Elizabeth Gilbert and the Pinterest Fantasy Life

Elizabeth Gilbert’s latest—her seventh—book, Big Magic (Riverhead Books, $24.95), is a typical product of the hybrid world of publishing today: it began as a series of TED talks, its cover was premiered on the e-commerce site Etsy, and it now exists as a 288-page text that she has referred to as a “manifesto.” Big Magic is, on the surface, a cheery self-help manual, an optimistic and sunny nudge towards creativity for those who may hesitate to plunge headlong into making what she calls “whatever creates a revolution in your heart.”

Gilbert is expansive in her definition of the “creative,” and insists that writing is only one of many such endeavors available to anyone who wants to take up anything from, say, raising goats, or cross-stitch, or perhaps making quilts to sell on, well, Etsy. Still, given her experience, what she returns to most often is the world of writing.

In that sense, Big Magic is Gilbert’s first book-length foray into writing about writing, a profession she has been a part of for nearly twenty-five years. Gilbert is also an enormously successful writer — according to The Daily Beast’s Lauren Streib, she has “easily” made $10 million in royalties just from her 2007 blockbuster bestseller Eat, Pray, Love: One Woman’s Search for Everything across Italy, India, and Indonesia.

We can assume that it is the phenomenal success of that book which made Gilbert so successful on the TED circuit and why so many are so eager for her advice.  In a time when the “creative” fields are diminished in value but also seen as potentially profitable and simultaneously good for you, it is inevitable that millions would tune in to see what a best-selling author might have to offer them in terms of advice on how to emulate her example.

The line she walks in this new book is a fuzzy one: Gilbert wants to seem assured in conveying she has insider knowledge about her field, but she doesn’t want to acknowledge that being a writer is actually a profession. To do so would demystify her entire career and, really, mean that hers would be no different than the many books lining bookstores everywhere, promising everyone the best-kept secrets to publishing or the “creative life.” So, instead, she presents, in Big Magic, not a description of how to become a writer but how to be a writer. This is entirely in keeping with the message of Eat, Pray, Love, which similarly swept aside any material considerations—how, exactly, are women to embark upon epic journeys across the globe without independent and very large means?—in favor of a can-do quasi-spiritual set of injunctions about uncovering one’s true self. Because Big Magic is in so many ways an addendum to the earlier text, it becomes a case study of how a hyper-successful writer conceives of herself and her profession. In the end, Big Magic is not about actually helping people become better at creating work. Rather, it’s about furthering the informal literary empire spawned by Eat, Pray, Love.

That’s not to say that Big Magic is entirely without merit. Gilbert offers many useful checks against the unnecessarily dramatic stereotypes people are apt to immerse themselves in when they look for the creative life, such as the one that dictates that genius can only emerge from tormented lives. She calls for discipline in turning out work even when it seems impossible to keep at it. All of that is necessary advice—in a world where writing and/or creative work is as fetishized as it is ill-paid, it’s useful for those looking to create over the course of a lifetime to know that some myths are best abandoned.

Despite such helpful admonitions, most of Big Magic reads like carnival puffery from a fortune-teller. Gilbert combines Oprah-esque pithiness with strange, bizarre suppositions that render her the Deepak Chopra of Creative Work.

Take, for instance, her idea about creativity or magic, the theme of the book:

And when I refer to magic here, I mean it literally. Like, in the Hogwarts sense. I am referring to the supernatural, the mystical, the inexplicable, the surreal, the divine, the transcendent, the otherworldly. Because the truth is, I believe that creativity is a force of enchantment—not entirely human in its origins.

Writers/creators across the ages have attempted to describe the creative process and how it takes hold of them. But to describe it as “otherworldly” and “not entirely human in its origins” in the first quarter of the twenty-first century dissociates it from the material realities in which it takes place. It is inevitable, given the title of her book, that Gilbert should deploy this kind of language. But it is also disingenuous given that she also criticizes creative workers for being unrealistic about their writing practices.

Then, there is her idea about ideas:

I believe that our planet is inhabited not only by animals and plants and bacteria and viruses, but also by ideas. Ideas are a disembodied, energetic life-form. They are completely separate from us, but capable of interacting with us—albeit strangely. Ideas have no material body, but they do have consciousness, and they most certainly have will. Ideas are driven by a single impulse: to be made manifest. And the only way an idea can be made manifest in our world is through collaboration with a human partner. It is only through a human’s efforts that an idea can be escorted out of the ether and into the realm of the actual.

In other words, ideas are entities looking for the perfect home in the bodies and minds of creators. To support her theory, she gives an example of a novel she once planned to write, about Brazil and rainforest development. Due to various circumstances, she eventually stopped researching and developing it. In the meantime, she became friends with Ann Patchett, a fellow writer whom she first met at a conference. The two women bonded instantly, with Patchett landing a loving kiss on Gilbert after their panel.

They became epistolary friends as well, exchanging handwritten letters where they discussed their lives and work. Somewhere along the way, it transpired that Patchett, too, was considering a novel about Brazil with similar themes. But it was only when they met for breakfast one day that Gilbert discovered Patchett’s work bore striking similarities to her own, down to their both including a protagonist who was a spinster from Minnesota. 

From this coincidence, Gilbert decides that her theory is right: she had stopped working on the idea and it, presumably in a huff, floated off to take residence within Patchett’s mind instead.

Somehow, it never seems to occur to Gilbert that perhaps such a close friendship had to have resulted in some kind of basic symbiotic intellectual relationship. Instead, she decides that it confirms that ideas are like spectral beings that leap from body to body, seeking the ones that will put them forth into the world.

Or, perhaps, Gilbert simply ignores the truth, that intellectual work is rarely exclusively original, and is acted upon by factors too varied to see in the immediate moment. After all, that kind of theory would severely undercut the theme of the book which she announces quite smugly: “And that, my friends, is Big Magic.”

Such reductive and, really, bizarre assertions about the creative process seem out of place in a book that lays claim to helping readers get away from other myths, like the one about tormented genius. But they are in keeping with the mystical premises of Eat, Pray, Love.

That book redefined self-help literature for women. It has, and I think rightly, been criticised as “priv-lit,” dwelling too much on lifestyles only attainable by those who can afford to take a year off and travel in relative comfort, as Gilbert did. Jessa Crispin locates Gilbert’s memoir in a long tradition of inward-looking female, white memoirists who travel through foreign lands without ever considering the cultures they march through with depth or curiosity. Despite many such criticisms, the book has made Gilbert that rare thing, a multimillionaire author who will never again have to worry about financing her work.

Gilbert will always be defined as the author of Eat, Pray, Love. Even the republished version of her 2002 biography of Eustace Conway, The Last American Man, has her authorship of that memoir clearly noted on the front cover. For some authors—Harper Lee comes to mind—the enormous success of a first book can become an albatross, an achievement that clouds and freezes one’s sense of movement as a writer. But Gilbert, to her credit, has continued to write. After Eat, Pray, Love came a sequel of sorts, Committed, about the reasons why she decided to marry the man she wrote about falling in love with in the best seller. Sales were respectable, but it saw nothing like the success of Eat, Pray, Love (arguably, what could?) In 2013, Gilbert returned to fiction, and published a tome of a novel, The Signature of All Things, which received positive reviews.

The Signature of All Things was written with the luxury of time and place. Gilbert bought the largest and oldest house built on the tallest hill in artsy Frenchtown, New Jersey. 

She had the enormous attic fitted out with bookshelves and secret cabinets designed by the well-known carpenter Michael Flood. Her custom-made desk was built out of a 15-foot long slab of acacia.

But the book also meant a return to intensive research, three years spent studying arcane histories of herbs and biology. Elsewhere and in Big Magic, she talks about the process of the work that went into it, filling up boxes with note cards, producing a 70-page synopsis before she even began writing the book.

None of this comes to Gilbert as a set of recent habits: she has always been a writer. As she describes it in Big Magic, she grew up on her parents’ Connecticut Christmas tree farm (her father was a Chemical Engineer who grew the trees on the side, and her mother a nurse of Swedish descent) and she and her sister had no television growing up but were encouraged to read and write and to create their own worlds. According to Gilbert, she took vows early on, actual vows, to do everything she could to become and stay a writer all her life. She moved to New York to attend New York University and received a Bachelor’s in Political Science.

This is the point at which Gilbert’s account of her writing life (told not chronologically but in terms of themes woven through the book) in Big Magic varies significantly from the reality that she has alluded to in prior work. It’s not so much that she lies, exactly, but that she engages in strategic acts of omission. In Eat, Pray, Love, she admits to being a highly successful freelance writer. In 1993, she became the first unpublished short story writer to appear in Esquire since Norman Mailer. A 2013 New York Times profile notes that her editors still remember with “reverence” the skill apparent in her work, and she was widely published in the top magazines like GQ. Her GQ story about the Coyote Ugly Saloon became the basis for the hit film about the bar. She made enough money that she lost a considerable fortune in her divorce. All three of her first books either won awards or accolades from sources like The New York Times.

There has never been an idyllic time for writers, but in the 90s, during the time that Gilbert flourished, writers who made it to the upper echelons of the top magazines could make a decent or even excellent living from writing. The proliferation of internet publishing and related factors have since changed and exploded all that.

In light of all this, Gilbert could have written a very different and more realistic book. She could have retained the advice about discipline and plugging away, dispensed with the hoo-ha about ideas as beings and provided a more realistic view of what it takes to become a successful writer/creative producer like her.

But that would undercut all of Big Magic’s otherworldly mystification about the nature of creative production. So, instead, she completely downplays Eat, Pray, Love’s success and insists it took her completely by surprise. This is how she describes what happened:

I once wrote a book that accidentally became a giant best seller, and for a few years there, it was like I was living in a hall of fun house mirrors.

And:

It was never my intention to write a giant best seller, believe me. I wouldn’t know how to write a giant best seller if I tried.

On the one hand, even the most savvy publishing houses will admit that, bar a few stratospheric authors like Tom Clancy, there is never any predicting a best seller. Still, Gilbert received a $200,000 advance to go forth, travel, and write the book. Her publisher, at least, seemed fairly confident in the book’s sales potential. (While Gilbert has spoken openly about her advance elsewhere, she doesn’t mention it in Big Magic.)

She also goes on to write, “It never occurred to me that my own thoughts and feelings might intersect so intensely with the thoughts and feelings of so many other people.” This is simply a lie: unless she had the cachet to get away with not writing one, publishing houses generally demand book proposals before committing to publication.  Pitching a book—and receiving such a large advance—is entirely about revealing exactly why the “thoughts and feelings” of the author might coincide with her readers. Even if she didn’t have to produce one, Viking would have at the very least asked for some sense from her as to why the book mattered enough at that particular time for them to publish it. In which case, Gilbert would have had to provide at least a perfunctory sense of her target audience and why they would want to buy her book.

In other words, Eat, Pray, Love was not some mere accident but a well-planned intervention into the zeitgeist of publications by and about women.

There’s nothing wrong with that, but the success of Big Magic—the potion that Gilbert is trying to market as “magic”—would never come about if she blithely and carelessly went off on a mysteriously funded jaunt across the world. Rather than convince the reader to anthropomorphize every aspect of the process, it would have been more honest of Gilbert to point to the structural, procedural elements of it—that you don’t just get a book contract like the one she received for Eat, Pray, Love without an agent and a few lawyers, for instance, or that book proposals are necessary and hard work.

Instead, Big Magic resolutely erases any evidence of such. It turns work like writing into, well, a “creative process,” and thus renders it not a profession but into something between an act of deep meditation and lots of wishful thinking. In fact, she relentlessly mocks those who complain about the conditions of writing as a profession:

From the volume of complaints that emerges from the professional creative class, you would think these people had been sentenced to their vocations by an evil dictator, rather than having chosen their work with a free will and an open heart.

In other words, Gilbert, who has spent half her life as a professional writer, now believes that hers is simply a vocation. Yet, when she actually describes the trajectory of her career—and it has been a long and illustrious one—she treats it not as a mystical calling but as work. At one point, for instance, she relates how her editor at GQ, where she was then a staff writer, pulled a story she had worked on for five months, a travel story about Serbia on which the publication had spent a lot of money. The editor’s rationale was that he realized she was not the person for the job and there was no point in her pursuing it any further; he told her to simply move on to the next assignment. Gilbert’s point in relating the anecdote is that writers must always be prepared to end projects that aren’t working. But we might glean a different story here: that no one hires a casual, vocational writer to work on a travel story about Serbia for five months. The freedom to flit, to cut one’s losses and move on, is possible only when one has the backing of a serious institution and serious money, plus an editor who can sign off on half-a-year’s salary and travel expenses for a project that never sees completion.

In fact, this is one of the dominant threads in conversations about the breakup of media outlets: that fewer places are able and willing to develop the kinds of writers who can do sustained long-form writing, and that this has been a negative for media in general. Gilbert displays no awareness of or interest in these changes, even as they fundamentally diminish the possibility of following her advice and becoming the kind of liberated, magical creative spirit she insists all writers should be.

