They Must Be Trying To Fail

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Scourge of Self-Flagellating Politics

When politics becomes about tallying sins, it ceases to accomplish meaningful change…

From the gospel according to Luke, “For whosoever exalteth himself shall be abased; and he that humbleth himself shall be exalted.” If we are to take Luke at his word, then there must be plenty of heavenly exaltation in store for Jeopardy contestant turned social justice columnist caricature Arthur Chu who once tweeted: “As a dude who cares about feminism sometimes I want to join all men arm-in-arm & then run off a cliff and drag the whole gender into the sea.” Or for those who, on the morning following the election of Donald Trump, took to social media to publicly humble themselves to their followers, expressing their intense inward-turned shame and self-hatred. Typical of the style, New Statesman editor Laurie Penny wrote: “I’ve had white liberal guilt before. Today is the first time I’ve actually been truly horrified and ashamed to be white.” Others expressed their self-disgust at being straight white males and assured followers that while they of course did not vote for Trump, merely looking like those who did required some readily self-inflicted penance.

Every time a liberal conducts one of these performances of self-hatred, a predictable reaction cycle is set off. A ragtag army of nasty nihilistic right-wingers (a mixture of quasi-ironic anime-loving Nazis, celibate male separatists, and those who make it their duty to observe and report creeping Cultural Marxism) react with a flurry of anonymous retaliations. To the alt-right, this ritual confession of guilt is further proof of Western civilizational suicide. The self-flagellator is then met with a deluge of racist and/or misogynist abuse, which leaves them even more assured that their own dismal view of the West as white supremacist, misogynist, and essentially evil was correct all along. Online, stuck in an endless loop and unmoored from the cultural mainstream, niche online subcultures from right and left both reinforce their opposed but similarly depressing views of society.

All of which would be a mere curiosity, if it kept itself confined to the darker recesses of the Internet’s fetid bowel. However, since the mainstream media is always struggling to keep up with whatever the kids are into, the discourse of white self-criticism has gone somewhat more mainstream. It is now fairly typical to see ritualized confessions of white guilt. As Fredrik deBoer describes it:

“[There is] an entire cottage industry devoted to it. Similar arguments calling for white people to own their privilege have been published in places like the Huffington Post and Salon. Popular sites like YouTube and Tumblr play host to hundreds of earnest white people, eagerly disclaiming white privilege and their complicity in white supremacy. White rapper Macklemore recently released his second track concerning his own white privilege.”

Even Donald Sutherland recently felt compelled to describe his feeling “ashamed” for being a “white male.” Sutherland apparently had a moment of breakthrough when Helen Mirren, Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire, informed him “You are the most privileged person on Earth… You are a white male.” Damning men for their crimes and defending purest womankind, Michael Moore, author of titles such as Stupid White Men, recently tweeted, “No women ever invented an atomic bomb, built a smoke stack, initiated a Holocaust, melted the polar ice caps or organized a school shooting.’ (This is false. The Manhattan Project had its unsung female heroes, there are plenty of female oil and gas executives, and female school shooter Brenda Ann Spencer inspired the 1979 Boomtown Rats hit “I Don’t Like Mondays.” Ironically, Moore erases women’s history by neglecting its greatest villains.)

With its obvious channeling of original sin, this style also has parallels in more traditional forms of radical politics than those one might associate with Donald Sutherland and Helen Mirren. One of the stranger incarnations has been the German tendency known as Anti-Deutsch, which has built an entire politics around self-criticism and national collective guilt about the Holocaust. In 1995, to mark the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Dresden, which killed up to an estimated 25,000 people, anti-Germans demonstrated in praise of the bombings on the grounds that it killed people who supported Nazism and was therefore a victory. One year, to mark the event in Dresden, the demonstrators held a sign reading “Bomber Harris, do it again!” in reference to RAF Bomber Command Chief  Sir Arthur “Bomber” Harris, who, asked if he felt any guilt at the enormous loss of life, said that he would have destroyed Dresden again. Interestingly, despite its strongest roots being in radical ultra-left politics, the movement’s anti-German thinking has led them to support the Israeli state and by extension the United States, especially after 9/11.

In what felt like significant timing, right before Donald Trump’s election, the film adaption of Philip Roth’s masterpiece American Pastoral was released in cinemas. In it, the daughter of the central family who is consumed by hatred for the white America that her ideal bourgeois family exemplifies, bombs the local post office before disappearing into a fictionalized version of the Weather Underground. On her bedroom wall hangs a fictionalized Weatherman motto:

We are against everything that is good and decent in honky America. We will loot and burn and destroy. We are the incubation of your mothers’ nightmares.”

The Weathermen used a style of “criticism-self-criticism” sessions, also called “Weatherfries,” which were described by the author of Bringing the War Home as “the most harrowing aspect of life within the collective.” Based on Maoist struggle sessions, these were used to root out subconscious racism and sexism within their own psyches. Individuals were reportedly hazed for up to twelve hours without a break until the white radicals confessed their deep white supremacism, homophobia and misogyny to their fellow white radicals thus achieving catharsis through their own admission of guilt.

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The most famous case of white self-hatred leading to full-scale self-delusion was probably that of Rachel Dolezal, the Africana studies instructor and president of a local branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) who turned out to be a natural blonde white woman in pretty convincing disguise. Dolezal had so successfully persuaded herself that she was black that she seemed unable to understand what she had done, as she struggled to answer interview questions about her motivation. In sympathy with Dolezal, a white female college professor writing for the Huffington Post, Ali Michael, later admitted:

“I couldn’t have biological children because I didn’t want to propagate my privilege biologically.” She went on to say: “…like Dolezal, I wanted to take on Africanness. Living in South Africa during my junior year abroad, I lived with a Black family, wore my hair in head wraps, shaved my head… I didn’t want to be White, but if I had to be, I wanted to be White in a way that was different from other White people I knew… But the lesson for me is remembering how deep the pain is, the pain of realizing I’m White… The pain of facing that honestly is blinding.”

Watching the suicidal levels of secularized self-flagellation in the aftermath of Trump made me recall the famous scene in the movie Malcolm X, in which a young white woman momentarily blocks Malcolm X’s path and asks what she, as a white person, can do to help his cause. He answers with one coldly served word – “Nothing.” The scene was based on a real encounter he had with a “little blonde co-ed” after which he wrote, “I’d never seen anyone I ever spoke to before more affected than this little white girl… Her clothes, her carriage, her accent all showed Deep South breeding and money.”

“Nothing” could certainly be a succinct one-word summation of what exactly anyone seems to be benefiting from much of the contemporary online performance of self-criticism. But then, Malcolm X went on to regret being contemptuous of the white girl depicted in the scene. Years later, it affected him quite profoundly, and he said:

“Well, I’ve lived to regret that incident. In many parts of the African continent I saw white students helping black people. Something like this kills a lot of argument… I guess a man’s entitled to make a fool of himself if he’s ready to pay the cost. It cost me twelve years.”

Malcolm came to feel that the strict racial nationalism preached by the Nation of Islam had been fundamentally mistaken. By the end of his life, his political thought was becoming more sophisticated and nuanced, as he thought through the question of how to fight racism without reproducing a crude nationalism.

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Could there be a more sympathetic analysis also of today’s political self-criticism? The Weathermen were, after all, motivated by the extent to which they despised the racist Vietnam War, and their own culture for enabling it. Spend a little time in Berlin going from grim Holocaust memorial to grim Holocaust museum and you’ll soon get a sense of why a tendency like Anti-Deutsch exists, however wacky it may be. In its easily parodied but relatively benign form today, you could interpret the current wave of online self-criticism as youthful emotion and hyperbole with wholly good intentions. In the age of Trump, who is already making boastful threats of unconstitutional punishments for flag burning, perhaps this kind of self-criticism could be an antidote to the excesses of aggressive and unchecked nationalism and the dark forces it has historically whipped up.

Yet, the Weathermen’s deeply degenerate and cult-like internal politics didn’t do anyone any good. In fact, they seemed far more a product of neurosis and narcissism than of revolutionary strategy–they couldn’t stand to be seen as part of the white bourgeois society they came from and so they found entirely negative ways to purge themselves in the presence of other white radicals.

The relatively harmless tweeting of today certainly leaves fewer human casualties behind. But it is still based on a common impulse – the expression of total contempt for one’s own society expressed through progressive language. In this internal psychodrama the oppressed appear as purely symbolic, rather than as real people for whom one is trying to generate real material gains. It is difficult to think of any positive political movement past or present that has changed the lives of human beings for the better based on misanthropy and radical performances of self-hatred.

