Rahm Emanuel’s College Proposal Is Everything Wrong With Democratic Education Policy

Emanuel’s idea is the reductio ad absurdum of the “college solves poverty” idea…

On Wednesday, Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced a new educational proposal: starting with this year’s freshman class, every student in the Chicago public school system will be required to show an acceptance letter from a college, a trade school or apprenticeship, or a branch of the military in order to graduate. “We live in a period of time when you earn what you learn,” Mayor Emanuel said. (Democratic politicians’ attempts at folksiness are always pretty grim.) “We want to make 14th grade universal,” he also said. The proposed measure is almost certainly a publicity stunt which will have little effect in practice. But Emanuel has made it clear how he thinks educational problems should be solved.

The Emanuel plan is perhaps the stupidest idea a nationally prominent politician has publicly endorsed in the past decade. I hesitate to even explain why it’s stupid lest I insult my readers’ intelligence by belaboring the obvious. But it’s worth spelling out what’s wrong with this, because the fact that a major Obama-aligned Democratic politician is attempting to do this says a great deal about the worldview of the establishment Democratic Party. So here goes.

In Mayor Emanuel’s opinion, working-class kids are too stupid to recognize their own interests. They’re simply unaware that people who go to college earn more than people who don’t, which is why (silly them) they don’t go to college. If you just force them to go to college by flunking them out of high school unless they promise to go to college, they’ll all become highly compensated white-collar workers and America will be a wealthier place.

Allow me to propose an alternative model: working-class kids are not stupid. They’re aware that college grads earn more money on average than they ever will. They’re also aware that not all college degrees are created equal, and that a degree from a community college or some fly-by-night for-profit—the kind of school most working-class kids from Chicago might actually get into—is dramatically less valuable than one from Sarah Lawrence, where Rahm got his BA. They’re aware that college degrees aren’t what they once were, partly because so many degrees are from mediocre institutions; perhaps they’ve seen family members work hard to get that University of Phoenix diploma only to wind up little better off than they’d have been otherwise.

They’re also aware that college costs money, not only money for tuition but all the money you won’t be able to earn while you’re in school, and that people whose parents can’t support them, people who may in fact need to help support their families themselves, can’t afford to just not work for two to four years. Finally, they’re aware that college is hard, particularly for working-class kids with less academic preparation than their middle-class peers who also have less social support and need to work while their peers are studying, and that working-class kids are at a high risk of dropping out. They know that going into debt to attend a college and then dropping out with no degree can be financially catastrophic.

In other words, they know, unlike their mayor, that what happens to the average kid who goes to college—a middle-class kid from the suburbs with white-collar parents who can afford to subsidize his textbooks and partying for four years—is a very poor indicator of what will happen to them, personally, if they decide to go to college. Knowing all this, they make their choice; 62% of Chicago’s high school students decide to have a crack at college after they graduate, 38% don’t.

Now, it may well be that there are a few kids in that 38% who are making the wrong choice, just as there are a few in that 62% (very possibly more than a few) who are making the wrong choice and will just end up dropping out with debt or graduating with a worthless degree and more debt. It might be that a better school guidance program would push some kids into college for whom it’s the right decision. But Rahm isn’t proposing to nudge a few more kids into college; he’s proposing to hold the high school degree of every student in the system hostage until they all go to college, or sign up for the army, or enter an apprenticeship.

What’s likely to happen if his proposal passes? Well, trade schools and apprenticeship programs are bright enough to know that the world only needs so many plumbers, so not a lot of students are going to manage to go that route. Some will join the army, at which stage Mr. Emanuel can congratulate himself for having forced some working-class kids to die for their country on pain of facing the stigma of the high school dropout for the rest of their lives. Some will simply decide to leave high school without graduating. But many will be forced into a choice they know is the wrong one, and have a crack at whatever community college or awful open-admissions for-profit college they can get an acceptance letter from. Expect to see the already overburdened and underfunded community college system pushed to the wall. Expect to see a small boom in the for-profit college industry and the exploitative student loan industry that feeds it. Expect to see many, many students drop out of school with nothing to show for it but un-bankruptable education debt that will haunt them for years.


And finally, perhaps most importantly, expect to see those students who do manage to graduate from whatever bottom-tier school is willing to accept them quickly discover that the degree Rahm Emanuel forced them to earn at great personal expense isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on. First, because college-educated workers, like any other commodity, are subject to the law of supply and demand, and Rahm’s plot to dump hundreds of thousands more of them onto the Chicago labor market will cause supply to greatly outpace demand and prices to crater. Second, because employers will recognize that people who got a college degree from a bottom-tier school that slashed admissions standards to take advantage of the Rahm-and-debt-fueled bonanza don’t have the same skill set or qualifications as the college students they now pay higher wages. In other words, producing a genuinely more educated workforce is a lot harder than Rahm’s plan to print a whole bunch more college diplomas, but even if you could produce a genuinely more educated workforce it wouldn’t raise wages; you’d just have more people competing for the same number of white-collar jobs., and wages would go down.

(Of course, middle-class kids who went to Sarah Lawrence would still do just fine.)

Emanuel’s plan, in other words, will be a disaster if implemented. But if the plan were just his own idiosyncratic idiocy, it would be beneath refutation. Unfortunately, it’s not. The mayor of Chicago is an utterly characteristic representative of the dominant wing of the Democratic Party, and his “you earn what you learn” claptrap reflects what has been a core element of its messaging and policy for decades: the notion that we can solve poverty through education. For most of my lifetime, the Democratic Party’s answer to the apparently permanent stagnation of working-class wages has been to advise the electorate that it’s a knowledge economy and only a better-educated workforce can hope to earn more.

This is terrible policy based on obviously shoddy reasoning: while it’s true that highly educated computer programmers make a lot of money, the notion that if everyone were a highly educated computer programmer everyone would make more money is absurd, first because not everyone can become a highly educated computer programmer and second because if everyone could then computer programmers would no longer make a lot of money.

It should be emphasized, though, that  on top of being terrible policy this is also terrible messaging. When voters hear that your analysis of the economy is that it simply has no place anymore for uneducated workers, and that your plan to increase working-class wages is “educate people better for the knowledge economy,” they get three messages: first, that if you’re a low-income thirty-year-old high school graduate with a family who can’t go to school, the Democrats’ plan for you is that you’ll die poor, because hey, it’s a knowledge economy, what can they do? It’s a knowledge economy. Second, that Democrats think your poverty is pretty much your fault for not doing better in school. And third, that Democrats are so completely out of touch that they genuinely believe that becoming a high-tech worker is a serious option for your working-class kids. In other words, what you hear is that Democrats don’t know you, don’t care about you, look down on you, and have no plan to help you. Is it any wonder that you don’t bother to vote, or that if you do you vote for someone who promises to bring the jobs back?

Every time Democrats say or imply that there’s no way for people to succeed in the 21st-century economy without a college degree, they announce loud and clear that they’ve largely given up on helping the existing working class.

But if the Democratic line on education fails on policy and politics grounds alike, why are they so attached to it? I’d suggest two reasons.

First, claiming that class differences result from educational achievement flatters the American elite’s sense of its own meritocracy. If differences in income are mostly explained by differences in education, elites don’t have to worry about why their own incomes have skyrocketed over the past three decades while the rest of the country has done so poorly; it’s the natural result of market forces rewarding talent and hard work. You can see this perhaps most clearly in Silicon Valley entrepreneurs’ excitement about charter schools, an excitement most of the Democratic establishment shares: charters are the noblesse oblige of an utterly self-confident meritocratic elite, an elite which believes that they earned what they have and that the way to make everyone else better off is not to take from the deserving rich and give to the undeserving poor but to make the poor more deserving. (The fact that many of these charters’ educational model is to replace those stupid, lazy public school teachers with brilliant and disruptive Yale graduates says everything here.) The education-solves-poverty line sells well with affluent white-collar professionals, and the average Democratic politician spends vastly more time addressing herself to the needs of those professionals than talking to working-class voters.

But second, and far more importantly, building an economy that once again provides decent, well-paying and dignified jobs for the working class is very difficult. It’s far easier to pretend that the jobs are waiting in the wings if only the working class were educated enough to deserve them than to take on the employers who refuse to offer those jobs. Rebuilding the American working class would require a higher minimum wage, a serious effort to encourage unionization in the service sector, and, at least in areas with sky-high unemployment (places like Chicago), a major federal jobs program to put people to work and force private-sector employers to raise wages. Every one of those initiatives would require direct confrontation with businesses big and small. Creating more innovative charter schools, or forcing more students into college, requires no such confrontation. Placing the burden of fixing the economy on working-class students and their teachers rather than on big business and the wealthy makes plenty of political sense, in its way.

But it won’t work. And liberal pundits who scoff at Trump voters by reminding them that those manufacturing jobs he promised won’t come back would do well to remember that Democrats’ agenda on working-class jobs is just as empty a promise.

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 

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.

The Social Science of Success

Duckworth, Cuddy, and Gladwell promise people the secret ingredients of human achievement…

What if I told you that all of your professional and personal dreams were within your grasp? That if you just had the right knowledge then you could accomplish whatever you wished. Step right up, Step right up! Come quickly now! Our psychologists have run the experiments, crunched the numbers, and done The Science! This is The Science that overturns any obstacles in your path. Guaranteed! Call today!

