The Regrettable Decline of Space Utopias

Why is it only the libertarians who fantasize about space these days?

Star Trek is one of those TV shows whose basic premise would be horrifying if the show weren’t so utterly committed to its own optimism. Viewed in the abstract, it’s hard to imagine how anybody stays sane on a starship. Star Trek characters are constantly flying blind into some fresh hell. Literally every corner of the universe they visit, Starfleet encounters some fucked-up shit that defies all extant scientific knowledge. Crew members are routinely bodyswapped, brainwashed, possessed by alien lifeforms, or implanted with false memories. Oh, and most crew members bring their entire families on board, so during the ship’s weekly brushes with death, they all get to grapple with the knowledge that their spouse and children will almost certainly be burned alive or suffocated in the vacuum of space. Everyone on that show should be on the verge of complete psychosis, but somehow, they all seem pretty contented with their lives. The characters’ preternatural level of peace with the unknown is probably one of the main reasons why Star Trek is extraordinarily comforting to watch.

Another reason why Star Trek is comforting is that there are no goddamn lawyers in space.

This is not completely true. There are a couple of lawyers in space. But there are no lawyers affiliated with the United Federation of Planets, the big, happy humanitarian alliance of planetary civilizations that are committed to universal peace, cultural interchange, and the accumulation of scientific knowledge. There are a few itinerant JAGs, but there’s no shipboard counsel. There are no legal teams dispatched to scenes of interstellar conflict. When characters find themselves in compromising situations, they never ask if they can speak to an attorney.

This, on the one hand, is completely bonkers. After all, non-Federation planets have all kinds of nutty legal standards, ranging from “guilty until proven innocent” to “automatic death penalty for anybody who accidentally steps on a flowerbed inside the invisible Punishment Zone.” Given the many entirely foreseeable dangers of this approach, you’d think that every starship would have some highly-trained legal wonk on board, ready to deal with these horrifying situations. But nope. It’s implied that the Federation does have lawyers somewhere, and there even is a loose notion that they are important to the effective functioning of the judicial system. In one episode, we learn that during a period of Earth history known as the Post-Atomic Horror (which is scheduled to occur—get ready, guys—in the mid-21st century), all the world’s lawyers were systematically murdered. This is characterized as having been an undesirable development for humanity, so we can infer that the legal profession was subsequently reinstated. But whenever there’s a legal hearing of any kind, Starfleet personnel either A) represent themselves, or B) are represented by a random bridge officer who is deputed to act as counsel.

Now you might say, on the one hand, that we shouldn’t read too much into this. Maybe writing a random lawyer into a storyline was just going to be one more actor cluttering up the set, frittering away the weekly episode budget with dispensable lines. But the complete absence of lawyers across multiple Star Trek seasons, each under different creative direction, each with their own standalone law-centric episodes, is at least a little weird. So is there some other reason why the Federation has no need for lawyers?


One of the central premises of the Star Trek universe, which is set a couple centuries into the future, is that humanity has evolved—not dramatically beyond all recognition, but nonetheless significantly. After a period of mass calamity on Earth, characterized by nuclear war, genocide, and famine, the remainder of Earth’s global population finally comes to the negotiating table, as it were. A world government is established. Societies are rebuilt. Money is abolished. All basic human needs are provided for. People enter professions, learn trades, and provide services because they find these activities fulfilling, not out of economic necessity. Crime is almost nonexistent; with the elimination of material want, the impetus for most kinds of crime is also eliminated, and it’s implied that psychological dispositions towards violence are somehow detected and rehabilitated in their early stages. The establishment of an egalitarian regime of resource distribution, and the discovery of alien civilizations on other planets, seems to have drawn the human species together and eroded social distinctions. While there are still pockets of institutional corruption, and although humans still sometimes give in to their lesser impulses, people are largely motivated by goodwill. Federation officers in particular have a widespread reputation for honesty, which other civilizations, weirdly, mostly seem to accept at face value.

These characteristics seem to percolate through the Federation legal system. In the courtroom episodes, there are never “gotcha” moments where somebody wins on a technicality or gets tripped up by an arcane legal formulation. Making a common-sense argument, or a soliloquy to general principles of justice, is usually enough to win over an adjudicator. The implication seems to be that in a world where fact-finders are honest, and where parties can make more or less sensible claims in their own defense, the system can afford to be equitable and ad hoc. It’s the ultimate access-to-justice dream where—even better than a lawyer for every client—the law is so reasonable and the judges so fair that every person can represent themselves in court with total confidence, or, at most, bring along a moderately clever friend to help them make their case. In addition, when interacting with other legal systems, the strong presumption of integrity on the part of Federation actors often helps the legal process along.

This all may seem fairly pie-in-the-sky—but could it actually be possible? Could humanity, someday, theoretically, if basic material insecurities were resolved, reach a general state of compassion and reasonability towards one another? Could lawyers, at present a hideous but necessary evil, eventually be rendered obsolete by more humane social attitudes? God, that would be amazing, wouldn’t it?

Of course, the opposing theory of human nature says that our impulse towards selfishness and cruelty is so deeply-rooted, spiritually or biologically, that we can never hope to eliminate it; that at most, we might mitigate it, but that this will never be a durable achievement across cultures or across generations. This theory is quite popular, but we have no idea if it’s true. It certainly seems to be humanity’s default mode, if we make no attempts at self-improvement. But our species hasn’t been around terribly long, in the grand scheme of things, and if we’re honest with ourselves, most of us haven’t exactly been doing our utmost to better the world we live in. As G.K. Chesterton once wrote about Christianity: “Christianity has not been tried and found wanting; it has been found difficult, and not tried.” The same could easily be said for most schemes of social organization that require some form of moral effort or voluntary material renunciation.

Sadly, utopias are presently out of vogue, as the tedious proliferation of dystopian fiction and disaster films seems to indicate. No genre is safe. Game of Thrones is the dystopian reboot of Lord of the Rings; House of Cards is the dystopian reboot of The West Wing; Black Mirror is the dystopian reboot of The Twilight Zone. The slate of previews at every movie theatre has become an indistinguishably sepia-toned effluence of zombies, terrorists, and burnt-out post-apocalyptic hellscapes. Even supposedly light-hearted superhero movies now devote at least 3.5 hours of their running time to the lavishly-rendered destruction of major metropolises.

There is clearly some deep-seated appeal to these kinds of films; and indeed, it would take a heart of inhuman moral fiber to truly regret the sudden vanishing of New York City, whose existence serves no beneficial purpose for humanity that I’m aware of. But my general feeling is that our fondness for dystopian narratives is a pretty nasty indulgence, especially for those of us who live mostly comfortable lives, far-removed from the visceral realities of human suffering. Watching scenes of destruction from the plush chair of a movie theater, or perhaps on our small laptop screen while curled up in bed, heightens our own immediate sense of safety. It numbs us to the grinding, intermittent, inescapable reality of violence in neglected parts of our world, which unmakes whole generations of human beings with terror and dread.


