Why We Hate the Fourth Estate

On July 10, the Pew Research Center released the findings from a survey of 2,504 adult PP_17.06.30_institutions_lede_partyAmericans illustrating the sharp partisan divergence in how U.S. citizens view major institutions. Many of the results are not very surprising: conservatives overwhelmingly believe churches and other religious groups are beneficial to U.S. society, but are critical of labor unions and higher education, while left-leaning Americans generally support universities and unions, but reserve their ire for Wall Street. Interestingly, however, both groups have a rather low opinion of the mainstream media. Most Republicans (85%) believe the media does more harm than good, while Democrats are almost evenly split, with 46% saying the media is hurting the U.S. (44% say otherwise).

It seems clear that most of us hate the Fourth Estate. Yet, you really would not know it from consuming the media itself. In fact, since the onset of 2017 and the Trump presidency, many news outlets have wrapped themselves in the U.S. flag and declared themselves the defenders of our imperiled republic. “Democracy dies in darkness,” the Washington Post now states on its homepage. MSNBC has supplanted Fox News as the most-watched prime-time cable news network, thanks in no small part to its plethora of pundits regularly decrying the Trump White House for treason and calling for the start of impeachment proceedings. In many ways, MSNBC has become the Democratic equal of Fox News, long-regarded as more of a political operation than a journalistic one. While the third big name in network news, CNN, is ostensibly less partisan than its rivals, it remains the main punching bag for President Trump, who made headlines for tweeting a video of him wrestling the physical manifestation of CNN in an edited clip of his appearance on a professional wrestling show. Trump has often labeled his critics in the press as “fake news,” using the term – created by the media to refer to mendacious articles that spread during the 2016 presidential campaign – against his detractors.

300px-cnn_atlanta_newsroomIt therefore be tempting (especially for the media) to argue that our widespread dislike for the press is a product of manipulation on the part of Trump and his Republican allies. That would certainly help to explain why Republicans, historically always hostile to a “biased liberal” media, see the media as so detrimental to the U.S. Unfortunately, this does not explicate why Democrats are so lukewarm about the press. If, after all, this was just another partisan deviation, should Democrats not then have a prodigiously positive view of news outlets? The reality is that they do not, and I would argue that the public distrust of the media has less to do with partisan bickering and more with a general distaste with major institutions in this current period of global unrest. Granted, the present political climate in the U.S. is not helping. Yet I think the survey speaks to a more deep-rooted problem with the media.

This problem is well-illustrated by a recent segment on the highly-rated Rachel Maddow rachel_maddow_in_seattle_cropped Show on MSNBC. On the July 6th episode of her show, Maddow devoted the bulk of her time-slot to an “exclusive” about unnamed villains (presumably the Trump administration and/or the Russian government) sending out “carefully forged” documents intended to undermine media credibility. Maddow had received such a forgery, an alleged NSA document about Russian efforts to interfere with the 2016 presidential election. On its own, this would be a non-story, as news outlets often receive bogus tips and documents, and it is part of their due diligence to authenticate them. Maddow, however, inflated the story into a “scoop” by implying that it was part of a grand conspiracy against the press – that vanguard of integrity, speaking truth to power – on the part of the Kremlin/White House axis of evil. This exaggeration depended on the belief that the forged document in question was based on a document published on Glenn Greenwald’s news site The Intercept – except that the forger had created the phony document before the Intercept published it. This was important, because if the person responsible for the forgery had simply downloaded the document from The Intercept, modified it, and then sent it out to news organizations, there would be nothing special about that – no conspiracy, no exclusive scoop, no story.

Except, according to Greenwald, that is precisely what happened. On the latest episode of Jeremy Scahill’s podcast, Intercepted, Greenwald states that it has been in contact with the person he believes as behind the forgery sent to Maddow, and that it was an effort to see just how willing a news outlet would be to pick up and run with a story connecting Trump and Russia – even if such a story was predicated on a lie. The “careful” forgery only took ten minutes to create, and apparently Buzzfeed – which also received the document – dismissed it without comment. Maddow, however, took the bait but twisted it, acknowledging the document was fake but making the forgery itself into a story. In other words, Maddow inflated the significance of the forgery for the sake of pulling in higher ratings by giving her viewers what they crave: not the truth, but a manipulation of the truth that fits their preconceived ideas about Trump and Russia. We are being told what we want to hear.

Noam Chomsky has spoken about this as “concision.” News outlets need stories that can be elucidated between two commercial breaks or in less than 1,000 words. If you’re a for-profit news network — like CNN, MSNBC, Fox News — or a newspaper concerned about advertisers, it behooves you to have on guests, analysts, pundits, etc. who will spend those five to ten minutes or those column inches that will grab the reader’s attention. For the conservative media, this means stories about brave Marines versus Marxist professors, rising crime rates, and so on. For the liberal media, this means incessantly making the legal case of Trump’s impeachment, but in sensational dribs and drabs. Building a case against the administration is not sexy; it is far better ratings-rise to release anything and everything even suggestive of collusion between Trump, his inner circle and the Russian government, even if the evidence remains speculative. The recent resignations of some CNN journalists over such a story that had to be retracted is great evidence of this.

This is not to say that there is nothing fishy about Trump and his connections to the Russians; indeed there is, and it should be investigated, by law enforcement as well as the press. Yet there are also many other important stories worth covering — the net neutrality debate, the anti-globalization movement that made waves at the G20 summit, the humanitarian crisis in Yemen —  that may not do as well in terms of ratings, but which U.S. citizens should still be informed and concerned about.

