The View From The Back Row

Journalist and photographer Chris Arnade discusses a country divided by meaning, morality, education, and economics.

In 2016, pundits speculated endlessly on that mysterious place called Trump Country. To many in the Beltway, much of America was a foreign country, to be analyzed statistically rather than in person. Chris Arnade, on the other hand, was determined to escape his coastal bubble. Arnade got into his old van, and has spent the last several years traveling hundreds of thousands of miles, interviewing people all over the country, discovering their joys, sorrows, discontents, and aspirations. In the process he has produced a set of photographs and stories, depicting the everyday Americans who are left out of the media’s understandings of the country, and who feel left out of the 21st century economy. Arnade spoke to Current Affairs editor Nathan J. Robinson about what he has learned in his travels.

NR: You’ve traveled over 100,000 miles across America talking to people from all stripes of life. What are some of the misconceptions that people have about the country they live in? What are some things people think they know about America that are totally wrong? 

CA: Everyone knows we’re a divided country, but I don’t think people understand exactly how deep that division is, and what the true nature of it is. I was a banker for 20 years. I lived in Brooklyn Heights, I sent my kids to private school. I was paid well; I had a Ph.D. in physics. I was kind of the New York neoliberal elite who valued science, valued rationality. And that elite built a world over the last 30 years that is massively unequal. I think everybody knows statistically that we have massive wealth inequality and continued racial inequality. But we kind of pat ourselves on the back and say we’re an egalitarian society in other ways. We’ve given equal legal status to gender, sexuality, and race. And so we kind of think we’ve addressed many of the issues. But when you go out in the country, you realize that we’re massively unequal, and we’re unequal beyond economics. We’re unequal in terms of the way we live, how we choose to live, unequal in our valuation framework, what we view as moral, what we view as right and wrong, what we view as the goals. And beyond the obvious racial differences, which are huge—I spent, as much time in poor minority neighborhoods as I did in poor white working class neighborhoods—the most salient division I see beyond race is education.

NR: Yes, you’ve described this framework for thinking about educational inequality, what you call the “front row kids” versus the “back row kids.” The kids who did well in school and advanced to the top of the economic ranks, and the kids who were sort of left behind, and the differences that creates in their worldview. Could you talk a little bit about that framework and what that division in worldview really is?

CA: Right, the front row kids and the back row kids. Now within that there are some divisions and complexities obviously. But the most salient thing about it is that it’s not about political party. It’s non-partisan. “Front row kids” means both Jeb Bush and Hillary Clinton. The front row is anybody who comes from an elite school, Princeton, Harvard, the Ivies or has a postgraduate degree, Ph.D. They’re mobile, global, and well-educated. Their primary social network is via college and career. That’s how they define themselves, through their job. And within that world intellect is primary. They view the world through a framework of numbers and rational arguments. Faith is irrational, and they see themselves as beyond gender. You can describe this using other frameworks, like “the Acela corridor” types.

On the Democratic side, you can think of the Matt Yglesias types in the media, these kinds of global technocrats, policy wonks. Their framework is: “Give me a problem and I’ll devise a maximally optimal solution using my data.” Most importantly, though, they view their lives as having been better than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be better than their own. And for them, that’s still true.

The front row kids have won. They’re in charge of things. They are the donor class in politics, they’re the analysts and specialists who scream every time someone has a policy difference they disagree with. “You can’t do X, you’re going to cause a global world war.” Or “You can’t get rid of NAFTA,” “you can’t do Brexit.”

NR: What about the “back row kids,” then? What is that segment of society, and what is the difference in its worldview?

CA: It encompasses a lot of types of people, but it’s defined by its difference with the front row. It’s not just the “white working class,” it includes minorities, black kids who are stuck in east Buffalo or central Cleveland or Bronx in New York. Mostly they don’t have an education beyond high school degree and if they do it’s kind of cobbled together through trade schools and community colleges and smaller state schools. Their primary social network is via institutions beyond work such as family. And their community is defined geographically, meaning they generally don’t leave where they grew up. They might leave for 5-6 years to go to the military, take jobs that bring them to Alaska for a few years, but they’ll come back.

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All photos © Chris Arnade 2017.

And they have different kinds of worldviews and values. They find meaning and morality through faith, which is also a form of community. And if you read the work of [Harvard sociologist] Michèle Lamont, she writes about the ethos of the decency of hard work. It’s the idea that you don’t necessarily use your brain to advance, you use your strength and you use your commitment. You’re going to play by the rules, you’re going to break a few rocks, you’re going to work hard. It’s also, and here’s where I’ll sweep a lot under the rug, a kind of traditional view of race and gender.

This group of people views their life as worse than their parents, and they think their children’s lives will be worse than theirs. And that’s rational, from their perspective. After all, they’ve lost. Their kind of worldview has been devalued, because it’s the front row kids that have been in charge: the globalized, rational meritocracy versus the more traditional concepts of morality.

NR: You mention rationality. One of the things that seems to puzzle elites as they try to understand these other parts of society is that they feel the grievances there are genuinely irrational. From their perspective, free trade has been good for everybody, it’s made everybody better off than the alternative. And so they don’t understand these kinds of populist backlashes in the form of the support for Trump (or Bernie Sanders), because they feel like the rage and the desire to destroy the elite is a failure to recognize their own self-interest. After all, why would you vote for someone whose economic policies are irrational, or who, like Trump, might destroy the universe? It just doesn’t make sense. They don’t know why people hate experts, since experts have expertise, and expertise is good!

CA: Well, let me approach it this way. I think that when you talk about any group’s failings as being atavistic, because of laziness, because of weakness, because of some other failing, you’re doing it wrong as a progressive. So when we progressives look at poor minorities and, from a sociological perspective, the frustrations and deviances that are there, and when conservatives say “Hey, there’s more crime in black neighborhoods because they’re more violent” or “There’s higher unemployment because they’re lazier,” we liberals rightly push back. We say “Whoah, let’s look at the structural issues here. Let’s look at the structural racism that denies them access to jobs. Let’s look at the structural inequalities in the educational system which provide a harder route for them to leave.”