Even the cruelest alt-right critics tend to regard extreme forms of liberal social media self-hatred as simply pathetic, a sign of a lack of self-respect. But in my own more ungenerous moments I wonder if it is something worse. Rather than merely being of benefit to no one, it could be of quite a significant benefit to just one person – the self-flagellator themselves. Publicly declaring your sins makes you appear a better person than those who have not declared them. It is not really a put-down of oneself, but a put-down of others, who are less morally worthy for having been less forthcoming in their confessions.

Online, many liberal commentators and internet personalities have built fame and careers purely through trading in the currency of virtue. As more seek to mimic this, they rely upon the value of this precious currency, even as it is constantly devalued by its own abundance. So the rituals escalate in absurdity. Suddenly denouncing Trump is not enough, he must be “literally Hitler.” Soon denouncing all of society as literally Hitler is not enough; one has to turn inward and denounce oneself with the same ferocity. Others climbing the greasy pole of liberal virtue to careers in academia or ideological listicle-writing must seek to outpace and dethrone those taking up their spot in the limited room available at the top.

But beneath the performance of humility and self-criticism may lie something thoroughly self-interested and entirely without real virtue. I’m reminded of the very un-virtuous Nietzsche’s scathing inversion of the Christian formulation in Luke’s gospel, instead suggesting, “He who humbleth himself wishes to be exalted.”

Forget Swing Voters

Democrats need mobilization, not dialogue, in order to win…

Are liberal protesters losing an opportunity to defeat Trump by being too mean? That’s the contention of a Sunday New York Times “news analysis” full of anecdotes like this one:

Jeffrey Medford, a small-business owner in South Carolina, voted reluctantly for Donald Trump. As a conservative, he felt the need to choose the Republican. But some things are making him feel uncomfortable — parts of Mr. Trump’s travel ban, for example, and the recurring theme of his apparent affinity for Russia. Mr. Medford should be a natural ally for liberals trying to convince the country that Mr. Trump was a bad choice. But it is not working out that way. Every time Mr. Medford dips into the political debate — either with strangers on Facebook or friends in New York and Los Angeles — he comes away feeling battered by contempt and an attitude of moral superiority. He added: “I didn’t choose a side. They put me on one.”

The article continues in this vein: lots of conservatives who voted for Trump “feel uncomfortable” with one thing or another about the man–the racist policies, the sexual assault, the incompetence, whatever. Perhaps, the author hypothesizes, these people could be convinced to vote against Trump in 2020? Unfortunately, they also feel pretty uncomfortable about being called white supremacists on social media and compared to the KKK in protest chants. Liberals are being very mean to them. Disturbingly, one liberal woman even rejected a man on Tinder. This sort of thing makes them feel bad. If we want them to vote for us, we shouldn’t make them feel bad by having protests and calling them Nazis; we should engage in dialogue. We should stop polarizing so hard. We should be nicer.

The odd notion that a conservative small business owner from South Carolina who voted for Trump because he’s Republican and conservatives who vote for Republicans “should be a natural ally” of liberals trying to defeat Trump nicely encapsulates a model of US politics with a great deal of influence in the mainstream media and the upper echelons of the Democratic Party. Under that model, the trick to winning at politics is to find moderate, reasonable people whose views are located approximately halfway between the Democrats’ views and the Republicans’ and then convince them, through dialogue, that you, too, are a moderate and reasonable person. In this model, having a base that does things like have vociferous protests is a major weakness for a political party: it makes the whole party look immoderate and unreasonable. The general strategy for the Democrats implied by this worldview was nicely summarized by Chuck Schumer in July, explaining why Clinton would win: “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Go find the reasonable (read: college-educated) Republicans and do what it takes to convince them that you’re on their side.

If you’ve been following the news in the past few months you may have noticed that this didn’t work. Clinton’s campaign strategy centered on portraying Trump as a crazy person in order to convince reasonable Republicans not to vote for him—and, you know, he kind of is a crazy person. But the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for him anyway. Why? Well, because they’re Republican. You know? They like Republican stuff. Tax cuts, welfare cuts, racist immigration restrictions, banning abortion, boiling the oceans, stuff like that. They really love those things and think they’re great ideas, and they’re not going to sell them out just because the Republican candidate has some personal issues, “uncomfortable” though they may feel.

To put it more bluntly: the vast majority of Trump voters voted for Bush in 2000, McCain in 2008 and Romney 2012 and will be voting for Trump in 2020, Palin in 2024 and Milo in 2028. Swing voters, to a fairly close approximation, don’t exist. Most Americans who vote consistently understand that the two parties represent dramatically different worldviews, and they know which one they share. The fact that some conservatives choose to describe themselves as moderate independents who are merely turned off by the Democrats’ extremism, flattering though it may be to their self-image, has very little to do with Democratic strategy in the next four years.

Where, then, should the Democrats look for votes? Not to small business owners in South Carolina, but to the 40% of American eligible voters who didn’t vote in 2016. Those voters are significantly younger, poorer and more liberal than the 2016 electorate; getting them to turn out in significantly higher numbers would tilt the US to the left hard and fast.

What would that take? The Democratic Party leadership and liberal pundits have tended to see low turnout among Democratic demographics–particularly in midterm elections–as an unalterable fact of nature to be bemoaned; in fact, it’s a problem of messaging and, especially, organization. To make it happen we need hundreds of thousands of committed Democrats to run campaigns, organize rallies and knock on doors. A vociferous, angry, mobilized Democratic base is the only way to do this.

In early 2009, as Republicans licked their wounds following their overwhelming defeat in an Obama wave year, a new movement emerged: the Tea Party. Naysayers thought that this crowd of yahoos in silly costumes calling Obama a socialist ISIS-Nazi would help the Republican Party on its way into the dustbin of history by demonstrating to the media mainstream what a relic it was. What happened was quite different: first they won a Senate election in Massachusetts, then they won everything else in 2010. While a vast influx of post-Citizens United dark money played a role in this, scholars of the Tea Party agree that grassroots mobilization was key: the Tea Partiers met weekly, made plans, propagandized, showed up at town halls, knocked on doors, and changed the face of American politics.

The Tea Partiers didn’t try to convince liberals: they aimed to defeat them. They understood that their goal was not to win over moderates through dialogue but to (the refrain was constant) “take our country back.” Their understanding of politics, unlike that of the New York Times, had less to do with dialogue than with war. Liberals would be well advised to learn from them.

Photograph of Terrie Frankel, a “Lifelong Democrat who voted for Trump,” from Wikimedia Commons

Even When It Doesn’t Save Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Bourgeois Feminist Bullshit

The Rebecca Traister view of gender and the world…

The last decade has seen the flourishing of a genre we might describe as “Sociology Porn,” a form of pop-culture social studies that emerges from the incomprehensible minds of people like David Brooks. These are the richly rewarded ramblings eagerly consumed by a public that wants to appear learned without doing too much of the work of actually doing the research. Nuggets like the sort offered regularly by Brooks are like bacon-wrapped dates: Tiny morsels of fact wrapped in a rich coating of fatty nonsense.

Of late, Sociology Porn has turned its attention to Women and, in particular, Single Women. In the last few years, we’ve seen books like Moira Wiegel’s Labor of Love: The Invention of Dating, Jessica Valenti’s Sex Object: A Memoir, and Kate Bolick’s Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own. As the (actual) sociologist Bella DePaulo began pointing out over a decade ago in Singled Out: How Singles Are Stereotyped, Stigmatized, and Ignored, and Still Live Happily Ever After, single people — not just women — have been on the rise for many years. Yet society and the laws governing mundane-but-deeply-important matters like taxation and housing have yet to catch up with the reality that fewer people than ever before see marriage as their lives’ crowning glory. (In addition, social benefits like childcare, healthcare, and paid sick leave remain entirely inaccessible to all but the most privileged single people.)

The newer books take such sociological analysis and numbers and turn them into fun, peppy narratives about how incredibly great and awesome it is that so many women are now resolutely single. Such a surge of interest in The Single Woman should bring joy to the millions of women who have borne the hardship of centuries of stigma. Single Women were once feared as witches (and then summarily executed), and they have been rendered Sad Sadies so desperate for sex that they take to hallucinating partners (recall The Unmarried Woman in Rear Window). The times are a-changing and today Single Women can take heart in the fact that they exist in numbers large enough to attract the attention of so many. Presumably, singletons read such books avidly and want to know: Will there now be more men to fuck? More women? What do I do with my infinite spare time? Will a Cat Cafe open in my neighborhood?