Immersing ourselves in narratives where 99% of the characters are totally selfish also engrains a kind of fashionable faux-cynicism that feels worldly, but is in fact simply lazy. I say faux-cynicism because I don’t believe that most people who profess to be pessimists truly believe that humanity is doomed, at least not in their lifetimes, or in their particular geographic purviews: if they did, then watching a film that features the drawn-out annihilation of a familiar American landscape would probably make them crap their pants. But telling yourself that everything is awful, and nothing can be fixed, is a marvelously expedient way to absolve yourself of personal responsibility. There is, happily, nothing about an apocalyptic worldview that obligates you to give up any of the comforts and conveniences that have accrued to you as a consequence of global injustice; and you get to feel superior to all those tender fools who still believe that a kinder world is possible! It’s a very satisfying form of moral escapism. No wonder our corporate tastemakers have been churning this stuff out.

And there’s no doubt that it’s often hard to make utopias seem dramatically sophisticated. Star Trek is renowned, even by those who love it, for being campy as hell. Moral tales in general are too often sugary and insubstantial. They’re suitable for kids, or maybe emotionally-stunted adults, but they’re not something to be taken seriously. We have come to view utopian narratives as inherently hokey, and preachy. But dystopias are, of course, their own form of preaching; they are preaching another hypothesis about humanity, which, due to moody lighting and oblique dialogue, has an entirely undeserved appearance of profundity, and the illusory farsightedness of a self-fulfilling prophecy.


But don’t we all want a world without lawyers? Isn’t that, at least, something that our whole species can agree on? Star Trek tells us that there are two hurdles between us and this great goal: global economic justice, and warp-speed technology. These may take several more centuries to achieve. But here are two things we can all start working on now.

1. Make utopias popular again.

Fictional narratives are a huge factor in shaping our expectations of what is possible. However, as discussed earlier, utopias are hard to write. You have to forfeit a lot of the cheap tricks that writers use to generate dramatic momentum. After all, it’s always easy to create tension when all your characters are self-serving, back-stabbing bastards; less so when your characters mostly get along. (The writers of Star Trek: TNG famously tore their hair out over creator Gene Roddenberry’s insistence that all the main cast had to be friends.) Constructing plots that are based primarily around problem-solving takes a lot of intricate planning. But we’ve seen a thousand narrative iterations of societal collapse: why not write some narratives about societal construction? What would a better world look like, at different stages of its realization—at its inception? Weathering early internal crises? When facing an existential threat? We should put more imagination into thinking about what this could look like, and how to generate emotional investment in the outcome.

Aspirational fiction seems especially important at this moment in our national history, when a significant number of Americans cast a ballot for a candidate they disliked, or were even disturbed by, simply because they wanted something different. There’s always been a gambling madness in the human spirit, a kind of perverse, instinctive itchiness that suddenly makes us willing to court disaster, simply on the off-chance of altering the mundane or miserable parameters of our daily lives. If we could transform some of that madness into a madness of optimism and creativity, rather than boredom, rage, and despair, that could only be a good thing.

2. Don’t let assholes win the space race.

Do you know who’s really excited about interplanetary exploration these days? Silicon Valley tycoons, and white supremacists. Elon Musk wants to set up a creepy private colony on Mars for ultra-rich survivalists who can shell out $200,000 for their spot, and has stated his own intention of dying on Mars. Meanwhile, a fresh-faced crop of racists are convinced that if the U.S. would only give up trying to provide social services and education to its citizens, lily-white geniuses could easily be conquering the galaxy at this very moment. As Richard Spencer (of “Heil Trump” fame) has it:

“[O]ur Faustian destiny to explore the outer universe. That is what we were put on this earth to do. We weren’t put on this earth to be nice to minorities, or to be a multiculti fun nation. Why are we not exploring Jupiter at this moment? Why are we trying to equalize black and white test scores? I think our destiny is in the stars. Why aren’t we trying for the stars?”

These dickheads are trying for the stars! The rest of us therefore need to make sure they don’t get there first. If the likes of Elon Musk and Richard Spencer are humanity’s ambassadors, our entrée into outer space will simply be a high-tech recapitulation of all the moral horrors of our last Age of Exploration. Thankfully, I’m pretty sure Richard Spencer is no astrophysicist, and Elon Musk’s would-be spacecrafts keep exploding on the launchpad. Now is our chance to thwart them!

Space exploration doesn’t have to be a last-ditch effort to save the species after we screw everything up on earth; nor should it be an alternative project to building an egalitarian global society. We still have time to make a better world here, on the planet we do have, before we inflict ourselves on other parts of the universe. Space travel may well have an improving effect on humanity, but we should also make a point of improving ourselves before we head out into the interstellar beyond. Only then will we have earned the privilege to Boldly Go.

Starfleet or bust!

Illustrations by Mike Freiheit 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Compassion and Politics

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Does Student Debt Matter?

A new book argues that student debt is not a problem. This book is (mostly) wrong.

In Game of Loans: The Rhetoric and Reality of Student Debt:, the Brookings Institution and the Urban Institute team up to debunk the entire idea of a student loan crisis. Rejecting media and activist “rhetoric” about a generation of indebted college grads, Akers and Chingos argue straightforwardly that “there is no systemic student loan crisis.” The contention, if correct, undercuts some of the main narratives surrounding student debt. One should therefore take it seriously, especially since parts of it may even be correct.

The argument here is that we tend to be misled about the general trend by focusing too much on unrepresentative cases. News stories about student loans almost exclusively feature borrowers with very high debt levels. But these borrowers are atypical. In fact, say Akers and Chingos, not that many students actually take out loans (one third of dependent undergrads leave school with no debt, along with one quarter of independent undergrads), and loan balances are not that high (58% of dependent undergrads leave with less than $20,000 in debt, the number for independent undergrads is around 20%). Graduate students tend to push up overall averages because there are no limits on federal borrowing toward graduate degrees, but those with high grad school debt loads tend to have the highest incomes. Lawyers pay a lot to go to law school, but lawyers are still filthy rich compared to everyone else and can generally afford their loan payments.

Akers and Chingos’ strongest argument for the no-crisis theory is this: for most people, going to college is still a good investment. Most student loan borrowers reap a sufficiently large financial benefit from going to college to make up for their loan burdens. In the terminology of the housing crisis, most students are not “underwater” on their student loans, since the income gains of a college degree more than cover the debt payments. Because most students will pay back their loans, say Akers and Chingos, there is no such thing as a “crisis.” And that is reassuring. For anyone fretting about student loans leading to a sudden economy-wide catastrophe on the order of 2008, a read of this book can put their worries to bed. (At least, for the moment: even if college remains a good deal right now, this could change at any moment, and given data gathering and reporting practices by the Department of Education, we might not realize things have changed until it’s too late.)

But when it comes to student loans, economic collapse was never what people should have been fretting about in the first place. The problem with the system is not that it’s unsustainable, but that it causes enormous suffering to the most vulnerable student borrowers, and is racially biased. Crises can come in many forms, and one can be urgently concerned about student debt without fearing that it is about to send the economy tumbling.

In fact, Akers and Chingos do recognize the existence of problems beyond collapse. Their last two chapters are dedicated to “The Real Problems in Student Lending” and “Solving the Real Problems.” But the issues are given an economist’s birds-eye treatment, and treated as wrinkles rather than, well, crises. Their modest solutions aim at making the student lending system “fairer, better targeted, less risky, and more efficient.” (If that framing makes you want to stop reading this article, by all means do not read the book.)