This is yet another way in which Gilbert sidesteps the institutional and structural questions currently haunting the landscape of the creative fields—similar problems are rife in, say, dance or art—in favor of aphorisms designed to make the reader feel that she has been immersed in a spa offering creative well water as a lubricant for the soul. Yet, everywhere, in the arts, people are revolting against what they forthrightly call the exploitation of artists. In January 2016, the bestselling British writer Philip Pullman resigned as patron of the Oxford Literary Festival, citing the event’s refusal to pay featured writers as his reason. In New York, the Freelancers Union is gaining steady momentum as it collectivizes writers, arguing not just for fair but timely compensation.

The current writing economy is generally inhospitable for those who want to write for a living, even though there are some changes afoot, like the kind described above. Gilbert occupies a rare stratosphere of the creative world, but it took her years of hard work to get there, and in a time when writers were paid decently. In a non-Gilbertian world, the average writer is a freelancer (given how many magazines have cut their budgets) who has to hang on to editors like a bulldog on a mailman’s leg just to get tiny checks mailed to her. The utter instability of writing as a profession has meant that a long and steady career like hers is unlikely, no matter how much determination one brings to the effort.

Gilbert is clearly an intelligent and well-read woman, and has to be aware of these shifts. But she doesn’t really have to care about reality. Big Magic will undoubtedly make her big money, and while it’s not likely to become a high-grossing film (the concept of ideas as amorphous supernatural beings does not quite make for the same cinematic experience as Mumbai sunsets and Italian dessert tables), it will probably be incorporated into book clubs and become a teaching tool for a particular subset of women.

Gilbert makes a point of saying that the money is not the point, but offers little to explain how someone with, say, multiple jobs and unstable shifts might carve out the time and the energy to continue with creative work. As with Eat, Pray, Love, Gilbert isn’t interested in the reality of lives different from hers. Rather, she sells the idea that everyone can access her kind of success by magic.

In 2014, Gilbert sold her famously well-appointed house, telling the New York Times that she always had to move from a place once she had started and finished a project there. And so, the bookcases, the furnishings, even the imported statuary in the gardens, all of it was for sale for $999,999. It’s lovely, truly, that Gilbert has the financial resources to do so, but she appears to have lost a sense of the reality for many writers, who generally stay put in the same place and are barely able to make rent.

Without getting into any crude analysis of class politics, surely we can ask the simple question: if any place and a routine and discipline are all that’s required for a writer, why does Elizabeth Gilbert require such majestic spaces to write in?

Or we could ask an even simpler question of Gilbert, who scoffs at the very idea that the creative world should ever offer a living or stability: why shouldn’t someone who works tirelessly on a piece for, say, five months, expect to get paid really well for it?

Or even to be able to earn enough for rent? Gilbert can afford to believe in theories of creativity as magic, and wax on about the arrogance of creative workers who expect to make a living off their work—now that she has accumulated a small fortune of her own.

Ultimately, Big Magic isn’t really aimed at the “creative class,” but at a very particular kind of woman, a female consumer who wants to spend her money on a promise of a different life. In her acknowledgments, Gilbert thanks several people, but also thanks Etsy. It’s fitting; Etsy, like Gilbert, is a purveyor of goods with a quirky, homemade but polished aesthetic, professional goods given a carefully-honed sheen of amateurism.

Etsy’s visual cousin is Pinterest, a website that would have been inconceivable at the dawn of the internet: a visual repository of images of, well, things.  Need to know what a painted wooden blue table could look like, in fifty different shades and sizes? There will be a hundred images for you. Pinterest is ostensibly for the hobbyist — the idea is that you find, say, an image of a painted blue table and proceed to buff and transform that five-dollar table you found and carted home from the garage sale last summer.

But the truth is that what Pinterest offers most is a fantasy of what your imagined world might look like. If you’re like most people, your table will not be transformed. You might daydream about spending days lovingly sanding it and turning it a blue pastel, but the realities of life and work will intervene. Your table will collect dings and scratches over the years and become at best a larger holder of keys and the detritus of your life. Finally, one day, when you get ready to move, you’ll look at it and decide it’s too much trouble to take an unremarkable brown table with you. It will be stacked neatly against your dumpster, to be found by a delighted neighbor walking by, who will take it home with the exact same enthusiasm you once demonstrated, and will resolve to buff it and paint it blue, and the cycle will continue.

Big Magic is like a DIY Pinterest project, but about life itself. It is ultimately designed not for people who would like to think of writing as a profession, but for those who can afford to dabble in it. What Big Magic promises is akin to something you might find for sale on Etsy, to be recorded on Pinterest: a tiny mason jar that is also a snowglobe, a wishful, frozen fantasy of what the writing world might look like.

Photo by Timothy Greenfield-Sanders, provided courtesy of Riverhead Books.

Bill Clinton Has Always Been This Person

Confronted by Black Lives Matter activists at a Pennsylvania campaign event on Thursday, Bill Clinton snapped. Responding to protesters’ condemnations of Clinton’s record on criminal justice as president, as well as Hillary Clinton’s notorious warning about dangerous juvenile “superpredators,” Bill issued a furious rebuke:

This is what’s the matter. I don’t know how you would characterize the gang leaders who got 13-year-old kids hopped up on crack and sent them out into the street to murder other African-American children. Maybe you thought they were good citizens—she didn’t. She didn’t. You are defending the people who kill the lives you say matter.

As the activists refused to quiet themselves, Clinton became stern. “You listen to me,” he said, calling them “people on the far left screaming things that are not true.” He vigorously defended his record on criminal justice, and went on to cite his implementation of welfare reform as further evidence of his compassion for black lives.

Clinton’s acidic hectoring quickly made the news. He was rapidly criticized for not having any idea what Black Lives Matter actually stands for. Michelle Goldberg of Slate said Bill Clinton had become a liability to Hillary’s campaign and should be fired. Goldberg said it was “baffling” that Bill Clinton, after previously disowning his crime bill, would go back to defending it. This was, after all, the bill that  “expanded the scope of the death penalty, enshrined “three-strikes” provisions into federal law, and allocated almost $10 billion in funding for prison construction” and “is now widely seen as contributing to the human catastrophe of mass incarceration.” So, too, with the welfare rollback, in the aftermath of which the percentage of families in extreme poverty increased by 50%. It seemed an insanity for Clinton to justify such measures as being in the interest of black lives. Indeed, Goldberg openly wondered whether he was “slipping, mentally.”

But what happened on Thursday was neither unpredictable or inscrutable, nor was it the product of some senile bewilderment. Rather, it was simply the most blatant expression of a trait that has been present in Bill Clinton’s character since his early political career: his cruel and cynical treatment of black people, and his use of progressive racial rhetoric to mask a willingness to devastatingly harm black communities in the service of self-interested political ends.

Many have criticized the lasting impact that Bill Clinton’s policies have had for black Americans. Michelle Alexander has said that Clinton escalated the War on Drugs “beyond what many conservatives had imagined possible… ultimately doing more harm to black communities than Reagan ever did.” In a comprehensive and nuanced summary of Clinton’s impact on African Americans, Christopher Brian Booker cites criticisms of Clinton’s “central role in the incarceration binge in the black community.”

Despite all of the evidence of the damage he inflicted upon African Americans, however, Bill Clinton has persistently been understood as a friend to the black community, the man who knew all the words to “Lift Every Voice and Sing” who cultivated warm relationships with black leaders, who played the saxophone on Arsenio. Clinton prominently appointed black officials, such as Ron Brown as the Secretary of Commerce and Rodney Slater as the Secretary of Transportation.

Clinton has therefore always seemed somewhat of a paradox on race, a man who connected with black Americans emotionally while introducing policies that devastated them materially. His rhetoric, which acknowledged the trauma of slavery in a way no other president had before, and which treated African Americans as coequal participants in American life, has always made it appear as if Clinton must have been well-intentioned. Even Michelle Alexander, while saying it’s “difficult to overstate the damage” done by Clinton, credits him for “feeling bad” about creating mass incarceration, and points out that black leaders supported “tough on crime” measures too.

But in order to understand Clinton, it is important to set aside the idea that his heart must necessarily have been in the right place. The evidence suggests something different, something far simpler and more logical: Clinton treated black interests with total mercenary cynicism. If cultivating their support helped him, Clinton would go to every length to connect with black voters. But the moment he faced a difficult choice between the politically expedient thing to do and the racially just thing to do, there was quite literally no harm he was unwilling to inflict upon black people in order to secure even minor political victories.

This was most starkly evident in criminal justice. From the very beginning, Clinton made a point of, as Alexander puts it, “signaling to poor and working-class whites that he was willing to be tougher on black communities than Republicans had been.” This is not just speculative interpretation on Alexander’s part; Clinton made it quite clear. During the 1992 election, just before Super Tuesday, Clinton traveled to Stone Mountain Correctional Institution in Stone Mountain, Georgia. There, he stood next to conservative Southern Democrats Sam Nunn and Zell Miller, as well as Dukes of Hazzard star Ben Jones (recently heard prominently defending the Confederate flag), posing for photographers in front of a group of black inmates. (See image above.) Clinton quite literally made a prop out of a group of convicts. 

The now rarely-seen photograph becomes even more disturbing given its location. As Christopher Petrella recently noted in the Boston Review, Stone Mountain is notorious as being the place where the modern-day Ku Klux Klan was born in 1915. As Petrella says, it’s a key location in the history of the subjugation of African Americans. He writes:

It is hard to imagine the DLC would not have been aware of Stone Mountain’s significance as a theater of white supremacy when it staged Clinton’s campaign event at the prison there. In fact, the choice of that particular place as a campaign stop—arranging white political leaders in business suits in front of subjugated black male prisoners in jumpsuits—is illegible except in light of this history.

Indeed, others voiced horror at the time. Jerry Brown, then running against Clinton, said the white men in the photos looked “like colonial masters” trying to tell white voters “Don’t worry, we’ll keep them in their place.”

That single image could serve as an iconic representation of Clinton’s entire legacy on race. It belies all of his claims to have stumbled innocently into the creation of mass incarceration. Instead, he intentionally made a campaign issue out of his willingness to lock up as many black people as it took to secure his own political success.

Another 1992 incident displayed that ruthlessness even more starkly: the execution of Ricky Ray Rector. It’s a chapter in Clinton political history that has become moderately infamous, but most accounts fail to convey the full calculating brutality of Clinton’s actions.

Ricky Ray Rector was a black prisoner in Arkansas who had been convicted of murder and was scheduled for execution. But Rector was severely brain damaged, having shot himself in the head after shooting the victim; he was missing one-third of his brain and had been effectively lobotomized. As a result, Ricky Ray Rector’s mental functioning was that of a very young child. The prison chaplain recalls meeting him for the first time:

“He was gripping the bars, howling, jumping like an ape. There were Indians, he thought, in the corner of his cell, who he was busy hunting. In between, he would speak to me.” His sister Stella visited him, to be told about serpents slithering across his bunk, alligators and chickens set loose by the guards, and people shining spotlights into his cell.

The records of the prison “death log” note Rector’s activity in the leadup to his execution:

“6.46am: Inmate Rector began howling. 6.59am: Inmate Rector began dancing in his cell.” Soon after, Rector told a guard that “If you eat grass, lethal injection won’t kill you.”

As Rector’s execution time drew closer, even the prison warden had become uncomfortable with the idea of executing Rector, with one observer saying the warden “seemed to be coming apart the closer the execution got.” Meanwhile, frantic appeals were being made to Governor Clinton to give Rector clemency. Jeff Rosenzweig, Rector’s attorney and an old friend of Clinton’s, begged Clinton not to allow the execution to proceed. Rosenzweig told Clinton that Rector was “crazy, a zombie – it couldn’t, it shouldn’t be done. He’s a child. It’s like killing a child.” Clinton then “hung up with a non-committal pleasantry.”

Rosenzweig wasn’t alone in his desperate attempt. As The Guardian reported in 1993:

Others, close to Clinton, were making their own appeals to him. Mrs Freddie Nixon, wife of the pastor who had married the Clintons, had even written to Rickey on Death Row, and was particularly distraught. Dr Douglas Brown, the psychiatrist, faxed the governor to say the case had been a “travesty” – far from being “competent,” Rector was the least competent individual he had ever evaluated. He got no reply. Some of Clinton’s staunchest admirers, aware of his compassion and warmth, confidently expected him to intervene. “Nobody could believe that he would go through with it,” says one. “After all, the guy was berserk. You might as well execute a child.”

Clinton refused to grant clemency. Rector was executed on January 24, 1992. It is unlikely he had any idea what was about to happen. When he had his last meal, Rector set the dessert aside for later, even though there wouldn’t be a later. And in a pitiful and poignant detail, the night before his execution, watching Clinton on television, Rector said that he planned to vote for him in November.

