Campus Politics and the Administrative Mind

Anyone who supports the goals of campus activists should be willing to criticize their focus on bureaucratic remedies…

Recently, I was asked by a friend what to make of recent controversies at American colleges regarding “no platforming” tactics, the efforts of student activists to shut speakers they disagree with out of campus speaking opportunities. It’s an issue I think about often – as one of those few remaining leftists who remembers that civil liberties are essential to left-wing practice, as a college employee, and as someone who grew up surrounded by campus activism. I told my friend, only halfway joking, that I would think more of these efforts once college students had “no platformed” Barack Obama. Obama, after all, has far more blood on his hands than Milo Yiannopoulos or Ann Coulter. But, I also told her, I didn’t see that coming anytime soon.

Why? In part, it’s likely that the idea of no platforming Barack Obama would be far less popular among campus protesters than with Yiannopoulos or Coulter, even though there are plenty of radical critiques of Obama. However badly Obama failed left-wing ideals, with his complete failure to take on Wall Street, his expansion of our military entanglements, and his general moderation in a time demanding extremity, for many young left-leaning people Obama remains the kindly, progressive figurehead of political life. This reflects the “squashing” effect of college activism: the social and organizational dynamics of campus life can push your committed anticapitalist into the same groups and actions as your more conventional liberal Democrat. Furthermore, many college activists likely still have not really developed their exact ideological position.

There’s nothing wrong with those things. Political organizing is about forming coalitions, and part of the point of activism for young people is to sort out what, exactly, they believe. But analytically, this ideological confusion makes it harder for outside observers to draw the right lessons about what exactly the socialist left believes and what its tactics should be. The 2016 election saw liberal vs. leftist fights break out for more than a year, thanks to the Clinton-Sanders primary. Leftists criticized liberal Democrats relentlessly, and righteously, for the latter’s inability to conceive of a real alternative to austerity and neoliberalism. Yet I’ve been surprised to see many of those same leftists defend campus protesters at all turns, not seeming to understand that many of those same protesters will leave college life to become precisely the kind of upwardly-mobile Clintonite Democrats they despised during the election. That’s what a lifetime spent around college activists has shown me.

Besides, there’s another, more salient reason it’s hard to imagine a successful effort to shut down a speech by Obama or Hillary Clinton or a similarly prominent Democrat: there are few colleges or universities where such attempts would be tolerated, thanks to the culture and economics of the contemporary university. Though conservatives frequently attack higher education as a radical enclave, the institutional culture of the contemporary university is really far more aligned with institutional liberalism than radical leftism. The concept of the “deep state” has been debased lately, but in its original form – the idea that there is a bureaucratic class that persists within elected governments regardless of the outcomes of elections and which has its own interests that it asserts through subtle administrative power – is true of colleges, perhaps even more than of governments themselves. And the deep state of most universities is not radical but rather progressive. It’s not comprised of Sanders-style insurgents but of Clinton-style establishmentarians. It’s this class of people that college students have been petitioning, and so the presumptions held by that class of people represent the boundaries of what much contemporary college activism can achieve.


In particular, to ban an Obama or a Clinton from campus would be to risk offending the donor class that is so essential to the fiscal functioning of the kinds of private colleges where campus activism tends to flourish. I am hardly the first to point out that Republican state legislators have made great hay by claiming that public universities are leftist indoctrination machines, and that no platforming tactics should be used carefully given this potential backlash. The donors and alumni are the much less-discussed private college equivalent, and if anything, private colleges are even more in thrall to their interests than public schools are to the state.

Leftist defenses of campus activism have been almost entirely silent on the strange interplay between campus protesters and the administrators they petition, but that relationship is an absolutely essential facet of this discussion. In particular, we need to recognize that higher education has developed an entire set of administrators whose fundamental purpose is to prevent controversy from happening before it starts. I’ve come to call them the “Liability and Controversy Avoidance Class.” They are the diversity officers, the Title IX coordinators, the fixers of Greek life controversies, the public relations and marketing people who know just how much intersectionality language to pepper into their press releases.