The latest in this body of pop sociology is Rebecca Traister’s All the Single Ladies: Unmarried Women and the Rise of an Independent Nation, based on a number of interviews with single women and a history of marriage drawn from several sources. The title, derived from Beyoncé’s hit single, firmly locates the book in popular culture, immediately signaling its affinity with the now, the hip, the happening. The subtitle is reassuring: It’s not that Unmarried Women (note the emphasis on marital status) are on the rise, because that would imply they were acting in solidarity and, perhaps, against the general (and married) public. Rather, their growing presence is proof that America is, true to its storied (if entirely fictional) history, The Land of the Free.  We Americans have allowed these women to remain unmarried and they add to our national identity and reaffirm that which has served to define us since the Boston Tea Party, our Love of Independence.

All the Single Ladies is an earnestly researched project, written by someone who is acutely sensitive to the political sensibilities of every single population. Much like the campaign of Hillary Clinton, a woman Traister has admired and written about for nearly a decade (her first book, Girls Don’t Cry, was about Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign), this book reads like it went through multiple focus groups. It is careful never to offend and, in the process, offers little of substance that has not been said before.

Single status is now no longer a blight upon the land but a set of Very Useful Functions that keep the economy running smoothly.”

Like any decent research project, it is not without a few useful bits. Traister carefully points out, for instance, that in the years following World War II, the freedom from domesticity that so many white suburban women were able to enjoy in the late 1950s and onwards was enabled by the fact that so many black women could only find employment as domestic labor in their households. In terms of policy changes, her goals, which include more childcare resources and better pay, seem laudable enough.

But, ultimately, Traister has no real interest in Single Women except as a foil to the Married; she’s more interested in maintaining, not disrupting, the primacy of coupledom itself.  The biggest flaw in the book, and in Traister’s vision as a whole, is that she ultimately sees singles not as independent people, valuable in and of themselves, but as those whose value is created by their usefulness to married couples and the state. So, for instance, single women are amazing because, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, they “spend more than a trillion dollars annually.” According to another report, “single, childless, non-cohabiting women over the age of twenty-seven are spending more per capita than any other category of women on dining out, rent, or mortgage, furnishings, recreation, entertainment, and apparel: $50 billion a year on food, $22 billion on entertainment, and $18 billion on cars.”

But more than anything else, single women are now making for better marriages. What does Traister mean by this puzzling assertion? Well, it turns out that single women are not necessarily abandoning marriage altogether (phew!), but simply pursuing it later. In the process, according to Traister, they’re actually helping make marriage better. And they’re not just making their own marriages better, by being more sure and confident of their needs, she tells us excitedly: They help improve other people’s marriages by modeling what confident women should be like, for their married male coworkers. She quotes Susan B. Anthony: “Once men were afraid of women with ideas and a desire to vote. Today, our best suffragettes are sought in marriage by the best class of men.” Traister’s happy conclusions about the usefulness of unmarried women come much after she explores their rise in numbers. Which is to say: First, she gives us the bad news, that there are more of them, and then she reassures us that it’s all, actually, good news.

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All of this will no doubt be a huge relief for millions of Single Women. Their single status is now no longer a blight upon the land but a set of Very Useful Functions that keep the economy running smoothly. They spend more! They eat well! Goodbye to stale cheese and rice and beans! They tap into the housing market! They make other women’s husbands better, like training wheels on a bicycle!

Traister’s utilitarian view of single women explains the kind of single women she interviewed for the book. Of course, in keeping with her earnest adherence to a focus-group-like-laser-focus, they are culturally and racially diverse. But none of these women are anything but secure and successful, and they all have stable incomes.

And none of them are so gauche as to dislike or, Goddess Hera forbid, hate or be opposed to marriage. Instead, in the spirit of modern bourgeois feminists, they cast their decisions within the penumbra of “choice” — not rebellion, not revolt against an institution that has historically enslaved women and children, not a desire to strike a path away from the economic and political constraints foisted upon them, not an angry demand that the state should do better about the needs of a marginalized population, but merely a choice, like picking the shirt or handbag that suits you best. She approvingly quotes Anita Hill, who says she wants people to understand that, “you can have a good life, despite what convention says, and be single. That doesn’t mean you have to be against marriage. It just means that there are choices that society should not impose on you.”

In Sex and the City, which lurks in the background for all works in this genre of Sociology Porn about Single Women, Charlotte famously shouts, while justifying her decision to become dependent on her husband, “I choose my choice, I choose my choice!” The much-quoted lines are symptomatic of the attitude towards marriage among bourgeois feminists. The mantra of “choice” is taken to mean that there are multiple kinds of feminism, including the sort where women relinquish their economic independence, or support the erasure of abortion rights. The feminism Traister upholds, as Hillary Clinton upheld, is what we might call a “Big Tent Feminism,” the sort that makes allowances for every possible variation of “feminism” under the logic that If Women Want It, It Must Be Feminist. No matter how poisonous the effects  may be (such as Hillary Clinton’s vote to authorize a brutal war that killed many thousands of innocent women), an empowered woman’s act is always a feminist act.

But what if Traister had interviewed those feminists who don’t see a separation between their economic interests and their gendered interests? What about the feminists who are single because they are resolutely against marriage? What about those who aren’t an economic benefit to everyone else, or who hate shopping? And what about those who think marriage is a terrible, rotting institution, yet eventually succumb to it because everything about American society, from healthcare to childcare to housing rights, is still organized to shut down women’s aspirations toward independence?

What if, for instance, we heard from the single woman in New York, also the epicenter of Traister’s world, who isn’t able to make rent but can’t stomach the idea of marrying that person with access to a rent-controlled apartment so she can stay? What of the single woman pushed into a homeless shelter and separated from her child by the Department of Child and Family Services, which deemed her an unfit mother because she was too poor because the city wouldn’t help her to find housing? Try telling these women how wonderful being single is, what a truly liberating choice they have freely made.

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At the end of the book, Traister provides a section titled “Where Are They Now?”, with updates from some of her interview subjects. These are chirpy and chipper: “Happily single and living in Atlanta.” “She is happy.” “While finding work-life balance and managing finances remain ongoing challenges, Letisha wouldn’t trade her experiences of being a mom for anything.”

But those “ongoing challenges” eventually wear many women down, unless they become independently wealthy. As DePaulo astutely pointed out, the lives of married people are often literally subsidized by Singles — it’s Singles who are still expected to take up the (often un-or-underpaid) slack when married colleagues won’t work overtime, for instance. Even when tenured, single female academics are often expected to take on additional roles of nurturing students and extra unpaid administrative work.

In a section on wealth and poverty, Traister recognizes that there is a sticky underbelly of economic displacement and exploitation. She sees that the absence of wealth makes marriage coercive, and that being single is great if you’re rich and sucks if you’re poor. Yet on the whole, she paints a relentlessly sunny portrait of what it means to be Single in America. She knows that unless women are well-off, their single status is actually a source of material hardship. But this does not alter her generally rosy assessment, nor does it cause her to believe that a fundamental change in the economic order is necessary.

Broadly speaking, what Traister offers in her book is not an expansive history of a growing social trend, but a reassurance to a certain class of women and men that singledom does not threaten either the state of marriage or the state that requires people to be married and, most crucially, that the rise of singles will never threaten the stranglehold of capitalism. But a politically sharp diagnosis of singledom would not simply show that singles are rising in number, it would indicate the potential for their growth to actually disrupt the political status quo.

What would a more disruptive view of Singles look like?  What if we actually took gender out of the picture altogether? To consider those questions, we have to first understand why Traister’s work and bourgeois feminism have been so appealing in the first place.

Traister’s book is, as far as these things can be accurately gauged, wildly successful. It has been talked about a great deal and she has appeared in and on several venues, like Real Time with Bill Maher, CBS’s This Morning, Elle, and NPR’s Fresh Air. The blurbs for her work are full of a level of praise unusual even in the world of blurb-writing: The New York Times describes her as “visionary,” while Annie Lamott declares hers to be “the most brilliant voice on feminism in this country.” It’s not simply that Traister’s book has sold a lot of copies, but that her vision of Singles is an influential one. But what explains the over-the-top praise? Why would something making rather basic observations be hailed as “visionary” and “brilliant”? What’s with these gushing blurbs?