There was no mystery as to why Clinton had refused to grant Rector clemency. Earlier in his political career, Clinton had lost a race against a “law and order” candidate, and those around him said he was determined not to make the same mistake twice. And it worked:

Intended or not, in the following months the political value of Rector’s execution became abundantly clear. It knocked the law-and-order issue out of the campaign. One commentator said it showed Clinton was “a different sort of Democrat.” As another put it, “he had someone put to death who only had half a brain. You don’t find them any tougher than that.”

Or, as former prosecutor and Arkansas ACLU director Jay Jacobson said, “You can’t law-and-order Clinton… If you can kill Rector, you can kill anybody.” In the general election, the National Association of Police Organizations endorsed Clinton over Bush, and so did a law enforcement group in Bush’s home state of Texas.

Clinton did not just simply allow Rector to die, however. In fact, he was active in using Rector’s death politically, flying back to Arkansas just so he could be there for the execution. As The Guardian reported:

The same week, Gennifer Flowers came forward with her story of a 12-year affair with the candidate. Beset by crisis, Governor Clinton broke off his campaign in New Hampshire to return to Little Rock for Rector’s execution. There was no legal obligation on him to do so; as the Houston Chronicle remarked, “never – or at least not in the recent history of presidential campaigns – has a contender for the nation’s highest elective office stepped off the campaign trail to ensure the killing of a prisoner.”

The Ricky Ray Rector case has been mentioned from time to time as a controversial Clinton act. But it’s important to be clear about just what Clinton did: he deliberately had a hallucinating disabled man killed, in an execution so callous it made even the warden queasy. He personally ensured the execution of a mental child so as not to appear weak. This is an unthinkably monstrous act. As Derrick Jackson wrote in the Boston Globe: “The killing of human vegetables is an exercise for brutes.”

The Rector case is probably the ultimate moral lowpoint in Clinton’s political career, which has a number of them to choose from. Certainly, it doesn’t get much worse than killing someone. But there are plenty of other, less viscerally appalling instances of the same phenomenon: Clinton shoring up political support by demonstrating that he was more willing than Republicans to inflict harm and suffering on black people, securing the black vote through words and the white vote through deeds.

This is precisely what happened in criminal justice policy. When the United States Sentencing Commission recommended that Clinton close the 100-to-1 disparity in sentencing for crack and powder cocaine, Clinton refused, in a decision Jesse Jackson called “a moral disgrace,” and observing accurately that Clinton was “willing to sacrifice young black youth for white fear.” In his own defense, Clinton said that “I am not going to let anyone who peddles drugs get the idea that the cost of doing business is going down.” Indeed, it didn’t, and the 100-1 crack-powder disparity remained in effect until Barack Obama signed a law changing it to 18-1 in 2010.

In other areas, too, Clinton consistently supported African Americans until the moment doing so incurred a political cost, at which point he would make himself sound more right-wing than the noisiest conservative radio show host. Notoriously, he made a public show of comparing hip hop artist Sister Souljah to Klansman David Duke, in an act that drew ire from black Democrats who felt he was needlessly repudiating the black community to convince white people he was one of them. 

Then there was his treatment of black government appointees. Clinton was lauded for appointing the first black surgeon general, Dr. Joycelyn Elders. But he was also perfectly willing to fire her. When Dr. Elders spoke at a United Nations event on AIDS, and responded to the question of whether masturbation should be taught as a way to prevent AIDS by saying that “perhaps” it should, she attracted ire from the right. Clinton instantly demanded she resign.

The same thing occurred in the case of Lani Guinier, the acclaimed legal scholar Clinton appointed to be Assistant Attorney General. When it emerged that Guinier had once written about the possibility of readjusting voting districts to correct prior racial imbalances in representation, Clinton withdrew her nomination, calling her work “anti-democratic” and “difficult to defend.” (Clinton didn’t even tell her he was withdrawing the nomination; she saw it in on the news. He then attempted to make amends by declaring that “I think she’s wonderful. If she came to me and asked for $5,000 I’d go down to the bank and give it to her, no questions asked.”)  The Guinier episode “sent shock waves through traditional civil rights groups,” who once again found themselves betrayed by Clinton. 

All of this added up to a pattern, which did not go unnoticed at the time. George Mason University professor and civil rights veteran Roger Wilkins observed: 

Look at this man’s record… When he wanted to establish himself as a different kind of Democrat . . . in 1992, he broke off campaigning to go preside over the execution of this self-lobotomized black inmate. When he was low in the polls a year ago, he came to Washington and took a swack at Sister Souljah and Jesse Jackson… And I can’t tell you that, as I look at the Lani Guinier episode, that my mind does not run back to all of those other things. That is his record.

A theme therefore runs through Clinton’s entire political career: black lives have never mattered to him, except to the extent that they conferred black political support. One could say that Bill Clinton has made a career of throwing black people under the bus, but what Bill Clinton actually did was throw black people under the bus, drive over them, back up, drive over them again, then get out, pull them from underneath, dust them off and ask them if they were okay and if he could get them a glass of water, then throw them under the bus again.

Bill Clinton’s comments on Thursday were therefore just the latest instance of a career-long repetition of the same tropes. At every turn, he has pulled the same maneuver: rhetorically claim to be acting in the interests of black lives, while spurning any and all efforts to actually improve the substance of black lives; praising the NAACP, then golfing at a segregated all-white country club. Even as he totally dismisses Black Lives Matter’s concerns over the crime bill, Clinton still insists he is looking out for the interests of the black community. As always, every word he speaks insists he serves black people, while every deed he does pitilessly betrays them.

Now, the relevance of all of this to the present election can be debated. It is typical for Hillary Clinton’s supporters to point out that holding Hillary accountable for her husband’s actions is unfair at best and sexist at worst. Hillary Clinton was, of course, a major power in Bill’s administration and his equal partner in a joint political venture. But more importantly, Bill’s recent comments have been made as part of the campaign. Bill was defending this record on behalf of Hillary Clinton, to thousands of her supporters. If Hillary Clinton didn’t have Bill Clinton out front speaking about the Clinton Administration, it might be fair to ask people not to associate them. But since she has chosen him to be an ambassador for her message, we must at least assume that she does not think him as heinous as the record proves he is.

The contemporary political implications can be left to others to dispute. But it is a matter of historical fact that Bill Clinton used black people in the most despicable way possible, doing everything he could to convince them he cared while doing nothing but using their lives to advance himself politically. They trusted him, and he threw them in jail by the millions. As Michael Eric Dyson has explained, Clinton “exploited black sentiment because he knew the rituals of black culture,” then “exploited us like no president before him.” Nobody in the history of American race relations from slavery to the present has ever so cruelly manipulated the aspirations of the black population, has ever so heartlessly tormented them with empty promises while happily destroying their lives. 

Thanks to Clinton’s cultivated charm and savvy rhetoric, people have still not quite appreciated just how amoral Clinton’s treatment of race has been. Perhaps, now that his angry attack on Black Lives Matter has provided such a revealing illustration of Clinton’s tactics, the understanding will shift. Perhaps we will finally realize that Bill Clinton’s legacy on race is precisely what the Stone Mountain photograph shows: a man for whom black Americans have always been a prop, to be praised, disparaged, championed, taunted, freed, imprisoned, and sometimes killed, depending on the particular daily political needs of Bill Clinton. 

For more on Clinton’s record on race, pre-order our new book Superpredator: Bill Clinton’s Use and Abuse of Black Americashipping July 1st. 

There’s Nothing Wrong With Feeling Entitled To Your Education

Abigail Fisher, the plaintiff of Fisher v. University of Texas, is not particularly well-liked on the left. After Fisher was denied admission to the University of Texas in 2008, she sued the school claiming that unconstitutional affirmative action policies were responsible for her failure to gain entry. The case has since charted a tortuous route through the American courts and is scheduled to be ruled on by the U.S. Supreme Court by the end of its current term. If the Court rules in Fisher’s favor, race-based affirmative action programs could completely disappear.

Because of this, many have been understandably hostile to Fisher. Indeed, she is easy to caricature as the embodiment of every insufferable, self-aggrandizing tendency among white people: someone so furious that her rightful place in college was “stolen” from her by minorities that she was willing to take the matter all the way to the Supreme Court. Fisher was almost certainly denied because of her academic record rather than her race (there were numerous black students with better grades than Fisher who were also denied), black students represent only a tiny fraction of UT’s student body, and yet Fisher persists in nastily blaming black UT students for her failure.

Mockery of Fisher has thus been widespread. She has been called “too dumb to get in,” a “pasty pop tart,” a “noted dummy,” and a “soulless ginger looking for a handout.” On Twitter, black University of Texas graduates waved diplomas at her using the hashtag #StayMadAbby. Open letters were written to her, and she was laughed at relentlessly as a whiny, oblivious mediocrity.

Certainly, Fisher herself is nearly impossible to sympathize with, especially when one learns that she turned down an opportunity that would have enabled her to transfer to the University of Texas during her sophomore year, and that she has been working lucrative financial and marketing jobs after graduating from Louisiana State University.

Yet there is something disconcerting in the easy willingness of affirmative action supporters to adopt the rhetoric of “merit” against Fisher. Many of the criticisms of Fisher deploy the very language of “working hard” and “bootstrapping” that people on the left rightly detest when it is deployed by conservatives. Consider some of the things said about her:

 

  • The problem with Abigail Fisher… is that despite her relentless averageness, she believes that she’s entitled to treatment far surpassing her relentless averageness.
  • Instead of recognizing that she didn’t earn admission into UT-Austin, Fisher is attempting to validate herself by blaming affirmative action. Instead of unpacking that reality about her shortcomings, she packed up her privilege, went ahead and sued the school.
  • White mediocrity tends to complain and whine and not take responsibility for their own shortcomings
  • Stop being an entitled little brat and start working hard
  • #StayMadAbby for white girls who considered a lawsuit when trying harder wasn’t her thing.
  • not as smart as she thinks she is. will probably blame all the minorities for her mediocrity
  • I’ve spent too much of my life proving my worthiness to White people in both personal and professional spaces, and folks like Abby Fisher and Antonin Scalia are just going to have to stay mad while they chow down on their unseasoned meatloafs (or is it meatloaves? QTNA) and lament a world where they’re not just given stuff because they decided that they deserve it. I learned that lesson when I was five and my mom asked me if “I had McDonald’s money.” Long story short: I can only hope that the Supreme Court of the United States teaches her that too when they send her lily-why posterior back from whence she came.

 

And from the Nightly Show’s Larry Wilmore: You are not entitled to anything just because you want it. Welcome to life.

Notice how these criticisms frame things: Fisher didn’t deserve admission. She wasn’t smart enough. She hadn’t tried hard enough. People aren’t entitled to anything. This language is ripped straight from the conservative playbook, from the worldview that says: “life is hard, you don’t deserve anything just because you were born, welcome to the real world, nobody gets a handout.”

Now, all of this is partially being deployed against Fisher ironically: she thinks minority entitlements are causing her hard work to go unrewarded, when the reality is that if anyone believes they’re entitled to something they didn’t work for, it’s Abigail Fisher. But it still ends up accepting the idea that college admission is (and should be) granted to people who are smart and who work hard, and that nobody deserves it.

But people do deserve it; everyone should get to receive the best-quality possible college education, even Abigail Fisher. “Smartness” should not determine our material rewards, because smartness is distributed arbitrarily. As far as college goes, the only question should be whether individuals meet the basic standard to be able to do the work. Competitive admissions processes among students who are all plenty qualified to do well (but must do dozens of extracurricular activities in order to make themselves stand out) are a dysfunctional absurdity that should have no place in education.

Abigail Fisher was therefore right to feel “entitled,” though she felt it for the wrong reasons. She felt as if she deserved to go to the University of Texas because she was a white legacy applicant, the sort of person who should get to go. As people have rightly (and viciously) pointed out to her, who you are shouldn’t confer some kind of special rights on you. Yet that doesn’t mean people shouldn’t all have those rights to begin with; “meritocracy,” the idea that everything must be earned rather than being given as a function of our basic humanity, is a pernicious notion, one that cannot help but result in gross unfairness however it is implemented.

This is a problem with so-called “privilege” analysis more generally. It treats “privilege” and “entitlement” as somehow being in and of themselves bad things, instead of being good things that all people should get to share in equally regardless of their race. Yes, it’s unfair that white people get to see themselves as being entitled to a place in a top college when people of color have to work their asses off to get there. But the solution is not to taunt white people and tell them they’re not entitled to anything, it’s to expand that entitlement so that everyone gets the same kind of privileges that white people do. When a rich white teenager makes a deadly mistake, they’re given counseling and treated with leniency, whereas a poor black teenager would be thrown in prison. That doesn’t mean we should start throwing rich teenagers in prison, it means we should start affording to poor blacks the same kind of justice that we give to rich whites. Removing entitlements, instead of spreading them fairly, creates equality only by causing everyone to share equally in misery.

