“So You’re Saying That We Should…”

When I write things online, strangers frequently send in angry responses. Most of these responses just consist of remarks like “this is the dumbest argument I have ever heard.” I actually like these responses, because they don’t attempt to undermine anything I’ve said. But by far the most frustrating form of reply comes in the “so you’re saying” format. This occurs when a person replies to a thing I have said by suggesting that I have said something else.

Here are some examples of points I have made, and the “so you’re saying” responses I have received:

“Democrats should pay more attention to the economic concerns driving Trump supporters’ anxiety and fueling their xenophobia.” “So you’re saying that we should ignore their xenophobia?”

“The Clintons are deeply unpleasant people with rotten politics and few moral convictions.” “So you want Trump to win?”

“You should vote for Hillary Clinton, because she is the better of the two possible options.” “So you no longer think Clinton is bad?”

“If it weren’t for the decision made by 500 Nader voters, Bush would not have won in 2000.” “So you’re saying you don’t think it was Gore’s fault as well?”

“The widespread prevalence of guns has negative social effects.” “So you believe in gun control.”

It’s not that the “so you’re saying” response is never logically valid. If I say “I don’t believe it’s ever morally right to kill another human being” and you say “So you’re saying you don’t think it would be right to kill Hitler to stop the Holocaust,” this is a perfectly fine reply. After all, if I really don’t think it’s ever right to kill someone, then I have implied that I don’t think it’s right to kill Hitler to stop the Holocaust. When the “so you’re saying” actually draws out some implication contained within the original assertion, it’s an important means of clarifying whether the person really meant their original assertion to be so sweeping, or whether they would add some qualifications.

But in the above examples, the “so you’re saying” statement is in no way implied by the original statement. Believing that guns have negative social effects does not necessitate a support for a new federal gun control measure. Believing that more attention should be paid to economic problems does not mean that xenophobia is not important.

This is truly an elementary point. And yet I am barraged by these responses every time  write online, so that I have to suspect that the people who make them are not operating in entirely good faith. I don’t think anyone who replies this way has made a careful effort to understand what my argument is. They’ve just seen me advance a position that they viscerally associate with other positions that they dislike.

The “so you’re saying” tendency is unfortunate, because it gets in the way of productive discussion. Instead of responding to arguments that are being made, you respond to arguments that are not being made. And we continue to talk past one another, incapable of resolving our differences. So when you tell someone “so you’re saying,” you should first ask yourself whether they are really saying that.


Current Affairs!


An incredibly exciting announcement. I’m now the editor of Current Affairs magazine, a new political periodical (in print!) It’s the project I’ve basically hoped for my entire life. I’m coordinating an incredible team of writers and editors, and we’re going to put out something that’s refreshing, hilarious, and bold. It’s going to focus on political commentary and cultural analysis, but it’s not going to be dreary and it definitely won’t be predictable. I’d love it if you’d consider subscribing. For 30 days, we’re holding a Kickstarter campaign in which we’re trying to raise $10,000. If we can do that, the first issue will be mailed out in January. It’s going to be beautiful, intelligent, and fun, I promise, and I just know you’ll be incredibly pleased with your subscription.

Visit our Kickstarter page here to buy your subscription. Also, check out our website, currentaffairs.org. And you can follow us on Twitter or like us on Facebook. The Kickstarter has all kinds of additional information about the magazine, including a video of me sitting in front of a flamingo.

I’m going to be merging this blog into the Current Affairs website soon, which is where all my writing will go. In the meantime, we need subscribers!

Watching Liberalism Flail

Yesterday I wrote some unkind words about Prof. Eugene Volokh of the UCLA law school, who nauseates me. Today I would like to point out something he has written that is correct.

(It was necessary to condemn him yesterday, because I knew that today I would write about something that I agree with him on. And I find his beliefs so sickening, so antithetical to everything I treasure about human beings and the world, that I cannot possibly speak his name without making it clear just how far I stand from him, and how dearly I long for a time in which nobody thinks like he does.)

In the Washington Post, Prof. Volokh draws attention to a recent occurrence at New York University’s law school. In the wake of a Halloween ball at the school, the student Mental Health Law and Justice Association sent the following open letter:

During last night’s Fall Ball, which was organized by NYU Law’s Office of Student Affairs, there were video projections on the windows inside of Greenberg Lounge of silhouetted people engaging in what we can only imagine were intended to be “spooky” activities. One of the images projected displayed a man dying by suicide. Because MHLJA follows the recommendations of the American Foundation for Suicide Prevention to not discuss suicide methods and firmly believes in publishing content that is safe for all members of our community, we will not provide any more details about the projection. However, members of our organization do have photographs of the images, should your administration need corroboration. Suicide is the second leading cause of death on college campuses. Worldwide, someone dies by suicide every 40 seconds. For members of our community who have lost someone to suicide or who have had personal experiences, this topic is not a Halloween gimmick… Our campus should be a safe space for all members of our community, particularly those who are most vulnerable. Violence and the difficult mental health challenges people face are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle… We also encourage all students who may have been triggered yesterday to visit NYU Counseling and Wellness, located at 726 Broadway, 4th Floor, Suite 402. Walk-in hours are available today from 10am to 6pm, Saturday from 10am to 3pm, and Monday – Thursday 10am-8:30pm… Dean Belk and Dean Morrison, we urge you to issue a public apology to all members of our community who may have been triggered and ask that you make a commitment to ensuring that all future events, communications, and programs are verified to avoid harm to members of the mental health community and those whose lives have been touched by suicide. The Mental Health Law and Justice Association makes itself available to the administration to discuss how this can be achieved moving forward.

The school’s Latin American Law Students Association also issued an open letter, which included the following text:

Violence and the difficult mental health challenges of people are not a joke, a gimmick, or a spectacle. As a community, Latinxs* continue to experience significant rates of suicide and chronic depression.

*Because LaLSA is committed to fostering a safe and inclusive space for all members of our community, we use the term Latinx, pronounced “La-teen-ex”, as a gender-neutral alternative to the usual gendered designation of Latino/a and Latin@.

In his commentary on the letters, Prof. Volokh attempts to restrain his judgment somewhat. But it is evident that he finds them ludicrous. And based on the evidence of the letters, I agree with him.

Of course, a preliminary point is that it’s very difficult to actually know the situation we’re dealing with here. One of the eeriest parts of the Mental Health association’s letter is its refusal to actually describe the controversial images in question, except extremely broadly. Because they do not want to “discuss suicide methods” and want to offer “safe” content, they will not detail the thing they are actually upset about. I find this incredibly bizarre. First, it would be shocking to me if there was a conceivable situation in which describing the Fall Ball’s objectionable content made a student more likely to commit suicide. In fact, I cannot even conceive of a situation in which a slightly more detailed description would cause someone any harm whatsoever. Second, I think they may have misunderstood the Foundation for Suicide Prevention’s recommendation not to discuss suicide methods. Mentioning a broad type of method does not seem to me to be “discussing methods,” I think “don’t discuss methods” means “don’t go into detail about how to commit suicide, when potentially suicidal people might be listening” i.e. don’t describe how many of a certain pill one needs to take to guarantee death, or how to tie a noose. That’s quite different from “Don’t ever speak the word noose.” My suspicion here is really that the Mental Health Association does not actually suspect that describing the images will cause harm. In fact, it just realizes that any description will make the complaint sound utterly trivial. If the association really felt that any specifics would cause devatasting traumatic “triggering,” they could have simply included a warning that they were about to describe things some people might find disturbing. If you truly think words can be this harmful, just bracket it and don’t make people read the queasy part.

Because of the association’s refusal to actually disclose the evidence that makes their case, it’s therefore difficult to evaluate just how serious this thing was. (As a side note, one should be very worried and suspicious about any organization with a tendency to incriminate someone without being willing to disclose the details of what that person is said to have done. That’s kangaroo justice. “Trust me, it was bad” should never persuade anyone.) But by contrast with conservatives who criticized the NYU students (like the American Conservative, who simply wrote Halloween is supposed to be scary and transgressive, you morons!”), I think there could be legitimate grounds for complaint here. If the “images of a man dying by suicide” were, say, the photo of the falling man from the Twin Towers on 9/11, one could fairly claim to have had the Fall Ball ruined. Yes, Halloween is supposed to be “scary.” But it’s supposed to be cartoonishly, joyfully scary, not disturbing. It’s supposed to get us just close enough to death to get a creepy tingle, not so close that we can’t stop thinking about the mutilated bodies of the victims of violence. The 9/11 falling man would, indeed, cross a serious line, because it is far too vivid. But because of the Mental Health association’s refusal to discuss the content, I don’t know that this was anything like that.

do agree with the conservatives that applying a standard of sensitivity and safeness to Halloween is inevitably going to force Halloween out of existence. Halloween is a cultural ritual in which we engage the macabre and ghoulish, and if the macabre is inherently considered unsafe and disturbing, then Halloween cannot go forward. As a holiday, it simply isn’t compatible with the idea that people must be protected from all violent imagery, since Halloween costumes are bloody and monstrous and tasteless. The Mental Health association ought to be honest, and admit that by its principles, the very concept of Halloween is problematic.