In fact, the blurbs make perfect sense. Bourgeois feminism has a strong hold on the liberal and progressive imagination. Traister’s analysis echoes every principle of this feminism, and it explains why an unremarkable book which reads like a homework assignment is praised as “visionary.”  All the Single Ladies and its particular version of feminism appeals to the upper middle-class feminist sensibility: It appears to empower, while in fact reaffirming power as it already exists. It flatters people into thinking that the existence of single women is revolutionary in itself, even though its whole argument is that they don’t disrupt the economy or anything else. But being single is no more revolutionary or interesting or world-changing than marrying; the point ought not to be what people are doing in their personal lives, but what changes we can bring about in their political and economic lives.

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As we saw too clearly in the last election, this kind of feminism is incapable of thinking beyond the symbolic, and of creating meaningful changes in women’s lives. One cannot discuss Rebecca Traister without discussing Hillary Clinton, since Traister’s support for Clinton has been the source of much of her dispute with fellow feminists. Clinton is the exemplar of a “non-threatening” feminism, one that gets women into boardrooms (and into public office) without actually changing the underlying structure of companies or governments. The reason rich Democrats overwhelmingly favored Hillary Clinton in the primary is that Hillary Clinton offers their ideal political platform: symbolic gains for the gender, without the actual material gains that might require sacrificing some wealth.

Yet wealthy feminists like Traister, because they do not understand how women’s interests can actually conflict based on economic class, cannot understand opposition to Clinton as anything other than sexism. Thus when fifty-three percent of white women voted for Trump against the first female major-party presidential candidate, it created a puzzle for Traister. She was among those who saw Trump’s victory squarely as a result of racism and sexism. As she wrote in her diagnosis for New York magazine, Trump “was made possible by voters threatened by the increased influence of women and people of color.” For Traister, it is impossible that these women had a class identity, that they disliked Hillary Clinton for her ties to Wall Street. The logic of bourgeois feminism is that if you don’t vote for a woman, there must be something wrong with you. Implicit in this summation is a nasty bit of class-based innuendo: Only White Trash would vote for Trump against a female candidate. On this reasoning, women who don’t vote for women are essentially betraying their sex. We might recall here Madeleine Albright’s infamous statement in support of Hillary Clinton, that “there’s a special place in hell for women who don’t help each other!”

But Albright, Clinton, and Traister’s feminism is not the feminism of working class or middle class women; it is inherently about solidifying the interests of wealthy women — consider, for instance, Hillary Clinton’s deep, expressed contempt for baristas. In October of 2016, a taped speech of Hillary Clinton speaking to her wealthy fundraisers emerged, in which she described Sanders supporters as delusional “basement-dwellers.”  Her comments are worth quoting at some length:

“They’re children of the Great Recession. And they are living in their parents’ basement. They feel they got their education and the jobs that are available to them are not at all what they envisioned for themselves. And they don’t see much of a future….If you’re feeling like you’re consigned to, you know, being a barista, or you know, some other job that doesn’t pay a lot, and doesn’t have some other ladder of opportunity attached to it, then the idea that maybe, just maybe, you could be part of a political revolution is pretty appealing.”

This is the same contemptuous logic echoed by Traister, who can’t be bothered to interview any of these baristas who “don’t see much of a future,” and who might also be resolutely single women. Clinton could not, does not, and will not conceive of the fact that someone who is her daughter’s age and a barista might actually want to be one because she loves the job. Perhaps she just wants to get paid so well that she never has to take a second job. She wants to be unionized to guarantee she will not be fired because she refused to give her (married) manager a blowjob behind the fridge. And she doesn’t want to have to leave abruptly because she had a child, unwanted or not.

In Clinton’s remarks about baristas, one can sense the values held by this kind of feminism. One is “consigned” to being a barista, because being a barista is not what the successful people do. To the extent there is a problem, it is that people are not getting to run startups rather than pour coffee. But a socialist looks at the situation differently: The problem is not that people are “stuck” being baristas, it is that baristas are not accorded the respect and economic security that they should be given. For Clinton/Traister, there should be a meritocracy in which anyone can rise from their lowly, pitiful, underpaid position to become the boss. For someone committed to actual material equality, there shouldn’t be bosses, or lowly, underpaid positions, to begin with. It’s not that everyone should be able to get to the top of the hierarchy of female success, it’s that the hierarchy must be destroyed, so that people can do what they want with their lives without having to worry about whether they will be able to feed themselves or their children.

This lack of a serious vision of economic equality for women explains why Traister has massively overpraised Hillary Clinton’s significance for women. In her book on the 2008 election, Traister calls it “the election that changed everything for American women,” and has a chapter entitled “Hillary is us.” But Clinton’s 2008 campaign changed literally nothing for American women. They were still working the same jobs the day after she conceded as they were the day before she announced her run. And she definitely isn’t us in any important way. She’s not us, first and foremost, because she has several hundred million dollars of wealth, and because she doesn’t recognize that our lives are defined by the constraints of our economic conditions.

Clinton and Traister’s bourgeois feminism therefore absorbs the logic of capitalism — the accrual of wealth by the few — and vomits it out again as the affirmation of gender. In Traister’s worldview, single women are defined largely by their gendered interests, with economic interests being secondary. Traister makes feminism about empathy, desire, and shopping. But feminism is not something that comes about simply because of the presence of women; it is fundamentally about changing the world so that everyone, regardless of gender, has the same access to material benefits without needing to perform some economically useful function to the state and society. Gender is the tunnel through which we travel and understand one set of very, very stark oppressions. But a feminist revolution that simply ascribes “proper” functions to women alongside men or other women is not a revolution; it is simply a realignment of the status quo.

Feminist principles are not, ultimately, simply about making things better for women. They are about paying attention to gender in order to think about policies that make things better for everyone. So, for instance, a feminism that is simply about ensuring that women at the top get bathrooms with diaper-changing stations means nothing if the women and men who are cleaning those bathrooms — and presumably wiping baby shit from the walls — get neither time off nor the ability to place their children in care while at work. A policy that ensures that female professors get to take a year off after having their babies is useless if the system continues to simply hire adjuncts of all genders — who get no such benefits, no matter how well paid they are — to fill in for them.

Rebecca Traister and Bourgeois Feminists like her neither understand nor want any of this. And there is a Special Place In Hell for women who refuse to consider a feminism meant to ensure freedom for all, regardless of gender.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Fake News” and the Limits of Fact-Checking

Fighting for truth requires more than just pouncing on Trump…

At this point, the most tiresome and ineffectual observation one can make is that many things Donald Trump says are untrue. It’s tiresome because people have been pointing this out every single day for two years, and it’s ineffectual because by now, it is highly unlikely that anybody out there is going to stroke their chin and say “You know, you’re right, I’m not so sure this Trump character is entirely honest.”

In the last few months, the writings of Andrew Sullivan have been among the more hysterical and unhelpful guides to understanding our situation. Sullivan believes Trump’s presidency is literally the end of America as we know it, and thinks the proper lesson from Trump’s ascent is that there is simply too much democracy in this country. He is among the many commentators whom Trump seems to have turned slightly mad (though he has long been a conspiracist). It is therefore little surprise that he continues to have conniptions over Trump’s never-ending stream of untruths.

Sullivan suggests that living in the United States is now like “being a child trapped in a house where there is an abusive and unpredictable father” (in fact, for people like Sullivan and myself it is absolutely nothing like that, and the comparison is offensive). Madness is supreme, lies pass for truth, the Supreme Leader tries to convince us that black is white. And Sullivan is at his wit’s end trying to figure out a solution:

What are we supposed to do with this? How are we to respond to a president who in the same week declared that the “murder rate in our country is the highest it’s been in 45 to 47 years,” when, of course, despite some recent, troubling spikes in cities, it’s nationally near a low not seen since the late 1960s… What are we supposed to do when a president says that two people were shot dead in Chicago during President Obama’s farewell address — when this is directly contradicted by the Chicago police? None of this, moreover, is ever corrected. No error is ever admitted. Any lie is usually doubled down by another lie — along with an ad hominem attack.

Sullivan does, however, have an idea for how to respond:

Here is what we are supposed to do: rebut every single lie. Insist moreover that each lie is retracted — and journalists in press conferences should back up their colleagues with repeated follow-ups if Spicer tries to duck the plain truth. Do not allow them to move on to another question. Interviews with the president himself should not leave a lie alone; the interviewer should press and press and press until the lie is conceded. The press must not be afraid of even calling the president a liar to his face if he persists.

Well, good luck with this.