And I’d say you have to do that for all groups, instead of dismissing them as irrational. And that includes the white working class. You have to look at the context of what they’re facing. So from their perspective, knocking over the system probably makes sense because their worldview is being devalued. It’s being devalued monthly, has been devalued for 25 years.

Now, some of that devaluation I agree with; I believe the idea that you should get supremacy from being white and male should be devalued. But regardless of what you disagree with, that devaluation is happening. And they’re also being devalued economically. And then, even further, their whole worldview, their sense of place and meaning, is being eroded.

So let’s talk about NAFTA, you alluded to NAFTA and free trade. Mathematically it works, because the winners win more than the losers lose. So on a net basis, you say: “Hey look! The data says everybody wins.” There are three fundamental problems with that. One is that winners never share with the losers, that just doesn’t happen. Secondly, what you’re measuring is a very narrow framework of what’s valuable; you’re making the assumption that everybody wants more stuff, having more stuff is what meaning’s about. But the back row finds meaning through their connections, their community, through their structure. When they lose, they’ve lost everything. When the factories go, the town and community fall apart. Their churches hollow out. Their families start facing problems with drugs. So when your sense of meaning and place and valuation comes from your community, and your community gets eroded, that’s it. Game over.

NR: And this something quite real, it’s not an illusion, it’s not just on paper. You’ve traveled all over, and there really are communities like that, that have just been hollowed out. And you’ve extensively covered the drug epidemic.

CA: I didn’t get into this because I wanted to write about politics. I got into this because I was writing about drugs. And I always kind of glibly say that wherever I went to find drugs, I found hope leaving. And where I found hope leaving I saw Trump entering, if it was a white community. Drugs don’t just go into a place because people are lazy; drugs go into a place because drugs work and help. They’re a get-meaning-quick scheme. So is fascism, so is populism. Both these things give a sense of meaning. People use drugs because they think their life is stuck. It’s a form of suicide, and for them, it’s a way of finding some relief from something that seems like it’s not working. That they’re humiliated and devalued, and they want to find a way to fight back against that. And drugs are just one way to do that, with another way being fascism and populism.

NR: So the rise of Trump is definitely some kind of response to despair and hopelessness, then.

CA: Oh, hell yeah. But I would go even further. First, just because I say I’m not surprised this happened, doesn’t mean I’m justifying it. But what I’m saying is: if you want to put a recipe together to create populist fascist white identity politics, we’ve done it over the past 20-30 years. We’ve created a system that’s immensely unequal, created a ruling class, which is educated and uses their education to elevate themselves and demean anybody else. And we’ve rendered it not simply economic, but cultural as well. These divisions are massive. You can blindfold me and put me in any town in the United States and I can tell you within five minutes if it has a college in it or not.

There are these marches across the country that are taking place against Trump. And they’re great. I approve. I don’t like Trump. But there’s a meme that’s going around now that says: “Look it’s all across America. It’s even happening in Texas! And Arkansas! But it’s happening on a goddamn college campus in Texas and Arkansas. I spent a week and a half in two towns, Kalamazoo and Battle Creek, Michigan, separated by 35 miles. One has a college, one doesn’t. Which one do you think voted for Trump? First time they ever voted for a Republican.

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To go back to the question of the rationale for being “irrational”: you have to put people, the way they think, in context. When people are faced with constraints, or when they view the world as having a different goal from themselves, from their perspective they make the right choices. So in my mind, voting for Trump, they felt like they had limited options. They’re backed into a corner, and they’re looking at the system that they feel like is devaluing them every year so they’re just going take a hammer and break it.

NR: Which is actually a kind of rational thing to do in that situation, given the set of values they hold.

CA: I even put it in mathematical terms for people, because I used to be a Ph.D. in math. I can give you the economic framework for it. If you look at their probability outcomes, their downside is limited, the upside is not limited. So you break the system, you want volatility.

Now you can ask the question, what about the black working class? Why aren’t they doing it? Well, there’s some huge differences there. One is the front row kids have made a very valiant attempt to elevate minority communities, and that’s great. I applaud that. So blacks, minorities know who butters their bread and they say, “Ok, I’m gonna go for that.” But in addition, if you look at this election, one of the things I wish I had written more about: I spent time in black working class neighborhoods, and I didn’t hear a lot of enthusiasm for Hillary. I heard a lot more distaste for Trump on college campuses than I did in poor black communities. They rendered their frustration, not by voting for Trump, it was by not voting. Or by a mute cynicism. They’ve been so, so eroded for such a long time that there has been pressure to just kind of throw their hands up, and give up on the political process. The black back row is frustrated, but they’ve been frustrated for 80-100 years.

NR: So there’s class divide in non-white communities, too, and the front-row/back-row framework isn’t just about the white working class versus a kind of racially diverse elite. And perhaps the difference in expectations makes a difference to the amount of rage there is.

CA: And their lives are getting marginally better. Marginally. If you look at the rate of change, it’s going up from a very low base. In many cases, that’s what matters.

But if I had to kind of get one point across about the elite, it’s this: they speak a different language. They don’t know how different their worldview is. They have no clue. And it took me 3 ½ years to figure it out.

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NR: You’ve suggested that that is actually going to prevent them from understanding when Trump is succeeding and failing, because what he does will send different messages to different groups of people.

CA: Yeah. So, for example, right now, this immigration action, from the measure of the front row, has been a disaster. But measured from the other valuation framework, not so much. He’s doing what he said he was going to do. The outrage is not shared everywhere. They like that Trump drives the media and the elites crazy. Trump is a genius at knowing how to find that gap and exploit it.

