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.

Continue reading

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.)

Dream Diary: “Mailer”

On an October evening in Massachusetts, Norman Mailer sat down at his typewriter and, with a few short paragraphs, defined an entire school of criticism that would remain dominant for half a century.

I awaken on my sofa. All of the windows in the house are open, and I forget if they have screens. I sense that someone has entered during my nap, that I hear a noise coming from the hall. It was not dark when I dozed off, but it is dark now. I stand up and stretch, my fear beginning to well.

The evidence of Mailer’s gift, of course, was that he himself never returned to the style that would make him famous. A few short paragraphs, a pagelong manifesto written hastily in the scope of an evening at the age of 26, then he would spend the rest of his career moving in and out of other styles. But in a single piece of criticism, Mailer had written paragraphs so electric, sentences so crystalline and bold, that he would never be matched, or even approached, by any of the ten thousand imitators that were to come.

I walk down the hall. All of the lights are on but there are shadows, in which something could easily lurk. I am starting to panic. In the kitchen, there are three windows, all open wide to the night sky. Not even pausing to see if they have screens, or if the screens are intact, I pull each of them shut. I dart through the house, closing every window. But with every one I close, I only seem to grow more afraid.

The most fitting aspect of all, perhaps, was Mailer’s chosen appellation for that dazzling voice, the one he spoke in for a single page and then never again. He wryly called it “The New Escapism.” And truly, he could not fully realize how well it applied. For what is striking, reading those five hundred words again, fifty years after they were written, is the feeling that one is having one’s very own thoughts gathered up by a burglar and ferreted away. That one is running about, frantically closing windows, but that Mailer has taken one’s every original thought, and condensed it into a single word or phrase. This brings along with it a certain fear; the fear that if one does not stop Mailer before the sixth paragraph, he will have made all further thought irrelevent; the very reason for mankind’s continued production will have vanished. Perhaps we should be greatly relieved, then, that he restrained himself from ever speaking again in this singular voice.

I notice a flash in the corner of the study; something bolts for the window. It is the last one open, and I am at it within seconds. I slam it down hard, but it is too late. Down the path I see a shimmer, and I can just make out the faint outline of Norman Mailer, bounding away and grinning.

Nope, Still Not Socialism

I recently added myself to the ranks of those pointing out that Bernie Sanders, despite calling himself a socialist, is not voicing socialist principles. Socialism is antagonistic to capitalism, whereas Bernie Sanders believes in a regulated form of capitalism on the Nordic model. I am one among many to make this point, though I also forcefully insisted that this means Bernie Sanders must either be unaware of the definition of socialism or lying about it.

Now, the liberal Columbia historian Eric Foner has written an article in The Nation, in which he offers Bernie Sanders some advice as to how to talk about socialism. Ostensibly, Foner agrees with Sanders’s socialist critics, saying that when Bernie Sanders defines “democratic socialism,” he should not simply say the word “Sweden” over and over, but should look to the tradition of real American radicals such as the Indiana socialist Eugene V. Debs. Foner points out that we have a long tradition of uncompromising left-wing politics in America, from Tom Paine to the abolitionist movement to the Populism of the early 20th Century.

But, oh dear: even though he is ostensibly encouraging Sanders to embrace actual socialists, when Foner goes to define it he literally uses the Sanders definition, in which socialism is a more egalitarian form of capitalism. Here’s what Foner says:

As to socialism, the term today refers not to a blueprint for a future society but to the need to rein in the excesses of capitalism, evident all around us, to empower ordinary people in a political system verging on plutocracy, and to develop policies that make opportunity real for the millions of Americans for whom it is not. This is what it meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs, the great labor leader and Socialist candidate for president who won almost a million votes in 1912. Debs spoke the language of what he called “political equality and economic freedom.” But equally important, as Debs emphasized, socialism is as much a moral idea as an economic one—the conviction that vast inequalities of wealth, power, and opportunity are simply wrong and that ordinary people, using political power, can produce far-reaching change. It was Debs’s moral fervor as much as his specific program that made him beloved by millions of Americans.

Now, here’s the sort of rhetoric that Bernie Sanders uses already:

If we are honest in striving to be a moral and just society, it is imperative that we have the courage to stand with the poor, to stand with working people and when necessary, take on very powerful and wealthy people whose greed, in my view, is doing this country enormous harm.” – from speech at Liberty University

Today, we live in the richest country in the history of the world, but that reality means little because much of that wealth is controlled by a tiny handful of individuals. The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time. – from

It’s already exactly the sort of thing Foner is suggesting; it’s virtually indistinguishable. So Foner is not in fact asking Sanders to newly embrace the beliefs of the great American radicals. In fact, literally all Foner is asking for is more references to William Jennings Bryan instead of Norway. It’s just pure nationalism; Foner is not suggesting a more uncompromsing set of principles, but simply giving practical political advice. Foner thinks it’s good strategy to draw on American figures, since American politicians should be wary about praising Scandanavia, due to the longstanding national suspicion that everything European is vaguely bland and effete.