Sullivan’s thundering outrage about Trump’s relationship with the truth, as well as his proposal to meet this with more insistent fact-checks and new rounds of follow-up questions, nicely illustrates a particular tendency shared by many of Trump’s opponents in the media. Seeing a “post-truth” presidency fueled by “fake news,” they respond by demanding that the press become more resolute in checking Trump and upholding its public duty to prevent the light of truth from being extinguished.

All of which sounds good and noble, as well as difficult to argue with. But I think it overlooks two important and related issues: effectiveness and humility. First, it’s not enough to check the facts and shout that Trump is a liar. You have to actually get people to believe you. Second, the “Trump is a liar and the press must hold him accountable” framework allows journalists to avoid self-criticism, and makes them less likely to concede when Trump is actually right on the facts. If you’re always out to get Trump, you’re less likely to be fair to him, and if you’re not fair to him, you’re less likely to persuade the people whom you seek to persuade.

Trust in media is at an all-time low. That should concern journalists just as much as Trump’s lies, because it means that they can fact-check the hell out of whatever they like, but few people are likely to believe them. You can scream as loudly as you like that Trump has exaggerated the crime rate, but unless you work on the trust problem, you’ll be shouting into an empty void.

Working on the trust problem will require scrapping the simplistic idea of a “truthful press” against the “lying President.” In fact, precisely because so many journalists have adopted the Sullivan worldview, thinking of themselves as the heroic guardians of truth against a habitual liar, they have ended up pushing dubious anti-Trump stories. The Federalist compiled (and Trump retweeted) a list of news stories since the election that have tried to damage Trump, but have been either false or exaggerated. For example, journalists spread a claim that there had been mass resignations from the State Department in protest of Trump. This was totally false. Members of the media have gone absolutely apoplectic over Trump’s incorrect claim that there is mass voting by non-citizens, without acknowledging that it was The Washington Post that first published a study suggesting this was the case. And nearly every standard of journalistic scrutiny and restraint is instantly jettisoned when it comes to stories involving Trump and Russia.

It’s never a good idea to envision yourself as a crusader against evil, because it inevitably blinds you to the issues on which reality is murky, and reduces the chance that you will question your own presuppositions. With a media that needs to regain public confidence, it is especially important that they be as scrupulously fair to Trump as possible. That means not making mountains out of molehills, and not reflexively calling things lies and falsehoods. For example, at Trump’s recent press conference, he claimed that Hillary Clinton “gave Russia 20 percent of the uranium in the U.S.” The fact-checkers pounced. Actually, they said, Russia’s nuclear agency bought a company controlling 20 percent of America’s uranium production capacity, and Clinton’s State Department was only one of a number of agencies whose approval was required for the deal. Thus what Trump said was “mostly false.”

But this is missing some key points. First, while Trump’s statement departs slightly from the literal facts, Trump isn’t the only one who thought the uranium deal was a serious issue. A New York Times report in 2015 confirmed that “the sale gave the Russians control of one-fifth of all uranium production capacity in the United States” and “brought Mr. Putin closer to his goal of controlling much of the global uranium supply chain.” The Times also raised ethical concerns about Clinton’s approval of the deal, noting that “shortly after the Russians announced their intention to acquire a majority stake in Uranium One, [Bill] Clinton received $500,000 for a Moscow speech from a Russian investment bank with links to the Kremlin that was promoting Uranium One stock.” Second, and more importantly, what Trump was trying to draw attention to was the double standard that is applied to him when it comes to Russia. If Trump had been involved with this kind of deal, with similar financial compensation from Russians for a speech, for many in the press it would have been further evidence that Trump is a puppet of Vladimir Putin. But nobody thinks that about Hillary Clinton. Clinton’s approval of the uranium deal may have been wise, but Trump mostly raised the issue to draw attention to the fact that the reporting on his own relationship with Russia has been over-the-top conspiratorial.

I don’t think anybody can accuse me of liking Donald Trump; the book I’ve written about him is called Anatomy of a Monstrosity (available in paperback for $17.95) and is, let’s say, not especially complimentary. But it’s precisely because I so strongly oppose Trump that I am strongly determined to make sure all of my claims about him are defensible. The New York Times recently reported that certain people may actually be made more sympathetic to Trump by overreactions to him, although the evidence suggests that support for Trump is shrinking rather than growing. If you are concerned with actually stopping Trump, you need to ask how to get people to listen to your criticisms. And if you’re talking about the death of the Republic, and failing to recognize that beneath a factual misstatement there may be an underlying true point, people will be justified in feeling as if you are not a credible arbiter of truth.

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The problem of media credibility seems like it should be central in discussions surrounding “fake news.” That term is now used by liberals to describe fringe conservative websites, and by conservatives to describe CNN and The New York Times. It’s also, as Glenn Greenwald has written, somewhat like the term “terrorism” insofar as it is used totally inconsistently and without any clear standard as to what it means. That is, to some degree, an inherent problem, because it requires some distinctions that can only be resolved via judgment rather than appeal to objective fact. (For example, what distinguishes mere shoddy reporting from fake news? If Slate or The Washington Post report false things, at what point do they become fake news? Greenwald notes that mainstream commentators seem to want the category of fake news to exclude their own organizations by definition.)

The problems with the “fake news” discourse were in evidence at a recent two-day conference at Harvard on the subject, called Combating Fake News: An Agenda for Research and Action. Notably, no portion of the conference was dedicated to trying to define a standard for what constitutes fake news. Instead, the talks focused on how to get rid of it. On the second day, breakout groups asked questions about various forms of “interventions” that could occur to stop the scourge of fake news:

Group A: Interventions by government What regulatory interventions, if any, are appropriate by government actors? In the US context, how does the first amendment act limit interventions?

Group B: Interventions by private sector For companies such as Facebook, what steps are possible and desirable with respect to controlling fake news and misinformation?

Group C: Interventions by third parties What kinds of interventions are possible by third parties– fact checkers, extensions, apps?

Group D: What role for the academy? Crossing disciplinary stovepipes to understand and mitigate the effects of fake news.

The presumptions here are instructive, as well as the omissions. The idea here is that consumers are making bad choices, and it is up to us to intervene and stop them. It’s no coincidence that the conference’s keynote speaker was Cass Sunstein, who is best known for proposing ways to manipulate people into acting the way policy-makers want them to act.

But by skipping the question of how to define fake news, efforts to stop it will inevitably be partisan. Just as Sunstein’s “nudge” idea contains an implicit set of assumptions about what constitutes people’s self-interest, any use of the phrase “fake news” will necessarily contain an implicit judgment criterion for what it is and isn’t. In this case, the buried assumption is that mainstream media organizations are not fake news; fake news is something that comes from independent and “fringe” media.

The Harvard conference once again shows how the need to improve the media itself is consistently overlooked. Instead of asking why people don’t trust the newspapers, and how the newspapers can restore that trust, we ask how people can be stopped from making bad choices. The solutions are things like “apps” and “extensions.” (It’s unclear how such things could possibly do any good, seeing as they would only ever be used by those who are already concerned with the problem.) The conference posed the question of how “public institutions, e.g. local, state and federal government” should intercede, even though any attempt by government to become arbiters of truth and falsehood would be terrifying.

I sense a certain impotence here. Liberals see a bunch of false things flying around, and don’t know what to do. Because they think the mainstream press generally does a pretty good job, the only possible solutions are to (1) hire more fact-checkers or (2) empower some entity, such as Facebook or Twitter, to determine what is true and what is false. But both of those ideas are disastrous. Nobody will read the fact-checkers, and their belief in their own factual correctness will end up leading them to ignore their own biases, which will lead even fewer people to read them. And Facebook can’t possibly sort out what’s true and what’s false, and nobody should want to trust it with that job.

Personally, I think the “fake news” problem is overblown, or at least only a small part of the picture. We’re better off now than in the days of yellow journalism, and we could always have the misfortune of being like the British, whose tabloid newspapers are almost entirely filled with manure. The real question, it seems to me, is not “Who should step in to stop the fake news?” but “How do the country’s major media institutions become trustworthy?”

There is an undercurrent of arrogance and presumption to some of the discussion about fake news and Trump. Media figures are outraged that they, the trustworthy and good, are being disbelieved and shat upon. Chuck Todd of NBC haughtily declared after Trump’s press conference that “delegitimizing the press is un-American.” (On the contrary, delegitimizing the press is a sacred patriotic duty.) And Andrew Sullivan is an unabashed elitist, upset at an excess of democracy. Because such people refuse to recognize that many people have perfectly good reasons for not listening to a word they say, they aren’t committed to taking the kind of self-critical steps that will actually fix the problem they care about.