American carnival barkers have long made comfortable livings selling panaceas to desperate people. In a country where so many live lives of frustration and economic misery, plenty of willing customers can be found for those promising to unlock the doors to success and riches. Pop social science literature has its own kind of snake oil to sell you. It doesn’t take the form of a cure-all elixir, a late night infomercial, or a dubious start-up pitch. Rather, it is peddled by well-credentialed academics, who promise to give you the Science that will tell you how to live. Drawing on findings from their research, they insist on having found a Theory of Everything, one that can explain All Human Achievement. And they want to share it with you, for a very reasonable price.

Based on the gushing blurbs to be found on these two books, naïve readers might believe that indeed, the True Secret of Success has recently been discovered. On the back of Presence: Bringing Your Boldest Self to Your Biggest Challenges, Jane McGonigal writes that “this book will forever change how you carry yourself.” Simon Sinek adds: “This book is a must-read for every doer out there.”

The praise for Angela Duckworth’s Grit: The Power of Passion and Perseverance is equally dizzying. Daniel Gilbert, an esteemed social psychologist at Harvard and bestselling author, writes “Psychologists have spent decades searching for the secret of success, but Duckworth is the one who found it.” The very secret of success itself! Larry Summers was impressed enough to write: “The ideas in this book have the potential to transform education, management, and the way its readers live. Duckworth’s Grit is a national treasure.”  “This book will change your life,” says Dan Heath, a professor at Duke’s business school and bestselling author.

Angela Duckworth’s résumé is perhaps peerless. Former White House intern, McKinsey consultant turned tough-neighborhood middle-school teacher, degrees from Harvard and Oxford, start-up co-founder, now a tenured professor at the University of Pennsylvania, and a MacArthur “genius grant” Award recipient. When she announces, from her own position of success, that she has discovered the source of human achievement, one is encouraged to take her seriously.

Duckworth defines “grit” in her book as “perseverance and passion for long-term goals” and as she self-deprecatingly notes in her talks, her 20s were defined by a chaotic search for a purpose—Duckworth had “little grit.” She had no grand goals, but during her stint as a teacher she noticed that it was not always the most intelligent students who did the best, rather it was the ones that toughed it out and worked hard as hell that did—those with grit. Duckworth headed to graduate school to explore this observation further. There, she began studying high achievement through interviews with professionals in “investment banking, painting, journalism, academia, medicine, and law” in order to figure out what distinguishes “star performers.” From these interviews, she further confirmed that neither innate ability nor simply raw number of hours of practice explained who was in the 1% of the top 1%. Rather, there was something else: “a ferocious determination.” After one especially enlightening interview, she describes her reaction, “I came to a fundamental insight that would guide my future work: Our potential is one thing. What we do with it is quite another.”

Duckworth formalized this insight into a questionnaire—the “Grit Scale.” 12 simple questions, measuring things like whether respondents set goals, are committed to long-term success, overcome failure and adversity, and generally speaking get shit done. Duckworth then went out into the real world to test her idea. Her book examines the “Beast Barracks,” the rigorous summer boot camp that every incoming West Point freshman must go through. She administered the Grit Scale to all cadets in 2004 and she found that “98%” of the grittiest cadets made it through the Beast. Duckworth concludes:  What matters for making it through Beast? Not your SAT scores, not your high school rank, not your leadership experience, not your athletic ability. Or your Whole Candidate Score. What matters is grit.” Further studies of finalists in the National Spelling Bee and GPAs among Ivy League undergraduates corroborated these findings – grittier spellers went further and grittier Ivy League graduates had better grades.

This all sounds quite compelling, and even commonsensical. It’s also a useful corrective antidote to the conservative fetishization of Ayn Rand’s “lone genius.” For Duckworth, success is about commitment, not being a Nietzschian superman.

But Duckworth’s theory suffers from a glaring myopia. It’s examining success among a particular subset of people: essentially, those from the top 5% of the distribution of a given profession. Duckworth is interested in studying success among successful people. She’s looking at environments where everyone is already very successful, such as West Point and the National Spelling Bee.

This means that Duckworth isn’t looking at determinants of success and failure such as, for instance, wealth. She explicitly leaves aside social context early on. As she says:

“Of course, your opportunities – for example, having a great coach or teacher – matter tremendously, too, and maybe more than anything about the individual. My theory doesn’t address these outside forces, nor does it include luck. It’s about the psychology of achievement, but because psychology isn’t all that matters, it’s incomplete.” It’s a fair admission. But she only makes it briefly before returning to expounding at length on the power of her theory.

Social scientists typically refer to this bias as “sampling on the dependent variable.” That is to say, her dependent variable of interest, the thing she wishes to explain, is achievement, and she only selects cases with high achieving individuals. One might be impressed to learn that 98% of “gritty” West Point cadets made it through Beast Barracks, but there’s an additional statistic you need to know: 95% of all West point cadets make it through. (Duckworth acknowledges this fact in her academic paper on developing the Grit scale, but it is conspicuously absent from her book.) Thus grit may explain something, but it doesn’t explain much. It might tell us why certain West Point cadets do slightly better than certain other West Point cadets. But it leaves aside an important question: how do people become West Point cadets to begin with?

In fact, we don’t even know that “grit” at West Point tells us anything about success at all. That’s because Duckworth doesn’t study the people who leave West Point, just the people who stay. But for all we know, the people who drop out are not failures. Perhaps they just didn’t enjoy military service that much. Is it really that unthinkable that a few of the more independent-minded 18 year olds could arrive at West Point, only to make a swift exit after having a drill instructor scream in their face because a quarter didn’t bounce off the bed? It could be that plenty of (eventually highly successful) people come in with a naïve, romantic notion of military service, but quickly figure out it’s not for them. Duckworth hasn’t produced a study showing that grit predicts success, but one showing that grit predicts conformity and the ability to endure institutions.

The issue here isn’t that Duckworth is doing uninteresting research—far from it. It’s that she is trying to convince us that it implies more than it actually does. (Is she explaining 10% of the world or 90% of it?) It’s also true that by picking the particular groups she does, Duckworth furthers a dangerous myth about “success.” She may have an accurate theory explaining variations among the people in the top 10% of the income distribution. But for the remaining 90%, whom she does not study, the determinants of “success” are far different. For them, social circumstances, rather than individual psychology, could be more important. When Duckworth puts aside “outside forces,” she somehow imagines that the mind can exist in a vacuum. That we can assume away the structural impediments to success, such as a lack of access to healthcare or a stable income, endemic interpersonal violence, state coercion, and persistent forms of bigotry. Because she only looks at success, but doesn’t study failure, she doesn’t see how perfectly gritty and determined kids can be held back by the misfortune of growing up in the wrong neighborhood.

Consequently, Duckworth’s findings could just as easily lend themselves to a full-throated endorsement of social democratic redistributionist policies and politics. She ends the book by acknowledging that grit is not the only thing that matters in life. She does say that she would much rather have good kids rather than gritty or great ones. Nevertheless, she emphasizes  individual psychology over social conditions:

“We all face limits—not just in talent, but in opportunity. But more often than we think, our limits are self-imposed. We try, fail, and conclude we’ve bumped our heads against the ceiling of possibility. Or maybe after taking just a few steps we change direction. In either case, we never venture as far as we might have…To be gritty is to invest, day after week after year, in challenging practice. To be gritty is to fall down seven times, and rise eight.”

This views life outcomes in terms of individual effort. But she could just as easily have concluded that in order for grit to matter, people need to be free of institutional barriers to success, or that we should make sure people aren’t pushed down seven times out of eight. If everyone started as social or economic equals, then grit might be the deciding factor. But they don’t start as equals.

If the core argument of Grit is that the ability to pursue one’s goals is far more important than innate differences in talent, then Duckworth could come out in favor of removing impediments to goal pursuing, such as the drudgery of low-wage labor. She could have taken a note from John Maynard Keynes in the Economic Possibilities of Our Grandchildren, who suggested that a future of abundant free-time would be the norm if the gains from technology are redistributed. Instead, Duckworth has given the misleading impression that grit is what’s needed to overcome structural obstacles, even though she has only studied people who have made it past those structural obstacles already.

Duckworth has given the misleading impression that grit is what’s needed to overcome structural obstacles, even though she has only studied the people who have made it past those structural obstacles already.

Absent this, Duckworth’s book therefore provides convenient arguments for those who wish to justify inequality. After all, it’s grit that determines success. If you don’t succeed, you’re probably just insufficiently gritty. This may partly explain why her book has reached such heights of popularity; Americans love theories that simultaneously tell individuals they can do anything (even though they probably can’t) and rationalize the economic status quo.

Of course, this isn’t what Duckworth says, and she cannot control the uses of her book. Journalists have over-simplified the findings of Grit. Moreover, she has been forthcoming and responsive to criticisms of the book, and in an interview with NPR said “I aspire to be a scientist who remains open to criticism because I can’t possibly be 100% right about everything!” Moreover, she came out publicly against a Department of Education initiative to transform grit into a portion of national educational assessment, writing in the New York Times that, “I worry I’ve contributed, inadvertently, to an idea I vigorously oppose: high-stakes character assessment.” Intellectual integrity like this must be celebrated.

But while Duckworth cannot perfectly control how her work will be used, she could nonetheless have made sure the book emphasized the limitations of her studies. She does frame grit as an exploration of the nature of success qua success, not one marginal aspect of success within a small non-representative subpopulation. And she does overplay her hand, arguing that grit is the secret sauce which is well beyond what her research can actually support.


Amy Cuddy’s work follows a similar pattern: an initial study with some interesting empirical findings, blown far beyond its boundaries into a theory of nearly everything. Unlike Duckworth, however, Cuddy bears more of the responsibility for the misrepresentation.