There’s something disturbing about laughing at Abigail Fisher for being “dumb.” Nobody who considers themselves on the left should ever be comfortable calling someone “dumb” or “mediocre” or telling them they don’t deserve something because of their SAT score. It’s one step away from this to adopting the full-blown conservative understanding of human nature and moral desert, and beginning to spew all the cliches about how “the United States thrives because of a culture of opportunity that encourages work and disdains relying on handouts.”

The very existence of elite, competitive undergraduate schools is impossible to defend. Whether someone receives a University of Texas-level education should not depend on whether they can succeed in some merciless rat race; it should be openly offered to all people who are minimally capable. There should not be “tiers” of state universities to begin with, because elitism is ugly and immoral at its core.

Abigail Fisher therefore deserved to go to the University of Texas. But it’s because she is a human being, not because she is white.

The Declining Taste of the Global Super-Rich

Last May, with little to no fanfare, the Cedar Lake Contemporary Ballet in New York City closed down after 12 years, leaving about 16 dancers and about 10 administrators out of a job. The company’s dissolution, quietly announced on Observer.com, was a particularly tragic loss for the dance world, which requires an innovative atmosphere to sustain itself.

Funding for even venerable ballets grows  scarcer and scarcer, and more experimental operations like Cedar Lake are even more vulnerable. It’s a sort of “last hired, first fired” set of priorities, and as a result, the institution of ballet itself is threatened with stagnation. Swan Lake and The Nutcracker are exemplary classics to be sure, but without daring and contemporary new ballets, the artform itself becomes relegated to antiquity. In America specifically, ballet increasingly smacks of a bygone era, making it less attractive to potential funders.

So the bankrolling of ballets has been left to a few super-wealthy benefactors. For Cedar Lake, it was Walmart heiress Nancy Walton Laurie, who invested $11 million of her estimated $4.5 billion fortune to found the project. Laurie gave Cedar Lake a custom-built theater and rehearsal space in Chelsea, and stocked it with a full roster of talent. Boasting job security nearly unheard-of in the dance world, Laurie paid the staff and dancers full-time salaries with vacation, health insurance and even dental.

Unfortunately, the company was notoriously mismanaged. Turnover was high; the bestowing of dental coverage didn’t compensate for otherwise-dire working conditions. The dancers were actually fined for lateness and performance mistakes, a shockingly repressive practice unheard of even in the legendarily regimented dance world.

Both former dancers and employees would later paint Cedar Lake as the vanity project of an imprudent billionaire, who was, unfortunately, their only real donor. Her whims lent the project both its generosity and its tyranny, and when the whims shifted, the ballet was no more.

In recent conversation, a professional opera singer lamented to me the the state of his profession under recent funding woes. The trajectory for an opera singer, he told me, used to be a fairly established route. A singer would graduate from a conservatory, then spend a couple of years performing for some backwater German town to hone their skills—a sort of apprenticeship that both developed the artist’s voice and brought opera—a much more appreciated artform in Europe—to a smaller community.

Such is no longer the case. The austerity measures taken across Europe have dealt arts funding a serious blow, particularly in the less wealthy countries. In 2012, The New York Times reported that not only were the smaller opera houses getting the ax, but even once sacrosanct institutions were under fire; the legendary La Scala opera house in Milan was landed with a $9 million dollar deficit that year. Smaller countries like the Netherlands lost 25% of their arts funding, and Portugal dispensed with its Ministry of Culture entirely.

Some companies attempted to adapt to shoe-string budgets by going “punk”—doing away with famously grand productions in favor of sparser shows, and even a few “experimental” one-man performances.

“It’s austerity for opera,” proclaimed the exasperated tenor. When I admitted to him that the only opera I can afford these days are sparse, DIY productions at a loft in Bushwick, he was encouraging, saying “that’s great—just go.” But there’s no getting around now the fact that there’s something missing from a minimalist Carmen; no matter how “experimental” it might be, it’s not a vision fully realized.

“The thing about opera is,” he said, “you get a lot of people working together to create this massive spectacle, and then it’s over. And all you have to take home with you is the experience.” The creation of such coordinated, ephemeral spectacles requires both serious committment and serious material resources.

The gilded age tradition of wealthy benefactors is clearly over. The very wealthy—now often nouveau riche and unbound to the trappings of aristocratic noblesse oblige—no longer consider themselves stewards of the sublime. As classical music scholar John Halle opined in “The Last Symphony” in Jacobin magazine, the upper and ascending classes no longer subject their children to the rigorous training necessary for classical musical scholarship. As Halle says, “today’s elite lacks the patience and culture for classical music.” Consequently, the patronage system has become rather passé, and even the odd anachronistic billionaire-funded ballet company might find itself dismissed on a whim. Put bluntly, the upper class just aren’t as classy as they used to be.

So too has public funding for high art taken a beating. While Americans might yearn for the sort of well-funded public arts programs they imagine Europeans prioritize, the reality is much bleaker. Despite Europe’s zealous emphasis on promoting a rich culture for a united continent, the European Union is constantly hacking away at centuries-old institutions in the name of belt-tightening.

But if the would-be private donors are now cretins, and public funding has been slashed to bits, who finances art today?

first encountered the name Dakis Joannou while working as an arts and culture writer for a fun counterculture blog. Scouring the Internet for something subversive to cover for our “arty dirtbag” readership, I happened across a newly-published coffee table book, 1968: Radical Italian Design, which collected photos of a number of garish pieces of impractical-looking furniture. Since strange furniture always gets the clicks, the book made for a perfect post. It was doubly improved by the fact that the furniture in question was so unequivocally terrible.

Radical Italian Design was a bold avant-garde movement out of the late 1960’s that eschewed both form and function on principle, meaning the furniture it inspired is both intentionally garish and practically dysfunctional. The design philosophy is one of overt aesthetic and utilitarian offense—it is ugly, it is useless, and that is all on purpose, with none of the cheek that could even give it a campy appeal. I cannot stress this enough; it’s just terrible, ugly fucking furniture.

15-1968-radical-italian-furniture-yatzer

What interested me most, however, was that I had never heard of Radical Italian Design before. I’m no design expert, but I can at least distinguish a Verner Panton from an Eames, and I like to think I am passably aware of most of the significant stuff. I was also very familiar with the Memphis Group, another Italian design movement of slightly less offensive garish white elephants, once aptly described by The San Francisco Chronicle as “a shotgun wedding between Bauhaus and Fisher-Price.” But Memphis Group looks highly practical and understated in comparison to the Radical movement. How, then, I wondered, did this book about an unpleasant—but relatively minor—design movement come to be?

It turns out that every single piece of furniture photographed for 1968 belonged to one man: Dakis Joannou, a Greek-Cypriot billionaire, industrialist, hotel magnate, the largest importer of Coca-Cola in Europe and Africa, and one of the most famous art collectors in the world. 1968: Radical Italian Design is actually a project of the Athens-based Deste Foundation, Joannou’s arts non-profit, and an organization that conveniently allows him to monetize and promote his own personal art collection.

Deste has produced a rather extensive series of books advertising and legitimizing Joannou’s private collections. In 2012, for example, just as Greece began its descent into a dire humanitarian crisis, Joannou hosted a show of selections from his drawing collection at the Deste Foundation’s Project Space—a few months later, the show was made into a book. Joannou titled the show and subsequent anthology “Animal Spirits,” after the Keynesian economic term describing the “spontaneous urge to action, rather than inaction,” meaning the decisions we make that are borne of some primal human instinct, rather than measured or calculated reasoning.

If it seems like an arcane non-sequitur to name an art show for the uber-wealthy after an economic concept, consider it damage control. “Animal Spirits” actually ran as a substitute for an even ritzier art event of Joannou’s, in which 300 or so of his friends would travel to the vacation destination island of Hydra—the so-called “gem of the Saronic Gulf”—to party in opulence, and bask in the beauty, sun and art. The reason for the cancellation? The weekend coincided with the Greek elections. Even Joannou, generally insensitive to all matters of decency, admitted that going forward with the show would have been “inappropriate.”

Joannou is a big fan of the “Animal Spirits” idea, and the romance of such a mystical concept of rugged individualism guides his hand when it comes building his art collection. As Greece struggled to keep its people fed and housed, Joannou’s billions—which remained relatively untouched due to tax loopholes for the shipping industry—never quite trickled down to destitute Greeks, not to mention Greek cultural institutions.

In a glowing profile in Departures, a self-described “luxury” and “lifestyle” magazine, Joannou was quick to explain why “support isn’t helping anybody. In the beginning, a lot of people thought that’s what I was doing, and they would ask for funding for this or that. I said, ‘I’m sorry, I’m not into that.’ It’s about creating a platform.”

And who has Joannou given a platform to? As a collector of work from around the globe (though rarely, as many of his critics point out, Greek artists) he’s actually most famous for giving the world Jeff Koons, from whom he purchased the very first piece of his collection in 1985.

The now-famous sculpture was “One Ball Total Equilibrium Tank,” which Joannou purchased for for $2,700. The sculpture, best described as a basketball suspended in a glass fishtank, was a big break in the early days of Koons’s art career, not too long after he had left a career as a Wall Street commodities broker. Since then, of course, Koons has exploded into an infamous art superstar of sorts, even though his critical reception has been decidedly mixed—Nation art critic Arthur Danto described his work as “aesthetic terrorism.” Koons’s works have increased in both scale and price, with his massive metallic sculpture “Balloon Dog” raking in a cool $58.4 million. And who could blame Christie’s auction house for bidding so high? It’s big! It’s shiny! It looks like a balloon that has been twisted into the shape of a dog!

Koons was actually so possessive of this innovative idea that when one gallery began selling little balloon dog bookends in their gift shop, he sent them a cease and desist letter. Koons makes tchotchkes, but they’re art tchotchkes, and whether it’s a porcelain sculpture of Michael Jackson and his chimp Bubbles, or a series of inflatable toy Incredible Hulks adorned with bric-à-brac, everything he makes is immediately recognizable, insistently conspicuous, and totally unchallenging.

Now of course Koons and Joannou are dear friends, with Joannou facing scrutiny for charging Koons with curating a show of works pulled from Joannou’s collection at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, where Joannou is also a museum trustee. A public museum showing the private collection of one of the host muesuem’s own trustees would be enough to raise eyebrows, but Joannou handed the reigns over to Koons, his own prized pony, so to speak. The conflict of interest was glaring and extremely controversial, but the show went on. Wealth confers license to operate as one pleases, no matter how noisily one’s peers may register their ethical objections.

If that incident wasn’t incestuous enough, Koons also famously designed Joannou’s mega-yacht, The Guilty, which is quite possibly the ugliest boat in the world. The 115-foot long luxury liner is wrapped in a World War I British Naval camouflage called “Dazzle,” which was designed to evade enemy fire with a mish-mash of angular chaos. If you were to take a helicopter overhead, you’d see a massive mural of Iggy Pop on top, an artist whom Koons considers appropriately “Dionysian” for the setting. Ironically, Joannou has had to paper over the notorious “camouflage” of The Guilty, in order to disguise it from paparazzi. (Or perhaps to keep out design-enthusiast marauders?)

In a 2013 interview with Forbes, Joannou described the design concept thusly: “We did what we wanted; style was irrelevant. We designed a boat in an antistyle method. We have no rules, no programs, no plans.” The description echoes the ideological influence of Joannou’s own Italian Radical Design collection, which is, coincidentally, housed in the “living room” of the mega-yacht. The hideous is not to be spurned but embraced; style was irrelevant.

At first glance, Joannou’s collecting habits may seem like the eccentric vagaries of a an insanely wealthy magnate searching for legacy and legitimacy. I won’t deny the eccentricity charge, or the role of ego. One of Joannou’s beneficiaries, painter George Condo, has immortalized Joannou in surrealist portraiture. Another Deste favorite, sculptor Pawel Althamer, sculpted his dear friend Dakis as a Native American chief in full war bonnet, taking a cast of Joannou’s own face for accuracy.

But Chief Dakis’s project isn’t just bohemian wealth run amok, it’s explicitly ideological, the Animal Spirits of a man who fancies himself a Howard Roarke visionary, despite his total lack of credentials as a doyen.

And this is the state of fine arts under contemporary capitalism. Classics and antiquity have lost cultural cache in the age of disruption, and there is no longer an aristocratic imperative to support noble projects of lofty ambition. Today we’ve neither dutiful Kings, Vaticans, or robber barons to seduce the hoi polloi into complicity with visions of the transplendent. Nor do the experiments in democracy we deem “states” seem to be doing much better, having withdrawn much of the already measly funding available for highbrow cultural endeavors.

Even dictators don’t care to seem interested in bribing the proletariat with great works any more. Before being deposed, Moammar Gadhafi shelled out big bucks for private concerts from such virtuosos as Beyoncé and Mariah Carey. Despite intense criticism, Nicki Minaj took home $2 million last year to play for Angolan dictator José Eduardo dos Santos. And forget about the nouveaux riches investing in art for the people. Crooked pharmaceutical executive Martin Shkreli is despised for jacking up drug prices, but he is only slightly less despised for spending $2 million on the only existing pressing of a “secret” Wu-Tang Clan album and then threatening to destroy it.