I don’t think that none of these jobs are worthwhile; in fact some of them are essential. But anyone who cares about genuinely radical action on campus has to understand the way that universities have adapted to protests by treating them as a marketing issue to be managed. Sometimes university administrators are indeed the (potentially sympathetic) gatekeepers who hold the keys to students getting what they want. But as much as it may be in the short-term interest of those admins to give in to student demands, in the macro sense they have interests that are at best orthogonal to those of activists. And a student movement that fails to understand that risks finding itself defeated not in a romantic violent clash in the streets, but by the numbing power of middle management, by being shunted into committee, by being “handled.”

Conflict avoidance has become the great growth industry of the American college. Conservatives have, in recent years, made much of the various missteps involved in Title IX enforcement on campus, claiming that the tendency of universities to trample on due process in adjudicating Title IX complaints tells us something about modern feminism. They’re wrong. Rather, Title IX enforcement tells us something about the nature of bureaucracy. In particular, it tells us that people employed by an institution will always serve the needs of that institution first. Title IX ostensibly empowers administrators to pursue sexual inequality claims on campus with the backing of the federal government. But what it actually produces in practice is a small army of college employees whose real job is preventing colleges from absorbing the worst consequences for failing to achieve sexual equality. That is, by virtue of being employed within these institutions, even the most ethical and passionate Title IX enforcement officer ends up playing a defensive role on behalf of the institution. This is not an indictment of anyone’s integrity; it’s a statement about the nature of institutions.

A friend of mine worked a Title IX job for several years. She’s one of the most committed and informed feminists I know. When she started, she described her position as a dream job. But she ended up leaving after only a few years, burnt out by the drudgery and frustration of a job that combined the bureaucratic morass of the university with that of the federal government. And when she left, she said that she had come to understand that the very nature of Title IX and similar regulation means that the purpose of positions like hers would inevitably be a matter of avoiding litigation for the institutions that paid her salary. That is the inevitable tradeoff: a law that creates real punishments for organizations will compel those organizations to create structures designed to avoid those punishments.

That’s not a reason to abolish Title IX; I remain a supporter of the law, in broad strokes, because we need to give the effort to achieve gender equity on campus teeth. But the fact remains that a Title IX enforcement officer paid by a university will by necessity place the university’s needs above that of students. The same can be said of the diversity officers that are now being employed by more and more universities. In response to the student uprisings at schools like Yale, Amherst, and Oberlin several years ago, many institutions set about hiring administrators to ensure that minority students on campus feel included and safe; some of them have built or are building new minority student centers or similar structures. (The tendency to respond to student demands by cutting checks is another hallmark of the college administration playbook.) Those goals are laudable. But the same constraints on Title IX officers will surely afflict these diversity officers, and again regardless of their personal integrity.

That’s important for everyone to understand, because increasingly the act of being a campus protester involves petitioning administrators for what you want. The archetypal behavior of protest groups during the brief campus uprising, after all, was to submit a list of demands to the college board or president. I don’t find this some sort of strategic mistake, but I do think it’s remarkable just how many college activists I meet treat asking administrators for things as the end-all, be-all of protest. And as that belief spreads, so too do the conflict avoidance strategies. Crucially, at most schools these strategies will never involve just telling students “no.” Rather, they will delay rather than deny, give students some of what they want rather than all, and always affirm the righteousness of what the students are doing and the legitimacy of their complaints. It turns out that the discourse of social justice is compatible with administrativ-ese, if only a conflict avoidance officer really puts their mind to it.


Besides, the problem with appealing to authority is that sometimes authority says “no.” And while the courageous protesters at the University of Missouri – and their successful campaign to depose the school’s president – show that you can eventually raise the stakes for administrators dramatically, there will also always be times when the authority has the wherewithal just to turn you down. At that point, the strategy of petitioning authority collapses. So look at Oberlin, which is often taken by conservatives to be the nadir of loony campus politics and by liberals as an example of principled campus resistance. Oberlin student protesters presented the school’s president with a controversial list of demands, which included things like dictating aspects of curriculum and firing specific campus faculty and staff. They also insisted that their demands list was non-negotiable. So Oberlin’s president didn’t negotiate – he just said “no.” By coupling the extremity of their demands to a preemptive rejection of negotiation, the students had given him all the cover he needed. I haven’t heard much of that effort since; I assume many of the framers of the document have graduated and gone on to live their post-collegiate lives. (That’s another structural issue with campus organizing: the ability of establishment power to run out the clock.)