Cuddy’s major idea is “power poses,” the notion that if one adopts an open and expansive body posture, one can become less nervous and a better leader. Supposedly, the correct poses trigger one’s brain to increase the production of testosterone and lower the amount of cortisol. Cuddy’s initial experiments suggested that adopting a power pose for a few minutes had a measurable effect on body chemistry, pharmacologically inducing confidence and competence.

As attractive as that sounds, unfortunately, the central findings of Cuddy’s work have largely been discredited. Dorsa Amir, a biological anthropology PhD student at Yale, explained on a popular biology blog shortly after Cuddy’s book appeared that her ideas make little sense from a natural science standpoint:

“In general, hormones like testosterone and cortisol are dynamic. Both hormones have a diurnal rhythm, which means they change throughout the day. They’re also influenced by dozens of variables: the obvious ones like age, sex, and weight help determine clinical guidelines for what ‘normal’ levels look like….How did Cuddy and colleagues control for these phenomena? In short: they didn’t.”

Noted statistician Andrew Gelman of Columbia University and a colleague of his, Kaiser Fung, expressed further doubts that Cuddy followed sound statistical procedures. They wrote in Slate that the “power poses” concept was a prime example of “social scientific malpractice”: the small sample size of the original study meant that “variation is high, so anything that does appear to be statistically significant (the usual requirement for publication) will necessarily be large, even if it represents nothing but chance fluctuations.” In other words, one can immediately see how this “massive effect” was obtained: natural variation in hormonal levels between respondents led to variation before and after the poses, and given a small sample (42 people), a massive effect was found due to high levels of variation.

This criticism has led Cuddy’s colleagues to distance themselves from this work. For instance, Dana Carney, one of the coauthors of the original power poses paper, posted an unequivocal rebuke on her faculty website:

“I do not believe that ‘power pose’ effects are real. I discourage others from studying power poses. I do not teach power poses in my classes anymore. I do not talk about power poses in the media and haven’t for over 5 years (well before skepticism set in).”

In response, Cuddy shifted the goalposts, saying: “The key finding, the one that I would call ‘the power posing effect,’ is simple: adopting expansive postures causes people to feel more powerful… The other outcomes (behavior, physiology, etc.) are secondary to the key effect.” Notice how she has adjusted the claim. The original claim is that if one adopts a power pose, one’s primordial Darwinian brain stem goes into action, and one’s body chemistry shifts. This second claim Cuddy now defends is that if one adopts the power pose, one feels more powerful. But this isn’t much of a claim at all, since all it suggests is a placebo effect. (Although it should be noted that even this is dubious, since the findings themselves are likely just an artifact of statistical noise.)


Cuddy’s is a clearer case of malpractice. Her work was subjected to criticism for years prior to the publication of Presence. Unlike Duckworth, Cuddy has not responded to the scrutiny of the scientific process openly, and she has only recently dealt with it at all. Her 2007 study failed to replicate in 2010, yet she delivered a TED talk on her work in 2012 (now the second most watched talk of all time), and released Presence in 2015.

It’s a shame that Cuddy staked so much on power poses, because the (significant) portions of her book that have nothing to do with the poses are quite interesting. Her main point is about “presence” itself, which she defines as “the state of being attuned to and able to comfortably express our true thoughts, feelings, values, and potential.” These parts of her work are well-written and compelling. Her chapter on “imposter syndrome” and her self-doubts is written with great humanity and humility. She recounts the countless emails she has received from all over the world of people inspired by her work, especially young women in countries with brutal patriarchal structures. We are introduced to people who have overcome major adversities who went on to reach incredible academic and professional heights. Cuddy herself has quite a life-story: she entered her PhD program just a year after a traumatizing car accident that resulted in severe head trauma. If she had left aside the “science” of power poses, and instead mused on confidence, adversity, and the realization of human potential, it would have made for a solid and enlightening read.

Don’t bother to protest. Don’t attribute economic differences to historical forces or bigotry. Just strike the right pose.

Both of these psychology books have clearly scratched an itch: topping bestseller lists and establishing a public platform for both authors. And both have something in common: they purport to explain success as a function of individual-level characteristics, offering readers strategies to change themselves for the better. One book suggests that diligence and hard work pays off in the long run, while the other argues that interpersonal dynamics can be changed by adjusting one’s body language. These theories have in common that they individualize people’s social outcomes, suggesting that it’s factors of our own making (rather than, say, oppressive social structures) that shape our chances in life.

In placing so much emphasis on factors like grit and body language, Duckworth and Cuddy present a worryingly apolitical view of inequality. Look, they say, don’t bother to protest. God forbid you should join a union. Don’t attribute economic differences to historical forces, or to bigotry. Just strike the right pose. Grit your teeth. Forget structural disadvantages and the precarious post-industrial economy, just have passion and perseverance.


One can perhaps blame Malcolm Gladwell for a lot of this. In the late 2000s, Gladwell pioneered the “this nifty thing explains success” subgenre of nonfiction. Whether it was his 10,000-hours hypothesis (the Beatles were good because they practiced a lot) or his “David and Goliath” idea (seeming impediments can actually be people’s unique advantages), Gladwell offers a series of empirically questionable mini-theories, each of which is designed to explain success using every means other than social structure. Gladwell has dedicated his professional career to trying to uncover what it is about individuals that makes some succeed while others fail. He has never considered the possibility that perhaps it isn’t something about individuals at all. (One can imagine a Gladwell-style book cover with the title Capitalism: Why Some Individuals Succeed While Others Fail. But one cannot necessarily imagine anyone reading it.)

This also speaks to a broader incentive problem in the social sciences. In terms of making one a highly sought-after public intellectual, clever Gladwellian empirical findings are far more valuable than nuanced, humble career-spanning research. James Heckman, the Nobel Prize-winning economist who has spent his career refining statistical methods and empirically studying the sources of poverty, expressed his frustration in a 2005 interview with the Federal Reserve Bank of Minneapolis, “In some quarters of our profession, the level of discussion has sunk to the level of a New Yorker article: coffee-table articles about ‘cute’ topics, papers using ‘clever’ instruments….Most of this work is without substance, but it makes a short-lived splash and it’s easy to do. Many young economists are going for the cute and the clever at the expense of working on hard and important foundational problems.” Though he doesn’t name the book, Heckman is almost certainly referring in part to the effect of Freakonomics on the profession. Figuring out why some nations are poor and others are rich is a very hard question. One the other hand, producing clever statistics showing that Sumo wrestlers cheat, as Steven Levitt does in Freakonomics, is much more fun and lucrative.


The rewards of producing bestselling “pop” theories exist across professions. Niall Ferguson, the now Stanford-based economic historian and fetishist of empires, went from producing detailed histories of banking to pumping out books like Civilization: The West and the Rest which explained “The Six Killer Apps of Western Civilization.” Ferguson’s bestsellers landed him on the speaker circuit, enabling to him to charge more than $75,000 a pop for a talk. He evidently now goes from hedge fund to hedge fund telling financiers how morally sound and intellectually innovative their work is. At this, he is apparently quite good, at least according to Steve Drobny of Drobny Capital, who says: “Niall Ferguson is the best speaker we’ve hired for our hedge fund events.” Why bother to do the hard work when you can grift hedge fund managers with a quick spin through the killer apps of the West?

Ferguson, Gladwell, Duckworth, and Cuddy thereby illustrate two serious problems with the contemporary intelligentsia. First, you’re under great pressure to produce a novel empirical finding, and if you can develop one surprising enough, you can get yourself a TED talk. Second, there are deep anxieties within our contemporary society and economy, and the bestselling ideas are those that simultaneously flatter the rich and comfort the poor. Tell the wealthy they are gritty rather than lucky, that they are special Davids who slew Goliath. Tell them that they pose with power. Tell the poor that life is tough, but if they stick it out, and develop some presence, they too can make it. With a hell of a lot of people at the bottom, and a few at the top, one can do well by offering people secrets for how to get from one end to the other. Above all, don’t ever suggest that it’s luck or pre-existing wealth that determine your lot in life. What readers want is one weird trick to fix it all.

If you want to get rich, then, we know how to do it. The true secret to success may be neither grit nor presence. But Grit and Presence have certainly made their authors very successful indeed.

Peculiarities of the Yankee Confederate

When small town New Englanders embrace Dixie kitsch…

Earlier this year, my rural Massachusetts hometown became unexpectedly embroiled in controversy, after a police officer mounted a Confederate flag at his home in plain view of the 10-year-old African American boy who lived across the street. The boy’s parents, raising their son in the age of Tamir Rice, naturally felt somewhat alarmed to discover that local law enforcement harbored Confederate sympathies. The town’s Human Rights Commission (we have those here) was promptly alerted and a town meeting was called. There, most attendees condemned the officer’s actions and tried to explain the (seemingly) obvious racial subtext.

But plenty of town residents defended the officer. The local newspaper heard from readers insisting that “saying someone is racist by owning a flag” was far more racist than the flag itself. Another encouraged the boy’s family to “get over it,” lamenting that “if it’s not a flag, it’s how you say ‘happy holidays.’ If it’s not that, it’s a Starbucks cup.” And the officer’s own response? “The flag has no negative connotations to me.”