As presented by Akers and Chingos, the actual problems with student loans are as follows: while debt remains great for most people, lots of students (and their parents) are making bad investments in education and ending up underwater on their student loans. Lots of those students end up in default, usually unnecessarily since they could be on income-driven repayment plans. Many of the students in default have comparatively small loan balances, but have very few economic prospects to dig their way out from even these small debts. They largely attended for-profit colleges or community colleges and either didn’t complete their degrees, or completed them only to find they are essentially worthless.

Those are indeed some real problems. Akers and Chingos rightly turn attention away from the NYU graduate student with $200,000 in debt and toward the first generation college student ITT Tech grad in default on less than $10,000 of federal debt. It’s natural that elite media outlets might focus their human interest stories on the travails and misfortunes of elites, but the deepest economic pain is elsewhere.

But an even more important aspect, one Akers and Chingos barely pay attention to, is that student loan hardship varies disproportionately by race. Compared to white students, students of color are verifiably more likely to take out student loans, more likely to take out more student loans, more likely to attend for-profit schools, and more likely to drop out before getting a degree. They also have less family wealth and resources to draw on for help and struggle more in the labor market. Though you wouldn’t know it from this book, student loan issues are racial justice issues. That makes it inexcusable to conclude that there is “no crisis.”

Click to enjoy our Student Debt board game…

We can see this clearly if we apply the same logic to the housing crisis. Imagine for a moment that the housing collapse had remained (as it was in the beginning) confined solely to subprime mortgages, and it turned out that only the very riskiest of the loans were a problem. Imagine that the defaults, the unemployment, and the foreclosures were geographically contained in the areas with the most subprime loans, neighborhoods with primarily Black and Latino residents. (Areas, remember, where lenders and brokers pushed the worst loans on borrowers who qualified for better, driven by investment bank demand for risk and profit.) In the midst of this hypothetical subprime housing crisis, Brookings Institute economists might release books analyzing whether we were dealing with a “systemic” problem, and whether there was a “crisis.” They might fret about whether the problem would spread to the rest of the economy. And were those economists to find that most people have safe, affordable mortgages, and that most homes are not underwater, they might conclude, like Akers and Chingos, that there’s no “systemic” problem. By this, they would mean that the misery created by the system will likely be geographically and demographically contained to the intended victims. It won’t creep through those bold red lines on the lenders’ maps. Note, then, what the logic deployed by Game of Loans does: it views the question “Is there a crisis?” as synonymous with “Are people suffering who are not poor and/or Black and Latino?” Something becomes a crisis when it affects people other than those at the margins; until then, the problems are “unrepresentative” and atypical. And so long as it remains that way, then no matter how bad it may be for those affected, it remains a mere “problem,” one that should be dealt with through moderate incremental policy reforms.

This kind of reasoning ought to be morally unacceptable. The fact that only the people pushed into predatory loans are suffering the consequences shouldn’t let anyone sleep easy. Taken seriously, this approach would allow any problem affecting Black people to be treated as non-systemic, and therefore relatively non-problematic.

What do Akers and Chingos think the problems with student loans are? Their main concern is that some (but not most) students are making bad investments in their education. They end up in debt trying to get degrees that aren’t worth as much as they cost. This is because they unwisely choose bad schools, and end up underwater. Or they do choose schools wisely, but simply get unlucky in the economy and end up underwater nevertheless. Impossible debt burdens, then, do exist. But they come about through a mixture of bad decision-making and bad luck.

The bad luck component is unfixable, but Akers and Chingos believe that bad decision-making can be discouraged. Students could make better decisions about their education if the federal government gave them more information about the returns they can expect on their investments by choosing different schools and programs. One can imagine something like the information boxes on credit card or loan applications required by the Truth In Lending Act (TILA). In your college application packet would be some numbers representing the graduation rate, average income, and perhaps the loan repayment rate of graduates of that school or program. Those numbers could even be bold and in really big font. All of which is good. Telling students more about what to expect is obviously better than telling them nothing.

Imagining, however, that it will make a difference in student outcomes is an economist’s pipe dream (in fact, the sort of solution that only an economist could ever think would be helpful). The problem is the same as with all consumer disclosures: they don’t really work. People don’t read them. Or people read them and don’t understand them. Or people read them and do understand them, but still have an unrealistically rosy picture of how the future will go for them (everyone thinks they’re the exception, nobody imagines they’re average). People routinely sign contracts for auto loans with big, clear, bold disclosures indicating that they will end up paying more than the price of the car in interest and finance charges alone. In fact, probably everyone reading this article has signed several contracts with big, bold, clear TILA disclosures on them. Anyone remember spending a lot of time thinking about them? Anyone use them to shop around? People see the warnings, they sign on the dotted line anyway.

The informational solution also ignores the effect of marketing. The schools with the worst statistics already spend enormous amounts of money on extremely effective advertising campaigns, which draw prospective students’ attention away from their well-known abysmal records (or from the fact that they’re under investigation by the federal government). The ad dollars are well-spent. Until the feds shut down the the Corinthian college network in 2015, any student at one of the member Heald Colleges could tell you their slogan: “Get in. Get out. Get ahead.” The Art Institutes uses “The hardest thing you’ll ever love.” The University of Phoenix broadcasts truly inspiring commercials showing extremely dedicated students working late to do school work on top of their family and job responsibilities, fading to black with their new catchphrase: “We rise.” It’s legitimately powerful—much more so than some dry graduate income statistics slipped into a registration folder could ever be.

Akers and Chingos’ other solutions suffer from the same basic defect—they see the problem as market imbalance and resulting inefficiency. Because economists fixate on information, the proposals frequently focus on making the system less confusing rather than less vicious. They want to streamline federal lending to make it less complicated, and make repayment options clearer so that it’s easier for borrowers to enroll in income-driven repayment.

One of their suggestions is to automatically enroll graduates in income-driven repayment plans. But heinously, and bafflingly, they suggest getting rid of the government loan forgiveness programs on the grounds that colleges might be incentivized to raise prices if borrowers will be less worried about affording monthly payments. In doing so, they accept (but do not acknowledge that they accept) a world in which a lot of people die with massive student debt balances that have started small and grown from interest over decades, with no possibility of their ever being forgiven. (They do discuss making public college free or enacting income-sharing plans, but conclude that there’s not enough evidence to know what the consequences would be. For the economists, it’s fine to speculate without evidence on the positive effects of eliminating loan forgiveness, but not on the effects of free college.)

But enough critique. How could one better approach the student debt question? Well, any actual attempt to address the fact that hundreds of thousands of people are suffering over student loans should start by talking to people who are suffering, in order to identify what they are most seriously concerned with. Akers and Chingos criticize the media for focusing on the unlikely high-debt-load borrowers, but they don’t spend any time on the actual experiences of more representative borrowers.

Over the last several years, as an attorney working on debt issues, I have had the opportunity to speak with a number of borrowers suffering with student debt. Let me present a few snapshots and observations, and suggest what they might tell us about the nature of the “crisis” and its solutions.

People only find out certain things about student loans when they first fall into default. First, many are surprised to discover that the federal government can take money out of their paycheck. When private lenders do this, they usually have to take you to court first. Not so for federal student loans. One day you can get a Notice of Administrative Wage Garnishment in the mail, and a few weeks later 25% of your check will be going to your student loans whether you like it or not. No judicial review, no time to figure out what to do, just a siphon placed directly into the your paycheck.

