Category Archives: The Sifted Bookshelf

book reviews

Equality on Earth

It is easy to proclaim all souls equal in the sight of God. It is hard to make men equal on earth in the sight of men.

James Baldwin

This week’s featured post is “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Rand Paul“.

This week everybody was talking about another police shooting

The initial report was very familiar: Sure, it was only a stop for a busted taillight, but the subject was a bad guy and he went for the policeman’s weapon. The cop had no choice but to shoot him, and he died in spite of everything the cops did to save him.

Then it turned out that somebody had a video. (Huffington Post imagines the news report we’d be reading otherwise: another justified shooting.) The policeman was in no danger, and after calmly gunning down the fleeing Walter Scott (“like he was trying to kill a deer” as Scott’s father put it), he makes no effort to revive him, but drops the taser Scott had supposedly grabbed next to the body.

So this time, it looks like justice is being done: the cop has been charged with murder. But doesn’t it make you wonder about all the other times a white cop killed a black suspect and there wasn’t a video? (In the last five years, police in South Carolina have fired at people 209 times, resulting in a handful of official charges and no convictions.)

ThinkProgress collects what the local police department said before they knew about the video: It’s eerily similar to what the police have said in a lot of other shootings that ultimately were judged to be justified. The Week concludes: Without the video “he probably would have gotten away with it.”

How many other cops have?

and 2016

After Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy on YouTube yesterday, it’s hard to remember that Rand Paul just announced on Tuesday. But Paul is an interesting candidate that some liberals are tempted to support, given his strong positions on civil liberties. However, Paul also carries a lot of baggage. I try to collect the good and the bad as I annotate his announcement speech.

One thing I will point out about Hillary’s video: Notice how deep into it you have to go before a straight white man shows up.

and the 150th anniversary of Appomattox

I’ve been pleased by how many historians have written anniversary articles agreeing with the point I laid out last summer in “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party“: the Civil War didn’t end at Appomattox; the planter aristocracy continued fighting a guerrilla war until the North finally withdrew its troops and let white supremacy resume. See, for example, Gregory Downs’ NYT article “The Dangerous Myth of Appomattox“.

Other articles have supported “Not a Tea Party’s” other main point: that the right-wing surge we are seeing today is a continuation of the Confederate worldview. For example: “Why the Confederacy Lives” by Euan Hague in Politico. And WaPo’s Harold Meyerson writes:

Today’s Republican Party is not just far from being the party of Lincoln: It’s really the party of Jefferson Davis. It suppresses black voting; it opposes federal efforts to mitigate poverty; it objects to federal investment in infrastructure and education just as the antebellum South opposed internal improvements and rejected public education; it scorns compromise. It is nearly all white. It is the lineal descendant of Lee’s army, and the descendants of Grant’s have yet to subdue it.


In “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” I described the Confederacy as a worldview:

The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries. … The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

For a contemporary example of the Confederate mindset at work, listen to a recent interview with Focus on the Family founder James Dobson:

I really believe if what the Supreme Court is about to do [i.e. legalize same-sex marriage nationwide] is carried through with, and it looks like it will be, then we’re going to see a general collapse in the next decade or two. I just am convinced of that. So we need to do everything we can to try to hold it back and to preserve the institution of marriage.

Same-sex marriage has been legal in Massachusetts for nearly a dozen years, and for almost a decade in Canada, with no visible evidence of any ill effects on society. You’ve got to wonder when Dobson and his ilk will start seeing facts and reality rather than their own apocalyptic nightmares. Probably never. If Dobson is still around twenty years from now, I imagine he’ll have rolled his disaster prediction forward to “in the next century or two”.

And what does “do everything we can” mean? Get violent, apparently.

Talk about a Civil War, we could have another one over this.

Because accepting social change is impossible. All forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified.

but I was reading two unrelated books

In the past I’ve reviewed the books Merchants of Doubt and Doubt Is Their Product, which describe the tactics by which corporations keep selling a product long after people start dropping dead from it. I found those to be very radicalizing books, but I doubt that many of my readers managed to finish either one. They’re each a slog, and they’re depressing.

Well, sometimes fiction can get ideas across more effectively than factual reporting (i.e., Uncle Tom’s Cabin). Paolo Bacigalupi is a post-apocalyptic young-adult sci-fi writer, known for The Wind-Up Girl, Ship Breaker and The Drowned Cities. (They’re good.) His new novel The Doubt Factory is set in the present and covers a lot of the same ground as the factual doubt books, but does it with action and characters.

The main character of The Doubt Factory is a high-achieving senior at an exclusive prep school who knows her Dad runs a public relations firm, but has never paid much attention to the specifics. Then she is kidnapped by a skilled gang of teens who have been orphaned by products that her Dad helped keep on the market. They release her, believing they have turned her to their side. But have they?

The plot raises issues about how you know what’s true and where your loyalties should lie. In the background are broader issues of privilege: How much should it bother you if your lifestyle depends on a corrupt system?

As a young-adult novel with political content, The Doubt Factory in a class with Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother and Homeland, which center on surveillance and privacy. In order to follow the story, you need to learn some facts about product safety and the ways corporations manipulate science and the media. But the book is a page-turner; like Doctorow, Bacigalupi never sacrifices the integrity of the story for political polemic.


I finally got around to reading Dallas 1963 by Bill Minutaglio and Steven Davis. It’s a well-researched month-by-month political history of Dallas from January, 1960 to the day JFK was killed.

Not a Kennedy-assassination book per se, it’s more about the rising tide of anti-Kennedy feeling in Dallas that culminates in the assassination. In some ways it resembles the movie Crash, where a swirl of loosely-connected tension seems fated to result in something bad, even if none of the characters can predict what it will be or who will do it. In the end (unless you buy one of the conspiracy theories) it was a left-winger who killed Kennedy, but afterward “Distraught women from all over Dallas are on the phones lines [to police headquarters]. Each one is sobbing, confessing to police that she is certain that it must have been her husband who shot the president.”

The striking thing about Dallas during the Kennedy years is how closely it parallels America as a whole during the Obama years: Instead of Obama, there’s Kennedy. He’s not a “real American” because he’s Catholic rather than black. Where Obama is supposed to be a secret Muslim who’s betraying America with his Iranian nuclear deal, Kennedy is supposedly a secret Communist who is betraying America to the Soviet Union in the Nuclear Test Ban Treaty.

Instead of the billionaire Koch Brothers, 1963 has billionaire H. L. Hunt. Instead of ObamaCare, there’s Medicare, which a Hunt-funded radio program says “would literally make the President of the United States a medical czar with potential life-or-death power over every man, woman, and child in the country.” (It fails in the Senate by two votes; LBJ passes it after Kennedy’s death.)

Rather than Louis Gohmert, Texas of 1963 has Congressman Bruce Alger, who says more-or-less the same things: “Kennedy is operating as chief executive without regard to the rule of law and is, indeed, substituting his own judgment and will for the exercise of the constitutional powers by the Congress and the people.” And right-wing author Dan Smoot echoes: “Kennedy, by Executive Orders which bypass Congress, has already created a body of ‘laws’ to transform our Republic into a dictatorship.”

There’s even an imaginary secret-in-Kennedy’s-past parallel to the Birther theory: a failed secret marriage before Jackie.

I come away with the impression that today’s political controversies really have more to do with right-wing pathologies than with anything President Obama has done. The Right has projected its hate and fear onto Obama the same way it projected onto JFK half a century ago.

Let’s hope Obama lives to tell the tale.


You’ll never catch up: The Oyster Review has its list of the 100 best books of the decade so far. How many books do these people read? I’ve read just six of the 100; at this rate there are 16 more every year.

and you also might be interested in …

Michael Brown’s legacy: Voter turnout in Ferguson’s municipal elections more than doubled, from 12% to 30%. The City Council is now half black.


Senator Tom Cotton of Arkansas says President Obama is exaggerating when he says that scrapping the nuclear deal with Iran risks another Iraq War (only worse, because Iran is three times bigger). An attack against Iran’s nuclear facilities would be simple.

It would be something more along the lines of what President Clinton did in December 1998 during Operation Desert Fox: several days’ air and naval bombing against Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction facilities for exactly the same kind of behavior.

And then Iran will do what? This is the kind of logic we often hear from fans of military action: We’ll hit them, and then that will be the end of it. Cotton is like the guy who has no intention of starting a bar fight, he just wants to punch that other guy in the nose.

Imagine instead that Iran surveys the world, picks out an American vulnerability somewhere, and hits back hard. Won’t Cotton be the first to say that we can’t let this stand and have to hit back harder yet? How many rounds of attack-and-retaliation will have to happen before he decides that only boots-on-the-ground regime change will end this threat?


A tangential thought about the CNN reporter who interviewed rural Georgia florists about whether they’d sell flowers for a same-sex wedding: There’s a class issue the reporter doesn’t see. When you ask professional-class people an abstract question, they usually picture themselves being nicer than they actually are. But working-class people generally imagine they’d be more rule-abiding.

So the florists say they’d have nothing to do with a same-sex wedding, because that’s the set of rules they were brought up with. If an actual same-sex couple came through the door, though, things might turn out differently. “Normally I’m against this kind of thing, but you seem like nice folks.”


Thursday, a Unitarian Universalist woman led a pagan prayer to open a session of the Iowa legislature. Some Christian legislators boycotted, while others turned their back on her.

The invocation is given in full at the Progressive Secular Humanist blog; it’s pretty benign other than calling on “god, goddess, universe, that which is greater than ourselves” rather than just the Christian God.

Don’t be fooled by the Religious Right types who say they just want government to respect religion. They have no respect for anybody else’s religion. They want their religion to dominate.


If you’ve been curious about the Apple Watch, The Verge has it covered.


WaPo’s Dana Milbank collects a number of recent red-state efforts “to dehumanize and even criminalize the poor”. Kansas, for example, has specifically banned the poor from using their benefits on cruise ships. Because, I guess, that was a common problem, and it wasn’t already covered by bans against using benefits out of state.

and let’s close with Mary Poppins

or at least, with Kristen Bell’s version of Mary campaigning for a higher minimum wage.

What Just Happened?

Prime Minister Netanyahu trashed President Obama, the peace process, and Israeli Arabs — and made a startling political comeback. Maybe it’s time Americans recognized that Israel has changed.


During George W. Bush’s first term, a lot of thoughtful foreign observers felt sorry for America and its good-hearted citizens. A fluke in our electoral system had allowed Bush to take office even though Al Gore had gotten more votes. Once in power, Bush turned out to be a radical conservative rather than the like-father-like-son moderate many voters had expected.

And now America wasn’t acting like itself at all: It was trumping up bogus reasons to start wars, creating a “law-free zone” in Guantanamo, torturing prisoners caught on the battlefield, and even imprisoning American citizens indefinitely without trials. How sad it must be for the peace-and-freedom-loving people of America, sympathetic foreigners thought, to see what was happening to their country.

Then we re-elected him.

Around the world, the shock of 2004 was the realization that the problem wasn’t him, it was us. Americans, or at least a majority of the Americans willing and able to get out and vote, liked this kind of government. Who could predict what we might do next? [see endnote 1]

That’s what came to my mind Tuesday when Benjamin Netanyahu was re-elected prime minister of Israel.

The spirit of 67. Like a lot of Americans (and in spite of my criticisms of Israeli policy on this blog) I have a deep and irrational affection for Israel. In June of 1967, I was an impressionable ten-year-old stuck inside with a cold and nothing to watch on TV but the Six Day War that was pre-empting all other programming. I was completely sucked in by the David-and-Goliath narrative all three networks presented as tiny Israel thrashed its much larger neighbors. What better fantasies could a housebound Midwestern Lutheran boy ask for than to be an Israeli tank commander kicking up sand in the Sinai, or a pilot screaming over the horizon and striking terror into Egyptian or Jordanian troops? [2]

In the decades that followed, Israelis were easy to identify with: They looked like us and dressed like us and talked like us. All the Israeli leaders who showed up on TV spoke marvelous English. They seemed so polished compared to Yassar Arafat, who always looked dusky and unshaven and foreign. Israel’s armed forces fought like ours, with tech and air power and a high value on each soldiers’ life. Their parliamentary system was more like the British, but that was OK too; it still had campaigns and elections and courts that enforced basic rights.

In high school, I had friends who had been to Israel, and others who wanted to go. They made it sound like such a magical place. Of the Arab countries, only Egypt piqued my interest, and then only the remnants of its dead civilization. Present-day Cairo or Baghdad or Damascus held no similar allure.

Through the 1980s, I paid little attention to the Palestinians. Sinai had gone back to Egypt in the prototype land-for-peace swap, and no doubt the West Bank would eventually be part of some similar deal. It was taking longer than I’d expected, and I wasn’t sure what to make of the new and expanding Jewish settlements [3], but peace seemed to be in everyone’s long-term interest, so I had little doubt it would eventually happen.