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The Necessity of Violence

“Was it a coincidence that the apostles of the wildest theories of violence – Nietzsche, Barrès, Sorel – were unable to perform twenty knee-bends?” – Jason Lutes, Berlin: City of Smoke

Last Friday night, organized protesters in Chicago shut down a Donald Trump rally. In the aftermath, there was a lot of agitation and hand-wringing over Trump being made “the victim,”that the demonstrators used violence to violate Trump’s right to free speech. However, many acknowledged that the disruption followed logically from the violence witnessed at previous Trump rallies, where journalists and protesters had been manhandled and assaulted by security agents and supporters alike. (Presently, Trump’s campaign manager is in hot water for allegedly harming a female reporter.) While not getting his hands dirty himself, Trump has certainly fueled the fire, encouraging that people who interrupt his events be “roughed up.” He has also publicly considered paying the fees of his supporters if they get into legal trouble for their behavior (although this should be treated with skepticism, as with all his other campaign promises).

That Trump employs a discourse of violence should not be shocking, since he is playing upon the fear and resentment many Americans feel over economic and social issues (as I have written about before). The rank-and-file of his support are not effete policy wonks, but average Americans who want to lash out because of their economic deprivation and the rapidly changing facets of their social lives. They yearn for the “good old days,” when people deemed “un-American” could be persecuted, imprisoned and even killed for being non-conformist with “traditional” American ideas, values and demographics. Contrary to what some pundits claim, there has never been an elevated discourse in U.S. politics, where regular people were riled up about intricate legislation, statistical data or convoluted policy plans. Quite understandably, political rhetoric is most effective when it manipulates emotions, be it hope and optimism — or anxiety, stress and wrath.

According to the Constitution, Trump supporters have a right to assemble and hear his polemics against immigrants and Muslims — and those who disagree with him have a right to assemble against him. The First Amendment protects people from having their opinions suppressed by the government; it does not promise you acceptance or even tolerance of your views. Protesters can (and should) organize to express their discontent, and most importantly, such protests should be allowed to be disorderly. The notion that people should be herded into “free speech zones” or “freedom cages”is far more damaging to the concept of a free society than interfering with a staged political event or engaging in forms of civil disobedience. What point is there in protesting if your protests have to be approved and organized by the very people you are protesting against?

The view that the protesters who shut down the Trump rally had a right to do so is not that controversial. A far more interesting question, in my view, is whether people should (legally or not) participate in actual violence against those deemed a danger to the public welfare. While this may seem an extreme position to some, we already see it quite a bit. In late February, anti-racist activists clashed with Ku Klux Klan members in Anaheim, California, to stop the white supremacists from marching against “illegal immigrants and Muslims” (two scapegoats of the Trump campaign as well). In January, neo-Nazis and anti-fascists fought in Dover in the United Kingdom ahead of far-right demonstrations against the acceptance of refugees. This carries on a tradition in Britain dating back to the Battle of Cable Street in 1936, when left-wingers battled British fascists in the streets, and on to the present day. Although not common lingo in mainstream U.S. political culture, “anti-fascism” or “antifa” movements have strong presences in Europe. The idea is that fascists, racists and other extreme right-wingers be denied a platform to espouse their vitriolic bile and to spread their poisonous ethos, so that past crimes will not be repeated.

It is difficult for me to advocate violence, as I am not by nature a violent person. However, I come down on the side of those who would sooner smash a fascist than defend one. Violence can be a destructive force, yes, but it can also be a creative one. From the battlefield of class conflict emerges the potentiality to reshape our world along the lines of progressive principles. To think that we will manifest a more free and just society through reasonable arguments and gradual reforms is to throw in with adherents of utopian socialism. Confrontation between the polarizing groups that define every state — the ruling and the ruled, the exploiters and the exploited — is both unpleasant and unavoidable. We must remember that it was by revolutionary force, from the French Revolution to the liberation movements of the colonized world, that oppressed peoples have constantly and bitterly emancipated themselves. The bourgeois Jacobins are quite different from the modern PKK, of course, but in every instance revolutionary liberation has been, at least to the repressive state, unauthorized and illegal. That does not make such struggles any less just or necessary; they were fought according to a higher law, a natural law, that permits the shedding of blood in the name of stopping tyranny.

We must remember that, in 1920s or 1930s Berlin, a brown-clad Nazi stormtrooper was not considered a hateful relic of a bygone historical period, but rather a contemporary phenomenon: an angry and confused young man, roused by an economic downturn and an unfamiliar social environment, allured by the bravado of a bold and unapologetic leader. This is not to say that history will repeat itself exactly, and that the same atrocities will be committed. However, we are — just as then — living in unsettled times, where the status quo is in flux, and reactionary populism has the capacity to do even greater damage to marginalized and vulnerable groups, from poor whites to the ethnic minorities the right-wing blames for their ills. Shutting down Trump rallies and kicking in the teeth of KKK members has less to do with silencing them, violating their free speech, rather than demonstrating to the world — and to posterity, if we fail — that not all of us were on the sidelines with the bloggers, pundits and the rest of the chattering classes when these events were unfolding. Only God knows what is around the corner, and it may be vain to think we can stop what is coming, but we still have an obligation to show (not just state) our defiance to it. To paraphrase that old pacifist Gandhi, our forceful rejection of Trump and his politics of hate may be insignificant, but it is very important that we do it.

Choosing the Lesser Evil: The Candidates

For political junkies like myself, this election year has been like passing a 42-car pile-up 320px-uspe16-svgon the highway. We feel repulsed, scared, worried for ourselves — and yet we cannot turn away. Nothing about this election makes sense. A bombastic billionaire who commits gaffes that would typically kill a major campaign is doing incredibly well. A self-described socialist has garnered a wide coalition of support in a country known for intense hostility to anything remotely anti-capitalist or radically left-wing. We were promised “Hillary Clinton vs. Jeb Bush: Dawn of Justice,” a mundane showdown between two political dynasties, and instead we are getting something totally wild and unexpected.

The lazy answer to all this is that “people are angry!” No kidding. But why are people angry? Why are establishment candidates doing especially poorly this year? Why does fear and intolerance seem to be playing so effectively this year, when just two elections ago, a candidate who ran on hope and unity performed so well? These are all questions that should be considered, if for no other reason than to get a sense of where we are as a country. It is pretty much common knowledge that we’re a deeply polarized and jaded electorate, but studying the current field of candidates illustrates just where we’re at.