One can sympathize, for perhaps a second, with those professing themselves baffled by anyone “mad about a flag.” But for them, it may be useful to consider how the same response would sound if someone hoisted a “Death to Black People” flag with a picture of a lynching on it. “I can’t believe you’re mad about a flag; next you’ll be mad about a coffee cup” doesn’t sound quite so reasonable when we draw out what the Confederacy means to a black audience. (Remember, too, that it was not social justice types but right-wing Christians who threw a fit over the insufficient festiveness of the paper cups at Starbucks.) But the more curious question is: if the flag doesn’t have any negative connotations, what possible connotations does it have, when flown in small-town New England? What causes people born and raised in the North, many of them with no historical or familial connection to the South, to align themselves with a symbol of Southern pride, treason, and slavery?


When challenged, fans of the Stars ’n’ Bars have plenty of rehearsed answers. Most often, they will say they appreciate the Confederacy’s place in American history and lament the efforts of revisionist historians to erase it from our collective memory. And following up with “Appreciate what about it, precisely?” will get one nothing except mumbled clichés about the rebel spirit.

The charge that the left is attempting to wipe away history is a strange one. In reality, it would be nearly impossible to find a left-leaning historian who doesn’t want Americans to talk more about the Civil War, slavery, and Reconstruction in order to better understand modern institutional racism. Nobody is less inclined to erase the Confederacy from American history than the left. When we do see efforts to remove inconvenient facts from the standard curriculum, they usually come from conservatives in the South. It was the Texas Board of Education who refused to allow the fact-checking of history textbooks that used hilariously banal euphemisms to describe chattel slavery, referring to slaves as “immigrants” and “workers.” The movement to sanitize and decontextualize Confederate imagery is a far greater crime against the integrity of the historical record than the efforts of leftists to point out that the South did not just stand for “states’ rights,” but the states’ right to maintain a very particular thing. It’s their own fact-blindness that causes history-challenged conservatives to be genuinely stunned that anyone would want to remove the flag from the South Carolina State House after an avowed neo-Confederate and white supremacist massacred nine black churchgoers.

Understanding the cultural pathology behind Northern use of the Confederate flag is like understanding the rise of Donald Trump as a serious politician. It is inexplicable, essentially unfathomable. Yet one can attempt tentative hypotheses, which involve a nuanced examination of race, class, the rural/urban divide, and the widespread human attraction to nauseating kitsch. Just as one can only hope to approximate the structural causes of our 45th president, one can only guess cautiously at why, in the Berkshires of Connecticut and Massachusetts, the Stars and Stripes and the Stars and Bars can hang from the same flagpole without anyone batting an eye or sensing a paradox.


The entire idea of the flag as an enduring Southern symbol is its own revisionist lie. After all, the Stars and Bars flag was barely used in the Old South, revived only in the mid-20th century by white supremacists who would rather see black children hanged from trees than given equal access to the public school system. The symbols of the Confederacy had largely remained the domain of veterans groups until they were deliberately resurrected as a way to resist the Civil Rights Movement. The rebirth began shortly after World War II, when Truman’s decision to integrate the Army increased tensions between Northern and Southern Democrats and inspired Strom Thurmond to run for president as a Dixiecrat. Thurmond, the grandson of a Confederate veteran and a staunch segregationist, employed the battle flag in his campaign as an explicitly racist gesture. In 1956, Georgia creatively incorporated the battle flag design into its state flag to protest Brown v. Board of Education.

In 1961, Governor George Wallace raised the battle flag over the Alabama state capitol. Wallace, one of the most passionate defenders of segregation, also espoused a white-centered form of populism. He targeted the federal government not just because it outlawed segregated schools, but because it enriched elites at the expense of the common man. He tailored his message to blue-collar white voters who felt left behind and condescended to by Washington. Wallace had a gift for pandering: “…when the liberals and intellectuals say the people don’t have any sense, they talkin’ about us people… But hell, you can get good solid information from a man drivin’ a truck, you don’t need to go to no college professor”, he said in 1966. Rather than embracing a truly populist platform like Huey Long in the 1930s, Wallace encouraged his white supporters to direct most of their anger toward newly enfranchised blacks. When he ran as an independent in the 1968 presidential election he won 13.5% of the popular vote, a significant improvement upon Thurmond’s 2.4%. Despite being a neoconfederate at heart, he made significant headway outside the South, attracting tens of thousands at rallies above the Mason-Dixon line; his populist rhetoric and outsider image endeared him to blue-collar whites as far north as Wisconsin. Many union members who would have otherwise voted Democratic bought into his warning that integration would destroy the labor movement. (As always, people straddling the line between the lower and middle classes were the easiest prey for fear-based politics.) Through all this, Wallace stood with the Confederate flag behind him, figuratively and literally. Among the many disastrous consequences of the 1968 election was the permanent association of unpolished white populism with Southern pride. From then on, it became a safe bet that whenever lower-middle-class white resentment bubbled to the surface, no matter where in the country, it would come wrapped in the Confederate flag.


Northern whites lack a unified ethnocultural identity. This could be due to the outcome of the Civil War—the victors may write history, but the losers are often awash in fear, resentment, and self-pity. Such forces bind the populace together and can prove very dangerous in the hands of nationalists (think interwar Germany). It may also be due to their relative diversity; in the 19th and 20th centuries America received a massive influx of immigrants from all over Europe and the majority settled in the heavily industrialized Northeast and mid-Atlantic. Maintaining a straightforward regional identity in the face of constant demographic upheaval is difficult if not impossible.

Now, imagine yourself in the rural North in an age where it is mandated that you consciously create a capital-I Identity for yourself. One is supposed to create this “identity” through consumer choices and Facebook cover photos. You are white, as are most of the people you know. You have a high school education and all your employment prospects are either blue collar or low-level white collar. You subscribe to a personal philosophy that emphasizes disciplined physical labor as the bedrock of proper morality, but you also take pride in your lack of city-boy etiquette and frequently engage in lighthearted but legal hedonism. How do you categorize yourself? What do you “identify” as?

Well, fortunately, an identity just for you has been consolidated into a few symbols, hobbies, and character traits, turned into a packaged cultural commodity for your instantaneous adoption and consumption. This identity is The South. The fake, commodified South, that is, not to be confused with the actually existing South, which has a rich cultural history and (unlike the commodified South) has black people in it. This imaginary South is about all-camo outfits and huntin’, fishin’, and spittin’ to spite coastal elites who want to make it illegal to hunt, fish, and spit. The commodified South is Duck Dynasty, McDonald’s sweet tea, and country songs that have “country” in the title. People seem to really like this stuff, which is why, compared to other regions, the South is overrepresented among Zippo lighter designs and truck decals.

Partially divorced of context, what was once a symbol of an aristocratic slave society becomes, paradoxically, part of a tradition of populist Americana along with John Wayne, Chief Wahoo, and the Pixar version of Route 66. Fully divorced of context, the flag becomes a symbol of vague, noncommittal rebellion. It takes its place alongside a series of meaningless but ubiquitous kitschy products including wolf shirts, the pissing Calvin decal, skull-adorned lighters, and overly aggressive Minions memes about what people can and can’t do before you’ve had your coffee.

The small bit of context that the flag does retain is used to sinister ends. Among rural whites, a watered-down version of neoconfederate ideology serves as a kind of mutant substitute for class consciousness. This is especially evident in modern country music, where many songs are essentially a bullet point list of stereotypes: big trucks, cheap beer, dirt roads, and physically demanding blue collar work. Take, for example, Lee Brice’s 2014 smash hit “Drinking Class”:

“I belong to the drinking class / Monday through Friday, man we bust our backs / If you’re one of us, raise your glass / I belong to the drinking class.”

The structure of Brice’s lyrics shows a keen awareness of socioeconomic class. But this is not the labor movement’s conception of class, with its exhortation to social change. The Lee Brice theory of class is empty of meaning. It’s hopeless and sad; nothing is left but solipsistic in-group pride and alcoholism. The vice neuters any revolutionary fervor. A member of the Drinking Class isn’t interested in social climbing and he would never dream of doing away with class distinctions altogether.


The Drinking Class man knows life is pretty rotten, that you work and drink until you die. But, strongly encouraged by millionaire tribunes of the working poor like the guy from Dirty Jobs, the guy from Duck Dynasty, and the guy from Larry the Cable Guy (plus fellow reality star Donald J. Trump), he adopts flimsy, prejudiced rationalizations to explain his very real feelings of being forgotten and exploited. He justifies his toil as morally necessary, rather than exploitative. And like a surly teen alienated from his parents and bored with masturbation, he joins a cultural clique and cements his place in it by lashing out at its real or imaginary enemies. To get back at the elites who mocked him for making little sense, he begins to do things that make little sense, such as flying a Confederate flag in Massachusetts. (Half-assed clique membership is often embarrassing, like when homophobic metalheads get tricked into wearing leather daddy outfits.)

We can therefore find explanations, if not justifications, for the peculiar existence of our Yankee Confederate. Some of it is stupid, some of it is racist, and some of it is a misguided response to the need for identity and solidarity. Like depressed teens, alienated rural whites aren’t imagining their suffering, and they do have legitimate grievances about the unending despair of the American status quo. But they have reacted in a way that’s difficult to defend either rationally or morally.

