Tuesday, December 6, 2016

I’ve Been Jonesing

I was looking forward to seeing Free State of Jones in the theater since I first heard about it, but life intervened and I missed its brief visit to my city. Now that it is out on DVD, I finally got to see it.

It's excellent except ... It feels pretty white savior-y even though we see frequently blacks saving or helping the protagonist, Newton Knight. He is still the charismatic strategist who helps everyone else - both black and white - a lot more, so the mutual aid is often lopsided. In fairness, the film is following the folk hero story format and you are not likely to see a version of Robin Hood where Little John, Friar Tuck, and Maid Marian accomplish or contribute as much as the title character - although that would be awesome.

I don't like the heroic leader trope, but I understand the decision given the Robin Hood angle. 
(1) In this historical context though, it makes the white savior flavor a lot harder to avoid. What worked in Sherwood Forest, does not work so well in Jones County. And there are a few scenes where we see him supervise others work with a gun slung over his shoulder and it feels a bit overseer-ish (although these are with poor white farmers). Yo, Robin Hood Jesus, put down the shotgun and help shuck that corn y'all stole.

Granted, the supporting characters are not just opportunities for the hero to be heroic or define his sense of right and wrong. They are strong, smart characters in their own right, not cardboard cutouts. They are tantalizingly fleshed-out and brilliantly acted. And yet Newton Knight so totally dominates the story that we don’t see enough of them. This might be the unfortunate side effect of time constraints. You want this to be a miniseries instead of shoehorned-into one ambitious film. After all, it covers events from 1862 to 1876, plus flash forwards to the trial of one of his descendants. And you definitely get the impression that director Gary Ross is trying to show as much of the cast as he can. He clearly wants to explore their stories more. And yet, at the end of the day, the film is not about the community but its violent Messiah.

Newton Knight starts out with a class critique of the Southern plantocracy, calling Southern Secession “a rich man’s war and a poor man’s fight” which, of course, it was. Knight is not a bigot to begin with, but race is not initially on his radar either: Other poor whites were his focus. But he pretty easily incorporates race into his analysis as he is forced to hide with escaped slaves in the swamp. He realizes that slaves and poor whites are in similar boats, if not quite the same one.(2) We see the disgusted army deserter initially helping other poor white farmers fight off corrupt Confederate tax collectors and he winds up leading a biracial rebellion against a rebellion. After the war, he helps blacks vote during the Reconstruction.

This is not the standard dramatic Hollywood story where the hero agonizes over something, sees the errors of his ways, and works toward atonement. Instead, it is a pretty brisk, low-key evolution. We see an amazingly kindly person who was always quick to help others realize there is a larger circle of folks he must help. Knight has no economic or psychological investment in white supremacy to prevent him. There are no old inner demons to grapple with – just a new logical corollary to his preexisting core beliefs.

Knight is deeply religious, and yet the film interestingly avoids a thematically predictable, full-blown conversion narrative where his political awakening echoes a previous religious one. We don’t see the sinner become a saint. The takeaway is clear – and ironically secular: If you are a decent independent person, i.e. not an indoctrinated bigot, common sense and evidence inevitably take you to Knight’s conclusions.

Yeah, it’s a bit of a forced march story-wise, but it is absolutely historically accurate in terms of the societal dynamics and the larger contours of the story(3) and, again, different from what you typically see on screen, so props for that. Paradoxically though, Knight comes off as almost too saintly as a result because he is a pretty perfect hero from the start.

Except he is and he isn’t. Newton Knight is animated by righteous indignation. Yes, he is angelic to the oppressed, but he will take a bowie knife to your throat if you are an oppressor. Sometimes he is forgiving and merciful, other times not. He is as brutal as he is gentle and Matthew McConaughey does a great job of credibly portraying this contrast. Newton Knight is not Thomas Merton, but Jesus Christ chasing the money changers out of the temple – except with a shotgun instead of a whip. 

Some reviewers mocked the character as impossibly enlightened, but why is it so difficult to imagine such a figure? John Brown was just one of many militant abolitionists back then - hence the bloody dress rehearsal for the Civil War fought in Kansas and Nebraska which Brown participated in. Newton Knight is a similar figure. And likewise he is the tip of the iceberg. I had first learned about the Free State of Jones from reading James W. Loewen's eye-opening book, Lies My Teacher Told Me: Everything Your American History Textbook Got Wrong. As Lowen explains, it was one of many such revolts: 
As early as December 1862, Pres. Jefferson Davis denounced states' rights as destructive to the Confederacy, The mountainous counties in western Virginia bolted to the Union. Confederate troops had to occupy east Tennessee to keep it from emulating West Virginia, Winn Parish, Louisiana, refused to secede from the Union. Winston County, Alabama, declared itself the Republic of Winston. Unionist farmers and woodsmen in Jones County, Mississippi, declared the Free State of Jones. Every Confederate state except South Carolina supplied a regiment or at least a company of white soldiers to the Union army, as well as many black recruits. Armed guerrilla actions plagued every Confederate state. (With the exception of Missouri, and the 1863 New York City draft riots, few Union states were afflicted with such problems.) It became dangerous for Confederates to travel in parts of Alabama, Florida, North Carolina, Tennessee, and Texas. The war was fought not just between North and South but between Unionists and Confederates within the Confederacy (and Missouri). By February 1864 President Davis despaired: "Public meetings of treasonable character, in the name of state sovereignty, are being held." Thus stales' rights as an ideology was contradictory and could not mobilize the white South for the long haul. (Page 183)
... In part owing to these contradictions, some Confederate soldiers switched sides, beginning as early as 1862. When Sherman made his famous march to the sea from Atlanta to Savannah, his army actually grew in number, because thousands of white Southerners volunteered along the way. Meanwhile, almost two-thirds of the Confederate army opposing Sherman disappeared through desertion. Eighteen thousand slaves also joined Sherman, so many that the army had to turn some away. Compare these facts with the portrait common in our textbooks of Sherman's marauders looting their way through a united South! (Page 184)
As I wrote before, the Confederate states had unquestionably seceded to preserve slavery. But that does not mean the populations of those states had supported the war effort or its root cause. You can find numerous books debunking the "Solid South" narrative. In addition to three-different-books on the Free State of Jones, there's Victoria E. Bynum's book The Long Shadow of the Civil War: Southern Dissent and Its Legacies. Looking at the states of North Carolina, Mississippi, and Texas, she shows us "Unionist supporters, guerrilla soldiers, defiant women, socialists, populists, free blacks, and large interracial kin groups that belie stereotypes of Southerners as uniformly supportive of the Confederate cause." Jesús F. de la Teja has edited a collection of essays focusing on Texas entitled Lone Star Unionism, Dissent, and Resistance: Other Sides of Civil War Texas. If you are interested in this history, Smithsonian Magazine's article on the Free State film is a good place to dip your toes into the material.

I worry that the film makes the Free State of Jones feel too unique: As the evidence above shows, similar insubordination was found throughout the South. It's a common problem with historical movies. Likewise, the World War I movie Joyeux Noel (2005) gives the impression that the 1914 Christmas Truce was an isolated incident rather than a widespread phenomenon seen sporadically along the trench lines from the North Sea down to the Alps. It's an inherent hazard of drama's emphasis on its characters - especially if the characters themselves have no knowledge of parallel events happening elsewhere.

I'm not knocking the movie. For all its faults, I enjoyed it. Moreover, it's important. It gives Southern whites real heroes, which can help wean them from the ones of their parents and grand parents. And, of course, the 
unreconstructed neo-confederate coelacanths at the Abbeville Institute hate it.

I cannot give a higher recommendation than that.


(1) I prefer stories that spread the wealth screen time-wise. This isn’t just an ideological tick of mine. It just seems more realistic – especially if you have studied historical movements. In Land and Freedom (1995), set during the Spanish Civil War, there is a fascinating scene where an anarchist militia debates whether to abolish property after liberating a village from Franco’s fascists. Teams of equals argue, which is why the group Avengers movies are more interesting that the solo ones and Captain America: Civil War is the best one yet. After all, it has the most Avengers in it. Stories come from conflict and more characters mean more motives in play. More band for your buck means more bang for your buck. 

(2) To its credit, the film both compares and contrasts to avoid drawing a false equivalency. When rescuing a freedman's "apprenticed" - i.e. abducted - son, Knight tells the father, "They will arrest me - they will kill you." Parallels with poor whites aside, the film does not forget that blacks lived in considerably greater danger. Their situations were similar, yet not the same. But they definitely shared the same enemy. A century later, that remains unchanged as working whites still vote against their economic interests.