Since the 1990s, though, I’ve been increasingly bothered by the situation in the West Bank and Gaza. Even appreciating the complexities involved in resolving the problem, it’s hard for me to get past a basic sense of wrongness: This can’t go on. Something has to be done.

Israeli conscience. My main solace these last few decades has been that a lot of Israelis feel that same wrongness. For example, one chapter of Ari Shavit’s recent book My Promised Land discusses his military service as a guard at the Gaza Beach detention camp in 1991, and how he and his fellow soldiers struggled to cope. They know there is no real comparison between Israel and Nazi Germany — for starters, Israel isn’t out to annihilate the Palestinians — but they can’t help but feel the resonances.

And even N., who harbors strong right-wing views, grumbles to anyone who will listen that the place resembles a concentration camp. M. explains with a thin smile that he has accumulated so many days of reserve duty during the intifada that soon they will promote him to a senior Gestapo official.

I, too, who have always abhorred the analogy, who have always argued bitterly with anyone who so much as hinted at it, can no longer stop myself. The associations are too strong. They well up when I see a man from Pen Number 1 call through the fence to a man from Pen Number 2 to show him a picture of his daughter. They well up when a youngster who has just been arrested awaits my orders with a mixture of submission and panic and quiet pride. They well up when I glance at myself in the mirror, shocked to see myself here, a jailer in this ghastly prison. And when I see the thousand or so humans around me, locked up in pens, in cages. …

What makes this camp tick is the division of labor. The division makes it possible for evil to take place apparently without evil people. This is how it works: The people who vote for Israel’s right-wing parties are not evil; they do not round up youngsters in the middle of the night. And the ministers who represent the right-wing voters in the government are not evil; they don’t hit boys in the stomach with their own fists. And the army’s chief of staff is not evil; he carries out what a legitimate, elected government obliges him to carry out. And the commander of the internment facility is not evil — he is doing the best he can under impossible circumstances. And the interrogators — well, after all, they are doing their job. And it is, they are told, impossible to govern the occupied territories unless they do all this. As for the jailers, most of them are not evil, either. They only want to leave all this behind and get back home.

Yet in some mysterious way, all these nonevil people manage together to produce a result that is evil indeed.

Shavit is the great-grandson of one of the original British Zionists, and in his own way remains a Zionist, loyal to his great-grandfather’s Jewish humanism. (In an earlier chapter, he retraces his ancestor’s tour and tries to imagine what he saw and what he was thinking. [4]) He believes the Occupation is a cancer on the original Zionist vision, and it needs to end — not just for the sake of the Arabs, but also for the sake of the Jews.

But he is optimistic. The Zionist story, as Shavit tells it, has always balanced the need for the Jews to survive as a people with their need to survive as a moral people. The current moral challenge is nothing fundamentally new, and Zionists will figure it out as they always have.

The tension Shavit feels between morality and survival reminds me of a famous quote from Thomas Jefferson, who late in his life hoped for the eventual end of slavery but (fearing a race war if the slaves were freed) saw no practical way to bring it about:

We have the wolf by the ear, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let him go. Justice is in one scale, and self-preservation in the other.

I really want to believe Shavit, and to believe in the ability of Israelis like him to meet their moral challenge and shape a just future. But the politics of the Netanyahu era are hard to reconcile with his hopeful vision. And Jefferson’s Virginians never did figure out how to end slavery, did they?

Against democracy. Israelis deal with the contradiction between the Occupation and Israel’s traditional democratic values in two opposite ways: Some, like Shavit, come back from military duty with a determination that the Occupation must end. Others return with a weakened commitment to democracy, an attitude that is sometimes called “bringing the Occupation home”. It is psychologically difficult to serve in the territories, treating Palestinian Arabs as a subject population full of terrorists, and then in civilian life to see Israeli Arabs as fellow citizens with rights. Even Israeli Jews who oppose the Occupation can come to seem like a dangerous fifth column.

To appreciate the full anti-democratic ugliness of the Netanyahu era, read Max Blumenthal’s Goliath: Life and Loathing in Greater Israel. Blumenthal is a secular American Jew, the son of the former Clinton adviser Sidney Blumenthal. Like Shavit, Blumenthal mostly tells stories rather than argues. But the stories he tells come from the kind of Israelis you don’t usually see on CNN: Arabs and left-wing Jews, as well as members of the openly racist parties to Netanyahu’s right. [5]

Americans typically only notice Israel’s foreign policy, but Blumenthal calls attention to disturbing domestic laws that get little coverage in the American media. For example, the government has tried in a variety of ways to make it difficult for Israeli Arabs and their Jewish sympathizers to commemorate the Nakba, a day of mourning for the Palestinians driven from their homes in the Israeli War of Independence in 1948. [6]

On the Israeli left, there is an effort to boycott products made in the West Bank settlements they consider illegal. But a 2011 law makes promoting such a boycott a civil offense. Simply saying “I think people shouldn’t buy West Bank settlement products” in public could land you in court. Wikipedia summarizes:

The law states that individuals or organizations who publicize a call for an economic, cultural or academic boycott against a person or entity merely because of its affiliation to the State of Israel and/or to an Israeli institute and/or to a specific region under Israeli control, [my italics] may be sued civilly, in tort, by a party claiming that it might be damaged by such a boycott. The law also allows Israeli authorities to deny benefits from individuals or organizations – such as tax exemptions or participation in government contracts – if they have publicized a call to boycott and/or if they have obligated to participate in a boycott.

Some Israelis are ignoring the law and daring the government to enforce it, including the Hebrew-language Facebook page “Sue me, I’m boycotting settlement products.”

Most disturbing of all is a Netanyahu-supported and cabinet-approved bill that is still awaiting a final vote in the Knesset: the Nation-State Law, which would end the principle — often ignored by the government, but still occasionally invoked by the Supreme Court — that all Israeli citizens are equal under the law. Haaretz summarizes:

The legislation, which was originally drafted by right-wing MK Ze’ev Elkin (Likud), is an attempt to resolve the tension between the country’s dual Jewish and democratic character, as enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

It does that by defining Jewishness as the default nature of the state in any instance, legal or legislative, in which the state’s Jewishness and its democratic aspirations clash.

In December, Bernard Avishai put the issues bluntly in The New Yorker:

[T]his bill is about writing into the law old Zionist provisions that have morphed into racist and theocratic practices. It will make judicial correctives nearly impossible. … If it comes to an election, it will be best for democratic forces to unify, not only around what Israel does, but what Israel is. Israelis not in the thrall of settler fanaticism need to decide whether they want to be part of the democratic Western world or not. The Jewish nation-state law puts the choice starkly: a globalist Hebrew republic or a little Jewish Pakistan.

Conflict over this bill is part of what led Netanyahu to call for the recent elections. But contrary to his hopes for a clearer mandate, late polls indicated his party might control only 20 seats in the 120-seat Knesset, and that a more liberal coalition might get first crack at forming a new government by controlling 24 seats. [7]

Americans are used to political campaigns ending on a Mom-and-apple-pie note. No matter how radical his positions might be, a candidate closes with an appeal to the center, and attempts to prove to late-deciding voters that he’s not as scary has he’s been made out to be.

Facing defeat, Netanyahu did the exact opposite; he embraced more firmly the ugly side of right-wing politics. He came to America to rally Republicans in Congress against President Obama; he reversed his support for a two-state peace settlement with the Palestinians (and then flipped back after the election), leaving the world to wonder whether he has any plan for peace at all [8]; he warned the public of the “danger” posed by Arab voters “streaming in huge quantities to the polling stations“, i.e., using their legal rights as Israeli citizens; and he charged that a left-wing government might “follow orders” from the international community rather than defend Israel.

And it worked. In a stunning comeback, his party took 30 seats in the Knesset, which (combined with the vote for other right-wing parties) grants him another term as prime minister. During that term, he will know he owes his office to anti-Arab, anti-peace, anti-international-community, anti-democratic rhetoric.

What this means for Americans. There is still a large bloc of reasonable, humanistic, democracy-valuing, peace-loving Israelis. They are the ones that Americans are more likely to know: more likely to visit this country, more likely to write books published in English, more likely to appear on American TV, and so on. Similarly, Americans who visit Israel will probably spend most of their time inside a bubble of humanistic and democratic sensibility; their academic or business contacts will be largely drawn from educated, well-traveled classes where people yearn for “a globalist Hebrew republic” rather than “a little Jewish Pakistan”. [9]

But what this election should teach us is that those people are not the majority. The problem in Israel isn’t Netanyahu, it’s the electorate. That problem is not going away; it’s getting worse. Israel is drifting away from peace and democracy, with no turnaround in sight. [10]

Americans need to face that reality, and re-evaluate our policies in response to it. We can no longer blindly support the Israeli government, hoping that someday it will produce an Anwar Sadat, or even another Yitzhak Rabin or Shimon Peres. Those days are over in Israel.

President Obama may be starting to figure that out. If he takes any action based on that new understanding, he will come under a blistering attack from our own right wing. The rest of us will need to have his back.


[1] That’s my explanation for those huge and adoring crowds Barack Obama drew across Europe during his candidacy in 2008. It wasn’t his personal charisma or even the inspiring symbolism of a black president. Europeans looked at Obama’s popularity and hoped: “Maybe the most powerful nation on Earth isn’t crazy.”

[2] I remember a joke from that war: An Egyptian commander sees an Israeli soldier stick his head out from behind a dune, and sends five men after him. None come back. Then he sends twenty men, and none of them come back either. Finally he sends a hundred men. An hour later, one badly wounded soldier crawls back to report. “It was ambush,” he says. “There were two of them.”

[3] I am careful not to use Jewish and Israeli interchangeably, and in this case Jewish is the more appropriate term. Arab citizens of Israel typically are not welcome in the West Bank settlements, even ones their taxes helped build. According to the Jerusalem Post, “Few, if any Arabs live in Jewish settlements in the West Bank, and a surge of violence in recent months has persuaded some to leave those in east Jerusalem.”

The right of Israeli Arabs to live in certain parts of Israel is also controversial.

[4] If I met Shavit, I’m sure we’d find a lot to argue about. But he has written a really good book. It is not an argument, but a series of historical vignettes of the Zionist movement. (HBO is about to make it into a movie.) As Palestinian author Sami al Jundi recognized in The Hour of Sunlight, the way to bridge a divide is not to convince opponents with your arguments, but to engage them with your stories.

[5] In his closing chapter, Blumenthal spends time with young leftist Israeli Jews who can no longer live in Israel freely or in good conscience. He finds an active community of Israeli expatriates in — of all places — Berlin.

A more nuanced but equally disturbing account of Israeli society is a review of Goliath by anthropologist (and self-described “nice Jewish girl”) Callie Madhof.

Even though for ten months, I hadn’t expressed a single political opinion, I had also not hidden the fact that I’m not afraid of Palestinians or Palestinian towns and cities. Even in my role as a researcher, by simply being open to visiting and speaking to Palestinians, I had marked myself as leftist. In Israel, a lack of racist paranoia is in itself a political position.

These are the parts of Israel that most American Jews don’t see, and most Israeli Jews don’t see anything wrong with. As a book about Israelis, Goliath runs up against the problem that the reality it depicts is beyond a large portion of its potential readership’s imagination. Whereas Israel’s liberal critics ask what went wrong, or how we can salvage the Zionist dream, Blumenthal’s critique cuts deeper, settling in the rifts of contemporary Israeli society and following the politics of apartheid to their terrible conclusion. His is not a picture of a polarized society, but one that is frighteningly cohesive, as it moves ever closer to fascism.

[6] The closest American parallel would be the celebration of Indigenous Peoples’ Day in place of Columbus Day. In the U.S. this can be controversial, but is considered a clear expression of free speech. I can’t imagine Congress passing a law to harass such celebrations.

[7] Forming a 61-vote majority is even harder than it looks, because no Arab party has ever been included in a governing coalition, forcing would-be prime ministers to cobble together super-majorities of the primarily Jewish parties. (That’s what has given those tiny religious parties their clout through the years.) The Joint Arab List captured 14 seats Tuesday.

[8] Marc Schulman commented in the Times of Israel:

[W]e have always claimed that the Palestinians were the ones who were guilty of saying one thing in Arabic to their home audience, and something different on the international stage. Now … our Prime Minister has been caught brazenly doing the same thing.

My reading of Netanyahu’s support for a two-state peace plan is similar to my reading of his support for a “better deal” with Iran: He is always available to accept his enemies’ surrender, but has no interest in finding a mutually acceptable compromise.

[9] Imagine coming to America and visiting only Berkeley or Wall Street. You might go home thinking of the Tea Party as a noisy rabble that wiser heads will easily handle.