So what we have now, if we’re lucky, is the odd production of Swan Lake (because it’s still good), a valiant but tragically austere Carmen (because it’s the best we can do), and Jeff Koons, because his work flatters Dakis Joannou’s vision of a Dionysian rebel.

For the new era of bourgeoisie, the symphony, the ballet, the opera and the museum hold less appeal than a pop star playing your private party, and they certainly can’t compete with holding court in an art empire of your own design. The ruling classes ain’t what they used to be, and vulgar narcissists like Joannou aren’t content with anything short of taking the products of their patronage home with them—and he does, all aboard The Guilty, bobbing atop his fugly floating Versailles.

“Multiculturalism Rots Brains”: An Interview With Maryam Namazie

Maryam Namazie is a secularist and women’s rights activist originally from Iran, from which she fled in 1980 after the establishment of the Islamic Republic. She has worked around the globe on behalf of refugees, and has won numerous awards for her humanitarian advocacy. In 1991, she founded the Committee for Humanitarian Assistance to Iranian Refugees and has served as the executive director of the International Federation of Iranian Refugees. She is a spokesperson for the Council of Ex-Muslims of Britain and is on the Central Committee of the Worker-Communist Party of Iran.

Namazie was recently the subject of controversy in Britain after a speech she gave at Goldsmiths College was disrupted by members of the college’s Islamic Society, who heckled her, disabled her projector, and attempted to prevent her from speaking. The student union of Warwick University also blocked the university’s Atheist, Secularist, and Humanist Society from inviting Namazie to speak, with student union officials saying that a “risk assessment” of Namazie had concluded she was “highly inflammatory” and therefore would violate the school’s policy on external speakers.

Namazie spoke to Current Affairs from London.

Current Affairs: Most of those who are vocally critical of Islam and Islamism today seem to come from the far right. You come from the left. What is the substance of your criticism, and how does it differ from that which we hear from the ​nationalist, anti-immigration camp?

Maryam Namazie: Well, I don’t agree that most of the criticism comes from the far right. I think that’s a narrative we’re often fed, whereas if you look at a large amount of the resistance that takes place against Islamism, whether it’s from the Middle East, North Africa, South Asia, or the diaspora of immigrants and refugees who have fled those regions, you do find that a lot of those people are on the left. So, I work with lots of women’s rights’ campaigners, for example, secularists who are very much on the left… I think it’s not the far right that’s the only vocal opposition. It’s been portrayed as such, in the same way as it’s been portrayed that Islamists represent Muslims.

There’s a big difference between a left or human perspective in this fight against Islamism and a far right perspective. Fundamentally, I think the difference is that the far-right politics is also a politics of hate very similar to Islamist politics. Islamism is also a far right movement. If you look at the far right, they are primarily defending what they consider a “Christian” West, vis-a-vis a “foreign” religion: Islam, and what they consider foreigners. And it’s very much based on placing collective blame on Muslims and migrants, seeing them as one and the same with Islamists. My perspective, and the perspective of many of the people who fight with me, is human-centered. Islamism is a fascist movement, we have to be able to oppose it. Islam is a religion, we have to be able to criticize it, whilst defending universal values, secularism, and equality between men and women. Not placing collective blame, and seeing dissent amongst those deemed ‘other’ as well. So I think there’s a huge difference between the positions.

CA: But perhaps while in Muslim majority countries, these criticisms are going to be secularist and humanist, in the West the dynamic is slightly flipped. You’ve been very critical of Western liberals for what you see as their siding with right-wing Islamist movements in their attempt to defend multiculturalism and anti-racist values. But isn’t that just a product of the fact that in America the foremost critic of Islam right now is Donald Trump, so anyone who wants to be on the left is going to have to side with Islam in order to be against racism?

MN: But again, I don’t think that’s true. I think that’s the image that’s portrayed by government and the media. It’s a very simplistic narrative, where Islamists represent Muslims, and obviously that’s not true… Both sides use the same narrative, that of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, even though they reach separate conclusions. In practice, both sides see the Muslim community as a homogeneous community, and therefore the regressive Left feels that it needs to side with the Islamists if it’s going to defend the “Muslim community,” whereas the far right blames Muslims for Islamism and therefore attacks all Muslims. They both have a simplistic view of communities and societies. In fact, there are so many people on the front lines, fighting against the religious right. Unfortunately, they seem to be invisible in the mainstream media. So if it weren’t for social media, no one would know of me, and still really no one knows of me, even though I’ve been fighting Islamism for more than twenty-five years. The people I gathered together at a 2014 secularism conference are battling various religious right movements, whether it’s the Buddhist right in Sri Lanka and Myanmar, whether it’s the Hindu Right, whether it’s the Jewish Right in Israel and the settlements, or the Christian right and so forth. Very often we don’t see the many people who are standing up to the religious right in various contexts.

CA: How do you carve out a stance that criticizes both the homogenizing effects of left-wing multiculturalism as well as the racism of the right? Because obviously sometimes you’ll have to defend the rights of people you disagree with, even Islamists, when they’re being subjected to bigotry.

MN: It goes back to a point that has been made by [British secularist writer] Kenan Malik, that with the rise of identity politics, solidarity is now either with identities or against identities rather than with ideals, social and political movements, and dissenters. But it’s quite clear cut: if I side with humanity, then it’s very easy to be anti-Islamism, anti-imperialism, anti-racism, and pro-universal rights. In fact, it makes perfect sense. The left can’t be against one kind of fascism, but then defend another kind of fascism, the Islamists. Similarly, the far right only feigns to care about women’s rights when Islam is involved. They’re quite happy if abortion clinics are being bombed or Planned Parenthood’s funding is being cut. In that kind of politics, there’s no consistency. But when you have a politics that’s centered on the human being, not culture, not religion, not limited self-interest, that’s left politics and what the left has traditionally stood for. Unfortunately, with decades of multiculturalism and cultural relativism, the brains of many people on the left have completely rotted; cultural relativism is in the DNA of much of the left now.

CA:  Surely there’s a defensible version of multiculturalism, though? Because presumably what you mean by that term is legitimizing anything that occurs in another culture simply because it’s in another culture, and allowing that to trump universal human rights. But at the same time, there is an important principle in recognizing differences among peoples and allowing those differences to flourish. So what should people who want to be multicultural aspire to be?

MN: I think multiculturalism as a lived experience is a very positive thing. But that’s not what “multiculturalism” is today; it’s a social policy. So, in Britain today, multiculturalism as a social policy segregates and divides people into ethnic and religious communities. And what we’re seeing is a push toward separate faith schools, separate courts even, as well as separate faith-based social services. So because people are seen as having their own culture, with government willing to outsource its services to regressive faith organizations, who basically manage minority communities on behalf of the state. So we no longer have the universal concept of people being citizens irrespective of their beliefs and backgrounds. And it’s not just in Britain, it’s a global policy. So it’s like what happened after the Iraq war, it’s the Iraq-ization of the world, split into different ethnicities and religions and never just human. And it segregates and separates people to the point where it seems like we no longer have a common humanity, and the only thing that matters is religion and culture.

Don’t forget, also, that even people within a religion practice it in many different ways. And when you say that this is one “Muslim community,” for example, you’re basically holding as the marker of that community those with power, those with influence, the most regressive and conservative forces. And given that we live in an age in which Islamism has so much power and influence, it’s actually handing over communities to the Islamists. That’s a very dangerous thing, so we need to be clear about these distinctions.

CA:  Would you say, then, that people just need to maintain a clear distinction between “Islam” and “Islamism”? Or would you say that Islam itself is inherently problematic?

MN: There’s a huge difference between Islamism and Islam, in the sense that Islamism is a political movement; it has state power. Obviously that’s very different from a belief. Though I think all religions, including Islam, are regressive and inhuman, filled with homophobia and misogyny. I think we have so many wonderful ideas in the 21st century, that we don’t need to rely on something passé. But that’s my personal opinion, that doesn’t mean people don’t have a right to their religion and to believe what they want.

Religion is a lived experience, not just a faith. A lot of people are born into the faith, like myself, you don’t really have a choice because of the geography where you are born or the parents to whom you are born. You’re deemed to be that religion, so religious affiliation has very little choice involved. You’ve got it stamped on you from birth, often it’s even stamped in your passport without your permission. So you grow into this religion without really choosing what you want, and what you don’t want. So you find that there are plenty of Muslims who have never read the Koran; they know religion from their parents and schools. That’s why not everyone who is Muslim agrees with everything in the Koran, the same way not everyone who is Christian agrees with the Old Testament. People pick and choose, and they mold religion in a way that’s suitable to their lives. That’s why making distinction between Islam and Islamism versus ordinary believers is important.

CA: Does that, then, speak to the possibility for a moderate and liberal reformed version of Islam? Or do you believe ultimately that’s not possible?

MN: For myself, as an atheist, I really don’t care what people want to do with their religion. That’s their prerogative, but the more religion is deformed the better. The more it’s dragged into the 21st Century, the better. But when it’s in a position of political power, then it’s a power question rather than a question of personal belief, and it has life and death implications for people. So then it’s an issue for all of us. For me, I think if we can push it out of the state, out of power, it will actually allow a lot of people to breathe. Not just ex-Muslims like myself, but many practicing Muslims as well, who don’t want to live according to the prescriptions of the Iranian regime or the Saudi regime or ISIS, or even the supposedly nicer versions like the Jordanian one. They don’t want to abide by Jordanian law or Indonesian law.

CA: You say Islamism is a political movement. To what extent, then, should we be talking about its political rather than religious causes? A lot of young men who join ISIS, for example, are disaffected and alienated rather than being particularly devout. Is this really a poisonous set of ideas, or is it a product of people’s conditions?

MN: Of course you can believe in Islam and not be an Islamist, like my parents for example. So it’s not necessarily religion that’s the problem. There are a lot of religious people who I work with, who are active on my side against Islamism and for equality. But when it comes to Islamism as a political movement, to say simply that there are young people who are disaffected isn’t the whole truth. There are many people who are disaffected who don’t turn out to be fascists. The same is true in the West; you’ve got lots of people for example who are white and working class. Well, some might become fascists, other will become unionists and leftists. I’m someone who is disaffected too but who has gone toward the left. I think this equation, with the oppressed always necessarily becoming fascists, is quite offensive when you think about it, because there are many who aren’t.

Unfortunately, I think because the mainstream left, the visible left, is very much pro-Islamist, you have people who actually want to join the left because they care about social justice ultimately being handed over to the Islamists. I’ve met ex-Muslims who became Islamists via Stop the War Coalition meetings and such.

CA: Most of the people you’re talking about would vigorously dispute that they are in any way pro-Islamist. They would say they are acting against racism, rather than acting in favor of Islamism.

MN: I can’t see how they can deny it, when they actively defend the Iranian regime, actively defend the Assad regime, and in doing so betray the working class and the left. They have segregated meetings, they call for women to veil in support of women in Iraq, they’ve done this at meetings I’ve been in. They’ve kicked out activists, friends of mine, who were at the Stop the War protests with banners against the Iranian regime. They’re actively defending a section of Islamists, and so for them to say that’s not the case, is dishonest at the very least. As Algerian sociologist Marieme Helie Lucas says: “By supporting fundamentalists, they simply chose one camp in a political struggle, without acknowledging it.”

CA: Obviously you find yourself in a somewhat rare position, seeing that you’re uncomfortable both with the Left and Right perspectives on this…

MN: I don’t think I hold a very rare position. There are so many like me, which is why I feel quite comfortable with my position, I don’t feel like I need to back down, I don’t feel alone, I don’t feel under attack. One of the things I am trying to show is that my position, this left, human-centered perspective, is actually very mainstream, including in Iran, Iraq. In Iraq you see mass demonstrations with placards saying “Neither Shia nor Sunni but Secularism,” but you won’t find one media outlet reporting on that. Everyone knows bin Laden’s name, but how many people know those heroes in the Middle East and North Africa who are leftists and secularists and fighting at great risk to their lives? That’s where I see myself coming from, considering my background as an Iranian and the Iranian revolution, which was left-leaning but which was expropriated by the forces of Islamism.

The Rise of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Cult

The past two years have seen an explosion of pop culture affection for 82-year-old Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, much of it under the moniker “Notorious RBG.” The name is a riff on “Notorious BIG,” one of the most celebrated rappers of all time, and now adorns t-shirts, hoodies, and a popular Tumblr page. A fiery Ginsburg caricature has been played on Saturday Night Live, an opera has been written about her, and Warholian screen prints depict her regal visage complete with crown and jabot. After spending several decades quietly inhabiting the minor limelight afforded to high-ranking American jurists, Ginsburg has suddenly found herself an icon.