Donald Trump166px-donald_trump_march_2015

Advantages: Not an establishment politician

Disadvantages: Is Donald Trump

Cinematic Equivalent: Birth of a Nation (1915)

Typical Supporter: A working class white man whose job was just outsourced to Mexico, who loves racist jokes and aspires to soon own a flamethrower

I am not being mean. The data really does indicate that most Trump supporters never went to college and come from parts of the country known for racial resentment. The most telling feature about Trump voters, however, is how impotent and vulnerable they feel. These are the American reactionaries who worry about white genocide and believe “anti-racist” is code for “anti-white.” They worry that sharia law will soon be used to decide U.S. court cases. They fear that there is a “war on Christmas,” which is just the first battle in a covert campaign to wipe out Christianity entirely. They scoff at “political correctness” as repressive and tyrannical, when in actuality it just promotes sensitivity to traditional victims of discrimination. Their anxiety stems from the idea they are losing the “culture war” against “cultural Marxism,” and that their primary source of power — the white Christian patriarchy — is under attack from phantom “feminazis” and “Islamo-Leftists.” On the cultural front, Trump promises to go after these enemies: he will ban Muslims from coming to the United States, he will stop the “flood” of Mexican immigrants, etc.

It is on the economic front that Trump supporters have grievances grounded in reality. The truth is, less-educated American men have hard it rough in terms of work and wages. According to a 2014 poll, 85% of unemployed men lack bachelor’s degrees, while 34% identified as former felons, making it hard to find any work. Thanks to globalization and technological innovations, it is more difficult than ever for unskilled laborers to find work. Due to union-busting and the loss of collective bargaining power, less-educated workers find it impossible to unionize or take industrial action that could help them increase their wages and fight income inequality. Unlike the “culture war” that exists only in the minds of reactionaries, the war on the working class in the United States is very real. Trump offers them an economic nationalism, promising (without specifics) to get the U.S. better trade deals. In contrast to the typical Republican line, Trump does not advocate laissez-faire economics or tax breaks for “job creators.” Instead, he promotes a sort of autarkic vision that could be best summarized as “American jobs for American workers.”

(For all the Republican whines that Trump is betraying the Ronald Reagan legacy on free trade, let’s not forget that Reagan implemented protectionist policies to safeguard the U.S. steel industry from those “market forces” Republicans love to celebrate.)

You might wonder why these irate working class Americans do not rally to progressive causes, like raising the minimum wage or creating a federal jobs program. To paraphrase a disputed quote by John Steinbeck, this is because working class Americans do not see themselves as exploited proletarians, but as temporarily embarrassed millionaires. They still hold on to the American Dream, which states that success comes from hard work, and the main enemy is not the ruling class, but bureaucratic red tape. Donald Trump is the embodiment of the American Dream: a millionaire who is never embarrassed, who never apologizes no matter how racist, sexist or inappropriate he is. He is not a populist, because populists possess the common touch; there is nothing “common” about Trump.

178px-ted_cruz_february_2015Ted Cruz

Advantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says

Disadvantages: Sincerely believes the stuff he says (possible serial killer)

Cinematic Equivalent: God’s Not Dead (2014) or Zodiac (2007)

Typical Supporter: A church-going, Longmire-watching grandmother who could be a character in a Cormac McCarthy novel

Ted Cruz is a jerk. No one really disputes this. Everyone hates him. He is smug and condescending. He loves to lecture people, especially other U.S. senators. He has no qualms attacking other Republicans, including the Republican leader in the Senate (in violation of Reagan’s 11th Commandment). People who knew him in college hated him. Those who trusted his lead in bringing about the short-lived government shutdown felt betrayed by him. Yet, his in-your-face style of doing things is exactly what many Republicans want from a party they see as having been too passive in resisting the Obama administration and assorted progressive triumphs over the last eight years. Remember when House Republican leader John Boehner stood on the House floor in 2010 and shouted, “Hell no, you can’t!” in response to the passing of the Affordable Care Act? Many Republicans want more of that. Ted Cruz is just the sort of right-wing ideologue who will give them that breed of impassioned, unwavering, Goldwater-style traditionalism.

If there is one voting bloc Cruz is relying on, it’s evangelical Protestants. The Cruz campaign believes there is a silent majority of deeply religious voters who failed to turn out for Mitt Romney in 2012 because the former Massachusetts governor was not tough enough on issues like abortion and “the defense of marriage.” Consequently, Cruz has taken pains to point out that he is the son of a pastor, to highlight his faith and to contrast himself against the “New York values” of Donald Trump.

His strategy hasn’t worked. As Elizabeth Bruenig has pointed out, evangelicals are not the monolithic entity the Cruz campaign counted on. Cruz does well among deeply religious Protestants who attend church regularly, but among those who are perhaps patriots first and Christians second, Donald Trump does better. In other words, for some evangelicals, with Trump they can have their Christian cultural war and their jingoistic nationalism, too. There’s also the fact that the Religious Right has grown disenchanted with the lack of progress on its more grandiose goals: Roe v. Wade is still standing, Planned Parenthood hasn’t folded, the “gay agenda” marches on, and so forth. In fact, in recent years, there has been a libertarian current in the Republican Party that opposes the blurring of the line between church and state. Many zealous evangelicals seem demoralized, and those that aren’t are focusing on restricting abortion access at the state level, where (unfortunately) they have had incredible success.

Plus, to return to my original point, Ted Cruz is a jerk. His win in Iowa was tainted by claims he had engaged in dirty tricks to steal votes from Ben Carson voters. More recently, Cruz had to fire a staff member for spreading lies about Marco Rubio. Typically, “good Christians” are known for at least the appearance of integrity and honesty. Cruz, however, is better known for being shrewd and conniving, with a take-no-prisoners mentality that is not troubled by moral qualms. Unfortunately for him, Christian martyrs are defined by losing honorable fights rather than winning dishonorable ones.