(3) Some liberties were taken with the historical record insofar as individual characters were concerned. For example, As the director admits, Newton Knight did not have a nephew who died in his arms triggering his desertion from the Confederate army. Likewise, Moses Washington, the escaped slave he befriends in the swamp is a vehicle for showing many things that many slaves experienced. He is what is called a “composite character.” It's a standard practice in historical films.

Tuesday, November 29, 2016

Politifact and Fiction

Hopefully, this will be my last blog post on this catastrophic election. No promises though.

One of the more annoying talking points that Clinton supporters were parroting during the election was that Secretary Hillary Clinton was the most honest politician around. Ironically, it was an obvious lie which undermined their point and probably eroded support.

Certainly Secretary Hillary Clinton was more honest that Donald Trump who constantly spouts outrageous falsehoods. (I believe it is how he breathes.) But making her more honest than Senator Bernie Sanders took some cherry-picking. Clinton supporters pointed out that she has the highest percentage of “True” statements on Politifact - twenty five percent. But they ignored all the site’s other categories: Mostly True, Half True, Mostly False, False, and Pants on Fire. Combine the True and Mostly True statements and her percentage is exactly equal to Bernie Sanders at fifty one percent. In fact, at one point, Sanders enjoyed the highest combined rating of all politicians in both parties: fifty four percent (see chart).

But shouldn’t winning the top category still give Clinton a slight edge?

Well, it would, if not for her Pants on Fire statements like her strange claim that as First Lady she was under sniper fire in Bosnia. This was a stupendously stupid lie. Hillary Clinton was in Bosnia for a photo op and the press was traveling with her: If a sniper had fired on the tarmac it definitely would have been major international news. Any database search would have pulled up tons or articles. Why would anyone tell a lie that is so easily checked? Had she beaten Barack Obama in the 2008 primary, you can bet that John McCain would have hammered that obvious whopper all the way to the White House.

That last paragraph is foreshadowing. File it away in your brain for later.

Interestingly, the only politician to never get a Pants on Fire rating was Bernie Sanders – something that Politifact’s editors felt compelled to remark on in an article devoted to that fact. If I wanted to cherry-pick Politifact, I would post a link to that article and claim Sanders is the most honest on the sole basis of that.

What makes Bernie Sanders’ flame-retardant pants so remarkable is that Politifact’s standards of truth are often ridiculously difficult to meet – especially when the candidate in question is Bernie Sanders. Time and again, they downgraded indisputably true statements of his to Half True and Mostly False.

Let’s start with a “Half True.” Take when Bernie Sanders’ said that “It costs a hell of a lot more money to put somebody in jail than send them to the University of Virginia.” 

This is a pretty obvious and uncontroversial claim, yet Politifact still took issue with it. They contacted the campaign, which responded with incarceration and tuition figures, so Politifact then took Sanders to task for ignoring housing and other college costs.(1)

Okay, if we're playing that game, Politifact left out a lot more costs on the incarceration side of the ledger.

In his speech, Sanders was obviously talking about the total societal costs of prioritizing prisons. This would include everything from court costs to the inmate’s lost income potential. Making jeans for pennies an hour is not exactly a Keynesian stimulus for the economy - especially since it costs jobs to people on the outside, thereby increasing crime as employment opportunities shrink. And never mind that college students are less likely to become criminals in the first place which was clearly implied. Otherwise, why mention them together? Granted, Sanders did not enumerate these costs in his speech. Indeed, he did not enumerate anything. But he was clearly talking broadly about the economy, employment, and society.

This is Politifact playing stupid, plain and simple. Education is an investment that will pay future dividends for society. Even Republicans agree mass incarceration of nonviolent offenders is a burden to the taxpayer and a drag on the economy that will never pay for itself - let alone profit society in the long run. They may remain skeptical of education's benefits and balk at Sander's free college proposal, but now they finally admit that harsh sentencing is a human and budgetary tragedy.

To illustrate this dynamic, consider recidivism costs. As even the famously conservative US News and World Report acknowledged, "each dollar spent on funding prison education programs reduces incarceration costs by $4 to $5 during the first three years after an individual is released, the period when those leaving prison are most likely to return." Imagine if these inmates weren’t sent to prison in the first place. And that is just gen ed and vocational training - not college - but it is the same principle.

I imagine the Sanders campaign did not anticipate Politifact's tack and simply answered in the shortest, most article-friendly fashion they could. That's what you do when a question is a total no-brainer. Had Politifact followed up with "Does that include housing and other expenses?" the campaign would have sensed the trap and realized that a longer response was required.

Now let’s now move on to a Bernie Sanders statement that Politifact rated “Mostly False.”

During the Iowa Democratic primary debate, Sanders said, "[C]limate change is directly related to the growth of terrorism." This claim was also made by President Obama, the Pentagon, and various academic studies - as Politifact acknowledges. So how did they spin it "Mostly False" when Sanders said it?

By pouncing on the word "direct." Never mind that Sanders was speaking extemporaneously in a debate. I'm not going to address the absurdity of that because Sanders was actually using the language correctly. Sanders was not arguing that global warming was the sole cause of terrorism, but rather that it was a proven contributing factor. That's what a direct link is.

Consider this medical comparison: As a pre-diabetic, I have a list of dos and don'ts in order to avoid getting Type 2 diabetes. Some are obvious such as watching my sugar intake. Others are not so obvious such as not skimping on sleep. (Who knew?) Each of these things I should avoid has been shown to contribute to my chances of getting diabetes - i.e. each has a proven direct link. Part of the scientific method is weeding out other possible factors and narrowing it down to those that actually have an impact.

Do you want another biology analogy? Okay, smoking causes lung cancer. Does that mean it’s the only cause of lung cancer? No, maybe it is genetic in a particular patient's case. Maybe he is the dying physicist in Repo Man. But that does not get smoking off the hook. There is a direct link that only the Tobacco Institute - and perhaps Politifact - would dare deny. Each factor is a direct link.

This shit is ridiculous and I would hope that most Clinton supporters would agree. If such indubitably true statements get downgraded to Half True and Mostly False it is obviously going to water-down Sanders' score. In fairness, I have not looked for similar nitpicking of Hillary Clinton's statements. Perhaps Politifact applies the same impossible "Gotcha!" standards to all politicians on the premise that it will enhance their reputation for hard-assed exactitude. (Except Politifact's sometime penchant to prioritize the appearance of even-handedness over the practice of it tends to benefit conservatives.) If so, then comparisons between the candidates' scores are equitable - if deceptive - and it all comes out in the wash.

But I strongly suspect Politifact was harsher on Bernie Sanders because the corporate press has always been so toward socialist proposals of any sort. Talk about, say, single payer healthcare and pundits and editors alike will talk themselves into pretzels to dismiss you and your ideas. They always have and they always will. Establishment spin is a given and Politifact is no different. 

But whatever you think of Politifact's integrity, it seems that Sanders' and Clinton's scores were roughly equal overall overtime. If only Clinton's supporters had just said that and not succumbed such to overt, number-fudging overreach.(2) Like Clinton's stupid sniper lie, it was easily debunked and thus just disheartening. It made it a lot harder for voters to give her the benefit of the doubt even though the claim was not being made by Clinton herself because it was repeated so relentlessly that it was an obvious talking point. Moreover, it made her supporters look like out-of-touch zealots - which is of course how they routinely portrayed Sanders supporters. There was a lot of projection going on there.(3)

If they had simply likened Clinton's Politifact score to Sanders' they might have piggybacked on, if not co-opted, his reputation for blunt earnestness. By overplaying their hand, they by association confirmed Clinton's reputation for dishonesty instead of debunking it. I'm not arguing that the election hinged on such obviously shoddy talking points. But they sure as hell didn't help.

But, more importantly, fuck Politifact.


(1) No doubt the Politifact writer was hoping the reader would nod in agreement reflecting on how college housing has become more spa-like as tuition rises. Don’t worry, folks: The poor kids still live in shitty concrete bunker dorms which were built in the seventies – if not the fifties. The more modern, comfy, condo-like accommodations are for rich kids and athletes. These fancy Potemkin dorms are anything but typical, no matter what the brochure says. They just want you to spend unnecessary extra money. Cruise ships use the same sales strategy.

(2) It was similar to the overreach to calling her the most qualified candidate to ever seek the presidency. Yes, I know Obama said that. That does not automatically make it true. Politifact should get on that. Ever? In over two centuries? She didn't invent résumé building. Holding multiple federal posts before seeking the presidency is actually pretty normal. She is not even the first Secretary of State to try. That would be our first Secretary of State, Thomas Jefferson, who was also our Minister to France, a delegate to the Continental Congress (where he wrote the Declaration of Independence) - and Governor of Virginia at the state level. Before entering the Oval Office, George Bush Sr. was a Congressman, our Ambassador to the U.N., Chief of the U.S. Liaison Office to the People's Republic of China, Director of the CIA, and Vice President. But he was not exactly an excellent president, was he? Of course, I am not the first to notice Obama's hyperbole. Or to realize that experience is a poor predictor of performance.