There has been a lot of commentary in the press about the rise of “social justice” politics, with its rhetoric of “safe spaces” and “triggering.” Often this is from conservatives, who believe that it shows a liberal paranoia about perceived injustices, and a pathetic refusal by entitled young people to confront the hard nature of reality.

I do not quite share that analysis. I, too, believe that something pernicious has taken hold among liberal activists on college campuses. But I do not ascribe it to softness of spirit so much as political impotence and an excessive faith that ideas and language (rather than state and economic resources) are the realm in which power is allocated.

The contribution of the Latin American association is instructive here, I think. Recently, the term “Latin@” was adopted, instead of “Latino” or “Latina” because it was felt that using either of these terms excluded the other gender, while the “@” symbol cleverly incorporated both an “a” and an “o” in a single glyph. Now, that was a recent development, which was designed to add gender equality to language. But now even “Latin@s” is considered “gendered” and has been replaced with the (unpronounceable) “Latinxs,” which has not just achieved gender equality, but has thrown out gender altogether. Anyone caught using “Latin@s” in a “Latinxs” era is a bigot who is reinforcing gender binaries.

We can leave aside the practical question of how one could possible “degender” the rest of the Spanish language, which is fundamentally predicated on a gender binary between male and female words. I’ll leave that task to the NYU lawyers. I think what’s instructive about this is the delusion that adjusting words, and enforcing new language principles, is somehow an act of political consequence.

The left has been doing this for a long time. While a lot of what conservatives call “political correctness” is simply the belief that people shouldn’t use hurtful slurs, some of it seems to come from a position that adjusting language use can create justice. If we can just find the right words, if we can just eliminate words like “crazy” (for its ableism) or “Latino” (for its genderedness), we will be making a better world.

Of course, in its practical consequences, these adjustments do not make a better world. Instead, they make a world in which people who are not “with it” on all the latest fashionable terminology (who will disproportionately be the less well-off and less educated, unaware of the words that have newly been deemed offensive) will be made to feel bad. And they do literally nothing for the material conditions of the vulnerable populations they supposedly support, other than intricately readjusting the language about which such populations are spoken.

It’s telling, to me, that this comes out of NYU law school. I have a strong sense that many of the people of the Mental Health organization and the Latin American association will go to work in big law firms, and do very well for themselves. Thus this kind of activism, which looks for problematic content like gendered language and unsafe imagery, is a way for privileged people to reassure themselves that they are doing good, even while they in no way adjust the balance of political and economic power in our society.

As Prof. Volokh warns, it looks like this approach may be taking hold in the left. That’s deeply unfortunate, because it means becoming far more concerned with how we talk about things than the things we’re actually talking about. The Mental Health association will spend its energy trying to get the suicide picture out of the Fall Ball, rather than trying to actually get more resources to the mentally ill. The Latin American law students will decide whether an “x” is more just than an “a” or “o”; meanwhile the bigoted Donald Trump will coast happily into the presidency on a campaign demonizing Mexicans as rapists.

To see emails like these from NYU is to watch liberalism flail, to see intelligent, privileged law students refuse to recognize the real sources of the injustices they profess to hate. Sending emails like this may make them happy; it may make them feel as if they’ve done good work to denounce the Dean and demand an apology for the Fall Ball. But if they truly cared about mental health, or Latin American communities, they would quit playing inconsequential, childish games and start thinking about real harms rather than imaginary ones.

Prof. Eugene Volokh Is a Violent Sadist Who Fantasizes About Torturing People

I really, really don’t like UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh, who is now a popular writer for the Washington Post. I will never be able to get past my revulsion at something he wrote in 2005, which is one of the most bloodthirsty, psychopathic things I have ever read. Discussing the public execution of a murderer in Iran (under the heading “Something the Iranian government and I agree on”), Volokh wrote:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims’ relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he’d killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing — and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act — was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there’s a good explanation. I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

When others were horrified by Volokh’s position, saying they thought it would reduce their humanity to torture and kill someone, Volokh was utterly unmoved, saying “mere appeals to my humanity just don’t do much for me.” Volokh said he found such appeals “unpersuasive,” preferring the “laudable human impulse to avenge.” In fact, Volokh argued, in the case of a child murderer, even torturing and killing them was “ridiculously inadequate.” He professed himself baffled at the very idea that our humanity could be diminished by the ritual torture and killing of criminals. Those who believe that simply have a “moral instinct” he doesn’t share.