202px-marco_rubio_by_gage_skidmore_9Marco Rubio

Advantages: Programmed to be hip, young and Latino

Disadvantages: The Republican establishment doesn’t elect presidents

Cinematic Equivalent: I Am Number Four (2011)

Typical Supporter: A wealthy Republican donor

Marco Rubio is like a film adaptation of a popular young adult book series that flopped. In 2012, after Mitt Romney’s defeat, the Republican Party published a report — an “autopsy” — that called for greater inclusion of ethnic minorities and increased outreach to young people. Like most young adult novels, the idea of Rubio did very well, as only a fantasy could. However, as sometimes happens, something got lost in the transition from conceptual framework to the live-action version. Some fans refuse to stop believing, and Rubio’s tendency to give victory speeches when he loses indicate that he hasn’t given up on his cult following of rich patrons and the conservative cocktails-and-cigars set.

Rubio sometimes seems to have been designed in a Republican lab, and not because of his infamous robotic debate performance. In 2010, he was one of the rising stars of the Tea Party movement, endearing him to the radical right, but has since shown his ability to cross the aisle on issues like immigration, winning over moderates frustrated by the GOP becoming the “party of no.” He’s proudly Cuban-American and bilingual in a party stereotyped as being full of racist whites. He’s young and purports to like dance music. The cherry on top: he comes from Florida, a swing state known for deciding presidential elections. He’s the perfect answer to the 2012 Republican autopsy: sellable to historically alienated demographics, but still firmly grounded in conservative principles.

The problem? He hasn’t won a single caucus or primary. Not one.

The reason is that the Republican rank-and-file doesn’t want to coalesce around the marketable, moderate candidate. They did that in 2008 and 2012, and what did it get them? Substantial losses to Barack Obama. They don’t want to concede to multiculturalism and embrace diversity; they want to fight it tooth and nail. They do not want a “path to citizenship” on immigration; they want “their” (white) country back. From a personage standpoint, Rubio’s youth has proved a double-edged sword. John McCain, as a war hero and foreign policy expert, had the capacity to be a statesman. Romney, with his business background, was seen as America’s potential CEO. Rubio is a parvenu, an inexperienced baby-face whose mere presence does not inspire confidence. In ideas, he is out of touch with the Republican base; in image, he is the broad-minded and cosmopolitan candidate of a party that is, for the most part, neither of those things.

169px-hrc_in_iowa_apr_2015Hillary Clinton

Advantages: Not Donald Trump

Disadvantages: Is Hillary Clinton

Cinematic Equivalent: The Iron Lady (2011)

Typical Supporter: A white Prius-driving, Good Wife-watching professional woman

You cannot talk about the Clinton campaign without acknowledging the long-standing and completely understandable desire to elect our first woman president. As a man, I’ll never be able to completely understand the immense frustration generations of American women must have felt about being underrepresented in politics, and to have issues that impact them decided almost exclusively by men. Hillary has long been the best path to the realization of the dream of a woman POTUS, and more than that, she has been successful in a number of prominent political roles: First Lady, a U.S. senator, and most recently Secretary of State. It is hard to think of a more qualified candidate (much less an actual president) in recent memory. Just in terms of name recognition alone, she has a massive advantage that any candidate, Republican or Democrat, would be envious of.

The downside of being a household name since 1992 is that she has accumulated a lot of baggage along the way. Republicans, for the most part, loathe her, for everything from Vince Foster to Benghazi. Progressive Democrats, meanwhile, criticize her (and her husband) for joining forces with Newt Gingrich in 1996 to advance welfare reform, her support for Hosni Mubarak, her practically unconditional support for Netanyahu’s Israel, and her support for the 2003 Iraq War. With the Occupy Wall Street movement still fresh in peoples’ minds, Hillary’s cozy relationship with the financial industry is a big liability. These are more than just accidental handicaps; Hillary has a record of intentionally aligning herself with military adventurism and Big Business. In an election where class stratification and race relations are big issues, Hillary does not possess much credibility when it comes to pontificating about income inequality or institutional racism.

In response, Hillary and her supporters have sought to downplay her Wall Street connections. She has sought to portray her rival, Bernie Sanders, as a one-issue economic populist, telling a crowd that “breaking up the banks” would not end racism or sexism. The problem with this, as eloquently argued by Roqayah Chamseddine, is that it falsely separates gender discrimination from exploitation under capitalism when the two are not mutually exclusive, and indeed are often related. It does, unfortunately, fit into modern liberal feminism, with its emphasis on “leaning in” and “breaking the glass ceiling” — which, as Nancy Fraser argues, is only about enabling women to climb the corporate ladder. When it comes to achieving true social equality for women, white liberal feminists have been notoriously silent on feminist issues that do not impact women of color, such as police violence against women of color (be it Sandra Bland or the victims of Daniel Holtzclaw). By buying into the Clinton’s campaign partition of gender identity politics from anti-capitalist arguments, Clinton supporters are endorsing a form of feminist “equality” where women are “free” to be as overworked and underpaid as men, and where women of color remain regular victims of economic violence (such as the draconian welfare-to-work programs Hillary herself signed off on in the 1990s).

While Hillary has taken some punches from Bernie Sanders, 2016 does seem to be “her turn.” Once she secures the nomination, her next major hurdle will be her Republican opponent, who is likely to be Trump. Can she beat him? The very fact that this is even a question demonstrates how bizarre this election is. On the one hand, it’s a no-brainer. Warts and all, at the very least she’s not a lewd narcissist who caters to racist reactionaries. On the other hand, there may be more Americans who actively dislike her than Americans who passionately want her to be president. It may be that the greatest thing working in Hillary’s favor is the two-party system and voters’ limited options.