The psychological effects of this can be extreme. I have talked to several borrowers who were completely caught off guard by the garnishment. They had stopped making student loan payments because they couldn’t afford them on their meager wages, only to suddenly be garnished and discover that they now couldn’t afford rent. One woman told me she quit her job and moved back in with her parents because she couldn’t handle the garnishment, which was stressful and humiliating. She was driving for a rideshare company in an attempt to keep as much of her wages as possible. (Although she still needs to worry about the federal government taking money out of her bank account.)

Second, people are also surprised when they learn that the federal government can take money out of your federal benefits. Private lenders are prohibited by law from taking your Social Security money, your disability money, or your veterans benefits. This makes sense, since federal benefits are meant to help people maintain a minimum standard of living, and many would be repulsed at the sight of a debt collector depriving a disabled veteran of her VA benefits over an old credit card debt. Yet the Department of Education has no problem taking from that disabled veteran’s benefit. Again, no court order required. You get a letter, and then a chunk of your benefit is gone.

Once again, the effects are devastating. A friend of mine received federal disability benefits for mental health issues that made her unable to work. When a debt collector called threatening to garnish her benefits if she did not make (impossibly high) payments on her federal student loans, she had a meltdown and had to call a suicide helpline. Her benefits were garnished anyway.

Third, collection of federal student debts has no statute of limitations. Most debt can only be collected for so long. In California, for example, most debt can only be collected for four years after your last payment. If your lender (or subsequent debt collector) doesn’t sue you within four years, you are no longer legally obligated to pay. Not so with federal student debt, for which you can be pursued for eternity. I once spoke to a student borrower who had attended a for-profit school in the 1980s for less than two years. He spent a long time homeless and didn’t hear a word about his student debt for more than a decade. But as soon as he had gotten back on his feet, gotten stable housing and found a job, the wage garnishments started right up.

Fourth, the federal government doesn’t really monitor whether schools are scams or not before giving out loans, and will sign off on loans to attend schools offering essentially Trump University-caliber educations. Even if the federal government later shuts down a school for defrauding students, they will continue to pursue the ex-attendees of the defunct school. That’s what happened in the case of Corinthian Colleges. After closing the program for being transparently fraudulent, the Department of Education promised former students some kind of forgiveness program. Yet the program still hasn’t been set up, and the Department is sitting on thousands of applications for relief. More than a year and a half after the schools were shut down, the Department is still pursuing the victims of the colleges’ fraud.

It’s important to realize that “victims” is precisely how we should view people who are defrauded out of money. It shouldn’t matter whether we’re talking about a Nigerian email scam or an online diploma mill. Once you meet people who have been swindled by these institutions, the “bad decisions” label becomes more difficult to apply. Many of the students have had little contact with the U.S. education system, and have limited context for evaluating it and determining which schools are good. They also often assume that the federal government wouldn’t give out loans to go to bad schools. I have heard this from a number of students, especially those who immigrated from other countries. They see federal loans as vouching for the legitimacy of a school. In fact, that’s hardly an unreasonable conclusion. After all, they think, why would the federal government affirmatively help students go into debt to go to sham schools? Why indeed.

The schools themselves take full advantage of this impression. You may not see many posters advertising the easy availability of federal student aid at Harvard, but you’ll see a lot at for-profits. Walk past any storefront cosmetology school or culinary school and you’ll find FAFSA posters filling the windows and walls. It’s infuriating that people like Akers and Chingos aren’t really talking about these issues, and are instead reducing their seriousness. The student loan problems noted in Game of Loans—those of borrowers being duped into going into debt to attend terrible for-profit schools and then not being able to afford to pay back their relatively small loan balances—are not minor. They affect large numbers of people, and are the result of some vicious economic actors targeting vulnerable students. Students who could go to decent, affordable colleges are being lied to and enrolled in terrible schools that saddle them with lifetimes of debt. The federal government is watching and doing little about it. Yet Akers and Chingos spend their energy insisting that this isn’t a “systemic” crisis, because plenty of other people are fine and the economy isn’t threatened.

It’s even more frustrating because these issues are so easy to solve. Many of the worst practices are directly perpetrated or enabled by the federal government itself, and the Department of Education could easily cease to do many harmful things. It could stop garnishing wages. (Or, even if it didn’t stop altogether, it could stop garnishing wages below a certain threshold.) It could stop garnishing federal benefits. It could stop collection on debt past a certain age. It could more actively monitor schools and pull support from the scammy ones. It could offer group forgiveness to students with debt from the particular schools that defrauded students. It could automatically enroll students in income-driven repayment plans so no one is in default (credit where due—Akers and Chingos do endorse this).

Most of these ideas wouldn’t even require new legislation or rules. The Department of Education could just start doing them, if it so chose. The student loan system as it currently exists is a regressive tax: those who can’t afford college up front end up paying more over time to the federal government. Most people who go to college may benefit from it. But the people who don’t benefit are disproportionately Black and Latino students preyed upon by terrible for-profit schools that offer worthless degrees and saddle their students with unmanageable debt. Akers and Chingos, after minimizing the issue for the first 110 pages out of 144, begin to get at these facts. But because they are convinced it doesn’t constitute a crisis, they offer only minor band-aids. People are suffering, though. They are suffering as a result of a racist system that ensnares them in lifelong debt traps. The Department of Education could do a lot about this but chooses not to. Calling this state of affairs anything other than a systemic crisis is perverse. We should be very, very angry.

The Viewing of Nature

On experiencing wildlife documentaries…

The last time I broke up with a guy, I kept his Netflix log-in and continued using our shared account. However, in a deliberate act of obfuscation, I only watched nature documentaries, so as to advertise my activity while remaining emotionally impenetrable. “Go ahead,” I thought, “check your ‘Continue Watching.’ You will learn nothing of my heart, save for my love of monsoon-based ecosystems.”

Growing up, my television-skeptical mother limited my screen-time, but allowed me unlimited viewing of Marty Stouffer’s Wild America on the grounds that it was “educational.” The PBS series certainly gave the impression of an immersive lecture in zoology, with Stouffer’s dopey, flat narrations dropping innocuous facts about American wildlife over footage that captivated audiences at the time, despite looking positively amateurish by today’s standards.

The alleged neutrality of the nature documentary has always been a part of its appeal, and its advocates are quick to praise the objectivity and pedagogical value of the genre. This is the myth that fuels our self-satisfied adoration; we do not believe we are watching a “movie,” we believe we are watching “nature,” a Rousseauian Garden of Eden, free from the meddling interpretive lens of man. Every nature documentary, however, always betrays the ideology of the filmmakers, even in the midst of cruelest deception. 


Wild America was my first experience with the betrayal of “naturalist” cinema. After moving to New York and thus cutting ties to my previously outdoorsy life, I attempted to revisit the nature documentaries of my childhood and Googled Marty Stouffer, who I learned had become a figure of disgrace among many conservationists. In 1996 he had been forced to pay $300,000 to the Aspen Center for Environmental Studies for clearing protected land. Even more damningly, rumors swirled that he staged some of the more “dramatic” scenes in the show. Stouffer (who is said to have made $18 million from the series) allegedly set a pair of domesticated mountain lions after a tame deer until the predators ran their would-be prey off a cliff.