None of this is intended as some scathing indictment of campus activists. It is, instead, an attempt to analyze conditions in campus politics without romance. As I have said before, and will say again, the best way to understand current campus political controversies is as a negotiation between competing interests under neoliberalism. That’s true no matter how much integrity, passion, and savvy the student organizers possess. It’s just an observation of the endless layers of control that we’re living under in neoliberal capitalism – that we’re all living under.

Sadly, I find this conversation almost impossible to have in left spaces. Many leftists I know – smart, committed people who are ordinarily capable of thinking critically and with nuance about people with whom they broadly agree – have adopted a stance of blind support to campus activists, no matter what their goals or tactics. I understand this impulse, emotionally and socially. It’s a dark time and we’re looking for solidarity wherever we can. Campus attracts so much left-wing attention because it feels like one of the only places where we feel like we can win. But the conditions there are very specific and very idiosyncratic, and the tactics and strategies that work in the collegiate space are unlikely to work in the workplace or society writ large. But if we insist on seeing college activism as an integral part of left practice, then I also insist on seeing it clearly, on looking at it with sympathetic but critical eyes. To do so, we must be willing to ask uncomfortable questions about the nature of that work.

Looking Where The Light Is

The left has focused on the easy fights rather than the necessary ones…

The glamour of the Oscar red carpet and the grime of a violent street protest like those that greeted Milo Yiannopoulos at the University of California at Berkeley last month seem like an incongruous pairing. Yet in the left’s fixation on each I see a strange symmetry.

The ongoing efforts to diversify the Academy Awards, and the limited, temporary success of same, are noble and worthwhile. However little they may have to do with actual quality in movies, the Oscars matter, culturally and economically. The ceremony is watched by millions, and who gets awarded influences who gets to continue making movies and of what stature. In any given human competition, even one as cynical as the fight for status in Hollywood, we should strive to make the playing field more equitable and more diverse. There’s little doubt that celebrity shapes our cultural conceptions of what kind of lives are valued, for good and bad, and so we should want our showcases of celebrity to reflect the full sweep of human difference. Much work remains to be done to make the film industry and its award shows more inclusive, diverse spaces, but when a little progress was made on Oscar night, I was pleased.

Yet I can’t help but observe that this particular pageant now draws a truly inordinate amount of attention in left-wing discursive spaces, on an annual cycle. The #OscarsSoWhite controversy dominates discussion of race and diversity for weeks leading up to every ceremony and for weeks after. Social media buzzes with endless debate about the symbolic meaning of various nominations and wins; the takes industry churns out reams of nearly-identical copy, probing every possible dimension of this story. Meanwhile, the vast and seemingly invulnerable architecture of white supremacy stands untroubled. I don’t expect an awards show to tear down our racist system, nor do I think every victory has to be a major one. But it would seem others disagree. What else would explain the sheer volume of attention this story attracts year after year? With all of the vast number of ways that people of color remain marginalized and oppressed in our country, particularly given the contemporary political situation, the outsized priority that diversifying this tiny awards show has taken on seems misguided. Hollywood is a small industry, and the number of people who could ever plausibly win an Academy Award is a truly limited group.

That stance—that diversifying the Oscars and other high-profile ventures enjoyed by a tiny elite is a worthwhile endeavor, that we should celebrate it and take inspiration from it, but that it is ultimately a minor victory that does not imply a larger ability to address racial inequality—seems sensible, to me, and not worthy of great controversy. And yet when I push back gently against the larger meaning of the ceremony, I receive howls of objection. To question the preeminent role that the Academy Awards take on in our race discourse is to be accused of not caring about diversity at all. Of course we should push for diversity in this context; of course representation matters. But in a world of limited political and attentional resources, I don’t think it’s unfair to ask basic questions about priority.

