’t decrease native-born employment. But if the facts change, and someday immigrants do take out more than they put in, would the advocates of liberal immigration policy thereby change their minds? Many of them wouldn’t, because immigration is actually a moral issue (people should be free to move about the world, especially when a land of prosperity has more than enough to go around) rather than a matter of pure economic self-interest.

The fact that these arguments are premised on appeals to self-interest is another reason why leftists should be careful about them. If we say that people should help prisoners because it is in their self-interest to do so, we are telling them that the reason they should care about prisoners has little to do with empathy and altruism. But that means that we’re affirming the legitimacy of selfishness and callousness, instead of grounding our appeals in the moral imperatives that come with being human. The fact is that many of the things we believe in aren’t going to be cost-savers. In fact, they’re going to be very expensive. It’s extremely costly, for example, to provide prisoners with good healthcare. If we want to follow the cost-saving criterion, we should just let prisoners die when they get sick. But that’s abhorrent. And it’s abhorrent because it shows a lack of willingness to sacrifice anything in order to ensure all people have the basics of life guaranteed to them.

The same type of problem plagues progressive arguments about economic inequality. Opponents of inequality frequently suggest that inequality is not just bad for those at the bottom. In fact, it’s bad for everyone, including those who seem to benefit. Robert Frank suggests that people at the top are forced into a status competition that even they don’t get anything out of, while others have reported that health, happiness, and trust in a society can be worsened by high levels of inequality. The Washington Center for Equitable Growth (WCEG), an anti-inequality think tank, seeks research on the various effects inequality might have on everyone:

How, if at all, does economic inequality affect the development of human capital?… Do different levels or kinds of inequality impact the potential for talent to emerge across the income, earnings, or wealth distributions, and, if so, how? We are interested in proposals that investigate the myriad mechanisms through which economic inequality might work to alter the development of human potential across the generational arc, including children, young workers, prime-age workers, and older Americans.

But note: many progressives are not against inequality because they believe it harms everyone. They are against inequality because they believe it harms the poor, but proof that it harms everyone would be a very convenient way to make a strong case for getting rid of it. After all, if you don’t need people to be altruistic, but just need them to care about themselves, it’s easier for you to persuade the rich that reducing inequality would be a very good thing.

What if inequality isn’t bad for everyone, though? What if it’s fantastic for everybody at the top? What if the only people who are seriously deprived are the huge numbers of people who lose out? Then what? If the case against inequality is that we’re all hurt by it (somewhat counterintuitive, since it seems as if the wealthiest among us probably aren’t hurt at all), then what happens if that case turns out to be shaky? If you’ve carefully avoided the moral appeal, you’ve got very little left. But it may well turn out to be true that some things are going to have to require sacrifice, period. They’re not going to “help the rich as well.” Not everything is win-win, and if you try to frame everything as win-win, you are avoiding making the honest and difficult moral demands upon people that are necessary to build a more just world.


This is not to take a position that the empirical findings showing the harmful effects of inequality are wrong. They may well be right. But it’s clear that the WECG, which is, after all, committed to equitable growth, would very much like it if the research it produced turned out to give reasons why inequality is bad. It’s true that in their call for proposals, the Center doesn’t say that you have to find inequality has harmful effects on human capital. But I am not sure they want to end up producing a pile of research showing that inequality doesn’t have wide-ranging effects. (The instinct to use purely neutral and technocratic arguments, as against explicitly moral ones, can lead you to some strange contortions indeed. The WCEG even has an article explaining how slavery was bad in part because it was bad for the slaveholders, by inhibiting “economic creativity” and innovation. If it had been great for economic creativity, would it have been justified?)