192px-senator_of_vermont_bernie_sanders_at_derry_town_hall2c_pinkerton_academy_nh_october_30th2c_2015_b_by_michael_vadon_01_28cropped29Bernie Sanders

Advantages: Integrity

Disadvantages: Bernie who?

Cinematic Equivalent: La Chinoise (1967)

Typical Supporter: A Jacobin-reading, Democracy Now-watching college socialist

Bernie Sanders has been a failure.

I do not refer to his seeming failure to win the nomination. That was never in the cards, although no shortage of optimistic progressives seemed to believe he would, like Barack Obama in 2008, prevent Hillary from cruising to the nomination. For all his uprightness and intensity, however, Bernie never had the charisma or the appeal to minority voters that Obama used to such effect when he defeated Hillary. In fact, Bernie has a reputation for being, like Ted Cruz, a caustic jerk — as shown by his “side eye” at Hillary during one debate, his shouting, his finger-wagging, and so on. Bernie Sanders is a firebrand, an attack dog for the progressive left; he does not have the gravitas and poise one normally associates with a head of state or a head of government. I think he suspects this.

I call Bernie a failure because I think the point of his campaign was purely to challenge Hillary from the left-wing of the Democratic Party and, subsequently, push her to adopt more left-wing positions on a living wage, socialized medicine, education costs, and so on. This theory makes sense, because Bernie himself talked in 2011 about how Obama had moved so far to the right of the political spectrum because no one was attacking him from the left. If this was Bernie’s goal, it didn’t work. Hillary may have added her support for a health care public option to her campaign Web site, but that is not inconsistent with what she already supported in 2008. For the most part, she considers health care reform settled for now. She doesn’t want to raise the minimum wage to $15. She has mocked Bernie’s plan for free college tuition. As noted above, rather than cave to this challenge from her left, Hillary and her campaign has used the language of feminism and social justice to dodge and evade any attacks from Bernie, keeping her platform more or less intact as it was when she first entered the race: in favor of the status quo and business-friendly.

The Bernie bandwagon was always doomed, but it’s total deflation on Super Tuesday was its death knell. Why did Bernie perform so badly in Southern states? Many pundits have pointed to black voters as “Hillary’s firewall,” crediting the “engagement” of the Clintons with black communities in the past. In my opinion, there is a much simpler explanation: no one besides progressives, political junkies and Vermonters knew who Bernie Sanders was before 2015, and most people today probably think he’s Larry David. Where has he done well? New Hampshire and Vermont, which are literally his backyard and his home state, respectively. He also did well in Iowa and Oklahoma, no doubt because of his appeal to poor working class whites. He’s done poorly generally, however, not because of some ambiguous solidarity between black voters and the Clintons, but because Hillary has been a national political icon since Yugoslavia still existed on maps. I get really frustrated when Sanders supports whine that “black voters voted against their own interests” on Super Tuesday. Newsflash: people vote against their own interests all the time. In fact, I do it in most elections myself. I vote for the Democrat, even though the Democratic Party has not come close to representing my principles in my lifetime. However, like many people who vote Democratic, Republican politicians are even further divorced from what I care about. It does not surprise me — at all — that Democrats, whatever their age or race or gender, vote for a candidate whose name they recognize and who they believe will win in a national election, if for no other reason than to keep a Republican out of office.

To his credit, Bernie hasn’t smeared Hillary, only calling her out on her record and her policies. He didn’t use any dirty tricks against her, and quite appropriately called out the investigation into Hillary’s e-mails a Republican-orchestrated circus. He won’t make an independent run for the White House, which would only split the Democratic vote. This whole episode will likely mean Bernie going out of politics in a blaze of glory, his one last contribution to the progressive moment. It is just too bad it will have been unsuccessful.

Still, there is hope in the fact that a self-declared socialist ran for the Democratic nomination this year and had some success. It just goes to show that, while the status quo may triumph in the end (with a Hillary victory in November), we still live in an unsettled world. As long as that remains true, there is still hope that we can, from the ruins of the old one, create a better and more equitable world for ourselves and future generations.

 

Trump: More a Feeling Than an Ideology

“I mean, say what you want about the tenets of National Socialism, Dude, at least it’s an ethos.”

320px-donald_trump_muralI have been thinking about this quote from The Big Lebowski a lot lately as I’ve tried to imagine what the policies of a possible Trump administration would look like. Although he has been consistently labeled a fascist, a subject I have discussed here before, the problem is that Trump is essentially an opportunist, first and foremost. He was pro-choice before he was pro-life. He endorsed Democrats before he became a Republican. Just on the campaign trail alone, he’s done 180 degrees on a number of issues, from Afghanistan to Planned Parenthood to military spending. When he makes campaign promises, he never supplies much in the way of specifics. How is he going to get Mexico to build a wall across our border? How is he going to hunt down and kill the family members of ISIS fighters? None of that matters; it is all red meat to his followers, who eat it all up happily.

Why? If Americans are so fed up with gridlock in Washington, D.C., why would so many of them throw their support behind a candidate whose entire agenda is a non-starter, whose stances on the issues are so blatantly nothing but smoke and mirrors?

At the risk of sounding cynical, image matters more than substance. Trump exudes an aggressive, enthusiastic energy that conveys the idea he is “winning” at life and that, under his leadership, the United States will be “winning” as well. We live in a culture of personality, where personal magnetism and risk-taking matter more than honor and integrity. He is the quintessential extrovert in a society that caters to extroversion. Whatever his record in business, Trump is a salesman — and a celebrity salesman at that, more than experienced at selling himself as the product.

This is why Trump was so fatal to the Jeb Bush campaign. Bush was the frontrunner before160px-governor_of_florida_jeb_bush2c_announcement_tour_and_town_hall2c_adams_opera_house2c_derry2c_new_hampshire_by_michael_vadon_17 he ever entered the race for the 2016 Republican nomination, the establishment choice with the elite political pedigree. Moreover, he was a candidate with a good character — eager to talk about the issues, reticent to engage in dirty political attacks. However, Trump’s entrance into the race meant that personality mattered more than character. Whatever his positives, Bush came across as colorless and mundane, much as the constantly awkward Mitt Romney did in 2012. Whether we like it or not, most people are attracted to dynamic people, not people who are “low-energy” — no matter how intelligent or qualified they might be.