I can’t help but conclude that the disproportionate attention fixed on the Oscars stems from a natural but potentially destructive impulse: the desire to focus our political gaze on arenas where it seems we might plausibly win. Hollywood is a business and its corporations are as unprincipled as any others, but at least the industry is reliably made up of people with progressive sympathies. The people who make up the Academy may be affluent and disconnected from middle and working class American life, but they are solidly blue. The media that follows the industry is almost universally politically liberal. Prominent people who commit gaffes and say offensive things are regularly called to account in the industry; the institutions of the entertainment business at least pay lip service to fighting racism and sexism. So the attention we pay to those worlds seems somehow proportionate to our odds of achieving progress within them. The problem is that almost nobody lives in those worlds, and the space between them and the day-to-day lives of average people of color is vast. Saying so does not disrespect the achievement of those who have finally begun to be recognized for their excellence by their industry, nor does it imply that representation doesn’t matter. It merely insists on recognizing the numbers we’re talking about here.

What does this have to do with black bloc protests against Milo Yiannopoulos and the punching of Richard Spencer? In these instances, too, I perceive a dogged insistence on fixating on the pleasant-but-minor at the expense of taking in the broad horrors of the larger picture.

The left has always had a certain preoccupation with political violence. Wherever you find contemporary left-wing protests, you will find sentiment about “really doing something,” usually implying some kind of insurrectionary violence. Comparisons to past victories achieved through force, such as in the French or Cuban revolutions, are common. So too are discussions about the moral permissibility of such violence under different political philosophies. Indeed, if you’ve been on the left for as long as I have, you will have found them inescapable, endless dorm room-style conversations about who is a fair target for violence, of which type, under which circumstances. For a long time I have opted out of those conversations, for a simple reason: the question of the morality of left-wing political violence is irrelevant in a world in which the potential efficacy of left-wing political violence is so limited. The state’s monopoly on violent power has grown exponentially since the great armed socialist revolutions, and so has its surveillance capability. Meanwhile the most recent examples of left violence in the United States could hardly be less encouraging, with groups like the Weather Underground having achieved none of their strategic aims despite planting a lot of bombs. 21st century America is not 1950s Cuba or 1910s Russia. There is no potential for armed liberation here, even if we had some sort of an army, which we don’t. I do not have time for moral arguments based on ludicrous hypotheticals.

Incidents like the black bloc protests at Berkeley or the punching of Richard Spencer grant people license to overestimate the current potential of violent resistance. Hey, Spencer got punched; never mind that the Trump administration reinstituted the global gag rule on abortion the next day. Hey, Milo’s talk got canceled; never mind that the relentless effort to deport thousands, a bipartisan effort for which the Obama administration deserves considerable blame, went on without a hitch. Better to make yet another meme out of Spencer getting hit than to attempt to confront the full horror of our current predicament.

I mean, think about it: if I said “the Nazi punch” to fellow travelers on the left, every one of them would know exactly what incident I’m talking about. So what really is the value of this tactic? How important can a tactic be if its application is so rare that a single use of it caught so much attention? If I said “the protest” or “the legislation” or “the strike,” the immediate question would be, what protest, what legislation, what strike? Because those things are routinely-accessed parts of political organizing. Punching Nazis is not, because as execrable as Spencer is, and as much responsibility as we have to protect people of color from his followers, the actual number of Nazis wandering the American streets is very low. The national conference of Spencer’s organization got about 200 attendees in a country of 315 million. Meanwhile mainstream conservatism has an army of millions. But again, perhaps that is the reason for this fixation: Spencer, a cartoon villain, seems defeatable. The relentless and organized conservative movement does not.