[10] Optimists will point out that the United States rejected Bushism in 2008. But that reversal did not come from any new understanding, it resulted from external shocks: the Iraq War turning into a disaster and the economy collapsing. To hope for a similar Israeli turnaround means hoping for similar external shocks.

The Other Half of American History

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told


In the U.S. history I learned in school, slavery is a MacGuffin. Two powerful groups of white men spend a century struggling over it, but what the slaves actually do never seems all that important.

That’s why people who don’t like to talk about slavery can claim that the struggle was about something else entirely: Tariffs or states rights or simple regional rivalry make great substitute MacGuffins, because the conflict is all that matters. From three-fifths and the Missouri Compromise and bleeding Kansas all the way to Fort Sumter, Gettysburg, and Appomattox, African slavery is just a plot device that gives white men something to fight over. So if you want to swap in some other plot device, feel free.

The postmodern focus on diversity and multiculturalism has added sidebars to that story: Frederick Douglass, Harriet Tubman, or a day in the life of a slave. And who was this Dred Scott that so many white lawyers argued about? Such human-interest features add emotional depth, if you’re into that kind of thing. But the real history of American history is still driven by white men: Thomas Jefferson, Henry Clay, William Lloyd Garrison, John Brown, John Calhoun, Robert E. Lee, Ulysses S. Grant, Jefferson Davis, Abraham Lincoln, and John Wilkes Booth.

Edward Baptist’s The Half Has Never Been Told: Slavery and the Making of American Capitalism turns that approach upside-down. In his telling, slavery is the story of America. The Pilgrims’ search for religious freedom or the injustice of taxation without representation — those might make good human-interest sidebars. But the spread of English-speaking people across North America is fundamentally about profit, and the profit comes from two primary sources: land stolen from Indians and labor stolen from Africans. Bringing those two together opened a spigot of wealth that white men struggled to control. In that story, the experience of the African slaves — how they lived, the work they did, the culture they built, and how they eventually got their story out — is key. It is a story of progress but not of triumph, and the story continues to this day.

Slave Capitalism. In addition to shifting the focus to slaves [see endnote 1], Baptist fixes another mistake: We tell the triumph of the industrial North and the end of institutionalized slavery as if it were the inevitable result of the inexorable forces of progress. In that version, Southern slave society represents the last gasp of dying feudalism, while the rising tide of capitalism and freedom propels the North.

But in Baptist’s telling, the South is every bit as capitalistic as the North. To Baptist, capitalism is just a way of managing property, and property can be whatever society wants it to be. Today, property can be a copyright, a trademark, or a slice of radio spectrum. Then, property could be people. [2] Capitalism doesn’t care.

Southern slaves were managed capitalistically, not feudally. Feudalism stratifies society, but each stratum is a community that has its rights and duties. Serfs live in serf families, who intermarry with other serf families on land that has been their home for generations. Serf communities may not have much military power compared to their lords, but by appealing to tradition and communal judgment, they can exercise considerable moral force. Serfs might be bound to the land, but neither they nor the land are property in the capitalistic sense; both are entangled by moral obligations that capitalism doesn’t recognize. [3]

In the old slave country of the Chesapeake, slavery could occasionally resemble feudalism, as master families and slave families lived side-by-side for generations. But Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina — the tobacco country — saturated with slaves early. From the Revolution onward, slaves were an increasingly important cash export, whose price fluctuated with the price of cotton. They might be raised in families and communities, but they were sold as individuals — ripped away from their wives, their husbands, their children, their parents — to wherever the frontier of the cotton country happened to be: first Georgia, then Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana, and finally Texas.

On the cotton frontier, slaves were simply chattel. They had no families or communities — at least not until later — and could be worked without regard to any moral judgments or human rights. Depending on market conditions, they might be expensive to replace. But they were all replaceable for a price.

Slave efficiency. One of the inevitable-triumph-of-the-North myths is that slavery was inefficient. The idea that free labor is vigorous and creative while slave labor is lazy and stupid was originally British propaganda. Britain banned slavery in 1833, as the rising political power of the working class made the dignity of labor a key talking point. Northern abolitionists picked up the British line, which was then adopted by Union propagandists and eventually by post-Civil-War historians.

It’s not true, and Baptist has the numbers to prove it.

In terms of cotton-bales-per-worker, no system of free labor (prior to the invention of the mechanical cotton-picker in the 1930s) ever matched the slave-labor system of the 1850s. What’s more, cotton productivity was rising at the beginning of the Civil War. It had been rising for decades at a rate of around 2% per year. That’s comparable to the rate of increase in the textile industry of Britain and the North, where machine power was replacing human power.

How did the Southern slavers achieve that astounding managerial feat? Did they have cotton-picking research institutes and extension services that trained slaves in the latest methods? No. They set individualized measurable daily production goals for each slave, and whipped slaves who didn’t meet them. Then they ratcheted up those goals year by year.

The slavers themselves had no idea how the slaves managed to meet the goals as often as they did; most slavers couldn’t have picked cotton efficiently if their lives depended on it. But the threat of daily whipping inspired the slaves’ ingenuity, and compassion led them to teach each other their best techniques. [4]

So no: purely economic considerations wouldn’t have ended slavery at least until the 1930s. And even then, the produce-or-be-whipped motivation system might have performed well in factories, mines, and the kind of crop-picking-by-hand that undocumented immigrant workers still do. Even today, any workplace where produce-or-be-fired is the motivating principle might work more efficiently under produce-or-be-whipped slavery. [5]

The Hidden Connections. Making slavery a MacGuffin and the slave experience a sidebar leads to a one-damn-thing-after-another telling of even the white half of American history. But Baptist’s approach restores the hidden connections between events, and creates a more unified tapestry. I’ll just give just two out of many possible examples: Haiti and Texas.

Haiti. In the usual telling, the Haitian Slave Revolt is only significant because it stokes Southern planters’ fears of a slave revolt in the United States. It’s not directly connected to any other important event, so unless you look it up, it’s hard to remember exactly when it happened.

But Baptiste situates it like this: Before its revolution, sugar-producing Haiti was France’s most profitable New World colony, with exports outstripping all of Britain’s American colonies put together.

The French Revolution created an opening for the Haitian slaves to revolt, and after Napoleon came to power, recapturing Haiti was key to his North American plans. The wealth of Haiti together with the strategic domination of New Orleans over the trade of the Mississippi watershed would be the basis for the expansion of French power throughout the vast-but-untapped Louisiana Territory. Perhaps France might even push the fledgling United States back from the eastern side of the Mississippi.

So Napoleon dispatched two armies: one to recapture Haiti and the other to base itself in New Orleans and prepare for expansion. But when the Haitians defeated the first army, the second was diverted to reinforce it. It was also lost. That massive failure convinced Napoleon to abandon the New World and sell Louisiana to President Jefferson.

So the next time you hear about Americans helping Haiti in some way, don’t think of it as charity. Think of it as repaying a significant debt.

Texas. In the Alamo Myth, the Texas Revolution is a battle for freedom against the imperial domination of Mexico. But actually, the 1824 constitution established after the Mexican revolution from Spain did away with slavery. The Southern slavers who had emigrated to Texas came up with a variety of dodges to keep their slaves, and figured Mexico City was far away. But when Mexico eventually began moving to enforce the ban, slave-holding Texans organized resistance, eventually declaring independence in 1836. So the Alamo really was a battle for freedom, but Jim Bowie and Davy Crockett were on the anti-freedom side.

Around the same time, President Jackson was fulfilling two of his major goals: Getting rid of the Second Bank of the United States and ejecting Indian tribes to the far side of the Mississippi. Removing the Indians opened up large regions for new cotton plantations in Alabama and Mississippi, while getting rid of the central bank initiated a free-wheeling period of American finance.

The result was a slave bubble, much like the recent real-estate bubble. Newly chartered Southern banks sold bonds in Europe collateralized by the mortgages they held — slave mortgages rather than home mortgages — and lent money to virtually any white man with a plan to buy slaves, clear former Indian land purchased cheaply from the government, and plant cotton. When the price of slaves sky-rocketed, that just made them more valuable collateral for bigger mortgages and more mortgage-backed bonds — just like houses in 2007.

Predictably, the world economy couldn’t absorb the sudden increase in cotton production, and falling cotton prices started the Panic of 1837 (conveniently after Jackson had left office). Suddenly, everybody wanted to sell assets for cash, banks were going under, mortgage-backed bonds were in default (leaving state governments on the hook), and lots of would-be cotton magnates had negative net worth. But unlike the houses of 2008, the slaves of 1837 were mobile. And there was Texas, an independent pro-slavery republic where the bankers couldn’t chase you down. All across the south, re-possessing bankers often found nothing but empty buildings and a sign saying “Gone to Texas”.

So the new Texas settlers had stolen black labor twice: once from the blacks themselves, and a second time from the banks and European investors who held mortgages on them.

Continuing illusions. The way we tell our national story affects the way we think about ourselves and our future. It remains far too easy to romanticize the antebellum South, and to replace the brutal abuse of an entire people with a few air-brushed memories of white slavers’ affection for their nannies or valets. (I would tear down every Civil War monument in the South. No one who fought for the slave empire is a hero.)

It is too easy to give the North credit for black freedom, ignoring the slave-trade profits, the Northern land speculators who helped slavery expand, the cheap cotton that made the fortunes of the New England mills, and the markets that Southern wealth created for fledgling Northern industries. Ignoring the African role in the origins of all American wealth makes today’s impoverished blacks seem ungrateful for their food stamps and welfare checks.

And it is too easy to see capitalism simply as a modernizing, beneficent force, rather than an amoral machine that will process whatever assumptions are fed into it. Without the balancing force of democratic government, and without an electorate guided by compassion, justice, and other humane yearnings, capitalism will monetize all values and turn everything into property — including human beings.

Once people are property, they will be used like property — until some political process makes the abuse stop.


[1] In talking about slaves, I’m doing Baptist an injustice, because his terminology reverses the usual objectifications. Instead of slaves, he says enslaved people. It is their masters he de-personalizes as enslavers. He also rarely refers to the slaves’ workplaces as plantations, a word that evokes images of fair Southern belles or genteel men in white suits having drinks on the veranda. Instead, he talks about forced labor camps, presaging Nazi concentration camps and Soviet gulags.

[2] One of the creepiest things in the surviving letters of Jefferson Davis is the way he used the phrase my people. Today, my people are my community, the humans I identify with. But Davis used my people in sentences with my horses or my cattle.

[3] A big chunk of Marx’ Capital describes how the English lower classes suffered as feudal land gradually evolved into capitalistic property.

[4] It’s no coincidence that set-high-goals-and-punish-failure is still a favored policy of the American Right, and that the Right’s center of power is the white population of the old cotton country. See, for example, President Bush’s No Child Left Behind education policy.

[5] In Slavery By Another Name, Douglas Blackmon described how phony vagrancy laws created slave-like prison labor that was used in mines and factories throughout the South until World War II. I reviewed his book in “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“.

Liberal Islam: Is it real? Is it Islam?

Religious fundamentalists and the New Atheists agree on one thing: Fundamentalism is the real religion. Every form of “liberal” or “moderate” religion [see endnote 1] is just some kind of watered-down compromise with secular humanism.

If you’re fundamentalist, you see this watering-down as heresy, a drifting away from the true Word of God. If you’re a New Atheist, it’s either the sheep’s clothing worn by dangerous wolves (who would be theocrats if they thought they could get away with it), or a convenient form of self-deception (practiced by people who are smart enough to realize that their religion is bullshit, but not courageous enough to reject it). In The End of Faith, Sam Harris boiled the thesis down to this:

Religious moderation is the result of secular knowledge and scriptural ignorance—and it has no bona fides, in religious terms, to put it on a par with fundamentalism.

Plenty of Americans — many of whom are anything but ignorant of the scriptures of their traditions [2] — are liberal Christians or liberal Jews, so it’s not hard to find defenses of the liberal versions of those faiths. But the idea that there is no authentic liberal Islam is fairly widespread in this country.

As a result, while almost everyone acknowledges that some Christians or Jews take their religiosity to crazy extremes, craziness and extremism are often attributed to Islam itself. Liberal reform of Islam is something Americans simultaneously wish for and claim is impossible, because the heart of Islam is necessarily violent and intolerant.

In Harris’ controversial appearance on Bill Maher’s TV show (which I discussed in detail at the time), he mapped the Muslim community as a set of concentric circles, with terrorist jihadis like the Taliban or ISIS at the center of the faith. At the far outside fringe

There are hundreds of millions of Muslims who are nominal Muslims, who don’t take the faith seriously, who don’t want to kill apostates, who are horrified by ISIS, and we need to defend these people, prop them up, and let them reform their faith.

So any effort to liberalize Islam comes from “nominal Muslims who don’t take the faith seriously”. Mullah Omar couldn’t have said it better.