Of course, Volokh is correct when he argues that one cannot rationally persuade him to abandon his position. His moral instinct is that torturing someone to death can be, under certain circumstances, “laudable.” My own instinct is that it can never be. He cannot persuade me, because there’s no reason I should accept his proposition that vengeance constitutes justice, and I cannot persuade him, because there’s no argument I can give that would cause him to share my horror. He and I both operate viscerally and a-rationally; he viscerally wishes to torture and kill murderers, I viscerally find such an act sickening. (It is important to note, however, that when he says certain acts “deserve” to meet with savagery, he is talking out of his anus. Deserve according to what standard? According only to Eugene Volokh’s animalistic bloodthirst, and nothing more.) Of course, I’m not sure how many public executions Prof. Volokh has actually attended. I find it highly plausible that he’s mostly just a little boy engaging in violent daydreaming, and that if he were actually confronted with the task of throttling a shackled pedophile who had a 75 IQ, he would end up like Albert Camus’s father, who wanted to witness an execution and then began to vomit when he “discovered the reality hidden under the noble phrases with which it was masked.” Camus suggests that his father held the common belief that vengeance could bring justice, but that when it came down to it:

Instead of thinking of the slaughtered children, he could think of nothing but that quivering body that had just been dropped onto a board to have its head cut off.

But who knows, perhaps I’m overestimating Prof. Volokh’s distaste for bloodshed. Perhaps he really would enjoy it, and isn’t just emptily blustering from his office at UCLA. Out of fairness to him, I’ll give his sociopathy the benefit of the doubt.

(Amusingly enough, Prof. Volokh later “backed down” from his position solely on the practical grounds of “how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, [etc.]” He also conceded that his preferred execution methods definitely violate the Cruel & Unusual Punishment clause of the U.S. Constitution, which would create some complications. Yet despite acknowledging that his program of systematized torture faced a set of formidable practical implementation obstacles in the U.S. context, Volokh continued to stand by his firm belief in the justice of gleefully throttling people to death.)

Here we find the limits of argumentation. There is no way to resolve this moral dispute, as he says it’s a “battle of moral axioms.” But I intend to work toward a merciful world, and Volokh intends to work toward a vengeful one, and I hope people will come with me and he hopes people will come with him. And he disdains me and finds me unpersuasive, and I disdain him and find him unpersuasive, and neither of us is “right” in some cosmic sense but I think it’s factually indisputable that he’s an inhumane, violent sadist. (That’s by his own admission; he says he is “pleased” by slow throttling, and rejects “humaneness or squeamishness.”) So as long as he’s willing to accept that he’s an inhumane, violent sadist (but that he thinks those are underrated virtues), Prof. Volokh and I can agree to disagree.

Dream Diary: “Grapes”

“You’re acting like a child,” I told Paula Deen.

“That’s sexual harassment,” she replied, wrestling me to the ground.

From the corner, Wesley the Cynic made a joke about beige sedans, in reference to a racist jibe Paula had notoriously spoken the month before.

Once Paula was distracted by my removal of her toupee, Wesley and I began to devour the grapes that grew from the ceiling.

“We’ve lived here five years and never thought to eat the grapes,” I said, and we both burst into laughter.

How Do You Get Away With Writing Something Like This?

Some days I think I am not cynical enough. An item from the Washington Post, by a man named Ed Rogers, runs as follows:

FBI Director James Comey has made two recent speeches where he warns us there is an emerging trend of police officers standing down or demonstrating reluctance to engage criminals because they are worried about sparking a situation similar to the riots in Ferguson, Mo., and Baltimore. Comey’s comments do not fit the Obama administration’s narrative on crime, and drew criticism from civil rights activists, law enforcement unions and the White House. Well, what do these groups have in common?  That’s easy — they’re almost all Democrats, and they may be going down a slippery slope of promoting policies that have the effect of being pro-crime and anti-gun at the same time. Calling Democrats “pro-crime” may sound a tad harsh, but if you are for inhibiting police activity, causing fewer arrests and making mass releases from prison, what else would you call it? The politics of this issue are not fully formed, but if the Democrats don’t watch it, they run the risk of being the “pro-crime” party in the United States. 

Now, I always like to assume that people I disagree with are operating in good faith; that they are generally decent instead of malicious, and not trying to distort or propagandize but merely seeing things through a different lens. And so my instinct, with something like this, is to start to patiently explain why it’s wrong. The FBI director has said, without any evidence (he has “a sense”), that Black Lives Matter is causing the crime rate to rise. Ed Rogers quotes the FBI director as if his hunch is factual, then dismisses all criticism because the people making it are Democrats rather than because they’re actually wrong on the facts. Then, using his assumption that crime is increasing because of criminal justice reformers, which he still has no evidence for, Rogers concludes that Democrats are now a pro-crime party. (Note the way he dismisses police objections to the FBI Director’s suggestion: police = “law enforcement unions”; somehow police unions are now members of the radical pro-crime left!)