(3) How else would you explain self-identified "realistic pragmatists" claiming that charisma and popularity do not matter in an election (and are sexist to mention)? How else would you describe people who insisted that Hillary Clinton could "get things done" in Congress when obstructionist Republicans hate her as much as they hate Obama? As I kept saying, no Democratic president would accomplish anything if the GOP held Congress. The key is to flip Congress and you do that with enthusiasm and coat tails. Their beliefs were either extraordinarily quixotic or pathetically desperate. Before June, they made my eyes roll. By July, they made my stomach freeze. I then knew the rest of the year would be grueling.

Monday, November 21, 2016

An Honest Postmortem

Can we be candid about the cadaver yet?

What happened last election day should be obvious to everyone. But, as Upton Sinclair noticed, "It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it." So, of course, corporate pundits are in total damage control mode.

Their take on the election is either earnest blind denial or conscious obfuscation. Whether malevolent or incompetent, these are the same sweatshop apologists who helped sell us deregulation, privatization, and the Iraq invasion. And let's not sugarcoat this: They also sold us Donald Trump with two billion bucks in free publicity.(1) Yes, they said there was no way that Trump would prevail in the GOP primary. And then he did. They then said there was scant chance he could beat Clinton in the general election. And, of course, he did. These colossal fuck-ups are chronically wrong without ever facing any professional consequences and therefore they constantly fail-upwards. Ronald Reagan would envy their many layers of Teflon.

And so those who so spectacularly mis-predicted this election are now going to explain it to us. There will be the usual pro forma soul-searching, of course. They will admit "mistakes were made" in their signature passive voice that "officer involved" shootings have familiarized us with. But their remedies will be tweaks. Their fundamental assumptions will remain unshaken - and certainly not stirred. At the end of the day, they will be as arrogantly unrepentant as Wall Street was after the 2007 crash.(2) If Thomas Friedman still laments "irrational" hatred of investment bankers and Iraq war architects are still welcome anytime to opine away on Sunday morning talk shows, what suggests the press will be any stricter with itself?

To paraphrase Mel Brooks, it's good to be the Fourth Estate.

This election was obviously catastrophic for Democrats. The reason why is just as overt: The Rust Belt remembered whose spouse pushed NAFTA and the candidate in question did not do enough to jettison this obvious political albatross. LBJ lost the South for a just cause - the defense of African Americans' civil rights. By contrast, Bill Clinton lost the Rust Belt to court business interests. The compare and contrast writes itself: Losing the Sun Belt was righteous but losing the Rust Belt was unconscionable, and that demographic double-whammy ultimately proved to be doom at the polls. We cannot win without North or South: We need at least one of them because the coasts alone are not enough.

Both regional losses were gradual, taking time to reach full effect; but that’s what happened. Bill Clinton was the last Southern Democrat to inhabit the White House and that was a while ago. Before that, we had Jimmy Carter. But that will not ever happen again since Southern Democrats have now gone the way of the dodo. In the meantime, business-friendly centrist Democrats got busy losing a new region. They were like medieval physicians confidently bleeding a patient. And after they had neglected and disrespected labor for decades, the Republicans finally ran a candidate who spoke to working class pain - or at least pretended to. This was slow poison suicide, plain and simple. We should probably stop shopping at that apothecary.

This was, incidentally, by design. As Sen. Chuck Schumer (D-NY) predicted earlier this year, “For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin.” Of course, it didn't quite work out that way. But, again, this has been establishment Democratic strategy for decades. It has been handicapping us since the 1990s - and yet they keep bleeding the patient.

Who knew betraying your base was bad strategy? Michael Moore had predicted this, Nate Silver didn't. (For a longer analysis of what happened, see Thomas Frank’s last book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?) Incidentally, I also predicted this election would be difficult and rife with centrist self-sabotage. I'm not bragging: Everyone who actually cares about working people and/or the poor acknowledged the horrific possibility, even if they prayed they were wrong. Rust Belt Democrats pleaded with the Clinton campaign to take this threat seriously. The writing was on the wall. Even some of the culpable saw problems. Ironically, Bill Clinton repeatedly complained internally that Hillary's campaign was ignoring working class voters, but his criticisms were dismissed.

Comfortable pundits and click-bait site hacks alike are already making similarly flimsy arguments to minimize rising economic inequality and the collapsing middle class as factors in the election's horrific outcome. Seriously, only their urls separate them at this point.

I'm sorry, did I say minimize? I meant ignore entirely. Shoddy, sophomoric Nader analogies are already appearing in Time magazine and Paul Krugman’s tweets. And right now, the Internet is rife with either/or arguments implying that race and class are mutually-exclusive explanations. I'm in academia and we have been talking about the intersectionality of things like race, sex and class for decades now. So it is difficult not to think that the purveyors of these either/or arguments are playing dumb. But, hey, simplistic, binary conflict is more entertaining than complex multifaceted analysis. Actual accuracy doesn’t get clicks. Just cherry-pick the straw you think broke the camel's back and ignore the rest. Hell, ignore the anvils.

Of course, noting the importance of working votes invariably highlights the argument that Bernie Sanders would have beaten Trump. Sanders would not have lost the Rust Belt. I was not surprised to hear this on outlets like Amy Goodman's "Democracy Now!" But surprisingly, I have also heard this on establishment outlets as well. I was watching CNN on election night and the anchor mentioned that Sanders would have fared better. This assessment was also echoed in the Washington Post and in the British newspaper The Independent. Even establishment Democrat Harry Reid concedes the party needs "new thinking" and has endorsed Bernie Sander’s pick for the new head of the DNC.

This predictably triggers the tired claim that America would never elect a socialist. That argument hinges on the assumption that most people don't know that Bernie Sanders is self-identified democratic socialist - which is sort of absurd considering that is the first thing everyone learns about him. If you know his name, you know at least that. Sanders tells everyone who will listen. And if that is not enough, Anderson Cooper had repeatedly hammered this point home during the first Democratic debate. Indeed, it was mentioned ten times in nine debates. I think his secret is out. The claim that his socialism is a serious handicap might be valid if Sanders' popularity had dropped as more people got to know him, but it did the opposite and now he is the most popular politician in America - even more than Barack Obama. That does not sound like socialism is slowing Bernie Sanders down.(3)

Hearing this electoral skepticism coming from suposedly feminist Clinton supporters is odd because socialism and feminism are similar in many ways.

For openers, you can't really be one and not the other. As Thomas Frank wryly noted toward the end of Listen Liberal, Hillary Clinton's CEO-celebrating observances of International Women's Day pointedly ignore its socialist origins. Feminism and socialism are historically-linked, but the two -isms are logically linked too. Hillary Clinton's terrible feminism illustrates this: "Welfare Reform" disproportionately hurt women - especially women of color. Hillary Clinton lobbied for it and bragged about it long afterwards. Similarly, the Clinton Foundation promotes predatory micro-lending, touting it as a means to empower poor women in the Third World. It actually does the polar opposite, profiting banks in the process.

But more important here is that both socialism and feminism are things that most people actually want but they don't know it because their labels have been slandered to the point of radioactivity. (Or so some assume.) You may as well say that nobody self-identifying as a feminist could get elected because the exact same dynamic is in play. The attitude is basically cynicism towards every group's goals but your own's. As you can imagine, that sort of sabotages solidarity. But it dovetails neatly with "pragmatic" No-We-Can't defeatism where others' claims are concerned - an effort to show solidarity with the mythical middle.

Clintonista skepticism is as familiar as it is hypocritical. Recall their take on Barack Obama in 2008. They insisted that Obama could not possibly win because he did not appeal to the white working class!

Roll the irony of that assumption around in your head for a moment: Not only did Obama crush both his GOP opponents in 2008 and 2012, he carried many Rust Belt districts that Clinton had lost this year. Working folks felt that Obama understood their struggles. (Saving the auto industry when Mitt Romney said we should let it go bankrupt also helped.) But this year, things flipped. Clinton not only had the baggage of NAFTA but clutched it to herself in the first debate. She touted her husband's record and promised more of the same: "I think my husband did a pretty good job in the 1990s. I think a lot about what worked and how we can make it work again." Trump then spoke of the "devastation" it wrought across the Rust Belt. The states that Trump named-off all went to his column on election night.

"A black president?" Clinton campers laughed back in 2008. "Yeah, like that will happen."

EDIT - 12/14/16:

This Politico piece on how Clinton lost Michigan is absolutely astounding. The previous links on how her campaign arrogantly ignored repeated pleas from Rust Belt Dems were just the tip of the iceberg. They were pouring cold water on supporters. It was as if they were trying to widen the enthusiasm gap.