It’s not that fact-checking is bad or unnecessary. Obviously journalists should challenge the president, and consistently hold him accountable. But repairing the problem of fake news and getting people to disbelieve lies will require much more. It will require a press that people respect, which will require clearly examining one’s own buried assumptions and values.

Democrats Need a Coherent and Powerful Message

Clinton’s communications director demonstrates how Democrats shouldn’t communicate…

One of the reasons Hillary Clinton lost the 2016 election is that nobody had any idea what she actually wanted to do as president. Everyone knew what Trump wanted: to build the wall, bring back the jobs, and bomb the shit out of ISIS. But it was never clear what Hillary Clinton was actually proposing to do. The messaging from the Clinton campaign was entirely focused on who she was (an experienced and responsible person, rather than an unhinged and bigoted one) rather than any actual plan she had for how to fix the country’s problems.

This really isn’t an exaggeration. You can try it on your friends: ask them what Clinton’s main plans were (no, desperately lifting Bernie Sanders’s free college proposal doesn’t count). See if they can tell you. Even Joe Biden saw it, saying that Clinton never figured out why she was running in the first place, beyond feeling as if it was something she probably ought to do. We hear sometimes about how Clinton had the most progressive platform ever. But nobody can remember what was actually in it.

One serious problem of the Clinton campaign, then, was its failure to craft a clear message. Because Clinton wanted to court both moderate Republicans and Sanders socialists, her public statements frequently ended up saying almost nothing (witness her official comments on the Dakota Access Pipeline, which were rightly mocked as meaningless). An important lesson to learn from Clinton’s loss should be: it’s got to be clear what you stand for. And you have to stand for something, you can’t stand for everything. Furthermore, saying things like “we face complex and intersectional challenges” is not a compelling diagnosis of America’s social ills. It’s empty language, it won’t resonate. (I remember multiple news stories from the campaign in which voters said they literally couldn’t understand the words that Clinton was speaking.)

But Clinton Democrats have not necessarily learned this lesson. Witness what Jennifer Palmieri, Clinton’s former communications director, had to say recently on the subject of what to make of the large anti-Trump protests:

I think that a lot of this energy is not — the base is there, but you are wrong to look at these crowds and think that means everyone wants $15 an hour. Don’t assume that the answer to big crowds is moving policy to the left. I think the answer to the big crowds is engaging as much as you can to be as supportive as you can and understanding — what these people want, they are desperate. It’s all about identity on our side now. They want to show he does not support me. I support you, refugee. I support you, immigrant in my neighborhood. I want to defend you. Women who are rejecting Nordstrom’s and Neiman Marcus are saying this is power for them. Donald Trump doesn’t take me seriously, well, I’m showing you my value and my power, and I think it’s like our own version of identity politics on the left that’s more empowering, and I think that’s we’re — that’s a safer place to be.

There are a few issues to note here. First, if anyone wondered whether Clinton Democrats would have learned that they needed to care more about economic issues, the answer is no. Palmieri, like Nancy Pelosi, does not sense any need to respond to the economic populism that led 13 million voters toward Bernie Sanders in the primary and helped Trump win crucial Rust Belt states. The standard progressive criticism of Clintonian centrism is that it values racial diversity and inclusive gender politics, but it actually doesn’t care about lifting the living standards of working-class people of any race or gender. Palmieri confirms that this impression is no myth; it’s “all about identity” these days, and we shouldn’t assume people want $15 an hour. (Is there actually anyone who doesn’t want $15 an hour?) And “power,” to this contingent of Democrats, is about whether you shop at Neiman Marcus or not. It’s not about, say, power in the workplace.

But there’s a separate important question to ask: what is Palmieri actually talking about here? Look again at the above paragraph. It’s almost totally without meaning. What is “a safer place to be”? What does “it’s all about identity” even imply? Yes, one gets the fact that she’s rejecting calls to adopt more progressive economic policies, and that she thinks doing politics means deciding which expensive department store to shop at. But the most striking thing about the statement is its utter vacuousness. She wants to be supportive and empowering, but we get almost no specifics as to what that entails. (Palmieri also said that voters were “scared” rather than “angry,” a distinction just about as clear and useful as the one between “greatness” and “goodness” in the baffling Clinton slogan “America is great because America is good.”)

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Now remember that Palmieri was Clinton’s communications director. That should have meant she was the person most skilled at delivering a clear message. She should at least have been able to speak an intelligible English sentence. But Palmieri’s style is the Clinton style: the words slip through your fingers like sand, and nobody has any idea what is actually being said. (Incidentally this same communications director, when she was once asked whether the Clinton Foundation would return Bill Cosby’s donations, replied: “They, um, but you know, the, uh, the foundation has, uh, it’s, uh, buh, there’s been a lot of donors that, uh, have given, uh, have given money, uh. They, uh, as our friend Paul Begala said, it’s, you know, wealthy people giving money to help poor people. Uh, we think that’s, uh, that’s a positive thing.” Loyalty rather than competence has long been the central criterion by which Clinton staffers are selected.)

Thus, while one important goal for the Democratic Party must be to offer policies that materially benefit the working class, another goal is to find ways of speaking that people actually understand and relate to. You’re not going to sway people towards your message if you don’t really have one, if there’s no clear and coherent vision for what the party means and stands for.

This in itself is a reason why the progressive wing of the party needs to shape its direction, and why the DNC needs a Keith Ellison rather than a Tom Perez. Even if you disagree with what the progressives are offering, they’re actually offering something, something intelligible and cogent. As with Trump, everybody knew what Bernie Sanders stood for: Medicare for all, reining in Wall Street, free college. You can take it or leave it, but at least there’s something to actually take. Centrists don’t have an actual vision, because they form their politics by triangulating between whatever worldviews are on either side of them. That means that they don’t really believe in anything, or at least that their beliefs are not founded on obvious inner moral convictions.

But in order to win people over, you’ve got to actually believe in something. People see through empty rhetoric about empowerment and inclusiveness. They know that politics is about what the government does, and that unless you’re telling them what you plan to do with the government, you’re not actually telling them anything. If Democrats are going to get back into power, they need a simple and morally forceful set of basic values and policy plans.

What Does Free Speech Require?

Don’t focus on canceling right-wing speakers, focus on reducing right-wing power…

Let’s make one thing clear right away: attempts to suppress free speech come from all political camps. The United States has a long and sordid history of attacks on expression, traceable back to John Adams. Wherever there is politics, there are attempts to keep the other side from talking. As the late journalist Phil Kerby used to memorably quip, “censorship is the strongest drive in human nature; sex is a weak second.”

In the 21st century, outright government censorship of dissent has at least somewhat abated. While you might still land in jail for exposing a war crime or filming a factory farm, American dissent is generally flourishing. Political speech is more delightfully vulgar and hostile than ever, and almost nobody fears prosecution for what they say on their podcast, blog, video blog, or vodcast.

If there is any impending free speech threat to worry about, it probably comes from the unhinged occupant of the White House. Donald Trump, after all, hates the press. He wanted to “open up our libel laws” in order to make it easier to bring lawsuits. He has pondered aloud on Twitter whether individuals who burn the American flag should be imprisoned or have their citizenship revoked. He has also indicated he’ll investigate and prosecute leakers at least as aggressively as President Obama. Journalists writing critical stories about Trump have been told they will have their “lives messed up.” And with Trump having inherited a powerful apparatus for surveillance and violence, the country is now counting on his somehow turning out to be a person of good judgment with a sense of inner restraint.

But the country’s most visible (as opposed to most consequential) contemporary free speech controversy concerns the actions of left-wing activists on college campuses. In particular, there has been considerable anguish over the college tour of Breitbart “tech editor” (it has long been unclear what he edits, or what he knows about technology) Milo Yiannopoulos. Activists on the left have tried to have Yiannopoulos’s events canceled for promoting hate speech, while conservatives have treated the left’s response as proof that conservative thought is suppressed on college campuses. At Berkeley, Yiannopoulos was instructed by the police to flee the campus for his own safety when a group of masked anarchists disrupted the peaceful protests outside, setting a large fire and pepper spraying a female attendee.

Debates over free speech are often messy and confused, in part because nobody believes the right is unlimited, yet everybody has a self-interested conception of where that limit is. Should Nazis get to speak on campus, and if they shouldn’t, who should get to determine who the Nazis are? Should anti-Semites get to book an open access meeting space? Does the principle of free speech only apply to government repression, or can private acts threaten free speech as well? If powerful corporations like Twitter are the new gatekeepers to the public square, do their decisions affect speech rights? To what extent does having the right to speak necessitate having the capacity to speak? (E.g. if you can speak freely, but you get punched in the face every time you do, is your right meaningful?) What about the fact that the amount of speech you get depends on the amount of money you have? Nobody should think the answers to these questions are easy.