Lest anyone be snookered into thinking Foner is correct in viewing Eugene Debs as somehow sharing Sanders’s view of socialism as a friendlier form of capitalism, let me now call to the stand: Mr. Eugene V. Debs, who administered a ruthless thrashing to the Foners/Sanderses of his own time:

These people, mostly honest, imagine themselves Socialists — that is, in a mild, not a malignant form. They have decided that there is no class struggle, and now they propose to determine whether or not to organize a new party — that is to say, whether or not capitalism will abolish itself. If a new party should be decided upon, it must not be partisan. Can any sane person conceive of such a monstrosity? Think of the wolf and the lamb in loving embrace, the fox and the pullet dancing a two-step and the lion and the ox scouting the class-conscious doctrine over peaches and cream, while the ass mused, “I have long been waiting for this party of ‘all the people.’” Socialism was born of the class antagonisms of capitalist society, without which it would never have been heard of; and in the present state of its development it is a struggle of the working class to free themselves from their capitalist exploiters by wresting from them the tools with which modern work is done. This conflict for mastery of the tools is necessarily a class conflict. It can be nothing else, and only he is a Socialist who perceives clearly the nature of the struggle and takes his stand squarely and uncompromisingly with the working class in the struggle which can end only with the utter annihilation of the capitalist system and the total abolition of class rule. We count every one against us who is not with us and opposed to the capitalist class, especially those “reformers” of chicken hearts who are for everybody, especially themselves, and against nobody. While I believe that most of these “reformers” are honest and well-meaning, I know that some of them, by no means inconspicuous, are charlatans and frauds. They are the representatives of middle class interests, and the shrewd old politicians of the capitalist parties are not slow to perceive and take advantage of their influence. They are “Socialists” for no other purpose than to emasculate Socialism. Beaten in the capitalist game by better shufflers, dealers, and players, they have turned “reformers” and are playing that for what there is in it. They were failures as preaches and lawyers and politicians and capitalists. In their new role as “reformers” they dare not offend the capitalist exploiters, for their revenue depends upon their treason to the exploited slaves over whom they mourn dolefully and shed crocodile tears. I respect the honest effort of any man or set of men, however misguided, to better social conditions, but I have no patience with the frauds and quacks who wear the masks of meekness and in the name of “brotherhood” betray their trusting victims to the class that robs them without pity and riots in the proceeds without shame.

Is it worth my pointing out that by portraying Debs as a mere “opponent of inequality” and supporter of “political equality and economic freedom,” Foner is abrogating his duty as a historian? That when he says a gentle respect for equality “is what [socialism] meant in the days of Eugene V. Debs” he is telling a massive fib? That he is almost certainly distorting the historical record of Debs’s views because doing so will advance Foner’s own liberal political beliefs? Is it worth pointing out the unbelievable irony of him attempting to use Debs’s legacy to further precisely the kind of reformist politics that Debs himself explicitly denounced in the strongest possible terms? 

Let me conclude with some true statements, amid this thicket of confusion over socialism that liberals seem to be exerting considerable effort to create. Eugene V. Debs was a socialist. Socialism means an end to capitalism. Bernie Sanders does not want to end capitalism. Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. Eric Foner does not want to end capitalism. Eric Foner is not a socialist. Eric Foner either doesn’t understand Eugene V. Debs, or is intentionally downplaying Debs’s radicalism for political purposes. And the most incontrovertible fact of all: with every additional sentence Eric Foner writes about Eugene V. Debs, Debs rotates in his grave with ever-increasing velocity.

The Dumbest Email I Have Ever Received

For some reason, when you have a blog, strangers often send you emails to argue with you. (Predictably, every single one of these strangers is male. Also, if you do not reply to these emails, the strangers sometimes send follow-up emails chastising you for your rudeness.) Many of these make me grumpy, if only because the strangers instantly launch into the harangue and never try to introduce themselves or offer to meet for lunch. But sometimes I am glad to receive them, such as when I receive a piece of correspondence of such breathtaking idiocy that it can provide me with a source of self-satisfied mirth for the entire rest of the day.