Of course, running animals off cliffs is a proven technique in the nature doc genre, the most famous incident being the 1958 Disney Academy Award-Winning White Wilderness. Not only did the “documentarians” import lemmings that weren’t native to the Alberta habitat they were filming, the crew actually herded the animals into the Bow River (which they said was the sea), where the poor creatures drowned. Haunting narration of the cruelty lead the audience to believe they were witnessing the mysterious phenomenon of spontaneous mass lemming suicide—a complete myth, in actuality.

It is said of this tiny animal that it commits mass suicide by rushing into the sea in droves. The story is one of the persistent tales of the Arctic, and as often happens in Man’s nature lore, it is a story both true and false, as we shall see in a moment.

A kind of compulsion seizes each tiny rodent and, carried along by an unreasoning hysteria, each falls into step for a march that will take them to a strange destiny. That destiny is to jump into the ocean. They’ve become victims of an obsession — a one-track thought: ‘Move on! Move on!’ This is the last chance to turn back, yet over they go, casting themselves out bodily into space … and so is acted out the legend of mass suicide.

Thanks to animal rights advocacy—and a damning 1982 CBC television special titled Cruel Camera, in particularthe well-being of the animals of nature documentaries quickly became a high priority, with the public consensus being that a policy of non-interference and realism should be prioritized over drama. After all, there’s still plenty of red tooth and claw to be seen if you sit around and wait… and wait… and wait. Of course the prolonged silence of nature punctuated by a predator devouring something harmless and cute—usually a baby—doesn’t create the most child-friendly programming, so Hollywood tends to add a bit of magic to hook ’em young.


The 2005 runaway hit March of the Penguins was more Disney than Disney, with an anthropomorphized “cast” of Antarctic Emperor Penguins so adorable and charming they might as well have been cartoons. The entire U.S. version of the film—narrated by Morgan Freeman, America’s soothing black grandpa—portrayed the birds as emotionally complex creatureslike dumber, cuter humans. Their bleak mating migration is portrayed as a sort of fairy tale quest—“In the harshest place on earth, love finds a way,” reassures Freeman in the trailer. It’s a family movie in the most literal sense—mated penguins and their offspring are referred to throughout the film as “families.” We’re promised romance, adventure, and a happy ending, a deranged interpretation of the never-ending fight for survival in the bleak and barren wild.

It would be easy to attribute the schlocky framing to American sentimentalism, but not only is March of the Penguins actually a French film, its original narration was even more mawkish. The original French edit of the film used actors actually delivering voice-over dialogue as the penguins themselves, with a child actor for the chicks, of course. There is anthropomorphizing nature, and then there is pure fan-fiction; March of the Penguins—particularly the original French version of it—is guilty of the most dishonest sort of fantasy. It’s a far cry from France’s original naturalist filmmaker—the lulling stoner cadence of Jacques Cousteau, who was an oceanographer first and a filmmaker second. As a scientist who took great care in showing the audience the work that went into every expedition and film, Cousteau’s emphasis on exploration, technology and humankind’s role in the natural world set him apart from the majority of nature documentarians.

In fact, the only auteur heir to Cousteau’s humanist view of nature may be Werner Herzog, who takes it one step further, saying in his unapologetically speciesist Antarctica documentary, Encounters at the End of the World,  “To me, it is a sign of a deeply disturbed civilization, where tree-huggers and whale-huggers in their weirdness are acceptable, while no one embraces the last speakers of a language.” Whether intentional or not, Herzog’s work is a direct attack on the anti-social Henry David Thoreau school of naturalism, which conceives of nature as something perfect and holy, and man’s encroachment upon it as something sinful. Never mind that his mother did his laundry and brought baked goods to his cabin at Walden pond, Thoreau believed he was living the purest life possible, one of austere isolation, haunting the “wilderness” (which wasn’t actually that far from town), and championing above all else the glorification of his sylvan fetish, which was conspicuously lacking a lot of red tooth and claw.

“It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.”

Herzog, however, actually goes into the wilderness proper—conditions where it is not uncommon for “nature” to kill a person, and while he is not considered a nature documentarian per se, he’s one of the greatest, bouncing from an interview with a decidedly un-photogenic penguin scientist to the lives of the actual penguins with no interest in partitioning the two as “man” and “wildlife”—they’re both Antarctica to him. Herzog knows full well that the division between nature and society is a flimsy construct, instead espousing a comprehensive, inclusionist conception of life on this planet, closing Encounters at the End of the World with one of his interview subjects quoting Alan Watts: “Through our eyes, the universe is perceiving itself. Through our ears, the universe is listening to its harmonies. We are the witnesses through which the universe becomes conscious of its glory, of its magnificence.”

Herzog was never afforded the romantic fantasy of a separate and somehow benevolent natural world, as he grew up in rural Bavaria without electricity, a telephone or indoor plumbing. His fascination with (and affection for) the late Timothy Treadwell is his strongest statement on nature. Treadwell was the subject of Herzog’s Grizzly Man. An eccentric conservation zealot borne of middle class suburbia, he routinely camped for months in isolated Alaska, appointing himself the protector of a group of grizzly bears, one of whom eventually devoured him (confoundingly, the bears already resided safely on protected land).

It would be easy to disdain Treadwell for his delusion and foolishness, especially as he ranted against the humans he sought to evade, but it is Herzog’s humanity that paints Treadwell himself as the doomed, romantic figure. What could have easily been the story of a dumb hippie who got himself eaten by bears is told as a quixotic tragedy; the mise-en-scène incorporates Treadwell’s own footage beautifully, and Herzog collaborates with him to create a beautiful and dignified memorial. The irony is clear: you need a humanist to tell the story of a naturalist.


The inclusion of humans in nature documentaries is a touchy subject, and often very politically suspect. One might see a cameo by the indigenous people of a region if they live fairly traditionally, but the focus of the filming is often on their limbs and musculature, and almost never their faces; meanwhile, the animals always get close-ups. Also, when shots of a highly populated urban area are incorporated (generally to indicate the threat that urban centers pose to the wildlife just outside of the city limits), the people are shot overhead and/or at an accelerated speed, as if they are a colony of ants. This is common when filming Asian cities, which always seem to be teeming with humans, as if they are a particularly invasive species. It’s easy for nature documentaries to venture into an ambiguous racism, where the animals are people and the people are animals.

British national treasure David Attenborough is best known for his groundbreaking Planet Earth series, which often seems to conceive of a Planet Earth with no people in it. But at one point during the first season he found it relevant to film faceless men rappelling into a cave in Borneo to harvest the nests of the cave swiftlets. Why include that scene? There is nothing unsustainable about the practice—it does not affect the swiftlet population. And many of the other animals Attenborough films face humans as direct predators, yet he felt little need to include those humans. Well the nest of the cave swiftlet is the main ingredient of bird’s nest soup—and it is constructed by the swiftlet using its own saliva. Those wacky Asians, eating bird spit like a delicacy—how could a proper English filmmaker resist?