The solution here is to organize against the policies that created an alienated rural working class in the first place. To the extent that the flag is a product of the search for identity and community, one needs to have a better, less appalling identity to offer people. To the extent that the flag is a product of racism, what is racism itself a product of? Working class whites have often blamed their problems on nonwhites, but this is irrational scapegoating. And since it’s irrational scapegoating, the left should think seriously about how to give people real explanations for their problems, as well as solutions. The New England Confederate is a bizarre and horrifying sight, but he is not without his structural causes. If we can offer a unifying message to working class people of all races, we may see fewer members of the Drinking Class embrace backward cultural symbols and buy into the South as consumer lifestyle brand. Stars and Bars keychains may create a cheap rush of ersatz proletarian solidarity, but they are no substitute for the real thing.

Illustrations by Gurleen Rai

Finding Your Inner Gorilla

Examining the written works of alt-right Twitter troll Mike Cernovich…

Making money off saps has always been the real American Dream, and by this measure Mike Cernovich is doing his best to truly live out our great national aspiration. One not might have thought the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump would make compelling raw material for a self-help franchise, but in MAGA Mindset: Making YOU and America Great Again, Cernovich manages to meld the nationalist rhetoric of the “alt-right” with the affirmational platitudes of The Secret.

Over the course of the presidential campaign, Cernovich built up a reputation as the man too toxically right-wing for even FOX News. When the network invited him on, a RedState blogger exclaimed, “They’re giving this motherfucker legitimacy? Oh my god!” Cernovich, after all, is a Pizzagate truther known for sending tweets about how date rape doesn’t exist. He regularly uses the word “bitch” in describing women, and has called the Syrian refugee crisis a media-created “hoax.” Yet Cernovich has built up a considerable platform on (where else?) Twitter, where he preaches to a swarm of over one hundred and fifty thousand followers.

In his conspiratorial and misogynistic pronouncements, Cernovich is a run-of-the-mill creature of the online alt-right. He nevertheless makes for an interesting subspecimen, as one of the only fixtures of the movement to parlay his politics into a self-help brand. Cernovich’s blog and books are not just Trumpist propaganda. They sell a lifestyle, a package of inspirational macho clichés to help weedy, socially inept men become their ultimate selves. Cernovich takes Trump’s sales pitch one step further: Make America Great Again is not just a political program. It is a whole new you.

Cernovich himself is a classic rags-to-riches story: the inspiring metamorphosis of a poor, fat kid from the Midwest into a fully-fledged asshole in Venice Beach, California. During this remarkable journey, Cernovich learned martial arts, went to law school, was accused of rape, self-published three entire books on juicing, married a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, was divorced by a highly successful Silicon Valley patent attorney, got a seven-figure alimony payout, rose to internet prominence by savaging a bunch of female gamers on Twitter, and finally became a thought-leader in the world of tinhat fake news (e.g.: “The Orlando Shooter Did Not Act Alone”). Also, his podcast has more followers than James Altucher’s. (We have no idea who James Altucher is either, but Mike Cernovich mentions this fact in every single one of his books, so we must assume it is one of Cernovich’s more significant achievements.)

Cernovich’s internet writings include such thinkpieces as “How to Choke a Woman During Sex” and, entirely unrelatedly, “How to Avoid a False Rape Case.” (Cernovich’s professional advice is that you should secretly film the woman during sex.) Given this provocative online oeuvre, the surprising thing about Cernovich’s first self-help book, Gorilla Mindset (other than how little it actually discusses gorillas), is just how milquetoast and prototypical Cernovich’s advice is. Confronting your challenges, reaching your goals, maintaining your focus. For a masculinist tract, parts of it have a surprisingly Chicken Soup for the Soul vibe.

The gorilla conceit itself goes unexplained. Why gorillas? Presumably because they are muscly and do not suffer from self-doubt. (They are also, however, not known for being especially sophisticated political thinkers, a fact one may wish to bear in mind when assessing how much credence to give Cernovich’s theory of an international war on whites.) The gorilla mindset seems to have something to do with unleashing an inner animal. But what gorillas have to offer, other than large chests and a constrained capacity for higher-order reasoning, one is never told.

We do learn one characteristic of people with gorilla mindsets, which is that they are very organized. “When stepping outside of my door and before closing the door,” Cernovich reveals, “I stop. I feel for my wallet, cell phone, and keys. Because of this Gorilla Mindset habit, I have never locked myself out of my apartment.” A real gorilla never forgets his keys! Mike Cernovich is laying down all the hard truths those effeminate left-wing nature documentaries will never tell you. Later on, in a list of Gorilla Focus habits, we are told that gorillas “do not eat in front of the television.” A real gorilla knows this will only make him lose track of his calorie intake! The discoveries continue to pile on. A real gorilla pees eight times a day, clear urine! A real gorilla always registers as self-employed on his tax returns! A real gorilla COOKS WITH A CROCKPOT!

Cernovich’s next book, Danger & Play, continues the themes of Gorilla Mindset in a more aggressive style. The content is edgier, the formatting is far worse, and Mike Cernovich wants you to know that he is done coddling you. Straight away, he lays down the central traits of Masculine Men. Masculine men are aggressive. Masculine men move with purpose. But above all else, masculine men are hard. Do you have what it takes to be hard, Cernovich taunts his eunuch readers, or are you a coward? “Are you afraid of drinking a green juice?” he asks, “and instead look for your milk and cookies?”

Cernovich’s writing on dating and relationships is predictably full of bad advice. “Acting like a narcissist will make people like you,” he says. (This is not the case.) There’s the usual stuff from “pick-up artist” culture about being mean to women to make them like you, and about how it’s a good idea to bite a woman on the neck if you’re not totally sure she wants you to kiss her. (Though you’d better make sure you film it, lest you be brought up on a false vampirism charge.) His declarations often have the interesting quality, in common with virgins writing letters to Penthouse, of leading the reader to emit a long “Suuuuuuuure.” “My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination,” he insists. (Suuuure it was.) “I was friends with a lot of girls who had crushes on me, but I was too polite to fuck them.” (Suuuuure they did.) Not all of the claims he makes are implausible, though. A long list of “what I juiced this week” (including recipes for cabbage carrot juice, kale lemonade, and a celery refresher) is too exhaustively-documented to be fictionalized.


One can glimpse the fruits of Cernovich’s gender philosophy in a New Yorker profile of him, which portrays his current marriage as wracked by tension and nervous laughter on the part of his indulgent wife. (“Never marry for love,” Cernovich advised his readers in a December 2016 blog post, published just two days after his wife gave birth to their child.) Cernovich’s principled commitment to being an asshole to women seems to have, shockingly enough, caused its share of tearful rifts in the home:

Early in Shauna’s relationship with Mike, she read Danger and Play, including such posts as “How to Cheat on Your Girlfriend.” She said, “I would come home from work crying—‘How can you write such rude things?’ He’d go, ‘You don’t understand, babe, this is just how guys talk.’ ” (Advice from the blog: “Always call your girl ‘babe,’ ” to avoid mixing up names.) Shauna, who has stopped working, continued, “I was still upset, though, and he eventually deleted some older posts.” “I rewrote some of the wording,” Mike insisted. “I never disavow things I’ve said.”

Though Cernovich may draw a principled distinction between disavowing and deleting the things he’s said in the past, he certainly has no aversion to simply lying. His championing of Donald Trump, for example, began as a cynical ploy to sell e-books. In a 2015 Twitter exchange with a follower, who remarked that Cernovich “took a damn sharp turn to the right,” Cernovich replied: “My real views are far more moderate, but now is the time to win. Arguing over details is reserved for the winners.”

MAGA Mindset, Cernovich’s Trump-themed book, is 75% alt-right screed against the evils of feminism and the ethnic adulteration of the United States, and 25% of the usual warmed-over gorilla feces sandwiched between Trump block quotes. Cernovich is eager, in this book, to cast himself as a defender of white working-class folk against the diabolical coastal elites who say that such people “deserve to die.” This is a fascinating evolution from Cernovich’s pre-election view, which was that the people from his own small Midwestern town were human garbage. “My brother is a loser who just got out of prison for shooting his meth dealer,” he writes in Danger and Play. “I haven’t talked to him in more than a decade. Why would I associate with such a scumbag? Because he’s family?” If Cernovich himself hadn’t moved to California, he added, “I’d be stuck working a shit job in a shit downtown, married to some shit cow and raising some shit kids.” Instead, he’s now living the dream in Orange County, alternating between making his wife cry and blogging about liberal media conspiracies. He is truly a populist in the Donald Trump mold.

“My first marriage was ruined by feminist indoctrination…”

Reading Cernovich, one gets the distinct impression that he is urgently trying to prove something. The New Yorker profile provides one possible explanation of this might be:

After law school, his wife became a successful attorney in Silicon Valley. But Cernovich was not admitted to the California bar until nine years after getting his law degree. In the meantime, he says, he got by with “freelance legal research” and “appellate stuff.” Cernovich’s wife earned millions of dollars in stock from an I.P.O.; he told me that he received “seven figures” in the divorce settlement. This seems to have been, and might still be, his primary source of funds. (He insists that book sales provide his main income.)

Thus Cernovich, who wishes to restore American masculinity, is a parasite on his much more successful ex-wife. (It is this, presumably, to which he is referring when he says that feminism killed his first marriage.) The amusing thing, when delving into the Cernovich’s writings, is realizing just how contrived and desperate the masculine posturing seems. Margaret Pless, a blogger who has made it her gleeful mission to catalogue Cernovich’s many egregious fibs and hypocrisies, has described Cernovich as a “Potemkin Alpha Male,” whose online persona is cobbled together from a whole host of unlikely claims. Though Cernovich boasts of his lawyerly credentials—and routinely threatens lawsuits against his opponents during online feuds—he has apparently never served as counsel in a single state or federal court case. Though he’s publicly mocked other men for accepting alimony, he’s also repeatedly contradicted his own claims that his media products have been the source of his financial success, and seems content to stealthily subsist on the drippings of his high-powered ex-wife’s IPO. His pickup game includes such medically dubious advice as “the best condom a man has is the skin on his dick,” and even his 10,000 juicing books contain lengthy legal disclaimers against foolish readers who expect any kind of health benefit from his recipes. “Although Michael claims to be a self-made man, he trolls more well-known men, drafting off their fame to get attention,” Pless writes. “His tales of sexual conquest are just that, and Michael’s legal career is a similarly trumped-up story with little to no basis in fact.”