NR: There’s actually a quote from him where he says something like: “There are two audiences. There’s New York society bullshit, and I don’t care what they think because they’ve always hated me. And then there’s America, and America has always loved Donald Trump.” So that’s what he says.

CA: Think about this: what does he spend his life doing? He spends his life selling cheap meaning to people, people who feel meaningless or humiliated. The biggest buzzword I would use to describe what I’ve found in Trump country is “humiliation.” And a desire for pride.

NR: You wrote a piece suggesting that “respect” was the big thing that they all cited as wanting.

CA: At our core, everybody wants to feel valued as a part of something larger. And right now the front row has that. At least up until this election, they had that. They generally can look at their lives and say: “I’m an adjunct professor of Greek History at Bumblefuck University…” Uh, don’t use Bumblefuck.

NR: We can change it.

CA: At Cornell. Anyway, they have a source of pride. But that person has a lot more in common with a bond trader than a truck driver.

NR: Liberal professors definitely don’t think they have more in common with bond traders…

CA: Well, that’s my whole frustration. That was the revelation I had over the last 2½ years. You have to view it from a framework of valuation and morality. And also culture, it’s not about economics. You have to use the old framework of is something banal or sacred? Is it profane or is it sacred?

I often use my favorite example, which is McDonald’s. I grew up in a white working-class town, so for me, it’s kind of rediscovering what I already knew. But McDonald’s, which is viewed with contempt, is actually a center of community, it’s where people gather. McDonald’s is not a joke.

And actually, I can link this back to Trump and explain how he exploits this. Remember when he sends his VP to eat in Chili’s in Times Square? The front row kids went ballistic. Fast food is profane, it’s low culture, it’s banal. It’s without meaning. And they went insane. But viewed from the back row’s perspective, McDonald’s and Chili’s and Applebee’s and Wal-Marts are a central part of the community.

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NR: I seem to remember there was a moment during the campaign when Trump said something like “Oh, Melania is a great cook, she makes the most wonderful meatloaf.” And then people said “That’s not being a chef! Anyone can make that.”

CA: He does that intentionally. Because he knows getting the front row to scream will cause them to do what they do when they get mad. They’ll use scorn and derision. They’ll mock. Because that’s what you do when you’re an educated person. To engage with someone, to even bother to argue with them is beneath you. So they mock. Look at Jon Stewart. Look at all the fucking Comedy Central people. You mock the opponent because to engage with them is beneath you. Now when you’re at the bottom, in the back row, your form of engagement is anger, is bitterness, is violence. Because the people above you refuse to engage, what are you going to do?

NR: Well, if you’re not mocking them you’re fact-checking them. That’s the other weapon.

CA: Right, because that’s your valuation framework. Let me give you another example. I was a banker. I liked TARP. For however many fucking years of my life, I supported TARP. I supported all the goddamn neoliberal acronyms: NAFTA, TARP, TPP, all of it. So I can have an argument with a macro person. I go into town to McDonald’s, because I hang out in churches and McDonald’s when I go into town. So if I go in there and I say “Well, TARP will help.” They’ll say, “Yeah, but why are you giving 20 billion dollars to Wall Street?” And I can say, “Well, actually, the money was used to buy assets, and the assets increased in value, and then we got paid back.” And they’d say: “Well, what the fuck? Look at that factory over there: that’s been, kind of sitting there.” And you look out the window and there’s a factory that’s all rusted and boarded up. “That used to employ lots of people. Where was our bailout?” And you have those conversations 30 times and you say: “Maybe I should stop saying ‘Well, actually.’” Maybe I should listen. It’s always a “Well, actually.” And these are clever arguments, but ultimately they just benefit you.

NR: That’s how I feel about a lot of these arguments for why things like the TPP benefit people in the statistical aggregate. Because even if that’s the case, you’re still not really granting people their humanity, because you’re treating them as numbers on a balance sheet, and you’re the one who is in charge of moving the numbers around and doing what’s best for them, and you don’t care if they understand, they’re just supposed to be grateful. 

CA: Again, you’re judging things within a framework that benefits you, a data framework. This mentality says: “We want data geeks. We’re rational people, so we want to do two things: We want to maximize GDP, and we want to do it efficiently.” That’s the neoliberal mantra, which is Larry Summers, Robert Rubin, Bill Clinton. And when you take that worldview, and you take that framework, the natural thing to do is to hand that power to businesses, to deregulate, because that’s how you can maximize GDP and be most efficient. Let’s give industry whatever it wants. And you maximize GDP but you steamroll everything in the process, forgetting about the consequences.  Forgetting that that may not be what everybody wants. People don’t just necessarily want uber-efficiency and more stuff. They might think meaning comes from having a community, having a network. Being valued, not just having 5 iPods, but having one iPod and four friends!

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NR: I saw something similar in the way some Democrats were frustrated that people didn’t appreciate Obamacare enough. “You’ve all been made better off, I don’t see why you’re upset.” But if it’s complicated to use, and it’s policy being made from afar, and people aren’t being engaged in politics or included, they can get better off in the narrow statistical aggregate, and still not appreciate it, for a very rational reason.

CA: One thing elites don’t get about the working class—and there are differences, but in the aggregate—is that they don’t want handouts from above. They would much rather have good jobs than handouts. And both conservatives and liberals have misused this notion. But it’s true that people want things that give them a role, that respect them. Obamacare is complicated. It did get a bad rap, because this tribal division in the U.S. means things can get knocked just because they have the wrong label attached. But I’m on Obamacare, and it’s a nightmare to use. I can’t tell you how much I just want to kill myself every time I have engage with it. It’s not easy to use.

NR: I think about the difference between the way that policies look on paper, versus the way that people actually experience them. One of the major problem with a kind of technocratic attitude is that it’s not sympathetic to the real-life frustrations that people have, because these are often things that are never going to show up in the numbers. So unemployment rates might be going down, and that’s great, but the kind of jobs there are might be qualitatively worse.