But Turkish writer Mustafa Akyol is a liberal and a Muslim who seems passionate about both liberalism and Islam. I can find nothing “nominal” about the faith he expresses, describes, and justifies in Islam Without Extremes: a Muslim case for Liberty. These are a few of the conclusions he comes to:

  • Islam will thrive best under a secular government that neither mandates Islam nor tries to suppress it, because an Islam of the heart cannot be forced. “Had God willed,” says the Qur’an [3], “He would have made you a single community, but He wanted to test you regarding what has come to you.” A society that suppresses either Islam or competing views is trying to invalidate that test, and so is doing what Allah refused to do.
  • The best form of secular government for Muslims would be liberal democracy, where the majority rules but respects minority rights.
  • People of all faiths should be free to practice their religion as they see fit, including the freedom to change or abandon their religious identification.
  • Government should punish crime (offenses against the legitimate rights of others), not sin (disobedience of religious injunctions).
  • Insults to Islam or its prophets should be met with reasoned arguments and non-violent responses like protests and boycotts. “In this free world,” Akyol writes, “there will certainly be ideas that Muslims, including me, will not like. What we need to do is respond to them with reason and wisdom.”

He doesn’t arrive at these positions by saying “We just have to ignore what the Qur’an says and adapt to the modern world.” Akyol never expresses any doubt that Allah is real or that the Qur’an is a revelation that Muhammad received from Allah. Instead, he argues from within the Islamic tradition that there have all along been multiple interpretations of the Qur’an, and that the fundamentalist ones currently popular are corruptions due to unfortunate historical circumstances of the post-Qur’anic era.

In particular, he distinguishes between the Qur’an and the Hadiths — sayings and stories of Muhammad that are not part of the Qur’an, but were told and codified in the centuries immediately after the Prophet’s death. Conservative Muslims regard the Hadiths as authoritative, but Akyol does not, for two reasons. First, some Hadiths were probably put in Muhammad’s mouth by later caliphs who wanted to justify their own policies. And second, the message of the Qur’an is what speaks with divine authority, not the messenger. When he was not reciting what had been told to him by the archangel, Muhammad was a man of his time. Akyol believes he was a good and wise man, or Allah would not have chosen him to be His messenger. But, unlike the common Christian view of Jesus, Muhammad was not himself divine.

The Prophet brought a message relevant for all ages, in other words, but he lived a life of his own age. … In fact, expecting from Muhammad a perfect universal wisdom, totally unbound from his time and culture, would not be consistent with Qur’anic theology.

At least one traditional story makes this distinction explicit: During a military campaign, a general questions whether the spot the Prophet has chosen to camp comes from divine revelation or just war tactics. When Muhammad answers “war tactics”, the general proposes a more favorable camp site, which Muhammad accepts. In other words, in his lifetime Muhammad could be criticized and corrected. So saying “Muhammad did it this way” — even if we could be sure he did indeed do it that way, which is not always clear — does not by itself prove that a practice is best in all times and places. [4]

The status of women is a good example. The early Muslim community treated women far better than the Arabian tribal societies that preceded it. (In fact, Muslim women in India lost their property rights when they came under British rule.) But freezing or exaggerating its practices and applying them today stands out as repressive. Which aspect of Muhammad’s example should today’s Muslims follow: Should they raise the status of women above the practices of their day, as Muhammad did in his day, or should they do exactly as Muhammad did? [5]

Akyol argues that the Qur’an itself contains mostly abstract principles, and does not spell out a legal code or a system of government. Those were added later, often by fallible humans trying their best to be good and just, but also occasionally by rulers who wanted to maintain their power, and by scholars and jurists who wanted to curry favor with those rulers.

For example, the injunction to kill apostates is based on a Hadith in which Muhammad says, “If someone discards his [Muslim] religion, kill him.” But the Qur’an says:

The truth is from your Lord, so let him who please believe, and him who please disbelieve.

The different religions and sects should “compete in doing good”, and trust God to sort it all out in the hereafter.

Such a liberal reading of the Qur’an is not some innovation Akyol came up with himself, but is part of an Islamic tradition as old as any other. He points to an early school known as the Postponers, who taught that ambiguous or obscure Qur’anic verses could not be decisively adjudicated in this life, so Muslims with conflicting interpretations should tolerate each other until Allah revealed the truth to them after death. Another school elevated reason above tradition as a means of understanding the Qur’an. It was eventually suppressed, but its greatest thinkers became known in the West as Averroes and Avicenna, who had a profound influence on Christian rational thought by way of St. Thomas Aquinas. [6]

The 19th-century Ottoman caliphs attempted to liberalize Islam, granting (for a time) equal rights to religious minorities, and expanding the rights of women beyond what was common in some European countries.

Even shariah, the Islamic law code, is not necessarily the draconian system advocated by the Taliban. Like English common law, shariah developed through the legal interpretations jurists used to decide specific cases, and contained multiple schools of thought, ranging from the liberal Hanafi to the conservative Hanbali. The Ottoman code was closer to Hanafi, while the Taliban version is based on Hanbali.

Akyol attributes the failure of these liberalizing movements to a series of historical circumstances, rather than to some inherent flaw in Islam.

  • The temptations of power politics corrupted Islam in much the same way that Christianity was corrupted after the conversion of the Emperor Constantine.
  • In the medieval war of ideas between reason and tradition, reason became associated with the merchant class and tradition with the landlord class. When the landlords won the political/economic conflict, the Islam of the merchants was suppressed. When Europe reached a similar point centuries later, the merchants won.
  • Ottoman liberalization came too late, and the Empire fell before it could finish reforming itself. The post-Ottoman nationalist movements identified liberal Islam with the bad old days, and distinguished themselves either by turning to conservative Islam (as in Wahhabist Arabia) or to an Islam-suppressing secularism (as in Ataturk’s Turkey).
  • Between the world wars, the British and French dominated the heart of the Muslim world. They propped up conservative extremist governments like the House of Saud, while lecturing Muslims about liberal values. As a result, any liberalizing Muslims seemed to be aping the hated West and denouncing their own culture.
  • The vast oil wealth of Arabia was a historical accident that provided near-infinite resources for the spread of Wahhabism. In addition, the oil wealth of other Muslim-majority countries has influenced history in a different way: Economies in which wealth derives from resource extraction rather than enterprise are inherently conservative.

Akyol finds great significance in the history and current state of his own country, Turkey. Turkey is one of the rare parts of the former Ottoman Empire that was never occupied or dominated by the West. The government that rose after World War I was a secular tyranny that did its best to suppress expressions of Islam. (One of Akyol’s earliest memories is of his father being taken away by the secular government.) Ever since, its politics have revolved around conflict between the secular army and the Muslim-majority electorate. So in Turkey, Islam has been the democratizing force.

Democracy seems to be winning in Turkey, so the next conflict is whether the country will be a liberal democracy (in which minority religions are protected from the Muslim majority), or an authoritarian democracy (in which the majority does whatever it wants). That conflict is still playing out, but Akyol feels that the momentum is on his side, the liberal side. [7]

The reason for his confidence is that Turkey is revisiting the merchant/landlord conflict that came out so badly in the Middle Ages, but this time the merchants are winning. The state-dominated economy of Ataturk is increasingly giving way to a market economy, dominated by Muslim businessmen who want closer ties to Europe (and who have never been under the European thumb, unlike the business classes of most other Muslim countries). The everyday experience of merchants favors tolerating others, talking to others, and trading with others. Akyol believes that a Turkey of economic freedom and prosperity will empower both liberal democracy and liberal religion, as it has everywhere else.

If that happens, then the Muslim world will have an example unlike anything it saw in the 20th century: a Muslim country where economic, political, and religious liberty developed indigenously, without foreign invasions, imported constitutions, or puppet governments.

An interpretation of the Qur’an that makes such a thing possible might be very tempting.


[1] Liberal religion is not just religion combined with liberal politics. Instead, this is the Enlightenment sense of liberal, i.e. free. The liberal version of a faith tradition is non-authoritarian, non-dogmatic, and respectful of the individual conscience. A typical liberal belief is that religious truth can’t be boiled down to a creed or catechism that covers all eventualities. Instead, the essence of the faith is in abstract principles (i.e., “Love your neighbor”) whose application requires discernment and may change from one era to the next.

Consequently, liberal faiths tend to be open to new interpretations and tolerant of divergent ideas. Though this openness and tolerance does make the religion more amenable to secularism, it arises out of the faith itself rather than through compromise with secularism. In the West, it is easier to make the opposite case: that liberal Christianity and Judaism came first, and secularism arose from them.

[2] By coincidence, Christian theologian Marcus Borg died this week.

In general, arguments with Harris’ followers tend to go round and round the following circle: Why do you think fundamentalists are the most authentic Christians (or Jews)? Because they’re the ones who take the scriptures literally. Why is that the determining characteristic? Because that’s what the most authentic Christians do.

In reality, the idea that fundamentalists are the “true” believers is just a prior assumption, based on nothing.

[3] Over the years, I’ve used many transliterations for the Muslim scripture. In this post it is the Qur’an, because that’s how Akyol spells it. I apologize for any confusion.

[4] A Christian analogy would be to the infallibility of the Pope. The Pope is only infallible when he speaks ex cathedra. But if he says in casual conversation that strawberries are better than watermelons, he’s just expressing a personal opinion.

[5] Christians will recognize this conflict from the arguments over what Paul’s epistles say about women. Was the apostle writing to tell Timothy how women should behave in the specific churches Timothy might found in the first-century Roman Empire? Or was he laying down ideal practices for all times and places? Or was the epistle itself written later and attributed to Paul, to authorize practices already in place?

[6] So if you buy the argument in [1], Western secularism owes a debt to Islam.

[7] He is not claiming that present-day Turkey is a utopia of freedom, which would be indefensible. For a view of Turkey from the point of view of racial minorities like Kurds and Armenians, see another recent book There Was and There Was Not by the Armenian-American author Meline Toumani.

Rethinking Immigration

We don’t understand “illegal”. We just think we do.


My favorite books are the ones that take the stuff everybody knows and ask “Really?”.

David Graeber’s Debt: the first 5,000 years was like that. At a party in Westminster Abbey, an activist lawyer says to Graeber, “Surely one has to pay one’s debts!” as if nothing could be more obvious, no matter how liberal you are. His entire book is a challenge to that certainty: Really? What is debt? Where does it come from? He finds that the history of debt is all tangled up with slavery, and that even today debt is often an expression of power relationships that we would challenge in any other setting.

Aviva Chomsky’s* Undocumented is another “really?” book. What everybody knows about immigration is that undocumented Hispanic immigrants have broken the law, and there have to be consequences for that. “What part of ‘illegal’ don’t you understand?” demand the protest signs. We have to secure our borders, and you can’t just let people walk into the United States.

Really? Chomsky writes: “The purpose of this book is to denaturalize illegality.” In other words, we don’t really understand “illegal immigrant”; we just think we do. Realizing how strange an idea it is, and the historical freight it carries, is a step forward.

So before we even start imagining our future immigration policy, we have some things to unlearn about the past.

1. For the longest time, we did just let people walk into the United States. Whether they became citizens or not depended on their race. If you’re white and your family has been in the U.S. for several generations, you probably think they came “the right way”, through some sort of legal process comparable to our current immigration procedures. That’s not true. Back in the 1840s, my German ancestors didn’t get visas or put their names on the waiting list for the next year’s German immigrant quota. They just got on a boat and came.

Before the Civil War, it was taken for granted that white people who turned up on our doorstep would become citizens and non-whites wouldn’t. The Naturalization Act of 1790 limited naturalization to “free white aliens” of “good character”. White people could just show up, and if they lived here for two years (later extended to five) without incident, they could apply to any local court for citizenship.

Of course the rules were different for blacks, who were mostly slaves in the South, and weren’t wanted as citizens in many northern states. Indiana’s constitution of 1851 said “No Negro or Mulatto shall come into, or settle in, the State, after the adoption of this Constitution.” In the West, the cheap labor was Chinese; and while they weren’t exactly slaves, they were never going to become Americans either.

The 14th Amendment changed all that, making any baby born in the United States a citizen (except for Indians). So suddenly it was important who was allowed across the border. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 kept out the Chinese, and the Immigration Act of 1917 extended the ban to all Asians. The early 20th-century flood of immigrants from Eastern Europe — Jews! Catholics! anarchists! — was throttled in 1921 by restricting annual immigration from any country to 3% (later 2%) of the number of Americans who claimed that ancestry on the 1910 (later 1890) census.

So (except for Asians) national origin replaced race as the decisive factor. But the national origin of American blacks was defined in such a way that the annual immigration quota from all of non-Egyptian Africa was only 1,100.