I am not the first person to make this comparison, but to understand the appeal of Trump, it is helpful to look at the rise of Silvio Berlusconi, the media tycoon who became the Italian prime minister several times between 1994 and 2011. Like Trump, Berlusconi enjoyed great political success despite making vulgar and controversial remarks, such as by calling Muslims “inferior” and asserting right-wing female politicians are more attractive than left-wing ones. (This is to say nothing of the sex parties he hosted with underage prostitutes, which — to my knowledge — Trump has not done.) Yet the most interesting overlap is in the circumstances of their respective rises to power.

silvio_berlusconi_29-01-2008Italian society is notoriously corrupt. But in 1992, an exceptionally massive scandal erupted known as tangentopoli” (translated “bribesville”) that brought down the entire political order of Italy that had existed since World War II, effectively destroying the major parties of the left and right. Berlusconi’s political benefactor fled into exile in Tunisia to avoid a prison sentence. Consequently, Berlusconi entered politics as an “outsider,” someone untainted by the corruption permeating government (despite his having participated in it). With his charisma and media savvy, he made his competition appear stale and impersonal as well as venal and untrustworthy. He turned Italian politics into a form of entertainment, drawing in an electorate who wanted this larger-than-life maverick to succeed against the odds of unimaginative bureaucrats.

We haven’t experienced anything on the scale of “bribesville” in the United States, but dissatisfaction with the status quo has never been higher. Economically, Americans are worried about their retirement and their children being less well off, and continue to fear that globalization and free trade carry more risks than rewards (for example, the loss of American jobs to China.). Culturally, many conservative Americans are alarmed by numerous issues: African-American discontent over police brutality, America’s changing demographics, the “war” on Christianity, same-sex marriage, the resurgence of political correctness, to say nothing of Islamic terrorism, the government banning firearms, and so on. For many Americans, the country — and the world — is changing in ways they just do not like. Trump, with his can-do attitude, promises that he will reverse it all — no matter what it takes, however unrealistic it may seem, no matter who he offends. In fact, the more offensive and over-the-top he is, the more appealing he is, because he draws such a distinction between himself and the dispassionate, pragmatic Powers That Be.

In many ways, Trump’s base parallels the people in European countries flocking to far-320px-nvu-ede-dsc_0036right, anti-immigration parties like the Sweden Democrats, Jobbik in Hungary, France’s xenophobic National Front, Britain’s UKIP, and so on. As Dutch political scientist Cas Mudde points out, Trump is unlike the leaders of these parties, because they tend to downplay their extreme positions and appear more like “acceptable” politicians, whereas Trump eagerly breaks the mold, much like Berlusconi did. But in terms of the voters who support these European parties and Americans who support Trump, there are a lot of similarities. Both sets of voters feel threatened by immigration and the “loss” of a traditional national identity. Both sets feel voiceless, unrepresented by parties that embrace diversity and reject old fashioned nativism and chauvinism. Both sets reject tax-and-spend socialism, but favor economic nationalism that only increases the wealth and prosperity of their own country (through subsidies and tariffs, if necessary). Both sets want to protect benefits and entitlements, but only for hard-working members of the national majority, and not for “welfare frauds” and “shirkers” (and this is almost always a dog-whistle referring to poor ethnic minorities, especially immigrants).

Trump’s main opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, do not fit with these demands. Cruz 320px-marco_rubio_with_supportersis a big-time social conservative, and he does well among some evangelicals, but he’s a right-wing ideologue who a promotes laissez-faire economic vision that conflicts with the anti-free trade, anti-globalization Trump viewpoint, to say nothing of the fact that he’s an abrasive figure known for dirty tricks. (One of the more amusing running jokes to come out of this election so far is that Cruz is the Zodiac Killer.) Rubio is even less appealing, with his history of moderation on immigration and Hillary-esque pandering to young people. Grudgingly, the Republican Party has attempted to move away from its image of “rich white old guys,” and Rubio is the embodiment of that effort to appeal to young, non-white voters who are nevertheless still conservative. In a normal election year, he would probably be doing very well. Unfortunately for Republicans, this year is not a normal one.

I remain optimistic that, if Trump does win the Republican nomination, a moderate Republican will nevertheless triumph in the general election: Hillary Clinton. As much as I dislike her record and her policies, they are still more palatable than the thought of having our own American Berlusconi.

The History of Pro Wrestling and Labor Relations

There is a great article today up at Jacobin magazine about labor relations and professional wrestling. Go read it: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2014/08/money-in-the-bank/

I grew up a fan of professional wrestling, cheering the cartoony characters of Hulk Hogan, the Macho Man and the Ultimate Warrior in the 1980s. In the 1990s, while living overseas in the Middle East, one of the most popular US cultural imports was “Attitude Era” wrestling featuring Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. For awhile, wrestling hit the headlines because of serious topics like steroid abuse and the hard physical toll taken on performers’ bodies (anyone familiar with Mick Foley knows what I mean).

But comparatively little attention has been paid to wrestlers as workers. Existing a nebulous space somewhere between athlete and entertainter, pro wrestlers must contend with the contant injuries and exhaustion of professional sports players, while also striving to be as charismatic and engaging as a musician or movie actor. Despite these demands, they have no union and do not collectively bargain; their contracts favor management by a large margin. Most are taken on with speculative deals with no benefits or guarantees, and almost all of them live in constant fear they will be cut without any sort of ceremony, forced to return to the independent promotions where they have to depend on unreliable bookers for mere handfuls of cash in order to take huge amounts of punishment in front of small crowds of notoriously fickle fans.