Anyway, your writings are not particularly hopeful about the prospects for the divide. And post-election, you don’t seem to have much hope that the media is going to help. Their realization seems to have been “Oh, we should have visited more parts of the country,” but there’s not really a change in how well they understand people different from them, just a sort of recognition that there is another America and it’s powerful and angry. And so you don’t think the front row has much hope.

CA: Nope, not much, and also, just to make this clear, I don’t have much hope the back row is going to understand the front row either. It’s a two-way street. I happen to believe the front row is in power so there’s more of an obligation for them to understand the back row. Although currently, the back row has gained power for a short period here.

NR: Well, they’ve sort of gained power. They elected Trump, but Trump isn’t exactly “back row.” I mean, elite Democrats are furious. But all the people that Trump appoints, and all the people that are going to be running the country, they’re not necessarily people from the angry working class.

CA: I do think he is going to burn the very people that voted for him, not so much because he doesn’t have intentions of working for them as because he’s just incompetent himself. But I also disagree because, despite the people that he has around him, I think his overall arc is towards his supporters’ valuation framework more than it is towards the front row valuation framework. I just think he’s personally corrupt, and he’s incompetent, and he’ll get taken advantage of by the people around him.

NR: Also he doesn’t actually care about people.

CA: Oh no, he doesn’t. I mean, this whole thing is just another scam. He’s been doing that all his life. But he’s certainly not helping the front row with his policies, and he has no intention of doing that. He may help his buddies, some front row people might be smart enough to glom onto him and sell out and be corrupt. But overall 8 years of a Trump administration is not going to do the front row well. It will do the back row better than the front row, I would speculate, if he wasn’t incompetent.

But I think ultimately the division we have is close to unsolvable. There’s no policy that’s going to address it, because I think it is so social and cultural. It requires almost a national kumbaya, the front row going back and living in different communities and opening their mind, and it requires the back row to drop a little bit of their anger. I just don’t see that happening in either case.

NR: Well, we’ll leave it on that somewhat hopeless, discouraging note.

CA: I hope that wasn’t too negative.

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For A Luxury Leftism

If socialism isn’t about giving people nice things and good times, what on earth is it about?

Luxury and leftism are too frequently seen as antagonists. But need they be? Is it so inconceivable that one could simultaneously be a leftist and enjoy one’s lifeTake a moment, please, dear reader, and kindly examine the image below:

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Assess your feelings about it. What shall we say is going on here? Yes, yes, it’s some kind of communist party. But do we have thoughts on it, and if so of what sort? We seem to find ourselves with a depiction of radical chic, that comically hypocritical form of pseudo-revolutionary self-indulgence. Our revelers like Karl Marx very much. And yet there they sit, fondling their pearls and sipping their brandies. How laughable their devotion to the cause of the workingman! What poseurs, what impostors!

And yet: perhaps our little cadre of caviar commies are not so indefensible as they seem. For our revulsion at them surely stems from their failure of principle: they talk of revolution as they clink their glasses, they gobble gazpacho as the world burns. They are sippers, flitters, dilettantes.

But what if the world does not burn? Perhaps we are assuming a little much. What if all human problems have been solved? What if we exist in a state of perfect equality? Then may we have pearls and Marx alike, without incurring opprobrium? Is there a certain point at which one may both be a leftist and enjoy one’s self?

“Ah,” you may reply, “but what of the waiter? Surely he gives it away. Your precious egalitarian paradise is illusory, there remains an unacknowledged servant class.”

But this is where you err. You assume that this gentleman is a waiter. This only demonstrates the limits of your imaginative powers. Why should it not be possible to rotate the role of donning the moustache and pouring the wine? Why must we assume that this man does not pour wine for the sheer joy of pouring it? Can we not take pleasure in taking turns serving one another?

There is, broadly speaking, something sound to the charge of hypocrisy around left-wing extravagance. The mansions possessed by Al Gore and the Obamas are an outrage. But they are an outrage because they exist in a time of great suffering, not because the world should not have mansions in it. The problem is not the existence of riches, but the failure to allow all to share equally in them. Progressives who wall themselves off from the poor, buy themselves beautiful things, and stop caring seriously about equality are monsters. But this is no indictment of beautiful things, or of human beings possessing them. The crime is the failure to share.

The problem with limousine liberalism, then, was not the limousines, but the liberals. Radicals should be chic, revolutionaries should drink excellent wine. Anarchist flophouses, abounding in filth and with defective plumbing, present no kind of vision for the future society. Any political movement that wishes to win people over must at least seem like it’s having a good time. The left’s suits must be well-tailored, its pastries must be fattening.

Never laugh, then, at the perfumed leftist. Would you wish them abominably scented? Gandhi said that we must be the change we wish to see in the world. I wish to see lovely libraries and comfortable chairs. Thus I have built myself a library and I am ensconced in a comfortable chair. There is nothing shameful about this. It could instead be called downright visionary.

There is still no excuse for stinginess, there is still no justification for inequality. One should still care about others as much as one cares about oneself. Many of the goods and services traditionally favored by the leisure class are tainted by inherent injustice. Blood diamonds and furs should revolt the soul. Nobody should employ a butler. Et cetera. But the fundamental principle must be this: things ought to be nice, and if they are not nice, then they are not leftist.

The left frequently seems to embrace an unappealing and Spartan set of aesthetic values. It stands for minimalism, sobriety, and self-abnegation. The left is Swedish, i.e. boring. This is no good. Our values must be toward joy, indulgence, and a pleasant time to be had by all. We will build cathedrals, we will wear incredible jewels, we will throw delightful parties and everyone will be invited.

One must always be careful not to go too far in the direction of the hedonistic, however. Again, the central principle here is: the good must be shared, not hoarded. Loving yourself is acceptable, but loving only yourself is not. It is very easy to develop a series of convenient justifications for one’s indefensible acts, and one of the central problems of liberalism is that it has allowed rich people to think that being rich in a time of deprivation is morally acceptable. (It is not.) But it is also true that we are attempting to lift everybody up into elation rather than drag them down into equal opportunity misery.