(1) So, I was in a local liquor store picking up beer for a chili cook-off I was going to and the TV was on. After a segment on the anti-Trump protests, the anchor sneered, "I wonder how many of them voted." Fuck you, coiffed talking head. As I said, the media gave Trump two billion in free publicity. (That's what happens when entertainment drives coverage. It’s a strong argument for requiring all news organizations to be non-profits.) The same study confirms that Clinton got over twice as much coverage as Sanders. Your industry's preferences forced this choice between two unpopular candidates. You helped suppress voter turnout. Your cynicism eclipses even the most jaded non-voter's, so you don't get to lecture anyone.

(2) Of course, why should they be repentant if they are never punished? Thomas Frank wrote some about this in Listen Liberal. Consider the case of Larry Summers, the enfant terrible Harvard economist whose deregulatory zeal helped set up the 2007 crash. Barack Obama appointed Summers to be Director of the National Economic Council shortly after winning the 2008 election. Apparently without irony, Henry Kissinger suggested that Larry Summers should "be given a White House post in which he was charged with shooting down or fixing bad ideas."

Summers had appeared on my radar earlier when, as World Bank head economist, he wrote an infamous memo suggesting that poor countries were under-polluted. He claimed it was actually written by an aide and meant sarcastically. (Checkout Michel Kinsley's reptilian defense of Summers. With liberals like these, who needs conservatives?) Then there was Summers' sexist suggestion that women’s simple brains could not handle complex mathematics - hence, he reasoned, their scarcity in these fields.

But these are all easily forgivable sins when you hold the right magic sheepskin. The quality of your ideas and the results you get are irrelevant. You are of the club. You might be an arrogant fuck up who illustrates the Dunning-Kruger Effect, but you are our arrogant fuck up.

Thomas Frank suggested this blind credentialism was something akin to the British aristocracy. It reminded me of reading about an interview that former spy turned novelist John le Carré did with Kim Philby’s Oxbridge-educated MI6 colleagues. Philby famously gave secrets to the Soviets for years making the spy agency a laughing stock. At one point, Philby fell under a cloud of suspicion and was sidelined to a less sensitive area. But then his old college chums lobbied to get him back in the game. Le Carré asked one aged agent why MI6 never tried to kill Philby. The unexpected question ruffled the interviewee:

“My dear chap,” he answered. “One of us.”

(3) You could, perhaps, argue that there are not yet enough Millennial voters to help a socialist candidate prevail. There are many people who can say “I like Bernie’s ideas too, but -” without it sounding like some “I’m not a racist, but -” bullshit. (See also Clinton's "I love Denmark" remark in the first Democratic debate.) However, those who wrote these ideas off as "not serious" or something that Milennials would eventually mature out of obviously do not qualify. After all, Sweden has not outgrown their system. And Canada has not rejected single payer anymore than the United Kingdom has abandoned actual socialized medicine. Moreover, voters' core economic assumptions are shaped by actual life circumstances. Do you really think things are going to get any better in the near future? If you think unregulated capitalism is going to pull us out of the hole it dug, you have abdicated any claim to call yourself any species of realist. You are just another dangerous cultist who fetishizes greed and chaos. Funny how the comfortable suburbs breeds so many. I suspect it is the result of their distance from the destruction.

Monday, November 7, 2016

Inane Nader Analogies

Almost nothing makes centrists sound like conservatives quite like Nader analogies.

The bogus notion that Ralph Nader had cost Al Gore the 2000 election has long been utterly debunked. Nevertheless, this brain-dead narrative still shambles on like a zombie. It just will not die. It is essentially the Birtherism of passionate establishment Democrats: A ridiculous, desperate attempt to square their worldview with the world. There is an honest argument buried in there if you tweak the language, but more sober precision robs their favorite narrative of much of its emotional punch - of its addictive appeal. The argument is a potent rhetorical narcotic that continues to poison our politics and this is an intervention.


Have a seat. Let's start the detox with a little math. We can agree that's a thing, right? 

In 2000, Nader got 1% of the Democratic vote and 1% of the Republican vote, so he had no net effect. One minus one equals zero. Yes, Nader got 3% of Independents but most of those voters would have probably stayed home otherwise. Nader mainly mobilized people who don't ordinarily vote - those folks disgusted with the system. He certainly did not cost Al Gore those votes. Nader just got them out of the house. And if Nader had not run and those people showed up at the polls anyway, they would have voted for some other third party candidate. Yes, there were other third party candidates. As Michael Moore had sarcastically quipped, we should "Blame Monica" instead - Workers World Party standard bearer Monica Moorehead who got 1,804 votes in Florida. That's quite a bit more than the 537 that separated Bush and Gore.

"Who? The Workers World what?" you ask. "Never heard of them." No doubt. But surely you know that third parties exist: They always have and always will. They just do better and become conspicuous when the big two neglect and insult their constituencies. So, don't do that. You can object to hostage analogies all you want, but I'm just explaining electoral physics. Guilt-tripping your victims will not change it. It may move the needle a little in a close election, but it wears thin, breeds resentment, and makes people wonder why elections are so close in the first place. You may as well be yelling at gravity.

Oh, and speaking of captive analogies, we have locked the door.

Ordinarily, third parties do not pose a problem. But that ceases to be the case once you give them issues by creating bipartisan "consensus" around ignoring important issues like trade. Freeze out peoples' concerns and elections become dangerous games of "chicken" between the two major parties: How many voters can you alienate and drive off and still win? Today, we have the lowest voter turn out in the developed world and it has been worsening. Business-friendly bipartisanship trumpets comity but foments volatility. You had to know it would eventually. How long did you think you could do this?

But the point here is that third parties are a permanent part of the political landscape and all strategies should accept that as a given. George W. Bush had third party issues in 2000 too. In addition to Ralph Nader siphoning off votes, Bush had Pat Buchanan running on his right. Remember that? Who can forget the confusing butterfly ballot causing that infamous antisemite to get 3,000 Jewish votes? Even Buchanan himself admitted, "[M]ost of those are probably not my vote and that may be enough to give the margin to Mr. Gore." The GOP also had to contend with the Libertarian and Constitution parties. There were ten different parties on the Florida ballot and all of them beat the 537 vote margin between Bush and Gore. The point is that third parties are par for the course in any election. If they become a bigger problem than normal, you only have yourself to blame for growing them.

For example, frothing establishment Democrats pilloried Ralph Nader for saying there was "not a dime's worth of difference" between the two major parties. This was obviously false on social issues like abortion and gay rights; but on many other issues - such as, well, anything that had to do with money - it was spot-on. Centrist Dems where eager to prove to big business that they were indistinguishable from Republicans. Remember that passing NAFTA and "Welfare Reform" were Bill Clinton's first signature legislative accomplishments. They signaled his fiscal seriousness and willingness to discipline labor and the poor.

Bill Clinton had pandered to both economic and social conservatives and Gore sought to outdo him. This explains his tapping Joe Lieberman for VP on the ticket. Gore ran as a competent, moderate Republican - like Bush but smart and presumably apt to give social conservatives slightly less. And of course everyone presumed Bush Jr. was going to govern like Bush Sr. He had daddy's staff and we all thought that Colin Powell would keep him from doing anything too crazy. In other words, both Bush and Gore ran as the former's father. I half expected Gore to say "a thousand points of light" at some point. In short, both Gore and Nader portrayed the Democratic ticket essentially the same way: Nader's narrative was also Gore's.

Let's get real here. Ralph Nader did not put George W. Bush in the White House: Purging the voter rolls did. Throwing out black votes did. And the Supreme Court did by retroactively stopping the Florida recount already in progress. Without a 14th Amendment violation, the Federal government has no authority to intervene in how states run their elections. The Bush campaign had no legal standing to bring their case in the first case, but of course Republican-appointed justices decided to ignore their "states rights" principles and the Constitution to boot. Of course, there were outrageous 14th Amendment violations - but the Bush campaign was not the victim of them: black voters were.

I am not playing cute. I know you are trying to make a "straw that broke the camel's back" argument. But you are studiously ignoring all the other, more important straws. And those straws actually constitute wrongdoing by public officials. But you only want to discuss the solitary, innocent straw of ordinary voters expressing their honest, un-coerced political preferences. To focus on the later implies perverse priorities and an unconscionable comfort with corruption. I'm not playing "Yes, But" - you are. My argument does not ignore inconvenient facets to focus only on one - yours does. And what's worse, yours punches down. Of course, most scapegoating does. That's how scapegoating works.