Regardless of what you think about their profession, wrestlers are people too, and they deserve respect and fair working conditions and contracts. Jacobin and the article’s writer, Dan O’Sullivan, deserve a lot of credit for shining the light on an often marginalized and trivialized industry.

“Refugees” and “Illegals”: Our Dehumanizing Discourse on Migrants

One of the peculiarities about the modern age is that it is possible to see the same issue framed in two very different ways almost simultaneously. Since October, the U.S. Department of Homeland Security has detained more than 50,000 unaccompanied children attempting to cross the southwestern U.S. border after traveling from El Salvador, Honduras and other Central American countries. Government officials place most of the children in congested detention centers as they scramble to process and deport the migrants back to their nations of origin.

This morning I came across the following picture:

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I do not know which is the more provocative claim: that the influx of migrants to the United States is secretly a jihadist plot or that the Rio Grande has apparently completely dried up. Of course, crazy right-wing propaganda such as this is nothing new, and most people can share insane e-mails forwarded to them by their grandparents making similar outlandish and inaccurate claims. It is, however, fascinating to compare the message of the image with even just the headline of this NPR story: “U.N. Urges U.S. To Treat Migrants As Refugees.”

On the one hand, you have the narrative that brown-skinned Spanish-speaking non-Americans are lining up to be catapulted (literally) into the United States to steal jobs and commit crime, contrasted with an approach that treats the issue as a humanitarian crisis, with the migrants involved to be treated as human beings fleeing terrible conditions in search of a better life. Unfortunately, I do not need to tell you which of these portrayals prevails when dealing with this topic.

In Murrieta, CA, the mayor of the city called on residents to protest the transportation of recent migrants to a U.S. detention facility, depicting the migrants as a threat to public safety. Throngs of right-wing protestors descended on the city and succeeded in diverting three buses away from the facility. Rather than the Statue of Liberty calling out for the “huddled masses” that greeted new arrivals at Ellis Island, the migrants at Murrieta received vitriol and hate from a mob that believed only criminals and parasites sat within those buses, instead of children who had yet to fully form actual identities.

One might think that it takes a special kind of monster to make it their mission to spew loathing at children, but Hispanic migrants in the U.S. are so frequently dehumanized467px-Ellis_Island_arrivals and degraded in popular discourse that it should come as no surprise. The very term “illegal immigrant” (sometimes shortened to just “illegal”) defines migrants as fundamentally felonious, a mere life support system for the concept of law-breaking. With migrants so defined, to advocate for their interests is to promote injustice, to be “soft” on crime – even when that “crime” walks, talks, and has a family. If you refer to them instead as “refugees,” however, this brings forth feelings of compassion and humanitarian intervention. However, thanks to the power of language, people fleeing war and extreme poverty in Darfur or Kosovo are “refugees,” but people fleeing war and extreme poverty in Central America are not.

The difference? “Refugees” in Africa and Eastern Europe are removed from our immediate lives, sad pictures and video clips only encountered on the evening news. Our assistance is also minimal (“For just pennies a day…”) or militaristic (bombing Serbia into submission), and therefore more digestible somehow. The Latino “illegals” on our doorstep, however, require that we actually care for them, feed them, shelter them, grant them human rights and – dare I say it – live among us. The poor souls wept over by Jeffrey Sachs and Angelina Jolie, fought over by Tony Blair and Bill Clinton, somehow cease to matter when they inhabit the bodies of our national neighbors to the south.

This is despite the fact (or perhaps because) the U.S. can claim much more responsibility for what has happened in Central America than in most other places ofFrente_Sur_Contras_1987 the world. After all, the U.S. acted as a major player in the civil wars that tore apart El Salvador, Nicaragua and Guatemala in the 1980s. That noted spendthrift, Ronald Reagan, provided more than $4 billion in economic and military assistance to the army of El Salvador, which in turn kidnapped and “disappeared” more than 30,000 people. Death squads massacred thousands of innocent people, all in the name of putting down left-wing guerillas. Most infamously, a U.S.-trained unit killed six Jesuit priests for daring to work on behalf of the impoverished, meaning they must have been sympathetic to communism. In Nicaragua, the Reagan administration backed the contras to the tune of $1 billion, with the CIA encouraging contra leaders to kill, kidnap, rob and torture civilians to bring down the Sandinista government. In nearby Honduras, the U.S. government essentially created a puppet state to serve as a staging ground, while also using government entities like Battalion 3-16 to commit extrajudicial killings of local Marxists. In Guatemala, the U.S.-backed military dictatorship there killed more than 200,000 people over 35 years of bloody tyranny. If conditions in these countries are so rotten that their people are fleeing to come here, we should acknowledge that we are responsible for that suffering.

Obviously, dealing with our awful legacy in Central America cannot be resolved overnight. But there are some simple ways the U.S. could improve how it is handling the treatment of migrant children. As a recent report by Human Rights Watch proposes, the U.S. should only detain unaccompanied children as a last resort, releasing them as soon as possible. They should have access to legal representation and guardians that will look out for their interests. Ideally, they should not face screenings with heavily armed Border Patrol officers, but professionals trained to interact with children should conduct the required screenings.

As to our larger social tendency to dehumanize Hispanic migrants and our collective amnesia regarding our involvement in Central America, those are subjects that will only be discussed once they are brought out of the shadows and confronted. Since it is easier to wave a U.S. flag and shout nationalist slogans than it is to come to terms with harsh truths, that is not likely to happen anytime soon, unfortunately.

New Year, Old Orthodoxy: On Marx, Myerson, Rolling Stone and Redistribution

One of my resolutions for 2014 is to be more open about my neo-Marxist principles. 320px-Marx_head_pageMost of my friends and peers know about my dirty secret, but there are nevertheless many times where I find myself referring to my ontology as that of an “economic structuralist” or some other innocuous appellation that does not conjure the intellectual baggage of Stalinism, the Soviet Union and Siberian prison camps. Perhaps I am subconsciously insecure about people instantly writing me off as a naïve utopian who unwittingly supports genocide or I am understandably reticent to get dragged into heated conversations about why it actually isn’t insane to be a self-identified Marxist in the 21st century. At any rate, it can be hard out there for an out-of-the-closet socialist.