Consider this a call, then, for a truly luxurious leftism. One that does not deprive itself of the good things in life, but which shares them abundantly with all. When we say let them eat cake, we are serious: there must be cake, it must be good cake, and it must be had by all. The reason Marie Antoinette needed beheading was not that she wished cake on the poor, but that she never actually gave them any.

The international proletarian class deserves the very best.

Illustration by Chris Matthews

The Best of Current Affairs

A sampler platter of Current Affairs delicacies…

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

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

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

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Media Criticism:

 

Culture

 

Law and Criminal Justice

 

Race & Gender:

 

Money & Economics:

 

History:

 

Right-Wing Politics:

 

People:

 

Immigration:

 

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Letters to the Editor

The latest in our ongoing barrage of public complaints…

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

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

To the Editors:

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

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

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

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

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

Good day, editors. 

ELIZABETH DENNEHY

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

To the Editors:

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

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

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

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

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

MATT S.

To the Editors:

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

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

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

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

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

R. DWAYNE BETTS

New Haven, CT


Re: The Great American Chemtrail

To the Editors:

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

DALE WIGINGTON

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


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

To the editors:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Evan Sandlin

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


To the Editors:

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

Irkedly,

I. deKatz

Winter Springs, FL

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

The Faux Feminism of Hillary Clinton

In “False Choices,” feminist writers dissect the Clinton candidacy. We speak to three of the contributors.

Hillary Clinton’s presidential nomination has widely been seen as a historic milestone for women. But a number of feminists are not so sure that Clinton’s campaign is entirely good news for the cause. False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton (Verso, 192pp., $14.95) brings together a number of essays by feminist writers, exploring different aspects of Clinton’s policies and career, and making the case that a serious feminist politics requires a more critical stance on Clinton. Current Affairs recently spoke to The Nation’s Liza Featherstone, who edited the book, along with Yasmin Nair and Margaret Corvid, who each contributed to it. Speaking on the day after Clinton’s nomination in Philadelphia, we asked why they don’t think of Clinton as a feminist hero, and what kind of feminism they do believe in. 

CA: We’re here on the day after the nomination of the first female candidate for a major party and my question is… isn’t this an exciting historic moment?

LF: That’s your question?! Ok. No, it isn’t very exciting to me. I guess the first female anything is always a bit of a milestone. But in the case of Hillary we’ve been hearing about her inevitability for so long, and her long established anointment as a part of the political elite. We’ve seen this in other countries where a female political figure rises to prominence from her family connections, and it’s really nothing new or interesting. We haven’t seen in those countries that it leads to a great breaking of barriers for other women. And I don’t think that British women who lost their council housing saw Maggie Thatcher’s presence at the top of the political structure as extremely empowering or exciting. Similarly, I think we’re going to see this as a major non-event for American women.

MC: I’m actually a little bit critical and disappointed in all of the coverage denoting this a historic moment. In my own circles I have a lot of liberal friends, people who are saying to vote for Hillary and are extremely excited about this—representation is important to them. But I think the focus on representation is even worse than nothing at all because it closes out opportunities for us to say that feminism is about something more than representation. It’s about systemic structural change that gives women from all areas, races, classes and nationalities more opportunities to be safe, more opportunities to have a good life and have their human rights respected. And so you can talk about Hillary being the first woman as a major nominee, but besides her gender, nearly everything else is against women. That includes her support for neo-liberalism and imperialism. It includes nominating a Vice Presidential candidate who’s soft on choice and is a very big hawk for free trade. You could just keep going down the list. It’s all very disappointing.

YN: I remember the years of Margaret Thatcher and I’m glad Liza brought her up. Thatcher is responsible for the decline of the central welfare state as we know it. She was a woman who was profoundly anti-family, anti-women, anti-union, you name it. But also I remember growing up under Indira Gandhi and other women leaders in the region of what is now known as South Asia. All of whom came out of powerful families. And Indira Gandhi had terrible policies, which included forced sterilization, particularly of lower income men. The dynastic aspect makes an interesting parallel. She came out of a very powerful family and birthed a party that remains more or less now within the purview of one family. After Ranjiv there was Sanjay and so on. And Hillary Clinton is establishing something similar. She’s also an ex-president and she has a daughter who is being given the Clinton Foundation to run. What I see is exactly what we saw with the Gandhis. There’s an ongoing accumulation of cultural and financial capital across generations. And everyone ignores the dynastic element. We had two Bushes, we could have more. We have the great possibility of two Clintons, perhaps even more, because Chelsea Clinton is very young, she’ll have more children, and then I’m sure she’ll enter politics, followed by the children. So for people who talk about this as a historic achievement, there’s a terrible precedent for this kind of historic achievement.

LF: I’m glad you’re talking about the dynastic aspects. After Michelle Obama spoke at the convention, it was really striking how many people said “Oh, she should be president.” Are people just craving these dynasties? What did we have an American revolution for? The one accomplishment of our bourgeois revolution was that we overthrew the idea of monarchy here. Yet people just seem to be pathologically creating and recreating it.

CA: Speaking of the Clintons as a family, to what extent does it make sense to talk about “Clintonism” as a unified philosophy? Every time you associate Hillary with the misdeeds or destructive legacy of Bill there’s a lot of pushback. People say, quite reasonably, that you can’t blame a woman for the crimes of her husband. Yet at the same time there is a massive effort on the part of the Clinton campaign to take credit for the first Clinton Administration’s economic gains. So should we be talking about Hillary as part of something larger called “Clintonism” or not?