Attenborough has also caught flack for “staging” scenes as well. Footage of a polar bear giving birth from the first season was actually filmed in a zoo, and more recently, it was revealed that footage from the flight of a Golden Eagle was “fake,” meaning the bird was obtained from a wildlife sanctuary and handled by professional eagle trainer. But this presents another ethical conundrum; would it not have been violating the idealistic non-intervention ethos of the documentarian to catch an eagle in the wild and strap a camera to its head for the footage? Would it be ethical (or even possible) to bug a polar bear’s den to film it giving birth? Is a polar bear giving birth somehow less “wild” in a zoo? Is a bird from a sanctuary somehow less “wild” while in flight? There is something artistically dishonest about the omissions, no doubt, but how “staged” are these scenes really? The bird was flying, the polar bear gave birth. And a trickery on behalf of the welfare of the animals is hardly the crime of violent interference. Attenborough may not be the best journalist of nature, but he is an excellent and loyal publicist, balancing exposure and privacy entirely for the benefit of his clients, who now face a threat far more dire than spelunkers, documentarians or animal predators.

In early December, a massive flock of snow geese—25,000 grand white birds known for their black tipped wings and deafening, cacophonous honking—attempted to land in Berkeley Pit, a 700-acre Superfund site in Montana, full of acidic water and heavy metals. Employees from the companies that oversee the pit—Atlantic Richfield Co. (oil) and Montana Resources (mining)—rushed over and worked for hours, throughout the night, to scare the birds out of the poison lake. The companies estimate that nearly 90% of the birds were chased away, but thousands died. The Montana Resources manager of environmental affairs said the rust-red water was “white with birds.”

Attenborough filmed snow geese, and after I read about the mass death in Butte, I rewatched the footage of them from season one of Planet Earth. It begins with an overhead shot of an unfathomably large flock—Attenborough says 400,000 but it’s difficult to even think of numbers that big. The din of their shrill honking is edited into a tittering kind of hum, and it’s buried underneath a dramatic, swelling orchestral score. From a great distance, the flock shifts and swirls mid-air like sand in the wind, and when you get closer they look elegant, and somehow organized. Then it cuts to a shot of the birds taking flight directly from the water; they ascend to the heavens, graceful and beatific. And for a moment they are not even birds.

They’re movie stars.

Illustrations by Clifford Vickrey.

What Constitutes Reasonable Mainstream Opinion

Louise Mensch is delusional, which is why she gets to write for the New York Times…

For some time, certain critics have been suggesting that the mainstream press gives a little too much credence to dubious conspiracy theories about Russia, theories which many Democrats have embraced out of their desire to undermine Donald Trump. Liberal commentators like Rachel Maddow and Keith Olbermann are beginning to sound a bit like Glenn Beck during the peak of the chalkboard-years. Any claim about nefarious doings by Vladimir Putin—for instance, that Russia hacked Vermont’s electric grid, or that the Naked Capitalism blog is Russian state propaganda—is spread widely by pundits without particular regard for the actual substantiating evidence.

Of course, one may disagree with this. One may believe that the media’s treatment of the Russia-Trump nexus has been sober and reasonable. But a new data point suggests otherwise: the New York Times recently published a piece on Russian hacking by Louise Mensch. And a world where the Paper of Record publishes Mensch is not a world with a sane public conversation about Russia.

Mensch is a British former Conservative MP and chick-lit author who these days spends most of her time on Twitter issuing frenzied denunciations of imagined armies of online “Putinbots.” She is—and this is no overstatement—one of the least credible people on the internet.

Let’s be clear: with Mensch, we are not talking about someone who merely “takes a hard line” on the Russia question. Mensch is legitimately paranoid and deluded. She sincerely believes that Andrew Breitbart was murdered by Vladimir Putin, that Russia is secretly operating the public wifi networks in her neighborhood, and that the 15-year-old-girl whom Anthony Weiner sexted was in reality a hacker on the Kremlin payroll. (The Daily Mail, of all places, offered a thorough debunking.) When a journalist from the London Times visited Mensch, he found her manically babbling about a “giant web” of Russia connections invisible to anyone else, her ADHD having given her a “temporary superpower.” Mensch told the reporter that a mobile florist in her neighborhood could in fact be a Russian operation dispatched to intercept her communications, an assertion that sounded like a joke but appeared to be serious. Even ex-intelligence officer Malcolm Nance, a strong believer in the Trump-Putin connection and author of The Plot to Hack America: How Putin’s Cyberspies and WikiLeaks Tried to Steal the 2016 Election, has said Mensch is “batshit crazy” and a “fruit loop.” Mensch’s children, too, seem to think she is out of her gourd. As she confessed: “These days when anything goes wrong in our house, one of my kids will say: ‘Is it the Russians?’ It’s a standing joke. ‘Pizza went cold. Is it the Russians?’”

Mensch’s Russia commentary is not limited to speculations on the country’s secret misdeeds. Far more worryingly, she actively encourages the United States to start an armed conflict. In December, she tweeted: “What Russia has done to America is an act of war… I want precision bombing raids. Mass cyber war. Bank hacks… Vladimir Putin has committed an act of war… Obama must strike.” Mensch literally wants bombs to be dropped on the world’s second most heavily armed nuclear power, without any consideration for what this might mean. By publishing Mensch, then, the New York Times has established as a legitimate political commentator someone who thinks the florists on the Upper West Side are monitoring her internet, and is actively using Twitter to encourage the United States to start World War III.

Getting an op-ed into the New York Times is notoriously difficult, as the paper’s editors treasure its selectivity and prestige, for the obvious reason that a NYT byline confers an extraordinary amount of credibility on the writer. Thus the Times makes particular choices about the voices that are worth listening to, and the voices that are not. And by printing the Mensch op-ed, the Times has said that Mensch is a person whose thoughts ought to be in the paper. But one can only think this if one has abandoned all standards for what constitutes reasoned opinion on Russia.

The op-ed itself is simply a repeat of the various charges Mensch has been frantically making on Twitter for months, framed as a series of questions for Congressman Adam Schiff to ask a number of proposed witnesses. Some of the questions are worth knowing the answers to. Others are downright ludicrous. (“Was the president’s tweet about a wiretap at Trump Tower, to your knowledge, illegal? If so, to whom have you reported this offense?”) The questions are all conspiratorial in their undertones, but don’t seem to fit together under any underlying theory of what is supposed to have happened. Like many conspiracy theorists, Mensch tries to poke holes and offer a series of dark insinuations and mysteries without actually defending any affirmative propositions. It’s stunning that the Times editors allowed Mensch to write an op-ed this way; the format exempts her from the responsibility of actually having to make an argument using evidence. The editors also permitted Mensch to use, without clarification, the popular but meaningless phrase “hacked the election.” (You can’t hack an election, you can hack computers to leak files to influence an election or you can hack voting machines. The phrase “hacked the election” is used to avoid having to be precise about what exactly is being alleged.)

We are also left with the question of why the New York Times decided to issue Mensch a platform at all. It’s not as if Mensch had a previous record as a credible commentator. Even before she began ranting about sinister Russian florists, Mensch was known mostly for her constant tweeting. Beyond a brief and ineffectual stint as a Tory politician, she seems to have no qualifications or background whatsoever that would suggest her as a Russian affairs expert.

In fact, Mensch does not really have a background in anything at all. Having left Parliament after just two years—and thereby handed her seat to the Labour Party—she dabbled in failed venture after failed venture. She started a widely-mocked fashion blog called Unfashionista, which soon folded. She then started a widely-mocked social media app called—absurdly—“Menshn,” which soon folded. She was appointed to head a new Murdoch venture called Heat Street, a right-wing clickbait site essentially exactly like Breitbart but with more news about GamerGate. But her constant bizarre tweets allegedly factored into News Corp’s decision to part ways with her in January. Instead, Mensch now runs a WordPress blog called “Patribotics” dedicated almost entirely to elaborating her theories about Putin, and examining her various “suspects” like Attorney General Jeff Sessions.