Two days ago, the amusingness reached a new all-time high, with an email from a man who described himself as an “Objectivist” (Uh-oh.) Our correspondent took issue with an argument I made about capitalism and individualism, in which I recommended providing a universal basic income, so that the creative geniuses (such as Prof. Longhair, Buddy Holly, and Brian Wilson) who have had to compromise their art for financial reasons would be free to more fully carry out their visions.

Our objectivist, however, not only disapproved of requiring a basic income, but said that:

This is quite literally slavery.  You are advocating for the literal enslavement of those who are judged non-geniuses, in order that the material needs of geniuses be provided for.

Naturally, this puzzled me, since I did not remember coming out in favor of enslavement in the post. But I double-checked to make sure. Sure enough, all I had said was that we ought to provide everyone with a basic income. It was thus easy enough to reply to my objectivist friend, through the clever two-part argument “(1) No, it isnt. (2) No, I’m not.”

Surprisingly enough, he did not feel his position to be devastated. He emailed me again (they always do) and clarified that the reason I was advocating slavery was that I was advocating something that would be funded by compulsory taxation, and:

If you’re talking about *compulsory* taxation then yes, you’re talking about enforced slavery. The essence of slavery is that someone is forced to work without profit to themselves – it matters not whether you appropriate the fruits of their labour beforehand, or afterwards.

Now, one preliminary point is that I didn’t speak of compulsory taxation, for the simple reason that I think people should help each other out voluntarily; my preferred plan is for the rich to all realize they are monsters and surrender their wealth so it can be put to good use.

But look at this argument! Look at it! Every single tax is morally indistinguishable from slavery. Thus nearly everyone in the United States, and around the world, is presently enslaved. It’s not my basic income proposal that’s slavery, it’s literally anything ever funded by taxes.

By the way, just so we’re clear where the flaw is here: when you are enslaved, you can be punished or killed for not working. When you are taxed, nobody punishes or kills you for not working. Crucial distinction. My correspondent says this is meaningless, because everyone has to work in order to live, so taxes are unavoidable. This is hilarious, because my basic income proposal is precisely so that they don’t have to work in order to live. Thus, as my correspondent implicitly acknowledges, capitalism is slavery, because only under capitalism must we work or die.

Now, look, it’s not worth paying even a second’s more attention to the argument here. As I say, this really is the dumbest email I have ever received. But it’s worth examining as a documentary exhibit of one of the most dangerous tendencies in libertarian thinking: the belief that property and personhood are the same thing. A lot of free-market libertarians insist that one’s property is an extension of one’s self, and that to harm someone’s property is tantamount to harming them. But see where this leads you. It leads you to believing that filling out your tax returns is exactly the same being mercilessly whipped every day of your life by an overseer. This kind of thinking makes me furious, because of the way it trivializes what slavery actually is. Slavery is a condition in which the individual’s body is in the complete control of others. One has no freedom of movement, no access to knowledge, and is the subject of relentless violence. Let’s remember that being a slave meant being beaten, burned, and murdered. That it meant toiling in brutal heat for the entire duration of your life, and it meant total subjection to the will of someone who despised you and thought you an animal. That it meant having your children seized and sold, having your spouse raped, or being raped yourself.

So when free market types make these fatuous arguments about how giving up a percentage of their income so that poor people can have health care is slavery, let’s make sure they are treated with the disgust they deserve. Making this argument is equivalent to Holocaust denial; by trivializing the brutality of slavery, and comparing to the condition of 21st-century rich white men, it falsifies history and absolves an unforgivable crime. Anyone who dares to make this argument, which is false, offensive, and poisonous, should be treated with the same degree of credibility as Ernst Zundel or Robert Faurisson. If you argue that taxes are slavery, you are lying about what slavery is. Libertarians should be extremely worried that a position morally tantamount to Holocaust denial is alive and well in their communities.

Why I Am Not The Khmer Rouge

Recently I wrote an article abstract on the Social Science Research Network that people rather liked. The paper, which as of right now does not exist (to the disappointment of the many people who emailed me asking for a PDF) is entitled “Can Philosophy Be Justified In A Time Of Crisis?” and is summarized as follows:

In this paper, I take the position that a large portion of contemporary academic work is an appalling waste of human intelligence that cannot be justified under any mainstream normative ethics. Part I builds a four-step argument for why this is the case, while Part II responds to arguments for the contrary position offered in Cass Sunstein’s “In Defense of Law Reviews.” First, in Part I(A), I make the case that there is a large crisis of suffering in the world today. (Part I does not take me very long.) In Part I(B), I assess various theories of “the role of the intellectual,” concluding that the only role for the intellectual is for the intellectual to cease to exist. In Part I(C), I assess the contemporary state of the academy, showing that, contrary to the theory advanced in Part I(B), many intellectuals insist on continuing to exist. In Part I(D), I propose a new path forward, whereby present-day intellectuals take on a useful social function by spreading truths that help to alleviate the crisis of suffering outlined in Part I(A).