Oh, but Jesus, why bother? Why even bother? I could spend 10,000 words carefully unweaving and analyzing Rogers’s falsehoods. But what could possibly persuade someone who thinks his opponents are literally in favor of crimes, i.e. that Democrats like to see people get raped and robbed? That would make all Democrats basically callous monsters, which I think Rogers might even say they were. You can’t have a sensible discussion with someone like that; I’m willing to assume that he’s operating in good faith, but he’s assuming that my side wants people to be victimized by crime. 

Sometimes, when I read stuff like this, and get angry about it, my friends ask me why I pay any attention to it. “I mean, yeah, what do you expect?” they say.

“Well, this was in the Washington Post! That’s a major national newspaper!” I reply.  “What kind of editor publishes an assertion like ‘democrats have caused crime to go up and are pro-crimes’ and demands no factual support?”

“Yeah,” says my cynical friend. “I guess I don’t really have as much respect for the Washington Post as you do. And I don’t really spend much of my time thinking about what some right-wing dick said about Democrats.”

Look, my friend is right. I shouldn’t get exercised over this. The problem is that I am desperate to assume that the extreme cynical perspective, which is that even our major national newspapers will print any old shit, and that people on the right are often not sincere disagreers but manipulative fabricators, is not true. I really don’t want to accept that conclusion, because I think it’s cheap, and I think it’s very easy to dismiss your opponent by just scoffing “You’re not serious” than actually engaging with the substance of what they have to say.

But I’ve looked at the substance of what Ed Rogers has to say. He’s deliberately misstating what motivates criminal justice reformers, and he’s attempting to convince his readers that something he has no evidence for is true. His editor bears equal responsibility, for allowing someone to repeat such an outrageous claim without any documentation.

I don’t mean to be a cynic. I really don’t want to be one. I want to clearly and carefully dissect arguments, because people on the right say that leftists argue with emotion rather than logic, and dismiss them as evil without hearing them out. But I heard them out on this. And I saw no logic, no substance. Just an unproven assertion, and then denunciation and innuendo. I saw a person who is a high-ranking political commentator telling me that I like crime, for no reason other than that I think police should be slightly more disinclined to shoot black men in the forehead. What kind of dishonesty is this? How can I be expected to engage in sober-minded political discussion when this is the level we’re at? How can I keep myself from coming to the conclusion that people like Ed Rogers are operating in bad faith, and are shameless propagandists wilfully opposed to the truth? I can’t think of a way. The evidence is clear, and though I’m loath to admit it, people on the right really often are manipulative fabricators, and the media really will just print any old shit.

The Childish Christine Fair and the Necessity of Advocates

Christine Fair is a professor at Georgetown University’s School of Foreign Service. She holds a PhD from the University of Chicago, has worked for the United Nations, has an extensive publication record, and has been quoted in major news outlets around the world. It is fair to describe her, I think, as a serious public intellectual and a member of the academic and policy elite.

Prof. Fair is therefore extremely useful as a case study in just how childish, unpleasant, biased, and ignorant one can be while retaining significant influence and respectability, as well as a major academic post.

Let’s examine the facts, in order to determine whether my characterization of Prof. Fair is true. First, let’s start with a debate Prof. Fair had on the Al Jazeera television network with civil liberties activist and national security journalist Glenn Greenwald. In the debate, Mr. Greenwald took the position that United States drone strikes in Pakistan cause more harm than good, while Prof. Fair took the opposite position.

The debate did not go well. Personally, I attribute this in large part to Prof. Fair’s insistence on repeatedly interrupting each of the two other participants and refusing to wait until it was her turn to speak, but you should watch it yourself and make an independent evaluation. Let me transcribe a significant excerpt from the debate, so that we may examine and critique it together. It is long, but I think it’s a hell of a lot of (exasperating) fun. [I have tried to capture everything people said, but there was a significant amount of crosstalk.]

HOST: What do the leaked documents published by the Intercept tell us that’s new, that in your view strengthens the case against drones?

GLENN GREENWALD: What they do primarily is confirm what the people who live in the regions where the drones have been killing people have been saying, which is that far more often than not they’re killing people not who are the targets but who are actually innocent. [Our source has indicated that] 9 out of 10 of the people are not the targets. And you’ve heard this from people in Afghanist and and Pakistan continuously, you’ve heard this from researchers and scientists and other people who have studied it, that the reason we’re constantly turning more people into terrorists than we’re actually killing is because the anger and rage from these innocent victims is what causes people to then want to bring violence to the United States.

HOST: Christine Fair, you’ve called drones “the most successful tool the United States and Pakistan have to eliminate dangerous militants, but if 9 out of 10 drones strikes are not getting the people they’re supposed to, how is that successful?

