Such Miserable Times As These (March/April Edition)

Our bimonthly roundup of the Grey Lady’s wrongdoings…

The Current Affairs Book of the Good Life has the following to say on the subject of newspapers:

Reading the newspaper is an activity best avoided. Every moment spent reading the news is a moment not spent doing something far more productive, like building a sandcastle, icing a multi-layered cake, saying hello to a vicar, sampling an array of unusual cheeses, or masturbating quietly in a dark place. The illusion about reading newspapers is that it makes you smarter. In fact, the opposite is true. The reading of newspapers has a marked tendency to turn one into the sort of creature who finds primary elections interesting and thinks minor D.C. pundits are significant enough to be infuriated at.

Harsh words indeed, but difficult to dismiss coming from such a highly-esteemed source. And indeed, upon a close read of the morning papers, it is hard to escape the conclusion that the only good reason not to finally shutter and dismantle the entire creaking New York Times apparatus is that it would leave Current Affairs with some empty page space that might take effort to fill. Begone with it all, we say!

“Now you wait just a gosh-danged horse-feathered country second, Current Affairs! That’s our Paper of Record you’ve just so cavalierly dismissed. Where do you get the everloving nerve to go carelessly micturating upon our nation’s core journalistic institutions?”

Well, hypothetical respondent, we concede you may have the gist of something of a point there. It is probably wise to be able to offer evidence to support the things one says. We do not wish anyone to think that Current Affairs the sort of publication in which unreasonable things are sometimes said. Our bimonthly report on the various indefensible acts committed by the New York Times will therefore be the sausage-grinder through which our indefensible opinions are transformed into incontrovertible fact….

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As a gentle winter turned into a worryingly balmy February spring, The Times was in peak form. Questions of global importance were debated, such as “Could Bloomberg and His Millions Save Us From Ourselves?” (Some say yes! Some say no! Nobody, however, appears to find the question incomprehensible.) Two of the paper’s reporters spent what must have been days compiling a vast chart of Donald Trump’s Twitter insults (spoiler: he calls many people ‘losers’), a use of their time for which they were evidently paid money. The Style section attempted to run a profile of an uncooperative Henry Kissinger, who rebuffed their efforts to inquire into where he gets his suits. (“My what?” Kissinger replied, as if even he could not help but think “You’re a journalist asking a war criminal where he gets his suits?”) Marshmallowy divorcé and professional poverty-scold David Brooks admitted that “my predictions have been wrong consistently” before going to make… a batch of all-new predictions.

Oh, yes, and of course in the Weddings Section some nauseating people got married nauseatingly, with romances blooming across the whole spectrum of society from the Yale Club to the Vanderbilt Alumni Association. But the meat of a newspaper is made of its columnists, and the Times gang has been busily churning out some first-rate ordure as our multi-year Primary Season lumbers ever forward. Here is a short list of their finest recent secretions:

1. Maureen Dowd, “Here’s the Beauty of Trump.”

2. Thomas L. Friedman, “#You Ain’t No American, Bro” [hashtag in orig.]

3. David Brooks, “Donald Trump Isn’t Real”

4. Paul Krugman, “Weakened at Bernie’s” …Oh, no, Paul, no, you can’t have. You didn’t. Dear God. Look, Current Affairs has always opposed the imposition of capital punishment for heinous punning alone, but exceptions must be made. This time we will be generous and pretend we never saw it, but consider yourself duly warned, PK. (Leave aside the minor indignation one might also show at making a pun based on a 74-year-old presidential candidate’s having the same name as the titular character of a film about a dancing corpse.)

Speaking of Krugman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist also used the Times website to post a photo of a cat that looks like Donald Trump, and an image of Sesame Street’s Count to represent Ted Cruz, drawing the Times one step closer to its inevitable adoption of entirely GIF-based journalism. (And by the way, what the hell does Krugman have against Count von Count?)

Aside from engaging in flagrant acts of dopey wordplay, Krugman spent the rest of his month assisting fellow Times writers in their Herculean effort to convince the readership that Hillary Clinton is both human and worth voting for. Krugman spent some considerable hours at his keyboard denouncing suspicions about Hillary’s integrity as “carefully fomented right-wing legends,” the mere product of a “two-decade-plus smear campaign” by the late Pittsburgh newspaper baron Richard Mellon Scaife. A peculiar angle, this, to say that there’s a conspiracy to turn us all conspiratorial, but one is forced into all manner of uncomfortable contortions in attempting to exonerate something so unabashedly sleaze-ridden as the Clinton political empire.

[We might, in passing, mention that lefty reasoning for disdaining Hillary does not overlap much with the rightwing attacks. The Sanders supporters Krugman accuses of being “Fox-ifed” certainly don’t sound particularly Fox Newsy, their revulsion at Hillary emerging more from matters like: her blithe intimacy with verminous financial types (“I represented Wall Street as a senator,” plus those hundred-thousand dollar Goldman speaker-fees), her cowardly tardiness on supporting gay marriage (“The fundamental bedrock principle [is] that [marriage] exists between a man and a woman… and its primary, principal role… has been the raising and socializing of children”), her encouragement of public fear and paranoia about young criminal offenders (warning of gangs of roving juvenile “super-predators” with “no conscience, no empathy”) her intermittent tepidity on abortion (Planned Parenthood videos “disturbing”; abortion a “tragic” choice that should be avoided by encouraging teen girls to embrace “moral and religious values”), her role in sanctioning an invasion that resulted in the extinction of tens of thousands of Iraqi preschoolers, her subsequent vigorous defense of that role even after the whole thing turned calamitous (“No, I don’t regret giving the president authority…” ), her support for kicking people of welfare (so they are “no longer deadbeats”), and her audacious insistence that taking these benefits was to help poor people’s self-esteem (they have made the “transition from dependency to dignity”). However, if each of these is a Carefully Fomented Right-Wing Legend, Current Affairs will stand humbly corrected.]

Elsewhere in the paper, other valiant and amusing attempts to assist the tottering Clinton campaign were made. Mealy, globetrotting, sanctimony-dispensing sweatshop-lover Nicholas Kristof opined on Twitter that: “[o]ne sign of Clinton’s greater knowledge of foreign affairs [is that s]he pronounces “Iran” correctly, while Sanders speaks about Eye-ran.” It’s certainly telling of Mr. Kristof’s social class that he draws that kind of inference from that kind of evidence. Does he also think people should pronounce the word “France” with a French accent?

Lesser lights at the paper pitched in, too. Reliable political stenographer Amy Chozick reported that Clinton has newly “become a spunkier, warmer candidate” in recent days. (This fresh warm spunk was manifested in several acts of Completely Genuine Relatability, including Tweeting to Hispanic people that she felt like she was an abuela to all of them, and a misguided stunt in which she “turned control over her Snapchat account to Bill Clinton for a day”—one would have imagined a core duty of Clinton staffers consists in keeping Bill as far away as possible from the official campaign Snapchat account.)

The old class bigotries were in full blossom, too. Senior Economics Correspondent Neil Irwin displayed a photo of some Bernie supporters out in the DC snow, only to mock those who “care enough to march on a cold day in Logan Circle, [but] not enough to go to Iowa/NH.” One might have thought Mr. Irwin’s economic corresponding would have exposed him to the concept of “having a full-time job,” but evidently such an expectation underestimates the distance between the Times writership and the class of person who somehow finds herself unable to suddenly take a lengthy Iowa sojourn at her convenience.

The statisticians got in on the act, with Nick Confessore delicately fiddling some numbers in an attempt to smugly prove that Sanders, rather than Clinton, was the true beneficiary of our post-Citizens United Super PAC hell.

Finally, there was the paper’s own endorsement of Clinton, which carried the expected spirit of anemia and defensiveness, recycling most of its Clinton endorsement from 2008 with the word “experience” deployed several hundred times in rapid succession. (Quick point on the concept of experience-as-virtue: purely theoretically speaking, what if one’s experience is the experience of being a massive blundering screw-up? What if, for the sake of argument, one’s experiences were mostly a long string of whoops-a-daisies, say by accidentally decimating a series of countries through catastrophically ill-advised military interventions? Just, well, hypothetically.)

It would be inaccurate to say, however, that every single word in the New York Times was dedicated to either the bolstering of the Hillary Clinton campaign or the stroking of liberal cultural prejudices. Occasional other material finds its way into the paper. For example, in an item incomprehensibly flied under the heading of “news analysis,” vowely film critic A.O. Scott wrote a rousing defense of his profession entitled “Everybody’s a Critic. And That’s How It Should Be.” Ao says that, while we may think of critics as as a vermicular, parasitic ooze slowly devouring the last minuscule residuum of our collective cultural inheritance, in reality they are so much more. For to be a critic, says Ao, is to be “a defender of the life of art and a champion of the art of living.” Pretty stirring stuff, though one suspects this may all just be something Mr. Scott desperately tells himself as he sits down to review Ride Along 2. (In fact, he’s publishing a book-length expansion of this strained effort to justify his career, entitled Better Living Trough Criticism. Someone please let Ao know that he doesn’t have to do this for a living if he doesn’t want to. Side-inquiry: is it common for a film critic’s midlife crisis to take the form of a book on the social value of film criticism? Does not seem implausible that this may be a well-known phase in the lives of reviewers.)

Finally, the Times made two attempts to redeem despised cultural objects:

1. Phil Collins (“Does Anybody Still Loathe Phil Collins” Jan. 29, 2015)

2. Turtlenecks (“Can Turtlenecks Be Cool Again?” Dec. 30, 2015) For the benefit of readers, the answers to this little quiz are “yes” and “no,” respectively.

Our Times report would not be complete, however, if we did not note the good along with the bad. There were some redeeming aspects of the paper’s work. They did a good David Bowie obituary (we presume), and the brilliant writer Vinson Cunningham wrote a characteristically brilliant thing. We are capable of being positive, then. We do not, like certain Times film critics, believe the route to the good life is through exercising the curmudgeonly passions. Tis report has not been drafted for our own idle pleasure, but is offered as a public service. It is the least we can do.

Fascism Isn’t Funny

Pranking Trump into tweeting Mussolini quotes is useless. Political humor should take deadly aim.

On Sunday, the staff of the gossip website Gawker were extremely pleased with themselves. After months of trying, they finally managed to get Donald Trump’s Twitter account to post a quote from Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini. They accomplished this by setting a robo-account to barrage Trump with Mussolini quotes, in the hopes that eventually he would pick one up and send it out to his followers. He did. This scandalous “event” was then covered in The New York Times, New York Magazine, The Washington Post, TIME, and the BBC. Some were swift to see Trump’s posting of the quote as confirmation of the oft-cited allegation that Trump is a fascist, while Gawker said it confirmed their theory that Trump was an “idiot” who would “retweet just about anything.”

Isolated from its context, the quote in question appears completely innocuous: “It is better to live one day as a lion than 100 years as a sheep.” If you didn’t know it was from Mussolini, you might expect it to be the epigraph to a business book, or simply one of the thousands of anonymous platitudes that percolate incessantly across the culture. The advice itself seems sound, if not terribly helpful; after all, few people would consciously aspire toward a lifetime of sheepdom. It also hardly seems much different in its general flavor from “it is better to die on one’s feet than live on one’s knees,” a maxim associated with both Che Guevara and Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata. At the very least, this sort of sentiment is hardly confined to one particular political faction.

The question about Trump and the Mussolini quote, then, is: what does it prove? Is it news? And what is the use of pulling this sort of glib micro-stunt? The first two questions can be confidently answered with a resounding “nothing” and “no,” respectively. As to the third, it’s very likely that, far from successfully undermining or humiliating Donald Trump, tactics like these enable him to grow even stronger. Those with liberal political sympathies (like the staff of Gawker), who profess to fear a Trump presidency and think him akin to an actual fascist, may want to consider whether this sort of mischief is useful or simply childish. And if it is childish and useless, as one may suspect it is, one may wonder why people on the left are spending their time taunting Trump on Twitter rather than trying to stop the danger they believe he poses to the country.