That Yiannopoulos has attracted an enormous amount of attention relative to his actual power has not gone unnoticed. Neither he nor Spencer has as much real-world power as, say, the treasurer of Wichita, Kansas. And there is certainly a danger in contributing to this disproportionate attention here. But it’s worth asking whether that attention is precisely a function of Yiannopoulos’s relative lack of power. We attacked his book contract because the left is well-represented in publishing; we criticized his appearances at college campuses because we have some power in universities. His followers are not the huge numbers of the wealthy and connected that the Republican party enjoys but a limited number of marginal gamers and social outcasts. Yes, of course, he has the potential to do real harm to real people, and we must prevent that from happening. But consider the claim that he was going to out an undocumented student during his visit to campus. Who really threatened that student? Yiannopoulos, or the uniformed authorities who would have actually carried out the actual violent application of state force? (It is entirely unclear to me why Yiannopoulos would not have simply shared that information with ICE after his appearance was shut down anyway. Does Milo not own a cellphone?) Again, the same dynamic: Yiannopoulos’s followers seem punchable, subject to the application of a level of force that we imagine we can bring to bear. ICE doesn’t. The forces of state violence, I assure you, are perfectly capable of rolling right over the most passionate antifas. It turns out you can’t punch an MRAP or a Predator drone.

This, then, is what I think the political investment in the Oscars and the rabid fixation on Nazi punching and the black bloc share: they provide the left with something pleasant to think about. Neither is a vehicle for any kind of larger victory. Neither can be replicated at the kinds of scale that would be necessary to rescue us from our current condition. But both become an object of online obsession thanks to the convenient fact that both seem like battlefields on which we can win.

It’s become a cliché, at this point, but it’s still a powerful image: the man who searches for his keys at night not where he lost them but next to a lamp post, because that’s where he has light to look. That’s what I think about when I see the left fixating on these things, a political movement that is so desperate for good news that it’s willing to lie to itself to find it. The conservative takeover of state, Congressional, and federal government has been a slow-building horror. The compromises and betrayals of the Obama administration have revealed how little soaring rhetoric and liberal promises mean. Years of seeming progress on social issues did not prevent a man who regularly engaged in racist tropes and bragged of molesting women from winning the White House. A left-wing insurgent movement captured widespread dissatisfaction with a rigged economy and a feckless Democratic Party to build an unprecedentedly enthusiastic youth movement, powered by a sophisticated messaging and fundraising apparatus, and pushed for the nomination of a solidly left-wing presidential candidate. That effort failed, as the centrist establishment waged all-out war on the candidate and his followers, a war that continued on after the election with the smear campaign waged against Keith Ellison. The Trump presidency has been as terrible as advertised, as he has put together a brutish kakistocracy filled with a rogue’s gallery of America’s worst people. We are powerless to stop many of his actions. The urge to retreat to fantasy and fixation has never been more understandable, or more dangerous.

The left has almost no political power, but it has cultural power, so it obsesses over cultural spaces. The left controls few institutions, so it obsesses over college campuses where it does enjoy a modicum of control, despite the fact that full-time residential college students are a tiny fraction of the population. The left cannot keep the president from saying patently offensive things about immigrants and Muslims, so it enforces a rigid and unforgiving linguistic code in progressive media. We cannot stop drug companies from gouging destitute people with AIDS in sub-Saharan Africa, so we scourge Justine Sacco for making jokes about it. Arguments about the morality of no platforming conservative speakers studiously ignore the fact that in most places, it is precisely the conservatives who have the power to dictate who gets to speak and when, not the leftists. The more that genuine power to do good slips from our grasp, the more tightly we clutch to the few tendrils of control we seem to have.

The stock reply, always, is “we can do both” – that there is world enough and time to punch Richard Spencer, crank out a few memes, and then go stuff envelopes for the local tenant’s union. I have no doubt that many of the people who spend a great deal of their attention on issues of dubious connection to the broader effort for social justice go out into the real world and do the work. But I want to trouble this contention that we can do both. I always want to ask not if we can do both but if we are doing both. The reflexive, unthinking insistence on what we hypothetically could be doing in addition to fixating on symbolic victories seems remote from a real-world political condition in which we aren’t actually doing much more than that. To look out at how limited our progress has been should compel us to ask if, given the very real weakness of the left in our present era, we might actually have to make tough choices about where to focus our time and our attention. Maybe we need to divert some of our mental energy from being the class clowns and discourse police back into more tangible forms of political work.