The only thing Mensch seems to have done successfully is tweet, and only if we measure success by quantity rather than quality. In fact, Mensch has become notorious on social media for her ineptitude and ignorance, which has led to a series of embarrassing blunders that have done little to diminish her self-assurance. In 2014, Mensch declared that anybody who used the term “Zionist” was anti-Semitic. When someone asked whether this would make Theodore Herzl an anti-Semite, Mensch replied: “Who? If he uses Zionist then yes. Cheap code word for Jew. Antisemitism. Not having it.” She appeared to believe Charlie Hebdo was actually a single man called Charlie. She offered proof that Russia was “joyless” compared to America by pointing to the (Canadian) Leonard Cohen. She suggested people who called others “subhuman” should be banned from the platform, before it turned out that she herself flung the word at other tweeters. Perhaps her lowest point came when she was accused of bullying and harassing a 17-year-old girl over the girl’s support for Ed Miliband. (If you were once an MP but are now harassing teenage Labour voters on Twitter, it is time to log off and have a long think about your life.)

Throughout this, Mensch persisted in considering herself an investigative journalist who “broke stories.” But we might gain some sense of Mensch’s standard of journalistic excellence from her enthusiastic endorsement of disgraced ex-BuzzFeed writer Benny Johnson. Mensch called Johnson “brilliant” and “very talented,” despite the fact that he could not even produce articles like “The Story Of Egypt’s Revolution In ‘Jurassic Park’ GIFs” and “Ronald Reagan’s 31 Most YOLO Moments” without engaging in a pattern of serial plagiarism. (One could debate whether Johnson failed upward or downward into his subsequent position at the Independent Journalism Review, but the point is moot—just days ago, Johnson was suspended from his new employer after publishing an unfounded conspiracy theory suggesting collusion between Obama and the Hawaiian judge who challenged Trump’s second travel ban. It was at this point that Mensch decided to reaffirm her admiration for Johnson’s integrity and journalistic skill.)

It may not be fair to laugh too much at Mensch, however. Based on her recent statements, sincere concern is probably a more appropriate reaction. Mensch is an admitted sufferer of mental health problems, having said that her earlier use of hard drugs “messed with her brain” and has caused ongoing difficulties. She has admitted that much of her present theorizing is driven by her ADHD, and one should legitimately worry about someone so paranoid that she thinks the Russians are watching her from the street corner.

The question remains, though: what was the New York Times thinking by printing Mensch’s conspiratorial questioning? Granted, the Times has a somewhat ignominious history with guest op-ed columnists, having given Woody Allen space to defend himself against molestation allegations, and allowed Bill Clinton to issue a weaselly justification for offering pardons to his wealthy cronies—a column so full of evasions that a paragraph-long editor’s note had to be attached to the end. (And if you want to advocate bombing North Korea, the Times will happily act as your megaphone.) But even by the existing standard, publishing someone like Mensch is extraordinary.

There are a few implications we can draw here. First, once you’re in the elite, you’re in the elite, and nothing you can say or do will convince people you’re foolish. If you have an Oxbridge accent and have held a government position, you are a permanent expert and people will continually assume you must be intelligent, even when you have showed no actual signs of it.

Second, the press’s standards for Russia commentary are lower than at any point since the Cold War. Required qualifications for opining on Putin or Russia are essentially at the “skimming the Wikipedia entry” level. (It’s not just the Times. MSNBC, too, has regularly given airtime to Mensch, and she will appear on Bill Maher’s show this week.) Liberals are so eager to attack Trump over Russia stories that even a totally fringe conspiracist can have her claims treated as serious and worthwhile contributions to the discourse. In response to Mensch’s op-ed, cultural critic Virginia Heffernan said she “wish[ed] this were book-length” calling Mensch “the Sy Hersh of our time.” Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe praised Mensch as “impressive” and “incomparable.”

There’s a useful parallel to the 1979 film Being There, in which Peter Sellers plays a dopey gardener whose aphoristic pronouncements about plants are taken for insightful political metaphors, leading him to become the toast of the D.C. elite. Washington’s notion of wisdom is so vacuous that even a gibbering fool can be taken for a genius if they suit the needs of the political class. Likewise, talk about Russia has gotten so facile, with allegations requiring so little evidence, that a schizophrenic raving about Putin sending radio waves through their dentures could get a permanent gig with MSNBC if they had a PPE degree from Oxford.

One could certainly argue that left-wing criticisms of excessive Russia coverage are ignoring crucial evidence, and have a debate about that evidence. But one cannot argue that media dialogue about Russia is in any way serious or rational, so long as mainstream legitimacy is offered to a person who literally thinks Vladimir Putin murdered Andrew Breitbart and who is checking florists’ vans for antennae.

“Debate” Versus Persuasion

In defense of political rhetoric…

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Believing in Bernie

A review of “Our Revolution”

Let us leave aside, for a moment, the question of whether he would have won. (He would have.) The interesting matter now is: what did the candidacy of Bernie Sanders mean? What are we to learn from it, and what can it tell us about the future? It was, in many ways, a remarkable triumph: 20 states and millions of votes for an obscure New England socialist. And yet, it was also a failure. He did, after all, lose.

In the months following the primary, Sanders stayed busy, locked away writing Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In, a book about his life, the campaign, and the future of progressive politics. It’s a useful vehicle through which to figure out what we think of Bernie, and whether people ought to be more like him, or less like him, in the years to come.

If one is being perfectly honest, a book by Bernie Sanders could reasonably be expected to be terrible. Bernie is known far more for the political and personal qualities he represents than for the qualities of his spoken or written prose.

The first surprise then, is that Our Revolution is readable. It actually goes beyond the Bernie stump speech about the declining middle class and the oligarchical 1%. It contains reflections on his childhood, on his experiences of the campaign, his strategic decisions, and his aspirations. Like most of his speech, it never drifts far from economic policy and the question of inequality, but it’s a more lively and engaging book than even the most fervent Sandernista might have expected.

Yes, of course, there’s a lot about saving Social Security, about the collapse of economic mobility and of the misdeeds of Wall Street oligarchs. But Sanders also gives an elegant argument for precisely why he never departs from these topics. Our Revolution makes a considered case for why it’s better to spend one’s time talking about economics and inequality than talking about  horse-race politics and Trump’s latest gaffes.

The nice thing about this is that Bernie doesn’t treat people as stupid. He thinks they can handle charts and data. He doesn’t dumb anything down (the book is over 400 pages and includes  everything from a chart showing average ATM surcharges over time to a photograph of the Cayman Islands headquarters of a tax shelter). The book makes the claim that Sanders is heavy on rhetoric but light on substance seem farcical. He tries to help unfamiliar readers understand complex issues carefully and methodically, and to relate opaque issues like campaign finance to people’s actual lives.


This is the most refreshing quality about Sanders, one that hasn’t been sufficiently noted: he is one of the few Democrats who actually talks as if he cares about those who do not already agree with him. Sanders, despite being further to the left than anyone else in the party, actually tries to understand and empathize with Trump voters.