That law was the baseline for refusing entry to Holocaust survivors after World War II: Nothing against you personally, but (even though you’re Jewish) we classify you as Czech, and the quota is low because there weren’t many Czech-Americans in 1890.

2. Mexican immigration has always been a special case. Until 1965, the law didn’t consider Mexicans who crossed the border to be immigrants at all. They were migrant workers who would someday return to Mexico. So there was no reason not to let them in, no reason not to deport them whenever the economy went south, and no clear path to citizenship for the ones who stayed. 

By 1965 our openly racist immigration laws had become an embarrassment, so we changed them. For the first time, Mexicans were considered immigrants, and seasonally wandering back and forth across the border became illegal. The “illegal Mexican immigrant” was born — not because a flood of law-breaking Mexicans surged over the border, but because we re-classified the traditional migration pattern of many Mexican workers.

Chomsky points out that some of the stereotypes about fence-jumping Mexicans are wrong.

  • The easier way to cross the border is to get a tourist visa, fly in, and forget to leave. About half of our undocumented residents got here that way. They tend to be the wealthier ones. But if the incentives are high enough, just building a wall isn’t going to stop people from coming.
  • A lot of undocumented immigrants were recruited to come here by middlemen working for American employers. Some from more remote areas didn’t even know they were breaking our rules.
  • Free-trade agreements have flooded Mexico with cheap American corn, making many small-scale Mexican farms unsustainable. A set of rules that allows us to keep out the Mexican farmers made destitute by our exports isn’t really fair.

3. Our current policy maintains a two-tier labor market that has its roots in slavery. Throughout our history, America has had two classes of workers; one that had a chance to move up and one that didn’t. Chomsky writes:

From the eighteenth and, especially, the nineteenth centuries on , the United States benefited from its place in the global industrial economy, and white people in the United States benefited from their place in the racial order. A dual labor market developed in which some workers began to become upwardly mobile and enjoy the benefits of industrial society, while others were legally and structurally stuck at the bottom.

The Northeast mechanized, and lower-tier work that was hard to mechanize (mostly in fields or mines) shifted to the South (where it was done by blacks, first as slaves and then as victims of Jim Crow) or the West (where Chinese and then Mexicans did it).

The justification for separating the two tiers of workers has shifted with time. Originally the separating criterion was race, then partly race and partly national origin. Now it’s legal status. In spite of what our laws say, our economy still creates and depends on millions of sub-minimum-wage jobs where first-tier standards of job safety and protection against abuse don’t apply. They aren’t limited to the South and West any more, they’re everywhere. But they’re no longer done by blacks or Chinese or even Mexicans (per se); they’re done by illegals.

From Chomsky’s point of view, the point of our laws about “illegal immigrants” isn’t to get rid of these people or even to keep more from coming; it’s to make their labor more exploitable. Being “illegal”, they can’t demand their rights or complain about their mistreatment.**

4. So the place to start isn’t “What are we going to do about these people?”. It’s “What are we going to do about these jobs?”

Our fundamental argument about the “illegals” bounces between two poles, neither of which is quite right.

  • They steal American jobs.
  • They do necessary jobs that Americans won’t do.

The truth is that the terms offered to undocumented workers — wages, working conditions, etc. — would be unacceptable (and often even illegal) for American workers. If the undocumented workers weren’t there (a situation dramatized in the movie A Day Without a Mexican, and played out in real life in Georgia, until the old ways re-asserted themselves), those jobs — and the economy based on them — would have to change.

Some of those jobs would go away. If, say, you could only hire documented American residents to be your live-in nanny — even if you could hire the same undocumented woman suddenly documented, protected by American laws, and open to a wider range of employment opportunities — you might decide a day-care center was a better option. Maybe farmers would conclude that growing certain labor-intensive crops in the U.S. isn’t economical (or is economical only in small quantities for foodies willing to pay high prices), so we would import more Mexican vegetables and fewer Mexican workers. Those farmers would grow something else, buy more machinery, and probably make less money; the market value of their land would go down accordingly. Some loans collateralized by that land would go underwater, and some banks might fail.

Others jobs would upgrade, and the products based on them would become more expensive.*** You might have to pay more at restaurants, or more to get someone to clean your house. But the wages paid for those upgraded jobs would increase demand for the kinds of things American workers buy, creating new jobs that might or might not balance the ones that went away.

In short, it’s not just a question of “kick them out” or “secure the border” or even “crack down on the employers”. The whole economy would change if we had a one-tier system of labor rather than the two-tier system we’ve had for our entire history. Until we’re ready to face that change, all our debates about “illegals” will go round in circles. Because if you don’t want the people, but you do want their labor, you’ve got a problem.


* Yes, she is related to Noam. He’s her Dad.

** There’s an obvious parallel to prison labor, whose workers are similarly limited and unprotected because of their legal status. Prison labor is also largely non-white, as Michelle Alexander explains in The New Jim Crow.

*** Though maybe not by as much as you think. William Finnegan writes in The New Yorker: “But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States.”

Are You Sure You’re White?

Daniel Sharfstein tells the story of three families who crossed the color line, and their descendents who forgot.


One of Dave Chappelle’s most memorable bits is his portrayal of Clayton Bigsby, a blind white supremacist who doesn’t know he’s black. Bigsby writes racist books whose readers also think he’s white. He lives in a remote area with few neighbors, and only appears in public in his KKK hood. A few white supremacist friends know the truth, but they keep the secret because “He’s too important to the movement.”

Bigsby is an exaggerated version of Mr. Oreo, a character created as a thought experiment by philosopher Charles W. Mills of Northwestern. Mr. Oreo was born to parents who identified as black and he appears black himself, but he has always thought of himself and described himself as white. At some point he goes through a medical process that alters his features, hair, and skin color so that he becomes indistinguishable from whites. Is he white? Or is there an unalterable underlying reality to his blackness?

According to professors who have discussed Mr. Oreo in class, students almost unanimously judge Mr. Oreo to be black. As David Livingston Smith explains in Less Than Human (his fascinating book on dehumanization, which devotes a lot of time to the belief that certain races are subhuman), our culture commonly believes that some personal traits are changeable (a weak man can go through a muscle-building process to become a strong man) while others, like race, are not.

We tend to think — perhaps in spite of ourselves — that black people constitute a natural kind, whereas weak people don’t. … We say a person has large muscles, but we say they are of a certain race. … A person can gain or lose muscle while remaining the same person, but we tend to think that if they were to change their race, it would amount to becoming an entirely different person.

Real life provides its own examples, some even more compelling than Mr. Oreo. In her 1949 autobiographical essay collection Killers of the Dream, Lillian Smith recalls Janie, a white-skinned little girl taken from a poor black family newly arrived in the colored part of town. (They “must have kidnapped her”, the local whites decided.) Janie was brought to live with the Smiths, and Lillian fell into a big-sister role.

It was easy for one more to fit into our ample household and Janie was soon at home there. She roomed with me, sat next to me at the table; I found Bible verses for her to say at breakfast; she wore my clothes, played with my dolls, and followed me around from morning to night.

But in a few weeks, word came from a distant colored orphanage: Janie only appeared to be white; she was “really” black and had to return to the black family who had adopted her. At first, Lillian could not see the sense in this, but eventually she yielded to superior adult wisdom.

I was overcome with guilt. For three weeks I had done things that white children are not supposed to do. And now I knew these things had been wrong.

In The Invisible Line: a secret history of race in America, Daniel J. Sharfstein tells a more elaborate and challenging story, one that “has been hiding in plain sight” for centuries. He describes it as a “hidden migration”:

African Americans began to migrate from black to white as soon as slaves arrived on the American shore. This centuries-long migration fundamentally challenges how Americans have understood and experienced race, yet it is a history that is largely forgotten.

In earlier eras historians have acknowledged the passing-for-white phenomenon, but considered it virtually untraceable. After all, anyone motivated to pass for white was even more motivated to hide the evidence. But the genealogy boom (empowered by easy access to records over the internet and the possibility of analyzing your DNA for information about your ancestors) has unleashed thousands of amateur investigators and turned up many new cases. Lots of Americans are not as white as they think they are, and some are starting to find out.

Sharfstein traces three families who crossed the color line at different points in American history.

The Gibsons. Prior to Bacon’s Rebellion of 1676, race was not nearly as significant in Virginia as it later became. White indentured servants had more in common with the black slaves than with their upper-class masters, and mixed-race children were not unusual. The law classed a child as belonging to the same race as its mother. Gibby and Hubbard Gibson were mixed-race children of a white mother, and so were free. They moved inland, cleared land, and intermarried with the other frontier property-owning families.

As racial standards tightened generation-by-generation, the Gibsons stayed just on the favored side of the color line, and just far enough away from the race-conscious coastal cities that few cared enough to make an issue of their darker-than-average skin. They moved to North Carolina, and then to the wild western side of South Carolina. By the time they reached Kentucky and Louisiana in the 1800s, no one remembered that the family’s race had ever been an issue.

Gibson boys became officers in the Confederate Army, and Yale-educated Senator Randall Gibson of Louisiana played a key role in the negotiations that resolved the contested 1876 presidential election by trading Southern electoral votes for President Hayes’ promise to end Reconstruction. Randall also was a major player in the founding of Tulane University, convincing Paul Tulane to revise his bequest from “serve young men in the City of New Orleans” to “serve young white men in the City of New Orleans”.

A later generation married into the Marshall Field family of Chicago. As curator of the Field Museum of Natural History, Henry Field commissioned a series of sculptures illustrating over a hundred separate “races” for the Hall of Races of Mankind that opened in 1933. He had no clue he was anything but 100% European.

If anyone out there has media connections, I think The Gibsons would make a fabulous miniseries.

The Walls. Stephen Wall was a North Carolina plantation owner who never married, but fathered several children with his female slaves. In the 1830s he appeared to be selling his children to a plantation in Alabama, but in fact this was a ruse. Instead, a family friend delivered the Wall children to a Quaker settlement in Indiana, where Stephen provided resources for them to be raised and educated.

One of those children, O.S.B. Wall, was instrumental in convincing the Ohio governor to field a black regiment in the Civil War. He recruited black soldiers across the state and became a captain, though he arrived at the front too late to see combat. After the war, Wall moved to Washington, D.C., where he became part of a budding freedman aristocracy and held several positions in the local political machine.

But D. C. became one of the first places to disenfranchise blacks after the war. When the city ran into financial difficulties in the Panic of 1873, the federal government took direct authority over local affairs, shunting local elected officials aside for decades. When Democrats (who at the time openly identified themselves as “the white man’s party”) came to power with Grover Cleveland in 1884, white supremacy followed.

Captain Wall married a light-skinned woman, and his children found that they were frequently mistaken for white. His son Stephen married a white woman, but continued to identify as the son of a prominent leader in the black community, for all the good it did him. He was repeatedly let go from his job in the government printing office without cause, only to be rehired later. The final straw came when his indistinguishable-from-white daughter was barred from the public school in his suburban neighborhood, and he lost a series of court cases to have her reinstated, despite being legally in the right. (By prevailing definitions, Isabel’s black ancestry was sufficiently diluted that she should have been considered white. But whatever the text said, the spirit of the law was to protect white families from “falling” into the black community due to the discovery of an unexpected dark ancestor, not to allow a Negro man to marry a white woman and launch his children into white society.)

The family moved, changed its name to Gates, and began passing for white. Two generations later, Thomas Murphy (a “white” Georgian with considerable prejudice against blacks) got a nasty shock from his genealogy research. “You can’t call me a racist because I is one of you,” he told his black co-workers at the Atlanta airport.

The Spencers. Freed slaves had a hard time finding a place for themselves. Slave-owners viewed freedom as a contagious notion, so they didn’t want the freedmen around, and no state wanted to advertise itself as a destination for other states’ former slaves. For many, the solution was to go someplace without a lot of neighbors.

George Freeman and Jordan Spencer (who might been his son) were mixed-race freed slaves (of the white Spencer family) who settled in the hill country of eastern Kentucky in the early 1800s. They married sisters from a white family that passed through and left their daughters behind. When they ran into legal trouble from the local whites, Freeman stayed and hired a lawyer, but Spencer moved deeper into the wilderness. After he arrived in Johnson County, Kentucky, he didn’t exactly proclaim himself a white man, but he just started acting like one. White men, for example, were required to muster with the local militia and drill, while black men were forbidden to have weapons. Spencer showed up for drills, and nobody took it on themselves to tell him he shouldn’t.

At the time, even the South Carolina Supreme Court was recognizing the extent to which race was socially constructed. In an 1835 case, Justice William Harper wrote:

The condition of the individual is not to be determined solely by the distinct and visible mixture of negro blood, but by reputation, by his reception into society, and his having commonly exercised the privileges of a white man. But his admission to these privileges, regulated by the public opinion of the community in which he lives, will very much depend on his own character and conduct; and it may be well and proper, that a man of worth, honesty, industry, and respectability, should have the rank of a white man, while a vagabond of the same degree of blood should be confined to the inferior caste.