This managed to attract the attention of Charles Murray (of Bell Curve infamy), who called it “the best academic abstract I have read in years” though said he suspected the full paper was “leftist pap.” One interesting aspect of the Murray response is that nothing in the abstract advocates or suggests any kind of leftist politics, other than the suggestion that human beings ought to oppose the existence of suffering. And if the contemporary right believes “suffering is bad” to be some kind of soupy left-wing precept, this doesn’t do much to undermine the left’s view that conservatism is a philosophy of unqualified pitiless evil.

One response to the abstract I found surprising was the allegation that my thesis paralled the fundamental beliefs of Pol Pot. This was mentioned on Twitter and in some online comments. The Khmer Rouge were known for the mass extermination of all perceived “intellectuals,” eventually taking it to the extreme of murdering anyone wearing glasses. (With certain exceptions, of course; Pol Pot had been known to occasionally sport a pair of spectacles.) But despite the infamous Khmer contempt for intellectualism, the comparison did rather surprise me. Is it worth pointing out the difference between responding to a problem by advocating self-improvement and responding to a problem by exterminating everybody involved? Evidently it is. Stalin and I could both think Russia needs industrializing, but the difference between his plan for getting it done and my own would be several million corpses.

Perhaps, though, it is worth heeding the caution. Anti-intellectualism is just prejudice against nerds. The problem with the Khmers was not just their bloody policy solution, but their hatred of professors to begin with. Perhaps. But I think there’s hating professors, and there’s hating professors. The Khmers viewed all learning with suspicion; they were at wore with knowledge itself. I, on the other hand, love knowledge, and think the academy is largely its enemy. I don’t want to eliminate learning, what I want to eliminate is intellectualism, i.e. useless pontificating. I believe that if knowledge is not put toward a purpose, then it’s no more valuable than my counting the number of bubbles on a piece of bubble wrap.

This was missed, not just by the the “Pol Pot”-shouting nutcases but by a lot of the abstract’s viewers, that I was attempting to reorient the pursuit of knowledge rather than getting rid of it. A lot of people said “Why did you write this paper if you hate academic papers?” (And I did make a couple of self-deprecating jokes about that supposed irony myself.) But those people didn’t read what I wrote; there was no irony or hypocrisy. I advocated that knowledge should be made with “useful social functions” in mind, oriented toward the relief of suffering. So if I believe that by writing something exhorting my colleagues to start being useful, I will be improving our chances of reducing suffering, then I am clearly justified in writing the paper even under my own theory. Of course, people thought that by saying intellectuals should cease to exist I meant scholars should cease to exist, but this precisely proves the point that they are incapable of imagining a world in which scholarship is not mere intellectualism, and they cannot disentangle wisdom from intellectualism.

Nobody Believes In The Rule of Law

For some time, all sorts of people have professed to believe in something called “the rule of law.” They mean different things by this; some refer merely to the equal application of the law to all people, others believe that this principle means even unjust laws must be enforced. But the concept of the “rule of law” came to life vividly recently, when a Kentucky court clerk defied the Supreme Court’s requirement that marriages be issued to same-sex couples. For this, she was given some time in jail for contempt of court, as well as a meeting with the Pope.

When this happened, many liberals (who do not agree with this clerk about same-sex marriage) began to justify the clerk’s jailing on the grounds that she had violated the law, specifically her oath of office. At Esquire, Charles Pierce talked about the importance of oaths, and Noah Feldman did the same at Bloomberg View. This made many conservatives rightly guffaw, noting that they had never heard liberals praise uncompromising enforcement of the law (and imprisonment!) before that moment.

These conservatives were correct. Liberals wanted to see the clerk jailed because she was standing in the way of same-sex marriage, which they believe people are morally entitled to. But nobody really believes in the “rule of law” or the unbreakable sanctity of oaths. As the conservatives pointed out, liberals are perfectly okay with the violation of laws when it comes to sanctuary cities defying federal immigration laws. (Jonathan Adler of the Washington Post desperately insisted there was a difference, saying that under the Constitution, the federal government cannot require local governments to enforce federal law. But Adler should answer the question of, if the Constituion did require local governments to follow federal law, he would then believe San Francisco completely wrong in refusing to chuck immigrants out.)