For weeks, the memes and jokes about Spencer getting hit went on. For weeks, Milo dominated left-wing conversation. Meanwhile Donald Trump put people like Betsy DeVos and Jeff Sessions into positions of considerable real-world power. Both attracted considerable attention, to the credit of the left and our conversation, but in left spaces neither came close to earning the fixation of the two neo-fascist figures who incontrovertibly, indisputably enjoy vastly less power than either DeVos or Sessions. I pointed out, several times, that this all seemed like a poor use of resources. The pushback to my questions was intense and vociferous. I was accused of Nazi sympathies, of caring more about broken windows than undocumented immigrants, of making free speech arguments I had in fact never made. When I would turn the conversation back to the actual practical effect of political violence, when I would ask basic questions about what our larger goals are and how these tactics actually make them easier to meet, I would never encounter serious disagreement about their potential to create change. Everyone, to their credit, seemed aware that we are not punching our way out of our problems. But the obsession continued, as did reflexive, angry lashing out at anyone who asked about whether any of this was useful. The response to questions about the real-world usefulness of Nazi punching was not disagreement on the questions themselves but, more or less, an anguished cry of just let us have this.

I can’t help noticing how the worm has turned. After all, for the entirety of the 2016 presidential primaries and election, the left critiqued the liberal addiction to politics-as-therapy. The Trump-is-Voldemort, Hillary-as-Khaleesi, West Wing fantasy school of liberal political iconography was roundly mocked in the radical left’s online spaces. And not without cause. As we said at the time, the fixation on this symbolic engagement, which depended on a set of social and cultural connections enjoyed by a very few, seemed to run directly counter to the interests of actually winning a campaign, which requires playing to as large of an audience as possible. Many people noted that Hillary’s appearance on the trendy show Broad City simply played to the precise kind of cultured urbanites who would never have voted for her opponent in the first place. Meanwhile all of the “yas kweens” and Game of Thrones mashups served merely to distract from the potent weaknesses of her candidacy.

But what would happen if that same potent microscope was turned on the left, post-election? Could the obsession with Richard Spencer and Milo Yiannopoulos survive the same sorts of questions? It seems perfectly plain to me that setting the Spencer punch to the tune of “Never Gonna Give You Up” is precisely as therapeutic as porting Hillary into Dr. Who. Both do far more to identify the people creating these memes with a particular social caste than they do to spread a plausibly constructive political message. Neither is connected to any coherent narrative of political victory. And yet the same people who mocked the Hillary memes now while away long hours delicately adjusting Photoshop layers for yet another meme of that punch. I cannot comprehend of a consistent, internally-coherent philosophy that sees the former as worthless and the latter as worthwhile. Liberals, too, said “just let us have this,” and the answer from the left was a loud “no.” What right does the left now have to demand otherwise for themselves? “Politics is not therapy,” it turns out, is a statement that applies to everyone or no one.

None of this is to reject the importance of satire. None of it is to suggest that we must be joyless. Satire remains an absolutely vital part of a healthy political tendency. The problem develops when the satirical sensibility so fully saturates an ideology that satire essentially never ends. I love to read a good satirical article in magazines like the Baffler or listen to a political comedy podcast like Chapo Trap House. Then the article is over and the podcast ends, and you have to return to the grim reality. But social media and the 24-hour internet cycle means that the satire never has to end, that you can always jack right back in, and there’s always another person to tell you that those conservative rubes are uncool and unfunny, always an escape into “lol nothing matters.” The jokey, superior, blankly sarcastic tone of limitless derision is ubiquitous online, but it is essentially universal in left spaces. Snarky gloating is now almost impossible to avoid in left-wing spaces, the old vision of the dour communist now entirely old fashioned compared to the digitally-enabled class clown. Strange that this attitude has grown at a time of near-total defeat for the left. Strange that so many on the left gloat like the Harlem Globetrotters while they lose like the Washington Generals. Or perhaps not so strange.