PROF. FAIR: Actually, I’m going to push back on several things Glenn said. Many of the statements he just made are not empirically buttressed, many of the people who write about this actually haven’t been to Pakistan where the drones are actually used, and so you actually have this problem: we don’t know who was targeted and we don’t know who was actually killed. And I’m actually going to argue that this actually isn’t knowable with the tools that have been used thus far. [The conclusion of the journalist who has studied this in the most empirically defensible way is that] according to the locals themselves, about 90% of those killed were militants. So we have a big difference between those who are based in Lahore, the cosmopolitan elites, who view drones as a violation of Pakistani sovereignty and all the legal issues that get raised, but when you talk to the people who live in the proximity of the militants, they actually have a very different story.


HOST: Let Glenn respond.

GLENN GREENWALD: There’s actually a person who lives in the region, [Malala Yousafzai] who happens to be the winner of the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize,

PROF. FAIR: Who doesn’t know anything about FATA.

GLENN GREENWALD: She actually went to the White House…

PROF. FAIR: She knows nothing about FATA.

GLENN GREENWALD: …and spoke with President Obama, and what she said was not “Thank you so much for using drones to kill the militants who put a bullet into my head and are trying to suppress the rights of girls,” what she said in her statement is “I expressed my concern that drones are fueling terrorism. Innocent victims are killed and they lead to resentment among the Pakistani people. It’s the same conclusion from the NYU-Stanford study, and the lead reporter on the story in The Intercept on drones is Jeremy Scahill who has spent many years in all of the regions in which drones are used, including Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia…

PROF. FAIR: He’s not spent any time in Pakistan. This is fictional nonsense.

GLENN GREENWALD: He made a film that was nominated for an Academy Award. He wrote a 600-page book called Dirty Wars. There is abundant evidence that drones are killing innocent…

PROF. FAIR: No, there’s not.

GLENN GREENWALD: …people, you have to be pathological to deny it at this point.

PROF. FAIR: I guess all Muslim countries and all Muslim polities and all Muslim legal systems are the same to you. I actually bring nuance to this.

HOST: Well, Christine, let me put some nuance to you. The British government did polling in Pakistan’s tribal areas a few years ago. This is the British government on CIA drone strikes. They found, in the tribal areas, 59% of the public in 2010 said they were never justified. That went up to 63% in 2011. So the polling doesn’t quite support what you’re saying.

PROF. FAIR: No, no, actually, do you understand how polling… I actually do a lot of polling in Pakistan. What you find is that a lot of people don’t answer the question at all.

HOST: But the ones who do.

PROF. FAIR: Well, you’re missing the science of this. This is called “social desirability bias.” So, I’m going to argue that it’s very difficult to do this well because the person doesn’t know the person doing the survey work. Now, I also want to go back to the NYU report. I’m pro-choice. If Planned Parenthood did a study that talked about the benefits of abortion, we would immediately call the nonsense flag on that report. The NYU/Stanford study was supported, facilitated, in every way, shape, or form, by FFR [Foundation for Fundamental Rights] and Reprieve, which is an advocacy group avowedly against drones. They did not include any of the pro-drone voices.

HOST: The British government, though, are not an adovacy group against drones. So you dismissed the British government.

PROF. FAIR: No, no, what I’m saying, and again the nuance may not be appreciated here. Polling work in conflict areas is very difficult to elicit the truth because the person does not know whether the survey person in question is CIA, ISI, or a miltiant.

HOST: So are you saying we can’t know?

PROF. FAIR: I’m telling you we can’t know, but I want to go to the point of Ababil.

HOST: Very briefly.

PROF. FAIR: It is a very brief point, because this speaks to how some people view the drones which are very different from people like Glenn Greenwald.

HOST: Okay.

PROF. FAIR: You’re familiar with Surah Al-Fil in the Koran, where an army of elephants attacked the Ka’aba…

HOST: I’m worried this isn’t going to be brief.

PROF. FAIR: I’m going to tell you how brief it is. You should know the Koran, I’m presuming. Surah Al-Fil. So, the black swallows who dropped stones to repel the elephant army that was attacking Ka’aba, those who live in proximity to the terrorists, they call drones Ababil. So this is a voice that you folks try to exclude.

HOST: Glenn Greenwald, you’re not being nuanced.

GLENN GREENWALD: This is just rank propaganda at this point.

PROF. FAIR: [interrupting] It’s not rank propaganda!

GLENN GREENWALD: You have this mountain of evidence…

PROF FAIR: [interrupting] You don’t know data!

GLENN GREENWALD: …Are you capable of remaining quiet while other people speak?

HOST: Christine, let Glenn…

PROF. FAIR: [continuing to speak] Are you capable of even being truthful and using data?

HOST: Christine, let Glenn make his point and then I’ll…

GLENN GREENWALD: There is this mountain of evidence, you have…

PROF. FAIR: There’s no mountain of evidence!