When Trump himself was asked about the incident, he professed not to see what the issue was. “It’s a very good quote… I didn’t know who said it, but what difference does it make if it was Mussolini or somebody else — it’s a very good quote.” In saying this, Trump is correct. What difference does it make? So he values the content over the source. He should! If Benito Mussolini had said the earth revolves around the Sun, he’d be right. If Benito Mussolini said we should live life to the fullest, he’d be right. What exactly are people trying to allege here? That Trump intentionally tweeted a quote from Mussolini because Trump is a fascist who thinks Mussolini is great and wants everyone to know it? Or that he didn’t notice it was from Mussolini, and just thought the quote was inspiring? That seems the more likely option, but in that case the only thing it convicts Trump of is not paying very close attention to Twitter, something that probably ought to be considered a virtue if it is judged at all. In fact, it doesn’t even prove that he was careless, just that some campaign staffer was. What of it?

“Well,” someone could say, “it does show that Trump’s rhetoric is in harmony with that of Mussolini, and that their sentiments coincide.” Come on, though. We all know this quote doesn’t show that; it’s such an empty bromide that nobody could reasonably call it inherently fascist. (Perhaps the mention of lions could imply a taste for blood, since lions sometimes eat people. But this is truly grasping.)

In fact, even Gawker was not quite sure what they had managed to demonstrate. They were very self-satisfied, but knew it was a “dumb project.” But the question is: if it’s a dumb project, why do it? Have we accomplished anything here, except to flatter our own intelligence and confirm our preexisting disdain for Trump?

A defense can be constructed: “By making him look ridiculous,” says the anti-Trump tweeter, “we help to destroy him. Through exposing his various idiocies and prejudices, we cut Trump down to size and may perhaps keep some from supporting him who otherwise would have.” The holes in this are easily spotted. First, they’ve done the very opposite of making Trump look ridiculous. In fact, they’ve made him look downright reasonable, and made his opponents look like they depend on cheap pranks rather than arguments. The likelihood of a single person switching their support away from Trump because he posted a quote about lions is next to nil. On the other hand, it absolutely seems plausible that voters’ support for Trump might crystallize when they see him being subjected to unfair “gotcha” attacks by a sneering liberal media.

The stupid Mussolini gag is one small incident in a far larger pattern of hypocrisy among Trump’s opponents. People who don’t like Trump claim that he can be labeled a fascist (this includes Gawker). And there’s a plausible argument for applying that word; policies like banning religious minorities, suppressing press freedom, and shutting down speech are strongly reminiscent of 20th century dictatorships. But if someone truly thinks Trump a fascist, really and sincerely believes this, then they should be arming a resistance militia rather than trying to coax an odious retweet. At the same time as Trump’s opponents insist that he poses a major threat to the country, they behave as if he is a harmless clown to be prodded and mocked. In other words, if he’s not a fascist, then there’s no point to the Mussolini trick, but if he is a fascist, then there’s nothing to be amused about.

In fact, even though the vast majority of progressives believe that the election could have a devastating global impact, most Trump coverage is still about the most asinine day-to-day trivia, like the size of his hands or his latest bit of theatrical prop-based insult comedy. Ostensibly serious news organizations run Trump GIFs as stories. Even the New York Times dutifully compiled a database of Trump’s colorful gallery of Twitter insults. In doing so, these organizations help lower our perceptions of the stakes; after all, if politics actually mattered, surely it would be reprehensible to spend even a second replacing Trump’s eyes with lips rather than actually attempting to dissuade his supporters or building up an effective opposition force. By descending to Trump’s level and reveling in gossip and minutiae, any sense of public urgency is steadily muted.

This is the way political media operates generally, though. It simultaneously treats politics as both extremely significant and totally inconsequential. Trump is an existential threat to the Earth’s people, yet we can spend our time mocking his hair or watching him make funny faces. George W. Bush was a war criminal who was responsible for hundreds of thousands of Iraqi deaths, yet we could jest about his goofy malapropisms and difficulty handling Segways and pretzels. Liberals laugh at “robo-Rubio” and “fruit salad” fruitcake Ben Carson, but these individuals are competing to have access to a vast arsenal of nuclear weaponry. By being both pervasive and superficial, political media manages to treat political actors as tremendously important and worth obsessing over, while somehow obscuring the fact that bad political decisions actually devastate people’s lives.

Among progressive-minded people in the media, this may partially be the product of impotence: they do not know how to organize a serious political opposition to the things they dislike, so instead they mock those things on Twitter (and in the meantime, lose state governorships one by one). This lack of clear options was the explanation offered by opinion writer Ryan Cooper of The Week in his recent discussion with Current Affairs (available in our March-April issue). Cooper said he writes to “make rent,” and that “you’ve got to be insanely deluded to think writers are a major political actor.” When we pointed out that his belief that Donald Trump is a fascist should lead Cooper to be taking up arms and manning the barricades, Cooper shrugged and suggested he didn’t know what he could do. The politically committed don’t have an obvious outlet, so they tell jokes about Donald Trump’s spray tan and toy with him on Twitter.

But while disaffection is understandable, a pernicious culture of easy ridicule also diminishes the seriousness of politics. Gawker and its editor-in-chief Alex Pareene may be the most glaring example of this, regularly transforming deadly serious subjects into diverting clickable fluff. Their political coverage trafficks in the facile and the asinine, whether conducting unnecessary hypotheticals like “Jeb Bush Should Become a Democrat” and “Would Elizabeth Warren Have Beat Hillary Clinton?” or quizzing readers about whether selected quotes are from Antonin Scalia or a Minions meme.

Every satirist and political humorist should recognize that there is a place where the fun stops. The great British comedian Peter Cook knew this, and sarcastically praised the efficacy of Weimar satire and “those wonderful Berlin cabarets… which did so much to stop the rise of Hitler and prevent the outbreak of the Second World War.” And say what you want about Jon Stewart (the Current Affairs position is that he was an unpleasant tyrant who will not be missed), but the ex-Daily Show host knew when a moment required sobriety and reflection. If we accept the progressive premise, the rise of Donald Trump should be a moment beyond the scope of humor; when a major presidential candidate starts murmuring about racial killings and equivocating on the KKK, what the hell kind of person thinks creating an “Il Duce” Twitter account is worth anybody’s time? Perhaps nobody can reasonably expect Gawker to be anything other than an anaesthetized, indifferent gang of snark-mongers. But by invoking the specter of fascism they acknowledge that politics is supposed to be something other than mere spectacle.

That’s not to say that everything in political life must always be a unremitting joyless misery, or that the sort of person who declares certain subjects for humor “not okay” should not be bludgeoned and derided by his peers. Sometimes it is only by photoshopping a person’s lips onto their eyelids that we come to appreciate their underlying nature, and thus their true significance. The real problem with Bush/Carson/Rubio/Trump humor is not that it makes light of something serious, but that it does them no true damage. The best joke about George W. Bush was nothing to do with My Pet Goat or the pretzel-gagging incident, but was the Onion’s devastating headline: “George W. Bush Debuts New Paintings Of Dogs, Friends, Ghost Of Iraqi Child That Follows Him Everywhere.” If you’re going to wield comedy as a weapon against the powerful, make sure you obliterate your target. With Bush, don’t go for the cheap shots, like his guileless fumbling or his simpering baboon-face. Hit him where it really hurts.

Politics have consequences. Is Donald Trump dangerous or isn’t he? If he is, that retweet victory may not seem quite so hilarious when Trump’s immigration agents are dragging families out of their homes at gunpoint. If this stuff actually matters, then all the jokes about bad hair and orange spray-tans and those eerie white rings around his eyes are about as funny as a firing squad. The problem with fascism has never been that the fascists have comical hairdos (even though they always do). It’s that fascism kills. It’s not funny, and the more it’s treated as something trivial and amusing, the more politics is reduced to a series of gaffes, GIFs, and personalities rather than a process by which human beings can be shot, starved, and imprisoned, the more callously indifferent we become to the fates of the victims of political decisionmaking.

Keeping the Content Machine Whirring

Reports from an experiment in the manufacturing and distribution of clickbait…

While the internet’s main function may be the display of cats, beheadings, and pornography, a sizable portion of the remainder consists of opinion, both political and cultural. Every day, hundreds of brief thinkpieces are churned out, each containing a packaged nugget of argument about something in the news. Readers get to post these on Facebook, in order to both signal their affiliations to friends and feel good about having contributed to the public debate. In fact, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that the internet is in large part an affirmation economy, for them to profess their identities and beliefs and have them confirmed by others who share them.

As someone who enjoys writing, over the past year or so I’ve been experimenting a bit with the manufacture of hot takes. They’re enjoyable enough to produce (you just have to get angry for about 700 words and then throw in some links), and often they pay (though not well). So when a Harvard professor threatened to sue a Chinese restaurant over a $4 tip, I used the medium of The New Republic to insist that he was completely right to do so. I also insightfully called Ted Cruz an idiot for Salon.

But while writing these things is both easy and fun, more than one person has observed that the displacement of actual cultural and political analysis by short slices of superficial clickbait is one of the most unfortunate consequences of digital media. My own adventures in thinkpiece-land have confirmed what others have observed; there turns out to be a huge market for thoughtless inflammatory contrarianism, and much less of one for anything reflective or nuanced.

The worst part of this, to me, is not that writing is becoming shorter or more partisan. I’m not a member of the Strunk and White brevity brigade, but I do believe in being economical. Like many others, I gasped when the new editor of the New Republic announced that he was bored by anything over 500 words. But it’s also true that most published writing is too long, and many useful points can be made quickly. There’s not much that Ta-Nehisi Coates says in the last 7,000 words of his Atlantic articles that he hasn’t already made quite clear in the first 10,000.

Nor is it inherently damaging that writing is increasingly opinionated. Polemic can be invigorating; Gore Vidal was not known for his fairness of judgment, yet nevertheless produced some of the century’s finest essays. The same goes for H.L. Mencken or Dorothy Parker. Better to read something that takes a stand than a bunch of dreary “on-the-one-hand” waffle.

No, the problem is not that this writing is opinionated, but that so much of it is boring and predictable. With any piece of news, we know exactly what the commentary will consist of. And then we know what the commentary commenting on the commentary will consist of. (And the commentary thereupon, and so forth until the news cycle elapses after a few hours and the process begins anew.)

I recently tried a small experiment in online writing. I wanted to try to get some things published, and see what would make it and what wouldn’t. (I call it an experiment, but that’s probably misstating my intentionality a bit. I was curious about what would get published, but my main motivation was that I was in need of money and desperate to write something that would pay.)

So I wrote two articles. One was a carefully-reasoned argument on immigration, critiquing progressives for advocating the deportation of criminals. The argument went as follows: if we believe in deporting people with criminal records for fear that they will harm society, then deporting them is simply imposing that harm on some other society. It’s very easy to say that, when an unauthorized immigrant kills someone in America, they should have been deported, but in practice that amounts to wishing they had killed an innocent person off in some other country. Now, perhaps you think those people deserve to be the ones victimized. But being honest in the immigration debate requires one not to pretend that deportation is a magical way of stopping crime. It isn’t, it just moves crime elsewhere, to those we care less about.

I wrote this argument as carefully as I could, with clear reasoning and many sources. I tied it to an event that had, at that point, been in the news for about two weeks: the killing of a San Francisco woman by an unauthorized Mexican immigrant with multiple felonies. Many progressives had recently agreed that this man should have been deported, and so I thought it important to point out what the consequences of thinking that were.

My second article was basically an attempt to write the most clickbaity thing I could think of; i.e. taking some item in pop culture and calling it racist. For that, I went to see the film Trainwreck and then just mindlessly wrote a screed about it. I looked online and saw that nobody in a major outlet had called the film racist yet, and I figured that as long as I was the first person to call Trainwreck racist, it would be easy enough to get such a thing published. People have said that the star, Amy Schumer, is a racist plenty of times before. But nobody had yet called this particular film of hers racist! I figured it would be a sure fit for Salon, since it was basically exactly the article I think of when I think about the site.

So which of my articles made it through: deportation or Amy Schumer-is-a-racist? Well, I think you’ll be able to make a pretty sound guess if I tell you the headline: “Trainwreck’s Race Problem.”

As for the deportation article, the only page was published was my email outbox. (It’s now at Current Affairs.)