How out-of-control is your Nader analogy addiction? It is so bad you were unthinkingly making them against Bernie Sanders as soon as he started running. I enumerated the problems with this is a series of tweets back in March. Here they are in more readable paragraph form:
Clinton supporters should not make 2000 election analogies. The comparisons are incoherent and their candidate is Al Gore in all of them. For openers, the fact that Sanders is running as a Democrat makes the metaphor totally moot. Moreover, using that as a springboard for blaming Nader for Bush’s wars only highlights the fact that Clinton voted for both those wars. It also re-emphasizes Hillary Clinton's unfortunate association with the failed "New Democrat" brand which her husband championed. Indeed, Al Gore's VP pick, Joe Lieberman, should have buried that brand when he embraced G.W. Bush. The 2000 election is an object lesson in how running to the right depresses Democratic turn out. [As Harry Truman said,] "Given a choice between a Republican and a Democrat who acts like a Republican; the voters will pick the Republican every time!" Plus, the analogy is awkward for the misogyny narrative. Last I checked, Al Gore was a man. And yet the Democratic base [still] rebelled.
Shall I unpack a few points in that paragraph for greater clarity? Okay, let's be perfectly cynical – i.e. realistic and pragmatic, as centrist Clintonistas imagine themselves. You want your candidate to look like a winner and, towards that end, you do not want to associate them with proven losers. And, sorry, Al Gore was a total loser and that's not a comparison you want to invite. Admittedly, the election was stolen from Gore, but he was not exactly a winner to begin with. Unlike his predecessor, he was famously wooden and uncharismatic. Bill Clinton had The Gift.(1) Long story short, Bill Clinton was a hard act for Al Gore to follow. Likewise, I think following Barack Obama with Hillary Clinton is ridiculously risky – particularly since she follows his “Yes We Can” with dismissing progressive aspirations as unrealistic. This familiar letdown effect is invariably an election handicap for both parties. George Bush Sr. similarly had difficulty following Ronald Reagan.(2) Of course, as we know now, it is sexist to discuss charisma at all; so I suppose Al Gore was the victim of sexism. Likewise, mentioning the electric enthusiasm Senator Elizabeth Warren ignites is considered sexist as well. But I must say it's awfully odd to damn Nader for putting a hawk in office when you are now trying to do the same yourself.

So, where is the aforementioned honest argument buried? Well, you could at least tweak the language to make it arguable by saying Nader could have cost Gore the election under those circumstances. But the fact of the matter is that he didn't. You could still honorably argue for caution, calling Nader's actions reckless, but that does not pack quite the same punch.

Two posts ago, I made the progressive case for sticking with the Democratic Party and growing the Warren Wing. In that post, I also called-out political scolds for trying to shame those who chose to vote third party. Most of us live in safe states, so our votes are wasted regardless. The argument definitely has value in swing states - and Trump is so grotesquely abhorrent that he has turned some traditionally red states purple. I live in one, so I will likely vote for Hillary Clinton rather than Jill Stein. But elsewhere, shaming is at best ineffective self-satisfied lecturing and at worst counter-productively divisive. And such shaming is especially ineffective when it comes from those known for making phenomenally shoddy arguments that are more mythology than anything else. I could rattle off a host of other examples, but I will leave that for another post.

And if you still cannot quite grasp the absurdity of making Nader analogies, let me put it another way.

If you hate Ralph Nader but still admire Justice Sandra Day O'Connor, you obviously have no notion who put George W. Bush in the Oval Office. Yes, she has gradually evolved since casting the tie-breaking vote in Bush v. Gore. Well, arguably evolved: In 2011, she said the decision was not "the end of the world." Since then, she has admitted the vote may have made things worse. However, her language remains consistently agnostic: It's posed as a possibility. She has never expressed formal regret or admitted the decision was wrong or unconstitutional. But at the time of the vote, O'Connor was a longtime, Bush family supporter:
[W]hen NBC declared for Democratic candidate Al Gore, Justice Sandra Day O’Connor told the guests at an election party that the Democrat’s election victory was “terrible.” (Of course, her criticism was a little premature, as we now know.) She then went on to participate in making sure nothing so terrible would happen, casting the crucial fifth vote in Bush v. Gore without blinking an eye. O’Connor had a long history of rooting for the Bushes in presidential elections. In 1988, she wrote to longtime political ally Senator Barry Goldwater, in a letter now in his public archives, that she “would be thankful if George B wins. It is vital for the Court and the nation that he does.”
Of course, blind bipartisanship prevents acknowledging such inconvenient facts. What, one must wonder, was so "terrible" about Al Gore to Sandra Day O'Connor? Bill Clinton believed that traditional New Deal Democrats were too liberal. Al Gore thought Clinton was still too liberal. What was she afraid of?

Well, among other things, she wanted to retire and did not want any Democrat to appoint her successor. "Sensible" centrists saw her as a pragmatic, objective moderate. Obviously, she was not. As Jefferey Rosen wrote in the New York Times in 2001 before she retired:
Over the years she has emerged as the leader of the federalism revolution that may be the Rehnquist court's most distinctive legacy, returning power from Washington to the states. And although she is not a committed social conservative, she is a committed antigovernment conservative -- a justice eager to second-guess the judgments of state and federal lawmakers and executives. By refusing to defer to Congress and the president, she has enhanced not only her own power but also the power of the court itself. If she is, in fact, nominated as the next chief justice, her generally moderate votes should give less pause than her view that no branch of government is entitled to respect except the one to which she belongs.
I'm no lawyer, but that strikes me as curious jurisprudence. Such a states rights federalist logically should have let Florida officials complete their recount without federal interference. But apparently she had no problem with federal interference as long as it was her own and she got the partisan results she desired.

Sandra Day O'Conner's vote perfectly illustrates the "bipartisan" blind spot in centrist ideology and how it serves conservative purposes. It's the same establishment horseshit that insists that Ayn Rand-fan Paul Ryan is a "courageous" "serious thinker" on the budget. Yes, Sandra Day O'Connor clashed with Antonin Scalia, but she was a protégé of William Rehnquist. Today, Paul Ryan clashes with Donald Trump - but so does Ted Cruz. Will perennial press swooning over Ryan resume after election day or will his mercurial cowardice on endorsing Trump preclude his political rehabilitation?

Well, is Henry Kissinger a pariah yet? Does Dick Cheney still appear on "Meet the Press"? If Ryan's star has truly fallen, another Ayn Rand fan's will rise. The corporate press will just anoint another. After all, the Fourth Estate has hedge mazes to manicure. They are not going to trim themselves.

Ultimately, Sandra Day O'Conner had cast the only vote that mattered in 2000 - the straw that actually shattered the camel's back. Isn't it high time we stopped flogging the Nader scapegoat?


(1) Like Ronald Reagan, Bill Clinton was preternaturally likeable – a “Great Communicator” – and his personal popularity eclipsed the profound unpopularity of his policies. (Reagan assaulted popular social programs like Social Security and Medicare. Clinton dissed and betrayed crucial Democratic constituencies like labor and minorities, but many forgave him. Al Gore did not enjoy this latitude. Indeed, he inherited the public skepticism and ill-will Clinton had built.) This meant that both Reagan and Clinton had at least some latitude to nudge the country in either direction, left or right. Both chose toward the right. For Reagan, it was a simple advantage. For Clinton, it was a scandalous waste (if not a conscious abuse) of great political talent. To put it as charitably as possible, it was lost opportunity to repair the damage done in the previous twelve years – which was, after all, what he was elected to do in 1992.

(2) Recall Reagan speech writer Peggy Noonan’s wistful lecture/pep-talk to George Bush Sr. in 1992:
Some of your staff used to walk around calling the Reagan years "the pre-Bush era." There are many names for such people; "historical idiot" is one. You know and feel that Ronald Reagan was, is, a great man. When your delegates hear his voice Monday night they will erupt in joy. They will shake their heads and say, "I miss his voice." They’ll mean: I miss belief.
Ideologues, of course, emphasize ideology: It flatters their profession and affirms their importance. But sometimes things are more shallow. In 1988, Poppy Bush was saved from himself by Lee Atwater’s blatant race-baiting and having a similarly uncharismatic opponent in Michael Dukakis. But in 1992, Atwater was dead and Bush faced a more formidable opponent in the form of Bill Clinton. If Hillary Clinton loses, it will be a replay of 1988 rather than 2000.

Monday, October 31, 2016

Forgetting the Ladies

With the unlikely popularity of the musical Hamilton, I recently decided to re-watch the HBO miniseries “John Adams,” starring Paul Giamatti. My opinion of it remains unchanged.

Overall, it was pretty decent. The acting is great and the production values were superb. It seemed to be fairly well researched.(1) At least, for the most part - you can nitpick quite a bit. Some reviewers thought that Giamatti was not quite right for the part, but I disagree. His facial structure is admittedly a little different, but he so completely inhabited the character that you forget that. I thought his performance was spot-on.(2) Moreover, in hindsight, interesting analogs abound and this adds to the viewing experience.