One could be amused by Cernovich’s constant attempts to puff himself into the gorilla he knows he isn’t. After all, if this is masculinity, then masculinity is pitiable. And it’s a shame that Mike Cernovich and his followers feel the need to become these ghastly creatures, who call women bitches and never leave the gym, just so they don’t feel like failures. It says something dispiriting about the way boys are raised. Cernovich himself writes of a childhood plagued by bullies, which led him to adopt the following life philosophy: “I hurt anyone who wrongs me and hold lifetime grudges.” One feels for the boy Cernovich, the pudgy kid with the speech impediment, who still spends every day trying to prove himself to his imagined tormentors.

Yet as much pity as one may have for men destroyed by the impossible quest to eliminate personal failure and weakness, the Cernovich mentality is still disturbing. By finding a way to fuse Trumpism with self-esteem building, Cernovich offers a tempting ideological framework for today’s angry white man. One of the ways that Cernovich distinguishes himself from other conservatives is that his brand of right-wing politics openly embraces power rather than logic. Cernovich does not want to have a debate. He wants to achieve dominance. One hesitates to use the word fascist, because of its emptiness. But Cernovich, like Trump, seems a dash like Mussolini by way of Norman Vincent Peale.

Not that Cernovich’s books themselves are especially threatening. The reader feels more likely to die of tedium than at the hands of right-wing terror squads. Your reviewers had a very difficult time getting through them (the Cernovich assignment required two reporters, as the boredom was too much to justify inflicting on one). They are not very slickly made. The paperback version of Cernovich’s blog posts includes hyperlinks that do not work because they are, well, on paper. For MAGA Mindset, someone has evidently forgotten to include the page numbers (even though there is a table of contents). They are produced by a tiny publishing house whose other offerings include There Will Be War, Vol I-X and a guide to “extreme composting.” (None of the usual weak, girly composting here. You must compost like a man.)

Under different circumstances, one might be inclined to simply give Cernovich a gentle pat on the head and coo “There, there,” perhaps also passing him a recommendation for a good therapist, who could help him work through some of his lingering complexes about his childhood. But unfortunately, Trump is president, and the cruel, self-aggrandizing philosophy that could usually be met with ostracism and disdain now threatens us all. Mike Cernovich’s philosophy of vanity, bombast, and sexual assault has become national policy.

None of that changes the underlying facts, though. A gorilla may be strong enough to mash you into the pavement, but that doesn’t mean he knows anything. A man may get a lot of people to buy his books, but that doesn’t mean they are good. And an insecure, narcissistic rapist may look in the mirror and fancy himself a great and powerful beast, but he’s still Mike Cernovich. 

Illustration by Tyler Rubenfeld.

Why Journalists Love Twitter

Tweets make lazy political journalism easier than ever…

Journalists have always been lazy. Anyone who pines for a Golden Age of diligent reportage, when a writer would pound the pavement in search of a good lead, or phone source after source demanding the truth, has never actually picked up an old newspaper or magazine and examined its contents. Then, as now, most writing was swill: thinly-sourced, trivial in subject matter, and slobberingly deferential to power. The All the President’s Men era of American journalism lasted exactly the duration of the film All the President’s Men. Do crack investigative reporters exist? Yes. Do they mostly end up fired, or at least in constant conflict with authority? They do. Meanwhile, most of the press remains, as ever, a content mill.

Given that much of the media consists of content-for-the-sake-of-content, the introduction of Twitter came as something of a godsend to journalists. With 500 million new Tweets rolling in every day, and nearly 310 million active monthly users, Twitter offers a sprawling bank of quotable sources. Tweets from all lands are ripe for plucking and republishing,

Hashtags, then, have become something of a goldmine for online publications. Sites like BuzzFeed have made a name for themselves in co-opting tweets from teenagers to pad out their pages with such heady articles as “Just 28 Really Real Tweets About Gymnastics” and “19 Tweets Anyone Addicted To Diet Coke Will Completely Relate To.” But it’s also increasingly common to see tweets quoted as sources in articles from CNN or The New York Times, who can produce the appearance of doing man-on-the-street reporting even as they sit at their desks trawling through Twitter. With millions of members of the public jabbering at one another at all times, Twitter is a vast ever-refreshing quote bank, an extraordinary tool for the writer in an age of 24-hour demands for fresh content.

There’s a basic ethical problem to the BuzzFeed-style practice of culling and republishing tweets. This model of article, which simply repackages memes, quips, and observations created by Twitter users, profits from people’s writing without compensating them for it (and in many cases, without properly crediting them). This constitutes a kind of low-level theft (somewhat like bullying a nerd to do your math homework, if the nerd was a preteen with 100 Twitter followers and you were a multimillion dollar publishing house), and there’s something disquieting about seeing people’s wit being resold for profit without their permission.

But Twitter-based journalism is disturbing for reasons that go far beyond questions of intellectual property and attribution. Using Twitter as a prism through which to examine and report the world creates a narrow and distorted impression of reality. And with journalists already prone to clubby insularity, Twitter provides new ways for them to confirm their preexisting worldviews, and further wall themselves off from ordinary experience. As a consequence, the world reported in the press is the world that exists on Twitter, not the world as it actually exists.

Twitter is not a normal place, though its users are ostensibly normal people. Like a Petri dish forgotten in a warm, moist cabinet, it has developed some truly curious cultures. Facilitated by its ease of use and offer of anonymity, Twitter has borne a plethora of unique subgroups with names as terrifying as “ISIS twitter” (self-explanatory), “Woke Twitter” (tweeters who focus on social justice issues, often to the point of self parody), and “Irony Twitter” (tweeters who communicate only in irony and sarcasm). Each of these groups has developed their own vernacular, traditions, and jokes, much like one would expect of high school cliques, or minor league gangs. Far from being some kind of lofty online manifestation of the “public square,” Twitter has become the digital equivalent of a stall wall in a public high school bathroom, one in which Neo-Nazis and Communists compete with one another for the most obnoxious Sharpie doodles.

Thus presenting tweets as evidence of some national or global trend (rather than as a trend on a social media platform) is several shades of problematic. Inevitably, if we take trending hashtags for actual trends, we will be dealing with a biased sample: we are looking at what is popular among people who spend time on Twitter rather than among people more broadly. Forgetting the Internet’s biases creates delusion. We may treat the artisanal cupcake blogs we follow on Tumblr as representative of every cupcake in the world, but frozen, flavor-free grocery-store cupcakes are destined to remain the norm in most of real life.

When it comes to political journalism, treating the Internet as representative of reality can heavily bias coverage. It’s because the press gets its worldview from Twitter that it was stunned by the persistence of support for Donald Trump. After all, subsequent to every new vulgar eruption from Trump’s mouth during the campaign, a torrent of outrage poured forth on Twitter, leading pundits to repeatedly declare that Trump’s campaign was finally dead (The Onion captured this kind of wishful insistence nicely with the headline: “‘This Will Be The End Of Trump’s Campaign,’ Says Increasingly Nervous Man For Seventh Time This Year”). Yet Trump maintained support from nearly half the electorate. It was almost as if the online world was a poor representation of the world at large. One is reminded here of Pauline Kael’s frequently misconstrued remark on the 1972 election, in which she observed how closed-off her New York social life made her: “I live in a rather special world. I only know one person who voted for Nixon. Where they are I don’t know. They’re outside my ken.” Kael’s remark was frequently spun as comically ignorant (it was misquoted as “I don’t know how Nixon could have won; nobody I know voted for him”), but it actually showed an impressive self-awareness about the detachment of the media from the public, one that most of today’s political pundits couldn’t achieve even if they set their best unpaid interns on it.


For writers, Twitter provides a way of deepening one’s obliviousness and caressing one’s ego. Twitter allows commentators to follow only those whose opinions they wish to consume, and to receive instantaneous praise from their own followers. Thus Twitter provides a streamlined platform from which to shamelessly pimp out your writing to a self-selected group of people who are likely to read it. It’s a wonderful place to reaffirm your beliefs, and it’s so easy to do so on a platform designed to allow you to tailor the information you receive to what you want to hear, or what you know you’ll agree with.

Twitter does have its egalitarian component, however. At its best it is firmly anti-elitist, giving a platform to those who would previously have gone unheard. Some of these people (e.g. the neo-Nazis) had been pushed to the fringes for good reason, but others were excluded from mainstream discourse simply because mainstream discourse has a tendency to be snobby, corporate-driven, and exclusive. And where once one would have had to penetrate the Manhattan gala-and-book-talk scene in order to hurl abuse at a New York Times opinion columnist, now anyone with an internet connection can politely explain to Nicholas Kristof precisely why he is utterly and completely full of shit (an opportunity that the Current Affairs editorial staff takes regular advantage of). The platform thus allows for an unprecedented level of contact between the unwashed public and our patrician overlords.