Now, let me say that I don’t not think Amy Schumer is, to use the present terminology, “problematic.” Frankly, I don’t really know her work very well; the only thing I’ve seen of hers, outside of the film, is her extended 12 Angry Men parody, which I enjoyed. I have almost zero Amy Schumer expertise, it just seemed as if people really liked reading other people’s opinions about her, hence she seemed a good subject.

I believe most of the things I wrote in the article were roughly true, although the real story about Trainwreck is not race issues but the fact that it’s confusing and poorly-assembled. But, yes, the race stuff was inadroitly handled. In fact, I might trivialize it too much when I say I just “called something racist.” It was, a bit, I suppose. The problem is not that the observations were wrong, it’s that who cares?

Actually, a lot of people apparently do. The article received scores of comments and was reposted hundreds of times. People violently disagreed with me and called me names, but they read the thing. (The funny thing about the thinkpiece-economy is that the people who hate them the most are some of the strongest drivers of traffic, by incessantly commenting and reposting and keeping the debate going.) There’s a Trump Syndrome phenomenon going on here, whereby everybody spends large amounts of their day loudly insisting they don’t care about something, and writing huge bodies of text listing all the reasons why they don’t care and why the thing is overhyped and not worth discussing.

And this dynamic repeats itself every day in the exact same way. Pop Culture Thing X or Current Event X will occur, and then some writer looking to earn a hundred bucks will fire a shot, and then a huge firefight will ensue for about a day, and then night will come and the dust will settle until the next day and the onset of Thing Y and the refreshing of the cycle. In fact, you can observe this empirically. A sociologist friend of mine, Zach Wehrwein, is starting to produce some research on “Twitter outrages” and their predictable dynamics. Zach has produced charts showing all the angry tweets on any topic. You can watch the thing occur, then the tweets roll in, and then the tweets subside. Then you find another thing, and watch the conversation on that. Each online outrage follows the precise same form.

“So what? That’s how news works. It’s not news forever, we talk about it and then there’s more news,” a hypothetical interlocutor might say at this point. Yes, true enough, all things must pass and whatnot. But the the reason this is harmful is that these blossomings of controversy are (1) manufactured for consumption and (2) totally disconnected from any kind of meaningful action in the real world. As to point (1), it’s odd that I can get paid to think of ways to poke the internet hornets’ nest, and that if I can get a bunch of people to shout about a thing, a company makes money. As to (2), it’s very odd that the public conversation about something so serious as racism can be reduced to gabbing online about a Judd Apatow comedy.

“But that’s not the whole conversation. There are other, more serious things being discussed as well.” Yes, but it really is shocking how much of it is vacuous. And it’s true that even when good points are being made well, the ultimate function of so much online media consumption is social signaling (for the consumer) and profit-seeking (for the media entity.) Perhaps there is an attenuated connection between online media and the real world (if my article goes far enough, Amy Schumer might hear about it herself and get mad and/or sad for a few minutes!) But that’s certainly incidental to its function.

An unfortunate consequence of the fact that this really is a writing economy is that writers themselves are stuck in a bind. Online media is so ruthlessly click-driven that it’s almost impossible to break free of the existing forms. After all, they do precisely what they’re supposed to do. Clickbait gets clicks. I click on it myself. I would probably actually have read my own article, even if I would have been bored by it and then fumed about how petty and humorless the author was.

So it’s not that editors are bad gatekeepers with poor judgment. In fact, it’s astonishing just how perceptive they are. They know exactly what succeeds. I’ve had things turned down because they came literally 24 hours after the window for their newsworthiness closed. But if you watch the graphs of the tweets, you know that an editor is right when they say a public conversation died yesterday afternoon, and that everybody has moved on and won’t be interested.

But a writer therefore has to produce the material that fits perfectly into the media moment. You can’t wait a moment longer; if you’re not the first to bring up racism in Trainwreck, nobody’s going to want to hear it. Instead, then you’ll have to write the “In Defense of Trainwreck” article. Or the “Why People Defending Trainwreck Just Don’t Get It” article, with steadily diminishing reader interest for each iteration, with the Next Controversial Thing hopefully having arrived before we get to “People Keep Writing Articles About Trainwreck–And That’s a Problem.”

(Actually, the same is true in a different form in more “serious” news. Look at the disproportionate amount of attention the Greek economic crisis received, just because it made for an interesting drama. Not that the Greek crisis was unimportant, but during that period it was much harder to get anybody to listen to you about any other country, because that’s not where the action was. A friend of mine spends seemingly half his waking hours in a state of exasperation over the fact that the ongoing multi-month Saudi bombing of Yemen gets hardly any media attention. And in fact, at a certain level this is a problem of news generally. I continue to think there’s something deadening about religiously following“current” affairs, because remaining current precludes getting in-depth background knowledge. Reading the newspaper becomes ritualistic rather than useful or educational. It’s always funny that the more time you spend trying to “stay informed,” the less informed you actually become compared with someone who doesn’t stay informed but goes out and learns untimely things.)

It’s hard to know how the cycle can be escaped. Nobody can resist clicking on the bait, and there’s a lot of money being made. Writers learn quickly that the more contrarian they can be than the next guy, the more interest they’ll pique (even though so many true and necessary things are not contrary to received wisdom; in fact, they’re exactly what you’d expect.) Even worse, despite the money being made, for the writer herself it’s very hard to eke out a living, no matter how fast you can churn out Content. The demand is high, but so is the supply, hence the relentless competitive pressure.

I have to say, though, after producing some stuff just because I knew it would get published, it really doesn’t feel worth it. That Amy Schumer thing is the first piece of writing I’ve ever produced that has felt shameful, because it was created from an ulterior motive. It was calculated. And the feeling of producing things that aren’t your best, just because you know they’ll sell, isn’t worth the paltry cash they give you.

Yet you can’t really tell that to someone trying to make a living writing. Personally I’m fortunate in that I do something else for a living. But I’ve always thought if I could quit the something else, and subsist solely by writing, I’d do it instantly. I realize, though, that that’s not true. I’d much rather only write things that feel like my own, yet be unable to live by it, than constantly be thinking about what will get commented on or shared.

Because it does eat your brain. You can insist that you maintain a strict division between your two sides: your personal side, with the integrity, and your professional side, which is shameless in selling itself. But every piece of writing is also writing practice, and it’s impossible not to be affected. For one publication, I had written something successful without thinking about the kind of response it would get. Then the editor told me it received a large amount of traffic. And when I went to write something else, I couldn’t help but think about whether the next piece of writing would replicate the success of the first, and that thought inevitably affected the end result.

I think, therefore, that to have any chance of being a good writer depends on having a stubborn commitment to resisting incentives. The media landscape is so bleak that anyone who consciously tries to succeed in it, and writes accordingly, will end up producing work that they are not proud of.

That’s not to say that I think good writing will never be noticed or become popular. I think it will, and sometimes does, but to get quality and popularity to coincide depends on being driven by an ambition toward the quality rather than the popularity. That’s a completely unoriginal thought, and applies across so many spheres. But I’ve learned it especially through these recent forays into paid writing. Doing anything less than your best work will never be worth it, will always be embarrassing, and can only ensure that the hideous cycle of online writing culture keeps whirring until eternity.

Unless the Democrats Run Sanders, A Trump Nomination Means a Trump Presidency

Democrats need to seriously and pragmatically assess their strategy for defeating Trump. A Clinton run would be disastrous; Bernie Sanders is their only hope.

With Donald Trump looking increasingly likely to actually be the Republican nominee for President, it’s long past time for the Democrats to start working on a pragmatic strategy to defeat him. Months of complacent, wishful insistences that Trump will disappear have proven false, and with a firm commanding lead in polls and several major primary victories, predictions are increasingly favoring Trump to win the nomination. If Democrats honestly believe, as they say they do, that Trump poses a serious threat to the wellbeing of the country and the lives of minority citizens, that means doing everything possible to keep him out of office. To do that will require them to very quickly unite around a single goal, albeit a counterintuitive one: they must make absolutely sure that Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for President.

The electability question should be at the center of the Democratic primary. After all, elections are about winning, and high-minded liberal principles mean nothing if one has no chance of actually triumphing in a general election. Hillary Clinton has been right to emphasize that the pragmatic achievement of goals should be the central concern of a presidential candidate, and that Bernie Sanders’s supporters often behave as if this is immaterial.

Instinctively, Hillary Clinton has long seemed by far the more electable of the two Democratic candidates. She is, after all, an experienced, pragmatic moderate, whereas Sanders is a raving, arm-flapping elderly Jewish socialist from Vermont. Clinton is simply closer to the American mainstream, thus she is more attractive to a broader swath of voters. Sanders campaigners have grown used to hearing the heavy-hearted lament “I like Bernie, I just don’t think he can win.” And in typical previous American elections, this would be perfectly accurate.

But this is far from a typical previous American election. And recently, everything about the electability calculus has changed, due to one simple fact: Donald Trump is likely to be the Republican nominee for President. Given this reality, every Democratic strategic question must operate not on the basis of abstract electability against a hypothetical candidate, but specific electability against the actual Republican nominee, Donald Trump.

Here, a Clinton match-up is highly likely to be an unmitigated electoral disaster, whereas a Sanders candidacy stands a far better chance. Every one of Clinton’s (considerable) weaknesses plays to every one of Trump’s strengths, whereas every one of Trump’s (few) weaknesses plays to every one of Sanders’s strengths. From a purely pragmatic standpoint, running Clinton against Trump is a disastrous, suicidal proposition.

Sanders supporters have lately been arguing that their candidate is more electable than people think, and they have some support from the available polling. In a number of hypotheticals, Sanders does better than Clinton at beating Trump, and his “unfavorable” ratings among voters are a good deal lower than Clinton’s. In response to this, however, Clinton supporters insist that polling at this stage means very little, and since Bernie is not well known and there has not been a national attack campaign directed at him from the right yet, his supporters do not account for the drop in support that will occur when voters realize he is on the fringes. Imagine, they say, how viciously the right will attack Sanders’s liberal record.

Clinton’s people are right to point out that these polls mean very little; after all, Sanders’s entire campaign success is a caution against placing too much weight on early polling. And they are especially right to emphasize that we should visualize how the campaign by conservatives will realistically play out, rather than attempting to divine the future from highly fallible polling numbers. But it’s precisely when we try to envision how the real dynamics of the campaign will transpire that we see just how disastrous a Clinton-Trump fight will be for Clinton.

Her supporters insist that she has already been “tried and tested” against all the attacks that can be thrown at her. But this is not the case; she has never been subjected to the full brunt of attacks that come in a general presidential election. Bernie Sanders has ignored most tabloid dirt, treating it as a sensationalist distraction from real issues (“Enough with the damned emails!”) But for Donald Trump, sensationalist distractions are the whole game. He will attempt to crucify her. And it is very, very likely that he will succeed.

Trump’s political dominance is highly dependent on his idiosyncratic, audacious method of campaigning. He deals almost entirely in amusing, outrageous, below-the-belt personal attacks, and is skilled at turning public discussions away from the issues and toward personalities (He/she’s a “loser,” “phony,” “nervous,” “hypocrite,” “incompetent.”) If Trump does have to speak about the issues, he makes himself sound foolish, because he doesn’t know very much. Thus he requires the media not to ask him difficult questions, and depends on his opponents’ having personal weaknesses and scandals that he can merrily, mercilessly exploit.

This campaigning style makes Hillary Clinton Donald Trump’s dream opponent. She gives him an endless amount to work with. The emails, Benghazi, Whitewater, Iraq, the Lewinsky scandal, ChinagateTravelgate, the missing law firm recordsJeffrey EpsteinKissingerMarc RichHaitiClinton Foundation tax errorsClinton Foundation conflicts of interest“We were broke when we left the White House,” Goldman Sachs… There is enough material in Hillary Clinton’s background for Donald Trump to run with six times over.

The defense offered by Clinton supporters is that none of these issues actually amount to anything once you look at them carefully. But this is completely irrelevant; all that matters is the fodder they would provide for the Trump machine. Who is going to be looking carefully? In the time you spend trying to clear up the basic facts of Whitewater, Trump will have made five more allegations.