There is also a great deal of hypocrisy and selectivity in outrage over violations of the right of expression. The right-wingers who profess to be so sincerely concerned with free speech only care when it is conservative views that are targeted. On university campuses, criticism of Israel has been stifled for years with frightening zeal. Fordham University, in a blatant case of censorship, recently banned the university’s chapter of Students for Justice in Palestine on the grounds that the organization’s “sole purpose is advocating political goals of a specific group” which would be too “polarizing.”

Nor is censorship from the right limited to college campuses. As part of a competition, a painting by a high schooler—depicting Black Lives Matter protesters being confronted by animals donning police uniforms—was hung in the U.S. Capitol. The painting was taken down repeatedly by Congressional Republicans, who described their actions as a protest against an “offensive” and disrespectful representation of police. The ever-consistent and freedom-loving Breitbart sided with the censors, condemning those who were “using the Constitution as an excuse to spread hate.” Which side was supposed to have the delicate and easily offended sensibilities again?

At the same time, it’s also true that for a substantial portion of the left, the concept of free speech has lost a lot of currency. At least some censorship of people whose values we oppose has come to be viewed as acceptable, ethical, and necessary. For decades much of the left has supported the expansion and broadening of prohibitive speech codes at universities. Outside the classroom, people like Catharine MacKinnon lobbied forcefully for legislation that suppressed objectionable materials. Speakers like Daily Wire editor and attempted novelist Ben Shapiro have been banned from speaking on campus universities. (In at least one case, university police literally threatened Shapiro with arrest if he entered the university building to attend an event, let alone deliver his lecture. Since when is allying, in effect, with police to achieve our goals consistent with leftist values?) Now, every couple of weeks there’s another story of an individual being prevented from speaking at a college campus. If speakers aren’t disinvited outright, community members and students protest and disrupt these events, making it impossible for the speaker to proceed.

The arguments that are made for these practices are straightforward: free speech doesn’t mean the freedom to issue hate speech. Free speech doesn’t guarantee one a platform. And free speech doesn’t mean speech is free of consequences.

All of which may be true, depending on what one means by “consequences,” “platform,” and “hate speech.” But leftists making arguments for why speakers should be disinvited from schools should recognize that every argument they make will soon come back to haunt them. If we continue to advance an agenda that privileges our particular worldview over universal free speech, it won’t be long before our own tactics are turned on us as a cudgel. (The last words you may hear as the fascists pummel you to death are: “freedom of speech doesn’t mean that speech has no consequences.”)

Indeed, we have already seen the use of anti-hate principles of speech suppression against the left. In March of this past year, the University of California Board of Regents, in an overly broad statement of principles, lumped anti-Semitism with anti-Zionism. Both of these, they said, “have no place at the University of California…” They further noted that anti-Zionism “often is” linked to bigotry against Jews. (Facing an outpouring of criticism, the Regents later removed the blanket condemnation of anti-Zionism from their statement.)

Now someone on the left can draw a distinction here: Milo Yiannopoulos, one might insist, is clearly spreading hate speech while a BLM activist or a speaker discussing Palestine clearly is not. But it’s nearly impossible to define “hate speech” narrowly and specifically enough to prevent leftist speech from also being caught up in the web. And even if “hate speech” could be defined in a sufficiently narrow and specific fashion, any prohibition empowers someone to act in the role of censor.

Time and again, in universities around the country, we have seen signs of how a failure to support a pro-speech culture can harm the left. A year before the University of California debacle, rapper/actor Common was disinvited from Kean University’s commencement ceremony after the law enforcement community complained about his song in which Assata Shakur is portrayed sympathetically. Only months before this, a petition was circulated at Texas Tech that attempted to prevent Angela Davis from speaking. Around the same time, Bill Ayers was subject to a similar attempt by students at Dickinson School of Law. The need to protect the freedom of students to invite whomever they please is therefore crucial, because it protects our speakers. Freedom for all means freedom for leftist student groups, a right they absolutely need.

At the same time, Milo Yiannopoulos presents an unusual case. It’s particularly understandable why leftists want to see his events canceled in particular. Yiannopoulos is no ordinary conservative ideologue. He is often called a “provocateur,” but this whitewashes the content of his talks. At them, Yiannopoulos regularly calls people “cunts” and “retards.” To a Muslim woman who spoke up against him during an event, he replied: “You’re wearing a hijab in the United States of America, what is wrong with you?” He gave his audience the phone number for Immigration and Customs Enforcement, encouraging people turn in suspected unauthorized immigrants and “purge your local illegals.” Displaying the photograph of a transgender student at the University of Wisconsin, Yiannopoulos said: “I’ve known some passing trannies in my life… The way that you know he’s failing is I’d almost still bang him… It’s just a man in a dress, isn’t it?” The student in question, who was present in the audience, professed herself to have been terrified and humiliated, writing: “Do you know what it’s like to be in a room full of people who are laughing at you as if you’re some sort of perverted freak?” Afterward, she “broke down sobbing uncontrollably” and dropped out of school.

Those who think that calling on universities to cancel these events is simply “suppressing conservative ideas” have a strange notion of what “ideas” are. They are also implicitly conceding that conservative intellectual discourse consists of calling people “cunts” and giving lectures on how feminists are ugly. (By the way, this is also what Simon & Schuster are paying $250,000 for.)

It’s very important not to sanitize Yiannopoulos’s conduct if one argues the events should proceed. Yet many liberals, while acknowledging that Yiannopoulous is “inflammatory” or “provocative,” end up failing to fully convey the reality. For example, a recent Huffington Post column by a liberal suggested that while you could disagree with Yiannopoulos, this was no reason to keep him away from campus:

Milo is not an oppressor, he’s a messenger. I don’t agree with every aspect of his message… [But] it’s important for people from different sides of the isle [sic] to listen to one another…When you listen and engage in a respectful dialogue about your differences, that’s called making an argument; something many liberals, the regressives, are forgetting how to do.

This goes too far in affirming the myth that Yiannopoulos is doing anything close to “respectful dialogue.” Actually, what he does is extremely clever. His lectures combine dirty jokes, intentionally cruel or bigoted statements, and serious speechifying from a fairly conventional right-wing perspective. The vicious and bullying remarks, such as talking about whether he would bang a particular student, are what make left-wing activists so angry. Then when the activists respond as anyone could be expected to, he declares that his true passion is the open exchange of serious ideas, and the rest is just entertainment.

That means that left-wing activists who spend energy opposing Yiannopoulos, instead of ignoring him, are falling into a trap. He is intentionally baiting them, and they are playing right along. After the Berkeley incident, Yiannopoulos’s book sales went up by 12,740%. Note what this means: it means that anyone who wishes to stop Yiannopoulos from “spreading hate” should oppose shutting down his events. Those who claim to be “fighting fascism” by disrupting Yiannopoulos’s talks are doing nothing of the kind. They are directly causing the ideas they hate to become more and more popular, by handing the right an incredible gift. (They are also fixing their attention on someone who doesn’t really matter terribly much. It’s understandably hard to resist paying attention to a British man in a feather boa shouting about hijabs. But it’s not where the true source of political power in this country lies.)

Thus one can make an argument against shutting down Yiannopoulos’s events while still acknowledging just how reprehensible some of his “ideas” truly are. When leftists try to stop Yiannopoulos by force, they end up allowing him to further the impression that he cares about discourse. It’s only if people heard what he has to say that they will be able to realize how false this is.

In another context, leftists seem to understand the point that you can’t stop the spread of an ideology by trying to smother it. This is precisely the argument made for why a “War on Terror” can never succeed: one can’t bomb an ideology; one can only bomb people. We realize that waging war can actually help to spread the fundamentalism that the United States ostensibly seeks to extinguish. Yet we don’t recognize that the same can be said of the left’s efforts to stifle hateful rhetoric.

It is sometimes claimed that the words of an individual like Milo Yiannopoulos incite hatred, contributing to a campus climate where marginalized students already feel, and are in fact, unsafe. That may be true. Nevertheless, it remains true that preventing him from speaking incites even more hatred. It’s unclear how stopping the event, risking arrest, potentially escalating the violence, turning the individuals who invited Yiannopoulos to speak into a besieged and victimized minority, and further angering an auditorium of people—some of whom were likely attending because they were merely curious—makes anyone any safer. But it certainly makes a lot of people more interested in finding out what Yiannopoulos has to say.