But one should not overstate the case, and risk painting Twitter as some sort of classless comradely paradise. Pundits can easily filter out dissenting voices from the public, and sometimes take on the appearance of kings and queens holding court before an audience of adoring Followers. And while Twitter amplifies new voices, it does not seem to expand worldviews. For pundits, the general effect seems to be a winnowing down of their informational intake, to the point where it consists almost entirely of the words of other pundits.

To see the consequences of Twitter-centric journalism, one can examine one of the most repeated stories of the Democratic primary: the so-called rise of the “BernieBro.” In October of 2015, Robinson Meyer of The Atlantic published a brief article titled “Here Comes the Berniebro.” Meyer, a largely Twitter-dwelling journalist (having 40,100 tweets to his name, plus 41,100 “likes” of other people’s tweets), suggested that a new phenomenon had arisen in American politics. The Bernie Sanders campaign was attracting a noxious wave of supporters, whom Meyer christened the “BernieBros.” This group was “very male, […] white; well-educated; middle-class (or, delicately, “upper middle-class”) and “aware of NPR podcasts and jangly bearded bands.” He described these supporters as obstinate and aggressive in their online presence, prone to “performative” appraisals of feminism, and (perhaps worst of all) firm in their belief that Sanders “really could win.” Meyer, himself a white man, castigated these white, male Sanders voters for supporting the sins of “free college for all and a $15 minimum wage” and for falling for “Sanders’s rhetoric that America is trapped in a number of deep, unprecedented crises.”

But aside from Meyer’s bizarre contempt for Sanders voters’ idealism, the article suffered from a simple problem: there was no evidence whatsoever that some kind of “BernieBro” trend actually existed. The theory that there was something distinctly “bro-ish” about Sanders supporters was in direct conflict with the actual demographic facts (a concession Meyer even made in the article, noting that “Sanders’s support skews young, but not particularly male”). Aside from a few dozen isolated tweets, largely by anonymous and unpopular users, nobody could seem to locate the whereabouts of these storied “bros.” To be sure, one could find occasional nasty remarks about Hillary Clinton made in comment sections (although when Glenn Greenwald investigated the examples being cited, he found some of the “BernieBros” turned out to be conservatives or women). People of all stripes are assholes on the internet, though, and no effort was made to answer the real questions, which was how many of these “bros” actually existed.

In a sensible world, then, Meyer’s article should not have even been a footnote in the history of the election. It should have been laughed off as shockingly obtuse. Yet somehow, a flimsy story based on a sample of Robinson Meyer’s Facebook newsfeed ended up – miserably – setting the tone for much of the remainder of the online primary. Instead, the political media in residence on Twitter took the specter of Bernie Bros and went hog wild. Soon everyone from Jamil Smith at The New Republic to Amanda Marcotte of Salon had latched onto the fantasy of an army of evil white men who supported socialist policies as a means of furthering racism and sexism. Smith wrote that unless Sanders could somehow contain the “bros,” they would damage his political prospects. The New Yorker published a cringingly unfunny and cruel “BernieBro Code” containing the “rules” such creatures live by (e.g. “A Bernie Bro is legitimately glad that his uninformed, mainstreamer aunt is part of a generation that is going to be dead soon.”) Paul Krugman, dissatisfied with Sanders’ economic proposals, went so far as to declare that Bernie himself “is becoming a Bernie Bro.” The Sanders campaign was forced to apologize for the BernieBros, despite there being scant evidence of their actual existence.

The explosion of the fake BernieBro trend was both fascinating and appalling. The narrative ruled media Twitter for months, and despite demographic data continually debunking it, pundits clung to it like a safety blanket. It became a convenient way to dismiss all criticisms of Hillary Clinton that didn’t come from someone with a byline in a major publication or a degree from an Ivy League school. In fact, Olivia Nuzzi of The Daily Beast reported in June that she was skeptical of the BernieBros idea, for the simple reason that the Clinton campaign had tried to pitch her a story about the phenomenon. The BernieBros line proved convenient for the Clinton camp, as it shifted press coverage to questions like “How will Sanders stop the BernieBros?” and away from substantive policy.

The BernieBros story showed how news can be manufactured in an age of Twitter punditry: a writer grabs a few stray tweets and produces an article declaring them a nationwide event. Other writers, sharing both the first writer’s political persuasion and constant need to emit content, issue commentaries on the phenomenon, citing the first writer’s article as their source. Pundits quote pundits who quote tweets. Then there are more tweets, then additional punditry. At no point is the story checked against the real world: it is solely a dialogue between The New Yorker, The Atlantic, and Twitter.

Thus there are real-world political consequences to this type of shoddy reporting; we at least know that it can filter into a presidential primary. There’s a feedback loop between the media and political elite, and Twitter provides a convenient means of fabricating stories to further particular interests. One can create the news entirely to fit one’s agenda and worldview, since there are always Twitter subcommunities where a certain thing is true, even if it is nonexistent in the wider world.

It can be harder to ascertain motive when all of this back-and-forth occurs online. With conventional network political coverage, sycophancy is easily detected. One could simply turn on Meet The Press, and witness Chuck Todd’s eyeballs morph gruesomely into hearts whenever he was seated across from John McCain or Chuck Schumer. On Twitter, with its veneer of equality, it can be difficult to determine who is doing what for which reasons.

Multiple kinds of journalistic dysfunction are enabled by Twitter. One can draw a distinction between the purely profit-driven lazy journalism of BuzzFeed and the brown-nosing and status-driven journalism of New York magazine or The New Republic. The former is simply unfortunate, in that it gradually turns everyone stupid. The latter, however, is actively pernicious. Through the magic of Twitter, political journalists form incestuous cliques that reaffirm their prejudices, then their own publications treat those cliques as the boundaries of the social world. Twitter helps make politicians our friends, and makes journalists friends with politicians. We have developed an online political culture that is a-okay with calling Dianne Feinstein their “queen” or 83-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg their “mom.” That is not something a healthy society does.

Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much, though. Most of the world happily gets along without ever thinking about what The Atlantic has to say about anything. In writing about Twitter punditry, one runs the risk of reinforcing the very problem one is diagnosing, and attributing an outsized real-world significance to inconsequential commentators. But it remains true that political media sets agendas, and if a presidential candidate is forced to spend time responding to empty rubbish spread by pundits, this is time that cannot be spent campaigning. While the inhabitants of Twitter may constitute a comparatively small fraction of the American public, they make a comparatively large fraction of the country’s noise. To the extent that it escapes the Internet and poisons us all, their obsession with the insignificant could very well be significant.

Illustration by Lewis Rossignol.

Why You Should Never, Ever Listen To Nate Silver

Part I of our “How The Press Failed You” Series…

Of all people, Nate Silver should probably not have been gloating the morning after Election Day. After all, having made his reputation as a statistical wunderkind by predicting 49 states correctly in the 2008 race, Silver called five states wrong in the 2016 election, assuming Hillary Clinton would end up with 302 electoral votes (she got 232).

In fact, the entire 2016 campaign season was been characterized by a series of spectacular Silver blunders. Not only did he notoriously give Hillary Clinton a greater than 99% chance of winning the Michigan primary (she lost), and bungle Indiana as well, but he spent much of the past 18 months emitting a series of embarrassing declarations as well as ludicrous prophecies that totally failed to materialize. Let us go through a sample:

“I wonder how much of the Trump Bump is just voters trolling pollsters,” Two Good Reasons Not To Take the Donald Trump ‘Surge’ Seriously — July 16, 2015.

“Basically Trump is the Nickelback of presidential candidates. Disliked by most, super popular with a few.” — July 28, 2015

“PREDICTION: Trump won’t be the Republican /nominee.” — Aug. 6, 2015

“Media: Trump’s doing great! Nerds: No. Those polls don’t mean what you think. Media: A new poll shows Trump doing great! Proved you wrong!” —  Aug. 9, 2015

“Donald Trump is winning the polls and losing the nomination.” — Aug. 11, 2015

“About 25% of Americans identify as Republican. Donald Trump’s getting about 25% of that 25% in the polls. Why is this impressive to people?” — Nov. 19, 2015

“Dear media, Please stop freaking out about Donald Trump’s polls.” — Nov. 23, 2015.

“As for me, I remain quite skeptical of Trump’s chances. I also think his nomination would be an unmitigated catastrophe for Republicans.”  Nov. 29, 2015

“Idea that ‘Trump would win an election today’ also dubious. If election were today, voters would be more informed and news cycle different.” — Dec. 4, 2015

(in response to Rupert Murdoch tweeting that Trump’s “cross-party appeal” was a “winning strategy”): “Actually, Trump is by far the least popular Republican with independents (and Democrats)” Jan. 15, 2016

“Wait it’s just now sinking in that Trump might be a wee bit problematic as a general election candidate?” — March 20, 2016

“Trump’s general elex numbers have been terrible since he launched bid. Media barely noticed during 2015 Trumpmania.” — March 29, 2016

“[Idea of Trump being presumptive nominee by mid-May] is delusional. Math doesn’t work.” — April 9, 2016

“The bad news for Trump is that a poll showing him 5 points down is considered good news for Trump.” — June 26, 2016

“Perhaps the worst take is the ‘Trump’s actually doing well to only be down by 7!!!’ take. He’s the least popular major-party nominee ever.” — Aug. 3, 2016

“Trump has been super unpopular with the November electorate pretty much forever.” — Aug. 16, 2016

“Trump is doubling down on a losing strategy.” — Aug. 18, 2016

“[The] most delusional part of Trump thinking he has a silent majority is how small a fraction of the population he’s even bothering to appeal to.” — Aug. 13, 2016

On the whole, it’s a humiliating record. In the primaries, Silver didn’t even do as well as Carl Diggler, a fictional parody-pundit who literally just makes stuff up based on whatever his gut tells him. Presuming Silver is supposed to be something different from the rest of the jabbering punditocracy, his career should be over.