Even a skilled campaigner would have a very difficult time parrying such endless attacks by Trump. Even the best campaigner would find it impossible to draw attention back to actual substantive policy issues, and would spend their every moment on the defensive. But Hillary Clinton is neither the best campaigner nor even a skilled one. In fact, she is a dreadful campaigner. She may be a skilled policymaker, but on the campaign trail she makes constant missteps and never realizes things have gone wrong until it’s too late.

Everyone knows this. Even among Democratic party operatives, she’s acknowledged as “awkward and uninspiring on the stump,” carrying “Bill’s baggage with none of Bill’s warmth.” New York magazine described her “failing to demonstrate the most elementary political skills, much less those learned at Toastmasters or Dale Carnegie.” Last year the White House was panicking at her levels of electoral incompetence, her questionable decisionmaking, and her inclination for taking sleazy shortcuts. More recently, noting Sanders’s catch-up in the polls, The Washington Post’s Jennifer Rubin said that she was a “rotten candidate” whose attacks on Sanders made no sense, and that “at some point, you cannot blame the national mood or a poor staff or a brilliant opponent for Hillary Clinton’s campaign woes.” Yet in a race against Trump, Hillary will be handicapped not only by her feeble campaigning skills, but the fact that she will have a sour national mood, a poor staff, and a brilliant opponent.

Every Democrat should take some time to fairly, dispassionately examine Clinton’s track record as a campaigner. Study how the ‘08 campaign was handled, and how this one has gone. Assess her strengths and weaknesses with as little bias or prejudice as possible. Then picture the race against Trump, and think about how it will unfold.

It’s easy to see that Trump has every single advantage. Because the Republican primary will be over, he can come at her from both right and left as he pleases. As the candidate who thundered against the Iraq War at the Republican debate, he can taunt Clinton over her support for it. He will paint her as a member of the corrupt political establishment, and will even offer proof: “Well, I know you can buy politicians, because I bought Senator Clinton. I gave her money, she came to my wedding.” He can make it appear that Hillary Clinton can be bought, that he can’t, and that he is in charge. It’s also hard to defend against, because it appears to be partly true. Any denial looks like a lie, thus making Hillary’s situation look even worse. And then, when she stumbles, he will mock her as incompetent.

Charges of misogyny against Trump won’t work. He is going to fill the press with the rape and harassment allegations against Bill Clinton and Hillary’s role in discrediting the victims (something that made even Lena Dunham deeply queasy.) He can always remind people that Hillary Clinton referred to Monica Lewinsky as a “narcissistic loony toon.” Furthermore, since Trump is not an anti-Planned Parenthood zealot (being the only one willing to stick up for women’s health in a room full of Republicans), it will be hard for Clinton to paint him as the usual anti-feminist right-winger.

Trump will capitalize on his reputation as a truth-teller, and be vicious about both Clinton’s sudden changes of position (e.g. the switch on gay marriage, plus the affected economic populism of her run against Sanders) and her perceived dishonesty. One can already imagine the monologue:

“She lies so much. Everything she says is a lie. I’ve never seen someone who lies so much in my life. Let me tell you three lies she’s told. She made up a story about how she was ducking sniper fire! There was no sniper fire. She made it up! How do you forget a thing like that? She said she was named after Sir Edmund Hillary, the guy who climbed Mount Everest. He hadn’t even climbed it when she was born! Total lie! She lied about the emails, of course, as we all know, and is probably going to be indicted. You know she said there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq! It was a lie! Thousands of American soldiers are dead because of her. Not only does she lie, her lies kill people. That’s four lies, I said I’d give you three. You can’t even count them. You want to go on PolitiFact, see how many lies she has? It takes you an hour to read them all! In fact, they ask her, she doesn’t even say she hasn’t lied. They asked her straight up, she says she usually tries to tell the truth! Ooooh, she tries! Come on! This is a person, every single word out of her mouth is a lie. Nobody trusts her. Check the polls, nobody trusts her. Yuge liar.”

Where does she even begin to respond to this? Some of it’s true, some of it isn’t, but the more she tries to defensively parse it (“There’s been no suggestion I’m going to be indicted! And I didn’t say I usually tried to tell the truth, I said I always tried and usually succeeded”) the deeper she sinks into the hole.

Trump will bob, weave, jab, and hook. He won’t let up. And because Clinton actually has lied, and actually did vote for the Iraq War, and actually is hyper-cosy with Wall Street, and actually does change her positions based on expediency, all she can do is issue further implausible denials, which will further embolden Trump. Nor does she have a single offensive weapon at her disposal, since every legitimate criticism of Trump’s background (inconsistent political positions, shady financial dealings, pattern of deception) is equally applicable to Clinton, and he knows how to make such things slide off him, whereas she does not.

The whole Clinton campaign has been unraveling from its inception. It fell apart completely in 2008, and has barely held together against the longest of long shot candidates. No matter how likely she may be to win the primary, things do not bode well for a general election, whomever the nominee may be. As H.A. Goodman put it in Salon:

Please name the last person to win the presidency alongside an ongoing FBI investigation, negative favorability ratings, questions about character linked to continual flip-flops, a dubious money trail of donors, and the genuine contempt of the rival political party.

The “contempt” bit of this is obviously silly; we all know levels of contempt have reached their world-historic high point in the Republican attitude toward Obama. But the rest is true: it’s incredibly hard to run somebody very few people like and expect to win. With the jocular, shrewd Donald Trump as an opponent, that holds true a million times over.

Nor are the demographics going to be as favorable to Clinton as she thinks. Trump’s populism will have huge resonance among the white working class in both red and blue states; he might even peel away her black support. And Trump has already proven false the prediction that he would alienate Evangelicals through his vulgarity and his self-deification. Democrats are insistently repeating their belief that a Trump nomination will mobilize liberals to head to the polls like never before, but with nobody particularly enthusiastic for Clinton’s candidacy, it’s not implausible that a large number of people will find both options so unappealing that they stay home.

A Clinton/Trump match should therefore not just worry Democrats. It should terrify them. They should be doing everything possible to avoid it. A Trump/Sanders contest, however, looks very different indeed.

Trump’s various unique methods of attack would instantly be made far less useful in a run against Sanders. All of the most personal charges (untrustworthiness, corruption, rank hypocrisy) are much more difficult to make stick. The rich history of dubious business dealings is nonexistent. None of the sleaze in which Trump traffics can be found clinging to Bernie. Trump’s standup routine just has much less obvious personal material to work with. Sanders is a fairly transparent guy; he likes the social safety net, he doesn’t like oligarchy, he’s a workaholic who sometimes takes a break to play basketball, and that’s pretty much all there is to it. Contrast that with the above-noted list of juicy Clinton tidbits.

Trump can’t clown around nearly as much at a debate with Sanders, for the simple reason that Sanders is dead set on keeping every conversation about the plight of America’s poor under the present economic system. If Trump tells jokes and goofs off here, he looks as if he’s belittling poor people, not a magnificent idea for an Ivy League trust fund billionaire running against a working class public servant and veteran of the Civil Rights movement. Instead, Trump will be forced to do what Hillary Clinton has been forced to do during the primary, namely to make himself sound as much like Bernie Sanders as possible. For Trump, having to get serious and take the Trump Show off the air will be devastating to his unique charismatic appeal.

Against Trump, Bernie can play the same “experience” card that Hillary plays. After all, while Sanders may look like a policy amateur next to Clinton, next to Trump he looks positively statesmanlike. Sanders can point to his successful mayoralty and long history as Congress’s “Amendment King” as evidence of his administrative bona fides. And Sanders’s lack of foreign policy knowledge won’t hurt him when facing someone with even less. Sanders will be enough of an outsider for Trump’s populist anti-Washington appeal to be powerless, but enough of an insider to appear an experienced hand at governance.

Trump is an attention-craving parasite, and such creatures are powerful only when indulged and paid attention to. Clinton will be forced to pay attention to Trump because of his constant evocation of her scandals. She will attempt to go after him. She will, in other words, feed the troll. Sanders, by contrast, will almost certainly behave as if Trump isn’t even there. He is unlikely to rise to Trump’s bait, because Sanders doesn’t even care to listen to anything that’s not about saving social security or the disappearing middle class. He will almost certainly seem as if he barely knows who Trump is. Sanders’s commercials will be similar to those he has run in the primary, featuring uplifting images of America, aspirational sentiments about what we can be together, and moving testimonies from ordinary Americans. Putting such genuine dignity and good feeling against Trump’s race-baiting clownishness will be like finally pouring water on the Wicked Witch. Hillary Clinton cannot do this; with her, the campaign will inevitably descend into the gutter, and the unstoppable bloated Trump menace will continue to grow ever larger.

Sanders is thus an almost perfect secret weapon against Trump. He can pull off the only maneuver that is capable of neutralizing Trump: ignoring him and actually keeping the focus on the issues. Further, Sanders will have the advantage of an enthusiastic army of young volunteers, who will be strongly dedicated to the mission of stalling Trump’s quest for the presidency. The Sanders team is extremely technically skilled; everything from their television commercials to their rally organizing to their inspired teasing is pulled off well. The Sanders team is slick and adaptable, the Clinton team is ropey and fumbling.

There’s only one real way to attack Bernie Sanders, and we all know it: he’s a socialist fantasist out of touch with the Realities of Economics. But Trump is in the worst possible position to make this criticism. Economists have savaged Trump’s own proposals as sheer lunacy, using every word deployed against Bernie and then some. And while from a D.C. policy veteran like Clinton, charges of a failure to understand how political decisionmaking works may sound reasonable, Sanders is a successful legislator who has run a city; the host of The Apprentice may have a more difficult time portraying a long-serving congressman as being unfamiliar with how Washington works.

Of course, the American people are still jittery about socialism. But they’re less jittery than they used to be, and Bernie does a good job portraying socialism as being about little more than paid family leave and sick days (a debatable proposition, but one beside the point.) His policies are popular and appeal to the prevailing national sentiment. It’s a risk, certainly. But the Soviet Union bogeyman is long gone, and everyone gets called a socialist these days no matter what their politics. It’s possible that swing voters dislike socialism more than they dislike Hillary Clinton, but in a time of economic discontent one probably shouldn’t bet on it.

One thing that should be noted is that all of this analysis applies solely to a race against Trump; the situation changes drastically and unpredictably if Marco Rubio is the nominee or Michael Bloomberg enters the race. Yet the moment, it doesn’t look like Marco Rubio will be nominated, but that Donald Trump will be. And in that case, Clinton is toast.

Some in the media have rushed to declare Sanders’s campaign moribund in the wake of his recent loss in Nevada. This is absurd; after all, out of 50 states, only three have voted, one being a tie, one being a major Sanders win, and one being a small Clinton win. The media has dishonestly pointed to Hillary Clinton’s higher superdelegate count as evidence of her strong lead, despite knowing full well that superdelegates are highly unlikely to risk tearing the party apart by taking the nomination out of voters’ hands, and are thus mostly a formality. The press has also crafted a narrative about Sanders “slipping behind,” ignoring the fact that Sanders has been behind from the very start; not for a moment has he been in front.

But even if it was correct to say that Sanders was “starting to” lose (instead of progressively losing less and less), this should only motivate all Democrats to work harder to make sure he is nominated. One’s support for Sanders should increase in direct proportion to one’s fear of Trump. And if Trump is the nominee, Hillary Clinton should drop out of the race and throw her every ounce of energy into supporting Sanders. If this does not occur, the resulting consequences for Muslims and Mexican immigrants of a Trump presidency will be fully the responsibility of Clinton and the Democratic Party. To run a candidate who can’t win, or who is a very high-risk proposition, is to recklessly play with the lives of millions of people. So much depends on stopping Trump; a principled defeat will mean nothing to the deported, or to those being roughed up by Trump’s goon squads or executed with pigs’ blood-dipped bullets.

Donald Trump is one of the most formidable opponents in the history of American politics. He is sharp, shameless, and likable. If he is going to be the nominee, Democrats need to think very seriously about how to defeat him. If they don’t, he will be the President of the United States, which will have disastrous repercussions for religious and racial minorities and likely for everyone else, too. Democrats should consider carefully how a Trump/Clinton matchup would develop, and how a Trump/Sanders matchup would. For their sake, hopefully they will realize that the only way to prevent a Trump presidency is the nomination of Bernie Sanders.