Now Irin Carmon and Shana Knizhnik have written an entire book, Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg (Dey Street Books, $19.99), based on the “Notorious RBG” sobriquet, a curious collection of biography, excerpts from Supreme Court opinions, cartoons, and a recipe for pork loin from the Justice’s late husband. The book does not attempt to  grapple with why this surge of Ginsburg-mania has come about—it is thoroughly an example of the phenomenon rather than an attempt to analyze it. But as the most fully-realized embodiment of the trend, Notorious RBG is a helpful window into Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s journey from Supreme Court Justice to viral meme.

Calling the book a hagiography could hardly offend its authors—most biographies don’t conclude their introduction with “We are frankly in awe of what we’ve learned about her, and we’re pretty excited to share it with you.” Adoration oozes from the page with every tidbit and factoid the authors giddily present. So we learn that Justice Ginsburg began smoking because she was brave. When she argued before a case before an unusually quiet Supreme Court, the authors infer that she stunned the nine Justices into silence.

This incessant lionizing can border on the embarrassing, even in its most lighthearted and transparent form. The authors tell the (possibly apocryphal) story of Justice Ginsberg rejecting an applicant for a clerkship who had included an error in his application with a personal letter telling him to “note the typo.” Carmon and Knizhnik see this as a charming example of Ginsburg’s attention to detail. Readers may not find it quite so endearing to see one of the country’s most powerful people going out of her way to pointlessly humiliate a young job applicant.

The desire to keep the book reverential forces the authors into some contradictory postures, as Notorious RBG alternates between referring to the Justice, admiringly, as a radical with referring to her, also admiringly, as a center-left pragmatist. Ginsburg must be faultless, thus she is both stubborn and diplomatic, both activist and restrained, both moderate and audacious.

But when you get down to it, the fundamental premise of the pop culture adulation for Ginsburg is that she is a headstrong liberal firebrand. Of course, much of the ordinary work of a Supreme Court justice consists of painstakingly adjudicating mundane interpretive questions, such as deciding what standard of review to apply in evaluating administrative determinations of the definition of “U.S. waters.” (see United States Army Corps of Engineers v. Hawkes Co., Inc.) But such matters leave little room for gutsy feminist ass-kicking, and elucidating the federal procedure controversies of the day does not earn one’s face on Amy Schumer’s tank top.

Making an activist hero out of an administrative functionary like a Supreme Court Justice was therefore always going to require a bit of distortion. Yet a reader of Notorious RBG (even after using the book to prepare a delicious pork loin) might be left wondering whether the characterization of Ginsburg as a fearless champion of progressive principles can be defended, even by the relaxed standards necessary for evaluating Justices.

The task of glorifying Ginsburg is made easier if one conflates her early career as a litigator with her later tenure as a justice. For despite Notorious RBG’s portrayal of Ginsburg’s life and work as a unified package, there are distinctly different phases, and it’s difficult to appreciate Ginsburg’s complexity and evolution without separating the 30-something feminist dynamo from the 70-something robed bureaucrat.

In her early years, Ruth Bader Ginsburg was a spectacular law student in the face of rampant sexism and personal challenges. She became a formidable civil rights lawyer, dedicating her career to eradicating laws that discriminated on the basis of gender. Her use of male plaintiffs to demonstrate how sex-based classifications harmed men and women alike was shrewd strategy and smart politics. If you were a young, fiery liberal looking for a role model, you could do worse than Ruth Bader Ginsburg, civil rights lawyer.

Yet the recent outpouring of ardor has celebrated not just this period, but her time the court as well, and Justice Ginsburg is a different story. Empirical measurements of ideology confirm the eye test: Ginsburg is a center-left Justice roughly in line with President Obama’s two appointees and Stephen Breyer. This gang is less liberal than the recently retired John Paul Stevens (appointed by Republican President Gerald Ford) and miles to the right of recent justices Thurgood Marshall and William Brennan. Of course, in today’s court, which contains four of the most conservative justices of the last century, that still makes them the left flank. But even measured against her decidedly non-radical judicial peers, Ginsburg is a cautious centrist. Thus while she might maintain broadly progressive sympathies, she is equally willing to allow the government to threaten the withdrawl of funding in order to punish universities that ban discriminatory job recruitment by the military (Rumsfeld v. Forum for Academic & Institutional Rights, Inc.) or to rule against paying overtime to Amazon warehouse workers (as in Integrity Staffing Solutions v. Busk).

Ginsburg’s liberal supporters—whose raves fill Notorious RBG—portray her record differently. Forced to accept that her voting pattern is nothing like that of Thurgood Marshall or legendary radical William O. Douglas (who fashioned a constitutional right to birth control out of thin air, and famously argued that trees had the right to be represented in court), they treat her moderation as cunning. The law, after all, requires five votes to change, not one. What looks on an empiricist’s scatterplot like a fainthearted liberal, they argue, is instead a practical coalition builder. Ginsburg is merely being strategic.

This argument is too clever by half. One does not need to be meek and compromising to advance one’s legal views. Justice Scalia, Ginsburg’s best friend on the court, has not let his successful coalition building prevent him from being an outspoken, even crude conservative. Scalia has stated that he writes his dissents for the law students, and over the course of his tenure the Court has gradually slid rightward to join him on several important issues. The ability of Supreme Court justices to set agendas through nonbinding rhetoric is one of their most potent.

Ruth Bader Ginsburg undoubtedly understands this, and has given her fair share of blistering dissents. But on the issues where she is silent, her abstention from controversy can be difficult to defend. Where criminal justice is concerned, for example, she has trailed her colleagues in recognizing the stakes, and may have done real harm to large numbers of vulnerable people through her refusal to engage.

Prolonged solitary confinement, the practice of locking one or two people in a small area without meaningful social contact for over twenty-two hours per day for long periods of time, is a widespread practice in American prisons. This starvation of social contact is devastating to the mental and physical health of people in solitary. For decades, psychologists have considered the practice so damaging as to constitute torture.

In 2009, the American cultural elite caught on to the practice’s horrors in the typical way: The New Yorker published a thorough, clinical condemnation of solitary confinement by its resident medical explainer Atul Gawande. If the scientific consensus that the practice constituted torture was not enough to end the practice, one might imagine the burst of outrage the article provoked to have finished it off. Even a basic syllogism seems like it should have led the courts to eradicate long-term solitary confinement for good: the practice is torture; torturing people violates the Constitution; the practice violates the Constitution.

Not so. Although a handful of lower court cases in recent years have found solitary confinement unconstitutional when applied to certain particularly vulnerable groups such as the seriously mentally ill, the law has lagged behind the science by not mandating the practice’s abolition.

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Last term, in the mostly unrelated case of Davis v. Ayala, Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote a lengthy concurrence condemning solitary confinement. He described the new and growing awareness that solitary confinement caused massive harm and closed by inviting a challenge to the practice: “In a case that presented the issue, the judiciary may be required, within its proper jurisdiction and authority, to determine whether workable alternative systems for long-term confinement exist, and, if so, whether a correctional system should be required to adopt them.” Most notably, Justice Kennedy made no reference to any particularly vulnerable group, instead suggesting that long-term solitary confinement may be unconstitutional for all. Justice Ginsburg did not join the concurrence.

The reaction to Justice Kennedy was significant. The New York Times dedicated an editorial to the concurrence and the Los Angeles Times wrote a story on it. Lower courts have already begun quoting Justice Kennedy’s language when discussing cases on solitary confinement. When long-term solitary confinement is abolished, Justice Kennedy’s concurrence will appear in the history.

The example, in which Ginsburg sat out an opportunity to condemn the brutal and illegal conditions of America’s most marginalized people, is not trivial. Mass incarceration and the reluctance of the federal judiciary to check it are major stories of our time. The number of people we send to prison, the length of time they serve there, and the conditions in which they live are collectively among the country’s biggest civil rights disasters. They’re also among the few social problems that the Court is actually well-positioned to do something about. Constitutional litigating is generally a feeble means of repairing disastrous public policies, but it should be perfectly designed to prohibit government officials from shooting children in public parks, raping adults in American jails, and torturing people in prison through the use of long-term solitary confinement.

Alas, the Supreme Court has not seen fit to give the Constitution such a reading, and Justice Ginsburg has been as much a bystander as many of her peers on the Court. Take just the last few terms. In Heien v. North Carolina, the court held that the police may justifiably pull over cars if they believe they are violating the law even if the police are misunderstanding the law, so long as the mistake was reasonable. In Taylor v. Barkes, the Court held that the family of a suicidal man who was jailed and then killed himself could not sue the jail for failing to implement anti-suicide measures. In Plumhoff v. Rickard, the court held that the family of two men could not sue the police after they had shot and killed them for fleeing a police stop. Ginsburg joined the opinion in every case.

In fact, she has gone so far as to join the conservatives on criminal justice, even when all of her fellow liberals have sided with a criminal defendant. In Samson v. California, the Court decided the issue of whether police could conduct warrantless searches of parolees merely because they were on parole. Instead of joining the liberal dissenters, Ginsburg signed onto Clarence Thomas’s majority opinion in favor of the police.

In January, the Court issued its opinion in the case of Kansas v. Carr. The Kansas Supreme Court had overturned a pair of death sentences, on the grounds that the defendants’ Eighth Amendment rights had been violated in the instructions given to the jury. The U.S. Supremes swooped in, informing Kansas that it had made a mistake; nobody’s Eighth Amendment rights had been violated, thus the defendants ought to have continued unimpeded along the path toward execution. The Court’s decision was 8-1, the lone dissenter being Sonia Sotomayor. Ginsburg put her name on Justice Scalia’s majority opinion instead.

It was no random chance that made Justice Sotomayor the particular dissenter. Since her appointment in 2009, Sotomayor has emerged as a strong opponent of the more egregiously inhumane aspects of American criminal justice. She has repeatedly taken on all eight of her colleagues; last year she lambasted them for shielding a police officer from legal liability for shooting a man during a high-speed chase. Sotomayor wrote that by “sanctioning a ‘shoot first, think later’ approach to policing, the Court renders the protections of the Fourth Amendment hollow.” The other justices, including Ginsburg, felt the case so unimportant that they dispensed of it with a brief, unsigned opinion.

During her time on the court, Sotomayor has been recognized as making a conscious effort to educate her fellow justices and the American public about issues of race and criminal justice. Writing in The New Republic, David Fontana has said that Sotomayor’s spirited fight against racism makes her a “national treasure,” and that “Sotomayor, uniquely among recent liberal justices, has used her public appearances to effectively communicate her liberal perspective on the constitution to regular members of the public, in addition to legal and academic elites.” Importantly, Sotomayor also sees herself as an “outsider,” uncomfortable with the pomp and affectation of her eight judicial brethren.

In Slate, Mark Joseph Stern contrasted Sotomayor’s perceptiveness about police and prisons issues with Ginsburg’s indifference: “When it comes to understanding the systemic flaws and violent behavior of America’s criminal justice system, there’s no one quite like Justice Sonia Sotomayor…Sorry, Notorious R.B.G. groupies, but [Ruth Bader Ginsburg] has a bit of a law-and-order streak.” (This despite Sotomayor being an ex-prosecutor, while Ginsburg worked for the ACLU.)

Carmon and Knizhnik discuss none of this, instead treating as an implicit assumption that Ginsburg’s aggressive battle for justice extends from gender equality to fighting racism. Of course, Notorious RBG is not obligated to interrogate every facet of her career, and Ginsburg need not be perfect to be worthy of admiration. But the assumption that she is a role model on racial inequality is not an ancillary question. Racial inequality is a defining feature of American life and a national disgrace. Racial animus is also the bedrock of mass incarceration, which erupted partially on Ginsburg’s watch and which she has expressed little interest in attempting to eliminate.

Carmon and Knizhnik must surely be aware of this. After all, the very opening scene of Notorious RBG depicts Ginsburg reading her fiery dissent in Shelby County v. Holder, an important voting rights case in which the court implied that Black voters in the South no longer needed Congress’s protection from their states’ efforts at disenfranchising them. (The intervening years have proved the Court wrong, if there was ever any question.) The Court, Notorious RBG notes, was “threatening the progress for which she had fought so hard.” As for Ginsburg, “when the work is justice, she has every intention to see it to the end. RBG has always been about doing the work.” In the lengthy discussion of her career to follow, one might therefore expect to read about Ginsburg fighting so hard for progress in the eradication of racism; doing the work; seeing it to the end.

Notorious RBG barely mentions race again. The authors seem to believe that because of Ginsburg’s many accomplishments fighting for women’s rights, we can safely assume that she was a force for good in the fight against racism without considering the evidence.

In fact, one of Notorious RBG’s few mentions of race is particularly strange. In the book’s discussion of Bush v. Gore, the contentious decision that decided the 2000 presidential election, the authors mention that Ginsburg’s draft of her dissent had a footnote alluding to the possible suppression of Black voters in Florida. Justice Scalia purportedly responded to this draft by flying into a rage, telling Ginsburg that she was using “Al Sharpton tactics.” Ginsburg removed the footnote before it saw the light of day.