HOST: Hold on! Christine, let Glenn make his point.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the NYU-Stanford study.

PROF. FAIR: Which is not a study, it’s advocacy.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the Bureau of Investigative Journalism.

PROF. FAIR: Advocacy.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the documents that were just provided to us by this source.

PROF. FAIR: Which is Afghanistan, not Pakistan.

GLENN GREENWALD: You have the statement of the 2014 Nobel Prize Winner…

PROF. FAIR: A 16-year-old girl!

HOST: Hold on, hold on, you’re not letting Glenn make his point.

PROF FAIR: Because he’s a liar. He’s a liar.

HOST: He’s quoting reports! You can respond to the reports when…

PROF. FAIR: These are not evidence, these are advocacy.

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One Wonderful Thing About America

I’m down on America a fair amount of the time. But one thing I love about it is that you don’t get things in the news like this item out of Britain, in which the novelist Martin Amis calls the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn “undereducated,” saying:

He is undereducated. Which is one way of putting it. His schooling dried up when he was 18, at which point he had two E-grade A-levels to his name; he started a course at North London Polytechnic, true, where he immersed himself in trade union studies but dropped our after a year. And that was that.’

Amis isn’t the only one to criticize Corbyn’s educational background, with the Spectator lamenting the fact that Corbyn’s cabinet has many members from universities other than Oxford and Cambridge:

Under Corbyn, the Labour party — once the clever party — has had a brain transplant. It’s out with the Oxbridge and Harvard graduates with first-class degrees; in with the red-brick university graduates. Or, in Corbyn’s case, a non-graduate. Corbyn got two Es at A-level at Adams’ Grammar School in Newport, Shropshire. He did a year of trade union studies at the North London Polytechnic before dropping out… Let’s not be snobbish. Those universities [Hull, Sussex, etc.] are good. But it isn’t snobbery to point out that they aren’t as good as Oxford or Cambridge — second and fourth respectively in the Times Higher Education World University Rankings, published last week. Hull is 401st equal. Jeremy Corbyn’s alma mater, now London Metropolitan University, doesn’t make the 800-strong list… [D]o we want our top politicians to be drawn from the lower ranks of academia? Labour was traditionally the intellectuals’ party. The late Denis Healey got a double first in Greats at Balliol, the brainiacs’ Oxford college. Harold Wilson got an outstanding first in PPE at Jesus College, Oxford, with alphas on every paper. Wilson became a lecturer at New College and a research fellow at University College.

Look at this rubbish! As the late Christopher Hitchens once so graphically put it, I couldn’t eat enough to vomit enough. (Here’s another one from the Telegraph, which posits that Jeremy Corbyn is “too thick” to be Prime Minister and laments that he didn’t go to Oxford like Martin Amis.)

Now, say what you will about America, but this kind of overt class snobbery is just not displayed here. (We can note with amusement that the Spectator insists it is would never be snobbish, by patronizingly acknowledging that non-Oxbridge universities can be “good,” before immediately posing the question of whether politicians should be drawn from the “lower ranks” of academia.)

Of course, in the U.S. it’s no less true that the graduates elite schools dominate the government. But it’s much less acceptable to announce some kind of principle that only the graduates of certain wealthy schools should be allowed into governmental office. In fact, it’s often taken as a point of pride that somebody “dropped out of school at age 9” or whatever, and then worked their way to some position. And people like George Bush are ridiculed for being thumpingly stupid despite having attended elite schools. I think there’s just a certain lack of conflation of “schooling” with “education” here. Many of our most respected intellects (Lincoln, Mark Twain, etc.) were relatively unschooled, and there is simply a much greater respect for autodidacts and the self-made here. As I say, it’s a bit of a lie, since we give lip service to equal opportunity and then simply reward the children of the elite. Nevertheless! At least the value we nominally hold would be sound if we acted upon it.

I really can’t believe that major newspapers in Britain can print this stuff. But then again, Britain is still a monarchy, still a country of bewigged jurists like “Lord Justice Laws.” In many ways, it still hasn’t escaped its feudal past. So there are still plenty of people there who believe failing your exams makes you a fool, instead of just making you someone who hates school because it’s a soul-killing conformity-factory of neverending mindless tedium. Elements of the British public have a hard time understanding this, because Britain itself as a country is, by many measures, a soul-killing comformity factory of neverending mindless tedium. It’s also a place where rank snobbery and class prejudice can be passed off as serious political commentary, and where somehow people who pride themselves on their superior intellects can spectacularly fail to see the shallow irrationality of their own elitist arguments.

I hereby swear not to write anything else about Jeremy Corbyn for a reasonable amount of time. 