All of Your Attempts to Redeem Martin Shkreli Will Fail

Writers are scrambling to explain why the detested pharmaceutical executive is Not As Bad As You Think. But he’s precisely as bad as you think. Possibly worse.

For some reason, recently a number of writers seem to have taken it upon themselves to salvage Martin Shkreli’s reputation. Previously, there had been a rough consensus that Shkreli, the oily, simpering pharmaceutical executive who raised the price of HIV drugs by 5000 percent before being indicted on fraud charges, was one of the most cretinous human beings alive. This seemed utterly uncontroversial, in fact so self-evident as to render debate unnecessary.

But a miniature genre of article has sprung up recently: the Martin Skhreli Is Not As Bad As You Think hot take. From Vanity Fair to The Washington Post to The New Yorker, authors have issued the provocative thesis that, far from being the mealy, smirking, patronizing little snot he appears to be both at a distance and up close, Shkreli is anything from a blameless cog in a vast dysfunctional apparatus to a sweet and tender do-gooder unfairly disparaged by a society too stupid and hateful to appreciate his genius.

The former type of portrayal is the least outlandish, though perhaps the more insidious. Some have conceded that while Shkreli might indeed be a greedy heartless reptilian AIDS profiteer, his behavior is enabled by a broken system of drug approval and pricing, and the public’s ire should be directed away from Shkreli and toward that system. James Surowiecki gave a typical example of this argument in The New Yorker:

The Turing scandal has shown just how vulnerable drug pricing is to exploitative, rent-seeking behavior. It’s fair enough to excoriate Martin Shkreli for greed and indifference. The real problem, however, is not the man but the system that has let him thrive.

The Atlantic‘s James Hamblin echoed this, saying that Shkreli’s existence is “a product, not a cause,” with an innovation-stifling regulatory structure far more to blame for Shkreli’s scheming.

The thrust of these arguments is easy to buy: by focusing on the acts of a single individual for his noxious personal qualities, instead of on the legal framework in which he operates, we entirely fail to advance any solution to the actual problem of drug price hikes. While it may be satisfying to hurl abuse at Shkreli, he is merely a scapegoat. Business Insider noted that Shkreli was “right” in insisting that he needed to maximize shareholder value, and went so far as to say that he may be “the villain we need to get our healthcare system in action.” One doctor mirrored Shkreli’s own insistence that because what he did was legal, it wasn’t wrong, saying:

Remember, he is not doing anything illegal. The media is portraying him as an unsentimental money maker. I couldn’t care less if he boiled his neighbor’s bunny. The demonization distracts us from the most important question, which is not why Shkreli is raising the price of Daraprim by 5,500 percent, but how.

But here is where I profoundly differ with these people: if Martin Shkreli boiled his neighbor’s bunny, I’d be disgusted, not indifferent. I mean that quite seriously: nobody should have attention deflected away from their harmful, immoral behavior simply because it occurs within the context of more pressing structural issues. What these arguments encourage us to do is to shift blame away from Shkreli and onto our laws and policies. But by treating individuals like Shkreli as mere inevitable consequences, rather than human beings who make deliberate choices for which they should be held morally accountable, they effectively exonerate heinous behavior.

It’s completely accurate, of course, to say that our time is better used trying to devise a fair drug market rather than sitting around despising Martin Shkreli. However, in apportioning blame for the Daraprim hike, Shkreli bears complete responsibility. It is no defense of anything to say that it is “legal” or made possible by the market. And if he believes that limiting patient access to medications is compelled by his mandate to maximize shareholder value, then Shkreli should find a job whose mandate does not require one to hurt people.

This is significant, because it reflects the way businessmen are often spoken of: as if they cannot be expected to act differently. Marxists are just as guilty of this as free-market libertarians; they believe it is senseless to “moralize” about the rich, who after all are the product of inevitable historical forces; to blame them is akin to blaming the moon for the tides. But I disagree strongly: I believe that humans have free will, and that it is both right and necessary to detest the world’s Shkrelis, because unless morally shameful behavior is treated with scorn, it no longer remains shameful. Those who willingly maximize profits at the expense of the sick, regardless of whether they are behaving predictably or legally, should experience intense public ire. “Don’t Hate Martin Shkreli, Hate the System That Made Him,” we are told. But nothing stops us from hating both; nobody is required to choose.

But beyond the “focus on the system” angle, there is another class of Shkreli-defense out there, one far more extreme in its propositions: the “Martin Shkreli is actually a good guy” defense. A number of articles actually attempt to make the case that Shkreli is decent, sensitive, and misunderstood.

The general thrust of these articles is that once you get to know him, Martin Shkreli turns out to be a more “complex” and human person than his irritating public persona would have us believe. “When speaking for himself, instead of battling crass media characterizations, Shkreli is an endearing chap,” said Yahoo Finance‘s Rick Newman, in an article entitled “Martin Shkreli is Actually A Great Guy.” Vanity Fair and Vice have both run humanizing profile stories based on lengthy interviews. The Vanity Fair profile contained the following lines:

He’s such a perfect villain when viewed from afar that it’s almost impossible not to like him more up close. He swerves seamlessly among obnoxious bravado, old-world politeness, purposeful displays of powerful intelligence, and even flashes of sweetness.

And the Vice profile, while questioning a number of Shkreli’s claims and containing numerous criticisms, calls Shkreli a “finance wunderkind” and “a Horatio Alger story” and sympathetically relays Shkreli’s claim that his unapologetically money-grubbing attitude is merely an exaggerated caricature that he plays for the public to entertain himself. The Vice reporter sees Shkreli as an enigma because:

On one hand, Shkreli can wax poetic, as he did to me, about the “puzzle of medicine” and his desire to help people. On the other hand, he told Vanity Fair that he switched to biotech because hedge funds weren’t lucrative enough.

Let’s be clear: these reporters are dupes. The behavior Shkreli displays, veering wildly between charm and amorality, is not a sign of complexity, but of sociopathy. Seen up close, Shkreli does not become more likable, but more disturbing, because it becomes clear that he is willing to put on any facade necessary to get what he wants out of people. Ordinary, morally healthy human beings do not do this.

I am not simply exercising my imagination here. One of Shkreli’s ex-girlfriends has confirmed that he is a manipulative, psychologically abusive habitual liar with zero capacity for empathy. As she explained:

It soon became obvious that Martin was a pathological liar, would pretend to cheat on me and brag about it to raise his value in my eyes, so I’d always feel like I was hanging on by a thread, could be replaced, would vie for his approval and forgiveness.

Shkreli’s ex-girlfriend also displayed screenshots of conversations in which Shkreli offered to pay her ten thousand dollars for sex, a proposition that revolted her. Again, ordinary people do not do this.

His menacing behavior has been noted elsewhere: he has been accused of waging a harassment campaign against an ex-employee, writing in an email that “I hope to see you and your four children homeless and will do whatever I can to assure this.” The “Old World politeness” that so impressed the Vanity Fair correspondent appears to be hauled out for the benefit of journalists, only to vanish once they leave.

Both reporters know this, though. As Vanity Fair notes:

“Sociopath” is a not uncommon description of him. “Malicious” is the word another person uses… Shkreli says that the harsh words don’t bother him.

Note how the “sociopath” designation functions here: not as an enormous red flag that should make a reporter worry she or he is being manipulated, but as “harsh words” from a hostile public. Surely, though, if people tend to refer to someone this way, it should be seen as a warning rather than a badge of honor. Once again, ordinary, morally healthy people are rarely mistaken for malicious, destructive sociopaths.

Another writer, who went on a Tinder date with Shkreli and reported on it for the Washington Post, was also taken in by his disarming manner, even as he displayed exactly the same crass self-absorption we would expect:

He seemed the most genuine when he was acting like the guys I hung out with in high school (I dated the president of the chess club); that’s probably why I felt so comfortable on our date. We finished our food, and Martin flagged down the waitress and ordered the $120 tea. This was the most surprising and jarring moment of the night. I know he’s a multimillionaire, but I thought we were on the same page about this tea. He asked if I wanted a cup, and I couldn’t bring myself to say yes. When Martin finished his tea, I asked how he liked it. “I’m not really a big tea drinker,” he replied. What? I thought of all the good I could do with that money — donating it to charity, buying a new winter coat, buying myself 20 Venti iced soy vanilla chai lattes. He might as well have eaten a $100 bill in front of me.

Shkreli deliberately purchased the most expensive tea on the menu and drank it in front of this woman despite the fact that he doesn’t like tea. This is twisted behavior. Yet the Post writer remains sympathetic, concluding that Shkreli is “a lot more interesting and complex than I would have imagined.” Again, “complexity” here is used to refer to “that peculiar combination of charm and total lack of moral feeling that characterizes sociopathic individuals.” There’s no mystery as to what we’re seeing.

Another writer who interacted with Shkreli on Tinder also came out with warm feelings about him:

I do believe that Martin Shkreli believes he is doing good for the world, or else he wouldn’t have engaged with me. And even though Martin Shkreli is the current face of all that is wrong with capitalism, I do have sympathy for the guy. After all, even questionably sociopathic pharma bros deserve to get laid.

There are several problems here. First, it is peculiar to conclude that “because he engaged with me,” Martin Shkreli “believes he is doing good for the world.” What if, implausible as it may sound, Martin Shkreli simply cannot resist an opportunity to attempt to prove his intellectual superiority over others? We can apply a variation on Occam’s Razor here: why assume the more complicated explanation (hidden benevolent soulful core) when the more intuitive one will do (he’s an argumentative asshole)?

But even assuming Martin Shkreli does “believe he is doing good for the world,” what sort of defense is this? Hardly anyone believes their own actions to be evil, least of all evil people. To the contrary, everyone from the IRA to the Klan believes they are doing good for the world, that their worldview is the correct one. A person’s sincerity in no way excuses them; Donald Trump may sincerely believe that Muslims are a pox and Mexicans are rapists and that ejecting them all would be doing good for the world, but the honesty of his delusion doesn’t make it a shred more justifiable.

Second, what is this about sociopathic pharmaceutical executives deserving to get laid? Perhaps under a Bernie Sanders administration the right to coitus will at last be construed as a basic human social entitlement. But until such time, why on earth would we grant the idea that Martin Shkreli deserves so much as a sultry flutter of the eyelashes directed toward him, let alone that he should have the expectation of genuine human affection? If you’re unpleasant, people will not want to have sex with you. That should be the rule, lest unpleasant people begin to think unpleasantness pays unlimited carnal dividends. Referring to the importance of literary curiosity, John Waters once said that if you go home with someone, and they don’t have books in their house, “don’t fuck them.” A similar principle should apply here: if you go home with someone, and they turn out to make their living profiting from the desperation of sick people, perhaps reconsider rewarding them sexually for their crimes.

But the worst part of the Shkreli redemption-stories is that they give credence to Shkreli’s lies about his price gouging. Each allows Shkreli to pour out all manner of self-serving horse manure about how much he cares about AIDS patients, saying things like: “It’s our holy mission to make great drugs. And what we did with Daraprim is what it is. At the end of the day, the effort and the heart is in the right place.” He compares himself to Robin Hood, says he has “altruistic” motives and that nobody who needs the drugs will go without them.

Nothing he says can be trusted. He promised to lower the price of Daraprim in late September; now it’s February and the drug remains $750 a pill. He said insurance companies rather than patients would bear the cost; patients have been hit with co-pays up to $16,000. He insisted that the income from the price hike would be swiftly put back into new drug research; but in personal correspondence wrote that “almost all of it is profit.”

The facts on the ground suggest that real people are being hurt by Shkreli’s actions:

David Kimberlin had one month to get his hands on some Daraprim. His patient, a pregnant woman infected with toxoplasmosis, was due to give birth in September. But in August, the 52-year-old doctor, who works at the University of Alabama in Birmingham, learned of the drug’s price hike: a treatment that used to cost him $54 a month was now running at least $3,000. Babies born with toxoplasmosis need to be treated for about a year, with the total cost of treatment approaching $70,000 at the bare minimum. Fortunately, after a trip to the outpatient pharmacy, his pharmacist found a supply of the stuff already on the shelves—a break Kimberlin says saved the baby’s life.