This anecdote’s inclusion in the book is baffling. Notorious RBG unrepentantly fawns over Ginsburg as a civil rights hero. Yet in this story, Ginsburg contemplates calling attention to straightforward, anti-Black racism in the most facile of ways. But when her friend Justice Scalia plucks an argument straight from right-wing talk radio to shame her out of doing so, Ginsburg instantly capitulates. Some commitment to racial equality.

Ginsburg’s legendary chumminess with the late Justice Scalia should be another red flag in itself. Here was a man openly (and brashly) against every value Ginsburg supposedly holds. He suggested that affirmative action may be keeping African Americans from attending the “slower-tracked” schools where they belong. He would have seen Roe v. Wade overturned, and the reproductive rights Ginsburg fought for completely stripped. He called the Voting Rights Act a “racial entitlement” and consistently defended the legitimacy of anti-gay prejudice. Not the sort of character one would expect Ginsburg to attend the opera with.

Yet somehow these two opposites managed to get along and maintain mutual respect and good humor, and a legendary extrajudicial friendship. How? On the one hand, it seems a charming parable about the setting aside of differences and the embracing of common ground. But it’s also odd that anyone who takes their values seriously could simply “set aside” the fact that, by their own metric, their friend was one of the most powerful enforcers of systematized bigotry and repression in the country. (What can you say? “Oh, that was just his day job”?) Now, perhaps Ginsburg would reject that description of Scalia’s position. But if you think the rights of black and gay people are of major moral consequence, and you think Scalia’s work profoundly undermined those rights, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that this was not someone you ought to regularly be taking to dinner.

The perverse Scalia/Ginsburg friendship speaks to a disturbing trait shared by both the Court itself and the specific Notorious RBG approach to understanding it. This is the tendency to become wrapped up in the genteel, sober, ritualized world of the Court’s chambers, and forget the human consequences of the work that is done there. A torture victim would not so easily be able to compartmentalize Scalia’s repeated defenses of torture. A gay or trans person might have had a difficult time going out and watching Scalia eat risotto and tell jokes, knowing the world he would build for them if he could. During Scalia and Ginsburg’s occasional public appearances together, Scalia usually cracked his line “What’s not to like [about her]? …Except her views on the law.” Well hah, hah. Yet “her views on law” embody her fundamental conception of justice and morality (at least ostensibly). Only in the detached and rarified world of the Court could someone accept such a remark as a gentle joke among colleagues rather than a nasty dismissal of everything one holds dear, including the basic rights of women.

In 2011, several public figures, including Harvard Law Professor Randall Kennedy, urged Justice Ginsburg retire while she could be sure that President Obama could pick her successor. Ginsburg was seventy-eight and had survived cancer twice. (Kennedy also called for the retirement of the only slightly-younger Stephen Breyer.) Ginsburg refused to pay any heed to the suggestion, and appears determined to remain on the Court until it pleases her to depart. (With Republicans now firmly committed to judicial obstructionism, it may even be too late fo her to change her mind and assure an Obama-nominated successor.) Notorious RBG addresses this controversy in its introduction, and the response is worth considering in full:

Historically, one way women have lost power is by being nudged out the door to make room for someone else. Not long before pop culture discovered RBG, liberal law professors and commentators began telling her the best thing she could do for what she cared about was to quit, so that President Barack Obama could appoint a successor. RBG, ardently devoted to her job, has mostly brushed that dirt off her shoulder. Her refusal to meekly shuffle off the stage has been another public, high-stakes act of defiance.

It should first be noted that “women” as a whole would are unlikely to lose any power by Ginsburg’s retirement; it is widely assumed that any selection Obama would make to replace Ginsburg would be a woman. But other contemporaneous responses to the call to retire made more sophisticated claims that they whiffed of sexism. Emily Bazelon wrote in Slate that since Ginsburg is “a small, slender woman who speaks in low tones and looks like a bird… people tend to assume she is frail when in fact she is anything but.” This point is important. Even those of us who find excellent, logical reasons to urge Ginsburg to retire should concede that research on implicit bias makes those excellent, logical reasons inherently suspect. When they happen to coincide with the outcome that traditional gender norms or racial animus would suggest—such as urging a slight woman to step down from her powerful position because she is too frail—alarm bells should go off.

Yet the main argument falls to bits upon a gentle prodding. First, the charge of sexism is hard to maintain so long as one equally favors the retirement of the similarly senescent Justice Breyer. (Ageism may be another matter, though it should hardly be unduly discriminatory to point out that the elderly have a noticeable tendency to suddenly expire.) Second, it’s very strange indeed to defend against the sexism experienced by Ginsburg without weighing it against the sexism experienced by the 162 million other women who live in the United States and have to live with the Supreme Court’s rulings. The authors of Notorious RBG must find important the actual work the Supreme Court does—they wrote a whole book about a Supreme Court justice! Yet they do not even engage with the argument that Justice Ginsburg is actually putting the rights of people at risk by entering her mid-eighties on a Supreme Court with four pathologically conservative justices, all salivating at the prospect of recruiting a fifth and restoring the toxic ideological configuration of the Scalia years. Justice Ginsburg’s “public, high-stakes act of defiance” may be gratifying and symbolically powerful, but if the end result is the reversal of Roe, can a victory for feminism truly be claimed?  (In fact, replacing Ginsburg might actually help women’s rights, at least the rights of women prisoners, if someone more Sotomayor-ish were given the post.)

One of the authors’ favored metaphors can explain how they so blithely dismissed the merits of allowing President Obama to pick Ginsburg’s successor: that of the court as “stage.” Ginsburg refused “to meekly shuffle off the stage.” It’s a word commonly used in descriptions of Supreme Court proceedings. Indeed, Notorious RBG on its opening page notes that “What happens inside the hushed chamber is pure theater.” No, it is not. It may be theatrical, but very few of your ordinary community stage productions retain the power to impose or revoke the death penalty.

A less glib reply to the pro-retirement argument came from ex-New York Times court-watcher Linda Greenhouse. Greenhouse explained Ginsburg’s intransigence thusly:

“I think from her perspective she is taking a long view of history, not a case by case one, or a term by term one…I think she feels that it belittles and diminishes the court to have retirements so obviously timed for political reasons.”

There, in a nutshell, is the difference between Ginsburg and the people her work affects: she and her followers can afford to take the long view, to see political fights as important without seeing them as an end-all, be-all struggle. From the tables of the Supreme Court cafeteria or the leather chairs of one’s chambers, lofty abstractions like “the preservation of judicial dignity” can appear to carry equal weight to questions of actual human consequences. One’s fellow justices can be droll and amiable drinking companions, even if they wouldn’t bat an eyelid at seeing homosexuals put in prison. And “political reasons” can appear as something tawdry and unbecoming, even though they refer to matters like “keeping children from being put in solitary confinement” and “making sure colleges don’t exclude black people.” What a luxury it surely is to be able to relax and take “the long view” of these questions, a luxury unshared by the victims of the Court’s judgments.

So one must adopt a somewhat cynical hypothesis as to why this middle-of-the-road Justice is the object of the cartoons, the hoodies, and this coffee table ode: the readers of Notorious RBG spend as little time thinking about the people abused in American prisons and jails as the Notorious RBG herself does. Elsewhere, people in America’s worst prisons, their families, and their advocates have to hope that either a Democrat will win the 2016 presidential election or that Justice Ginsburg will make it to 87 in good health. If neither come to pass, thousands of additional people may be assaulted, raped, or killed in American prisons and jails, and it’s likely that most of the people wearing “Notorious RBG” paraphernalia will never know their names.

What’s In Our March/April Issue

Current Affairs‘s March-April print issue is now on sale! You can find it at bookstores across the country (if your bookstore doesn’t carry it, tell them to rectify the oversight immediately). or purchase single copies from our online store. It looks somewhat like this:

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We’ve filled Current Affairs with remarkable material from some of the country’s best writers. And right now, it’s all exclusive to print, so order a copy right away.

When you open it up, you’ll find:

  • The Rise of the Ruth Bader Ginsburg Cult – We examine the curious recent trend of adulation for “The Notorious RBG.” Does her judicial career merit the praise? Or should she perhaps be notorious for a rather different reason?
  • The Abominable Aesthetic Tastes of the Global Rich – Amber A’Lee Frost looks at the kind of art collected by the super-wealthy. Why is it so unbelievably tacky?
  • My Police State Diary – Journalist Belén Fernández reports on the curious mixture of beauty and totalitarianism to be found in the country Herman Cain once referred to as “U-beki-beki-beki-stan-stan.”
  • Mass Incarceration & the Limits of Prose – We’ve recently seen a flurry of books about prisons and the dysfunctions of American criminal justice. But why are they all kind of… failures? Is it even possible to convey the nature of prison in writing?
  • Elizabeth Gilbert and the Pinterest Fantasy Life – Elizabeth Gilbert achieved international success with Eat, Pray, Love. Now she’s back with a book of writing tips. According to Yasmin Nair, they amount to: be rich so you’ll have lots of free time to write.
  • The Rancid Politics of Online Feminism – Abi Wilkinson looks at the world of Twitter feminism, and its brutal, hostile factionalism. Can’t feminists all get along? Not online they can’t, it seems.
  • Oh God, Please Not Libertarianism – We look at some new books by libertarians. Are they bad? Yes.
  • PlusOur report on what the New York Times has been up to, puzzles and coloring activities, Nazi cowboys, numerous borderline libels, some absurd sociology diagrams, our offer to buy The New Republic, ludicrous fake advertisements, and a whole hell of a lot more.

We’ve packed this issue with everything wonderful we can think of. It’s smart, brutal, and classy as hell. Get yours today.

Nominating a Presidential Candidate Under Active FBI Investigation Is An Incredibly Risky Gamble

The 2016 election has many bizarre aspects, but surely one of the most bizarre is the fact that one of the main presidential candidates is under active investigation by the FBI, and that this is somehow being treated as unimportant or inconsequential.

Of course, everyone knows that Hillary Clinton has a pending FBI investigation, and everyone has a vague sense that it is continuing to grow rather than disappear, and that theoretically the possible consequences include indictment and prosecution. But for some reason a major investigation concerning a presidential candidate isn’t being widely treated as the potentially catastrophic scandal and electability risk that it is. Nominating a presidential candidate who could potentially be subject to prosecution under the Espionage Act should seem like an insane gamble for a party to take. Why, then, isn’t it being taken more seriously?

There’s no mystery as to the basic facts, which by now are wearingly familiar to all. When Hillary Clinton was Secretary of State, she stored much of her email on a private server, free of ordinary oversight and without the government’s security protocols in place. While Clinton insisted none of these unsecured emails contained classified information, according to a Washington Post investigation more than 100 of the emails that contained classified information were sent by Mrs Clinton herself using her private server.” 

The government takes its classification regime extremely seriously, and the FBI has confirmed that it is conducting a review of unspecified scope as part of “ongoing law enforcement efforts.” And the FBI investigation is only “foremost among a half-dozen inquiries and legal proceedings” examining the matter. In addition to the FBI’s investigation, “there are continuing inquiries into Mrs. Clinton’s emails by the inspector general of the State Department, the inspector general of the intelligence agencies, the State Department’s Bureau of Diplomatic Security and the House Select Committee on Benghazi.”

Now, the IT specialist who set up Clinton’s server has struck a deal with the Justice Department for immunity from prosecution, and has been (for what it’s worth) rumored to be a “devastating witness.” Nobody knows what the specialist is revealing, but this sort of development certainly isn’t the sign of an investigation wrapping up. The Hill has quoted former FBI officials saying that “a decision on whether to file charges against Clinton or her top aides could come later this year.”

PolitFact has insisted that none of this actually amounts to an “investigation of Clinton” and that calling it such is a half-truth. But they conceded that “Clinton’s actions are clearly front-and-center in an FBI investigation,” and that the details of the investigation remain too opaque to actually conclude anything concrete in Clinton’s favor. And while PolitiFact implies that the case remains a “security referral” without criminal implications, The New York Times has since reported that while the issue began as a security inquiry, “multiple law enforcement officials said the matter quickly became an investigation into whether anyone had committed a crime in handling classified information.”

Plenty of people have insisted Clinton’s conduct, while unwise, doesn’t rise to the level of the criminal. In the Washington Post, Ruth Marcus said that while it was possible to construct a theory as to why Clinton’s conduct was illegal, it would require such a stretch that no responsible prosecutor would bring such a charge. Marcus says that those who compare the case to other “mishandling of classified information” prosecutions such as that of David Petraeus miss a crucial fact: in the other instances, the classified information was handed over to someone unauthorized to view it, or treated with far greater negligence (by being left in a dumpster, for instance).