How to Select Your Statistic to Reinforce Your Political Bias

This article in the British Evening Standard is a fascinating lesson in how to manipulate statistics to serve a political bias. The article is about the head of the Labour party, Jeremy Corbyn, who is extremely controversial because of his far-left socialist politics. A large portion of the narrative around Corbyn in the conservative British press has been that he is supposedly “too radical” for the country. The argument conservatives make is that by selecting Jeremy Corbyn as leader, the Labour party has discredited itself with mainstream voters and committed electoral suicide.

The Evening Standard article offers a headline that appears to offer hard data to support this conclusion. The headline reads: Dump Jeremy Corbyn before election, say 42% of voters, and the article indeed gives poll results showing that 42% of surveyed adults believed the Labour party should get rid of Corbyn. The first paragraph of the article also reports, accurately, that only 31% of people disagreed, meaning that more people think Jeremy Corbyn should go than stay.

But look at the chart reporting the statistics, for these are not the only numbers we have. There, we see that in a poll taken last summer during the tenure of Jeremy Corbyn’s predecessor, Ed Miliband, 49% of people believed Miliband should go, versus 30% that he should stay. Now, consider the fact that British conservatives believed Ed Miliband lost the election because he was “too far to the left.” These commentators, who include Tony Blair, believed that if Miliband was too far left for the country, then Corbyn was way too far left, hence the argument that a Corbyn leadership would take the party off a cliff.

But what the poll results in the Evening Standard show is that fewer voters want to get rid of Jeremy Corbyn than wanted to get rid of Ed Miliband. One could just as easily write an article with the same poll results using the headline “Corbyn already outstrips Miliband in popularity,” and write an article about how, despite having been in office only a month, Jeremy Corbyn has already managed to have more voters want to keep him than Ed Miliband, completely destroying the narrative that he’s more fringe than Miliband was.

The real place the bias of the Evening Standard shows, though, is in the way it reports the 42% statistic instead of the same poll’s measure of the satisfaction ratings for Jeremy Corbyn and Prime Minister David Cameron. As you can see in the chart, the poll asked whether people were “satisfied” with the way each was doing his job. For David Cameron, 42% were satisfied versus 51% dissatisfied. For Jeremy Corbyn, 37% were satisfied versus 39% dissatisfied. For both men, then, more people are dissatisfied than satisfied. But the chart shows that David Cameron has a favorability rating of -9%, while Jeremy Corbyn has a favorability rating of -2%. Cameron’s ratio of dissatisfied people to satisfied people is far higher than Corbyn’s.

These poll results are actually extremely encouraging for Corbyn. More than half the country thinks David Cameron is doing a bad job, while only 39% of the country thinks Corbyn is! Look at how many more people were undecided on Corbyn than on Cameron. 24% of people didn’t say satisfied or unsatisfied. That means that Corbyn has a huge opportunity to win people over who haven’t made their minds up about him yet. Cameron, on the other hand, faces the challenge of trying to recapture the opinions of the more than half the country that thinks he is doing a bad job.

Setting aside the fact that these numbers are actually hopeful for Corbyn, they certainly should make us far more cautious about concluding that Corbyn is some fringe radical who has turned off the entire electorate. That’s just clearly untrue. In fact, he’s viewed more favorably than David Cameron.

So what we can see here is the biased selection of statistics in action. The Evening Standard, a conservative newspaper, intentionally tries to manipulate its readers into thinking things are going worse for Corbyn than they are. They put the damaging statistics at the front, and bury the positive ones, because by doing this they can pretend that the “too radical” argument is correct, when it is in fact incorrect by their very own measures. This is propaganda, not journalism.

Note that I don’t think the headline should be “Corbyn’s favorability ratings exceed Cameron’s” either; choosing the pro-Labour statistic is just as bad. The balanced headline would say something like “Corbyn viewed less negatively than Cameron, but 42% of voters still want him to go.” But of course, that’s still a bit pro-Conservative, because that 42% is really pretty meaningless without context. Note that it’s a general poll of adults, not a poll of Labour supporters. So of course that 42% is probably going to be made up of a majority of Conservative voters. Some of those will want Corbyn to stay (because they think he’s unelectable) and some of them will want him to go (because he’s a socialist), but it’s really hard to give meaning to the 42% without more in-depth data. Probably shouldn’t report it as a headline no matter what.

(By the way, the Evening Standard is not alone in selectively reporting poll results to make them appear less favorable to Corbyn than they actually are. Richard Seymour has a breakdown of a similarly manipulative exercise that took place in the Independent last month, who reported that Jeremy Corbyn had “lost a fifth of Labour voters” without mentioning that many more people were likely to enter the Labour party because of Corbyn than leave it.)