My problem was with the series’ white-washing the protagonist. I am not the only critic on this issue. Sure, some ignoble moments are shown. John Adam’s ambition and vanity are certainly depicted – often to cuddly, semi-comic effect. His foolish and almost monarchist fondness for pomp and titles is accurately depicted. His suggestions that the President be addressed as “His Elective Majesty,” “His Mightiness,” or even “His Highness, the President of the United States of America, and Protector of the Rights of the Same" predictably invited ridicule. Of course, in retrospect, they were obviously correct to mock him. Marilyn Monroe singing "Happy Birthday, Mr. President" would have been far more awkward if we went with any of the more florid and grandiose titles that John Adams favored. And John Adams’ signing of the infamous Alien and Sedition Act (an obvious analog to George W. Bush’s Patriot Act)(3) isn’t quite defended but rendered understandable by sympathetically depicting him agonizing over it beforehand. 

But two important omissions really annoyed me.

The first concerns the Boston Massacre. John Adams was the defense attorney for the British soldiers who fired on the crowd. In the HBO series, his oratory is portrayed as a victory of judicial principle in which he gets his highly unpopular clients acquitted. Well, the historical record shows Adams employed a hefty element of race-baiting in his clients' defense as well:
We have entertained a great variety of phrases to avoid calling this sort of people a mob. Some call them shavers, some call them geniuses. The plain English is, gentlemen, most probably a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and mulattoes, Irish teagues and outlandish jacktars.
This was basically the eighteenth century equivalent of calling the shooting victims “thugs,” which is the favorite default narrative of Fox News when cops shoot unarmed black men. Here we have another after-the-fact analog. This parallel is emphasized by the fact that the first victim, Crispus Attucks, was black. Attucks is accordingly recorded as the first casualty of the American Revolution. Needless to say, building sympathy for John Adams would have been pretty difficult if the script were more faithful to history – particularly since this incident was the centerpiece of the pilot episode.(4)

But more important for the miniseries as a whole is the omission of a famous exchange of letters between John Adams and his wife Abigail. I say “more important” because their relationship is the central thread of the series which accurately emphasizes both their egalitarian marriage and the immense amount of time they spent apart. For much of their marriage, these letters were the only way they could communicate and thanks to their frequent and lengthy separations historians have a very detailed record of their private lives and ideas. The series does indeed allude to the letters, but one particular exchange should have been used – the famous “Remember the Ladies” letters. While John Adams was working on the Declaration of Independence with Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson, his wife Abigail wrote him urging:
Remember the Ladies, and be more generous and favourable (sic.) to them than your ancestors. Do not put such unlimited power into the hands of the Husbands. Remember all Men would be tyrants if they could. If perticular (sic.) care and attention is not paid to the Ladies we are determined to foment a Rebellion, and will not hold ourselves bound by any Laws in which we have no voice, or Representation. That your Sex are Naturally Tyrannical is a Truth so thoroughly established as to admit of no dispute, but such of you as wish to be happy willingly give up the harsh title of Master for the more tender and endearing one of friend.(5)
John wrote Abigail a rather patronizing response:
As to your extraordinary Code of Laws, I cannot but laugh. We have been told that our Struggle has loosened the bands of Government every where. That Children and Apprentices were disobedient – that schools and Colledges (sic.) were grown turbulent – that Indians had slighted their Guardians and Negroes grew insolent to their Masters. But your Letter was the first Intimation that another Tribe more numerous and powerful than all the rest were grown discontented. – This is rather too coarse a Compliment but you are so saucy, I won’t blot it out.
Most history textbooks stop at this point, if they bother with it at all. They treat it as a trivial incident - a human interest sidebar. By stopping here, the exchange comes across as playful flirting. If feminism is mentioned, it is isolated to Abigail Adams. But John and Abigail's letters to others make plain that they both took the issue quite seriously. To Mercy Otis Warren - another feminist woman - Abigail complained:
He is very sausy (sic.) to me in return for a List of Female Grievances which I transmitted to him. I think I will get you to join me in a petition to Congress. I thought it was very probable our wise Statesmen would erect a New Government and form a new code of Laws. I ventured to speak a word in behalf of our Sex, who are rather hardly dealt with by the Laws of England which gives such unlimitted (sic.) power to the Husband to use his wife Ill.
I requested that our Legislators would consider our case and as all Men of Delicacy and Sentiment are averse to Excercising (sic.) the power they possess, yet as there is a natural propensity in Humane Nature to domination, I thought the most generous plan was to put it out of the power of the Arbitrary and tyranick (sic.) to injure us with impunity by Establishing some Laws in our favour upon just and Liberal principals.
Obviously, Abigail was shocked by John's response. This may seem naïve, but she had cause to be shocked because they did indeed enjoy a very egalitarian and companionate marriage. And they were not the only ones: This is where marital relations were going in the Enlightenment. The status of women was rapidly climbing. Improving education for women was a major enterprise and divorce laws were liberalized.

And the Enlightenment was invoked in their arguments. As Mary Wollstonecraft wrote, “The divine right of husbands, like the divine right of kings, may, it is to be hoped, in this enlightened age, be contested without danger.” Judith Sargent-Murray was quite pleased to see that “in this younger world, ‘The Rights of Women’ begin to be understood.” In her “Observations on Female Abilities,” She wrote “I may be accused of enthusiasm, but such is my confidence in the SEX that I expect to see our young women forming a new era in female history” (emphasis original). She concluded by writing, “The idea of the incapacity of women, is, we conceive, in this enlightened age, totally inadmissible; and we have concluded, that establishing the expediency of admitting them to share the blessings of equality, will remove every obstacle to their advancement.”

In this optimistic atmosphere, Abigail Adams’s letter to John does not sound quite so solitary or quixotic.

Days later, John Adams took her words more seriously when writing to James Sullivan:
The same reasoning which will induce you to admit all men who have no property, to vote, with those who have, for those laws which affect the person, will prove that you ought to admit women and children; for generally speaking, women and children have as good judgments, and as independent minds as those men who are wholly destitute of property … Depend upon it, Sir, it is dangerous to open so fruitful a source of controversy and altercation a would be opened by attempting to alter the qualifications of voters; there will be no end of it. New claims will arise; women will demand a vote; lads from twelve to twenty-one will think their rights not enough attended to; and every man who has not a farthing, will demand an equal voice with any other, in all acts of state. It tends to confound and destroy all distinctions, and prostrate all ranks to the common level.(6)
My fear is that audiences might presume the series is modernizing the Adams’ marriage and thus dismiss it as unrealistic. But Abigail obviously thought John would be supportive because everything else about their marriage suggested he would be – everything about the times suggested he would be, hence her considering petitioning Congress. Women were making great strides during the Enlightenment. Unfortunately, the reactionary, religious backlash that followed reversed those gains. I detail this in my next book.

We now have two popular Broadway musical portrayals of the American Revolution’s most conservative figures - John Adams and Alexander Hamilton. Why don’t the era’s liberal figures get any? Certainly Jefferson’s participation in slavery disqualifies him, but what about Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine? They were also abolitionists who, unlike Hamilton, did not loathe the poor or disdain democracy. Indeed, Franklin and Paine were also early feminists. John Adams, who famously lamented that he would be forgotten by history, has been the subject of both a musical and an HBO miniseries. In both, Benjamin Franklin upstaged him and every other founding father. How is it possible that Franklin does not have a musical or miniseries made about him? He was, hands-down, our most interesting founding father. Nothing against the excellent actors who portrayed John Adams in 1776 and the HBO series, but Franklin the character easily upstages everyone in every scene because he is Benjamin-Fucking-Franklin.(7) 

So, somebody option Leo LeMay’s books for a miniseries already. Come on folks, this is Benjamin Franklin we are talking about here. You are leaving money on the table.

I suggest Paul Giamatti for the part.


(1) I’m not quite sure why HBO's Benjamin Franklin talked like a Boston cop in a 1930s movie. Franklin’s ancestry was English and his family had already been in America for two generations. Yes, Franklin was raised in Boston before he made his home in Philadelphia, so you could argue that he picked up an Irish accent growing up. But I am pretty sure significant Irish immigration to Boston did not hit until the early 1800s. In the 1700s, the city was still a Protestant stronghold - the de facto capital of Puritan New England. Perhaps no distinct American accent existed yet, but I doubt that. Constant immigration from the British Isles might have kept old accents fresh, but most of the American colonies were already over a century old by that point and speech patterns can morph quickly. (The era’s short life expectancy can accelerate this.) Also, in the 1700s, you already had Dutch, German, and French influences on American speech – and African ones in the South. Compare this with Australia, a younger colony without these added elements. They also had constant immigration from the British Isles, yet they still developed a distinct accent. But, hey, I’m not a linguistic historian and I am happy to admit I am wrong if that’s the case.