LF: It absolutely makes sense to talk about Clintonism. It’s absurd when people say it’s unfair to associate Hilary with the crimes of Bill. After all, it’s not as though she was folding the laundry while all of this was going on. They’ve been a team the entire time, even back in Arkansas they were known as “Billary” and they were sold as a twofer. When Bill was first elected, sometimes you’d get some condescending Republican saying “Oh, ha ha, she’s the one who should be president.” Well, obviously there’s sexism there. But they were always a partnership. And when you look at some of Bill’s most reactionary policies, that’s particularly where you see Hillary being a prominent intellectual partner in crafting the policy as well as a prominent political partner in drumming up support and pushing for it. We see her right there all along the way. So I think it is ridiculous to think she is some sort of waiflike Alice James figure in the back while the men are doing things. It’s a strange sort of victim feminism there.

MC:  Two points. First, the Hillary campaign really tries to have it both ways. In one sense, Hillary is trying to set up some political space for herself as a distinct individual. In another, she is running her campaign based on the record of the first Clinton Administration. But you can’t have both, even though the media would like to think that we have the capacity to believe this confusing set of self-contradictory things. Next, the Clintons are not only consistent in a neoliberal political ideology that you could call “Clintonism,” they are also consistent in the way that they do politics. One thing that both Bill and Hillary have is this kind of changeability in their political perspectives. They’ll believe one thing, say about criminal justice reform decades ago, and now they believe something else. And they both seem to think that they can just give lip service to an issue and then go on and legislate policy however they want.

YN: We have statements to prove that they saw themselves as a team. I remember Hillary Clinton’s famous quote, “I’m not staying home baking cookies.” Then the Republicans said she was insulting housewives and she had to walk it back by bringing in a sheet of cookies and doing a photo op with them. But we have documented evidence that they operated as a team. They said it. “Eight years of Bill, eight years of Hill,” that was their slogan. In my chapter, I write about Hillary showing up at the Beijing women’s conference and making a speech about how women’s rights are human rights. And even though we’ve forgotten, that was a pivotal moment in the history of UN, NGO, human rights discourse. Hillary Clinton wasn’t there as “the wife,” she was there as “first feminist.”

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CA: The book frequently makes the point that not only does the rise of Hillary Clinton not represent an advance for women, but it actually hurts them. You go through multiple specific realms, Margaret talking about the criminalization of sex work and Yasmin talking about carceral feminism, and argue  not just that the symbolism is empty, but that actual women who are marginalized and poor are affirmatively hurt by Clinton’s policies.

MC: The point about the symbols not being empty is really important. If the symbols were empty, we could say “Yeah, actually Hillary is not so great, but go ahead and vote for her and here’s some other ideas.” But her symbolic politics actually crowds out actual liberatory politics. Sex work and human trafficking is actually a really good example. There was a speech last night at the DNC by a woman named Ima Matul who is a campaigner against what they call trafficking or modern slavery. And when they were billing the speakers, they talked about Ima Matul as a sex trafficking survivor. But she wasn’t actually a sex trafficking survivor. She experienced forced domestic labor. But the fact that they characterized her as a “sex trafficking” survivor really shows how the DNC and Hillary use the notion of trafficking as a tool to give themselves some feminist credibility. Hillary Clinton has long been an opponent of the full decriminalization of sex work, which sex workers are actually advocating for. When she was Secretary of State she actually used international aid and development money as a tool against it. They wouldn’t give money to countries unless they signed onto a pledge that they would illegalize sex work in their countries and crack down on it. So she’s trying to look like a really good feminist and say look we’re going liberate women who are enslaved. But if Hillary wanted to actually deal with issues of bad working conditions for people who migrate for work in any industry, she would advocate full amnesty for all undocumented immigrants. She would loosen border controls and make sure that people who are migrating for work don’t feel criminalized and that they can go to authorities if there’s a problem.

CA: In your piece, you are very critical of the idea of rescuing women from sex trafficking. But to a lot of people that seems like the most unobjectionable idea in the world. Why are you so critical of something that is so universally embraced?

MC: Because they’re being really sneaky about it. There’s something called the rescue industry, Laura Augustine and Melissa Gira Grant have written about it. There’s a multimillion dollar international industry based on “rescuing” victims of trafficking. And it’s a real good instant feel-good idea for people. But what it’s really doing is reifying, strengthening, concepts of us and them. Consider the fishing industry. People who are in fishing are in an incredibly dangerous industry, there’s lots of bad working conditions there’s lots of risk of injury and death. But nobody is going around talking about making fishing boats illegal. Nobody is doing that. From a socialist perspective, we say that these people need workers’ rights. They need to organize and bargain over their working conditions and have control over their working life. But this idea of “rescuing” people ignores the fact that every job is a negotiated network of subtle consents and coercions. We all have to work for a living. But people talk about migrated sex work as automatically being trafficking, even though they don’t talk that way about other types of work. And instead of improving their working conditions you’re going to “save” them from their work without actually giving them an alternative. Instead, the answer is to lock people up to jail and deport people. But if they actually wanted to fix exploitation, they wouldn’t place new power in the hands of a carceral, criminological state. Instead, the agency would be given to the women themselves, those people who are traveling for all kinds of work.

CA: Perhaps that’s a good transition to Yasmin’s piece on “carceral feminism.” Could you tell us what you mean by that term, Yasmin, and why you think it’s important?

YN: Well, to give a very broad definition, “carceral feminism” is simply the form of feminism that thinks that the apparatus of the state is the best way to end women’s oppression and enable women’s freedom. The underlying logic is that those who oppress women are guilty of criminal acts, and must be put in jail in larger numbers. So that logic has no problem expanding what we call the “prison industrial complex,” if it’s being done for the sake of women. As Margaret indicates, in the example of sex trafficking, you have mostly white liberal feminists demanding that traffickers must be put in jail. But what they ignore is that the system is set up in such a way that it is often the women themselves who end up in prison and are then deported back to the horrendous conditions they may have fled. So, for example, under sex trafficking laws, if a woman who is caught up in the dragnet of sex trafficking raids does not point to someone as her trafficker and label them a criminal, she will frequently be deported. Yet in many cases, those who they are compelled to point to as “traffickers” are in fact community members or people who have even tried to harbor or help them. So, for instance, if I were to give housing or shelter to a woman who is an immigrant and a sex worker, I could be considered a “sex trafficker” under the current law.