The hill country was more focused on clans than on races, and over time the Spencers became just another clan, darker than most, but respectable in their way. Jordan’s children intermarried with other clans — some of whom were not too clear about their own ancestry — who then found it convenient to describe the Spencers as white, if they were forced to describe them at all.

Two generations later, slavery was gone and Jim Crow had begun. Suddenly, one provable drop of “black blood” might be all it took to find yourself on the wrong side of the color line. George Spencer had moved across the border to the hill country of western Virginia, where he was doing fine until a feud started with a wealthier family, who started spreading rumors that the Spencers were “God damned negroes”. A slander trial ensued, with detectives going back to Kentucky to interview old people about where Jordan Spencer might have come from and whether he anyone had ever suggested he might not be white. A jury found against the Spencers, but the Virginia Supreme Court threw the verdict out and the case was never retried. That was enough for the locals to go on treating the Spencers as white, maybe with an occasional wink or nod.

Summing up. We look back on American history and say that people (including our own ancestors) were “white” or “black” as if those words had some natural meaning that remained constant through time and space. But in fact, the lines between the races have fluctuated, and even the apparent rules have applied differently to one family than to another. Sometimes all you had to do to cross the color line was move somewhere new and let people make assumptions about you.

At all times in American history, being considered white has brought certain advantages, and in every generation there have been light-skinned people who didn’t see why they or their children shouldn’t have those advantages. Both sides of the racial divide have had reason to minimize this phenomenon. For whites, the fact that the color line was fluid and permeable undermined the whole concept of white superiority. For blacks, those who forsook their black heritage lent credence to the notion that African ancestry was something to be ashamed of. And those who crossed over had reason to hope no one would ever find out, including, perhaps, their own children.

But reclaiming the “hidden migration” has a role to play in ending racism and healing the racial divide. Not only is racial purity an unworthy goal, it is a myth. We have never had racial purity in America. We are a lot closer to being one big family than most of us ever suspected.


BTW, I thought I’d head off an obvious comment: I realize that this post’s title assumes the reader is white (or thinks s/he is). I ask the indulgence and forgiveness of the Sift’s non-white readers. No inclusive title I could think of brought the issue to a head quite so sharply.

The Sifted Bookshelf: Angry White Men

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.


One of the privileges that still comes with being white or male is that you get to be an individual. When you do something unusually good or bad, the media doesn’t take you as a representative of all whites or all men. You’re just you; you did something; it’s news.

So nobody remarked on George W. Bush being the United States’ 43rd consecutive white male president, but 2008 buzzed with speculation that the 44th might be black or female. For example, pundits questioned whether a woman could be tough enough to be commander-in-chief of the military, but nobody has ever successfully made an issue of whether a man can be compassionate enough to be nurse-in-chief of Medicare, or understand small children well enough to be teacher-in-chief of Head Start.

Nobody ever asked why a white man had killed President Kennedy or tried to kill President Reagan. The gunmen had names; their stories were presumed to be personal. When Bernie Madoff conned his investors out of billions, nobody asked “What makes a white man do something like that?” or “What should be done about the white male swindler problem?”

Sikh temple shooter.

Even when the perpetrators themselves frame whiteness or masculinity as an issue, the media tends not to pick it up. Anders Behring Breivik, who killed 69 people at a camp for liberal youth in Norway, saw himself as a crusader against a Muslim takeover of Europe. His manifesto advocated a restoration of European “monoculturalism” and “patriarchy”. Wade Michael Page, killer of six in the Sikh Temple shooting in Wisconsin, was acting on his long-held white supremacist views. In each case, this motivation was spun mostly as a symptom of personal instability, and not of a dangerous cancer in the white community.

Mad as hell.

The upshot is that although we are surrounded by angry white men — on talk radio, on the internet, on the highways, in the workplace, in the NRA and the Tea Party, in the “men’s rights” movement, and in countless acts of domestic violence or public mayhem from Columbine to Sandy Hook — we aren’t having a national discussion about the anger problem of whites or men or white men. That’s because we don’t see them as “white men”; we see them as individuals whose stories reflect unique psychological, political, or social issues. (By contrast, consider how little Michelle Obama has to do to evoke the angry-black-woman stereotype.)

Enter Michael Kimmel and his book Angry White Men.

Chapter by chapter, Kimmel calls attention to angry white men wherever they are found: the loudest voices on the radio, the school shooters, the anti-feminist men’s-rights movement and its Dad’s-rights subculture, the wife beaters, the workers who go postal, and the white supremacists. He asks and answers the question you seldom hear: What makes white men so angry?

What links all these different groups … is a single core experience: what I call aggrieved entitlement.

Aggrieved entitlement is the belief that you have been cheated out of status and power that should have been part of your birthright. (It’s a close relative of what I have called privileged distress: the feeling that advantages you never consciously acknowledged are slipping away from you.) White men are angry, Kimmel claims, because

They may not feel powerful, but they do feel entitled to feel powerful.

How it was supposed to be.

High standards and failure. White men also feel judged (and judge themselves) according to the standards of fathers and grandfathers who received the full white-male birthright, who didn’t have to compete with other races on an almost-level playing field, and who could count on subservient wives, mothers, daughters, and Girls Friday at the office to rally behind their leadership rather than outshine them or make demands.

You want a recipe for anger? Here it is: I’m a failure and it’s not my fault.

The seldom-examined setting for white male anger is failure, or at least failure according to the standards of another era. Dad and/or Grandpa supported a family on one job, and when he got home he commanded respect from his family. His marriage lasted, and his kids were not being raised by a resentful ex-wife on the other side of the country. When Dad or Grandpa was young, he was comfortable in his masculinity. He hunted deer and lettered in football. Girls waited by the phone for him to call, and when he paid for dinner they knew they owed him something.

It’s not that way any more, and it’s not my fault. Don’t look at me like that.

The rich and powerful speak for me.

The visible spokesmen for angry white men may be millionaires like Rush Limbaugh or Donald Trump. But such success is what their listeners wish they had, not what they do have or will ever have. Kimmel observes:

It’s largely the downwardly mobile middle and lower middle classes who form the backbone of the Tea Party, of the listeners of outrage radio, of the neo-Nazis and white supremacists— in many cases literally the sons of those very farmers and workers who’ve lost the family farms or shuttered for good the businesses that had been family owned and operated for generations.

Violence. This sense of being cheated out of what was promised — and being judged as if it had been delivered — interacts badly with another part of the traditional male identity: Men have the privilege/right/duty to make things right by violence.

I don’t want to be violent, but I can be.

That is the plot of just about every action movie with a male hero: A man who would rather be left alone to live his life and take care of his family is confronted with an injustice that can only end if he becomes violent and defeats it. If he successfully wields violence he is a hero. If he remains peaceful he is a wimp.

And so, while many women also feel cheated and judged unfairly, they tend not to snap in a violent way. Kimmel observes that all the recent rampage school shooters (other than the Korean Virginia Tech shooter, whose race evoked a discussion, and another Korean shooter since Kimmel finished writing) have been white males, mostly from rural and suburban areas. Kimmel imagines what would happen if they’d all been, say, inner-city black girls

Can you picture the national debate, the headlines, the hand-wringing? There is no doubt we’d be having a national debate about inner-city poor black girls. The entire focus would be on race, class, and gender. The media would doubtless invent a new term for their behavior, as with wilding two decades ago.

Likewise,

In my research, I could find no cases of working women coming into their workplaces, packing assault weapons, and opening fire, seemingly indiscriminately.

The explanation is simple: When a man feels disrespected — on the job, in his school, in his family — the disrespect threatens not just his personal identity, but his identity as a man. (The archetypal Man is entitled to respect; if you are not being respected, you are failing as a man.) The obvious response is to re-assert manhood through violence, simultaneously righting the scales both socially and psychologically.

The Real and the True. One point I made in “The Distress of the Privileged” was that the “distress” part of privileged distress is very real: If you have convinced yourself that you don’t have any unfair advantages, and then those advantages start to go away, it feels like persecution. You’re not making it up; there are real events you can point to.

Kimmel covers this ground by distinguishing between what is “real” and what is “true”.

White men’s anger is “real”— that is, it is experienced deeply and sincerely. But it is not “true”— that is, it doesn’t provide an accurate analysis of their situation.

And what is most likely to be untrue is the object of the anger. When your well-paid factory job is shipped overseas and you can’t find another one, the villain isn’t the teen-age Chinese girl who does your old job for fifty cents an hour. If you can’t support a family on your income, the villain isn’t your working wife or her reasonable demand that you share the housewife duties she doesn’t have time for any more. If the value of your house crashes, the villain isn’t the black family that got talked into a sub-prime mortgage it couldn’t afford. If you judge yourself by the standards of another era, the villains are not the people whose fair competition keeps you from meeting those standards.

The collapsing pyramid. Patriarchy and racism are both systems of dominance that are coming apart. The white men who feel the change first are the ones just one step up from the bottom: Their step collapses, throwing them in with the “lesser” blacks and women, and the pyramid resettles on top of them. The white men higher up the pyramid want the victims of this collapse to identify with them and with the pyramid that gives them their status: What’s wrong isn’t that the pyramid itself is unfair — as you now can clearly see, being at the bottom of it. What’s wrong, they want you to believe, is that the pyramid is collapsing. You should defend the pyramid, blame the other bottom-dwellers for your loss of status, and maybe one day your one-step-up can be restored.

They know that’s not going to happen; they’re just counting on you not figuring it out. The Masters of the Universe are not going to bring your job back from China. Wal-Mart is not going to make room for your family shop to re-open. Bank of America is not going to forgive your underwater mortgage. Agri-business is not going to rescue your family farm.

The rich white men are not going to rebuild the lower step of the pyramid, no matter how much power they get. And nobody is making room for you on the upper levels.

If you have to blame someone, blame the people who promised you something they couldn’t (or decided not to) deliver. They sold you a bill of goods. Don’t buy another bill of goods from them.

But the best solution of all would be to get past the anger, forget about how things were supposed to be, and just start dealing with the situation as it is. Like a lot of people you never expected to have anything in common with, you find yourself at the bottom of the pyramid. It’s an unfair pyramid.

Let’s bring it down.

Apocalyptic Optimism

It’s the end of the world as we know it*, but Gar Alperovitz and David Graeber feel fine.


Lately Robert Jensen has been importing religious terms into journalism. Borrowing from the seminal theologian Walter Brueggermann, Jensen defines three stances from which a journalist can report:

  • royal, relaying the vision of the Powers That Be
  • prophetic, calling the Powers That Be to repent and reform, as the prophets confronted the kings in the Old Testament
  • apocalyptic, announcing that the status quo is beyond reform and calling on the people to think in dramatically new ways

It’s easy for a royalist to be optimistic, because the system is basically sound and a few policy tweaks — a tax cut, a jobs bill, a new general with an improved strategy — will fix whatever temporary problems we might be having. A prophet may rail against current trends, but prophetic warnings rest on the optimistic subtext that we still have time to change our ways. If we just end the war or restore the Constitution or throw the crooks out, we’ll be back on track.

“I was planning to rebuild anyway.”

But the rarest kind of optimism is apocalyptic. The apocalyptic reporter sees that the cavalry won’t arrive in time or isn’t coming at all or will just make the destruction more complete. To be an apocalyptic optimist, you need to see the new seeds already sprouting in the shadow of the doomed sequoia.

In his new book What Then Must We Do?, Gar Alperovitz recognizes all the signs that the American-system-as-we-know-it can’t survive.

  • Even after crashing the world economy in 2008, the big banks are still too powerful to regulate, and the private-profit/public-risk dynamic still dominates. So given time, they’ll crash the economy again.
  • Greenhouse gases keep accumulating in the atmosphere, but even now that we’re seeing the results in droughts, heat waves, and violent storms, we still can’t raise the will to do anything about it.
  • Inequality keeps growing, regardless of which party holds power. For decades, all the apparent growth in the economy has been captured by the rich. The  average person’s standard of living is not improving at all, even as valuable intangibles (like job security) are being lost.
  • Our health-care system gets ever more expensive, and yet we get worse results than the other wealthy countries.
  • The unlimited corporate money pouring into political campaigns has captured both parties. The Democrats may be slightly less receptive to the corporate agenda, but they can’t stand against it either.

And while he by no means rejects traditional political organizing and movement-building, Alperovitz doesn’t think politics will solve the problem. Historically, progressive change in America happened in two big bursts — the New Deal and the Great Society — and both depended on external circumstances that aren’t likely to recur. The New Deal needed not just the desperation of the Depression, but a conservative president (Hoover) to blame for it. If things had shaken out differently, all that despair could have energized the Right, as in Germany. (Imagine the nativist backlash if the immigrant-backed Catholic liberal Al Smith had won in 1928 and been in the White House when the bottom fell out in 1929.) The Great Society couldn’t have happened without the confidence and generosity that resulted from two decades of widely-shared growth; and that couldn’t have happened if World War II hadn’t wrecked all our industrial competitors.