(2) Granted, it took me a moment because I so associated Paul Giamatti with his brilliant portrayal of Harvey Pekar in American Splendor. But I am a big fan of Pekar’s work and had the great privilege of illustrating one of his stories. I doubt most other viewers had that particular perceptual handicap. Full disclosure: Giamatti is one of my favorite actors. I also enjoyed his voice work on “The Amazing Screw-On Head” and reading Dalton Trumbo’s letter to the phone company in the documentary Trumbo.

(3) The analog to George W. Bush’s Patriot Act was obvious when it was being filmed, but had not happened yet when the David McCullough book it was based-on was written.

(4) At least David McCullough's book, John Adams, on which the HBO miniseries is based, acknowledges his protagonist's words in his text.

(5) The Feminist Papers: From Adams to Beauvoir, ed. Alice S. Rossi (Boston: Northeastern University Press, 1973), 10-11.
(6) John Adams, Life and Works of John Adams, Second President of the United States: With a Life of the Author, Notes and Illustrations, by his Grandson Charles Francis Adams (Boston: Little, Brown & Co., 1854), 9:377.

(7) And this is not even mentioning Benjamin Franklin’s literally insane relations. They were not crazy in the zany sense but in the tragic one. There’s lots of drama there. Also, a high body count from smallpox, consumption, and other calamities. The Franklin family was huge, but tragedy cut them down like George R.R. Martin decided their destinies after taking an interest in diseases. Franklin’s grandson, Benjamin Franklin Bache, was one of the newspaper editors jailed for criticizing John Adams under the Alien and Sedition Act and he died during the yellow fever epidemic shortly afterwards at the age of 29.

Thursday, October 27, 2016

What's the Matter with Wigan Pier?

"The more things change, the more they stay the same."

Yup. And it makes little difference whether you come by this fossilized nugget of folk wisdom from Jean-Baptiste Alphonse Karr or Jon Bon Jovi.

I've recently been reading a lot of Thomas Frank, and I was struck by some stark parallels with George Orwell's writings. I am not suggesting that Frank is cribbing from Orwell, but rather that the same class dynamics that Frank describes in modern day America were visible to Orwell in Depression Era England. Similar circumstances get similar results. Also, I am not comparing Thomas Frank to Jon Bon Jovi.

In his latest book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?, Thomas Frank points out that there is zero solidarity among professionals. They show each other professional courtesy, of course; but scant sympathy for colleagues who suffer misfortune. For example, the industry-wide abuse of adjuncts and grad students in academia raises little indignation from tenured professors. So much for a community of scholars. Pros' belief that we live in a tough-but-just meritocracy blinds them to systemic problems. If they acknowledge that such things exist at all, they still cling to a callous "every man for himself" ethic. Collectively fixing the system is alien to their mindset, if not an anathema: Hence their hostility toward both labor unions and government solutions. So instead, impotent victim-blaming reigns.

In short, they think that life is fair. And when it is not fair, the onus is on you to accept and adapt to the whims of the market and the machinations of management. Frank argues that this mindset played a major role in the Democrats' abandoning their populist roots and betraying labor as they first sought to woo professional class voters in the 1980s and 1990s. 

But while the political use of this attitude by the Democratic Party is relatively shocking and new, the attitude itself isn't. As George Orwell wrote in his 1937 book on class and poverty, The Road to Wigan Pier, this lack of fraternal solidarity has always been a familiar feature - or bug - in bourgeois thinking:
I have pointed out earlier that a middle-class person goes utterly to pieces under the influence of poverty; and this is generally due to the behaviour of his family - to the fact that he has scores of relations nagging and badgering him night and day for failing to "get on." The fact that the working class know how to combine and the middle class don't is probably due to their different conceptions of family loyalty. You cannot have an effective trade union of middle-class workers, because in times of strikes almost every middle-class wife would be egging her husband on to blackleg and get the other fellow's job.(1)
Of course, it's not like this knowledge is buried in one of George Orwell's lesser-known works. Working folks have always touted their solidarity. Two years ago, David Graeber sardonically observed in The Guardian that caring too much was "the curse of the working classes." The professional class is unhampered by that inconvenient handicap. As Graeber wrote, "the ultimate bourgeois virtue is thrift, and the ultimate working-class virtue is solidarity." And of course, there was also that poignant moment of professional collegiality in Terry Gilliam's 1984 film Brazil.

Thomas Frank revisits this dynamic in a recent article in Harper's - "The Swat Team: The media’s extermination of Bernie Sanders, and real reform." Of course, it's primarily about the corporate press' predictable bias against a socialist candidate. But at the end, Frank marvels at length at how journalists can talk-up the establishment's priorities even as newspapers are dying. Some pundits are quite comfortable, of course; but their colleagues are drowning. At first, this appears to be a paradox:
In other words, no group knows the story of the dying middle class more intimately than journalists. So why do the people at the very top of this profession identify themselves with the smug, the satisfied, the powerful? Why would a person working in a moribund industry compose a paean to the Wall Street bailouts? Why would someone like Post opinion writer Stephen Stromberg drop megatons of angry repudiation on a certain Vermont senator for his “outrageous negativity about the state of the country”? For the country’s journalists - Stromberg’s colleagues, technically speaking - that state is pretty goddamned negative.
Of course, part of this is the aforementioned absence of solidarity in the professional class. In the old days, being a newspaper reporter was a working class job. But in the mid-1960s, it became a "college boy" occupation bringing with it callous professional class values. 

But another, related factor was the state of the industry and Thomas Frank had to admit that pundit behavior had a certain dark logic to it: "As the rising waters inundate the Fourth Estate, it is increasingly obvious that becoming an insider is the only way to hoist yourself above the deluge." So pundits become courtiers in the hopes of getting a coveted seat on the royal life boat. In other words:
When they laid-off the ombudsmen, I didn't say anything because I wasn't an ombudsman. When they laid-off the fact checkers, I din't say anything because I wasn't a fact checker. And fuck those guys. I write opinion pieces. We don't need those nerds. Jesus Christ! I am never punished for being wrong - which I usually am - so what the hell are they even here for?
To be clear: This is my metaphor, not Thomas Frank's. And the above anonymous quote is approximate.

The point being is eventually these professional opinion-slingers will probably prove to be as expendable as anybody else. But until the ax falls, they will identify more with their bosses than their colleagues.

To this I would only add that people are creatures of habit. And attitudes and habits of thought die hard if at all, even in the face of immense evidence - even if that evidence is their own recent lived experience. That professional class status is a badge and it becomes all the more important when you have lost all else. Think of poor whites in the Old South. Après le déluge, a degree will be the new white - at least for Baby Boomers. Perhaps they will be like the "shabby genteel" that Orwell described.

The ideology of meritocracy is a form of mass-flattery - not just of the target audience's skill and education, but of their worth as persons compared to others. While they last, fat paychecks are Pavlovian reinforcement for their ideology - worldview food pellets as well as tangible "proof." An immense sense of entitlement is central to their identity. Even if it weren't, the loss of their identity would be disorienting as well as frustrating. George Orwell wrote about this dynamic in The Road to Wigan Pier:
Large sections of the middle class are being gradually proletarianized; but the important point is that they do not, at any rate in the first generation, adopt a proletarian outlook. Here am I, for instance, with a bourgeois upbringing and a working-class income. Which class do I belong to? Economically I belong to the working class, but it is almost impossible for me to think of myself as anything but a member of the bourgeoisie. And supposing I had to take sides, whom should I side with, the upper class which is trying to squeeze me out of existence, or the working class whose manners are not my manners? It is probable that I personally, in any important issue, would side with the working class. But what about the tens or hundreds of thousands of others who are in approximately the same position? And what about that far larger class, running into millions this time - the office-workers and black-coated employees of all kinds - whose traditions are less definitely middle class but who would certainly not thank you if you called them proletarians? All of these people have the same interests and the same enemies as the working class. All are being robbed and bullied by the same system. Yet how many of them realize it? When the pinch came nearly all of them would side with their oppressors and against those who ought to be their allies. It is quite easy to imagine a middle class crushed down to the worst depths of poverty and still remaining bitterly anti-working-class in sentiment; this being, of course, a ready-made Fascist Party.(2)
Obviously, if you want to avoid this dire scenario, some ordinary solidarity and empathy are required. What Thomas Paine said about the law applies everywhere else: "He that would make his own liberty secure must guard even his enemy from oppression: for if he violates this duty, he establishes a precedent that will reach unto himself."(3) The same applies in the ordinary work-a-day world everyone inhabits.