Now, none of this is to say that it doesn’t matter what something costs, or that we shouldn’t consider the effects of a policy on everybody before deciding whether it is a good idea. Instead, I am saying that our values should be presented honestly and frankly, and that we should be clear about just how much our position is actually being influenced by the empirical considerations of cost-saving. If you bury your morals, and talk as if you’re just about the numbers, you’ll quickly be exposed as inconsistent when you have to fudge or bury the numbers on an issue where they conflict with your morality. (For example, people on the left say that racial profiling doesn’t work. But if it did, would it be okay, or would we end up trying to avoid or massage the statistics in order to continue to maintain that it didn’t work? Legal philosopher Ben Eidelson has suggested that the real reason we should be against racial profiling is that it’s a hideous affront to human dignity that singles people out based on a pernicious demographic characteristic.) There is sometimes a tendency among liberals to be cowardly about their own supposed values, and to try to argue based on conservative premises (we’re the real patriots), on the theory that Americans are mostly conservative in their instincts and need things framed accordingly. But Republicans will always make better Republicans than Democrats will, and when you appropriate someone else’s values and disguise your own, you just sound cowardly and vermicular.

As I have argued before, with Democrats losing at nearly every level of government, it’s more important than ever for progressives to develop a clear and persuasive political message. I am skeptical of messages that do not offer an obvious coherent moral worldview. Cost-saving arguments risk muddying the values one is trying to express, because it becomes unclear whether one cares about the conservative principle of small government or the leftist principle of giving people help. And sometimes it’s just going to be true that you can’t have everything, that we are going to have to be asking some people to sacrifice or care about things for reasons other than self-interest. While it’s not impossible to make multiple kinds of arguments in succession, all of which point toward the same end, it’s also important to stick by your values, and tell people why you hold them, instead of pretending that you are just following their own values and their own logic. People just might respond better to some honesty. I don’t like the death penalty because I believe in mercy, even when it’s hard. I don’t like inequality because it’s an obscenity for some people to be billionaires while others can’t pay for their children’s cancer care. And I don’t like drug tests or profiling because they are vicious and spiteful and rob people of their humanity. Saving money is a bonus. But when it’s not why we care about what we care about, it’s not what we should spend our time talking about.

What We’ll Tolerate, And What We Won’t

Milo Yiannopoulos didn’t get his book deal canceled for his bigotry…

It wasn’t that he told a woman there was something wrong with her for wearing a hijab in America. It wasn’t that he encouraged people to “Purge the Illegals” and gave out ICE’s hotline number at a presentation. It wasn’t that he mocked a transgender college student in front of a crowd, saying he’d still almost bang her because she looked like a man. Instead, it was his discussion of the complexities of his sexual experiences with adults as a gay teenager that caused Milo Yiannopoulos to lose his $250,000 book deal with Simon and Schuster.

The swift recent reversal of Yiannopoulos’s fortunes is in many ways illuminating. The Breitbart editor had spent the last year building a public profile by going around American college campuses giving “lectures” with titles like “Why Do Lesbians Fake So Many Hate Crimes?” and “Why Ugly People Hate Me.” At these events, he would tell people why “feminism is cancer,” refer to various people as “cunts” and “retards,” and make jokes about how Muslims were probably terrorists. When appalled students tried to have the talks canceled, he would insist that the PC left was simply afraid to deal with arguments, facts, and statistics. (The more obvious explanation is that the PC left doesn’t think a person whose idea of elevated political discourse is “100% of fat people are fucking gross”—and who gigglingly posts pictures of the overweight people at his gym—is sincere about wanting to improve political dialogue on campus.)

As Yiannopoulos would continue to bait students with outrageous and cruel remarks, and students would continue to take the bait by giving Yiannopoulos publicity and fueling his persecution narrative, he managed to bring himself mainstream attention. For God only knows what reason, a major publishing house decided to reward him with a six-figure advance. (Actually, we know full well the reason: $) Bill Maher invited Yiannopoulous on Real Time, where the two enjoyed a pleasant back-and-forth about how the left were the real intolerant ones, before agreeing that transgender people were a bunch of sex criminals who couldn’t be trusted in women’s bathrooms. (The only relief during Yiannopoulos’s otherwise unendurable Real Time appearance was provided by Larry Wilmore, who enthusiastically told Yiannopoulos to go fuck himself after Yiannopoulos speculated that his black co-panelists must have low IQs.) Finally, the Conservative Political Action Conference placed a gleaming maraschino atop Yiannopoulos’s recent success by offering him a speaking slot.