So yes, political reform movements can make a difference, but only in the presence of circumstances we can’t count on. And that’s pretty much what we’ve been seeing: We had three consecutive wave elections: Democratic in 2006 and 2008, and Republican  in 2010. But how much actual change did they bring?

And if we somehow managed the political will to, say, break up the too-big-to-fail banks, wouldn’t they just merge back together as soon as our attention shifted? Isn’t that what the old AT&T phone monopoly did?

Looking at things that way should make a person pessimistic, right? Not exactly. Alperovitz’s introductory chapter ends like this:

as a historian and political economist, it is obvious to me that difficult historical times do not always or even commonly persist forever. In my judgment “we shall overcome” is not simply a slogan but in fact the likely, though not inevitable, outcome of the long struggle ahead.

It is possible, quite simply, that we may lay the groundwork for a truly American form of community-sustaining and wealth-democratizing transformative change—and thereby also the reconstitution of genuine democracy, step by step, from the ground up.

The key phrase here is “long struggle”. We can’t just be socially conscious and politically active for a few months, elect President Wonderful, and then go back to sleep. We tried that; it didn’t work.

Alperovitz’s long struggle isn’t purely political. It’s more than just a series of marches and demonstrations that you attend before returning to your old life. The struggle he envisions involves creating institutions that democratize wealth: co-ops, credit unions, employee-owned businesses, and so on. Alperovitz envisions replacing the flighty government/capitalist partnerships of today with more stable alliances joining local governments with fixed local institutions (like hospitals and universities) and the worker-and-consumer-owned businesses that could service and supply them.

The seeds of that revolution are all around us. (I suggested painless ways you can start participating two weeks ago.) And Alperovitz believes they may sprout first and best in the places where the old system has failed most completely — rust belt wastelands like Detroit or Cleveland. (He cites Cleveland’s Evergreen Cooperatives, which are modeled on the successful Mondragon Cooperatives of the Basque region of Spain.) His logic is perverse but compelling: As long as capitalists can threaten to move the factory to China, they have the community over a barrel. But after the factory is gone, why listen to capitalists any more?

Alperovitz foresees a snowballing process as each new democratizing institution changes the consciousness of the people who participate and enlarges the constituency for democratically managed solutions. Before long, the resources that communities waste enticing corporations to locate there will instead become available to invest in the community solving its own problems.

David Graeber’s new book The Democracy Project, presents a somewhat different brand of apocalyptic optimism. (His last book, which I also reviewed, was a marvelous work of economic anthropology called Debt: the first 5,000 years.)

Graeber is one of the architects of Occupy Wall Street, and is at least partly responsible for coining the term “the 99%”. That makes him a leading voice in what The New Yorker has dubbed “the anarchist revival“, and puts him in something of a delicate situation: In order to promote anarchism, he has to shut down the media’s attempt to anoint him as the movement’s leader. Graeber is a “horizontal” activist who believes in groups finding consensus, not a “vertical” activist who wants to tell folks what to do. If you think people should either lead, follow, or get out of the way, Graeber is not for you.

The essence of Graeber’s worldview is a question: How would groups co-operate if they knew from the beginning that they couldn’t force dissenters to go along with what the group decides? That makes him more radical than a Libertarian, because Libertarians believe in a police-enforced property system.

Like Alperovitz, Graeber sees the approaching end of the current system, which he believes is based ever-more-nakedly on extracting value by force, under the pretense of increasingly empty rituals like elections and loans and trade agreements. Today’s young people, for example, face a choice between accepting unstable careers at minimum wage or borrowing heavily to get an education, then working as unpaid interns before beginning to earn money to pay off their debts. How different is that from feudalism or slavery?

But he also is optimistic that new ways are sprouting in the shadow of the old. The establishment view of Occupy is that it failed because it didn’t produce a set of demands that could become the platform of a political party. But to Graeber that outcome would have been failure. (In Jensen/Brueggermann terms, it would recast OWS as prophetic rather than apocalyptic.) To make that case, The Democracy Project not only retells the history of Occupy from the inside, it retells the history of American democracy and of revolutionary movements in general.

And the punch line is: The really successful revolutions don’t seize power, they change our common sense about what power is and what it can do. The French and Russian revolutions failed to the extent that they became new governments; Robespierre and Stalin represent the defeat of the revolutionary ideals, not their victory. But both revolutions succeeded as “planetwide transformations of political common sense”. The French Revolution ended monarchy as a viable option for forming new governments, and the Russian Revolution drew a line in the sand that capitalists didn’t dare cross. The New Deal and the social democracy of postwar Europe never would have happened happen without the Russian Revolution.

Similarly, Graeber points to another so-called “failure” — the antiwar movement of the Johnson/Nixon years. Arguably, it didn’t shorten the Vietnam War. But American governments have avoided high-casualty wars for the four decades since. (Put together, the Iraq and Afghan Wars have produced about 1/10th the number of combat deaths as each of the Vietnam and Korean Wars.) That attempt to avoid casualties led to increased “collateral damage” as we bombed from a distance rather than aimed down a barrel. That stiffened local resistance and

pretty much guarantee[d] that the United States couldn’t achieve its military objectives. And remarkably, the war planners seemed to be aware of this. It didn’t matter. They considered it far more important to prevent effective opposition at home than to actually win the war. It’s as if American forces in Iraq were ultimately defeated by the ghost of Abbie Hoffman.

So as Occupy morphs into the future, its goal should not be to launch a new party or seize control of an old one. It should be trying to change political common sense. Graeber closes his book by suggesting places where a change in common sense could make a significant difference. Most have to do with the nature of work, the virtue of working long hours, the value of helping people rather than producing more stuff, and bureaucracy as a problem in both the public and private sectors — a problem that could be avoided if groups organized in ways that didn’t require forcing dissenters to co-operate.

Graeber does not minimize or wish away the signs of global catastrophe, but Occupy has made him hopeful because

the age of revolutions is by no means over. The human imagination stubbornly refuses to die. And the moment any significant number of people simultaneously shake off the shackles that have been placed on that collective imagination, even our most deeply inculcated assumptions about what is and is not politically possible have been known to crumble overnight.


* I’ve never thought about R.E.M. and the Tarot in the same sitting before, so I never noticed: Isn’t that the Fool’s dog in the End of the World video?

Nobody Likes the New Capitalist Man

A number of insightful recent books and articles point out various pieces of the following picture:

  • People are fascinating bundles of benevolence and selfishness.
  • A well-designed market can channel people’s selfish tendencies into actions which, in the aggregate, achieve beneficial social ends.
  • Our economic theory models markets, not people, so only human selfishness is relevant. Homo economicus is entirely selfish.
  • Because the conditions that nurture benevolence are invisible to market theory, an “optimized” market system may inadvertently poison benevolence. In other words, market theory may create the perfectly selfish people it postulates.
  • For-profit corporations are artificial entities designed for the market. Consequently, they are defined to be the perfectly selfish, totally profit-driven players market theory postulates.
  • “Good management” means training each employee to internalize the values of the corporation.
  • Top managers are valued for their ability to “make the tough decisions”. In other words, they eliminate all human values other than profit from their decision process.
  • Increasingly, all the rewards of the corporate system flow to those at the top.

Put all that together, and you see that we have created a system that trains us to be bastards, and rewards us according to how well we have managed to stamp out our benevolence.

When you put it that way, it sounds kind of crazy, doesn’t it?

Let’s start with the upside of this vision: If our economic system is making us into worse people than we would otherwise be, then we could be better people and live in a nicer world if we just stopped making ourselves worse. This is not the utopian vision of the “new Soviet man“, a society-centered being who will spontaneously appear (for the first time in human history) after the revolution. It’s the far more modest observation that human beings have benevolent as well as selfish tendencies, and that creative system-builders could figure out ways to make use of human benevolence and nurture it.

That’s the uplifting message of The Penguin and the Leviathan by Yochai Benkler. Benkler says that through most of history, big cooperative projects only happened through “the Leviathan” — the state, exercising top-down power to make people play their parts. (Picture slaves dragging blocks to build the pyramids.) With capitalism comes the alternative of “the Invisible Hand” — the market, in which many individual decisions can add up to something big. (Think about how we wound up with lots of personal computers rather than the “big iron” IBM originally offered.)

Most of our political debate is about the Leviathan vs. the Invisible Hand: Will we get things done through government or by manipulating the incentives of the market?

(One hybrid observation doesn’t get enough attention: A corporation or cartel can dominate a market to the point that it essentially becomes a government, usually an unelected and unaccountable one.)

Anarchists have long claimed that another choice is possible: voluntary cooperation. But until recently, it was hard to find examples on scales larger than a barn-raising.

Then came the open-source movement, which Benkler identifies with the Penguin, the logo of the open-source Linux computer operating system. The Internet grew up together with a host of open-source projects created and maintained by volunteers: Linux, Apache, Mozilla, and eventually Wikipedia. Each in its own way defeated corporate-sponsored for-profit competitors. (Some, like Linux, eventually drew in corporate support, but on their own terms. IBM pays employees to contribute to Linux, but IBM still can’t own Linux.)

Benkler doesn’t claim that we could live in a complete open-source utopia; only that the principles that make open-source projects work have unexplored potential. Many people in our society are starved for opportunities to express their inventiveness, skill, and creativity in ways that do not pay them money, but win them the admiration of a peer group that shares their values. Similar motivations could complement monetary incentives more broadly.

He reviews much of the recent research into cooperation, reaching this conclusion:

In hundreds of studies, conducted in numerous disciplines across dozens of societies, a basic pattern emerges. In any given experiment, a large minority of people (about 30 percent) behave as though they really are selfish, as the mainstream commonly assumes. But here is the rub: Fully half of all people systematically, significantly and predictably behave cooperatively. … In practically no human society examined under controlled conditions have the majority of people consistently behaved selfishly.

The bulk of the book explores non-internet examples of how these principles play out in Japanese management, in community policing, in politics, and elsewhere. He concludes by offering principles for “growing a penguin” — designing a system that nurtures cooperation rather than incentivizing selfishness.

One of Benkler’s political examples — the get-out-the-vote strategy of the Obama campaign — is examined in more detail in The Victory Lab by Sasha Issenberg. It turns out that who people vote for may be determined by self-interest, but whether they vote isn’t. Nobody really believes their single vote will decide the election, so purely selfish people will stay home and pursue their other interests. The most effective method of motivating marginal voters, it turns out, is to appeal positively to their civic pride, while subtly reminding them that their non-voting will be a matter of public record. In laboratory experiments, this pride/guilt combination is more effective than paying people to vote.

Staying positive for a bit longer, Jane McGonigal’s Reality is Broken, which I have reviewed before, finds that online gamers hunger for the chance to be a respected member of a questing community. She reports that many gamers feel their online persona is a better person than they are in their offline jobs and relationships. Like Benkler, she examines ways that the design principles of games could be used to encourage cooperative and altruistic behavior in real life.

Now let’s look at the negative side, starting with a book that walks the line between seriousness and tongue-in-cheek humor: Assholes, a theory by Aaron James. A sociopath is someone who lacks any moral core, but uses other people’s moral scruples to gain an advantage over them. An asshole, according to James, is different: He has a moral sense, but his moral vision comes with an unassailable sense of entitlement. So, for example, he understands perfectly why other people should wait their turn in a line, and is honestly incensed when they don’t. But he also feels — not occasionally, but constantly — that his special situation or status entitles him to cut to the front.

Like Benkler, James recognizes that most people aren’t assholes. (If they were, there would be no lines. We’d all just shove our way to the front.) But late in the book he considers whether a society can reach a tipping point, where there are so many assholes that the rest of us are driven to behave like assholes just to avoid constant exploitation.

From there he considers how capitalism can devolve into asshole capitalism. Suppose some social change causes the system to send

a powerful entitlement message, for instance, that having ever more is one’s moral right, even when it comes at a cost to others. As asshole thinking and culture spread and take hold, the asshole-dampening systems that used to keep assholery in check become overwhelmed. Parents start preparing their kids for an asshole economy, the law is increasingly compromised, the political system is increasingly captured, and so on. As some switch sides while others withdraw, cooperative people find it more difficult to uphold the practices and institutions needed for capitalism to do right by its own values. … Society becomes awash with people who are defensively unwilling to accept the burdens of cooperative life, out of a righteous sense that they deserve ever more.

James applies this model to various countries and concludes: “Japan is fine, Italy already qualifies as an asshole capitalist system, and the United States is in trouble.” (One symptom of Italy’s trouble: Even Silvio Berlusconi’s supporters understood that he was an asshole. Nobody cared.)