So “carceral feminism” takes feminist principles and then ends up increasing criminalization, sees the prison industrial complex as a solution to social problems. Now, there’s a history here, and a reason why feminists turned to this approach. The fight against rape has had little support, and marital rape only became illegal in all 50 states in 1993. So using the law is in some ways understandable. But you end up seeing prison as a cure-all solution, even though prison is just another problem.

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In terms of the Clintons, Hillary Clinton has recently been talking about her opposition to mass incarceration. We have to call bullshit on that. First, obviously, in the 1990s she lent public support to the crime control efforts that grew the prison population more than any other administration. Second, it was the first Clinton Administration that introduced the ten-year ban on undocumented immigrants, which means that if you have been the country without papers and you leave the U.S. and try to re-enter, you are subjected to a ten-year ban from entering. And that ban made people terrified to leave the U.S., their lives are criminalized.

LF: These are perfect examples of how Hillary Clinton is not just an empty symbol as a woman and feminist, but her femaleness and her status as a prominent feminist are actually something that can be used to pursue oppressive policies. That is incredibly important.

CA: If Hillary’s type of feminism is oppressive, then, what type of feminism do you advocate? False Choices seems to be about more than just Hillary Clinton, in that it’s trying to forge a different approach in how to think about feminist issues. It seems to not just be about criticizing her, but advocating a new type of critical, socialist-inspired feminism. And that it wants to get rid of something we might call, I hate using the word “bourgeois,” but bourgeois feminism.

LF: We do kind of sound like old Marxists when we use the term bourgeois. But it’s an important descriptor of a politics that’s about the elite and protecting elite interests. This is exactly why we did this book, we do want to advance a type of left feminism that is not Hillaryism. And we see left feminist writers and thinkers who are so smart, so committed to the way feminism and the material world are actually deeply intertwined. And we want to advance that way of thinking. We aren’t simply haters who hate Hillary Clinton, although… good Lord. The feminism I would like to see replacing Hillaryism in the long run would be one that is deeply committed to the advancement of all women, not just the 1%, or in Hillary’s case, one woman. I’d like to see a feminism that is deeply committed to redistribution of wealth. It’s been amply demonstrated that that is the only thing that actually helps women advance toward anything like parity to men: universal programs like socialized medicine, socialized day care, quality public schools, free higher education. These are the kinds of things that actually do help women. And when we see feminism and socialism coming together that’s a lot more promising for both agendas.

YN: I often speak about the problems with “white liberal feminism.” But you can be a “white liberal feminist” and not actually be white. I have no doubt that under the regime of Hillary Clinton we will get a diverse bunch of capitalists. First the women are allowed in, then the black people then the brown people, so I’m sure the board rooms will be very diverse. But the class structure remains in place. This type of feminism really doesn’t think about an alternative to capitalism but instead thinks about ways to make capitalism more palatable and more diverse and more woman-friendly. So let’s put changing tables in all the bathrooms and that will solve all of our problems. Not that diaper changing tables aren’t important. But they don’t address the fundamental issues facing poor women, like brutal employment conditions.

The class element is implicated in abortion too, which Hillary Clinton supposedly cares about. We had that case of Purvi Patel in Indiana, who was given 10 years sentence for inducing an abortion. These are always poor women, wealthy women are not sent to jail for feticide, because of the class structure. But even though Democrats want us to worry about Donald Trump and what might happen to the Supreme Court, Clinton has as her Vice Presidential nominee a man who has a record of being very anti-abortion. That worries me far more than Donald Trump, who if he gets elected would resign in 3 weeks taking the best china with him, and just wants to turn the White House into some kind of glitzy Trumpian fount of wealth. Until you are unwaveringly in favor of abortion rights, you are never against inequality. Until women can control their bodies, there is no ending inequality, because what prevents women from moving forward in any realm is their inability to control contraception and control whether they want to have children or not.

LF: The recent developments on the abortion issue are really particularly flabbergasting to me. Mo Tkacik writes really well in False Choices about how abortion has become the Democratic Party’s sole selling point to women. But as Yasmin just pointed out, it’s a pretty good one, since abortion rights are foundational to women’s autonomy. What’s amazing, though, is how weak Hillary is on that issue alone. She’s spent a lot of time talking about overturning the Hyde Amendment, but then she picked Tim Kaine, a man who describes himself as a long term supporter of the Hyde Amendment. It’s an amazing slap in the face to all of those women’s organizations who have been, the unkind way to say it is shilling for her, but have been supporting her. It’s really telling to see how superficial her support is for something that most liberal feminists actually regard as an absolute cornerstone of women’s rights.

MC: That’s why we can’t wait for feminist policies to be bestowed upon us from above by a white knight like Hillary Clinton, who is really just mouthing these words to get people to vote for her. In order to force through really feminist and socialist policy in the US we need a movement of women, led by women, particularly women of color, who actually disrupt the social order to get people to sit up and pay attention. The feminists who really inspire me are in groups like Black Lives Matter, which is pretty much mostly lead by black queer women. They are in leadership, they are at the head of the table. But it’s not a boardroom table or an oval office table, it’s a table where they’re plotting how to shut down highways to protest the killings of black men and women by police. So my hope for the future of feminism is in movements like this. Not in political parties or Hillary Clinton.

Money, Labor, and Current Affairs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Print essays – between $175 and $325

Print illustrations – between $50 and $100

Online essays – between $50 and $150

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Current Affairs Interview: Caitlin Flanagan

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

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

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

CF: I am, thank you.

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

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

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

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

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

CF: What line of my essay contradicts your assertions?