During Shkreli’s Reddit “Ask Me Anything” session, a Daraprim user worried about how he would pay for the medication:

If they don’t follow through on their promises to provide it for free for patients like me for longer term, or if my insurance rejects the $27 per pill price, then I’ll be significantly affected. I am not a wealthy man by any stretch, and will struggle to afford the $27 price without finding a way to convince my boss to give me a raise or borrowing money for the next year. I don’t exactly have disposable income. I spend everything I make on my treatment.

Bear in mind, the commenter is worried about the $27-per-pill price that Skhreli promised. In actual fact, the medication remains at the astronomically higher rate of $750-per-pill. There’s no word on how this user has fared, but all of Shkreli’s showy professions of compassion are plainly fabricated. Again, not because of “complexity,” but because this is typical behavior for someone incapable of empathy and willing to tell whatever lies necessary to get what he wants, in this case favorable press coverage portraying him as thoughtful and many-sided.

But by far the most over-the-top defense of Shkreli came from the New Yorker’s Kelefa Sanneh. Sanneh made some of the usual points about the drug industry being the real culprit and so forth, but then got so wrapped up in Shkreli-love as to endorse Shkreli for the New Hampshire primary:

Last fall, Trump said that Shkreli “looks like a spoiled brat”; in fact, he is the son of a doorman, born to parents who emigrated from Albania. Look at him now! True, he has those indictments to worry about. But he is also a self-made celebrity, thanks to a business plan that makes it harder for us to ignore the incoherence and inefficiency of our medical industry. He rolls his eyes at members of Congress, he carries on thoughtful conversations with random Internet commenters, and, unlike most of our public figures, he may never learn the arts of pandering and grovelling. He is the American Dream, a rude reminder of the spirit that makes this country great, or at any rate exceptional. Shkreli for President! If voters in New Hampshire are truly intent on sending a message to the Washington establishment they claim to hate, they could—and probably will—do a lot worse.

This is plainly ludicrous. Holding everyone around you in disdain is not “never learning the art of pandering.” Trolling people on Reddit is not “having thoughtful conversations.” And Martin Shkreli only embodies the American Dream to the extent that the American Dream is to start with nothing and work your way up to becoming as much of an enormous rich asshole as possible. (Actually, come to think of it, this is not far from how the American Dream is usually portrayed.)

But one can understand the pressures that would lead a writer like Sanneh to publish something so stupid. In the world of online writing, spewing indefensible opinions is financially incentivized. In a #SlatePitch-driven media, writers are constantly competing to best each other for the most “counterintuitive” opinion. So we get a whole mess of articles like “The American Revolution Was Actually a Bad Thing.” Or, from Slate’s own Matthew Yglesias “Actually, Deadly Bangladeshi Factory Collapses May Be A Good Thing.” (Yglesias has now reached the logical endpoint of this reasoning, having suggested that the Nazis “may have had some good ideas.”)

These articles come about for obvious reasons; “It Is Bad When Factories Collapse and People Die” is not nearly as provocative as its converse. Fewer people would click on an article entitled “Wasn’t the American Revolution Nifty?” But here again, explanation is not justification. To take up immoral positions for the sake of Facebook shares is to dishonor the responsibilities that come with being a writer (or rather, being a person generally.)

The simple truth is that some positions should not be defended. The Nazis had no good ideas, factory collapses are tragic and must be stopped, and Martin Shkreli is neither interesting nor good, but a run-of-the-mill specimen of Wall Street vermin, albeit slightly more callous and two-faced than is standard even in America’s financial sector. The desire to find a novel journalistic angle should never outweigh one’s duty to acknowledge basic facts of the universe. Some things are simply true, with no contrarian angle to be taken, and that’s perfectly alright.

It therefore remains worthwhile to hate Martin Shkreli, and to hate him intensely. Forget the questions over drug pricing; what we have serendipitously found in Shkreli is a convenient public example of everything a human being should strive not to be. Shkreli may have ignited a debate about access to medication, but his real social function is even greater: he displays all of the traits that our species must exorcise if we are to build a just and decent world. He is greedy, smug, and vulgar. He is a liar and a braggart. He treats women abominably. He is contemptuous of those he considers his lessers. His literary curiosity stops at Ayn Rand. (Actually, the Cliff’s Notes to Ayn Rand, according to the reporter who looked at his bookshelf.) He doesn’t just wish to amass pleasures for himself, but to deny them to others (witness his purchasing the sole copy of a $2 million Wu Tang Clan album and threatening to destroy it.) He toys with people for his own amusement. He can be charitable, but only when it pleases him, for what motivates him is not the desire to maximize human good but to maximize his own power over others.

In short, even the people who have most loudly denounced Martin Shkreli have insufficiently appreciated just what a blight he is. Never mind “Shkreli is not the real problem.” Shkreli is, in fact, the only problem, for once we can eliminate every little bit of Shkreli from ourselves, human beings will have reached perfection. We should teach about him in schools, cautionary sermons should be preached against him. Mamas, don’t let your babies grow up to be Shkrelis.

All of these attempts to redeem Martin Shkreli must fail, then, so long as there is a glimmer of mercy and decency in the world. Of the many problems with the drug industry, Martin Shkreli may only represent only one of them. But of the many problems with humanity as a whole, Martin Shkreli represents essentially all of them.

This Week In Death Threats

Not everybody loves Current Affairs. This week, an unpleasant Tweet from a man with strong political views.

Any good magazine can expect to receive its share of terrifying homicidal abuse from the public. As they saying goes: if they’re not threatening to kill you, you’re probably not a very good journalist. So Current Affairs was a bit chagrined not to have provoked any readers into truly impassioned fury and mania.

Fortunately, we have finally received our first ominous warning from an Internet lunatic, courtesy of Twitter. And so we begin a new feature, This Week in Death Threats.

Let’s have a gander at the week’s entrant, shall we?

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As you can see, Current Affairs was minding its business, pleasantly showing off some innovative new ideas for automotive decals, when user @BlessedTex stepped in to spoil the whole vibe with his AR-15. What a parade-raining Grumpy Gus!

Now, before we get to know our ill-humored interlocutor a little better, please feel free to place bets as to what the gentleman’s politics are, and which presidential candidate he prefers.

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Well, I never! Blessed Tex self-describes thusly: Jesus is Lord! | Constitutionalist Conservative | Zionist | Pro -Life -2A -Military -Police | #IslamisEvil#PPMurdersBabies#DumpTrump#TCOT#PJNET#CruzCrew

For those of you who chose “Pro-life hashtag-loving right-wing Zionist” and “Ted Cruz,” congratulations! For those of you who expected his page would be littered with Stars of David, Bible passages, and photographs of colorful orchids, double-congrats.

Some of you may of course be thinking to yourselves: “Now, Current Affairs, hang on just a gosh-danged minute here, that’s hardly a death threat. How very alarmist you are being!”

Oh, very well. If we are parsing cautiously, Blessed Tex technically said he would rather take an AR-15 to the Affairsmobile® than festoon his own motorcar with our advertisements. But try explaining that to the poor quivering Current Affairs social media interns, who spent the whole day casting anxious looks at the windows here in CAHQ.

In fact, Blessed Tex might not dislike Current Affairs at all. This may be more about a particular fetish Blessed Tex has for shooting innocent windows, regardless of which magazine’s private vehicle fleet they may belong to. Thus we may be mistaken in our conjecture regarding the source of the man’s animosity. (We may, so to speak, be mere oblivious Navins puzzling over bullet-ridden cans.) Yet since Blessed Tex did not attempt to follow up with a caveat-tweet, explaining that his statement would only apply if members of the Current Affairs staff were not in the vehicle at the time, and since an AR-15 is quite a big and frightening gun, we feel justified in putting this Tweet in our stack of threats.

Current Affairs continues to be proud of the valuable work we do in pissing off Ted Cruz supporters on Twitter. To support this work, as well as our purchase of bulletproof glazing, you may want to consider donating to our magazine. As we expand, who knows how many window-hating, sweater-wearing riflemen we may attract the ire of?

Current Affairs is strongly opposed to receiving death threats. Our showcasing of ominous remarks should not be taken as encouragement to send further ominous remarks. We would love nothing more than never to have another edition of This Week in Death Threats, and all potentially violent antagonism toward our magazine shall be dealt with very seriously indeed and reported to the relevant authorities. 

Examining the Conservative Defense of Police Shootings

Is most police behavior fine, dandy, and racism-free? And what does it mean if it is?

As horror over police shootings has grown nationwide over the past year, some sympathy for the goals of Black Lives Matter protesters has come from the right as well as the left. Jeb Bush gave the issue minor lip service in August, and Mr. Rod Dreher of The American Conservative has voiced outrage over the killing of Tamir Rice in Cleveland. In fact, it is understandable why the deaths of unarmed black men at the hands of police might worry conservatives: their ostensible principles of limited government and individual rights are somewhat undermined by a state of affairs in which the government can shoot a person to death for no reason at all.

But according to Mr. David French of the National Review, the true conservative position on this is that the problems cited by black citizens are not problems at all. Police are doing their jobs well overall, and a mountain is being made out of a molehill. Thus a clear-eyed examination of the facts “should defuse national tensions,” but unfortunately a “false narrative” is fueling a misguided social movement.

First, it is important to understand what this position assumes: that the majority of blacks who do not have confidence in the police cannot hold their beliefs because of their own experiences. Instead they are being, as French puts it, “taught to hate and fear law enforcement, fed on a steady diet of lies about their own country.” The 3 out of 5 black people who report that they have personally been treated unfairly by police must not understand that they were, in fact, treated fairly. Anyone who wishes to argue that there is no widespread race problem in policing must necessarily discount everything said by most black people about the behavior they have witnessed firsthand.

But perhaps it is true that millions of black people are simply being tricked into believing that they have had bad experiences with police. Mr. French believes that the statistics, properly examined, reveal that this must be the case. As he explains, the evidence will show that while policing may have its occasional deadly mishaps and whoops-a-daisies, on the whole it is not worthy of serious complaint:

The conservative response is clear: While no one believes the police are perfect, on the whole they tend to use force appropriately to protect their own lives and the lives of others. 

Now, first, the limits of French’s contention should be carefully noted. It is easy to let a sentence like the above go by without observing the tiny sleight-of-hand buried within. Here, we should notice something quite important: the proposition French will attempt to defend is not, in fact, inconsistent with the case made by Black Lives Matter. French says conservatives believe police “tend” to use force appropriately. But this verb should raise an enormous skeptical eyebrow. For police could indeed tend to use force appropriately, while nevertheless using force inappropriately at very high rates. If I say “I tend to follow the law,” I might still disregard the law about 30% of the time. What if I say of someone “Oh, don’t worry, he tends not to murder people”? Should you be concerned about being murdered by this person?

This is terribly important. It goes beyond the simple choice of particular verbs; it is something to watch out for whenever a statistical argument is being made, and it matters especially where we are assessing the taking of life. For if I say “95% of police use of force is justified,” that sounds like an excellent record. But even if we know that number to be accurate, it is nevertheless not nearly as definitive as it appears to be. For what about the remaining 5%? Five percent is one-in-twenty. If the five percent was murder, the fact that 95% of police activities were not murder wouldn’t make the slightest bit of difference. It would be as if a serial killer defended himself by saying “Well, it’s a bit unfair for you to point out all the murders I have committed, without paying any attention whatsoever to the many I haven’t committed. 95% of the women I meet, I don’t try to kill, and only a minuscule fraction of my day is devoted to murdering. When you look at my life’s activities on the whole, I really do tend not to murder people much at all.” (Incidentally, this is what Planned Parenthood’s “our activities are only 3% abortion” sounds like to conservative ears, which is why it’s a silly defense to make.)

But Mr. French strongly believes that by showing that most police shootings are not cold-blooded murders of unarmed black men, he has proven something. As he says, the police are “generally responsible,” and

[t]he kinds of shootings that launched the Black Lives Matter movement — white police officers killing unarmed black men — represent “less than 4 percent of fatal police shootings.”