And that brings us to Gus DiZerega’s blog post Capitalism vs. the Market. In some ways this belongs to the same genre as my own Why I Am Not a Libertarian — insights that begin with a critique of a simplistically appealing libertarian worldview. DiZerega views the fundamental libertarian error as upholding corporate capitalism because markets are good. DiZerega agrees that markets are good, but corporate capitalism is something else entirely.

Markets, he says, are ways that producers and consumers send each other signals about supply and demand. The market doesn’t tell you what you should do, just what it will cost you. For example, the slave market won’t tell you whether or not you should free your slave, just how much money you’ll be passing up if you do.

But in corporate capitalism the market usurps the decisions once made by humans.

To succeed in managing a capitalist institution a person must always try and buy for the lowest price and sell for the highest before any other value enters in.  Any corporate CEO allowing other values to trump this principle will see his or her decisions reflected in lower share prices.  If these prices are much affected the corporation risks the likelihood of being taken over in an unfriendly acquisition, its management ousted, and financial values once again elevated above all others. In other words, as a system of economic organization capitalism defends itself against richer human values by penalizing and expelling people who to some degree put them ahead of profit when making economic decisions.

In theory corporations are owned by people. But in practice you cannot remove your capital from a corporation. All you can do is sell your shares to someone else. By selling, you disassociate yourself from practices you may consider immoral, but you do nothing to end them. Think of slavery again: You can free your slave, even if it lowers your net worth. But if instead you own shares in Rent-a-Slave, Inc., all you can do is give or sell those shares to someone else. No slaves are freed when you do.

So if I don’t want to profit by addicting people to drugs that kill them, I can sell my shares in tobacco companies. But the tobacco companies themselves roll on. To the extent that they are profitable, the new owner of my shares will make money and gain power in society. Even individually, power accrues to people who have no values beyond profit.

The libertarian ideal is of people who are free to live by their own values, trading with each other without coercion.

Capitalism is different. It is the gradual overwhelming and destruction of all values that are not instrumental. … Once capitalism exists non-instrumental values are actively selected against, and receive little opportunity for expression.  Human beings become profit centers for corporations, and nothing more. … Capitalism cannot distinguish love from prostitution.

I wish DiZerega had said “corporate capitalism” rather than just capitalism, but otherwise I agree. As I put forward two years ago in Corporations Are Sociopaths, we have created entities that embody all of our worst traits. James and DiZerega are pointing out what then happens to us and our society when those created entities are allowed to dominate.

How do you know what you know?

why the internet isn’t making us wiser

If you’d never experienced the flood of information that comes from a revolutionary new technology, you might expect it to power growth in everything downstream from information: knowledge, understanding, and even wisdom. If it’s easier to find things out, then people should know more, understand more, and make better choices. You might even expect more consensus. Ignorant people can come to blows debating whether Kansas is north or south of Nebraska, but the more we know and understand about the world we all live in, the more agreement we should find.

Since you’re living through the internet revolution right now, though, you know better. More knowledge? Maybe. Understanding? Hard to say. But wisdom? Surely you jest. And consensus … some days we seem lucky just to avoid civil war.

Nate Silver thinks we could have seen this coming, because the same thing happened in the last information revolution. Eventually Gutenberg’s printing press led to the Enlightenment, democracy, modern science, and the Industrial Revolution. But that light came at the end of a nasty 300-year tunnel of constant strife and near-genocidal religious wars. In the Thirty Years War alone “the male population of the German states was reduced by almost half.”

But why? Nate explains:

The informational shortcut that we take when we have “too much information” is to engage with it selectively, picking out the parts we like and ignoring the remainder, making allies with those who have made the same choices and enemies of the rest.

Reducing that to a bumpersticker: TMI equals polarization.

Picture it: Before Gutenberg, baptism was baptism. The priest did it, and if we wondered what it meant or why he did it that way, maybe we could ask him and maybe he’d explain by waving in the direction of a Bible that some monk had spent years producing by hand. (You could get your own — in Latin, a language that neither you nor Moses ever spoke — for about the cost of a Mercedes today.)

After Gutenberg, you say babies can be baptized by sprinkling water on them, while I accept only full-submersion adult baptism. We each own pamphlets from our own theologians, quoting passages of scripture that we have each checked in our translated Bibles at home. We each belong to religious communities that agree with us, and our respective church libraries are stocked with many other pamphlets listing the outrages that the opposing community has committed against us and providing reams of evidence proving that the conflict is all their fault.

What can we do but kill each other?

Information is great when you have some reasonable way of processing it. But when you don’t, it’s overwhelming and even threatening. If you try to pay attention to all of it, you’ll freeze. And then the people who didn’t freeze will eat your lunch — or eat you for lunch.

There are two easy ways to deal with information overload:

  • Submit unquestioningly to an authority who decides what’s what.
  • Find a simple worldview that pleasingly organizes the wild flood of facts and interpretations, and then ally with people who subscribe to that worldview.

Both choices are cultish, but the second can seem downright enlightened, at least from the inside. Unlike the unquestioning follower, you’re always learning new facts and interpretations. You’re getting better and better at explaining why your tribe’s view is right and the opposing view is wrong. And you do ask questions, but you’ve learned to ask the right questions — unlike those mindless sheep in the opposing tribe.

In other words, you live inside a tribal bubble that lets pleasing information in and keeps disturbing information out. The information flood actually helps you do this, because the more details, the easier to cherry-pick support for whatever you want to believe.

These delusions are easy to see in other people: conspiracy theorists, global-warming deniers, Birthers, and so on. You can never win an argument against such folks, because there is always more information you haven’t explained, some new micro-analysis that “proves” Obama’s birth certificate is fake or explains why the world is really cooling. You never reach the end of it, precisely because the 21st-century information barrel is bottomless.

That’s why liberals like me — and probably Nate Silver more than anybody — had to love watching Republicans cope with the election returns. Nate had dispassionately put together a prediction model and he faithfully ran new polling data through it every day. It turned out to be down-the-line accurate, but until the votes were actually counted he was vilified by people who wanted to believe Romney would win. And not just ignorantly vilified, vilified with spreadsheets and graphs and detailed explanations of what he must be doing wrong.

It’s rare to run into such a perfect bubble-pricking.

But Silver’s book (published before the election) isn’t about self-congratulation. It’s about why accurate prediction is hard and how to do it better. Each chapter describes a prediction-making community — meteorologists, baseball stat geeks, poker players, etc. — and draws some general lesson from their collective success or failure.

Some of those lessons are technical, but a few general-public themes come through:

  • Foxes beat hedgehogs. People who have one big idea do badly in an information flood, because they can always explain away their failures without changing their big idea. But people who juggle multiple competing ideas can use new data to develop the good ones and discredit the bad ones.
  • Data doesn’t interpret itself. The best predictions don’t come from pure pattern matching, but from a plausible theory that is then proven by experiment. If you just pattern-match, you’ll end up modeling the noise rather than the signal.
  • Make specific predictions so you can recognize your mistakes. Since it always rains eventually, if you aren’t specific about when you expect rain and how much, you’ll always be able to claim you were right — and you won’t learn anything.
  • Be methodical. If you don’t define how you’re going to judge your results, the temptation to cherry-pick will overwhelm you.

Always in the background lies this lesson: Bubbles don’t just happen to other people. It’s a universal human tendency in the face of too much information. If you’re not constantly on guard — and maybe even if you are — you will fall prey to it.

Western civilization came out of the Gutenberg Tunnel when it developed more rigorous collective methods of handling the increased information flow: Science, most obviously, but also market capitalism, journalism, and constitutional democracies that could balance majority rule with tolerance for minority rights. Maybe a similar leap will get us through the Internet Tunnel eventually — better sooner than later.

Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel have a less sweeping focus: How are you personally going to cope?

If we continue the Gutenberg analogy, there’s a clear analog to the priest and the universal church he represented: the editor and the culture of journalistic objectivity.

Once upon a time, national news outlets were few and were controlled by gatekeepers who told you “the way it is“. Every evening, the remarkably similar news departments of the three major networks told you what you needed to know. If you wanted more detail, you read a daily newspaper or weekly news magazines, but even they wouldn’t give you a fundamentally different worldview.

As I’ve described in more detail elsewhere, this system was both good and bad. (The same could be said of the pre-Gutenberg Catholic Church). The gatekeepers tried to be accurate, and they had the power to hold a story back until they could verify it. So rumors got squashed, hucksters were weeded out, and special-interest groups couldn’t trump up a story out of nothing. And because the gatekeepers defined news by what people should know rather than what they wanted to know, the Vietnam War never vanished from public awareness the way the Afghan War often has.

On the downside, the range of views presented was narrow. Only by staging artificial public events (like Martin Luther King’s March on Washington) could marginalized groups push their message through the editorial bottleneck.

Now that’s all gone. There is no priest, or rather there are too many would-be priests sprinkling dubious holy water in all directions.

In essence, we are all editors now. We used to get a filtered flow of information, pre-tested and pre-sanitized by experts. Now we’re exposed to the raw flood, which we have to test and sanitize for ourselves. So we all need to learn the ways of thought that used to only be taught in journalism school.

That’s what Blur is about.

A lot of Kovach and Rosenstiel’s advice is common sense. Before you react to a news article or factoid, you need to take a step back and judge it like an editor: Where does this information come from? Are the sources in a position to know? Do they have reason to lie? Am I just being told a story, or are there checkable facts here? Has anybody checked them? What is left out of this article? Does it raise obvious questions that are not answered? If the article focuses on only a few characters in the story, would other characters tell it differently? And so on. If you have a critical, analytical mind, the questions aren’t hard to generate once you realize that you need to take a step back and judge.

I found one piece of their analysis very insightful, and I may start using their terminology. They identify three models of journalism: verification, assertion, and affirmation. I don’t like how they present affirmation (probably because they belong to the verification tribe and the Weekly Sift is affirmation journalism), but the distinctions themselves are worthwhile.

Journalism of verification. This is the gatekeeper model of the Cronkite Era and the ideal that you will hear expressed by the editors of publications like the New York Times. (For now let’s leave alone the question of how well they live up to that ideal.) Check everything. Get it right before you publish. Be objective. Be complete. Put a wall between news and opinion.

Journalism of assertion. The model most often seen on CNN. Put newsmakers on camera and see what they say. (If you can only get them on camera by agreeing not to raise certain subjects, fine.) Let viewers judge for themselves whether they’re being lied to. Get information out as quickly as possible, even if you haven’t checked that it’s true. Strive for balance rather than accuracy; let liberals and conservatives alike spin the story for your audience, and then “leave it there” rather than check who’s right.

Journalism of affirmation. The model shared by Fox News, the nighttime line-up of MSNBC, and (mostly) the Weekly Sift. Have a point of view and attract an audience that (mostly) shares that view.

Reading Blur, you will get the idea that verification is the gold standard, while assertion and affirmation are in some way illegitimate. (I was struck by how often Rachel Maddow — who I admire — came up as a bad example.) I’d express this differently: assertion and affirmation journalism are illegitimate if they pretend to be verification journalism.

That is my biggest objection to Fox News — the pretense that they’re “fair and balanced”. If they billed themselves as “interpreting the world through a conservative prism”, I’d respect them more.

Affirmation journalism is legitimate to the extent that it’s honest and tries to serve its audience rather than pander to them so their attention can be sold to advertisers. Like verification journalists, an affirmation journalist should be trying to get it right, and also should provide a verification trail (that’s what the links are for on the Weekly Sift), honestly represent the people s/he quotes, endorse only arguments s/he believes are valid, not intentionally hide facts or points of view from its audience, and so on. (That’s my other problem with Fox. I don’t think they’re just conservative. I think they repeat talking points they know are false and use frames designed to deceive.)

In short, I think affirmation (and assertion too) can be done well. Rachel Maddow isn’t just Sean Hannity’s mirror image.

Tying this back to Nate Silver and the bubble tendency: Part of being honest and doing affirmation journalism well is recognizing the constant danger of winding up in a delusional bubble. Because there is a real world out there, and it will bite you if you turn your back on it, as Fox News viewers discovered on election night.

So serving you as a reader means not pleasing you too well. I could tell you a lot of things that would make you feel good about yourself and say “Hell yes!”. But some of them would set you up for a comeuppance.

And as for the horrors that might still await in the Internet Tunnel: Wishing to be out the other side doesn’t make it so, and affirmation journalism is popular because the priesthood of verification journalism is broken; it doesn’t know how to handle the flood. Maybe someday they will figure it out, or some new information-processing methodology will burst onto the scene the way science did in the 1600s. But for now, all I know how to do is to choose my simplifying assumptions as best I can, revisit them from time to time, and proceed honestly from there.

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