Some on the left have insisted that not just protest, but outright violence, is both a justified and useful way to deal with Yiannopoulos. In a recent article in Left Voice, Hart Eagleburger and Jack Rusk issue a rousing call to fighting fascists and racists like Yiannopoulos in America. While they admit they don’t believe “that the United States is fascist or descending into fascism” Eagleburger and Rusk make clear that “fascists must be stopped. They must be stopped at all costs. And this includes confronting them violently in the streets…” If they aren’t violently confronted, the consequences are clear: “the right is empowered, the left is disheartened, and bystanders—including, importantly, vulnerable oppressed groups—become convinced the far-left does not offer them a dependable protection against fascists.” It’s therefore violence or defeat.

This seems worse than useless. Any battle of force against the American right will end up badly for the left, who tend not to have the guns. As Noam Chomsky observed after the recent punching of a neo-Nazi: “When we move to the arena of violence, the most brutal guys win—and that’s not us.” Indeed, the most vicious attack during Yiannopoulos’s entire tour came from one of his supporters, who shot a demonstrator in the abdomen. (A fact that Yiannopoulos and the right prefer not to discuss.) For leftists, there is simply no alternative to fighting on the terrain of words and thoughts rather than physical force.

Many on the left are understandably skeptical of the power of reasoned discourse and persuasion. But that’s partially because we don’t really do them very well. Yiannopoulos is an incredibly charismatic speaker, a person who even left-wing feminist writer Laurie Penny conceded was “a charming devil.” He succeeds at winning converts entirely through his (sometimes hideous, sometimes beguiling) speech. Our side needs to understand how people are persuaded towards ideas using language, and counter it not just with “facts” and “decency” but with equally persuasive rhetoric and charm. It’s essential to fight horrible speech with better and more powerful speech.

A certain school of thought says that to allow a reprehensible person to speak at a prestigious venue is to confer “legitimacy” on them. But legitimacy is not a particularly useful concept. The fact is that when things are popular, they automatically become “legitimate,” insofar as they need to be heard, understood, confronted, and dealt with. Once Donald Trump is the President of the United States, it becomes hard to argue that his worldview should or can be kept “non-mainstream.” It’s already the mainstream, insofar as a lot of people believe it. Sapping Trumpism of “legitimacy” does nothing to diminish its popularity. And it’s popularity that we should be focusing on: the question is not whether canceling a speech reduces a speaker’s legitimacy, but what it does to the size of their audience.

Ultimately, it’s inescapably true that the principle of free speech is an essential component to a well-functioning democracy. That’s true (to differing degrees) in both public and private spaces. And it’s especially true on university campuses, where students need to be maximally free to listen to whomever they want. That’s partially out of principle, and partially because in accepting the censorship of reprehensible individuals like Yiannopoulos, we pave the way for our own muzzling. With Donald Trump as this country’s president, it’s crucial now more than ever that we embrace radical free speech and defend one another’s right to say and write things that elicit outrage, disdain, and discomfort. Otherwise, we should not be surprised to find ourselves being stifled by the very techniques we have wielded against our ideological opponents.

The Sanders/Cruz Debate Was The Best Political TV in Ages

Last night was a glimpse of what tolerable political media could look like…

My God, that was fun. And enlightening. And thorough. How on earth was it on CNN?

Last night CNN hosted the most improbable of televised spectacles: a 2-hour debate on healthcare policy between Ted Cruz and Bernie Sanders. Ostensibly, it was to be a debate about ObamaCare, but since neither Cruz nor Sanders likes Obamacare much, it ended up being a debate over whether to fix Obamacare through a single-payer system or by letting the market decide. It was therefore essentially a contentious two-hour tussle over the relative merits of socialism versus capitalism.

Both Cruz and Sanders were in excellent form. Cruz is a slick debater and came armed with a bevy of statistics about the horrors of Canadian healthcare, as well as a map showing how ObamaCare had hurt Trump voters. Sanders did what he does best: making an emotionally compelling case for the need to take care of one another, and challenging the callous moral underpinnings of Republican pro-market orthodoxy.

Over the course of two hours, Sanders and Cruz gave their spiels on various aspects of the healthcare system, including drug pricing and importation, the coverage of pre-existing conditions, Medicare and Medicaid, women’s health, and cost control. They answered thoughtful questions from audience members who had suffered in various ways from America’s disastrous overpriced healthcare system. (Cruz was confronted by a woman with multiple sclerosis who had had to leave Texas because it had declined to expand Medicaid, while Sanders had to explain to the owner of a hair salon chain why she should feel a responsibility to pay for her employees’ health insurance.)

Sanders’s best moments came when he challenged Cruz on Cruz’s lawyerly evasions. When Cruz was asked whether, under his plan, insurers could deny people with pre-existing conditions, Cruz replied that nobody would lose their health insurance. Sanders pointed out that people with health insurance not losing it did not mean that people without it could get it. Similarly, when Cruz insisted that he would preserve the right to “access” good health care, Sanders replied that “access” meant very little without the ability to actually afford it:

You have access, but you don’t have enough money. You have access right now, go out and get a really great health insurance program. Oh, you can’t do it because you can’t afford it. That’s what [Cruz] is saying. Oh, you want to go out and buy one of Donald Trump’s mansions? You have access to that as well. Oh, you can’t afford $5 million for a house? Sorry. Access doesn’t mean a damn thing!

Cruz, too, successfully hammered Bernie on the cost of his single-payer plan, and slickly re-characterized all of Sanders’s proposals as pro-government and anti-choice. (He also gave a closing statement that bizarrely referenced the “More Cowbell” sketch from Saturday Night Live to make the case against single payer, telling the audience that Sanders was just trying to give them more cowbell. As I say, bizarre.)

Naturally, I am biased in attempting to assess the victor of the debate, considering my previously expressed opinions on the subject of Ted Cruz. But I had been worried that Bernie would struggle against Cruz, given Cruz’s reputation as a formidable debater (Bernie was sometimes ropey during the primary debates, and missed numerous opportunities to land important points). But Sanders did exceptionally well, getting the case for universal healthcare across with impressive clarity and force.

Because of that, I remain more convinced than ever that Sanders would have absolutely crushed Donald Trump had he been the Democratic nominee. That’s because Sanders is very effective at disowning bad Democratic policies while embracing good ones. Unlike Clinton, he doesn’t try to defend the least defensible actions of the Obama administration. He doesn’t insist the Affordable Care Act is great, he insists it’s somewhat better than what came before. When Cruz pointed out that Democrats were bought by Big Pharma just as much as Republicans, Sanders didn’t try to dispute it; he agreed. Sanders’s status as an independent willing to criticize his party means he doesn’t end up having to make dishonest and partisan arguments in order to exonerate the actions of his team.

But the most important takeaway from last night’s debate wasn’t that Bernie would have won (though he would have). Instead, the most extraordinary thing about the debate was just how good it was. It was two hours of actual policy substance in which the disagreements between two sides were laid out clearly and thoughtfully, with each side challenging the other’s assumptions and having to demonstrate a serious knowledge of the issue. Because it was on a single subject, it didn’t have the cursory, talking-point oriented feel of the presidential primary debates, which sometimes had to cover about ten issues in 90 minutes. The moderators carefully kept the senators from straying away from the subject of healthcare, and that level of focus and depth made it the single most substantive policy discussion on television in recent memory.

For a couple of hours last night on CNN, then, the viewing public saw a vision of what political media could be like, if media companies were serious about trying to get people informed, and staying away from sensationalism. This was no talking-head jabber-fest, it was an authentic discussion in which disagreements were carefully but contentiously explored. It was an incredibly refreshing change from the usual barrage of Trump-oriented, substance-free hysteria. (Indeed, one of the most impressive aspects of the debate was that the name “Donald Trump” was spoken only about twice.)

CNN has been notoriously dreadful for a long time. They helped build Donald Trump’s candidacy by broadcasting full-length live feeds of his rallies, and their closest thing to a substantive and hard-hitting commentator is Anthony Bourdain. But if the Sanders/Cruz debate is indicative of a new long-term strategy, there may be some minuscule sliver of hope for American political media. This is what we need more of. Real debates that neither descend into pointless bickering nor avoid serious disagreements like the divide between socialism and capitalism.

Hosting political debates on CNN won’t fix American politics. But it will sure make political television a lot more bearable. More of this, please. More of this all the time.