Mr. French says that the Washington Post has been trying to “hype the racial injustice of this statistic” by pointing out that unarmed black men are much more likely to get shot than members of other demographic groups. This is where he gives us the thrust of his defense: to the extent that racial disparities exist, they exist because black people commit more crimes than white people do. He argues that black people only get shot so much because they commit so many crimes. If they committed fewer crimes, then perhaps they’d get shot less.

But this assumes something utterly unwarranted, namely that the people who have been killed were criminals. In support of this, French cites evidence that 564 out of the 965 people killed by police in 2015 were “armed with a gun.” But the entire meaning of the Second Amendment is that having a gun is no crime. One can stroll down the street with one’s AR-15 if one so pleases, and that is simply the beauty of freedom. Thanks to the Constitution, saying the victim was “armed with a gun” is no different to saying the victim was “wearing a hat.” Perfectly lawful, the relevant question is whether the police had good reason to believe the person was posing a threat.

Of course, this also leaves us with several hundred killings of unarmed people. But here, again, Mr. French tells us that crime rates resolve the question. It’s a bizarre way to defend killing, though. It assumes that if someone has committed a crime, it is acceptable to put them to death without trial. In fact, it is worth asking: what if the unarmed black men being killed are often criminals? (in the non-technical sense, since legally they are innocent until proven guilty) They can be killed, even if they pose no threat? The “conservative case” made by Mr. French does away with every single requirement of due process.

In fact, we know many of those who are killed are criminals. Eric Garner, who was choked to death in New York, was a criminal: he had sold loose cigarettes without paying his taxes. Statistically, blacks probably do this more often than whites do (partially because selling cigarettes on the street is something done mostly by poorer people, and black people are disproportionately poorer than white people), thus more black people will be choked to death. Have we justified anything by proving this?

The same is true with Walter Scott, the South Carolina man shot in the back as he ran from police. He was committing a crime as he was shot: he fled arrest! But if flight warranted death, Affluenza-boy could simply have had a bullet put in him the moment he was pulled from a Mexican apartment block.

So of course a lot of the victims are going to have committed crimes. When police shot a 19-year-old man and a 55-year-old mother in Chicago last weekend, they were aiming to shoot a criminal: the teenager had been having a violent tantrum, and that was the entire reason the police were called. So, too, Lacquan McDonald, who had slashed a police car’s tires and allegedly committed burglary. And Tamir Rice shouldn’t have been waving an AirSoft gun in the direction of people! The entire point here is that these shootings are disproportionate to whatever has gone on and whatever crime might have been committed.

“Ah,” French might say, “but you have conceded my case. There’s no racism here! If, say, police murder 1% of all those suspected of committing crimes, and 70% of those who commit crimes are black, then there will of course be racial disparities in the underlying numbers.”

But the argument is pitiful: “It might be true that police murder quite a few unarmed black men, but this is acceptable because these unarmed black men were thought to have engaged in crimes. And they were murdered because of that, rather than their race.” We can call this the “Hey, I may be a murderer, but I’m no racist” defense. All it suggests is that police brutality as a whole is deeper than simply being racism. A Marxist might say something similar.

There’s something worth appreciating about the theory that the violence is more widespread than race alone would tell us. Being accused of a crime is a highly relevant factor: when police beat (white) homeless man Kelly Thomas to death, they apparently thought he had been vandalizing cars. When police intentionally had (white) Jared Lemay mauled by a dog, he had been violating his probation. It may indeed be that where violence is concerned, police simply dish it out mercilessly to whoever they are after, and they happen to be after black men more.

But it’s also true that the statistics don’t disprove the existence of a racist criminal justice system. After all, one can only prove that a person has committed a crime (and thus measure the race of criminals) if the person is convicted of a crime. But if black people are more likely to be arrested for committing the same crime as a white person, and then more likely to be convicted, then we are not factoring unconvicted white criminals into our crime rate analysis. Pointing out that black people are convicted more than white people in addition to being shot more is completely consistent with a theory that every part of the criminal justice system is shot through with racism. Mr. French apparently hasn’t had a look at The New Jim Crow, and doesn’t realize that reformers’ entire argument is that black people are being convicted of crimes in outrageous numbers, while ordinary criminals such as congresspeople get neither shot nor convicted!

That’s not to dispute that homicides by and against black people are higher than those by and against white people. Black people know this better than anyone and are constantly attempting to draw attention to it, not that the National Review cares much about these things when they’re not trying to score a point against protesters. But instead of seeing this as a social problem in need of repair, Mr. French sees it as warrant for the police to kill the alleged perpetrators before they even go to trial.

The “conservative case” against Black Lives Matter, then, is founded on multiple ignorant premises. The first is that somehow, by showing that most police behavior is acceptable, we have proven that shootings are not occurring at unacceptable rates. This is a hideous irrational non sequitur that in a just world would result in the revocation of Mr. French’s bar license. The second is that it’s acceptable to murder unarmed black people so long as the rate of killing increases in direct proportion with the number of crimes they commit. The third is that the people being killed are criminals, which they aren’t, since dead men don’t go to trial. The fourth is that once someone is a criminal, any level of force whatsoever is acceptable to be used against them. The fifth is that the Second Amendment doesn’t exist. The sixth is that racism doesn’t affect the number of criminal convictions. And the seventh is that black people are totally delusional about their own first-person memories.

The conservative case on Black Lives Matter ought to be that if small government means anything, it means not being shot in the head by the government, without so much as an arraignment. But for David French, as for many others, the definition of “conservatism” often simply amounts to a defense of the use of violence by the powerful, with all the highfalutin rights-talk being mostly a sham. If Mr. French’s argument is the conservative case, black people should be fearful indeed of conservative justice.

Of Course Money Is Speech

Protesting that “money isn’t speech” misses the point of what money is.

Earlier this year, when protesters disrupted the Supreme Court on the anniversary of the Citizens United opinion, they trumpeted a familiar slogan: “money isn’t speech.” In the four years since the ruling, this phrase has been the linchpin of the liberal critique of American campaign-finance jurisprudence, the idiom of the movement to get “money out of politics.”

Yet there are profound limitations to a politics that attempts to distinguish between money and speech. While attempts to curtail corporate expenditures in elections are important, the Citizens United court inadvertently recognized a profound truth about the way wealth structures society. Money is speech, which is precisely why its distribution matters so much.

The Citizens United case, which struck down prohibitions on corporate (and union) campaign spending, was never so much a change in First Amendment case law as its logical endpoint. American courts have long conceptualized free speech as a wholly negative liberty, their sole concern the degree to which the government can explicitly intervene in the activities of citizens.

But this idea of free speech has always suffered from a contradiction, namely that the exercise of speech is always shaped by the economic situation of the speaker. As the Court put it in its landmark 1976 case Buckley v. Valeo:

Virtually every means of communicating ideas in today’s mass society requires the expenditure of money. The distribution of the humblest handbill or leaflet entails printing, paper, and circulation costs. Speeches and rallies generally necessitate hiring a hall and publicizing the event. The electorate’s increasing dependence on television, radio, and other mass media for news and information has made these expensive modes of communication indispensable instruments of effective political speech.

The Buckley opinion arose from a challenge to post-Watergate provisions in the Federal Election Campaign Act. Congress attempted to place strict limits on both individual contributions and candidate expenditures, but the Court rejected the latter, laying the foundation for Citizens United. Each verdict reasons that to see the First Amendment as solely protecting speaking is an absurdity. In the Court’s view, since one’s ability to speak is so tied to one’s wallet, the argument that money isn’t speech collapses.

And they’re right. But that should lead us to a truly sweeping and critical verdict: when there are class differences and maldistributed wealth, democracy and free speech can never truly exist. The possession of money determines one’s positive ability to act. To invert an aphorism from Anatole France, rich and poor alike have the equal right to hire high-priced lobbyists and purchase Superbowl ads.

In this way, money not only buys political power, it is political power. Its possession confers godlike capability, and its deprivation creates servitude. With money one can manipulate public taste, ruin one’s enemies, and build, destroy, and conquer.

It’s the reason the film industry can secure massive, budget-depleting tax refunds and Walmart can single-handedly block attempts at wage regulation; where the flight of capital is a sufficient threat to people’s lives, direct corruption of the political process is unnecessary. Without it, one cannot eat, create, or even choose one’s everyday movements.

All of this is rather obvious. Yet as economists Samuel Bowles and Herbert Gintis note, while the observation that capital confers power “may evoke the same degree of astonishment as the observation that dogs bark,” this truism is utterly unaccounted for by liberal political philosophy’s negative-liberty framework. Adding campaign expenditure restrictions, as American liberals propose, does little to alter this fundamentally naive assumption. Capitalism’s predation of democracy won’t let up because of a well-placed restriction on campaign giving.

If money shapes the contours of our life choices, and is the prime determinant of our possible acts, then one person possessing more money than another is no different from his having more votes. And if rights are only meaningful to the extent they can be exercised, granting an equal right to free speech would demand a massive redistribution of wealth.

Naturally, the Citizens United decision, though the inevitable progeny of a long line of cases, is an affront to democracy. It helped entrench corporate power, and the resulting tidal wave of new election spending shouldn’t be trivialized. Yet this is far more a product of economics than law. The excessive influence of the wealthy on government did not begin with Citizens United, but with the founding of the country. It is a function of an inegalitarian economic system, not anticorruption statutes.

The theory behind progressive opposition to Citizens United thus clouds our understanding of freedom. In September, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg suggested Citizens United was one the Court’s worst mistakes, saying that “the notion that we have all the democracy that money can buy strays so far from what our democracy is supposed to be.”

But just two weeks later, Ginsburg signed onto the Court’s judgment in Integrity Staffing Solutions, Inc. v. Busk, which limited the reach of the Fair Labor Standards Act. In that case, the Court ruled that employers do not need to compensate employees for the time they spend standing in line for a mandatory security screening.

The Court held that because the workers had been hired to pack boxes rather than stand in line, they didn’t need to be paid for the parts of their job that did not involve packing boxes. All four liberal justices concurred. (So did the Obama administration, which had filed a brief in support of the temp agency.)

For Ginsburg, there is no contradiction in opposing Citizens Unitedand supporting Integrity Staffing Solutions, even if both ultimately reduce ordinary people’s agency. Jesse Busk, the temp worker who sued over the denial of wages, reported that he wished to be paid the $6.25 for his screening because “the job was exhausting — we would sometimes walk twenty miles a night — and I was eager to go home and get some sleep.”

But when Ginsburg speaks of “what our democracy is supposed to be,” she thinks only of an individual’s relationship with the state; economic democracy is a foreign concept, and Jesse Busk’s twelve-hour shift has no relevance. An employer’s power over an employee may decimate the usefulness of the rights Ginsburg values, but apparently because money isn’t speech, one has no right to it.

Liberal election reform efforts have taken many shapes, from matching funds schemes to proposals to distribute $50 vouchers to voters, each attempting to overlay a fair political process onto an unequal economy. Many of these policies would make a substantive difference in the level to which government power is purchasable, even if nearly all of them are likely to be declared unconstitutional by a conservative-majority Supreme Court.

But all progressive plans suffer from the same core weakness: they address only a tiny fraction of the ways in which wealth is politically important. When US Steel unilaterally laid off 545 workers last week, none had any input into this decision; when 95 percent of the “post-recession” economic gains went to the top 1 percent, the political power of the non-wealthy was stamped out even more.

By attempting to forge a superficially fair political sphere while leaving the inegalitarian core of capitalism untouched, liberals are therefore ensuring that the most pernicious antidemocratic forces in American life are untouched.

If Citizens United eroded American democracy, the central proposition of the ruling was correct. And as soon as money is recognized as speech, the incompatibility of political equality and capitalism is revealed. There can never be such a thing as free speech until economic resources are distributed equally.

A political process that limits corporate influence is to be striven for. But a politics in which capital doesn’t dominate requires an economy without a class system.

The Return of Shark Tank Capitalism

Shark Tank would like to think it’s vicious. It’s nothing of the kind.

The world’s smallest shark is the dwarf lanternshark, topping out at about 8 inches or so and generally fitting comfortably in the palm. Its belly, as the name implies, gives off a small amount of light, and its bites, it can be surmised, are not especially painful.