One could see this trait on display in a recent town hall discussion with Sanders on MSNBC. Speaking directly to a woman who had voted for Trump, Sanders tried to find common ground on the issue of Social Security:

BERNIE SANDERS:  “I am assuming that you believe, correct me if I’m wrong, that we should not cut Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid. Is that correct or not?”

GAIL SPARKS: “Yeah, I believe they shouldn’t be cut.”

SANDERS: “Do you know who is now working very hard to try to do that? Republicans in Congress have a plan under the guise of saving Medicare and saving Social Security, making devastating cuts. That’s what the Republicans are now trying to do. The other point that you made is, who is going to pay for this stuff? And that is a very fair point. What all of us should know is that over the last 25 years, there has been a massive transfer of wealth in this country from you to the top one-tenth of one percent. In other words, the middle class has shrunk and trillions of dollars have gone to the top one-tenth of one percent. Do you think it’s inappropriate to start asking those people to pay their fair share of taxes so we can adequately fund Medicaid and make public colleges and universities tuition-free. Is that an unfair thing to ask?”

SPARKS: “I don’t think it’s an unfair thing to ask. They got rich off of us, so it’s time they put back.”

SANDERS: “Okay. That’s what I’m saying.”

The performance was impressive, in demonstrating Sanders’ ability to reframe the concerns of Rust Belt Trump voters as the concerns dealt with by his own brand of democratic socialism. In this, he reveals a path by which voters who despised Clinton might be brought back into the party. If one can redirect their hostilities and anxieties, encouraging them to focus on Wall Street and the political establishment rather than minorities and immigrants, perhaps at least some (not all) Trump voters could be turned from nationalist populists to socialist populists.   

The serious question over Sanders raised by progressive critics was about his supposed lack of appreciation for the importance of racial issues. Bernie has spoken in negative terms about both “identity politics” and “political correctness.” For some on the left, this is a red flag, suggesting a failure to appreciate the ongoing significance of racism and the ncessity of combating it.

It should be confessed that Sanders has something of a tin ear for millennial anti-racist language. But this might be expected. He came of age, after all, in a different Civil Rights era, one in which the language of labor organizing and the language of anti-racism were not so far different. Sanders constantly harkens back to Martin Luther King and the Poor People’s Campaign, and King’s successful melding of anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-capitalist messages.

The good news, for those who felt Sanders insufficiently attuned to the reality of racism, is that Our Revolution makes clear Sanders’ commitments to fighting it. In a section of the book entitled “The Impacts of Institutional and Structural Racism” Sanders goes through various American injustices that are specifically racial in nature: the wealth gap between blacks and whites, variations in school quality by race, and the hideously unjust system of criminal punishments. In two separate parts of the book, he tells the harrowing story of Sandra Bland’s death in a Texas jail cell (p. 143 and 377), repeatedly listing the names of black people who have died at the hands of police. As he write about racism:

“If we are to be successful in that goal, we must confront one of the most contentious and intractable issues facing our country… the ugly stain of racism. The sad reality is that racism has plagued the United States since before its founding… Ironically, after Barack Obama became the first African-American president, some people triumphantly declared an end to racism, that we had moved beyond the color line. Unfortunately, they were completely wrong… Among many other struggles we must engage in to combat racism in this country, we must stop police brutality and the killing of unarmed African-Americans.”

Sanders goes on, documenting the various ways in which American institutions commit injustices against people of color that are specifically racial in nature.

Some anti-racists will continue to find Sanders’ rejection of “political correctness” puzzling or suspicious. But it should also be noted that there’s something rather cunning in the way Sanders uses terms like “political correctness.” Anti-racists argue, rightly, that “I’m not politically correct” is usually just a euphemism for “I am a bigot who enjoys saying bigoted things.” Thus anti-racists looked askance at Sanders when he said he didn’t believe in “political correctness.” Yet Sanders, when asked, said that “political correctness” means that “you have a set of talking points which have been poll-tested and focus-group-tested and that’s what you say rather than what’s really going on. And often what you are not allowed to say are things which offend very powerful people.”


This is certainly a different definition of “political correctness” than what is usually meant by the users of the term. But there may be an element of political savvy here. By defining himself as against political correctness, and defining political correctness as “not being focus-group-tested,” Sanders may position himself as an outsider and truth-teller without ever having to legitimize racist sentiments. Perhaps, just perhaps, someone can convince people that you can shun “political correctness” by being honest, forthright, and not afraid to speak uncomfortable truths about powerful people.

Sanders may care about the concerns of Trump’s voters, but he has made clear that he has zero tolerance for Trump’s appeal to bigotry. He frequently condemns the way Trump ran “a campaign based on racism, based on sexism, based on dividing us up.” Sanders’ effort to get Keith Ellison, a black Muslim congressman, to head the DNC, was the right kind of move in this respect. It showed precisely what Sanders means by “identity politics is not enough”: it’s not that he doesn’t want diversity, it’s that he wants ass-kicking black progressives rather than centrist technocrats of any race.

One should also point out that the idea of the white “BernieBro” as Sanders’ core supporter was always wrong, and demeaning to Sanders’ supporters of color. In fact, among young people there was wide support for Sanders across racial lines. The story of demographic differences in Sanders’ support was far more about age and wealth (older, richer Democrats preferred Clinton) than about race.

“Sanders offers an eloquent antidote to Trumpism…”

Did the Sanders campaign, as some Clinton supporters have alleged, damage Clinton and thereby weaken her in the general election campaign? Well, possibly, but note the implicit premise. If Sanders undermined Clinton, it was because he pointed out various ways (such as her ties to Wall Street and Henry Kissinger, as well as her vote for the Iraq War) in which Clinton did not share the values of progressives. If the things Sanders had said about Clinton were spurious or false, one could tenably make this claim. But Sanders notably did not dwell on the “damn emails,” focusing instead on the policy differences between his own more leftist stance and Clinton’s centrism. This was a healthy debate. It forced Clinton to move to the left, adopting far more liberal positions on economic policy and education than she was previously running on.

For progressives, then, Sanders’ run energized the left of the party. It showed how they can achieve extraordinary amounts of political success without cozying up to rich donors. It encouraged people who had been extremely cynical about politics to get involved. Nobody who attended one of Sanders’ 20,000-plus person rallies could go away uninspired. Bernie Sanders was the main redeeming aspect of an otherwise-dismal election cycle. He had a genuine vision, genuine hope, and genuine decency.

But now the campaign is over. What should we take from it? First, Bernie showed that disillusionment from the political process is not inevitable. If you give people something to believe in, many of them will indeed get up off the sofa. Second, by building a serious progressive message and refusing to depart from it or sink toward gutter politics, you can help persuade people of progressive ideas. Sanders did not start with wide support. He started with statistically negligible poll results. He built support over the course of the primary, by offering both a personality and a set of political values that a lot of people began to find extremely appealing.

Our Revolution is an encouraging book. Bernie is not dispirited, despite having lost. (Although as he wrote the book he did not know Trump would be the President.) He has a good set of blueprints for what an ambitious yet plausible social democratic platform could stand for. He offers an eloquent antidote to Trumpism, and displays a sincere concern for the suffering and disenfranchised of all races. If the Democratic Party wants to get back into power (and it is not clear, from its response to the election so far, that it does), it would do well to hand out copies of this book to every party official.

CNN Will Never Be Good For Humanity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And Politico:

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

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

Donald Trump and CNN’s Jeff Zucker

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Looking Where The Light Is

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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