Yet bizarrely, in the days after the election, Silver was bragging about his performance. Silver insisted that after Election Night, he felt vindication, and scoffed that some major pundits had been “smugly dismissive of Trump’s chances.” Looking back on Silver’s record of statements on Trump, one wonders to which pundits he may have been referring. For over a year (July 2015 to Aug. 2016) he wrote smug “dear media” letters about Trump-hype and called Trump’s strategy “delusional,” insisting that Trump just didn’t understand the math. Having expressed regret after the primary for “acting like a pundit” and underestimating Trump, in the general election he was still acting like a pundit and underestimating Trump.

Thus Silver took a cheerful victory lap, despite having totally failed, repeatedly and embarrassingly, to provide any information of use. He bases his claim to have succeeded off his having given Trump a somewhat higher probability of a win than some other people, despite still thinking Clinton was the definite favorite. But it doesn’t take a statistical genius to be cautious in a situation of high volatility. (The main reason Silver is being praised for being wrong is that a man named Sam Wang of something called the Princeton Election Consortium was even more wrong, giving Clinton a 99% probability of a win.)

The myth of Nate Silver’s continued usefulness is based on a careful moving of goalposts. His initial claim to fame was based on number of states correctly predicted. But in 2016, if we measured by that number (especially if we subtracted the states whose outcomes were most obvious), Silver wouldn’t look good at all. So now we’re invited to focus on a different statistic, the percentage chance of an overall Trump win. Conversely, when it’s the percentage chance that goes wrong, Silver reminds us how many races he called correctly. Like a television psychic, Silver is able to carefully draw your attention to that which he gets right and ignore that which he gets wrong. If the probability percentages look good, but he screws up a large number of races, we should look at percentages. If those look terrible, as they did in Michigan, we should forget them and think about numbers of states.

Similarly, Silver will make predictions that have multiple components, so that if one part fails, the overall prediction will seem to have come true, even if its coming true had no relation to the reasons Silver originally offered. See, e.g., “It’s a tight race. Clinton’s the favorite but close enough that Trump would probably pull ahead if he ‘wins’ debate.” Silver can look back and say “I saw that Trump could pull ahead.” But what he actually predicted was that Trump could pull ahead based on debate performance. If he pulls ahead for some other reason, Silver is completely wrong (because he had excluded that other possibility), yet he seems right.

When one goes through Silver’s Twitter feed for the election cycle, one sees him predicting nearly every damn thing in the universe. Sometimes Clinton is winning, sometimes Trump is winning. Sometimes anything could happen, as in the below tweet:

Each of these outcomes now about equally likely: —Clinton landslide (8+ point win) —Obamaish win (4-7 points) —Narrow Clinton win —Trump win

Silver makes sure to hedge every statement carefully so that he can never actually be wrong. And when things don’t go his way, he lectures the public on their ignorance of statistics. After all, probability isn’t certainty, he didn’t say it would definitely happen. And of course, that’s completely true. But recognize what it means: even when Silver isn’t wrong, because he’s hedged everything carefully, he’s still not offering any information of value. Sophisticated mathematical modeling, just like punditry, can’t tell us much about the things we most need to know. It can’t predict the unpredictable, and the unpredictable is what matters most of all.

Donald Trump was trying an untested experiment. You couldn’t easily put numbers on it. Anyone who did was destined to be pulling the statistics from their ass, because there was no way for human beings to access the relevant information. The critical question was not: what do the polls, after some defensible adjustments, say about the candidates’ chances? It was “What happens when a bombastic, widely disliked male real-estate tycoon and a technocratic, widely disliked female Secretary of State go up against one another in a highly volatile race involving race, economics, the FBI, Wikileaks, and sexual assault allegations?” Since nothing like this has ever happened in human history, it was destined to be the case that the best thing you could do was be somewhat cautious. 

Silver actually knows all of the limitations of his work, and states them openly: Statistical models work well when you have a lot of data, and when the system you’re studying has a relatively low level of structural complexity. The presidential nomination process fails on both counts.” Thus the sneaky thing Silver does is this: he fills his work with caveats, but then turns around and writes articles like “The Six Stages of Donald Trump’s Doom,” in which he lays out very vivid, totally fantastical and unfounded, sets of forecasts about the future. In the primary, he foresaw a situation in which Bernie Sanders would win two states and then nowhere else, an idea that turned out to be doubly wrong (he lost one of the two, and then he won a bunch of others). None of this has any grounding beyond Silver’s gut.

This is why Silver is irresponsible and untrustworthy. It’s not, as the Huffington Post stupidly alleged, that he’s a bad or biased statistician. It’s that he mingles solid statistical observations (of highly limited usefulness) with wild prophecy and the same old know-nothing horse-race punditry. He acts as if statistics and polls can tell us to some useful degree whether Trump’s highly unorthodox political strategy will work. He offers totally worthless speculative scenarios, such as Bernie Sanders losing all but two states, even though the dynamics that would lead to such scenarios are not accessible to human observation or prediction. And over the course of the election, he used his authority and credibility as a numbers genius to tell people not to worry about Donald Trump, and to treat those who were “freaking out” as if they had were idiots.

But the central problem with Silver is that ultimately, he’s producing horse-race stuff. He doesn’t actually care about politics very much in terms of its human stakes. (In fact, according to journalist Doug Henwood, Silver once said that he “doesn’t give a shit” about politics.) He’s producing entertainment; people refresh FiveThirtyEight for the same reason that they watch actual horse races. But for anyone interested in the actual human lives affected by political questions, Silver’s analyses are of almost no help. They can tell us today that Silver thinks Trump has a 5% chance of winning. But then we might wake up tomorrow and find that Silver now thinks Trump has a 30% chance of winning. And the important question for anyone trying to affect the world, as opposed to just watching the events in it unfold, is how those chances can be made to change.

That doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with Nate Silver, just that nobody should ever pay any attention to him. Nate Silver will probably always be the best poll data analyst. The problem is that poll data analysts are completely fucking useless in a crisis. They don’t understand anything that’s going on around them, and they’re powerless to predict what’s about to happen next. Listening to anything they have to say is very, very dangerous. If you want to change anything, you’ve got to forget Nate Silver forever. That’s because he tells you entirely about the world as it looks to him right now, rather than the world as it could suddenly be tomorrow. He has no idea what the outer boundaries of the possible are. Nobody does.

Not Here To Make Friends: A Statement of Support For George Ciccariello-Maher

Nobody should suffer employment consequences for political speech on Twitter. Period.

It should be pretty obvious that you don’t have to like someone to stick up for them when the fascists come.

I do not like George Ciccariello-Maher.

As with most of my comrades, I first “met” him online, probably through some ridiculous ultra-leftist Facebook group that I can’t remember but likely left due to irreconcilable infighting over, I don’t know… speculation over how Bordiga would have felt about pornography. I found George very rude and condescending. He felt the need to “warn” me about my more “problematic” friends, which I consider a sort of sexist paternalism. I didn’t like his politics, which I found shallow and histrionic, or his passive aggression, which I found cowardly. Also, as a highly judgmental person who refuses to consort with anyone who is less than very cool or charming, I decided that the white guy academic who wrote “Brechtian Hip-Hop Didactics and Self-Production in Post-Gangsta Political Mixtapes” was a tryhard nerd. Perhaps most unforgivably, his jokes were unfunny. Not offensive in any way—just unfunny.

But none of this matters, because George is under attack. After making an obvious joke at the expense of white supremacists (once again utilizing that classic Ciccariello-Maher wit), an avalanche of right-wing media opportunists seized upon the offending tweet. The hysteria of reactionaries is nothing new, but shockingly, George’s cowardly employers at Drexel University publicly censured him, a ridiculous breach of both academic freedom and free speech.

To quote the folk heroes of our time: I’m not here to make friends. Solidarity is not dependent on amity or admiration, it is the acknowledgment of a shared struggle for dignity, liberation and rights, applied consistently to all of humankind. There is no such thing as conditional solidarity, and while petty bullshit is the spice of life, the work of left politics requires some truly flavorless battles.

The people that any ostensible leftist is obligated to stand up for will not always be likable. Usually they won’t even be leftists. They will have different politics, values and cultures than you. They will overcook their steaks. They will enjoy, and perhaps even prefer, the later seasons of The Simpsons. They will make atrocious decisions in facial hair, which you will suspect they styled in a pretentious effort to look “more ethnic.” They will act in bad faith. They will have bad manners. They will be dull, they will be snobs. They will get on your fucking nerves.

Suck it up. We are fighting for all.

The rule is: nobody should be punished by their employer for the dumb jokes they make online. Nobody should have to worry about having their material security taken away because something they said on Twitter got misinterpreted. Period. It doesn’t matter who they are. It doesn’t matter what you think of them. Because universal human entitlements are universal. That’s the entire point of them. The moment your personal opinions of someone affect whether you believe they ought to be protected, you’re no longer a leftist.

We at Current Affairs stand with George Ciccariello-Maher without qualification or reservation, and we believe he would do the same for us. We’re with you, comrade. Don’t let the bastards get you down.