Shark Tank has now returned to television for a seventh season, which means ABC will once again work very hard to pass dwarf lanternsharks off as hammerheads and Great Whites. For while the show insists that it is showing the brutal, cutthroat side of the market economy, ultimately it makes being torn to shreds in capitalism’s ravenous maw look like being lazily gummed in a kiddie-pool of hand-sized glow-fish.

Shark Tank is set up as an entrepreneurship competition. Contestants come in with either existing businesses or ideas for businesses, and try to convince a set of extremely wealthy people to fund them. The drama of the program comes from the fact that the wealthy people are snide and belligerent, and make a big extravagant fuss out of the process of turning down contestants’ ideas.

It’s a good healthy hour of schadenfreude, watching middle-class people who have staked everything on their half-baked concepts get taunted and heckled by the rich. Sometimes it’s too painful to even sit through. In a Season 5 episode, a Texas couple pitches their idea for the “elephant chat,” a small stuffed elephant that they believe will help troubled couples. The idea, they say, is that when one partner is discontented, he or she will show the other the elephant, and they will realize they need to talk. As the five investors ridicule the deluded Texas newlyweds, in the couple’s defensive panic we suddenly realize that their own marriage is being held together by the elephant. They have borrowed tens of thousands of dollars from friends to fund their business, and blown it all on creating plastic molds for the elephant’s packaging. It’s a bleak and tragic moment, as it becomes clear just how much the relationship has been staked on the success of this useless product.

But the real secret of Shark Tank is actually that it’s much softer than it seems. Yes, contestants come on and cry as their silly products are made fun of. But a careful effort is made to ensure that most of what we see is a game of lively entrepreneurship rather than financial and personal devastation. When the show does follow-up reports on products from previous episodes, it only ever profiles those that have succeeded. The owners show their gleaming new production facilities, and talk about how Shark Tank changed their life.

When Shark Tank came on the air, Tom Shales of the Washington Post called it “sadistic” and said it “personalizes the desperation and pain experienced by victims of a broken-down economy.” But Shales is wrong; Shark Tank is insidious precisely because for the most part it does not convey this desperation and pain. Certainly, it will show a man who has mortgaged his house and spent his children’s college fund to finance some doomed tchotchke, and the audience will writhe in discomfort as he confesses to the sharks he has no backup plan. But the drama is soon defused; someone cracks a joke, the desperate are whisked away, and some bouncy ladies in matching outfits will sashay in to show off a catchy jingle for their signature mango chutney.

Shark Tank would have you think it’s a brutal depiction of the dog-eat-dog realities of the capitalist economy. Would that it were! In fact, it’s a feel-good show about the excitement of the boardroom. It romanticizes the rough-and-tumble of doing business, and the losers’ misfortune never really sinks in. The bites of these dwarf lanternsharks never really hurt; elsewhere lies the real carnage, the broken dreams, unemployment, and financial ruin on which the ferocious market economy must perpetually gorge itself.

The Limits of “Black Lives Matter” as Slogan & Movement

The “Where Do We Go From Here” moment has arrived. Is there a way the movement can bring real pressure, or is it destined for a dead end?

As a slogan/hashtag/rallying cry, Black Lives Matter has been extraordinarily successful in unifying people and putting a lot of focus on the crimes of the police. Even though the pace of murders by police does not appear to have slowed, it’s at least encouraging that names are finally being named, and there are some prosecutions occurring that would not have occurred in the absence of the movement. The “Black Lives Matter” phrase itself has a lot of rhetorical force, and its spread has generally been tremendous. But it seems as if the movement is spinning its wheels a bit, uncertain of how to proceed in order to reach its goals, which also remain undefined. It has turned to somewhat bizarre tactics, like regularly protesting Bernie Sanders rallies. And it has produced a powerful public rememberance and grieving process for victims of police, but so far we don’t know how to actually reduce the number of victims. I don’t want to trivialize the movement’s gains or tell it how to run itself, but I want to observe a couple of core weaknesses that limit the likelihood of its success.

First, if we analyze what it means to protest that “Black Lives Matter,” I think it ironically concedes too much power to white people. Black lives obviously matter to people with black lives, and obviously do not matter much to the police. The demand here is that the police recognize the fact that black people are correct in insisting that their lives matter, and for the police to begin to behave as if this is so.

The difference between multiple meanings of “matter” makes this a bit confusing, since “matter” can refer to both personal dignity and empirical social significance. Dignity is self-created and cannot be taken or given. Significance measures my worth according to the opinions of others. “I matter” and “I matter” can have two different connotations, one true and one false, even given the same set of facts. I do not matter (because I am insignificant and powerless in my society) but I matter (because I nevertheless have dignity.) The Black Lives Matter slogan attempts to imply both the dignity meaning (Black people have dignity no matter what) and the significance meaning (Black people ought to be treated as having significance), one being descriptive and one being aspirational.

Yet in both these respects, the Black Lives Matter slogan itself becomes a demand for recognition from white people. Dignity should be measured personally and not by the opinions of others. And significance should not be asked for, but built, since asking for an increase in significance reaffirms and legitimizes the power of those who  claim the right to determine social significance. But a Black Lives Matter protest requests these things. “I matter, and I demand you acknowledge that I matter, which you currently do not do.” That kind if demand requires the demander to have strong interest in the opinion of the demandee. The Black Lives Matter slogan isn’t being directed at black people, who already know that fact. It’s a demand that someone else affirm the dignity and worth of black people. It seems to be begging the state/white people/the police.

A protest demanding recognition of dignity is somewhat odd. If I am, say, abused and demeaned by someone, who treats me as if I have no worth, is the best way to assert my worth to stand outside of his house with a sign saying “I have worth”? Most would probably admit that this implies the abuser is the one with the power to determine my worth, when my worth exists independent of what my abuser thinks. Of course, it will be replied that “Black Lives Matter” intends precisely to insist that worth exists independent of the opinions of power; it is saying that “black lives matter whether you like it or not.” But if that is the case, who are the signs and hashtags directed at convincing?

(By the way, I feel the same about the wearing of Sunday clothing and the holding of “I Am A Man” signs during the first civil rights movement. The natty suits were supposed to persuade white people that black people were clean, dignified Americans. I don’t want to say the tactic shouldn’t have been used, since the struggle was an urgent one and effectiveness was important. But there was something to Malcolm X’s critique of the civil rights struggle, that it was asking instead of taking.)

Instead of a humble request for white people to admit black dignity, then, it might be better to orient a movement around exactly what its real demands are. In the case of Black Lives Matter, I take that to be more along the lines of “End Racist Police Violence.” That doesn’t demand any kind of recognition, because recognition is (1) merely symbolic and (2) not even a desirable symbolic concession. Ending racist police violence is very specific. Success cannot be faked. With Black Lives Matter, those in power can say “I hereby declare that black lives now matter.” Have you therefore won? If we all sing a song together about how much we believe one another matters, will we have changed the situation that first brought this all about? Absolutely not.

Among liberal and left-wing activists, there’s sometimes a suspicion of creating demands. This tendency seems to have solidified during the “demandless” Occupy movement, but it has its roots in the 1960’s, like the “Demand the Impossible” graffiti of the French May ’68 student movement. The suspicion comes from the same impulse Malcolm X had: if you demand something, you’re acknowledging that someone else is the one who has the power to give it to you. You are, to use a fashionable meaningless academic verb, “reifying” their power.

As I’ve indicated, there’s something valuable in this impulse. Practically speaking, however, it can be suicide, especially when you’re not actually building something instead. If you want to reject the ability of the “power structure” to decide whether you win, then you have to be building some alternative form of power, or else you will simply be resigning yourself to being crushed. This was the civil rights movement’s response to Malcolm: Okay then, how are you going to build black political power? And it was Malcolm’s weakness that he didn’t have a good answer. His own political organizations foundered; rhetoric about self-defense will only carry you so far. That’s not completely fair, since if Malcolm had lived, he might have managed to create something meaningful. And in fact, the Black Panthers can be seen to have embodied what Malcolm advocated: a self-defense organization that provides aid to communities (medical and childcare), keeps people safe by resisting the police, and terrifies the establishment. But the Black Panthers were destroyed, in large part due to government infiltration and suppression, though also partly because of inherent weaknesses in their philosophy, poor organization, and self-defeating acts. You have to be very good at what you’re doing in order to shun the entire process of making demands.

In the case of Black Lives Matter, though, a “no demands” defense of their current direction does not really work. As I pointed out, they’ve already indicated their willingness to make demands. The whole movement is built on a demand, a demand for black lives to matter. So it might as well make its demands concrete, and insisting on meaningful differences in the real world.

Thinking of things that can be asked for is not difficult. Halve the prison population within five years. Drastic changes to the sentencing structure to reduce future sentences for all crimes. Decriminalize all drugs, massive new funding for diversion and treatment programs.The end of law enforcement officers’ qualified immunity from lawsuits. A nationwide ban on criminal record questions on job applications. The extensive redistribution of wealth by race, so that white households no longer have an average net worth 13 times that of black households. Nationwide debt forgiveness for poor people. A basic income. Guaranteed parity of school funding. Citizen oversight committees for every local police force, with the power to fire officers.

“If BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people.”

In fact, just end the police. Break up police forces into their component functions, so that they are no longer an enormous violent Leviathan. Give the investigative functions to courts, have a traffic agency handle traffic offenses, let trained professionals deal with the mentally ill so that the police don’t end up putting bullets in them. The cops with the badges and the guns should be a tiny group, used only in true violent emergencies. Stop having cops show up where medics or social workers are what’s necessary.

Demand some of these. None of them. Any of them. But if the movement reorients itself around pushes for some actual goals, it will at least have the chance of accomplishing something, and won’t lose steam. Demanding that a long-shot socialist Democrat start tweeting the slogan might be achievable, and might also even be helpful. (I understand why the left should demand that the left-wing candidate have a good race platform, though excessive disproportionate, hostile attention to Bernie seems like it will do nobody any good.) But even assuming the maximum level of possible impact for that tactic, it is still many steps removed from any actual underlying improvement in the society.

If the movement is focused on policing, it also needs to move beyond Black Lives Matter to include a wider swath of victims. I understand why BLM has reacted with visceral hostility to anyone who replies that “All Lives Matter.” After all, during a protest about the fact that black people are being discounted, it must be infuriating to see white people immediately expand the group under discussion to include themselves. Nevertheless, it does need expanding, perhaps to “all oppressed lives.” Otherwise, where are Native American lives? Disabled people’s lives? What about police victimization of the homeless, like the death of Kelly Thomas? The police have many targets, and while black people might suffer disproportionately, it is important to find a way to incorporate the death of Robert Saylor, the man with Down’s syndrome whom police attacked and killed in a movie theater. (I explained this point more here.)

It’s also acceptable to say that Black Lives Matter is not a policing protest, but a protest about the lives of black people. I think at the moment it tries to be both. But if it’s specifically about black people, then there are other issues than policing it needs to address. The wealth gap is an important one of these. So is the continuation of job and housing discrimination. So is unequal access to healthcare and groceries.

So, if BLM is about black people, it needs to expand beyond policing, and if it’s about policing, it needs to expand beyond black people. Of course, my own preference is for it to be both of these things and more, to integrate itself into a broad left-wing movement that pushes for the elimination racist violence by the state and the radical rearrangement of the economy to eliminate the hideous excesses of the rich and make sure that people of nonwhite races are not disproportionately consigned to struggle and debt.

Let me emphasize again that I do not want to chastize or instruct Black Lives Matter. I only want to make a prediction, which is that simply mobilizing a large number of people under the banner, rallying them regularly in American cities and chanting the slogan, will not produce useful outcomes. It will be tempting to believe that the movement is winning, because more people are paying attention and Hillary is meeting with them and Bernie has put up a good web page. But paying attention towards what? Meeting towards what? If a plan is formulated, if a vision of the ideal world is articulated, then we might begin to take small steps in its direction. Otherwise, it will be difficult to sustain momentum indefinitely. How many deaths will be stomached before the chant for dignity morphs into a demand to finally end the police?