Many people who take part in social media politics deny that they think it has any impact, strange as it may seem for those who engage in call outs morning, noon, and night. They insist that they know the online space does not meaningfully impact real-world politics. But strange as it might seem, I think this is wrong. I would, at this point, reject the notion that social media and online political spaces are irrelevant to real-world political engagement. It is true that the online space cannot be a site of activism or organizing, that the levers of power simply do not exist in those forums, that one cannot tweet their way to justice. But I have increasingly come to find that the basic communicative tenor of broad political movements is in fact deeply influenced by how people interact online, the vocabulary and norms and social codes that can appear so inscrutable from the outside. We are social creatures, and every hit of dopamine from the likes and retweets we consciously dismiss as unimportant conditions us, in this massive experiment in behaviorism called the internet. No, social media can’t get a union certified or block legislation, but it can etch ideals about what kind of behaviors are rewarded by the social hierarchy in the minds of the young and the impressionable. That this condition amounts to the worst of both worlds should go without saying.

And so I think that perhaps it is time to say that all of the ironizing and jokes and endless meme-ification are not just politically inert, as nearly everyone acknowledges, but actively malignant. A generation of young leftists is being conditioned to fully separate their emotional and communicative engagement with politics from the actual reality of politics. We are creating a vast social architecture to make losing feel like winning. We need not experience the joys of hard-won progress when the temporary thrills of a sick burn are always moments away. The addiction to jokes is like the addiction to anything else – it starts out as a method to achieve pleasure but gives way to pathology, and though victory remains elusive, you can always get another hit, and then another, and then another…. Meanwhile, the world is what it is.

I am not counseling despair. There are green shoots. The Women’s March protests and many that have followed demonstrate widespread populist unrest with our current political leadership. Groups like the Democratic Socialists of America have seen their ranks swell since the election. Organizations both national (like the ACLU) and local (like many urban tenant unions and immigrant rights groups) have found new public support and interest. Left-wing discontent within the Democratic Party is not going away, and Trump’s presidency is uniquely embattled for one so young. But let’s not fool ourselves about how grim the situation is, and let’s not allow our coping strategies to overwhelm our basic understanding of just how badly we are losing.

Make and enjoy satire when useful; it’s an important tool. Tell jokes when you feel it’s appropriate; I will too. Enjoy the moments of victory along the way, which will be rare and valuable. But tell the truth. Tell the truth about where we actually are, about how bad things have gotten. Be real, with yourself and with others, about just how deep the pit we find ourselves in is, and be prepared to face it without the numbing analgesic of endless jokes and memes. You don’t have to succumb to fatalism. I myself have not; a better world is possible. But to achieve it you must have the courage to live in the mire of our awful, awful reality.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Will Pro-Trade Journalists Begin Outsourcing Themselves?

Don’t they care about global poverty?

J. Bradford DeLong, a former Clinton Administration official turned aggressive neoliberal blogger, once gave a nasty rebuke to those who lament the consequences of free trade on American workers. DeLong, like many of his peers in the media world, insists that by complaining about poverty among out-of-work Americans, we must necessarily be wishing that the Chinese had not experienced the benefits of outsourcing. He asked:

Is there a way to interpret [critics of the effects of trade with China] other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value manufacturing occupations we want to keep in the United States?

DeLong’s reasoning was echoed by several attacks on Bernie Sanders by liberal journalists. In Slate, Jordan Weissmann said Sanders was telling Vietnamese seamstresses that he wanted them to remain impoverished. At, Zach Beauchamp said Sanders’ skepticism of trade means trying to help Americans while “screwing over the global poor.”

So this the phase we are in. One in which media commentators (raised in affluence and currently enjoying at least middle class incomes—who are thus, according to their own moral calculus, very economically privileged) tell Americans devastated by the collapse of the uneducated labor market that their poverty, marginalization, and hopelessness is Actually Good, because people in Bangladesh can now move from absolutely abject poverty to slightly-less-abject poverty. That is, provided the sweatshop where they work doesn’t collapse on them. And provided they are willing to endure a nightmare of nonexistent labor power, terrible health and safety standards, total impunity for their bosses, and for the women, an atmosphere of near-constant sexual threat and exploitation.