Until a few days ago, then, Milo Yiannopoulos was doing quite well for himself. Then the pedophilia tapes surfaced. It turned out that Yiannopoulos had once made a few remarks that were difficult to interpret as anything other than a defense of sex between older men and young boys:

“We get hung up on this sort of child abuse stuff, to the point where we are heavily policing consensual adults. In the homosexual world, particularly, some of those relationships between younger boys and older men — the sort of ‘coming of age’ relationship — those relationships in which those older men help those young boys discover who they are and give them security and safety and provide them with love and a reliable, sort of rock, where they can’t speak to their parents.”

When the interviewer pointed out that this sounded like “Catholic priest molestation,” Yiannopoulos replied: “You know what? I’m grateful for Father Michael. I wouldn’t give nearly such good head if it wasn’t for him…” In another interview, Yiannopoulos confirmed that age 14 he had had sexual interactions with a priest, but said that this “wasn’t molestation,” nor was it pedophilia, because “pedophilia is not a sexual attraction to somebody 13 years old who is sexually mature. Pedophilia is attraction to children who have not reached puberty.”

Conservatives were scandalized. Bill Kristol called the remarks “despicable” and CPAC rapidly rescinded Yiannopoulos’s invitation to speak. Soon after, Simon & Schuster canceled his book deal, and there were reports that Breitbart editors were threatening to resign if he wasn’t fired. During Friday’s Real Time, Bill Maher had said that Yiannopoulos was “only at the beginning of [his] career.” By Monday, it seemed like he was at the end of it.


The rapid undoing of Yiannopoulos was interesting for several reasons. It served as an instructive illustration of what conservatives were and were not willing to tolerate. All the hateful filth about women, Muslims, and transgender people actually made a conservative publishing imprint want to publish his book. These things evidently do not cross a moral line. (To his credit, National Review editor Jonah Goldberg deplored this lack of principle, commenting that “apparently the racism and anti-Semitism wasn’t a deal breaker.”)

As far as CPAC goes, Yiannopoulos’s invitation and dis-invitation shows where the standards lie. For Simon and Schuster, on the other hand, dropping Yiannopoulos may have been strictly business. As Roxane Gay, who withdrew her book from the publishing house in protest of their decision to offer Yiannopoulos a contract, explained: “Simon and Schuster realized it would cost them more money to do business with Milo than he could earn for them. They did not finally ‘do the right thing.’ They were fine with his racist and xenophobic and sexist ideologies.” Indeed, like most publishers, S&S is far more concerned with what they can sell than with whether it’s moral or immoral.

But just as interesting as what didn’t make Yiannopoulos toxic is what did. Ironically, the remarks that finally got him expelled from the mainstream were among his less indefensible. He has been condemned by almost everybody for “defending pedophilia.” But this is not quite fair. In fact, while his comments are shocking, the arguments he is making are not unfamiliar in LGBT discourse. As Current Affairs editor Yasmin Nair explained in a thoughtful and provocative essay in 2005, the intensity of feelings around child abuse often prevent people from appreciating nuanced arguments. Nair was writing about a publisher’s decision to exclude an article on pederasty from a book on the history of same-sex relationships, after right-wing complaints that it would condone “rampant child molestation.” As she writes, there is a long tradition of the right using fears about pedophilia “to condemn all queers, particularly gay men, as predators of children.” It is often impossible to have a discussion about the reality of queer people’s lives, because anyone who speaks of their neutral or positive experiences with older people as a youth is perceived as endorsing pedophilia.

Yiannopoulos says that gay men’s experiences as teens with older men are often complicated, not always easily captured by the available terminology. He says that his own teenage sexual encounters with men did not fit the labels “molestation” and “pedophilia,” especially since pedophilia refers to attraction to the pre-pubescent. He offered a further clarification on Facebook:

I do not support pedophilia. Period. It is a vile and disgusting crime, perhaps the very worst…If I choose to deal in an edgy way on an internet livestream with a crime I was the victim of that’s my prerogative. It’s no different to gallows humor from AIDS sufferers…I did say that there are relationships between younger men and older men that can help a young gay man escape from a lack of support or understanding at home. That’s perfectly true and every gay man knows it. But I was not talking about anything illegal and I was not referring to pre-pubescent boys.