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

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

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

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

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

CF: You did not cite one single mistake.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At this point, Caitlin Flanagan ceased to respond.

This Month In Books

Capsule reviews of new political nonfiction…

Whenever a book is released, the public has only one question. Not “Is it any good?” but “What does Respectable Opinion have to say about it?” As one of the country’s foremost manufacturers of Respectable Opinion, Current Affairs is here to ensure that the aforesaid question does not go unanswered.

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Liza Featherstone (ed.), “False Choices: The Faux Feminism of Hillary Rodham Clinton,” Verso, $14.95

Are we biased toward liking this book merely because it contains contributions from three Current Affairs writers? Of course we are. But that is only because a book containing contributions from Current Affairs writers is certain to be excellent. In assembling False Choices, Liza Featherstone has collected work from some of the most exciting and talented feminist writers in the country. This book is smart, fun, and iconoclastic. (Chapter One, by Kathleen Geier, is titled “Hillary Clinton, Economic Populist: Are You Fucking Kidding Me?”) It devastatingly punctures the liberal myth that Hillary Clinton is a reliable fighter on behalf of women; certainly that’s not true for the women of Honduras, or those in America’s prisons. False Choices should finally (but won’t) kill the nasty myth spread by Twitter-dwelling Clintonites that strong critiques of Hillary emanate from a cabal of misogynistic “Bernie Bros.” The book’s contributors approach Hillary’s record from a number of different angles, but always with wit and verve. But the best thing about False Choices has nothing to do with its subject matter. The book is refreshing because it shows that thoughtful, independent left-wing feminist criticism is alive and well. The writers in False Choices are not jargon-laden in their prose or dogmatic in their politics; they are fundamentally concerned with writing well. False Choices proves that feminist political analysis need not be predictable or stodgy; it can be fun, vicious, and vibrant. The women whose essays comprise False Choices are worth reading on any subject. If only there was a magazine in which one could regularly find their work.

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Patrick Cockburn, “Chaos & Caliphate: Jihadis and the West in the Struggle for the Middle East,” OR Books, $28.00

Patrick Cockburn is strangely neglected by the American media, even though is doing some of the most intelligent analysis of the Middle East. This book is adapted from his diaries and articles of the past 10-plus years, recounting the breakdown of Iraq and the rise of ISIS. It’s a very good guide to the players and their motivations, though it can all get somewhat exhausting, and Cockburn’s documentation of the endless absurdity and futility of it all will no doubt depress.

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Jonathan Tepperman, “The Fix: How Nations Survive and Thrive in a World In Decline,” Penguin, $28.00

We were badgered by a publicist into reviewing this book. When Current Affairs asked Penguin Publishing  for a complimentary review copy of Matthew Desmond’s Evicted, the publisher was happy to oblige. However, the Penguins imposed a condition: they asked if in addition to Desmond’s award-winning and harrowing account of residential instability among America’s urban poor, we would also be willing to receive a copy of Jonathan Tepperman’s The Fix (of which we had never heard). Because the motto of the Current Affairs book review desk has always been “We’ll review anything!” we dutifully assented, and now we have a copy of this Tepperman thing cluttering the office. Anyway, we haven’t read it. We meant to read it, or at least speak to someone who had. But time was short, and the back cover bored us. It looks, from our limited flick-through, like Tepperman is some kind of second-rate Thomas Friedman, and the book is one of those Big Thoughts surveys of the new global economic paradigm. He should probably do a TED talk, if he hasn’t already. Tepperman has a bulleted list of how to fix our global problems; as always, beware those who come bearing bulleted lists. Of course, maybe it’s not as bad as we suspect. Reading a book is often a good way to find out what it says, although you can nearly always judge a book by its cover. Nevertheless, we resent being deluged with unsolicited pop economics tomes. Besides, the motto is “we’ll review anything,” not “we’ll read anything.

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Leigh Phillips, “Austerity Ecology and the Collapse-Porn Addicts,” Zero Books, $27.95

Leigh Phillips is a socialist, but one infuriated by the tendency of his fellow lefties to fall for ludicrous hippie woo-woo when it comes to industry and the environment. He smartly and brutally takes down a few doomsayer icons of the green left like Derrick Jensen; Phillips believes in harnessing capitalism’s productive powers rather then needlessly jettisoning them. He’s overly fond of  industrial monstrosities, but Phillips comes across a charming chap, well-read and good fun to spend time around.

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Roger Stone and Robert Morrow, “The Clintons’ War on Women,” Skyhorse Publishing, $27.95

There is an excellent book to be written about the Clintons from a feminist perspective. Unfortunately, we have this book, a collection of bizarre conspiratorial innuendos. Did you know Bill Clinton isn’t Chelsea Clinton’s father? That Bill Clinton’s own father isn’t his biological father? That everybody’s father is somebody else’s? Some good stuff in here about the way the Clintons discredited Bill’s rape and sexual assault accusers, but it’s sandwiched between too much sleaze about Vince Foster to be of any use.

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Bryan Magee, “Ultimate Questions,” Princeton University Press, $16.95

There are two kinds of books in this world; those that remind readers that they are a skeleton under their skin, and those that do not. Bryan Magee’s Ultimate Questions is in the former category. Magee insists on relating of all the terrifying truths about our mortality and our absurd condition; we do not know what we are or what we are doing here, we are unable to understand the world and everything in it is bizarre and curious, albeit fascinating. This book is not for those who dislike thinking of themselves as being confused, purposeless animals.

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Charles Glass, “Syria Burning: ISIS and the Death of the Arab Spring,” Verso, $16.95

Charles Glass is very good at his job, if only because he thinks reporting on Syria should involve… talking to Syrians. The best parts of this book are his recounting of the effects of the present conflict upon the lives of ordinary people. This is an informative, succinct, and straightforward overview of the present state of Syria, featuring illuminating detours into the country’s history. Glass is the sort of fellow who helps us make sense of things.