The first thing to say is that DeLong is offering a transparently bogus choice. “Help poor people in Bangladesh” or “help poor people in Yuma” is a false binary. Yes, as the working class in America have suffered, the incomes of some of the poorest people in the world have risen. But do you know who else have seen their incomes rise? The world’s wealthiest, by vast margins. Pretending that globalization is a simple matter of siphoning from the poor-but-less-poor to the more-poor is a willful deception. It completely ignores the vast explosion in the income and wealth of those at the top. If you want to know where we can get the money to help poor people in China and India and Mexico, we know where to look: the upper half of the global income distribution diagram. See below:


Now the actual numbers of such distributions are often debated. But you don’t have to accept UNICEF’s exact numbers to acknowledge that there is a vast ocean of income that is controlled by a tiny portion of the world’s people. There is more than enough money being generated in the global economy to ensure a decent standard of living for a Bangladeshi factory worker and an out of work Ohio iron worker with a bad knee and two kids. To constantly frame this as a zero-sum game between the global poor and the American poor is an act of basic dishonesty.

But suppose you’re a journalist, writer, or academic who really does think that outsourcing is the only way to help the world’s poorest. Isn’t your own moral path then clear? Shouldn’t you be outsourcing your own job to people from the poorest parts of the earth? There are many talented and ambitious writers and scholars in China, India, Pakistan, Nigeria. If you make, say, $80K a year as a pundit, isn’t your moral duty to work with your employer to outsource your work to a poorer country? Punditry, after all, is very easy to conduct via telecommunications, unlike being a waiter, an orchard worker, or a yoga instructor. And isn’t it very possible that you could get at least a large majority of the value of your work from a team of people in India at a fraction of the cost, while providing all of them with wages far higher than the median income of their home country? You could have your employer pay five Indian writers $10K/year to replicate what you provide for the company. The Indian writers would make better than six times the Indian median annual income. And your employer gets to pocket that extra $30K—which, after all, is why outsourcing actually exists, to improve profits. Everyone wins! Well, not you. But this is precisely the bargain that you think America’s uneducated labor force should make. It is, in fact, a condition that you have loudly argued is morally necessary. Yet to the best of my knowledge, not a single neoliberal wonk has fallen on his or her sword and given up their job to a worker in the developing world, nobly sacrificing their own economic good for that of several other people, and accepting a life of poverty, despair, and opiate addiction in the devastated post-industrial landscapes of modern America. It seems that the morality of outsourcing only applies to other people, and not the kind of people who live in the tony precincts of post-collegiate cosmopolitanism. Funny about that.


I have a particular individual who should step right up to the plate: J. Bradford DeLong, Clinton apologist, hippie puncher, and relentless enemy of the well-being of America’s uneducated labor force. As a professor of Economics at UC-Berkeley, DeLong is paid $135K a year. (As a public employee, DeLong’s salary is a matter of public record.) Couldn’t his job be performed by some of the self-same Chinese workers that he has such deep concern for? It’s not like there aren’t a lot of talented Chinese workers with degrees in economics. Let’s be generous and assume that those Chinese workers could only perform his job at 80% of his value. If you’re UC-Berkeley, and you could hire five Chinese people with MAs in economics at $20k, have them teach the three classes he probably teaches in a year via Skype, publish some research, and attack commies and poor people on his blog, all while pocketing the extra $35K? Those five Chinese people would make about two and a half times the median Chinese income for that kind of money, after all. Wouldn’t you take that deal at 80% of the quality? And wouldn’t Brad’s own moral compass insist that you were morally obligated to do so? (If you’re worried for ol’ Brad, don’t be: tenured economics professors always have side hustles, doing “consulting” work that typically pays more in a day than your average destitute former factory worker on food stamps makes in a month. He’ll be just fine.)

But let me finish with a familiar question: is there a way to interpret DeLong’s refusal to outsource his job to China other than as a call to keep China a society of poor subsistence rice farmers as long as possible—keep them poor, barefoot, uneducated, and by no means allow them to work at any of the high-value professor of economics and anti-poor class warrior occupations we want to keep in the United States?