It’s not, on the face of it, an unreasonable explanation. Yiannopoulos may not have made his point very well. But there’s something nuanced and defensible here. First, he’s saying that the relationships between gay men and teenage boys (according to their own accounts) have historically been messier than simple categories allow for. And second, it’s absurd to say that he can’t make dark or crass jokes about his priest if it’s his way of dealing with what happened to him.

Unfortunately for Yiannopoulos, there is no possibility of complexity where it comes to discussions around age, sex, and consent. Fears of pedophilia have made it so that even the slightest hint that one is condoning it brings instant total ostracism. (These same sentiments have also made it so that no punishment is considered too severe when it comes to those convicted of sex crimes against minors. Nobody wants to speak out on behalf of society’s most loathed group of criminals, thus they get shunted under bridges and denied housing rather than given treatment.)

Yiannopoulos has quickly found out which ideas will actually get you booted from the public square, and they’re left-wing ones rather than right-wing ones. It turned out the real people you can’t offend are the conservatives whose latent homophobia make them instantly pounce on a gay man as a defender of pedophilia when he tries to explain his world to them. How fitting that Yiannopoulos should end up subjected to the very kind of vicious misrepresentation of LGBT people that he has spent his time encouraging. How appropriate for him to discover that his friends on the right only supported him so long as he nurtured their prejudices; they loved their campy gay mascot until the moment he challenged them. Then he was a pervert.

You can learn a lot about society’s values and the allocation of power by examining what people get exiled for. Yiannopoulos is not the only heinous individual who was punished for his lesser crime rather than his greater ones. Trump’s former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn was a bigoted nutcase who called Islam a “cancer” and said that “fear of Muslims is rational.” He promoted the works of alt-right conspiracist and rape apologist Mike Cernovich, as well as a host of other figures from the far-right fringes. Yet all of this was, if anything, a qualification for his position. Instead, what did him in was his dissembling about a chat with the Russian ambassador. Tell scurrilous lies about the weak and excluded, and you’re fine. Tell minor lies about diplomacy to the Vice President, and you’re toast.

It is interesting watching people turn on Yiannopoulos over the more innocuous thing, instead of the more insidious things. Newsweek‘s Kurt Eichenwald, for example, said that while Yiannopoulos had “good points on PC culture,” anyone who stuck with him now was “evil.” Thus in the phase when Milo was bashing gays and transgender people, he was simply “making good points.” Now that he’s been caught sticking up for gays, he’s a monster. When he invited conservatives to titter at LGBT people, he was fun. When he tried to speak earnestly and sincerely on behalf of those people, he was reprehensible.

Of course, Yiannopoulos is a monster. Personally, I find him totally odious and lacking in any appealing traits. (Though my opinion on this is not universal; New Statesman editor Laurie Penny has called him “sweet,” “charming,” and “kind.”) The fact that he received a major book deal, and was paid any mainstream attention at all, sadly shows how the amorality of the market can allow those who pander to the ugliest human instincts to be handsomely remunerated. But even those of us on the left who have hated nearly every word he has spoken should be disturbed that his attempts to defend gay sexuality, rather than his attacks on it, are what got his $250,000 taken away.

I doubt anything could make Milo Yiannopoulos feel even a faint pang of conscience or regret over his long record of cruelty and unpleasantness. He seems, in both his public and private dealings, a proud sociopath. But ideally this would teach Yiannopoulos an important lesson. He believed he was a martyr for free speech when he toured college campuses making cracks about how feminists are ugly. In fact, he was steadily growing more popular, and offered limitless money and television appearances. He believed that people found his ideas “dangerous,” but a mainstream publisher seemed to think they belonged in bookshops everywhere.

In fact, it turned out that there was nothing “dangerous” at all in picking on women and refugees. People will pay you good money for that. The dangerous ideas are the ones they don’t pay you for, the ones that don’t get you on HBO. You’re actually dangerous when you do what Yiannopoulos did in the “pedophile” tapes: defend society’s most hated outcasts, and tell the truth about the complexities of gay men’s sexuality. You’re dangerous when you stick up for those on the fringes rather than kicking them. There’s nothing courageous or edgy in bullying the despised and excluded. But it might be dangerous if you dared to empathize with them.