Or as Robert De Niro's guerrilla repairman character put it in Brazil, "We're all in this together, kid."


(1) George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier (San Diego: Harcourt Brace, 1st American ed. 1958), 115.

(2) Ibid., 225-6.

(3) Thomas Paine, Common Sense and Other Political Writings, ed. W.F. Adkins (New York: Liberal Arts Press, 1953), 174.

Monday, October 24, 2016

Growing the Warren Wing

I have no illusions about my political influence and the issue is probably moot. But I would like to appeal to the small number(1) of Bernie Sanders supporters who are considering abandoning the Democrats.

Don't worry, this is not a guilt trip. It's a strategic argument for progressives working toward a Democratic landslide in this year's election and sticking with the Democrats over the long haul. Bear with me.

Let's first allay a legitimate concern. You are probably wary that electing Hillary Clinton will validate every betrayal made by the Republican wing of the Democratic Party. Between NAFTA, DADT, DOMA, WTO, Welfare Reform, the Crime Bill, and wholesale deregulation and privatization, it is hard to find a Democratic Party constituency, policy, or principle they have not callously and conspicuously sold out. Rewarding bad behavior sticks in your craw, I know. And even if you cannot stop it, you do not want to be a party to it. That is entirely understandable.

But there is absolutely zero danger of a Democratic landslide legitimizing the Clinton brand. Everyone will remember that Hillary Clinton ran against Donald Trump and only won because it was universally understood that we had to stop fascism.(2) The orgy of misogyny, racism, and general bigotry that is the Trump campaign cannot possibly be forgotten. How could anyone forget the circus of absurdity that is this election? Future political scientists will envy us for living this experience. Oral historians will pester us in our hip Swedish-style nursing homes asking us, "What did you do in the shit-blizzard of 2016, na-na?"

Okay, some of the specifics of my predictions are uncertain. However, this will no doubt be a memorable election and nobody will forget that both candidates had abysmal approval ratings. As "Daily Show" host Trevor Noah explained, that makes them lucky because, "[B]oth Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are running against the only person they could possibly beat." And the only thing that could possibly alter that narrative is if Hillary Clinton actually turns out to be the progressive president her apologists insist she will be. If you think that is unlikely, then you have nothing to worry about. You need not fret that Clinton's magnetic personality will popularize Third Way politics. Not even Obama's gifts could accomplish that.

I am not going to enumerate the reasons it is important to stop Trump. They have already been made by countless other people and you have heard them all before. Instead, I am here to argue that stopping Trump is not enough and that we should go for a Democratic blowout.

If you are skeptical of Hillary Clinton's progressive credentials, there are two arguments for a Democratic Congress. First, it will deny her the pretty predictable excuse that Republicans prevented her from doing anything progressive or that they forced her to do more bad things like Bill did. Second, on a related note, they could prevent, or at least hamstring any Faustian collaborations with Republicans. In short, Congress is important. Indeed, as House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI) recently warned his fellow Republicans, "If we lose the Senate, do you know who becomes chair of the Senate Budget Committee? A guy named Bernie Sanders. You ever heard of him?" Sounds familiar: Refresh my memory.

This may explain why Bernie Sanders is campaigning so hard for Hillary Clinton. Yes, he wants to stop Trump. Sanders has always said that Clinton "on her worst day" was "infinitely" better than Trump on his best. But it is clear that he is also trying to transform Congress and sees a possible Democratic landslide as instrumental to that. Taking back the Senate would be a start. Indeed, he has been tirelessly fundraising toward this outcome. Of course, Elizabeth Warren has been campaigning hard as well.

And the possibility of a landslide is not necessarily out of the question at this point. About an hour or so after I first published this post, and ABC poll showed a sharp drop in the percentage of Republicans who say they will likely vote. This will impact down-ticket races.

The strategy is to elect Hillary Clinton with a Democratic Congress and then hold her accountable. Sanders has repeatedly vowed to do exactly that. Likewise, Warren has vowed to oppose any appointment that is too cozy with Wall Street: Indeed, she already has composed a list of "hell no" appointments. We need to join that fight now. But part and parcel of that strategy is strengthening their hand.

I do not mean to give all the credit to Bernie Sanders' campaign. I also have to credit pre-existing forces that helped him: Not just those Millennial voters who are so famously comfortable with socialism, but the increasing political polarization that is driving centrist quislings to extinction and growing the Progressive Caucus - which is already the largest Democratic caucus in Congress. And this has been going on since before Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy. The Blue Dog Democrats are dying off: We saw this in 2012 and again in 2014. We have more than just age and race demographics as the wind at our backs.

Four years down the road, the electorate will be even more progressive than it is now. Hillary Clinton, is sympathetic to the rich, but I think she is ambitious enough to prioritize her own political career and we're where the votes are. Plus, she probably won't have Trump to run against in 2020, so there goes that advantage. Hillary Clinton squeaked a win in the primary thanks in large part to the press studiously ignoring Sanders' campaign as long as possible. It will be much tougher for her later on. Self-interest says court the left by proving your progressive skeptics wrong. That's the long game. She does not seem to have figured that out yet - hence her VP appointment. The sooner she does, the better for everyone.

Some say it is privileged to vote third party.  I actually think there is some validity to that argument - IF you live in a swing state, which most don't, so shaming you only serves the political scold's ego. Moreover, I would also point out that if the scolds think Bill Clinton's administration was Camelot, they either live in an opaque, hermetically-sealed sphere of privilege or are suffering from Stockholm Syndrome.

I say go ahead and vote third party for president if you live in a safe state, but don't forget the down-ticket races. Those "Berniecrats" that Sanders had endorsed need your votes. And toward that end, I'd rather you vote third party than stay home. Get into the voting booth and stay engaged after election day. Write-in Eugene V. Debs, Vermin Supreme, Joe Exotic, or the Icelandic Pirate Party for president, but don't forget to support good Democrats in congressional races.

But if you live in a swing state, I would urge you to hold your nose for Hillary. Vote straight party Democrat if the Clinton name is viscerally prohibitive for you. You can truthfully say you were voting for the progressive party platform that Sanders had won. But, in any case, back the strategy of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. I trust their judgement. Ditto the opinions of Robert Reich and Noam Chomsky. This is good company. They have not sold out.

With the Sanders campaign, we progressives discovered our collective strength and it is impossible to ignore. Centrists are certain to call that moment a fluke - both in order to comfort themselves and sow discouragement. (Demoralizing the party base is a penchant of theirs, in case you haven't noticed.) They will call it an irrational eruption of naïve passion that Millennials will age out of as they "mature." Don't buy it. Don't abandon the Warren Wing of the Democratic Party - what the late Senator Paul Wellstone so often called "the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party." We need to take the long view too. Bernie Sanders built a movement and movements should last longer than one electoral cycle.

Stay and finish taking back the party. We nearly did it on our first try.


(1) I say "small" because, contrary to certain self-appointed Clinton surrogates who remain in primary mode, Sanders fans support Clinton more strongly this year than Clinton fans supported Obama in 2008. As I wrote before back in early August, just after the Democratic Convention:
Hand-wringing aside, 90% of Sanders supporters already say they intend to vote for Clinton. That's pretty stunning considering that these numbers typically climb. Shortly after the 2008 Democratic Convention, only 47% of Clinton supporters were decided on voting for Obama. Her PUMA supporters were pretty vocal about voting for McCain. And voting for the opposition is twice as bad as voting for a third party candidate because you are not just denying your vote to the Democrats, but giving it to the Republicans thus doubling the effect. Had McCain won, we would likely be in four wars in the Middle East, plus another in North Korea. And if some magnifying calamity had made Sarah Palin president ... well, Palin is basically Trump with a side of word salad. Eventually, 83% of former Clinton supporters voted for Obama, but before there was much gnashing of teeth and rending of garments. 
(2) This is not hyperbole. The mainstream media is routinely refuses to call-out fascism unless it parades swastikas. When fascist antisemitic parties sprang up in Eastern Europe shortly after the fall of the Berlin Wall, the press cautiously spun them as "anti-communist" and "pro-Christian" - which, incidentally, is precisely how legitimacy-seeking fascists describe themselves here. Until he broke with the GOP establishment over free trade, Pat Buchanan's galloping fascism was politely ignored for decades. The media's spectrum of acceptable opinion runs "from centrism to antisemitism" - so long as the later practices a token amount of genteel plausible deniability. Growing up, I routinely saw Pat Buchanan on television. By contrast, the same could not be said for leftists like Noam Chomsky or Howard Zinn. They were considered beyond the pale. Erring on the side of caution is certainly a laudable default. It is a crucial institutional habit for the Fourth Estate to have. But the verdict was in on the hard right ages ago.