Just ask Jesse Myerson. Last weekend, Rolling Stone published an article he wrote entitled “Five Economic Reforms Millennials Should Be Fighting For.” These reforms are: full employment for the population, an unconditional basic income, a land-value tax, the redistribution of capital income and publicly-owned banks that actually serve the public interest. In response, conservative pundits swiftly condemned the proposals as the wishful thinking of a blissfully ignorant college socialist who just doesn’t “get” the real world. A handful of more moderate individuals admitted that some of these ideas were not insane, although they nevertheless expressed skepticism and, in the case of Josh Barro of Business Insider, distanced themselves from Myerson because his “political aspirations” are communist and, therefore, bad and crazy.

As has been noted in many places, none of Myerson’s suggested reforms are particularly extreme or even especially Marxist. Full employment, at one point, used to be a valued cornerstone of Western politics, at least until the 1970s. Unfortunately, despite all the bellyaching we hear today about “scroungers” collecting unemployment benefits and thus having no motivation to seek work, there does not appear to be any impetus at all for government programs based around putting jobless people into public works or public service jobs. The fact is we have a crumbling national infrastructure, with roads and bridges in desperate need of repair, and plenty of states have fired teachers, police officers, and social workers, despite woeful education statistics, rising crime rates and rising poverty. A very similar argument is articulated over at the well-known Marxist-Leninist newsletter, The Economist.

The Economist has also in the past expressed some reserved support for a universal basic income, noting that it would help many Americans escape poverty and make them less dependent on the low wages and limited benefits (if any) provided by their employers. The Economist notes that a universal income would not on its own eradicate poverty or erase income inequality, but when you combine it with Myerson’s guaranteed jobs and the retention of existing social programs, the pitfall of treating universal income as an economic panacea is avoided. Admittedly, even with a combination of assured income and qualified welfare benefits, some people would still manage to end up in rough times. Still, at least they would be there because of their own choices rather than the contractions and busts of market forces.

On the land value tax proposal, I actually disagree with Myerson and in agreement with, funnily enough, Karl Marx. The idea of taxing land actually originated with Henry George, and Marx was no fan of Georgism and his attempts to “purify” capitalism. If you think about it, land is a God-given resource that should be in the ownership of all, and while taxing it may seem like a nice way to capture the wealth of landowners to redistribute it, it would also hit poorer people like small farmers whose assets are primarily land rather than intangible investments (which make up the bulk of wealthy people’s assets). I have greater endorsement for Myerson’s proposal of communal land ownership and reject Barro’s objection that “governments are not very good at being real estate developers.” This argument does not really address the fact that most private landlords are also terrible at developing and maintaining real estate and that at least governments (if admittedly more in theory than in practice) are more accountable to the people than real estate magnates like Donald Trump and most predatory landlords are.

Concerning income inequality, Matt Bruenig at Demos has argued that it is on the rise in the U.S. because owners of capital are capturing more and more of the national income while less and less is going to workers. Redistributing that income is a daunting prospect in any policy design, but Bruenig sees promises in Myerson’s suggestion of sovereign wealth funds, where the government collects capital income earnings and then supplies citizens with some of the wealth. Again, Barro cries foul, appealing to poor financial regulations and the potential for government mismanagement of state revenue. Yet, once more, these reservations have nothing to do with the policy in question but rather symptoms of the status quo. There is no reason to believe that, if we ever reach a point where we adopt Myerson’s reforms, we cannot also at the same time massively improve our financial regulatory apparatus and bolster transparency and government accountability when it comes to spending. The government already wastes tax revenue on illegal wars and mass surveillance; at least with reallocating income it would be a risk for a good cause.

Finally, when it comes to publicly-owned banks, Barro again dips into the “government pathologies” bucket and expresses concern about waste, bureaucratic redtape and320px-War_of_wealth_bank_run_poster something akin to the Spanish “slush fund.” Again, the answer lies in building accountability and transparency into the system: making transactions public, who is buying what, what sellers are making, and so on. Honestly, it is risible to convey anxiety about the behavior of a potential public bank when private banks have been notorious for hiding information and making shady deals. Indeed, much of the present crisis can be placed at the feet of banks that were behaving badly behind closed doors. Moreover, how many times do we hear about the U.S. Department of Justice making settlements with banks to dare to disclose such trifling details like, say, which of their clients were breaking the law? Public banks would not be perfect, but far better than what we have.

I could pick apart Myerson’s proposals for pages, but what I really find most galling about the buzz surrounding his article is the smug, condescending attitude that “kids these days” just want stuff without working for it and, living in our bubbles, we simply do not understand that free market economics constitute the “end of history” and that, warts and all, the current system cannot be improved upon. The hard truth is that many millenials (including yours truly) ended up living with their parents after college because of the worst fiscal crisis since the Great Depression caused by this very confidence that the neoliberal strain of capitalism had prevailed above all paradigms, that widespread deregulation and tax breaks for the wealthy was the answer, and that a rising tide for the richest among us would end up lifting all boats. In the end, we ended crashing against the shores of the current epoch, in which young people are laden with debt, lucky to find a job right out of school and are more dissatisfied than ever with a political system that does not represent their interests and seems intent on debating just how drastically to ensure that the decades ahead will be ones of intense austerity and greater hardship.

What seems crazy to me is not that people like Jesse Myerson are daring to propose reforms so outside the mainstream, but that so many people continue to defend a “conventional wisdom” that has so consistently and catastrophically failed.

As an aside, Macy’s reported recently that its sales increased by 3.6% in November and December. As a growing “job creator,” they decided to close multiple stores and fire 2,500 employees. Yay capitalism!