Nobody believes in the rule of law absolutely. Or, at least, hardly anybody does. Nobody would believe that the Nuremberg Laws, assuming they were lawfully imposed, should be enforced. There is always a scenario in which people can imagine justifying civil disobedience (if a law was passed requiring me to murder my best friend, everyone who professes a belief in the rule of law would also come up with an explanation for why it was acceptable to refuse.) Okay, but what about oaths? When the clerk defied her oath to uphold the law, veryone on the left suddenly started issuing sanctimonious paens to the inviolability of the great Oath Of Office. Those who defy their oaths belong in jail.

For people like Noah Feldman, this is not an especially unforgiving principle, since one can always resign rather than uphold the oath. If you stay, you’ve got to abide by your oath; if you don’t want to enforce the laws, you don’t belong in a job where you have to enforce the laws.

But again, let’s see if that principle always holds. Say I am a judge in a dystopian state. A law is passed saying that, due to the state’s ongoing difficulties in stemming population growth, all orphans are to be collected and disposed of. As a judge, it is my job to enforce this law; orphans are brought before me, my job is to find them guilty of remaining alive in violation of the law (which they are), and to order their death sentences.

Or at least, that is my “job” as far as the letter of the law goes. In reality, I know that I could perfectly well get away with setting the orphans free and pretending they never came into my courtroom. This would be in complete violation of my oath, since the law explicitly says I cannot do this, and I have sworn to uphold the law. But I could do it, and I could save the lives of many orphans.

Now, I’m sure Noah Feldman and Charles Pierce do not believe I should order the orphans killed. (In fact, I asked Prof. Feldman whether he agreed with Justice Antonin Scalia’s position that judges who oppose the death penalty should resign. Prof. Feldman said that he did, if they felt that carrying out the law would fundamentally conflict with their moral principles.) The question, then, is whether I am duty-bound to resign (and simply let someone else send the orphans to their deaths instead of me), or whether I should defy my oath and save the orphans.

I am actually not sure how many people would say I should resign. But I think that resignation, in this instance, is clearly an immoral alternative; the consequences of my act are no different than if I had given the death sentences myself, and I’m refusing to stop a series of murders that I could easily have prevented at no cost to myself, all because I feel wedded to the oath. My hypothesis is that in the extreme case, most people would agree with me. A judge in Nazi Germany, if they know they can save Jews, should save Jews. Their oath is trivial when set against this harm.

But if it’s true that we all mostly agree that there are circumstances in which a law could be so brutal and unjust that one would be justified in defying one’s oath of office in order to mitigate its unjust consequences, the whole rule of law edifice has collapsed. Because now it’s just about drawing a line between when an issue is so important that the oath doesn’t matter, and when it isn’t. And it’s because liberals think same-sex marriage is a good thing that they believe the oath takes priority, not because they think an oath must always be upheld no matter what.

Now, I agree that the clerk should have given the same-sex marriage licenses. But my view has nothing whatsoever to do with the “rule of law” and the oath of office; I simply believe that the clerk is homophobic, and that discrimination against gay people is wrong and therefore should not be done. And I believe that in order to keep discrimination against gay people from happening, a state is sometimes justified in using force (although I would suggest that other alternatives be tried first.)

But I will never say that I believe the clerk’s job was to uphold her oath. That’s because I know there are circumstances where I would feel justified in defying an oath of office in order to avert a heinous consequence. And if I believe that, then I cannot have an absolute insistence on oaths; I must measure whether the reason for defying the oath is itself a morally sound one. Liberals don’t believe the clerk’s reason fit in that category, but that is a substantive moral determination rather than a procedural one. Defying an oath is wrong, if one is defying it in order to discriminate against gay people. Defying an oath is not wrong, if one is defying it in order to save a life. (“But,” I hear the critic squeal, “there is a difference between the justice of disobeying and the justice of punishing the disobeyer. It was nevertheless just to punish the clerk, regardless of the morality behind the defiance. Alright. But you’d better not be queasy at all about MLK; I want to hear you say “It was just to imprison Martin Luther King for parading without a permit.” And if you come up with some reason why that law wasn’t legitimate to begin with, you’d still better be fine with taking the principle to its extreme. “It would be just for Stalin to execute a judge who refused to carry out a purge, if the law required this punishment.” And if you are unwilling to say this, a distinction must be drawn as to why the enforcement is just in the one instance and unjust in the other.)