But this is not true. Examine, for instance, the case of Bryan Nishimura, a Naval reservist who deployed during Afghanistan during 2007 and 2008. Nishimura was prosecuted when he stored classified information on unsecured devices. In its press release announcing Nishimura’s plea agreement, the FBI summarized the facts as follows:

In his role as a Regional Engineer for the U.S. military in Afghanistan, Nishimura had access to classified briefings and digital records that could only be retained and viewed on authorized government computers. Nishimura, however, caused the materials to be downloaded and stored on his personal, unclassified electronic devices and storage media. He carried such classified materials on his unauthorized media when he traveled off-base in Afghanistan and, ultimately, carried those materials back to the United States at the end of his deployment. In the United States, Nishimura continued to maintain the information on unclassified systems in unauthorized locations, and copied the materials onto at least one additional unauthorized and unclassified system… The investigation did not reveal evidence that Nishimura intended to distribute classified information to unauthorized personnel. 

See if you can find any meaningful distinction between Nishimura’s conduct and Clinton’s. Just as with Clinton, nobody alleges that the action caused harm, or that Nishimura used it for any nefarious purposes. Just as with Clinton, nobody alleges that Nishimura disclosed or intended to disclose the information to any unauthorized person. The only issue here is that Nishimura kept classified materials on unauthorized media, precisely the same thing Clinton is alleged to have done.

The same is true in the case of John Deutch, a CIA officer whose laptops were found to contain classified material. Deutch had agreed to plead to a misdemeanor offense of mishandling classified documents when he was pardoned by Bill Clinton. And then there was the case of Wen Ho Lee, relentlessly hounded by the government and put in solitary confinement for nine months on suspicion of spying after downloading classified information, was a particularly heinous low point. And as Glenn Greenwald has documented, there are plenty of other examples to choose from:

NSA whistleblower Tom Drake, for instance, faced years in prison, and ultimately had his career destroyed, based on the Obama DOJ’s claims that he “mishandled” classified information (it included information that was not formally classified at the time but was retroactively decreed to be such)… Last year, a Naval officer was convicted of mishandling classified information also in the absence of any intent to distribute it.

It’s strange, then, for Ruth Marcus (and the others who insist that Clinton’s conduct was lawful) to dwell on the differences between Clinton’s behavior and David Petraeus’s, while failing to mention any relevant differences between Clinton’s case and that of Nishimura or Deutch.

Clinton’s own defenses haven’t been particularly reassuring, either. Initially, Clinton’s campaign insisted that none of the material sent on the unsecured server was classified: “Hillary didn’t send any classified materials over email: Hillary only used her personal account for unclassified email.” Then, the Clinton campaign admitted that classified information had been sent, but insisted that the initial statement was still simultaneously true because none of the material was “marked” classified “at the time.” That defense was laughable on its face, because everyone at every level of the State Department is trained to recognize what sort of information is presumptively classified and should be handled accordingly. Of all people, the highly experienced Hillary Clinton would be the last to be oblivious to basic departmental protocol.

But once it became difficult to deny that classified information was sent, Clinton’s team shifted their stance. They began calling the situation “overclassification run amok,” saying that “our system for determining what ought to be classified is broken,” and her defenders said the Espionage Act was “antiquated.” Note, though, how different this is from saying that the material wasn’t classified. It is, in fact, an admission that the material was classified. It essentially concedes that Clinton may well have committed a prosecutable offense. This is not a defense that says the law was not violated, but that the law is unfair.

Unfortunately for Clinton, protesting that the classification laws should be different doesn’t mean that they are different. The fact that the Clinton campaign are casting around the word “overclassification” should be deeply alarming, because talking about overclassification is the last refuge of someone who knows that by the letter of the law, they have mishandled classified information.

Sometimes the Clinton campaign has even given up on arguing the facts, and begun impugning the motives of the investigators. The Intelligence Community inspector general recently announced that several Clinton emails were found to be “Special Access Programs,” a classification above Top Secret reserved for “exceptional” circumstances in which a very limited number of people should have access. This meant that “the secret information on Hillary Clinton’s personal email was more highly classified than previously understood.” But rather than explaining why this was false, the campaign insisted that the intelligence community inspector general is not operating in good faith” and that the inspector general was colluding with Republicans.

At the very least, then, it’s clear that there is potential lawbreaking here, something that logically should present a gigantic red flag for a party trying to select a nominee. As The New Yorker‘s Ryan Lizza put it understatedly, “however these [investigations] turn out, it is unusual for a presumptive nominee and some of her current and former aides to be under investigation by the F.B.I.” If there is an active investigation into a crime that the nominee could very well be convicted of, and that nominee’s own reassurances seem cagey and evasive, running that person in a general election would seem like a gamble bordering on insanity. 

The real curious thing about the whole affair, however, is that nobody seems to believe there’s actually much risk to the campaign. Why is that? If the evidence seems like it may well be enough to make out a case (even if there is a plausible defense theory), shouldn’t this be concerning? Why isn’t it a major topic in the nominating contest?

Lizza believes it’s because Bernie Sanders has downplayed the issue and refused to campaign on it. Lizza says that many Democrats are alarmed that the issue is not being taken more seriously. He quotes a senior Democratic consultant saying:

The person that the White House cleared the field for, and that everyone has fallen in line for, has three federal investigations going on… The guy who set up the system for her took the Fifth. You’re not supposed to read anything into that, but please. It’s the elephant in the room, and Sanders took it off the table.

But perhaps the issue goes beyond Sanders’s refusal to make an issue of the investigations. Part of the scandal’s seeming negligibility has to simply be that nobody believes there is any chance of the Obama administration prosecuting Hillary Clinton. For a Democratic president to tank the prospects of the Democratic nominee by prosecuting her over something that appears both harmless and trivial seems unthinkable. Regardless of all questions about what the law is and whether she violated it, a criminal prosecution seems beyond the realm of reasonable possibility.

And it very well may be. It’s certainly difficult to imagine an indictment coming down, and Clinton even having to plead to some tiny misdemeanor. It’s only because it seems so unthinkable that Clinton can get away with answering the question “Will you drop out if indicted?” by saying “My goodness. That is not going to happen. I’m not even answering that question.”

But the very fact that this is unimaginable implies something troubling: people have an entirely different collective understanding of what justice looks like for those with political power and those without it, and that difference is simply accepted as natural.

Recall Bryan Nishimura’s case. The facts are the same. Yet somehow Nishimura’s prosecution raises no eyebrows, seems like business-as-usual for the FBI. If prosecuting Clinton is not just unlikely but inconceivable, but prosecuting Nishimura seems routine (or at least not unlikely, even if unjust), then there’s an implicit double standard at play. Even if we believe there are relevant differences in the facts, the level of difference in our expectations implies a passive acceptance of an openly inconsistent set of laws. The central idea behind the “rule of law” is that all are treated equally before the law, but here we have no expectation that the Democratic presidential nominee will be subject to the same strict standard as a minor agency functionary.

In fact, for any other individual than Hillary Clinton, one would be foolish to doubt the Obama Administration’s willingness to prosecute. The administration has prosecuted individuals under the Espionage Act more than every previous presidential administration combined. It has waged a relentless war on whistleblowers, and its promise to be “the most transparent administration ever” has become an ironic Orwellian joke. If anyone doesn’t view the Espionage Act as “antiquated,” it’s the Obama Justice Department. Chelsea Manning sits in prison because of the Espionage Act under Obama. Journalists worry about their freedom to report because of the Espionage Act under Obama.

Hillary Clinton knows all this, of course, because Clinton was part of that very culture of secrecy. During her time as Secretary of State, when the Wikileaks documents were revealed, an anonymous official in the Clinton state department threatened that students seeking public service jobs could have their careers jeopardized for so much as tweeting about the Wikileaks documents, even though they were freely available all over the internet. The official warned that this would “call into question your ability to deal with confidential information.” (Clinton called the leak itself “an attack on the international community.”)

Now, of course, Clinton’s perspective has completely altered, and the email scandal has got the former Secretary of State talking like Julian Assange. So for Clinton’s supporters the Espionage Act goes from an essential tool for preserving national security to an antiquated, overreaching infringement on both liberty and common sense.

It’s worth pointing out that is an antiquated, overreaching infringement on both liberty and common sense. Even the often pro-government Brookings Institution fellow Benjamin Wittes has called the act “hopelessly broad” and pointed out the terrifying fact “that from a journalistic point of view looks like pretty normal journalistic activity could be considered aiding and abetting a violation of the Espionage Act.”

So everything the Clinton campaign now says about the excessive secrecy of the national security state completely true. The present system of classification is paranoid, out-of-control, and Kafkaesque. According to Nieman Reports:

The universe of classified information includes not only genuine national security secrets, such as confidential intelligence sources or advanced military technologies, but an endless supply of mundane bureaucratic trivia, such as 50-year-old intelligence budget figures, as well as the occasional crime or cover-up.

Though there may be important security tradeoffs, every piece of information that remains classified reduces government accountability, and far, far too much information is classified. As it stands now, crimes committed by the government can remain undiscovered for years, locked away behind the strict, totally irrational wall of classification.

So nobody should care about the damned emails. Clinton’s misdeed should be an internal agency matter, with procedures fixed in the future. In terms of its significance to human wellbeing, the issue is just as trivial as Bernie Sanders says it is. Clinton is right about overclassification, and it’s a just a shame she only became interested in the problem when it began to threaten her personally. 

Yet now we have created a legal structure in which the mishandling of totally harmless classified information is treated akin to terrorism, unless Clinton is treated as being at serious risk of prosecution, we essentially acknowledge the nonexistence of the rule of law. There are two possibilities here: either we trust the Obama administration to treat this case like any other, in which case (given the government’s paranoia, liberal deployment of the Espionage Act, and history of other excessive prosecutions) Clinton has a massive looming liability and nominating her would be a massive gamble. Or we believe that, while the government will eagerly make mountains out of molehills for minor Naval reservists, Hillary Clinton will receive the benefit of the doubt due to the political necessity of ensuring she becomes the Democratic nominee and keeps Trump out of the White House. And that would require us to accept some very troubling conclusions about the politicized nature of the American justice system. 

To prosecute Clinton would be absurd, of course. As Ruth Marcus says, it would require a prosecutor to actively desire to press the law to its limits, rather than to apply it with reason, fairness, and good judgment. But since nobody else receives reasonable prosecutions, it’s unclear why Clinton should. If prosecuting Clinton would be absurd, it would be no more absurd than the rest of the Obama administration’s approach to the protection of classified information.

In a world where we expected the law to be equally applied to all, Democrats should be panicking right now over the status of the investigations against Clinton and the Clinton campaign’s troubling responses. The Washington Post has documented numerous misstatements and evasions made by Clinton around the emails, concluding that “it appears Clinton often used highly technical language to obscure the salient fact that her private email setup was highly unusual and flouted existing regulations.” All of this should be making Democrats panic, and sending them scrambling to find a non-indictable nominee.

But that’s not happening, for a very obvious reason. Nobody seriously believes the law would be applied to Clinton with the same pitiless irrationality as it was to Bryan Nishimura. Yet that leaves us with a stark choice: either treat the Clinton scandal as troubling and a major campaign issue, or acknowledge that we are entrusting an oligarchical justice system to make the issue go away for Clinton in a way it wouldn’t for anyone else. Neither choice should leave Democrats comfortable.

Our Promise

This magazine promises very little beyond bright colors and classy serifs. But these it promises absolutely. The attempt is to offer something that is both political and readable, a combination never before successfully achieved. The moment things have gone didactic and tedious, please let the editors know, and they will cease publication immediately. You have either paid money for this publication or bamboozled someone who has, creating a reciprocal obligation that is taken very seriously indeed.

However, even though this magazine tries to be interesting, it nevertheless has principles. It is, for example, firmly against the hurting of human beings by other human beings. That position evidently makes us “of the Left,” though not of the one that puts people in labor camps and enjoys sing-a-longs.

We are not like the Marxists, with their uni-causal explanations and their ominous rhetoric of bloodshed.

We are not like the Anarchists, who cannot organize an anarchist bookfair, let alone a revolution.

We are not like the Democrats, whose chief political conviction appears to be capitulation at all costs.

We are certainly not like the libertarians, who despise every tyrannical act unless it happens to be done by the boss.

We believe things ought to strive to make sense, which puts us in a minority among magazines of political commentary and analysis. Incidentally, we do not care for most of the present-day media, who appear enamored of the trivial and who are insufficiently committed to the popular well-being. Don’t ever let us get like that, whatever you do.

Our chief goal is to produce something you will enjoy holding and gazing at, which will make you excited to be alive and which will increase your sense of connectedness to the sufferings and elations of your fellow human creatures. You will know whether it has succeeded by whether, after reading, you are suddenly overcome with the urge to hug strangers, to tell them you love them and invite them to join you in solving the terrible problems our species faces.

Ideally, you will never again ignore an injustice, sneer at the unfashionable, participate in a conference call, decline an invitation, file a noise complaint, support a war, belittle a naïf, pick up a copy of The New Yorker, forget an atrocity, write a free verse poem, rationalize an indefensible act, use an imprecise descriptor, or fail to tell the truth. Welcome to the luminous and cheery world of Current Affairs!

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